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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 3707


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (20:40): It is always a pleasure to follow two speakers who clearly know their subject and who are passionate about training. I congratulate Senator Abetz and Senator Back on their understanding of and their commitment to skills in Australia. I participate in this debate tonight because, coming from North Queensland and Northern Australia, I see the impact upon Australia, Australians and our economy of the lack of skills and the atrocious system for training our young people currently in place under the Gillard government and before that the Rudd government.

I want to share some of the facts that come to me through my office. I am conscious, though, of time and there are a number of other senators who would like to contribute to the debate on the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012. But because of an unholy alliance between the Greens and the Labor Party, debate on this bill has been curtailed. Right through this year the Greens and the Australian Labor Party have got together and taken from this parliament its ability—its duty—to properly scrutinise legislation that is brought before it. While, as previous speakers from the coalition have indicated, we will not be opposing this bill, there are a number of issues relevant to skills training in Australia which need to be debated and which we would like to engage the Greens and the Australian Labor Party in debate on to challenge some of the ideas that come forward. But, because of this guillotining of debate in this parliament that the Australian Labor Party and the Greens have embarked upon, my time in this debate will be severely curtailed and I am conscious that a number of my colleagues who want to speak will not get the opportunity to do so.

The Howard government recognised the need to get appropriate skills training in Australia. That is why we set up Australian technical colleges. I have to tell you that, while this area of policy is not something with which I am totally familiar, the Australian technical college that was set up in Townsville—where my office is located—was very well supported. The work that it was doing in training people in the skills needed in Australia was first class. It was run by a board of skilled people who had an interest in industry and training and the employment that is needed in the industries that are prevalent in Northern Australia. When the Labor Party came to government in 2007 they annihilated that great model of training, the Australian technical colleges, and that is really one of the causes of the significant problems that we have in finding the right people for the right jobs in Australia at the present time. It is very difficult in Townsville or in Ayr, where I live, to even get your car serviced these days. Why? Because motor mechanics, who used to fix cars of ordinary citizens like myself, have now been lured into the mines with big pay offers. Why are they doing that? Because there are no properly skilled people available to fill all the jobs that are currently available in Australia. Other industries in Northern Australia, such as the sugar industry, are finding it difficult to get skilled people because of this shortage and, regrettably, the current government has done absolutely nothing about it.

This bill is not one that would have been introduced in this form, had the coalition been in government. It does make some amendments to the Skills Australia arrangement, set up by the Rudd Labor government a few short years ago, but it seems already that even the Labor Party understands that Mr Rudd's proposal was basically without merit. So, it is bringing in this new Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, which is to replace Skills Australia. One of the new roles given to this organisation, over and above what Skills Australia had, is to provide advice to the minister on improving productivity in the Australian workforce. From looking at this, it seems that the thing that this is going to do for employment in Australia is to give Paul Howes—the great backer, the 'clackeur', of the Labor Party, the one who was instrumental in changing the prime ministership from Mr Rudd to Ms Gillard—a job on the board. Perhaps the minister in summing up could tell me just how many jobs Mr Howes does have from this government and what he gets paid for those jobs that he takes on.

We know about the Labor Party's unholy alliance with the union movement in Australia, and we know what the union movement is like when it comes to productivity. You only have to see what has happened in the Health Services Union. Have a look at the productivity gains there. The productivity gains for their officials, including the current member for Dobell in his past role as an official, are there for everyone to see. Certainly, one would wonder what the member for Dobell's productivity was in his role in the Health Services Union. Fair Work Australia—the organisation set up by the Labor government, which seems to be made up by people whose former lives were as trade union officials—has suggested that Mr Thomson used whatever funds of that union he could get his hands on for what could only be described as nefarious ends.

One wonders if what happened in the HSU is unique to that union. My experience is that many unions operate in a way similar to the HSU. Coming from Queensland, I know the inordinate influence the Australian Workers Union has had in that state. We only need to look at the influence of big Bill Ludwig in my state of Queensland and his role in the AWU. One of the results of big Bill Ludwig's influence in Queensland we see in the chamber here every day with his son, Senator Joe Ludwig, who is a minister in this government. Some would wonder whether he would attain the rank of minister were it not for the influence of his father in the AWU. We see that the AWU's tentacles get further and further entwined within the Australian Labor Party government with the appointment under this bill of Mr Paul Howes, the Australian secretary, as I understand it, of the Australian Workers Union. One would wonder what Mr Howes could contribute to the productivity of the workforce, and it is something that the coalition will be keeping a very close eye upon.

There are quite a number of other issues that I did want to raise in relation to this bill. I notice that the budget papers said that the new organisation, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, was to undertake research. But this bill says that the agency would be assessing research, not undertaking research. One wonders where the compatibility lies between those two descriptions of what the agency might do. I have known in the past, and far be it from me to suggest it now, that previous Labor governments have given big grants of money to unions to look into things that are being talked about in this bill—productivity issues. Big grants go to unions to participate almost as contractors in this sort of research and then, lo and behold, the same union makes a donation back to the ALP for its election campaigns. One cannot help but be suspicious and wonder whether there is not a bit of a round-robin here, but the shame of that, of course, is that it is taxpayers' money that first goes to the union in the way of grants and then somehow ends up in a roundabout way back in the pockets of the ALP for election campaigning. I just wonder, and perhaps I am a little bit suspicious, why the budget papers talk about undertaking research whereas the bill says that they will not be doing any undertaking of research and they will just be assessing research that I assume would be produced by others.

There are a lot of other things that I would like to say about this bill but I am conscious that my colleagues also want to make a contribution, so I will leave my contribution at that point while letting the Labor Party know that we will be very closely assessing the way that this bill works out in practice. We will certainly be closely watching the work of the increased board of Skills Australia, now called the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, and we will be wanting to see how that board—and the agency—operates in the way that it is required to as in this bill before the parliament. I conclude my remarks there because of the guillotine and because I am aware that my colleagues are very keen to also make a contribution on this bill.