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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 3709

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (20:53): I want to contribute on the Skills Australia Amendment (Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency) Bill 2012 although there is not much opportunity to do so because, as Senator Macdonald has pointed out, this important issue has to be put to an early bed because the government believes it is more important to get through its business in a certain time frame than to allow the parliament to do its job. However, I want to make a contribution to this debate that reflects on the importance of ensuring that as a nation we have a better focus on productivity than has been the case in recent days.

I recall sitting in this chamber in the last few years of the Howard government when we had a very strong economy and very strong growth. We had a budget that was in surplus, we had virtually no debt—debt was being eliminated or had been eliminated—we saw low interest rates, we saw low unemployment and a lot was going very well for the Australian community, particularly for the Australian worker. We were coming to the point where real wages had risen during the life of the Howard government by something like 20 per cent. Labor, the opposition as it then was on this side of the chamber, wanted to criticise the performance of the Howard government and it latched on to the question of productivity because it was able to discover, amidst all that good news, that there was a little bit of a dark lining on the very white cloud, which was that productivity was not improving as much as the rest of the Australian economy. They latched onto that and made a big issue of that before the 2007 election.

So one might expect that in the 4½ years or so in which the Labor Party has held the Treasury benches there would have been some very significant progress on the question of the productivity of the Australian economy, because there has not been much progress on things like unemployment, bringing debt down or having surplus budgets. So you might expect that in this area, which had been such an issue, there might have been some progress. Yet have we discovered, not long ago, that under this government Australian productivity has fallen. It has fallen, not gone up. It has not even been sustained at the same level; it has actually fallen. Despite a bevy of reports from the Productivity Commission on ways in which the Australian economy might be made more productive, that advice has in large part been ignored by this government, with the result that productivity is indeed falling. It takes a special level of ineptitude to have an economy which is at least in part so strong as this one is, with so many opportunities existing to do things better, and to find that the productivity of the Australian economy has fallen.

And it is not surprising when we see the way in which this government has handled the issues surrounding productivity. It has wound back flexibility in the workplace. Those opposite should not jump up with a little scare campaign about Work Choices—I am not arguing for a return to Work Choices—but you backed away from the idea of flexibility in the workplace, and that is very much at the heart of how you get more productivity. You have wiped that off the slate: 'We're not interested in that.' You backed away from promises to increase training at school level. What happened to the 2,650 trade training centres in Australian secondary schools you promised at the 2007 election? What happened to them? They went the same way as the 37 GP superclinics and the 260 Australian childcare centres— all washed away in the tide of history and all promises broken by the Labor Party. But those promises about the trade training centres were about in part skills and productivity and, of course, they have gone; they have disappeared.

I think that is why I feel so suspicious about the creation of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. We were told very much in the lifetime of many people in this chamber that we were going to have a wonderful new world with respect to skills by virtue of Skills Australia being set up. That is now being swept aside. That is a promise that you can afford to have broken, because you have got another promise to make: you are now going to have an Australian workforce and productivity agency which is supposedly going to fix this problem and there are going to be many millions of dollars poured into that and that is going to solve the problem that has not been solved to date. Well, you can forgive me for being a little bit suspicious and cynical about the approach that this government is taking. There is a hollowness about so much that this government says in these areas that one has to be very suspicious.

We have a new body set up which mentions the word 'productivity'. Why? Because the government is failing on that front, it needs to do something on that front and it needs to appear to be acting on the question of productivity. It has got a lot of money being poured into it. That is the classic Labor response to this issue: pile the money in—of course, mostly borrowed money. And it has got a board which is well salted with trade union friends more noted for their factional loyalty to the Labor Party than for their skills in things like productivity and we have a promise that this is going to fix the question of skills take-up and productivity in the Australian workforce. I am sorry, but I do not believe it. I see more of the rubbish that we have had from this government in these areas, and the structure of this legislation only lends itself to that kind of cynicism. As Senator Macdonald pointed out, the budget papers promise that this new Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency would undertake research, that it will have the capacity to undertake research. What research is it going to do? Apparently now none, according to the bill. It is going to only be assessing research.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Parry ): Order! The time allocated for the consideration of this bill has now expired. The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.