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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2027

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (10:52 AM) —There is no greater difference between the two major political parties than on the issue of education and training. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004 provides an opportunity for me to highlight some of those fundamental differences between the government and the Labor Party. The previous speaker, the member for Riverina, said she felt we focused too much on university places and on the problems with HECS fees and indicated that she had felt nauseous that we raised those matters in this place. The fact is that it makes us nauseous to see the Minister for Education, Science and Training, a minister who was the recipient of free education, come into this place and not be sensitive to the overwhelming concerns of students who are suffering under the increases to HECS. It would be extraordinary for most people not to realise that, but clearly the member for Riverina is not sensitive to that concern that the public at large have in relation to access to university education and the fact that there is a nexus between increasing fees and the lack of capacity for people who are less economically advantaged to avail themselves of university places.

This morning we want to focus on vocational education and training. This bill highlights that this government has an awful record since 1996 on funding for vocational education and training. In 1996 the Howard government set about reducing in real terms the funding for ANTA and the funding for this area of education and training. It cut the budget in those areas for the first few years and then from 1998 it froze the budget. In effect, from the inception of the Howard government we have seen a decline in funding in real terms in this area. That has clearly helped to produce a deficiency of skills required for this nation. It is not always the case that the Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Australian Industry Group agree with Labor, although we have always spoken with those major peak bodies and there are certain areas where we would have agreement. However, it is important to note that both the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have pointed to major problems with skill shortages in this nation. Last year the submission by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education said:

Australian firms are greatly concerned at their capacity to recruit employees with appropriate levels of skill, and retaining skilled employees, with such pressures being particularly acute in regional and rural Australia.

The Australian Industry Group in its submission said that over half the businesses surveyed face skill shortages. The Australian Chamber of Commerce survey of investor confidence for July 2004 sounded this warning:

For only the second time in the history of the survey Business Taxes and Charges has been removed from its position as the foremost constraint on investment. Taking number one position for the first time is the Availability of Suitably Qualified Employees. A much tighter labour market for skilled workers has seen this constraint rise from fifth highest just one year ago to second position in January and April, then finally to first in the current quarter.

So there seems to be no disagreement amongst the Labor Party and major employer bodies that there are significant skill shortages in the workplace, particularly in regional and rural Australia.

The government has failed to address this problem. As we know, this bill will not provide any relief or remedy to change that trend. With the introduction of this bill, we will see a decline in funding for this year. As the bill highlights, it would reduce the appropriated limit of total funds for vocational education and training to be provided to the Australian National Training Authority for distribution to the states and territories for 2004 by $7 million. So there is a nominal and real decline in the funding provided. In Labor's view, there has been no justification for this. Indeed, there has been a failure by the government to respond to some of the things we believe should happen in this area.

Firstly, there should be a willingness of the government to support Labor's view that we should increase the TAFE places available to Australians by 20,000 per year. We believe that there is a need for those additional 20,000 places, which will certainly ameliorate the shortfall. There are people who seek to go to TAFE and are not able to find places. We hope that the government will accept the view that there needs to be an increase in TAFE places in order to arrest not only the lessening of opportunities for many Australians but also the skill shortages that are currently being experienced in the land. To date we have not heard anything positive from the minister for education. It would appear that the government is not interested in accepting Labor's view that there is a critical need to arrest the shortages in this area.

It is also important to note that we live in a globalised world and there are many needs. The first and foremost need for this country is to arrest the decline in skills. We will not be able to compete in terms of labour costs with our neighbours in Asia, and if we want to make sure we maintain our position as a prosperous and independent country then we have to make sure that we increase our skills in order to compete with the cheaper labour costs that are experienced in other countries.

In my view there are only two options for what we do with our work force and with our economy at large—that is, we either focus on highly skilled jobs and areas in which we can find a niche market in this globalised world and we seek to compete, or we race to the bottom and compete with those nations whose labour costs are much lower than ours. Against that backdrop, it is critical that we focus on increasing skills where there are shortages so that we can not only maintain our current economic position and prosperity as a nation but, indeed, build upon the success that we have already established. Those are the two options. If one were to look at the government's policies in this area, one would think that the government was choosing the race to the bottom, allowing workers in this country to be divided into two parts: those who are fortunate enough to be highly skilled, well remunerated employees or independent contractors or consultants and those—the majority, I daresay, of Australian workers—who find themselves increasingly vulnerable in a work force where tenure is precarious and those who, worse still, have yet to find any work or who have found only casual or part-time employment when they want permanent full-time employment.

These are major challenges and nobody pretends that they are easy to fix. But my concern is that the government is not even seeking to address these fundamental problems. In fact, the Prime Minister in question time this week was happy to rail against Labor's view that casual employees who have been employed for 12 months be given an opportunity to become permanent employees, where possible and reasonable. John Howard may not talk to or befriend many casual employees, but it seems to me that if you spend some time in the real world you find that many people are under enormous pressure because they do not have any security of employment. That means that when they go to the bank to try to get a mortgage they are asked whether they have a permanent job and when they are looking to start a family they have to consider whether they will be employed in a year's time. There has to be some mechanism by which employers and employees can find a reasonable accommodation that can, on the one hand, ensure productivity and economic growth and, on the other hand, provide some security of employment for Australian workers. I do not suggest for a moment that that is easy.

There has been a trend—which precedes this government—that we move from permanent full-time work to part-time and casual work, and some of the changes involved in that arose out of people's personal choice to move into what seemed to be more flexible arrangements. There are and will always be employees who happily choose part-time work over full-time work and who even choose to be in temporary employment. There will always be a need for those types of jobs to fill the peaks and troughs of demand at a given workplace, but what we have been seeing in the last eight years in particular is an attempt by this government, along with some pernicious employers—not most employers, I am happy to say—to deliberately make their employees feel insecure, to deliberately remove the entitlement of security of employment as a condition, in order to change the relationship from one of relative equality to one where the employer has sole discretion over their employees' occupational future. I think we have to address that problem.

People do not have part-time families, they have full-time families and they need full-time jobs. Indeed, they do not have casual mortgages. Many have mortgages extending over 25 years or more, and they need some certainty that they can live their lives and have a decent quality of life. But they can only do that if government ensures that conditions do not exist that allow employers to perniciously undermine security of employment so as to make the work force vulnerable. There has been so little regard for that area.

Focussing on the capacity of converting casuals to permanents is not the only way to make people secure. Increasing people's skills is another way. The more skills that each employee has the greater their capacity to maintain their relevance and their importance in the workplace. Again, there is no doubt we can look at laws to provide that capacity. The light touch regulation, which has been mentioned by the member for Rankin, the shadow minister for workplace relations, would allow for employers and employees to reach agreement on a timeframe within which a casual could become a permanent, provided it was reasonable for that to happen. In my view, that seems to be a reasonable way to proceed.

An important complement to those changes, of course, would be to ensure that every Australian worker had as many skills as possible and that those skills were continually upgraded so that those workers could remain critical to the workplace. That is probably the most important thing in the end. In the macro sense, the more high skills we have and the more technical skills that we acquire, the more the nation would have the capacity to stay off the low road and to avoid getting into the position where it is seeking to compete against countries whose labour costs—whose wages—are much lower and therefore place enormous pressure on our wage system.

We have to focus on how we can maintain our standards and our prosperity as a nation. At the same time, we should have some regard for the employees who have found things pretty difficult in the last eight years. There have been some successes; there have been beneficiaries from economic growth. However, there are too many losers in this scenario. We do not want to continue to see further division between those who have benefited as a result of globalisation and change and those who have lost. Our government should be making sure that we bring everyone with us. If our nation is to prosper, we must ensure we bring everyone with us.

This bill is another example of a government that fails to have regard for the importance of skills. It was said earlier in this debate that this government has been about removing skill based instruments from the wages system. This government sought to remove, as an allowable matter in an award, the skill based provision—in other words, it said, `We do not need a wage system based on skills.' That is the message the government sends when it seeks to disallow by law the provision that would enable people to go along career paths that are based on skills—not based on years of service or whether they bring the lunch to the boss or whatever but based on the skills that are required and that they utilise in the workplace.

The fact that the government has sought to remove that provision from the award underlines the point that it is a government that has little regard for many employees and little understanding of the nexus between skill acquisition and skill utilisation and productivity—meaning productivity for employers, for the nation at large and, indeed, for employees, and job security for employees. That is the trade-off. If we can ensure that we have a highly skilled work force, we can ensure greater job security, greater prosperity and greater productivity, which is what employers would generally wish for.

So the government has to consider those things, but it has failed with this bill. The government has shown its failure by not continuing to fund vocational education and training in the way it should be funded. ANTA was a creature of a Labor government, and I am happy to say that the government has continued ANTA, but it has allowed it to decline. This government has lost its focus in the area of vocational education and training, and that is highlighted by the lack of funding to that area.