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Tuesday, 19 March 1985
Page: 390

Senator COOK(3.28) —The report of the Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs is, I believe, a very important report. It is interesting to see the number of honourable senators who have emphasised that point when they have addressed the report. It is unfortunate, however, that the importance of the report has been diminished by the propensity of some honourable senators to batten on to one aspect that they divine to be the nature of the report and to concentrate their remarks on cutting youth wages. I believe that the report is a very valuable work and that the effort that has been put into it and the initiative of the Government in conducting it in the first place have demonstrated the clear need for us to take a cool, hard, considered view of what is necessary to improve the skills base in this country and to open opportunities for young workers not only by consideration of a scheme such as the traineeship scheme that comes out of this report but also by doing the other things that this report suggests, giving a better focus on the package of services that are available to promote youth employment.

I agree conceptually with what Senator Sir John Carrick has said in that this subject may demand a longer debate. I say that there is now a long public debate because this Government took the initiative to have the report brought down and to expose these issues to public view. We did that not because it was necessary to shuffle the deckchairs, but because when we came to office we inherited a mess of policies and services that needed to be better targeted to bring about an effect. The truth is that, although Australia's skills base is growing, it is not growing at anything like the speed it ought to if we are to be competitive in manufacturing exports. Although our skills base is growing, it is not growing as rapidly as it is in some other major countries. I read recently an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development observer report that the West German Government, for example, had set itself a target of encouraging 90 per cent of all school leavers to reach the level of tradesman's skill so that it would have a base of training upon which it could address the other more specialised training needs for technicians and other more highly skilled operatives in an economy which is increasingly automated and which demands more sophisticated skills from its workforce.

In this region of the world, Australia historically has had an edge on the cheap labour of its near neighbours because it has had a highly skilled work force. However, if we compare the number of workers training in Australia with the number training in Japan, for example, we find that we are lagging badly. Our edge is being blunted and our ability to compete by virtue of a supply of well trained, sophisticated labour is being lessened. Those issues should grip the debate, not those enunciated this afternoon in the myopic, narrow and indeed blame-the-victims approach taken by Senator Messner in talking about a lowering of youth wages. I understand that the honourable senator is fresh from the snows of Thredbo, where a paper was produced by an executive of MacDonalds Corporation suggesting that a thousand new jobs could be provided by that company if wages for 15-year-olds were cut. That should not be our philosophy, because we could well ask which other workers were to be put out of employment by MacDonalds. We could also ask whether MacDonalds would resist the temptation to take a greater profit share if youth wages were cut. Given the dimensions of this problem, that is a trite and in many respects a pathetic response. The deck chairs on the Titanic would only be shifted if that was the level of concentration and public debate on this most important report and the Minister's statement. That matter was put forward only to try to get a bit of public comment to assist the Confederation of Australian Industry in the national wage case when it argues for youth wages to be held at their present level. If the debate concentrates on that, we will penalise young workers by not giving them the wage that the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, after hearing all the arguments, from the employers, the Government and the unions, has determined in all the circumstances is the correct one. We will penalise them because they are young. The answer is to develop, in concert with employers and the union movement, a system that can provide a traineeship system with a trainee wage. I point out that on page 3 of the Minister's statement he said:

The trainee wage concept does not constitute a recommendation for cutting youth wages.

We need to get agreement on a workable arrangement that does not cut youth wages. The report suggests that the determination of trainee rates should be made through the arbitration system. They would be arbitrated properly after proper consultation. If we can put aside the issue of youth wages as a contributing factor to youth unemployment we can concentrate on the things that need greater attention-the ability to train, improvement of our skills base, and laying the advantage in terms of the resources of this country and its manpower.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.