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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 116


Senator COLBECK (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (5:34 PM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

Health Insurance Amendment (100% Medicare Rebate and Other Measures) Bill 2004

This Government is committed to protecting and strengthening Medicare and delivering high quality, affordable health care to all Australians.

The measures in the Health Insurance Amendment (100% Medicare Rebate and Other Measures) Bill 2004 will make medical services more affordable in two ways.

Firstly, the Medicare benefit (or Medicare rebate) for general practitioner (GP) services will be increased from 85% to 100% of the Medicare schedule fee. This increase will take effect from 1 January 2005.

All patients will benefit from this measure. While bulk billing remains the choice of individual doctors, GPs will be supported to bulk bill more of their patients. Where GPs decide not to bulk bill, patients will have lower out-of-pocket costs after they receive the higher Medicare rebate. For a standard GP surgery consultation, this will mean an increase in the Medicare rebate of $4.60 for each patient visit.

Through this measure, the Government is investing more than $1.7 billion over four years to make GP services more affordable to all Australians.

The measure will be complemented by an increase in the fees paid by the Department of Veterans' Affairs for GP services provided to eligible veterans and war widows. The Government has announced that the fees paid to Local Medical Officers will be increased from 100% to 115% of the equivalent Medicare fee plus the Veterans Access Payment. This will maintain the relativities between the Medicare and Department of Veterans' Affairs fee scales.

The measure also builds on other recent Government initiatives aimed at making GP services more affordable, such as the bulk billing incentives targeted at Commonwealth concession card holders and children aged under 16.

Secondly, eligibility for the extended Medicare safety net at the $300 threshold will be confirmed for all families that are eligible for Family Tax Benefit Part A (FTB(A)). The extended Medicare safety net covers 80% of the out-of-pocket costs for Medicare services provided outside hospital, once an annual threshold is met. The Health Insurance Act currently specifies that, for the purposes of the extended Medicare safety net, a $300 safety net threshold applies to concession card holders and FTB(A) families.

It has become apparent that there are some families who are eligible for FTB(A), who do not fall within the definition of FTB(A) family. These families are not recognised as eligible for the lower safety net threshold of $300 under the current legislation (unless they are also concessional).

The Government's original policy intention was that all families who are eligible for FTB(A) payments, would also be eligible for the lower safety net threshold. This amendment will allow the Minister to determine that additional families are FTB(A) families and will ensure that all families who are eligible for FTB(A) are eligible for the lower safety net threshold.

Australia has one of the best health systems in the world. For the past 20 years, Medicare has provided Australians with essential protection through affordable access to medical, pharmaceutical and hospital services. Through the measures in this Bill, the Government is making a further substantial investment to strengthen Medicare and support affordable access to high-quality health care.

—————

Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004

The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill would appropriate a total of $1.15 billion as the Australian Government's contribution to the States and Territories for vocational education and training in 2005.

Vocational education and training underpins the competitiveness of our industries in an increasingly global market and it is vital to ensure Australia's continued economic growth.

The Howard Government's commitment to vocational education and training is illustrated by the significant funding provided through this Bill and the new initiatives announced this year, particularly addressing skills shortages.

In 2004-05 this Government will spend a total of $2.1 billion on vocational education and training, of which more than $725 million will go to supporting New Apprenticeships through programmes including New Apprenticeships Incentives.

We have also announced new measures in our election commitments to a total value of $1.06 billion over 4 years. This is one of the most significant boosts to vocational education and training ever undertaken by any government.

The Government's integrated and comprehensive suite of policies will ensure that the value of the trades is enhanced as a career path. We will:

establish 24 Australian Technical Colleges in regions suffering serious skill shortages and high rates of youth unemployment. These will provide expanded opportunities for students wanting a career in the trades;

set-up an Australian Network of Industry Careers Advisers to provide better advice on career opportunities;

provide greater financial assistance for New Apprentices through the Commonwealth Trade Learning Scholarship, Tool Kits and Residential Support for New Apprentices; and

develop new industry initiatives to build our skills base for the future.

My appointment as Minister for Vocational and Technical Education to oversee the implementation of these policies, demonstrates the high priority that this Government places on meeting the skills needs of industry.

The Australian Government's strong economic management over the past nine years and the resulting record levels of employment, have resulted in an increased demand by industry for skilled workers.

We are working directly with industry on tailoring strategies to address areas of skills shortages, particularly in traditional trades, and emerging skills needs. In April 2004, the Government launched its National Skills Shortages Strategy, committing up to $4 million for this financial year. In addition, the Government provides more than $510 million in incentives each year to employers opening up opportunities for training-related employment through New Apprenticeships.

Too often a message is sent to young Australians and others in the workforce that a career in a trade is not as valued as a university qualification. The Australian Government rejects this view and, since 1996, has invigorated vocational education and training—with record numbers in training, record numbers in New Apprenticeships and significant progress made towards developing a high quality, truly national system.

The latest figures show that in 2003 there were more than 1.7 million students in VET. This represents more than 12% of Australia's working age population.

We are also seeing record numbers of people completing New Apprenticeships. There were 132,400 completions in the twelve months to March 2004, up 12% from the previous year. Today New Apprenticeships are available in more than 500 occupations, including emerging industries such as aeroskills, electrotechnology, information technology and telecommunications.

Australians of all ages are benefiting from the Government's successful vocational education and training policies. Last year, more than 200,000 senior secondary students enrolled in a VET course, reflecting the outstanding success of VET-in-schools programmes, which are now available in more than 95% of Australia's secondary schools.

At the same time, older people are very well represented in vocational education and training. In 2003, 30% of all vocational education and training students were 40 years and over.

The Prime Minister has announced that from July 2005 the responsibilities of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) will be taken into the Department of Education, Science and Training. ANTA was established in 1992 to coordinate the levels of government in establishing a truly national vocational education and training system. Today, this national system, with industry leadership, is in place.

After 12 years of successful national work, we want to ensure a smooth transition of arrangements that builds on the work of ANTA and the collaboration of Australian, State and Territory governments, with industry, and training providers.

The Government will establish a Ministerial Council on Vocational Education to ensure the continued harmonisation of a national system of standards, assessment and accreditation, with its goals to be recognised through a Commonwealth-State Funding Agreement.

While administrative arrangements will change from July 2005, as ANTA functions are moved to my Department, this Bill will provide the Commonwealth funding required to support Australia's world class vocational education and training system in 2005.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Buckland) adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.