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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 3699

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (20:02): There is no doubt that the upskilling of the Australian workforce is an honourable and proper pursuit of government. The skilling of the Australian workforce today will determine the productivity of our nation tomorrow. The productivity of our nation tomorrow will determine the wealth and wellbeing of our nation into the future. Can we fund a proper health system? Can we protect our borders? It is to fund those sorts of functions of government that we need a healthy economy. Indeed, can we pay off Greens-Labor's massive debt, now well in excess of $130 billion? It is the biggest debt incurred in the shortest time in Australian history. Make no mistake, the issues that are part and parcel of this bill are of vital importance to Australia's tomorrows and beyond.

What is the government seeking to do with the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012? The bill will subsume Skills Australia, a bureaucracy established only some three or four years ago during the halcyon days of then newly elected Prime Minister Rudd. Remember when he had to change everything? Of course, he had to meddle in this area as well. Now, three or four years later, the government has come to the realisation that Mr Rudd's good idea at the time is no longer such a good idea. As a result, they have to amend that which they introduced only a few short years ago; and at a cost of about $25 million for a new bureaucracy to undertake the exercise.

The new Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency was announced in the 2011-12 budget. It will be a new agency. The agency will have responsibility for the administration of the $558 million Workforce Development Fund. This fund is available to pay up to half the costs of training for the upskilling of existing workers. The government's contribution equates to about $4,292 per training place, based on their predictions of training 130,000 workers.

Let us stop there for a moment. When you ask about Labor's employment figures and projections, you know they get it wrong, and substantially wrong. It was only two budgets ago that they promised the Australian people that 500,000 new jobs would be created over a two-year period. In the last budget that was reduced to 300,000—a 40 per cent reduction.

Senator Humphries: What a surprise.

Senator ABETZ: And yet, Senator Humphries, we are to believe that the predictions here are going to be honoured—just as we are to believe Labor's promise and prediction to the Australian people that there will be a $1.5 billion surplus or their claim that they have control of our borders. I think the Australian people are learning fast through bitter experience that the predictions and prognoses of this Greens-Labor government are not to be believed. Indeed, it does not matter into what area one looks, one can see the failure not only of the policy settings but then of the follow-up administration by the Greens-Labor government. But, they tell us, they will be seeking to upskill 130,000 workers.

Now, what else are they doing? There is going to be a round of funding of $50 million for three priority areas. There is $15 million for the priority of supporting the resources sector, as well as those sectors where the effects of the resources boom are particularly acute. I think it is a very good initiative to try to assist those sectors so that we need to import fewer workers for our booming resources sector. It is a great initiative, something that the coalition support. But interestingly enough, out of the $50 million, less than one-third is going to be directed to this jobs rich area for which we now have enterprise migration agreements. Don't get me wrong; the coalition support enterprise migration agreements, but only because they are a necessity. We do not support them because we see them as ideal; we support them because we see them as essential to getting Australia's resources projects up and running. But why on earth would you spend less than one-third of the available funding on the most jobs rich area, where there is the greatest likelihood of job opportunities for individuals in the event of their being upskilled? Indeed, the largest amount, $20 million, is going to be spent on support for upskilling and skill-deepening across all sectors of the economy. I dare say that is for those areas that they have no idea about.

Let us have a look at what this bill does. It expands the board of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, compared to that which currently exists, and it adds a new category of board membership. Labor government, a new category of board membership—let me guess: could it be employers? No. Could it be trainers? No. How about trade union bosses? You got it.

Senator Humphries: That is a surprise!

Senator ABETZ: You got it. How surprising! No matter which way this government turns, it will manufacture an excuse to put some union boss or ex union boss onto a board. There are three new board members to be appointed under this new category of employee representative. And, just in case you thought this was going to be a very careful selection process, guess who one of those three new board members is going to be? It is none other than—you see him here, you see him there, you see him everywhere—the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union. The person who installed Ms Gillard as Prime Minister has, as part of his reward, been given a position on this board. Remember the man who was there on Lateline telling the Australian people that they were going to get new Prime Minister the next day, courtesy of the numbers that he controlled in the Labor Party caucus? He is going to be a beneficiary of this amendment bill through a position on the board.

If you thought, 'One out of three isn't too bad,' guess who else has been appointed? It is none other than Dr John Edwards, the fellow who wrote an academic treatise on Australia's greatest Prime Minister.

Senator Humphries: Bob Menzies?

Senator ABETZ: People listening might be forgiven, Senator Humphries, for thinking that that would be Australia's longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, or—

Senator Humphries: John Howard.

Senator ABETZ: Australia's second longest serving Prime Minister, both of them prime ministers who took Australia through a golden era of prosperity and stability. But no. All those people who thought it was Menzies or Howard got it wrong. According to this great academic, Dr John Edwards, a Labor Prime Minister gets that title. With all that expertise in academia that he will bring to the Skills Australia Board, we will undoubtedly have a whole lot of people being gainfully employed!

It is interesting that on this board there is no specific category allocated to providers of training. 'But employees need a special category so we can get Paul Howes on the board.' Employers do not get a look-in. Who gets a look-in? Academics like Dr John Edwards. As for education or training, training does not have to be a part of it, just possible. There is economic and industry representation, and now we have representation of employees. What is the government's argument? They say, 'Oh, "industry" must mean employers.' And of course 'industry' does not mean employers. If that is what the government are actually arguing, let them amend the bill to change 'industry' to 'employers' so there is some equity and fairness. At the end of the day, may I remind Senator Collins, the Labor Party and the Greens, this will be a body that seeks to assist people by upskilling them to gain employment—to gain employment with whom? With employers! They are the people that will ultimately be providing the jobs, yet they are to be discounted. They count for nothing in this class warfare that the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party are waging as we speak. Employers are to be absolutely and utterly discounted, but union bosses—you betcha!—have to be there.

Having severely and seriously embarrassed Mr Shorten and the Labor government over their refusal to consider productivity as an important issue in the Fair Work Act review, we now have this new agency, to be called the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. I say to the Greens and Labor: this is too little, too late. If you were genuinely concerned about productivity, you would have put it in the terms of reference for the review of the Fair Work Act. Something we know, courtesy of freedom of information requests, is that both the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the Department of Finance and Deregulation were deliberately ignored by the government because they did not want to utter the word 'productivity', let alone assess the Fair Work Act against that vital ingredient. I know it is not popular to talk about productivity because the trade union movement will immediately say that productivity means more work for less pay. That is the Labor Party view of the world.

The coalition view of the world is that productivity actually means greater job opportunities, greater wages and greater wealth for the community. We look at expanding the pie by increasing the opportunities and welcoming innovation into our economy, but Mr Shorten could not bring himself to accept the advice of his own department or the Department of Finance and Deregulation to consider productivity. What they have done now is put into the title of the organisation the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. The Parliamentary Library provided us with an interesting note in relation to this bill which says, 'It is not clear in either the bill or the explanatory memorandum how this will be achieved.'

Here we have a government yet again realising that they have been snookered. They have to talk about productivity. They have been humiliated on the front pages of newspapers around the country. They have been identified as having ignored departmental advice courtesy of freedom of information. So what do they do. They say, 'We'll put "productivity" into this title,' but they do it in such a rush. Why? Because all they are concerned about is tomorrow's headline. There is no follow-through with the administration. There is no plan as to how this will affect, impact and support productivity, something which I think most Australians now recognise is a vital issue which this country needs to face, to ensure when there are wage increases above and beyond the CPI that there are productivity offsets. Unless we get productivity offsets, we will go down the road of Greece and Spain and some of the other European countries. We can keep promising people increased wages unrelated to productivity but one day we will hit the brick wall, as they have in Greece. I would never want that sort of humiliation to befall this great country Australia. That is why we have to deal with productivity now, while it is still easy to be dealt with, rather than wait another decade when we may find ourselves with some of the diabolical problems that our European friends now find themselves in.

We welcome the fact that Labor have finally been willing to utter the word 'productivity', but as the Parliamentary Library told us it is not exactly clear how productivity will be dealt with in this legislation. I am sure Mr Howes will be able to tell people on this training and productivity board how to get 30 per cent wage rises in the resources sector without any productivity trade-off and then brag about it, as his fellow union bosses do. When that happens, it reverberates throughout the whole economy and the consequences are there for all see.

As is so often the want when you do not have the numbers in a place such as this, the coalition know that we are snookered, that the government will not consider sensible amendments. We will not oppose this bill but I say to the Australian people that there is a better way to deal with issues of Australian workforce and productivity than to expand a board from seven to 10 and whack a union boss onto it. I would have thought the government might have more imagination than that, if they were genuine about developing the Australian workforce and the productivity agenda, which clearly needs to be addressed if we are to secure the future of our country and in particular if we are going to be able to pay off the massive debt legacy which the Green-Labor alliance will be leaving us whenever they are thrown from office.

Also interesting in this bill is a fund of $20 million to be shared equally between the trade union movement and employer organisations. We know the Labor Party love doing this. They will say, 'We've got clean hands; we have equally funded the trade union movement as we have the employer organisations.' Of course there is one big difference: everyone now knows that the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens are the beneficiaries of huge amounts of money from trade union organisations for their campaigns but employer organisations such as AiG and ACCI are notoriously known for not making any political donations. The Labor Party pretend that they come to this debate with clean hands, that they will be dealing equally with employer and employee organisations—each gets the same amount—but they know they will be getting a dividend out of that in return whereas the coalition or any other organisation will not be getting any such dividend from employer organisations.

No matter what the government put up, it seems it has to have a union boss on it and the reason for that is clear. In this case, it could not be clearer because the person who will be the beneficiary is the man who put Ms Gillard in the Lodge. The coalition has concerns and reservations about this bill, so ably expressed by Senators Back and McKenzie in their report on this bill. The coalition not be opposing it.