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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 3703


Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (20:22): Thank you Acting Deputy President Edwards, and I congratulate you on your recent elevation as acting chair. I join with my leader in expressing the sentiment that the only way in which Australia in the future is going to be able to retire the massive debt that is now around our necks is to have as fully employed and as highly skilled a workforce as we possibly can. Regrettably, the legislation before us this evening falls far short in its objective to achieve this. As Senator Abetz has said, the coalition will not oppose this legislation, but I assure you that it needs radical improvement before it is actually to achieve anywhere near the sort of objective that is necessary for this country.

The seeds of failure were sown not in the life of the Gillard government, or even the Rudd government. The seeds of failure were sown way back in the time of the Hon. Kim Beazley Sr. And if that sowing was not sufficiently poor for the Australian workplace and for skills development at that time, it was perpetuated in the time of the Hon. John Dawkins. It is no pleasure for me that both parliamentarians were from Western Australian. There is a simple reason behind this. There was a time when it was recognised in our country that there were those who should aspire to professional qualifications and studies in the universities, and there were those who should aspire to the technical and trades areas because of their levels of interest and perhaps their capacity at the time at which those decisions were made. I am talking now, back in the 1970s and beyond, of young boys, particularly at the age of 15 or 16 years, for whom a year 11-12 education at that time in their lives was not what they were aspiring to. But, unfortunately, where they should have been directed into the technical colleges and into technical and other trades training where they would have been well suited and would have achieved tremendous success and gone on to very successful careers, whether as employers, as business people or as tradesman employees, we had a circumstance, commenced by then Beazley Sr, and perpetuated by Dawkins, in which that was put to one side. We then perforce moved to a scenario in which these students were initially influenced to and then forced to remain on to years 11 and 12 at school and then to aspire to university style education.

What we see in 2012 is the end result of that poor policy decision making. Perversely, what we see is that many of the jobs that should have been occupied by those young people who should have been directed into technical colleges and trades training areas, and would today be undertaking those trades skills and contributing that to our Australian economy, are now in the main being occupied by 457 visa holders, who we have had to bring in from overseas as a result of this vacuum. That is where the fundamental error has taken place.

So what has happened? We have seen burgeoning numbers of students going into the universities and perforce, and of necessity, we have seen a decline in the standards of entry at many of our universities. This has assisted nobody, but particularly those who should never have been pushed or encouraged into, almost forced into, university-level training for degrees for which there is little employment, particularly in the terms of financial and career progression reward, which they may have aspired to had they gone through the alternative path. That is where we need to reverse the trend we see today.

Just in the last seven months we have participated in inquiries in the agriculture and agribusiness higher education and skills training areas. I look forward to presenting to the Senate this week the final report of that inquiry. At the same time the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee has undertaken an inquiry into the equivalent, if you like: the engineering professional, technical and trades skills areas. I wish to comment on the latter. It was incredibly disturbing to the committee to learn from Engineers Australia that their best guess is a cost to the Australian taxpayer each year at the moment of some $7 billion on infrastructure projects that were poorly described, the tender processes were inadequately undertaken—or successful tenderers selected—the projects were poorly implemented, or they had to go back and rework failed projects. That is a $7 billion a year cost to the Australian taxpayer, since most infrastructure projects are in fact publicly funded.

When I say that we are looking at a wide gap, I refer back to my earlier comments, because the seed for the failure that has reflected itself in that $7 billion was found at a time when people should have been directed into technical training and into skills training but were in fact directed into university-level training. That is the best example I can give, and the most current example I can give you, of the failure of the legislation we see attempting to be addressed in this bill here this evening.

The Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012 is too little, too late, and it fails to address the fundamentals. It fails to address the cause of why we are where we are today. Why is it that a country as wealthy as Australia, a country with the education system that we have, has failed its participants? It has failed its students, it is failing its teachers, it is failing its academics, it is failing industry and it is failing the Australian community and the Australian taxpayer. For the life of me, I cannot see why this should be so.

As a person who has worked in Asia, the Middle East and India over the last 15 to 20 years, I have seen where their deficiencies lie. Their deficiencies are not those of our country. If you drive on a road in India, you can see where their infrastructure failures are. Ours is a country that surely should be a model—it should be right up the top. And yet we unfortunately see, starting with education, with failures of policy, the end result—where we are today.

Only last Wednesday, a week ago tomorrow, I was 600 metres underground at the Tindal gold mine in Coolgardie. There would probably be those who might wonder whether it would be wiser, Senator Farrell—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—that I never came out of the mine!

Senator Farrell: I would never say that!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Edwards ): Order!

Senator BACK: The point I want to make to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, is this—well, two points. First of all, I only went underground because my grandfather had been a miner underground on the Golden Mile in Boulder in the 1920s. I have to say to you I had no desire to go underground, Senator Farrell; nevertheless, I did. Secondly, it was interesting talking to the young mine manager—and I had a keen interest in his sense of occupational health, safety and wellbeing; it was principally my wellbeing that I was most interested in! We were talking about this very issue of skills development in the mining industry. And we would say with pride—of course, from Western Australia—that we are at this time enjoying an opportunity to support the wealth of our nation. I asked this young man, 'How are you going for trained staff?' He said, 'We can't get any.' I asked, 'Why is it that you can't get them—with Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, the school of mines?' He said, 'We can't get people out of the city; and, if we can get them out of the city, they've got no skills that are employable in this mine.' I said, 'If you actually had these people, could you employ them?' He said, 'We could employ them tomorrow.' I said, 'Where does the fault lie?' He said, 'It lies in skills and trade training.' This is a young fellow with no axe to grind—I don't know what his politics are; I don't care what they are—but he simply said to me that that was the case. I said to him, 'What's the overwhelming nationality of employees on this mine?' He said: 'New Zealanders. We have people from all countries of the world.' I said, 'How many Australians? He said, 'Not many; principally New Zealanders.' I said, 'How do they get a job?' He described to me the situation of people who are actually outside the mine site, seeking work day after day, but because they do not have the necessary, basic skills to be employable, they are not getting this work.

I heard Senator Pratt, a Western Australian senator, also speaking of the need to get these people skilled up.

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator BACK: But why is it, Senator Polley—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—that we do not have a circumstance where our young people can be skilled up so that they can be employed? In fact, Senator Polley—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—they spoke to me of a one-armed truck driver, who was very keen to work on the mine. He felt discriminated against because, as a one-armed truck driver, they could not employ him underground. It was not for his inability to drive a large truck underground; it was the fact that, when they took him underground, and they showed him the shaft—about 1½ metres wide, going up in 25-metre levels some 600 metres—and they said to him, 'Could you ascend those steps in the event of an emergency?' and he himself said, 'No, I could not.' So they employed him above ground, and some five to six years later that same person is still employed.

The point I want to make is that we have failed—we have failed the skilled sector, we have failed the technical sector and we are continuing to fail; and this piece of legislation is not going to address that one little bit. Last week I was in Karratha, in the Pilbara, right beside Dampier, right in the middle of our offshore oil and gas, and our burgeoning iron-ore industry, asking the same question: how are we addressing the need for these wide gaps between skills that are needed and skills that are available? And here, sitting in Canberra tonight, we are not putting policies into place that will actually make these people employable. Is it a disappointment to me that young eastern Australians do not want to leave the east coast to come and take up these jobs? Of course it is. Are the policies right that allow young people who are fit and able and single to travel from where they live to places where they could be employed? No, and it is wrong that those policies are not in place. If a person is married with a family, I can understand that they cannot shift. I had to move, as a kid of 17, to Western Australia from Queensland to go to veterinary school, because I had that engagement, I had the opportunity and I had that ambition. I had to go to Tasmania, Senator Polley—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—and I left a wife and three children in Western Australia, because I could see the opportunity for work. And if we do not inculcate into our young people the need to work, the desire to work, the pleasure of the ambition of work, of building up skills, then we simply are disinheriting a population of young people into the future. That is why I feel so passionate, that the sorts of issues we are addressing are not going be those that are going to solve these problems.

I was also in the town of Geraldton last week, on our mid-west coast. It is just north of Geraldton that the Oakajee port will be constructed, and it will open up the mid-west of Western Australia to a new type of iron ore, being magnetite, whereas it is hematite that has been the driving force of the iron-ore industry in the Pilbara region. As soon as Oakajee is opened up—as soon as that port is built—we are going to see a wonderful expansion of that whole mid west region. But once again we are going to come back to the sorts of arguments that have torn the Labor Party apart in the last few weeks, arguments based in the tension between employing Australians and having to bring in overseas workers simply because we are not putting the right fundamentals into place to ensure that our young people can gain these skills.

I wish to make another point in relation to this. I made the observation at the beginning that 15-year-old and 16-year-old boys particularly do not often see the benefit of higher education. They are not as mature as girls at the same age. But my own experience in agribusiness and agricultural education from the 1970s through to the 1990s tells me that if you can put in the face of these young people the interest in and the desire for higher education as they develop their own skills they will redevelop the love of learning that was lost in primary school and secondary school and become the most wonderful assets. People who start out at the VET level—the technical skills area—can very quickly, if they have that level of interest, progress through to higher technical and professional level education. Look at the wealth of experience that they will gain from working on the shopfloor right through as they gain those skills.

That is what came out in the engineering skills inquiry that was run by my associate Senator Marshall as the deputy chair and my other colleagues on the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee. That is what we need to be developing in this country. That is the vision that we need for young people in this country. We do not want them sitting around in places where there is no employment. We do not want them sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. We do not want them sitting around because earlier generations of their own family did not work. We have to set the vision for them in a country where there is every opportunity. We have to say to these people, 'This is your future, and you have to be part of the future rather than being part of the problem.'

I do not want to dwell, as others have done and as we all could do all night, on the challenges that we face in this country to get rid of the debt, to pay down the deficit and to start benefitting from the boom. That boom will not be there long into the future. Any of us who get out there and talk with industry and who engage with companies that are working in Australia and other countries of the world—working in Africa, working in South America and other places—have been told that they are positioning themselves very well. Unfortunately, if we do not increase our productivity and our competitiveness, we will be left behind and be a laughingstock; we will be the Europe of the middle of this century; it will be said of us that we let an opportunity slip through our fingers. The Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency Bill) 2012 is just a grain of sand on the beach. That beach ought to be the coastline for the future of this country. Regrettably, this bill is not going to turn us into the learning and productive nation that we need to be.