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Thursday, 3 December 1998
Page: 1340

Mr LEE (1:52 PM) —The Australian National Training Authority Amendment Bill 1998 amends the 1992 act following the signing of a new ANTA agreement between the Commonwealth and the states and territories to apply for the period 1998-2000. It also clarifies the exemption of ANTA from state and territory taxes to which the Commonwealth is not subject.

On the issue of tax, I note that the government intends to make some, but not all, vocational education and training courses GST-free. In keeping with its narrow view of education and its lack of understanding about the need for lifelong learning, this government intends to tax so-called hobby courses. This approach ignores the fact that the needs and capacities of adult learners vary enormously and the most recreational of courses may be the only way back into formal education for some.

On top of that is the issue of the costs that institutions will face in administering the new tax. This matter was raised in the Vos committee's report, which recommended that the education sector share in the funds earmarked for the business sector to assist with compliance costs.

The education sector will face significantly increased costs through the GST. The sector, generally, is not subject to wholesale sales taxes. Unlike in the business sector, the GST will not relieve educational institutions of other taxes. It will instead impose an entirely new layer of administration which will further diminish their capacity to provide education and training on top of the direct cuts to funding already inflicted by the Howard government.

There is also the fact that students will face increased costs in terms of books, computer software, Internet use and other study requisites. Nothing could sum up this government's backward looking attitude better than the fact that it is prepared to put a tax on learning.

This bill also amends the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 to supplement the 1998 and 1999 amounts for price movements and to add to the general pool of funding the amount previously separately identified for off-the-job training for traineeships.

Vocational education and training is important to Australia. It enrols far more students than higher education. It is a major access point for adult education and life-long learning. Significant numbers of university graduates enrol in TAFE courses to finetune their skills for employment. Enrolments in vocational education and training have grown from 952,000 in 1988 to almost 1.5 million last year. In 1997, VET catered for 48,200 students with a disability, 38,500 indigenous students and 252,000 students who were born outside Australia. But education and training are not valued by the Howard government or recognised for their contribution to Australia's prosperity.

The attack on vocational education by the coalition began early, in its first budget, in 1996, when the government announced $160 million in funding cuts, including the abolition of growth funding, which had been provided by the previous Labor government. For good measure, the Howard government also cut nearly $13 million from ANTA's operating expenses. This was followed, in 1997, by a further $72 million cut labelled as `benchmarking efficiencies'. God save us from benchmarking efficiencies!

The government has been keen to put in place a new ANTA agreement because the agreement negotiated by the former Labor government, as part of its major overhaul of vocational education and training in the early part of this decade, committed the Commonwealth to providing growth funding on a continuing basis. The Howard government recognised that it had to scrap Labor's agreement and replace it with one which reflected the coalition's narrow, mean-spirited and short-sighted approach to skilling Australia.

The prospect of a new ANTA agreement was first raised by the current Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs in a media release on 8 June 1997. In that release the minister claimed that TAFE places would increase by 500,000 over five years. He also said that the new agreement would lead to a major upgrade of the TAFE system. Needless to say, these claims have not come to fruition. They turned out to be another typical example of this minister's mix of extravagant rhetoric and bodgie statistics.

The minister for education's media release was titled `$4.5 billion TAFE deals for states and territories'. It did not take the states and territories long to work out that there was not much in this new deal. In fact, on 28 August 1997—

Mr Barresi interjecting

Mr LEE —Look, if you do not believe what I say about Dr Kemp, just have a listen to what Victoria's minister for training, Phil Honeywood, had to say about your favourite minister for education. He called the proposed agreement with the Commonwealth `the biggest cost shift to the states since Federation'. That was your own Victorian minister, a state Liberal minister.

This cost shift involved the Commonwealth withdrawing from growth funding for vocational education and training at a time when unmet demand for TAFE places was some 35,000 a year. All future growth was to be funded by so-called efficiencies made by the states and territories. Discussions continued acrimoniously for months and, on 22 August, the state and territory training ministers issued a joint communique expressing their concern that the Commonwealth's declining one-third share of VET funding was inadequate to meet the demands of a truly national system which was internationally competitive.

Memorable contributions were made to the debate about the minister for education's performance by a number of state Liberal colleagues which I am sure will be of great interest to members on the government side of the House. Comments were made by people such as the Victorian minister, Minister Honeywood, who said—just as the minister walks into the chamber; I am sure he is keen to be reminded about Minister Honeywood's remarks about him—and this is a Liberal minister:

Kemp, just to get headlines, goes out after each ministers meeting and hits us with another bombshell that we have not agreed on.

He also said:

I feel that this is a betrayal of trust.

That is what his own Liberal colleagues say about the minister for education—a betrayal of trust and the greatest cost shift since Federation from the Commonwealth to the states. The comments seem to sum up the tone of the meetings and the negotiations as they unfolded, month after month.

The new agreement was eventually finalised in April this year. The first thing to note about it is that it covers only a three-year period, not the five as originally trumpeted by the minister in his typical press releases.

Labor believed that ANTA was the way to make sure that additional federal funding was placed into our TAFE colleges to lift the level of training for young Australians, to make sure that they got the training that they needed to ensure that Australia was better positioned to develop sustainable jobs and growth in years to come. Mr Speaker, I seek leave to continue my remarks at a later hour.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Mr SPEAKER —I thank the member for Dobell. It being 2 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.