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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 32622

Ms LIVERMORE (7:10 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004 provides for an appropriation which will give effect to the fall-back deal reached between the Minister for Education, Science and Training and the state and territory governments earlier this year following the failure by the federal government to offer adequate growth funding for ANTA in negotiations for the new ANTA agreement.

Since 1992 the Australian National Training Authority, or ANTA, has been the means by which the Commonwealth government has allocated its funding to the states and territories to support them in their role as the providers and administrators of vocational education and training. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 provides for the maximum amount of vocational education and training funding for distribution by the Australian National Training Authority to the states and territories for capital and recurrent purposes and for national projects.

The bill we are debating this evening amends the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act to reduce the appropriated limit of total funds for vocational education and training to be provided to ANTA for distribution to the states and territories for 2004 from $1.136 billion to $1.129 billion to reflect the outcome of the ANTA negotiations. It will also appropriate funds for vocational education and training to be provided to ANTA for distribution to the states and territories for the year 2005 up to a limit of $1.148 billion.

This is the latest episode in the long running saga that is the new ANTA agreement. It is a saga that seems strangely out of place in a country that has been grappling with the problem of skills shortages across a range of trades and industries for some years. It is a saga that seems to ignore the scale of unmet demand for TAFE places in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from December 2002, an estimated 40,000 people nationally, including 15,000 school leavers, had missed out on a TAFE place. That figure has continued to grow each year.

Once again, the Howard government has approached the negotiations over the ANTA agreement not as an opportunity to work with the states and territories to address the serious and growing issues facing vocational education and training but as yet another chance to play politics and duck responsibility in this very important policy area. How could the government be serious about vocational education and training and the vital role it plays in creating a skilled work force and a competitive nation when the government went to the states and territories last year and kicked off negotiations for the new ANTA agreement with not one cent of growth funding on the table for the life of the 2004-06 agreement? As the shadow minister pointed out in the debate over last year's VET Funding Amendment Bill, at a time when the ANTA agreement was similarly stalled over the minister's denial of growth funding:

... the Howard government has not given one extra cent for TAFE in six out of the nine years it has been negotiating ANTA agreements, despite the record growth.

We have seen the results of this government's longterm neglect and underfunding of vocational education and training in this country. As I said before, anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 people have been shut out of TAFE each year, with places not keeping pace with demand. This country has a youth unemployment rate stuck at over 20 per cent, and we have growing skill shortages that threaten our nation's productivity and competitive advantage. With such a track record, imagine our surprise in the Labor Party when we thought the government had finally grasped the importance of training and skills development. On 6 April this year, we thought that there was going to be a historic movement. We thought the minister was going to announce a policy that we could wholeheartedly endorse. The minister's opening remarks started off well:

Today I am announcing a National Skills Shortages Strategy to address skills shortages in critical industries throughout Australia and also a `one-stop shop' web based site for students, parents and industry on skill shortage careers ...

The new Strategy will take an industry approach to skill needs and tackle many of the significant disincentives which can turn young people away from choosing trades as a career.

I am sure we would all agree they were great words, but unfortunately what followed was just more words. It turns out that the minister was not promising a real program of investment in the critical area of skill shortages; it was merely a bunch of words that he strung together and was bravely calling a strategy.

There are many times in this place when politics override good policies, but surely in black-and-white cases such as this one, where we are talking about providing opportunities for young Australians to get skills which enable them to get a job, we in this House should all be united. Yet here we are, for the second time in as many years, having to move an amendment to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act, because for another year the Howard government has again refused to do the right thing and invest in Australia's future. It is for that reason that I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for:

(1) failing to finalise the ANTA agreement;

(2) failing to adequately index funding for Vocational Education and Training to reflect real increases;

(3) failing to meet skill shortages, in critical industry areas;

(4) failing to guarantee young Australians a secure future; and

(5) failing to assist older workers upgrade or retrain”.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Gavan O'Connor —I second the amendment.

Ms LIVERMORE —I move this amendment because I believe it is important that these issues are addressed as a core function of government. Vocational education and training is crucial to Australian society and the economy. Everyone seems to know this bar the minister for education and training. Every year, more than one in 10 Australians aged over 15 years study in the vocational education and training system. There were 1.7 million students enrolled in vocational education and training in 2002, including over 1.3 million in the public TAFE system.

TAFE not only provides entry level vocational education and training for young people and further education and training for older workers but also provides second chance and recurrent education for socially and economically disadvantaged Australians. Yet under the Howard government TAFE has been savaged. In 1996 and 1997, the Howard government cut the TAFE budgets, then between 1998 and 2000 the Commonwealth government froze funding from this reduced base. There was a modest increase between 2001 and 2003, but that turned out to be the only touch of sunshine, because the Commonwealth has provided no additional growth funds for TAFE in 2004. This means that more than 50,000 people will miss out on a TAFE place this year. At the same time, many Australian industries are facing serious skill shortages, especially in the traditional trades.

The problem of skill shortages was the subject of an inquiry last year by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education. That committee received 103 submissions and held hearings across the country, including in most capital cities and regional centres—from Gladstone to Newcastle, Cairns, Launceston and Port Augusta just to name a few. It is clear that the issue of skill shortages is a concern for everyone, and it seems that everyone is speaking out about it. For example, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry state:

Australian firms are greatly concerned at their (in)capacity to recruit employees with appropriate levels of skills, and retaining skilled employees, with such pressures being particularly acute in regional and rural Australia.

The Australian Industry Group say that over half of Australian businesses surveyed currently face skill shortages. Regional businesses in New South Wales say that 60 per cent of them currently face skill shortages. They are the most acutely impacted, followed by businesses in regional Victoria, where 48 per cent of them show skill shortages, and Queensland, where the number is 41 per cent. Heather Ridout, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, spelled out the scale of the problem when she said:

Over the next 5 years, 175,000 workers are expected to leave the traditional trades with only 70,000 going to enter.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's survey of investor confidence for July 2004 sounded the warning. It said:

For only the second time in the history of the survey Business Taxes and Charges ... has been removed from its position as the foremost constraint on investment. Taking number one position for the first time is the Availability of Suitably Qualified Employees ... A much tighter labour market for skilled workers has seen this constraint rise from fifth highest just a year ago to second position in January and April, then finally to first in the current quarter.

I would like to add one more quote to this list—and it tells a much more damning story of the government's failure in the area of vocational education and training. It comes from a young man from Mount Isa who, earlier this year, was given a historic opportunity to be the first non-party member to address the Labor Party's national conference. He was given the opportunity because his message is so vital. His message clearly states why Australia needs a Labor government that is dedicated to providing opportunity for all. This is what he told the ALP national conference:

While industry is still the lifeblood of Mt Isa, there seems to be little interest in youth training. Throughout Australia, industry screams for qualified tradespeople, but they don't ensure their on-going future by training their own pool of qualified staff. Our local newspaper recently ran a front-page story about bringing tradesmen from Russia to fill the local shortage, yet this year's MIM apprentice intake was just 23 with only seven of these being school-leavers. The other 16 were adult apprentices. As these numbers are considerably higher than in the past few years, perhaps taking on twenty-three can be seen as an achievement, but when I look at how few of my friends have something positive to look forward to, I can't understand why we're not questioning what's gone wrong ...

He went on to say:

Many of my friends aren't high achievers academically, but they're great with their hands and would make excellent tradesmen, but they're becoming increasingly dispirited, believing they're never going to get a start.

The Minister for Education, Science and Training has great aspirations for himself—we can all see those in question time on most days—but what a shame he does not support aspiration in others. I know there are still claims in the community that both major political parties are the same and that politics is no longer a clash of ideas, but you just need to look at the budget and the budget reply to see just how vastly different we are.

During his budget reply the Leader of the Opposition announced Labor's youth guarantee `learn or earn'. This initiative represents Labor's initial enhancement to Australia's employment services system and will target early school leavers aged 15 to 18. Labor's youth guarantee is a preventative program which aims to ensure that no 15- to 18yearolds leave school early and move onto unemployment benefits. To accomplish this goal, the youth guarantee will provide additional in-school support for at-risk young people. Labor will abolish TAFE fees for VET in Schools. We will expand outside school opportunities through having more TAFE places and apprenticeships and a jobs gateway, which will allow young people to gain accredited training while working for a regular employer for up to two years. Whichever option a young person decides on, they will receive one-on-one support, advice and encouragement from a training mentor to ensure that they stick with it. This intensive level of support is what distinguishes the youth guarantee from current programs.

To assist today's teenage job seekers the youth guarantee will also enhance the Job Network in areas with very high unemployment. The labour market disadvantage confronting early school leavers cannot be overstated. Research reveals that, seven years after leaving school, only seven per cent of all year 12 leavers are unemployed. By comparison, 21 per cent of young men who left school early are unemployed and for young women the unemployment rate hovers around 60 per cent. To date, the government's critique of the youth guarantee has varied. Some in the government have complained that it has not been introduced soon enough, while others deny that there is, in fact, a youth unemployment problem. For the benefit of those government members who are in the chamber this evening, I would remind them of some of the more uninformed assertions coming from some government ministers. The best one came from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Larry Anthony, who claimed on 14 May that Labor was merely manufacturing a youth crisis. It is beyond me how he can substantiate that claim when each year 45,000 young people leave school without going into work or training.

We now come to what was in the government's budget. There was no guarantee for young people and not one penny more to assist them in the challenges they face as they seek pathways into careers and training, nor was there a plan to alleviate Australia's growing shortage of skilled workers—a problem that, if not addressed, threatens the country's future economic development. According to Group Training Australia, an organisation that has made a significant contribution to skilling Australia, there are currently national skill shortages in all key trades including all the engineering trades, all the vehicle trades, all the construction trades, all the food trades as well as in electrical, electronics, printing, wood, hairdressing and furniture upholstering. The Australian Industry Group, in its submission to the skills inquiry of the Senate, reported that over half of the businesses surveyed face skill shortages. Unfortunately the plight of these employers is only likely to worsen. As we heard earlier from the chief executive of the AiG, over the next five years 175,000 workers are expected to leave the traditional trades, with only 70,000 expected to enter. That is a huge challenge for this country and one that must be addressed by the government.

It is absurd that, at a time when more than one in five teenagers is looking for full-time work, we have businesses crying out for skilled workers. The New Apprenticeships system is not addressing effectively acute skill shortages in the economy and providing young Australians with the qualifications that will improve their longterm career prospects. While the Minister for Education, Science and Training regularly boasts that under his government the number of people undertaking apprenticeships and traineeships has doubled, he fails to point out that most of this growth has occurred in industries such as retail and fast food. At the same time as much of the growth in new apprenticeship numbers has occurred in these service industries, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has identified skill shortages across a range of traditional trade occupations including carpentry, plumbing, cabinet making, panel beating and metal fabrication.

At a time when many communities in this country are experiencing high levels of unemployment, we have businesses crying out for skilled workers. This situation is nothing short of irrational, and it is a direct result of government policy and neglect. This emerging skills crisis has been caused by the financial incentive structure put in place by the Commonwealth government. This budget does nothing to rebalance these incentives towards the traditional trades and other areas of skill shortages. Labor recognises the importance of skills formation for manufacturing. This is why a Latham Labor government will focus the work of ANTA on offering quality apprenticeships that lead to real skills and real jobs. Currently, only a fraction of apprenticeships are in the traditional trades. A key element of the Latham Labor government economic strategy will be in this important area of skills development.

If the truth is that Australia cannot compete with nations like China and India by driving down our wages, we have to drive up our skills. We have to invest in our people and their capacities for the future. In the modern economy, fewer jobs are based on machine and muscle power. It is brain power that is the resource of a new economy. We have to ensure that as industries become less resource intensive and more knowledge intensive we invest in the knowledge skills of the future. Labor has outlined a plan for lifelong learning. This is not just about TAFE and research, it is not just about the skills that come in the post-secondary years; it has to be a comprehensive program of lifelong learning in all parts of the country.

Labor have outlined our plans for early childhood development: investing early to build the skills base for literacy and the reading capacity for children even before they get to school and then, when they get to school, to ensure there is needs based school funding. We must ensure that we are getting the resources to schools that need the funding the most, to get away from the inequities of the Howard government's funding plan and back to the needs based resourcing of our schools. But a Labor government's support will not end there. As I have already outlined, our Youth Guarantee will kick in at the age of 15 to assist young people on to the various pathways to a career, ensuring that all young people will have a chance to learn or earn. In addition, Labor will create 20,000 extra university places plus reverse the government's 25 per cent increase in HECS. We will create an extra 20,000 TAFE places and our Youth Guarantee will provide 45,000 new opportunities for our young people. This is the great neglect of the Howard government, and it was the issue we focused on last year when the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill was before the House.

As I said earlier, every year in Australia 45,000 young people drop out of school early. They do not go on to full-time work or training and they have not got the opportunities available by which they can do something useful and constructive in their lives. We are going to provide those extra 45,000 opportunities and then demand that young people take responsibility and get stuck in and make good use of the TAFE places, the apprenticeships, the training opportunities and the subsidised jobs to ensure we can bring down those crippling unemployment and youth unemployment rates in many parts of the country.

Labor has a comprehensive program of investing in our people and investing in skills. It is the smartest thing we can do as a nation, it is the smartest thing for economic and social reasons and it is the key to a brighter future for all of us. Labor will invest in the skills and opportunities, repairing the damage caused by eight years of Howard government cutbacks in training and education. Labor will also help the jobless back into work. More than 370,000 Australians are now long-term unemployed, meaning that they have been on the dole for more than 12 months. Many of those people are mature age workers who have been made unemployed or redundant. But, more than ever, Australia needs the talents and experience of mature age workers.

In recent years we have seen too many mature age Australians falling into unemployment and becoming dependent on income support or drifting out of the labour force entirely. A third of Australians aged between 50 and 64 years are on income support, and nearly one in two Australians aged between 55 and 64 years are not in the labour force. Too many Australians are finding that if they lose their job later in life they never regain employment. With an ageing population and growing skills shortages in key industries, wasting the skills and experience of mature age Australians is not an option. Our package, `Greater Security, More Opportunities for Mature Age Australians' will help more Australians over 45 years of age get the skills and support they need to stay in the work force.

A Latham Labor government will establish mature age career centres to assist mature age Australians get back to work; provide a rapid assistance service for workers who are displaced or about to be displaced due to large scale or regional retrenchment—something we are familiar with in my electorate after the closure of Lakes Creek Meatworks a couple of years ago; establish a training partnerships fund to encourage employers to retrain and reskill mature age employees; earmark 2,500 new TAFE places each year for Australians over 45 years old; develop new procedures for formally recognising the skills and experience of mature age Australians when they attain new qualifications; fund an additional 500 places in the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, earmarked for mature age job seekers who do not receive income support; provide a $2,000 learning bonus to mature age job seekers who take up an apprenticeship or traineeship in an area of skill shortage; deploy 125 mature age workplace trainers in key industries to develop and implement workplace training plans; implement community programs to improve adult literacy levels; support mature age workers to undertake nationally accredited training in information technology; and establish Job Network providers that specialise in assisting mature age job seekers. That package—`Greater Security, More Opportunities for Mature Age Australians'—is a fully costed and funded $212.4 million investment in Australia's mature age work force and will help address the challenges of an ageing population.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you can see from these initiatives I have just outlined that the area of vocational education and training is yet another example of the Labor opposition doing the government's work for it. We are the ones who have identified the problems, which are the legacy of eight years of the Howard government. I have already mentioned them in detail: persistent high levels of long-term unemployment; shameful levels of youth unemployment; too many young people dropping out of school without going on to a job or further education; unmet demand for TAFE places; thousands of mature age workers who have found themselves unemployed, while their skills and experience go to waste; and skills shortages that threaten our productivity now and our capacity to compete in the high-skill knowledge economy that is just around the corner.

The current situation represents too many wasted lives and too many wasted opportunities for this country. We can no longer afford complacency in the face of these problems. Labor have once again shown that we are the party that will accept the challenges facing Australia, we are the party with a vision for this country's future and we are the party with policies like the Youth Guarantee, the plan for getting the over-45s retrained and back to work, and the plan for boosting resources for the TAFE system—policies that place vocational education and training right at the centre of our vision for a prosperous and competitive country where every citizen can realise their potential and where our standard of living is secured into the future.