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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 1567

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations) (12:22 PM) —I thank all senators for their contributions—it has actually been a good debate. I appreciate the support around the chamber for the measure, if not for the actual vote on the bills. I point out, particularly to Senator Mason, that there were only two points in his speech which I did not agree with enthusiastically: one where he failed to take responsibility, on behalf of the former Liberal government, for the disarray that occurred in the management of student affairs, which led this government to have to deal with that problem when we came to office in 2007, where successive cabinet submissions by relevant ministers in the former government to act on this problem were ignored. Nevertheless, it was a political defence he put up in defence of his great former leader, Mr Howard, of whom I know he was so fond and proud.

The other point was that after making the case very cogently for the bill, he said, ‘We’re going to vote against it.’ I think this is where the opposition are getting themselves in a bit of strife. They accept the need for a national VET regulator. Their colleagues in the New South Wales parliament—the Liberals and the Nationals, even, in fact, the Greens—all supported these bills. They say, ‘Everyone supports the National VET Regulator, but somehow we can’t quite bring ourselves to vote for it.’ Well, that is an issue for them. I do say that the work done by the Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations was positive. I appreciate Senator Back’s contribution, but then again he got to the point of saying, ‘Let’s do nothing, let’s defer it, let’s go back to square 1.’ That is clearly a recipe for inaction.

I remind senators that this is about ensuring ‘brand Australia’ in international education is protected. For too long, people have refused to face the reality of the abuse that was occurring in the international education system in this country. Too many people failed to act. Too many people, both in the former Liberal government and in the Victorian government, were in denial about the problems. But this government has acted to try and address those concerns. I think everyone now accepts that brand Australia is affected every time we have a problem in education in this country. If a small vocational education college with a dubious record falls over, the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia and the major TAFEs in this country all pay the price in terms of their marketing of international education and their reputation. This is a very important bill to address those issues. It is part of what we are doing both here and with TEQSA and is totally consistent with what we have done with the ESOS Act. I point out to Senator Xenophon, on the question of powers and the suggestion of using the powers of the Fair Work Act, that the powers in this bill are consistent with those in the ESOS Act, an act we have already endorsed in this parliament.

Before coming to some of the detail I indicate that I am very keen for the Victorian and Western Australian governments to come into this scheme. I have had positive discussions with Minister Collie and with Minister Hall, the new Victorian Minister for Higher Education and Skills. I know there are concerns which effectively go to states’ rights and the management of their own VET systems. I do not, and this government does not, want to manage their VET systems, but we do want to provide quality assurance, we do want to provide national standards and we do want to address this issue of uniform national standards and a quality framework that everyone knows is best for the industry. We have had very strong support from all the major stakeholders. They have had some concerns at the margins, which we have tried to address. They have had some concerns about the consultation process, which I as the new minister have attempted to address. I think people are pretty happy with where we have got to. There are some issues that arose in the committee inquiry and in the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, which I am happy to address, but we need to pass this legislation to get it up and running. The other referring states are ready to go, and I am very anxious to work with WA and Victoria to see if we cannot get them to refer as well. This is not about a Commonwealth grab for power; it is about national standards, quality and our international reputation. I think everyone now accepts the need for that, and these pieces of legislation and the TEQSA bill, which I hope will go through the parliament as well, will give us a framework which builds on what has already been done through the ESOS Act and the good work Bruce Baird has done in taking us to this point.

The parliament has been a little hamstrung by the process of states referring their powers. I understand Senator Hanson-Young’s point, but there is no alternative to that process: we have to get a referral from the state government. We have got that and we are now committed, if you like, to passing the same bill without amendment. We have sought to address the concerns, and I am going to give a series of assurances now to address those concerns. I think senators would generally accept that they will be honoured. We agree, for instance, with the recommendation of the education committee to introduce further legislation to amend clauses 61 and 62 after passage of the bills to avoid any constitutional issues. I think that is a good amendment. We agree to amend the explanatory memorandum and provide an additional addendum to clarify points raised by that committee and the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee. I table that amendment to the explanatory memorandum to address those points raised by the two committees. The amendments include additional information about the offences framework; an explanation for the proposed extraterritorial operation of the offences; an explanation about the fee structure in clauses 17 and 232; clarification about the application of common law justice requirements at subclause 36(1)(b) and clause 37; additional clarification about the civil penalties at clauses 60 and 61; clarification about the role of delegation under clauses 224, 225 and 226; additional information about the enforcement powers of authorised officers at clauses 70, 71, 85 and part 5; and clarification about necessary assessments under clauses 103 and 105. We have done everything we can in the additional explanatory memorandum to address the concerns that have been raised. Again, I note that a number of the key players have been happy that we have done that and they have accepted that this is all we can do at the moment, but we have also given further assurances.

I have asked my department to hold a consultation process with stakeholders through April and May this year to pick up on some of the concerns. I think most of the concerns—I do not want to demean them—are at the edges, but they are serious concerns which we need to treat seriously. That process will identify amendments to the National VET Regulator Act, which needs to be passed unamended to keep the referral on foot. But I am happy to bring in amending legislation as early as I can—in August this year—to pick up those concerns without undoing the referral power. Those amendments would include a number of those identified in the Senate committee report, including to more narrowly define the circumstances in which the regulator may make amendments to accredited courses; to clarify beyond doubt that, under clause 62, the person using a cancelled qualification will only commit an offence if they have knowledge of the cancellation; to clarify that the use of force in executing a warrant under clause 70 is to be recorded by video and does not extend to force against a person; and to identify the qualifications level and/or training for appointed authorised officers.

This consultation process will give us the opportunity to seek agreement with stakeholders on the NVR’s approach to risk management in the VET sector and the standards that would apply, noting these standards are endorsed by MCTEE, the ministers council, with the aim of aligning arrangements between the NVR and TEQSA. On the basis of these commitments, I think the concerns that the TAFE directors had have been met. I want to make it clear that we are serious about an engagement on these matters to make sure we get the best possible system in place. I am appreciative of the New South Wales government and the New South Wales parliament passing their referral legislation. The other states, contrary to what Senator Back said, are ready to go and they will look to refer their powers. The bottom line people need to understand is that they do not want to have two forms of regulation, nor do they want to bear the cost of a separate state regulator if we are already doing the job.

So I think we have made good progress on this. It is never easy to coordinate and to get all your ducks in a row to get the states to refer powers, but there has been good cooperation with the states. There is a positive relationship between me and the two ministers from the non-referring states, and I am hopeful that we can overcome their concerns when this legislation is passed. They are both committed to quality education. They both understand the need for us to be able to market ‘Brand Australia’ as being a quality product in international education. I think we are all on the same page. As with my endorsement of Senator Mason’s speech, it sometimes looks as though WA Minister Collier and I have got the same speechwriter, because we fundamentally agree on the approach that needs to be taken. But there is this issue of concern to the states about their own VET providers. All I can say is that we are not interested in taking over their roles or interfering in their management, but a national regulatory and quality framework is essential for the reputation of Australia. It is essential for the protection of students. It is essential for businesses operating across state borders. You have seen the strong support for this from national business organisations. They want a national system. We have got a pretty good framework now. This legislation will allow us to finish the job. I think within a year or so we will have one national VET regulator, because I am sure we have the goodwill between the Commonwealth government and the two non-referring states to get them to a position where we can agree on them participating as well.

I thank senators for their contributions. This was a good debate. I thank those senators who raised concerns for their constructive contributions. I would particularly like to thank Senator Marshall for his leadership on the committee and his speech today. I would appreciate the support of the Senate in passing this legislation and allowing us to get on with the job that was agreed at COAG more than two years ago now.

Question put:

That these bills be now read a second time.