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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 85

Senator MARSHALL (3:15 PM) —In answering my question today with respect to the skills shortage crisis that we are facing in this country, Senator Abetz put to me a very simple proposition, and he has just repeated it in his contribution. He put to us that the skills shortage is a direct result of the success of the Australian economy. If we want to accept that proposition, we have to accept that the success of the Australian economy is purely accidental, because the fundamental principles underlying any successful economy are all the other things that go to sustaining that successful economy—things such as forward planning for the skills to underpin future growth and forward planning to enable the economy to continue to grow and be sustainable.

If the government are saying that the skills shortage that we are now facing took us by surprise, that we are victims of our economic success, we can only conclude that they had no idea where the economy was going because they were not planning for any growth. They were not putting the necessary instruments, policies, procedures and money into the training that was needed in order to build the skills base of this country so we could maintain economic growth and continue to move forward. The other proposition the government want us to accept is that, all of a sudden, this is a surprise to them: they have only just realised it and they have been putting money into training—albeit in the wrong areas—over a long period of time.

These shortages have been well known for a long time. All the government had to do was to pick up some very well respected reports that they have relied on for other things in the past. For instance, they could have picked up a report put out in July 2003 by the Australian Expert Group in Industry Studies from the University of Western Australia. The government would not have had to read the whole report; they could have referred to the 1½ page conclusion. If they had picked this up back in 2003, maybe we would not be in the crisis we are in now. The report says:

Declining training rates have also reduced a source of full time job opportunities offering good career paths for young people. Had the training rate not declined nearly 19,000 additional job opportunities for young people aged 15-24 would be available.

This government, through their absolute inactivity in this area and their failure to see the signs or to put in place the proper planning to underpin constant economic growth in this country, have denied 19,000 young Australians a good career path—a high skilled, high paying career path. They ought to stand condemned for ignoring the signs and ignoring what all the experts were saying about skills shortages.

It was not only academics who were saying there were going to be skills shortages. The industry training boards, which are set up in every state and are nationally coordinated, have been saying this for many years. Back in the late 1990s they were saying that we were going to run into skills shortages in the second half of this decade. But was the government listening? Absolutely not. People were not just standing around doing nothing like the government was. Unions, for instance, could see the signs. They were reading the reports and listening to what the industry training boards were saying. They were setting up skills training centres and group apprenticeship training schemes, and they were driving skilled apprenticeship training across the country. But the government was doing nothing.

I want to give an example which I know a lot about, and that is the area of electrotechnology. In the year 2000, the Electrical Trades Union in Victoria negotiated with employers in the contracting industry a binding ratio in the certified agreements of one apprentice to be employed for every four tradespeople. They knew what was happening in terms of the skills shortage; but the government’s response was to make those clauses unallowable in certified agreements, so they could not be implemented. So it is not only through the government’s inactivity that we have a skills shortage; they actually impeded those who were trying to do something about it back in 2000. The government wanted to ignore it, they have ignored it, and now the economy is suffering. The brakes have been put on the economy because we do not have the skills capacity for it to continue to grow. This government ought to take complete responsibility for it.