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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5621

Senator CARR (4:56 PM) —I move the following amendment:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate condemns the Government for:

(a) failing to develop comprehensive transition strategies to assist young people, thereby abandoning at least 205 300 15 to 19 year olds, placing them at risk of not making a successful transition from school to work;

(b) failing to keep its election promise to young people to provide a comprehensive response in the 2002 Budget to the Youth Pathways Report;

(c) failing to address youth unemployment, which is on the rise;

(d) refusing to acknowledge the substantial adverse impact that the Government's welfare reform initiatives are having on TAFE;

(e) failing to take a holistic approach to the needs of Indigenous Australians, resulting in a decline in participation in courses leading to a qualification; and

(f) the Minister's double standards in espousing concern for the welfare of young Australians but failing to take any meaningful action to invest in their training needs, and

further notes that state and territory Labor governments have made significant achievements in the implementation of vocational education and training in schools while the Commonwealth has refused to provide growth funding, making the Labor states and territories the leaders in this field.”

Senator CARR —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 is one of those bills that provides for the normal indexation arrangements to be paid for the forthcoming year and to increase the subsequent base funding for the subsequent year. Within that framework, it provides for an additional $24 million, which is nothing more than the funds made available for normal price adjustments. Other measures associated with this bill are incorporated within the base funding. Notwithstanding that, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, in his second reading speech on this bill, said:

This record level of funding provided to the States and Territories for their vocational education and training systems in 2003 is a demonstration of the Commonwealth's commitment to a strong national vocational education and training system.

I would like to deal with that issue at some length in this second reading debate. Frankly, the proposition that the minister puts forward is disingenuous at best. It is a miserable commitment by the government with regard to the total quantum. It is a measure of the government's failure to address the fundamental problems within vocational education and training in this country—in particular, the unsatisfactory efficiencies policy that was pursued by the former minister and continued as a consequence of the growth funding agreement entered into with the states last year. It was a proposition which saw that growth funding was included—which was a backdown by the government with regard to their original position that no growth funding would be provided—but on terms and conditions which were unsatisfactory to meet the needs of the system.

We have before us a bill that, in effect, allows for indexation arrangements of 1.6 per cent. I remind the Senate that the 1.6 per cent indexation figure that applies to vocational education compares with the 2.2 per cent figure that applies to the university system and the 5.7 per cent that applies to the schools system. You can see in those terms that the vocational education system in this country is at a disadvantage by comparison with other sectors within education itself.

The statement that the minister makes that the Commonwealth is committed to `a strong national vocational education and training system' is one that I would like to pay particular attention to. The government has had before it legal advice for many years that indicates that the present administrative arrangements do not have a legal foundation which would stand up to serious challenge in a court of law. Details of the requirement were of course contained in the report Aspiring to excellence, which was brought down in the Senate in November 2000. That followed fairly detailed examination of the evidence presented to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee, in particular the evidence of the legal opinions, of which there are a number, from the legal firm Minter Ellison. They were commissioned by the government in response to persistent complaints from all the major players within the vocational education system that the present arrangements were unsatisfactory. In fact, as far back as 1998, the state ministers and the CEOs of the various training authorities across Australia acknowledged that there were serious legal questions underpinning the quality assurance regime within vocational education in this country. So the government has known for four years that the legal foundations of the vocational education system in this country have been open to serious challenge.

The government's response to this serious legal advice was that a committee name change should occur and that there be a series of processes entered into with the states to highlight the need for change. So there was a recognition that the legal advice was sound, and understandings were reached about the need for urgent action in achieving what was said to be a fully integrated, high quality national vocational education system. You have to bear in mind that that legal advice was undertaken at Minister Kemp's direction, and it specifically excluded consideration of any legislative framework being undertaken through this parliament. It proposed in essence that, given the need to have national consistency and given the increasingly national nature of our economy, a series of model clause agreements should be entered into across Australia by the various states and territories. We soon discovered— and we said it at the time—that that approach was not likely to produce results quickly.

Let me come back to the original proposition. We have a national economy. We treat ourselves as one nation and talk of ourselves as being a nation. Yet we do not have an education system that underpins our economy and allows for basic vocational education to be undertaken on a nationally consistent basis. I put the view that, if you are a tradesman or tradeswoman or a highly skilled worker, you are entitled to have qualifications that mean something no matter where you go within this country. For instance, if you are a fitter or an automotive mechanic and you have a certificate IV, that certificate should have the same standing no matter where you are within the country. It should have the same level of skills, the same level of competencies, and be a qualification that is accepted wherever you go. Frankly, if you think about this in terms of our international relations these days, it is important for workers to have qualifications that can be recognised outside this country as well.

So, increasingly, a large number of companies and organisations are suggesting that they need to have qualifications that can be understood from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. That is clearly not the case at the moment. Take for instance the last ministerial council meeting, held I think in May this year. On page 5 of a paper entitled Achieving fully integrated, high quality national vocational education and training systems it is stated:

Notwithstanding the worthwhile gains in quality and national consistency, feedback from enterprises is that the complexity of arrangements across jurisdictions, particularly in the area of New Apprenticeships, is still acting as a major inhibitor to further engagement. This is particularly evident where companies need to understand systems and transact business across jurisdictions but also applies within single jurisdictions given the range of players, complexity of systems and constant rate of change. This is reported to have led many companies previously operating as enterprise RTOs to move towards the use of intermediaries (which include public and private RTOs, training brokers, national ITABs, and Group Training Companies) and partnership arrangements with other RTOs. At the same time, these intermediaries—despite being system experts—also have considerable difficulty working across borders.

The government acknowledged that these problems had emerged and that, despite the transition of a period now of four years, no one state in this great Commonwealth had actually picked up the model clause arrangements—no one state. In fact, at the last MINCO it was proposed that at the next MINCO meeting there be a discussion on what progress might be made towards a legislative response. Not all the states and territories signed up to that either. Some significant jurisdictions reserved their opinion.

Having acknowledged that there were serious problems, the government set in place a special report through ANTA—it is called the troubleshooter report—on national consistency. It is quite contemporary, dating from May this year for a report due in November. It said that there were:

varying training plan requirements

variations in nominal duration of apprenticeships and traineeships

varying certification arrangement on completion of the apprenticeship/traineeship

differing approaches in access to apprenticeships/traineeships for existing employees

varied recognition of enterprise Training Packages for New Apprenticeships

the need to understand and address non-completion rates, the treatment of casual employees and continuing apprentices/trainees

differing approaches to the movement of apprentices and trainees across borders

difficulties where a national client seeks to use one RTO across jurisdictions under User Choice, and

the need to develop an agreed approach to the identification and presentation of information given the recent proliferation of websites.

We have not even got national agreement yet on the training package arrangements. I am talking about effective operation, not the mealy-mouthed approach that has been taken. I am talking about the effective operation of our vocational education system in this country at this time. And what is the government's response? `We'll have another working party.' Another working party! After spending four years on a fundamental legal problem which every major employer and every major interest group in this country knows about, the government's response was to get legal advice which says, `You must exclude the possibility of a national legislative response to this problem, because we are going to rely upon providing a model clauses approach with the agreement of the states and territories.' And what evidence or outcomes have we seen? We have seen very little indeed.

We do not even have agreement on mutual recognition yet. The only change that has effectively occurred is that the current framework has had its name changed. It is now called the Australian Quality Training Framework, the AQTF, which replaces the former ARF. What a tremendous achievement! What startling progress! This is what we call a truly national vocational education scheme! Isn't that what the minister said? He said we have a strong national vocational training system. It strikes me that either the minister's second reading address is based on a profound ignorance of what is actually occurring—clearly not supported by the ministerial council documents which the minister presumably was given this year and which the department has presumably advised him on in terms of the progress towards the next MINCO, to be held in November—or, alternatively, the minister is being disingenuous.

It strikes me that there are serious misgivings about the capacity for this minister to get on top of these issues. It strikes me that what we have seen is testimony to a broader problem within vocational education, which is that the reform agenda has effectively stalled. There has been no significant movement in vocational education and training in regard to the reform agenda for the better part of 18 months. It stopped in the six-month run-up to the last election just after the agreement on the future funding formula was struck and it has not moved forward since that time. There has been some discussion on the questions in this bill, including the question of disabilities. There is a Senate inquiry that is currently under way that Senator Tierney and I are serving on.

Senator Allison —I am on that committee too.

Senator CARR —Senator Allison, my apologies—I did not see you there. We have an inquiry looking into the question of disabilities. Disabilities are referred to in the minister's second reading speech as well. It indicates that the government is providing additional resources within the base funding. There is no additional allocation. There is no specific purpose payment within this appropriation. It is just indicated that within the base funding there will be money made available for disabilities. In regard to ANTA's performance on disabilities, 3.3 per cent of working age people with a disability participate in VET, which is a very small rate of participation. It strikes me that this is another issue that requires quite urgent attention. VET provides assistance for people who are disadvantaged in many ways and gives them a second chance of education, as well as providing the foundation for the development of a skilled work force in this country. In light of this, 3.3 per cent is a figure that one should not be proud of. I see nothing in this provision that will seriously improve that number. It strikes me that there is a clear problem there as well.

The issue of employer incentives is another matter that was referred to in the minister's second reading speech. This is a problem that has been with us for many years. It is a bit like the tax avoidance industry. One has to pay constant attention to the abuses of employer incentives. The government proposes additional money to go towards employer incentives, to encourage more employers to take people on. A pamphlet distributed by a company called Business and Corporate Training Services says:

How many of your staff attract the $4400 Government Grant?

Train your staff and make money at the same time! The Government is currently giving grants of up to $4,400-$5,400 per employee to employers, and providing National Accredited Qualifications—ON THE JOB.

This is available for all staff, regardless of how long they have worked for your company.

It goes on to say that the areas include:

Business ...

Front Line Management (for all supervisors) ...

Information Technology (for anyone who uses a computer)

Finance (for all accounts and administration staff)

Retail Operations ...

Business Administration ...

And so on and so forth. It seems to me that the issue of employer incentives does require constant supervision. It strikes me that this is another example of where there is a misuse of the employer incentive program. It is not supposed to be a wage subsidy. It is not supposed to be a means by which you substitute the payment of workers for arrangements in which:

The training is delivered on your premises once a month, and the rebates are paid directly into your business bank account.

It is supposed to be a mechanism whereby you are subsidised for the training costs. It is not supposed to be a wage subsidy, as this document would suggest. I have moved a second reading amendment to this bill because I am concerned that a range of matters require considerable attention and have not been picked up within this bill. We are particularly concerned about the way in which young people are being treated by this government. The government has not provided in the budget an appropriate comprehensive response to the Youth Pathways report, particularly with regard to the VET in schools program. Despite its growing usage, the program has a number of issues that require further attention—in particular, the role of schools in RTOs, the way in which they are being used at the moment and the capacity to provide high-quality training for what is approaching, I understand on the projection, some 70 per cent of students in years 11 and 12 by 2004. We are concerned about the way in which the VET in schools program is being implemented, and we would like to see further action there.

There is also concern about Indigenous people's participation rates within the VET program, and we are very concerned about the decline in the number of people under this government who are participating both in higher education and in vocational education. This is a government that has a shameful record in vocational education and training. It has failed our young people; it has failed older workers; it has failed the national economy in the development of nationally consistent arrangements to protect the quality of vocational education qualifications in this country; it has presided over falling completion rates; it has seen a significant number of people encouraged to take on dead-end training packages, particularly at the certificates 1 and 2 levels; and it has done little in the way of developing policies to ensure that there is a training reform agenda in this country which is broadly based and attracts support right across the community. I am afraid that this minister does not seem to have his heart in this particular aspect of his portfolio. (Time expired)