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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19079

Mr LAWLER (11:21 AM) —It is interesting listening to the words of members opposite, even those of the previous speaker, the member for Griffith, who was, it appears, judging the success of a program purely on how much money is spent, and conveniently ignoring the fact that there are far more participants in vocational education and training under this government than under the previous government. It reflects, I think, quite nicely the way that the previous government used to try to solve any problem, thinking that if you just close your eyes and throw some more money at it the problem will go away. I do not think you would have to look very hard to see this—for example, the work programs that the previous government used where a successful outcome cost in the order of $50,000, while a successful outcome under the current government's program costs more in the order of $14,000.

Yes, there are efficiency dividends to be made. Yes, I do agree that there are some finite results that can be made with efficiencies. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There are far more people involved in vocational education and training under this government than under the previous government, and I do not think we need to say any more about that.

By increasing the funding to the Australian National Training Authority this government will continue its outstanding success in getting people into work and providing businesses with skilled labour. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 will increase the amount of money previously allotted to the year 2000 by $13.063 million. Therefore, total funding for this year will amount to $931 and a bit million, making good on this government's commitment to maintain funding in real terms for the three-year ANTA agreement, 1998-2000.

This current agreement centres on the realisation of all levels of government—the Commonwealth, state and territory governments—that training increases productivity and competitiveness for industry while helping people to optimise their career potential. As recent job figures and the growth in apprenticeships clearly show, there is every reason to be confident that the impressive list of achievements will be added to in coming years.

Between the years 1998 and 2000 the vocational education and training sector underwent unprecedented expansion. In fact, by the end of this year an additional 160,000 more training positions will be available than were planned in 1997, according to estimates by state and territory ministers. Add to this the fact that it is estimated that last year more than 1.5 million Australians received some type of formal vocational education and training and it becomes clear that this government has designed a winning formula for expanding the skilled labour pool in this country.

For the next generation of young Australian job seekers in particular this means the opportunity to equip themselves with the abilities and the confidence to help them find real jobs with real career prospects and scope for future flexibility. It will increase the likelihood that the trainee will actively pursue work, because his or her employment options will be more attractive and better paying. The expansion of the skills training network also bolsters the efforts of Australian businesses and industry to pursue the competitive edge provided by a work force with up-to-date abilities in times of rapid change.

It could easily be argued that this country's outstanding economic performance in recent times is linked to this government's strenuous efforts to provide industry with the advantage of more skilled employees. The funding received by ANTA from the federal government will only add to the training opportunities currently available. Furthermore, it will enhance the federal government's ability to interact with state and territory governments and the business sector with a view to not only maintaining consistency nationwide but also encouraging higher standards along with more options and flexibility in training programs.

In total this year's budget provides $1.7 billion for vocational education and training, including $2 billion over four years for the highly successful New Apprenticeships scheme. For a comparison between the attention that this government pays to putting on new apprentices and that paid by the previous government you only have to walk into any Group Apprentice training centre, Broken Hill Skill Centre, Robinson College, West State Training—any number of them in my electorate—and they will tell you about the fact that it is far easier and they have far more apprentices being involved than at any time over the life of the previous government.

Almost one-quarter of a million Australians have received skills and guidance for a career path through this popular initiative. Furthermore, the scheme has expanded on its merits due to the fact that it delivers training that corresponds with the needs of businesses and creates job opportunities in a more diverse range of career paths than has ever been the case. This is the critical factor: that the training corresponds with the needs of businesses. The training does not develop independently of businesses, and this is why the job opportunities that have come up in the last little while are far greater than in the past.

This success will be built upon with funding to address challenges such as skilled labour shortages in some fields by backing efforts to attract trainees to newly emerging industries. Such an approach ensures that we are in a strong position to meet the training needs of a rapidly changing economy where the demands on both young job seekers and potential employers are vastly different to those of 10 or 15 years ago. And nowhere is the changing nature of the labour market and industry more apparent than in areas like my electorate in western New South Wales.

It is important to note at this point that learning initiatives by this government are not confined to the education portfolio. In the portfolio under Senator Alston there are many examples in my electorate where Networking the Nation funds have been provided, which will again boost the education opportunities of people in western New South Wales. For example, the Orana VideoNet, which has been funded under Networking the Nation to the tune of about $600,000, provides video conferencing facilities to towns like Cobar, Coolah, Nyngan, Gilgandra, Coonamble, Wellington and Dubbo.

Besides the obvious advantages to health and other areas by having access to video conferencing facilities, education has been highlighted as the main beneficiary of this link-up. This is not only in the traditional areas of education. I have seen an example where music lessons and so on have been delivered on this videoconferencing facility.

It affects other portfolios as well. Money has been put aside for improving the education and training of people in the western region of New South Wales and other regional areas of Australia—for example, in the area of agriculture, where we have recently announced further funding for West 2000 in the program of West 2000 Plus. Probably the most significant aspect of West 2000—perhaps unpredictably—is that the area that was most favourably and rapidly taken up by the farmers in my area was education and further training. It certainly delivered assistance in farm buildup and woody weed control and other things, but the educational component of West 2000 was the critical thing as far as the farmers in my area were concerned, and that has been the focus of West 2000 Plus. There are other many other areas in the agricultural portfolio that focus on education and training as well, for example FarmBis. I am trying to highlight the fact that this government focuses on education not only in the education portfolio but also across a whole range of government initiatives.

One of the previous speakers was attempting to compare skill levels in one area to those in another. It is unfortunately difficult to compare skill levels in areas by this mechanism. Up until recently, for people who lived in regional and rural Australia, to achieve higher education one had to actually leave the bush to go to metropolitan areas. Often our best and brightest would stay away. So the figures in the past would have indicated that our more educated people were living in the city and that there were fewer of them in the country. This government is reversing this trend by establishing more regional campuses and universities in places such as Dubbo. We have recently announced $5 million for the Charles Sturt University to establish a campus in Dubbo. They have been working cooperatively out of the TAFE, but soon they will have their own campus. This type of spending is important to reverse the brain drain that has been evident in rural and regional Australia. It is an example of how this government is addressing the need for rural and regional Australia to be right up there, by placing importance on focusing on retraining and education.

In Dubbo, particularly, the new university will work very closely with the TAFE and the high schools to build and maintain that critical mass of skilled members of the community which will contribute to the reversing of this trend and the reversing of the perception that if you come to the country you will live in a bit of a cultural and educational backwater. We need to maintain a focus on rural and regional education. I believe we are certainly doing that in the area of vocational education, but we need to maintain and increase the funding of university campuses in regional areas as well.

I agree with the words of a previous speaker who spoke of the unnecessary complexity of arrangements when the state and federal governments are both contributing money and have some degree of control—whether we are talking about TAFE, about child-care facilities or about health. As I said, I agree with the speaker who said that we should be looking at different levels of government taking responsibility for greater roles and getting rid of some of the grey areas that not only confuse the people who are involved in the programs but also confuse people like me who are entrusted with promoting values, promoting the areas we live in, and explaining to people who might apply for various types of funding what areas they will be most likely to attain funding for.

The continuing education focus of this government has expanded continually on its merits due to the fact that it delivers training that corresponds to the needs of businesses and creates job opportunities in a more diverse range of career paths than has ever been the case before. This government has made great advances in relation to lingering obstacles like the restrictive regulations and industrial relations arrangements that Labor proved unable to reform. The number of apprentices as a percentage of the work force during Labor's last year of office declined to the lowest level in 30 years. This message was not really understood by the Labor government, which, despite their rhetoric, essentially told young people about to enter the job market that their options were university or nowhere. It did lead to a decline under the previous government: it led to the unfortunate neglect and decline of the vocational education system. Australia's apprenticeship system was stagnating and the opportunities for realistic work experience and training were deteriorating.

Not surprisingly, by failing to adapt the apprenticeship system, Labor made employers turn away from the prospect of offering apprenticeships. We, in contrast, have had a determination to deliver flexible arrangements for apprenticeships and traineeships and have been consistently praised by the people involved. I understand in fact that there are about 150,000 more people in training than at the time of the Labor government. The blossoming New Apprenticeships scheme has been delivering in spades to the people in regional Australia, because apprentice positions are now available in industries that previously had no interaction with a vocational training scheme. Under this government, training is now based on competency and ability levels as determined by the business and not solely on completing the hours allocated. Today, through a combination of work, education and training, people can attain qualifications that are recognised nationally by relevant authorities and, most importantly, are valued by industry.

In my area, vocational education in schools is exploding, and the concept has been embraced by almost all high schools. I understand that there are over 7,000 students in Australia beginning apprenticeship training in years 9, 10 and 11 now. This coalition has put in place real strategies to assist people on the ground and to deliver satisfactory results for both the business sector and our young people. In the light of this outstanding record, I commend this bill to the House.