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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19073


Mr ANDREWS (10:52 AM) —A recent critic of the Blair government's education policy complained that the constant chant was `education, education, education' but there was no sense of what education was actually supposed to lead to. The same lack of understanding underpinned that government's prating about `arts industries' as if art is an industry, instead of speaking about culture. Strategy, the critic said, is no substitute for policy.

I do not know what it is about Labor parties but they seem to think if you can put a would-be catchy label on any old piece of policy crock, everyone will start to think it is wonderful. In Britain we can see the honeymoon is over and the Blair government is now being seen as so much spin doctor's hype. Remember `Cool Britannia'. In Australia the Labor Party seem wedded to alliteration as their chief marketing and policy tool. Think up a couple of words beginning with the same sound and Kim's your leader. So Keating's `clever country' is to become the `knowledge nation'. Social commentator Hugh Mackay has pointed out:

Knowledge is merely something that you have. It doesn't define who you are. It doesn't suggest what you might do.

He gives some amusing examples of knowledgable smart alecs exchanging useless information like, `Did you know there are six rats to every human in New York?' Unless you were starting up a cleaning company in New York, you would say, `So what.' He goes on to ask: which sort of knowledge is the Leader of the Opposition wishing to recommend? Is it liberal and non-vocational or scientific knowledge? What sort of knowledge, he asks, has created our finest poetry, the stump-jump plough and the photocopier? Was it chance, necessity or a policy of egalitarianism that created the climate in which such knowledge emerged?

On this side of the House, at least we have left behind empty sloganeering. I have to say that I find it refreshing to read the speeches of the present Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp, because they are so free of the jargon that made the speeches of the education ministers in the Labor years impenetrable except to the education bureaucrats who penned them.

Vocational education and training is one of the triumphs of the Howard government. It was quite simply a basket case under the Hawke-Keating government. Let me just take you down a trip on memory lane for a few moments. Labor shamelessly neglected vocational education and training. Labor ran down Australia's apprenticeship system. Under Labor, employers stayed away from apprenticeships because of the restrictive regulations and industrial relations arrangements. The result was that under Labor apprenticeships as a proportion of the work force declined in Labor's last year to the lowest level for three decades.

During the Labor recession of the early 1990s, the number of trade apprenticeships dropped to the low 120,000s where they stayed until the coalition introduced New Apprenticeships in 1998 and they are now 140,000. Labor neglected quality training that would lead to real jobs for short-term training programs that only served to keep the unemployment statistics down. The then member for Sydney, Peter Baldwin, later admitted that Labor's policies failed young people. He said:

Accommodating the needs of those not intending to proceed directly on to university education in the final years of schools is something that we didn't do enough about in government.

The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 currently before the House increases the amount previously appropriated for the year 2000 by $13.063 million to give effect to the government's commitment to maintain funding in real terms for the three years of the Australian National Training Authority agreement. The bill takes funding up to $931.415 million. The minister has told us that it has been estimated by the states and territories that by the end of this year there will be an additional 160,000 training places provided nationally over the planned 1997 level. In 1999, over 1½ million Australians participated in formal vocational education and training. The current year's budget provides a total of $1.7 billion for vocational education and training.

Let me just quickly run through some of the coalition's achievements in this portfolio. The Howard government has established a new national apprenticeship and traineeship system called New Apprenticeships which offers nationally recognised qualifications. The coalition government has established New Apprenticeship Centres as a single point of contact for employers and New Apprenticeships which combine state and Commonwealth services for employers and streamline the administrative process required for employers and new apprentices. The coalition government has also established user choice so that employers with new apprentices can choose the training provided to deliver the off-the-job training that suits their business.

The government has abolished the outdated system of regulation through declaration of vocations which was enormously complex, bureaucratic and time consuming, providing major simplification of regulation through national training packages. The coalition government has established school based new apprenticeships, which mean that in the year 2000 an estimated 167,000 students will be undertaking vocational education and training in schools, compared to only 26,500 in 1998. There will also be 7,200 students undertaking part-time New Apprenticeships while at school, a scheme which did not exist under the previous government. We now have 90 per cent of schools in Australia offering vocational education and training for students.

The Australian Student Traineeship Foundation provides help for students making the transition from school to work. The 2000-01 budget provides $43.7 million for work placement, coordination and community partnership projects over the next four years. Students participating in foundation supported schemes have increased from 2,815 in 1995 under Labor to 57,343 last year.

The Jobs Pathway Program, which focuses on vocational education to improve school students' transition from school to work, provides assistance to around 70,000 young people from more than 1,600 schools across Australia. The Labor government totally failed to recognise and cater for the 70 per cent of students who do not go from school to university.

The coalition government has also created a new initiative, Rural and Regional New Apprenticeships, to be introduced over the next four years. Employers in occupations experiencing skill shortages in non-metropolitan Australia will receive an additional $1,000 incentive payment when their new apprentice progresses from certificate II to certificate III level, about halfway through the training period, bringing the total the employer receives in incentives to $5,000 for each employer.

What has been distinctive about this government's approach has been to make the vocational training and education sector demand driven and particularly industry driven. This is an enormous cultural change from what existed under the Labor government when the system was mired in bureaucratic imperatives which actively work against employers taking on apprentices and even finding basic information. Flexibility has been the key to the design of the government's new training framework.

There are of course still problems to be sorted out. Many companies are still frustrated with the inconsistencies and bureaucratic red tape that exist at the state level and work against their being involved at all in the Australian training system. It is regrettable that the Labor states have been introducing bureaucratic and complicated systems. Victoria has put a cap on the funding of private training places. A report from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in March this year showed that new apprenticeship commencements in Victoria had fallen 10.9 per cent since December 1999 and 29.3 per cent in Queensland since June 1999, although nationally commencements were up 2.7 per cent to almost 175,000 in the 12 months ended March 2000.

Under Labor, as the member for Werriwa, Mark Latham, has pointed out, vocational education and training was seen very much as Cinderella without a godmother—the second-best option, a type of failure. This government is trying to change that perception. Of the opposition education policy one can only say: a little knowledge is obviously a dangerous thing.