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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 3696

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (19:50): I am delighted to speak on this Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012 today because, as we know, this country has been built on the back of good skills and good education. Good economic management is only part of what makes our nation successful; we know that what is really at the heart of that are the skills and talents of Australian people. But we need the right architecture in this country in management, governance, commitment and consultation to get those things right. Part of that is the establishment of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, because our economic productivity goes hand in hand with the skills that Australians have. This bill replaces Skills Australia and broadens its role, putting the needs of Australian industry at its very heart. It is a demonstration of our government's commitment to workforce development and the continued growth of our economy.

I am going to talk tonight about one of the important challenges facing our economy and our society into the 21st century. For our nation to remain at the competitive front that it currently is it means staying ahead in skills and education, and in the development of good skills and education in this country. It means we need industry led workforce strategies. As the Treasurer told the other place only this week, the Australian economy is seen right around the world as a beacon of strength, stability and resilience in the face of deeply troubling economic volatility worldwide. While we know good economic management is a core part of that story, the skills base of this nation is really at the very heart of it. Our economic vital signs are indeed strong. We know that in the last 12 months our GDP has grown by a solid 4.3 per cent. This growth outstrips that of any other major advanced economy. Some 800,000 new jobs have been created in this nation since Labor came to office. In fact, there are now more Australians in paid work than ever before in our nation's history. But we do not want it to be any old paid work; these should be highly skilled and therefore well-paid positions. Interest rates are almost half of what they were when Labor came to office.

So our economy is strong and our fundamentals are right because of our good economic management credentials. But part of what we need to do in working hard to keep it that way, particularly in the face of the economic turmoil that the globe is currently facing, is workforce development and skills development. We need to make sure that all Australians can make the most of the opportunities presented by our economy. We need to make sure that as many Australians as possible can benefit from all the positive things that having access to good quality work brings. We need to make sure that we have a workforce that is educated and skilled and ready to take on the challenges of our changing economy. We want to make sure that our economy remains strong and robust as well as being responsive to what are pretty significant changes both globally and internally in the Australian economy at this time.

We do this in part by looking to the development of our workforce and making sure that it is able to make the transitions that currently confront us. At the heart of this, and at the heart of this bill, is listening to industry and also listening to those people who represent workers—in most instances, unions. The development of skills and education has been a long-held focus of our government, as are those relationships, because we know the challenges that confront us now and will confront us into the future are basically about building the capacity and capability of our workforce to be more productive in the face of a global economic environment in which higher skill levels will be absolutely critical.

In my home state of Western Australia we know this challenge all too well. We know that WA has the lowest unemployment rate around the country. We have an increasing demand for skilled workers, and that demand for skilled workers is continuing to rise in some sectors. A good example of this is the fact that, according to our Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Senator Evans, by 2015 the Western Australian skilled construction labour market alone will need some 76,000 workers. But these workers will need skills and qualifications relevant to the industry they work in. Workers will need to have qualifications ranging from certificate I right through to postgraduate qualifications.

One part of our response to this shortage has been to co-fund the Civil Contractors Federation Skill Centre in Jandakot—or the CCF Skill Centre, as it is currently known. As Senator Evans pointed out, CCF is a very clear demonstration of what can be done and what opportunities arise when industry and government do the right thing and work together in partnership. This is where we see real outcomes targeted at industries that are growing and developing. You do this in consultation with the industries that need skills. Most importantly, there are real outcomes for workers so they can get the training, skills and qualifications they need to get the jobs they want. So our government has a commitment to industry and to workers, to providing and facilitating opportunities to develop skills for Australians. But, as we know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The government believes the very best way to make sure that employers' workplace training needs are met is to work in partnership with them to deliver that training.

I think the Gillard government's $558 million investment in the National Workforce Development Fund further shows our government's commitment to skilling Australians to meet the demands of the future. The National Workforce Development Fund is going to be administered by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. The agency will allocate industry skills and workforce development funding, and this is important because industry will have a direct advisory role in deciding what is done with the funding. Again, this comes back to making sure that skills development and workforce development meets the needs of industry. We do this by directly involving industry in the decision making. It makes real sense to have industry working in partnership with government on skills development, because we know that a key way of increasing productivity is ensuring that we have a skilled and qualified workforce.

Changes to our economy make it even more important that we work together. Our economy is indeed changing. The mining industry is changing rapidly and we need a workforce to respond. We know that the Australian economy is changing very rapidly and it is not just about the mining boom. For example, we know that retail has been affected by the change in people's spending habits online. We also know that people are spending more money on services and that services are a growing part of the economy. So again our economy is changing, and our government needs to make sure that the jobs and growth happen in all sectors of the economy. Therefore, we need to work together with industry and unions in order to do this.

A new feature of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency will be the assessment or provision of research and analysis. That will enable us to know not only that our skills development is in touch with the needs of industry but that there is a proper, forward-looking vision and analysis and that there is not only consultation with individual businesses and industry groups but collaborative decision making and vision about where the economy is likely to move into the future. This is so that government, industry and unions in partnership can better understand and project what skills are going to be needed. Currently, in WA, we are facing a pretty big skills shortage, but we know also that in some regions of Australia there are still unacceptably high levels of unemployment. That includes my home state of Western Australia. We need to be able to better project what skills are needed and where they are needed and to assist people to develop those skills.

We need a country that gives all people a chance to participate in the benefits that economic growth provides. With stronger research and analysis we can work towards avoiding skills shortages and giving people access to opportunities. Skills shortages not only deny those people looking for work opportunities; they also present a risk to the cost base and viability of the development of new construction and mining projects and, indeed, many other industries in Australia. A pretty big example of this is Western Australia's gas pipeline industry, which employs highly skilled welders and boilermakers. Often a pipeline company may have trained staff who then move industries because they are offered twice the pay to work somewhere else. If we are better able to assess, research and analyse skills needs by industry, then we can ensure that the booms and the subsequent gaps in industries are catered for. We need to make sure that all Australians have the opportunity to access good jobs by having the right skill mixes. Research and analysis can really make a difference in this.

The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, with its expanded role and board membership, will provide significant benefits for our national economy, for its many industries and for workers, because the core of this is making sure we keep our economy strong not only at a national level but household by household.