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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19093

Dr THEOPHANOUS (12:29 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 that we are debating is an important bill, and we have the opportunity to discuss vocational education and training and what has happened in this area. Besides what is going on in the political debate on this issue, this is a very good example of just what happens when bureaucracy runs rife. It is even difficult to follow all of the various bureaucratic manoeuvres that have taken place in the attempted delivery of programs for vocational education and training. This is not the only area of government administration where we have problems in this country but, if one recalls some of the things that have been happening, one can see that it is a very good example of so much money being spent on bureaucratic nonsense where so little is achieved in outcomes.

I want to begin by saying something about the bill's actual funding measures. The bill's funding measures are a minuscule increase. One wonders why you would bother with a bill for such a minuscule increase on previous funding—$904.144 million to $908.352 million. That is a great increase, isn't it: a 1.57 per cent increase in a program which the government says is very critical to Australia's future. I mentioned how both the government and the opposition in this place are now struggling to get support from the community for their commitments to education and training. What happens? We see that, from the government's point of view, the commitment in terms of dollars is pathetic. It is not good enough. This is not the only problem, but I think it is a problem worth highlighting.

As colleagues, Labor people, have made it clear, the government in fact, when it came in, cut the funds of the Australian National Training Authority. One wonders what sort of message that was sending out to the Australian community. The whole ideal of the Australian National Training Authority—involving the participation of the federal government, the states and the territories—has not been working very well in recent times. In fact, one might say there has been a bit of a fiasco. Apparently there was a meeting of the ministerial council at the end of June in relation to the ANTA body, and the state governments came with one proposal and the federal minister came with another proposal. What you think they did? Do you think they worked out a positive resolution to the issues? Not at all. Each accused the other of not giving enough notice of their proposals. In fact, Dr David Kemp, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, accused the states of coming up with this idea `out of the blue'. But then he also produced his own idea for a new national quality assurance body for the VET system which had not been discussed with the states. One wonders why we pay the bureaucracies that run these bodies such huge amounts of money in order to come to outcomes like this.

I was appalled when I examined this and found out the details. It was only when I was researching this bill that I found out about these events. Although these issues and problems appeared in a couple of places in the newspapers, they were not publicised by the mainstream media. This is just another example of very real problems in government administration—especially when federal and state bodies are involved—and where things go wrong and where they are not sufficiently publicised in the Australian community. Obviously, it is the responsibility of parliamentarians to highlight these things, but it is also the responsibility of the mainstream media. They do not do a good enough job in these matters when administration goes haywire or gets stalled or when there are real problems with it. I have no idea what is going to happen now with these alternative proposals between the state ministers and the federal minister; I guess some compromise is being worked out. But why should the situation have reached this point, anyway?

It is important to note that one of the reasons why the states came up with a proposal is that there was a critical report on this country's performance in respect of vocational training and education. One might ask what happened to that report. It seems to have disappeared without a trace. Certainly it was not sufficiently publicised and of course the federal minister, Dr David Kemp, told us that there were absolutely no problems and that everything was going smoothly in relation to vocational education and training. He keeps talking about what a wonderful job he is doing. On that point, the minister would do well to have other people examine his performance and praise him for what he is doing, rather than constantly blowing his own trumpet in relation to these matters when there are such serious problems in vocational education and training in this country.

The report appeared and the state ministers raised a number of questions and made certain recommendations. For example, they talked about issues concerning clearer national standards for registered training organisations. They talked about making training package qualifications available immediately upon endorsement of the package, rather than having delays. They talked about amending user choice policies to ensure common regulatory arrangements. They talked about ensuring that all states and territories have necessary legislative provisions to underpin a consistent national framework. Can you believe that after so many years of ANTA we still do not have a consistent national framework? That is very interesting, isn't it? And here we have the federal minister telling us what a wonderful job he is doing. A start might be to try to get a consistent national framework, Minister, to try to get things done in this area instead of talking in general terms about what a great job you are doing.

Vocational education and training has to be rethought in this country from the start. The whole philosophy of vocational education and training has to be spelt out. There have to be consistent national standards. The country has to be informed about not only the aims of the government's policy but also what the federal and state governments agree on in relation to this matter. Let us get clear goals in place. Let us get a clear philosophy in place. Rather than arguing about a few of the technical issues in this matter, let us look for some vision. What are we trying to achieve in vocational education and training in this country? One of the things we are trying to achieve—and I would think every member of this House would agree—is that Australia should be able to keep up with international developments in newer technologies, new systems of learning, the computer revolution and the Internet. Australia should be able to use the latest technologies, and we should be able to train our people to have access to those technologies.

What does that involve? It involves vocational education and training not only for those who are out of work but also for those who are in work who wish to improve their skills and to move to other jobs either within their own company or organisation or outside their own company or organisation where there may be other opportunities for them. These kinds of training opportunities need to be made available to the work force in general, not just to some specific categories of individuals. The pace of change in the technological revolution that is taking place means that all of us need training and retraining throughout life. Why don't we actually think about this and put it into place? I think a good idea would be a government white paper addressing these issues of a vision for vocational education and training. As I said, it is not just a question for students or people who are unemployed; it is a question for all of us. With the pace of change that has taken place in the 21st century with respect to new technologies, with respect to the importance of not only information but also the ability to work with that information, to think about it, to use new forms of technology in relation to information—all of that is very important—we all need training and we all need training opportunities. So let us try to put that into place.

Let us try to overcome the bureaucratic nonsense that happened at the last meeting of the Australian National Training Authority, ANTA. Essentially what happened was that the federal government was attacked for not giving enough money, which is true, but the states had a new proposal which the federal government claimed it did not know anything about. So we had all this bureaucratic nonsense and hardly any progress on this very important matter. I think we also need to think about systems of delivery of training in this country. This government talks about how it is interested in flexibility—different arrangements whereby you can deliver training. But we are not actually using all the opportunities that are available. Sure we use TAFE colleges, and they do very well. We have the system of apprenticeships, which is a good system. We have some other forms of formal education. But one of the things the former Prime Minister Mr Keating tried to encourage was on-the-job training by employers.

How much are we doing at the moment to encourage this kind of thing? I do not think we are doing very much. If we are committed to keeping Australia at the forefront in education and training, especially in the area of changing technological developments, I think we need to bring in employers as part of this national commitment to training. There are some things being done in this area, but nowhere near enough. I talked about the possibility of a white paper. If there were such a white paper, one of the things that could follow from it is some kind of summit to discuss with employers, with trade unions, with governments and with other organisations in the community ways and means of making this issue of training and retraining a high priority in the consciousness of the nation. I think that is something that can be done. The federal government need to show some leadership on this. They ought to think about ways and means of making training an important issue in the consciousness of the people of this country. There are many countries around the world which are far ahead of us in this matter. There are many countries around the world which spend a lot more money on training and vocational education. But where they have succeeded even more than by the expenditure of money is in making the citizens of their nations aware of the importance of training and retraining in the modern world and of competing in the modern world, in the globalised economy. The government talk about their commitment to globalisation, especially economic globalisation. But how can we really be part of economic globalisation if the government are not serious about providing the dollars for the training and retraining of people in these important areas, especially when new technologies are being developed all the time?

I hope that the government will come to a point of rethinking its whole strategy and philosophy in this area; that it will try to involve everybody in the community—from schools right through to TAFEs, university systems, employers in the public and private sectors and even the general media—in the consciousness of the issues of training and retraining, the need for knowledge and information and the importance of ensuring that all our people have access to knowledge and information. I do not know if people read about this the other day, but the government of Singapore has just announced a program to make every single citizen, from young children to old people, computer literate so that they understand and are able to use computers. Obviously this involves a hell of a lot of training programs for people. This is a very ambitious program by the government of Singapore. I am not saying that Australia is at this point yet, but I am saying that it is an example of how far governments are prepared to go to ensure that training and retraining opportunities are there for all their citizens. I might say that this includes citizens who are not working anymore but who can make a contribution to their society by having access to training opportunities, particularly in the use of new technologies.

I hope that the minister will take on board the spirit of my comments, which essentially is constructive. Let us have commitments from the major parties in this parliament to education and training, especially from the government. Let us see a new vision, let us see some action, let us see more resources in next year's budget than were supplied in this year's budget for opportunities for vocational education and training, and let us encourage a much greater consciousness in the Australian community of the importance of these matters. (Time expired)