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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 3690


Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (18:17): I am pleased to speak in support of the enactment of the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012. For developed nations to grow their economies, and at the same time have real growth in incomes, there must be productivity growth over the long term. Unfortunately, in Australia at the moment, there is a misguided and often ignorant debate occurring regarding means to stimulate productivity growth in our economy. I am not going to go into the details of that debate at the moment.

Before my time in this place I did have the great honour of representing workers in a number of industries throughout the country. From agricultural to aeronautical industries, from horseracing to the health industry, I had the great privilege of representing workers and their interests and negotiating on their behalf. One of the lessons I learnt from my 14 years as an advocate for workers was that a happy workforce is a productive workforce, and the system of workplace relations—and, importantly, education—must encourage cooperative workplace relations. To encourage cooperative workplace relations, employees must have developed and definite career paths—and an important part of the development of a career path is skills development, ensuring that people are able to attain the education and the skills they require to better themselves and to ultimately increase their earning capacity and their living standards.

Since becoming a senator I have sought to expand my work in visiting workplaces throughout New South Wales. I have also been fortunate to visit many trade training centres throughout the state. Earlier this month I visited Taree, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, to celebrate the official opening of the Manning Valley Trade Training Centre, a $2.9 million investment by the federal government in an opportunity for students, beginning in years 9 and 10, to commence their trades in hospitality and building trades, at that particular high school. It is a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in skilling themselves up to begin a trade in the Australian workforce. I have also been fortunate to open trade training centres in Bellingen, in Port Macquarie, in Maclean and in Lithgow—and, in all of these areas and circumstances, the school communities were overwhelmed by the fact that the government is investing in skills development in their local area. We are bringing the community together—bringing employers, educators, parents and students together to increase the skills base of a particular community and ultimately provide more employment prospects for children in those schools. It is initiatives such as this that are ensuring that the workforce of tomorrow is properly skilled and ready to continue driving our economy and making it stronger.

This bill goes further to augmenting the Gillard government's efforts to ensuring the continued success of the Australian economy through skills development. The goal of the this bill is to amend the Skills Australia Act 2008 to establish the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in place of Skills Australia. Skills Australia was established by the Skills Australia Act 2008 and commenced operation in April of that year. A Labor government initiative, Skills Australia was designed to address skills shortages by supplying independent research, analysis and advice to government on Australia's skill needs. As it stands, Skills Australia's current role is a wide one. It encompasses various research and development goals associated with improving skills attainment and development in Australia. Its current roles are to analyse and provide policy advice on skills needs, to commission and assess research on workforce development needs, to disseminate information about workforce development and skills, to provide advice to the government and publicly on training reform and to facilitate alignment of resources by maintaining relationships with the states and territories and other stakeholders with an interest in workforce development and skills.

With the passing of this bill, the government is seeking to build on work already undertaken by Skills Australia through the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. It is appropriate for productivity to be in the name of this organisation, because ultimately what we are talking about when we talk about skills development in our country is improving productivity growth over the long term, which will be the impetus for long-term economic growth. The agency will assume the functions of Skills Australia but with additional membership and responsibilities. The agency will provide advice to the minister on Australia's current, emerging and future workforce development and workforce skills needs. These are vital issues of importance that, if we are to continue to build on this country's economic success, require our utmost attention.

The agency was announced in the 2011-12 budget, which indicated that the new agency would develop sectoral workforce development plans, undertake research, consult industry and disseminate information on workforce planning issues. The agency will build on and expand the work of Skills Australia. It will give industry a central role in the National Training System, improve long-term workforce planning and development to address skills and labour shortages and contribute to improvements in industry and workplace productivity. One of the factors that is key to ensuring long-term productivity growth, particularly in the current economic climate in Australia, is ensuring that there are not any bottlenecks in our economy. Bottlenecks that have developed over recent years are skills shortages in particular pockets of the economy. We have all seen the stories associated with mining companies in remote areas, in particular, being unable to access skilled workers in particular trades. This body will work with employers, and particularly in remote and regional areas, to ensure that there are plans in place to meet the demand for skills in vital trades. That will foster long-term productivity growth in our economy. It will give industry a stronger voice and ensure that the government's investment in training delivers the skills that industry and the economy need, in the right place at the right time.

Importantly, the agency will have the ability to make recommendations to the government to direct funding to areas of critical industry need and will be an authority on workforce development policy. It will have a central role in advising on expenditure priorities for the National Workforce Development Fund and will be able to provide advice to the government on a range of other skills funding initiatives. It will build on the strengths of Skills Australia and collaborate with industry associations, industry skills councils, unions and employers to ensure a shared and practical approach which meets sectoral, regional and small business industry needs. Fostering cooperation in workplace relations will be a key initiative of this body.

Specifically, the agency will advise the government on expenditure priorities for the National Workforce Development Fund; drive engagement between industry, training providers and government on workforce development, apprenticeships and vocational education and training reform; develop and monitor sectoral skills and workforce development plans in conjunction with industry skills councils; provide independent advice on sectoral and regional skills needs to support workforce planning and productivity, including in small business; promote workforce productivity by leading initiatives for the improvement of productivity, management innovation and skills utilisation within Australian workplaces; and conduct skills and workforce research, including into the future of work and working life in Australia.

One of the fundamental goals of this newly established agency is to improve productivity. One of the primary ways in which it will do this is through skills matching. When an industry is experiencing a boom, it is crucial for that industry to be able to harness that boom by maximising productivity through access to a skilled workforce. The agency will ensure the availability of skilled workers in those circumstances, while also ensuring training is offered to workers affected by structural change. The agency will also advise on the allocation of Commonwealth funding, including through the National Workforce Development Fund. The aim of the agency is to improve long-term workforce planning and development to address skills and labour shortage and to contribute to improvements in industry and workplace productivity.

Our economy is going from strength to strength. Economists across the globe look to our great southern land in awe of our handling of the global financial crisis. Despite all our success and the government's deft stewardship of our great nation's economy we need to continually invest in productivity. This government will not rest on our laurels, and it is through legislation such as this that we will continue to ensure that productivity growth is a priority, and skills development is an important part of such productivity growth. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30