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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19082

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (11:36 AM) —In speaking to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000, I refer in passing to some of the history which led to the establishment of the Australian National Training Authority. In doing so, I note that when Labor established ANTA back in 1992, with Kim Beazley as the then minister for employment, one of its clear purposes was to secure a relevant funding agreement between Commonwealth and state governments. To a large extent, that was the crux of actually establishing the ANTA processes. On that note, I suggest to the House that a relevant agreement, you would think, would take into account the 2.8 per cent per annum forecast increase in demand over the next three years, which goes to the issues raised in the second reading amendment placed before the House for consideration by the shadow minister for education, the member for Dobell, Michael Lee. The problem is, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, that, under this government, your government, we do not see any relevant agreements. The truth of the matter is that what we see is the running down of regional TAFE colleges.

That takes me to the nature of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Dobell, Michael Lee. The amendment notes:

(b) demand for vocational education and training is likely to increase by at least 2.8% a year over the next four years ...

This is an issue which is not greatly on the mind of the member for Fisher because he does not regard vocational education and training as being very important to his own seat. The second reading amendment then condemns the government and the member for Fisher for:

(a) failing to provide any funding to support this growth;

(b) failing to negotiate a fair and reasonable new ANTA Agreement with the States and Territories; and

(c) pursuing policies which damage the quality of training and put at risk the nation's skills base.

I would have thought that these issues were of central importance to the thinking patterns of the member for Fisher but, obviously, from his interjections today, they are of very little importance to his thinking when it comes to the concerns of the unemployed, especially the young and middle aged who have lost jobs in his electorate.

The issue of VET is of primary importance to the future of this nation. It is for that reason that there is now widespread recognition that vocational education and training is more and should be more than the poor cousin of university or the alternative to leaving school early. Its status in the community and industry and among students, educators and parents will be a major determinant of the nation's long-term future because it is about skilling us as a nation. It is not about competing internationally on the basis of the lowest wages and conditions of employment; it is about Australia as a nation regarding our investment in VET, not as a cost to government but an investment in our future as a nation on the basis that we will compete both domestically and internationally as the most skilled work force in the world. I suppose that is why we have difficulties at the moment. To achieve such an objective in life requires leadership, something that, unfortunately, the member for Fisher's government lacks. Doubts about the status of vocational education and training and limited receptiveness to lifelong learning imply the need to actively promote cultural change. Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, we would have to have a process of seeking to remind this government of the importance of skilling and training based on a lifelong learning concept? But that is the nature of the Howard government: a government of the 1950s, not a government of the 21st century.

That is why Labor leader Kim Beazley has staked his claim as the education Prime Minister. I regard this statement by Kim Beazley as a fundamental statement of the priorities of the Labor Party in the lead-up to the next election. It also represents a reaffirmation of our fundamental commitment to ANTA, which goes back to our establishment of an association with the states and territories back in 1992 when Kim Beazley was the minister for employment. As education Prime Minister, Kim Beazley would demand that skills be placed at the centre of the debate. Contrast that approach with the approach of the Howard government. Contrast that with this bill, and the issues raised in the member for Dobell's second reading amendment, a bill which, once again, fails to recognise the growing importance of our VET sector.

Through a commitment to vocational education and training, the government had an opportunity to remind the Minister for Employment Services that the supply side of the labour market depends not only on choices but also on capabilities. It had an opportunity to spell out that the barrier for some who cannot find work is not welfare—a total focus purely on the issue of discipline—but a lack of skills. We need to adopt a holistic approach to the complex issue of employability. We must focus on all aspects of employability and not be consumed with one aspect of it, namely, the desire of the Minister for Employment Services to merely focus on the issue of discipline at work rather than front up to the fact that discipline goes hand in hand with having the skills which make you employable in the minds of an employer.

I suggest to the Minister for Employment Services that, rather than calling people `job snobs', as is his tendency, and rather than threatening to reduce unemployed peoples' payments, we could be assisting them in developing their skills and actually investing in their future, in the future of their families, in the future of the suburbs and regions in which they live and in the future of their nation, Australia. If we actually adopted that holistic approach to employment and decided that we as a nation should invest in trying to make them more employable, they would actually become more employable.

The problem for the last 4½ years has been that the Howard government, along with the Minister for Employment Services and the current Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, and in association with the Treasurer, have spent the whole 4½ years cutting back on an investment which actually makes people more employable. I suggest to the House that this bill confirms that in no uncertain terms because it fails to face up to the real debate, that is, an increase in demand for vocational education and training is likely to occur over the next four years of 2.8 per cent. If you are concerned about that you have got to be concerned about what you are prepared to allocate to assist in meeting that demand.

We have a supply side issue in the Australian community at the moment because of our going backwards on the skilled work force front, with shortages of labour starting to occur in both metropolitan and regional Australia in a variety of trades of a skilled and semi-skilled nature. We do not meet that requirement at a workplace level and we actually create bottlenecks in the Australian economy, put pressure on the wages system which, in turn, puts pressure on our inflation front and which, in turn, is of major concern to the future of Australia. That is an issue that escapes the minds of people like the Minister for Employment Services from time to time. The government, rather than investing in the future of Australia, are more concerned in trying to make short-term political points by giving the unemployed a kick in the guts and referring to them in passing as `job snobs'—rather than fronting up to their own ignorance and their own unwillingness to accept that the debate about employability is more than just a focus on the issue of discipline; it is also a focus on trying to ensure that, if a person loses a job, he or she might have to be given more skills and new skills to make them more employable in the future.

I also believe that it is not just those missing out on opportunities to develop their skills who suffer. When you start to think about how we can deliver to employers the workers they need, you come to see skills as a common thread. It is the Labor Party that recognise this, and it is the coalition government that fails to recognise this. One of Labor's goals is to increase year 12 equivalent retention rates to counter the falling demand for low skilled labour of recent decades. We know this means closer links between academic and vocational education, closer links between school, TAFE and university and closer links between communities. We need to provide a range of learning options and ensure that they are adequately funded.

It is therefore ironic that, at the very time we need to do more for those who are struggling to achieve, the Howard government is increasing the privilege associated with private education and, in doing so, is squeezing public schools even harder. As is generally the case under this government, it is those from poor families, disadvantaged suburbs and poor communities who will continue to lose out. This concerns me in my regional responsibilities. The reality is that there are too many people and places missing out and too many people and places that have simply been forgotten and left behind. With education priority zones, Labor will seek to do something about that on entering government.

We cannot as a nation see learning as something that is confined to schools. We need to encourage parents to be involved in learning and to ensure that the family environment is helping and encouraging learning, not hindering school performance—as unfortunately sometimes occurs in such an environment. We also need to be more imaginative in our use of small-scale community networks where family support mechanisms have broken down. As a society, we must make a commitment to all of our youth, not just to some of them from the wealthier suburbs and families. I also believe that we cannot comfort ourselves by assuming that all young people will ultimately make their way into the work force. The problem is that in some places where the Howard government has failed to create job opportunities and where support networks have been neglected kids really are on the outer. I believe Australians do not want further division. They want hope for the future, but that takes leadership. Hope for the future and leadership should be based on genuine compassion and a commitment to actually do something rather than revert to sloganising and attacking the unemployed for being job snobs.

The problem is that for many kids attachment to the work force will not happen on its own. It requires leadership and pushing and prodding. That is something that should concern all of us. When young people cannot fulfil their potential, our nation cannot fulfil its promise and creates problems for itself. Our young people are our work force of tomorrow. They are our hope. They are our vision for the future. They will be the ones supporting our ageing population and taking our nation forward in the future. There is therefore a need for Australia to be more active in managing the school to work transition to ensure that this transition effectively links classrooms to careers. One would have thought that was fairly fundamental. I actually believe it is the foundation stone for the future of this nation.

Under the present government, we have had a couple of pilots here and there and a lot of rhetoric but no structured, coordinated approach and no proper planning, vision or commitment. Given that the Howard government see our disadvantaged youth as the source of the problem, this should not be a surprise. Such a response is a cruel and bitter distortion of reality. It is the sort of thing that people of little imagination and even less compassion resort to when they discover that the answers are not simple. They would sooner drop an IVF bomb to cause a debate and run away from the real hard policy issues confronting Australia as a nation. Alternatively, unlike the Howard government and unlike the member for Fisher, I would argue that our kids are an asset and that it is only by seeing them as such and supporting their development that we will reap the benefits as a nation.

Mr Price —Hear, hear!

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —As the member for Chifley is well aware, they are a pool of ideas and talent awaiting the opportunity and support they need to make it. As a society, we seem to find it far easier to talk about their responsibilities than our own responsibilities as a nation to them, their families, their suburbs, their communities, their regions and this nation. I strongly believe that by far the best thing we can do as a nation is keep people at school and get in early to try to do something to guarantee that we keep as many of our young people at school as we can for as long as we can.

That is a theme that we have been vocal about on this side of the House for some time. That is why we have ANTA, and that is why Kim Beazley pursued the establishment of ANTA so rigorously way back in 1992. It is because there is a common recognition that labour market programs cannot remedy a problem stemming from years of educational neglect. The truth is that early intervention is the key to avoiding the requirement for labour market programs over time. We must therefore as a nation develop targeted strategies to assist those who are not part of our current prosperity but who are critical to ensuring our continued prosperity—a more long-term vision than the short-term debate pursued by the Howard government. I believe that left behind kids in left behind suburbs in left behind communities are a problem for which we all share ownership. We must ensure that young people from rural areas have a chance and that youth from the outer fringes of our cities are in the inner circle of opportunity, not in the outer circle of opportunity. But to do that we require a commitment that resources for vocational education and training will be forthcoming. It is a commitment that this government has run away from yet again in the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000.

At the other end of the spectrum, the labour market performance of our older males in recent decades also offers us an important lesson. The current cohort of older workers began their working lives with different expectations about the labour market and a view that they had a job for life. These older workers, often located in declining industries, are being asked to bear the brunt of economic change and are receiving precious little assistance. The truth is that they are not being assisted under the Job Network because they are no longer a profitable investment for employment agencies which are driven by the profit motive. They have limited access to retraining because they face cultural and economic barriers when trying to re-enter the education and training system, and they have very little in the way of social support networks because this group has typically been seen historically as the provider rather than the recipient. If the idea of shared responsibility is falling down anywhere in our society it is here. Our training systems should be more accessible in both institutions and in opportunities in workplaces, but again I suppose that will require a commitment beyond the Howard government's capabilities.

We must ensure that generations to come are more adaptable. More flexible career structures imply a need to improve occupational mobility, and a solid skills base is critical to that. In particular, the past decline has seen a major rise in the use of people's computer skills, a shift our institutions are still struggling to respond to. That is why the Labor Party is openly talking about a school week based on three days in school, one in the workplace and one in TAFE. This is the way of the future. We must develop new options for the financing of lifelong learning in and out of the workplace.

While the bill before the House reflects the government's neglect of VET financing, the issue is also more than just money. It is about getting the incentives right and about doing it early, not leaving it until it is too big a problem. In the past the Labor Party confronted the educational challenges of the day. When the need to increase school retention rates became clear, Labor introduced Austudy and promoted school retention. When we had to confront the need to expand higher education, Labor introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme. In both cases the nation reaped the rewards with a rise in year 12 completion rates and greater access to higher education. We have met these challenges successfully before and we must now meet new challenges in the area of vocational education and training. We must get it right as a nation. We must ensure that our systems are both accessible and responsive. Accessibility requires fairness in funding and marketing of information to ensure that this is getting to the people who need it.

The bill before the house is exceptionally important. The problem is that it is actually inadequate when it comes to looking forward and facing up to our responsibilities for growth in the VET sector. I support the second reading amendment. It properly condemns the government for walking away from its responsibilities. It is a bill of fundamental importance to the future of Australia because it is about the skilling of our work force, and it is also about a focus on education in a tertiary sense beyond universities and back to the workplace level. (Time expired)