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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19090


Mr GIBBONS (12:16 PM) —I rise to take part in this debate on the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000. The precise purpose of this bill is to add a mere $13 million to the funds payable and previously appropriated to the Australian National Training Authority, or ANTA, as a price adjustment for the year 2000. The bill raises the funding for this year from $918 million to $931 million. The bill also sets the new funding level for 2000 as a basis for funding for next year.

In speaking on this bill, I wish to indicate that I believe a flourishing system of vocational education and training is vital to the prosperity of Australia. It is also vital for education and training opportunities for younger and older people alike, not just once in their career but frequently in their careers, with the changing nature of the economy and work. Vocational education and training opportunities are especially important in regional centres like Bendigo, where the opportunities provided locally are often crucial to regional and country people.

I point out also that, in regional centres like Bendigo, the TAFE college and its campuses play a particularly important role in the regional economy because of the college's injection of funds into the district by way of salary and remuneration of staff, local purchases and contracts, on top of which there is the substantial impact on local spending by the large TAFE student population. Thus a well funded system of vocational education and training is especially important to regional and rural communities. And a secure future for the system is essential to the secure future of the regions of Australia.

We cannot underestimate the significance of the Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE, or BRIT as it is called, for the region it serves. The institute is one of the region's big employers, having some 463 employees. Of these, 214 are full time and 249 are part time. It has a total income of $29 million, and its salary expenditure is around $14 million. Its student population adds up to 16,431 as of last year. Of these, 14,301 are full- and part-time students, 1,289 are apprentices and 841 are engaged in open learning.

Geographically, the Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE is a vital regional operation. It is not only important to its big regional centre at Bendigo, where it has some 10,500 students; it also has campuses at Castlemaine, Maryborough, Echuca, Kerang and Kyneton. In my own electorate, the number enrolled at the Castlemaine campus last year was nearly 700, and the number at the Maryborough campus was nearly 750. The Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE also plays a major role in providing vocational education and training at corrections facilities, including the Bendigo, Loddon and Tarrengower prisons and the Malmsbury Juvenile Justice Centre.

I want now to highlight the importance that the Labor Party attaches to vocational education and training. I refer in particular to the following section of the Labor Party's national platform as it was recently endorsed:

Labor recognises the role played by the private sector in vocational education and training. The diversification of the labour market, however, must not be allowed to damage quality. Australia's current and future workforce must be provided with sound, transferable skills, and our international reputation for quality education and training provision must be protected.

Labor will work with the States and Territories to ensure that all providers of vocational education and training are subject to an efficient, comprehensive system of quality assurance.

Labor supports the development of a truly national TAFE system, with improved resourcing and emphasis on further education and the quality of education provided. Labor will support TAFE in its dual roles of training provider and key access point for community education.

This bill is basically a disaster. It is yet another reminder of the way this government has cut and frozen funding for vocational education and training. The bill continues for yet another year the outrageous freeze that this coalition government has clamped on funding for vocational education and training for the three years of the current ANTA agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories. This agreement was finalised in 1998 and played havoc with the then existing ANTA agreement.

The result was that the Commonwealth agreed then only to maintain the then level of funding—which, with the coalition having come to office, had already been slashed—and to do so in real terms for the three years from 1998 to 2000. Under that agreement of 1998, the states and territories had to maintain their level of activities and the funding of 100,000 new places each year through so-called efficiencies. So what we got inflicted on vocational education and training were, at the federal level, the slash and freeze policies of the coalition after it had taken office in 1996, coupled with the slash and burn policies of the then Kennett state coalition government after it had taken office in 1996.

Now the education minister says that he has achieved wonders through this choking of funds for vocational education and training. He demands that the states and territories go on copping it after the current ANTA agreement ends this year. He wants the states and territories to submit to another three years of financial starvation from Canberra, without an extra cent from Canberra—just as they went without an extra cent during the previous three years of the agreement.

I note in the minister's boasting in his second reading speech on this bill he tried to claim the credit for the Commonwealth for the increase in training positions that has taken place in Australia since 1998. There has in fact been a 22 per cent increase in the total number of vocational and education students since 1996, but in reality not a single cent of the increase was funded by the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth's recipe therefore adds up to an abandonment of the national responsibility for growth in training positions. That was the recipe for the last three years and that is his answer for the next three years. He is happy to demand more so-called efficiencies as the way to fund more places because he is happy to see TAFE budgets, already cut to the bone, facing more cuts. The minister for education has an obsessive dislike of public institutions, and the TAFE institutions are not exempt from this paranoia. His refusal to boost funding for ANTA flies in the face of growing demand for vocational education and training throughout Australia. In fact ANTA CEOs commissioned a report which was released in April this year and showed the growing demand for vocational education and training. The report showed that the growth in demand was likely to be up to 5.7 per cent per year for the next four years. This makes it all the more irrational and ideological that the minister is not prepared to supply new growth funding to the Australian National Training Authority.

I note in the case of Victoria that there was a 9.2 per cent increase in apprenticeships and traineeships in the state over the last year, compared with the national increase of 2.7 per cent. So in my state there is a big growth in demand, yet the Commonwealth will not help fund it. The present Commonwealth minister for education was a great admirer of the former Kennett coalition government of Victoria. This minister often held the Kennett regime up as the model state for vocational education and training in Australia. But what the minister calls efficiency in Victoria was all too often just a cover for running down costs, slashing funds and jeopardising quality education and training.

Indeed, the Victorian vocational education and training sector was so run down by the minister's idol that by the time the Bracks government took office late last year it had to receive a big injection of new state government funds. The Bracks Labor government in Victoria has committed an extra $177 million over the next four years for the vocational education and training sector. This is a rescue operation and it is designed to get the sector back on its feet after the financial and ideological vandalism of the years of Dr Kemp's favourite state government. The Bracks government in Victoria has shown its commitment to vocational education and training with a substantial injection of new funds. Why then can't the Commonwealth government play its part and do the right thing?

Honourable members would be aware that the Bracks Labor government in Victoria commissioned the Schofield report, an independent review of the quality of training in Victoria's apprenticeship and traineeship system. The report was commissioned in January this year and was brought down in May. The report found that in Dr Kemp's model, the previous Victorian state government, under former Premier Kennett, presided over a significant weakness in the way the training had been delivered. The report cited evidence of abuse of the apprenticeship and traineeship system by some unethical organisations. It found that nearly half the trainees it surveyed, some 46 per cent, and one-third of the apprentices, 34 per cent, were not sufficiently challenged by their training. Twenty per cent of trainees did not believe they were learning new skills. The report stated that this was leading to views that the apprenticeship and traineeship system is `dumbing down' the work force when its essential task is to lift the expectations of all involved, to challenge apprentices and trainees and to make possible new pathways not only into the apprenticeship and traineeship system but from it to a life of learning in an increasingly global environment.

I will not go into all details of the Schofield report, nor do I wish to misrepresent it by highlighting only the critical aspects, but the criticisms are there. The criticisms are a warning against the obsessively ideological attitude that this Commonwealth government has had when it has been belting into the public institutions that have played so big a role in providing vocational education and training in the past. The report, in my opinion, is a warning against the blind adulation of any private institution just because it is private. This is the sort of attitude this minister and his government have taken in their mindless pursuit of economic rationalism and their inflicting it on any sector of public activity they can hand it over to. It is also up to the Commonwealth government to respond to the criticisms of its performance where there is a role for the Commonwealth as spelt out by the report.

I noted the comments of the Victorian Minister for Post Compulsory Education, Training and Employment, Ms Lynne Kosky, when the Schofield report was released in June this year. Ms Kosky said that the state government had agreed in principle to the report's findings, but she called on the federal government to take some responsibility for the training sector and match its rhetoric with dollars. Ms Kosky said at the time:

We've got a real concern that the Federal Government expects us to continue to grow the training system without additional dollars, and one of the reasons the Schofield review has raised concerns is because there has been a major encouragement to cut corners.

I am sure honourable members will take note of these criticisms by the report of the Kennett-Howard record in vocational education and training in Victoria. The same kinds of criticisms emerged in the Schofield reports on Tasmania and Queensland. They raise very serious questions about the quality of vocational education in Australia under the economic rationalist regimes of the federal coalition and its state coalition allies. That is why at the start of this speech I referred specifically to Labor's recently endorsed national platform as it relates to vocational education and training and especially to the issue of quality.

The present Prime Minister and his frontbench rubbish former Treasurer and Prime Minister Paul Keating at every opportunity, but what a dramatic contrast there is between the creativity that Mr Keating brought to the vocational education and training sector and the misery that Mr Howard and Dr Kemp show towards it today. Following the big steps forward taken under the Whitlam government for federal funding for vocational education and training, the succeeding conservative government of Malcolm Fraser slowed the momentum. The big leap forward was taken during the succeeding Labor government years—firstly, under Prime Minister Hawke then under Prime Minister Keating, who gave federal funding and federal commitment a major boost with the `One Nation' commitment. The result was that between the 1990-91 financial year and the last year of the Keating government, 1996, federal funding doubled.

The election of the Howard coalition government resulted in a loss of $240 million to the vocational education and training sector, and it meant the slashing of funds to the Australian National Training Authority and then the freezing of those funds for the three years to the present. Here we are today in this parliament still debating the hateful policies that this coalition government has towards vocational education and training. The Howard government has clearly learnt nothing.

Australia is a big country, but it has a little government with a little head. In that head, there is not vision but vitriol; it would rather revile than revive. Its leader would rather bury the achievements of the past than build for the future. That is why Australia needs a new Labor government and a new agenda for the nation an agenda which recognises the talents and hopes of Australians and the place that vocational training and education must play in achieving them.