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Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Page: 4311

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (13:19): I rise to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Charges) Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017 and the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017. These are necessary amendments to make sure that the Australian Skills Quality Authority's funding has certainty and that industry-funded regulation of vocational education can continue. Providers currently pay an annual registration charge to ASQA; they also pay fees if complaints are substantiated or audits discover breaches.

ASQA's regulatory techniques have developed over time to include intelligence collection and data analysis. These activities are now a core part of ASQA's business, and while they inform targeted compliance and enforcement they are not in themselves services for which a fee or charge can be directly attributed to a particular provider. As a consequence, there is a risk that the charges levied by ASQA could be considered taxes under section 55 of the Constitution rather than a fee for service.

The bills will amend ASQA's establishing legislation to clarify that annual registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purpose of section 55 of the Australian Constitution. This will mitigate constitutional risk and put the continuation of the current funding arrangements for ASQA beyond doubt. Intelligence collection and data analysis are increasingly used in parts of modern regulatory systems, and it is important that ASQA is able to continue to fund these activities. The regulation of quality training in the VET sector matters to students, to providers, to industry and, ultimately, to our national economy.

Labor supports these straightforward amendments. Notwithstanding this, dodgy practices, illegality and profit before students in the vocational education sector in recent years have done significant reputational damage to the sector and left thousands of student victims. To repair that damage, it is essential that the effectiveness of the regulation system is assured. Confidence in the ability of ASQA to ensure quality training provision is central to that trust.

The government's recent announcement of a review of VET regulation is long overdue. Labor is calling on the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to ensure it leads to real improvements in the sector. We welcome the appointment of Professor Valerie Braithwaite, a respected expert, to lead the review. It is essential that this is a genuine, credible attempt to rebuild the reputation of the VET system, which in recent years has been trashed by unethical practices and systematic rorting. To do this, the terms of reference of the review must go beyond a shallow assessment of ASQA's performance within the current rules. It must address the structure and regulation of the system and it must do that more broadly so that only the highest-quality providers can deliver services and gain access to public funding. We need a system that drives excellence, not merely compliance.

This review comes after ASQA itself identified that in key sectors, like early childhood and aged care, the competitive training market has become a race to the bottom on quality. It is in the national interest to get rid of dodgy, low-quality providers once and for all. Students and the community deserve so much better, and Labor will be standing up for quality and for students.

The Liberals have an absolutely disgraceful record on vocational education and an illogical ideological opposition to TAFE. Since they came to office, they have cut more than $2.8 billion from TAFE, skills and apprenticeships. This is austerity policy gone mad. In this year's budget, the Prime Minister and the Liberals cut a further $637 million from TAFE and vocational education over the next four years. Australia now has over 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than it did when the government was elected.

TAFE and vocational education funding and the number of supported students are lower than they were a decade ago. This is despite an increasing number of jobs that require vocational skills. In too many towns and regional centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have been degraded and closed, courses have been scaled back, and fees have been increased. Between 2013 and 2015, employer dissatisfaction with the availability of vocational education in regional and rural areas more than doubled. Investment in TAFE and vocational education capital infrastructure fell by almost 75 per cent. The hours of training delivered by TAFE fell by over 25 per cent.

All of this happened while those opposite simply ignored the massive sums of public money being ripped off by dodgy providers. The Government Actuary estimates that $1.2 billion in debt has been inappropriately issued, and the ANAO found that thousands of tax file numbers were handed in bulk to providers. We have seen evidence from ASQA, the education department and the ACCC that concerns about VET loans and providers were raised in late 2014. In fact, it took the estimates process to reveal that there were cross-government meetings at that time as departments tried to work out what to do about the failing administration of the scheme. But no action was taken by this government for another two years, when regulatory changes were brought into the parliament late in 2016. The implementation of these changes has been rushed, and the consequences of this catch-up job are starting to show.

It is political incompetence that the system was so badly and so poorly administered by this government for so long, when students and taxpayers should have been coming first, not dodgy providers. Rather than resolving this issue, the government changed the minister responsible for vocational education five times. It is very telling that the one constant feature of the education portfolio from late 2014 through to now was Senator Birmingham. While the minister did have different roles in the portfolio during this time, there are serious questions that remain to be answered: what did he know, when did he know it, and what action did he take?

In recent days we have seen leaked reports reveal just what damage this government's botched implementation of the loan changes is doing to TAFE. This year, diploma enrolments at TAFE NSW have dropped by over 50 per cent as a result of the coalition cuts. This is a result of the massive gap payments of as much as $8,000 that students in New South Wales now face just to go to TAFE. It is clear those opposite are happy to see the downward spiral of TAFE funding and enrolment continue to get worse—anything to justify more cuts. This latest attack on TAFE means either that students will be forced into the hands of cheap and dodgy providers who cut corners or that we will face skills shortages as people just give up study altogether. TAFE was not the cause of the problems in the sector, and TAFE students do not deserve to be punished.

The leaked report from TAFE NSW also reveals the damage the government's proposed higher education changes would do to TAFE by setting up a two-tiered funding system for diplomas and advanced diplomas, where universities get more public funding and TAFE students are left with unfair up-front fees. All this will serve to do is undermine TAFE yet again. Our tertiary education system needs more coordination and better collaboration, not some kind of false and rigged competition between TAFE and universities. We need to recognise the strength of our TAFE system and build on it.

When it comes to ongoing funding for VET, the Liberals clearly do not have a cohesive plan. This mob would rather put up with dodgy private provision than support a public education sector. It is clear what a low priority TAFE and VET are for this government. The minister is badgering the Senate crossbench to pass his school funding cuts because he wants them to come into effect in six months, but the current TAFE funding agreement comes to an end in a matter of days and it is still not clear what is happening. They just wish TAFE and VET would disappear.

We do not know any details of what the government really has in mind for the replacement of the national partnership, but we do know these three things. One: they will only train local people and possibly fund TAFE on the condition that more foreign workers are imported. That is absurd policy. What government would make the training of Australia's young skilled workforce subject to the importation of foreign labour? That is exactly what this mob have done. It is, as I said, absolutely absurd policy. Two: they will not do what Labor is doing and guarantee that two thirds of public funding, state and federal, will go to TAFE. We believe the TAFE system is so important in metropolitan, regional and rural areas across the country that we say two-thirds of public funding should go to TAFE and not to the shonky private providers that have been ripping the system off. Three: they will cut at least $637 million from TAFE funding. The latest budget shows a further cut of $637 million from TAFE funding, when countries all over the world are looking at ensuring that the skills, facilities and training are there to make their countries internationally competitive.

As if more evidence were necessary of the governments deep-seated problem with TAFE, recently the Adult Migrant English Program and Skills for Education and Employment service have been ripped away from TAFE in regional New South Wales, in Tasmania, in Melbourne and in Adelaide. Other areas where AMEP and the SEE programs have been taken off TAFE and given to private providers include the capital region, Canberra; the Illawarra and South Coast; north-east Melbourne, south-east Melbourne and the peninsula; Somerset in Queensland; and North Perth. These TAFE colleges are so important in these communities, and we see support and funding being ripped away by this coalition government and handed over to private providers. In some areas there are double and triple subcontracts, not approved by the department, that will see foreign-owned for-profit companies take the place of trusted and quality TAFE provision. It is just another way the government are trying to privatise TAFE when we should be going in the other direction.

Labor has policy alternatives to the low expectations and sorry apologies from those opposite. One: we will invest an additional $637.6 million into TAFE and vocational education, reversing the government's 2017 budget cuts in full. Two: we will guarantee at least two-thirds of public vocational education funding for TAFE. We should be putting public money into public institutions as important and necessary as the TAFE system. Three: we will invest in a new $100 million Building TAFE for the Future Fund to re-establish TAFE facilities in regional communities, meet local industry needs and support teaching for the digital economy. Four: we will set a target of one in 10 apprentices on all Commonwealth priority projects and major government business enterprise projects. We are not just talking the talk; we will walk the walk, and we will say that if you are on a government project you will employ one apprentice for every 10 employees on the job.

Five: we will invest in pre-apprenticeship programs, preparing up to 10,000 young job seekers to start an apprenticeship to be delivered by TAFE. What could be more important in areas where there is over 20 per cent youth unemployment than to provide support and opportunities for young Australians to actually get into TAFE, to get an apprenticeship and to actually build a life of security for the future, for themselves and for their families?

Six: we will establish an advanced entry adult apprenticeships program to fast-track apprenticeships for up to 20,000 people who are facing redundancy or whose jobs have been lost, and that would be delivered by TAFE. An example: this mob over here basically chased away General Motors and Toyota—told them they were not wanted in Australia—and now we will get thousands of skilled workers on production lines who have the engineering skills and who could be fast-tracked into apprenticeships and fast-tracked into trades and could continue to make a positive contribution to the Australian economy.

In conclusion, TAFE and vocational education is in Labor's DNA. Generations of Australians have secured decent jobs because they trained at TAFE or did an apprenticeship. In our fast-changing world, a modern, adaptable TAFE and vocational education system will not be just a good thing to have; it will be essential to jobs and economic growth. While Labor supports the bills before the Senate today, there is so much more to be done for TAFE and vocational education, but so little will be done by those opposite.

Just look at my example: I am here as a senator for New South Wales on the basis of being able to have an apprenticeship. I do not have any tertiary qualifications. I do not have university training. What I have is a trade certificate, and my trade certificate gave me the opportunity to get skilled up in the equivalent of TAFE in Scotland, to actually understand engineering principles and problem solving principles and to be able to take my trade from Scotland and come to Australia and work as a tradesperson here, and to move from that position with the skills that I had learned to represent working people for 27 years in the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union—look after the penalty rates, look after their rights, look after their conditions on the job, make sure they had dignity at work. That is what my trade did for me. It allowed me to move anywhere in the world with my trade certificate. When I came to Australia I had the opportunity to move to South Africa, to move to New Zealand, to move to Canada or to go to Germany. I chose to come to Australia because we were an egalitarian country, because this country provided opportunities for tradespeople.

We should be giving that same opportunity to young Australians, not simply bring more and more foreign workers into the country when young people are crying out for the opportunity for an apprenticeship. We should be looking after Australia's young workers with a decent TAFE system. On that basis, we support these bills.