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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2034

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (11:29 AM) —I thank the members who have made a contribution to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004, although some of the remarks have not been particularly well informed. This bill appropriates a total of $1.148 billion as the Australian government's contribution to the states and territories for vocational education and training in 2005. Throughout the course of last year I sought to negotiate a new three-year funding agreement with the states and territories for the Australian National Training Authority, or ANTA as it is known. This government proposed a $3.57 billion package over three years. In nominal terms, that represented a 12.5 per cent increase in funding. In real terms, it represented a 2½ per cent real increase for each year of the three years of the triennium. I asked the states to each put on the table a 1½ per cent real increase in their own funding to match—albeit still under—that of the Australian government.

This would have funded 71,000 additional places over the next three years, and I must say that up until November last year I was reasonably confident that we would find agreement. In that regard, I would like to pay special tribute to the Victorian Labor government, minister Lynne Kosky and her officials for engaging in the negotiation process in a very earnest and constructive way.

In the end, the states and territories refused to sign the agreement for three reasons. First, which is the norm for states and territories, they wanted more money. You always expect that. The reality is that at least four of the states and territories could not afford to meet the offer. I will not embarrass them by naming them but four of the jurisdictions could not afford a 1½ per cent real increase over the three years. Queensland had a particular concern that on a per capita basis it was being underfunded in relation to the other states for historical reasons. There was only one minister at the entire meeting that supported the Queensland position, and that was me.

Second, New South Wales, which is particularly driven by the interests and concerns of union officials, was concerned about user choice. For those unacquainted with the vocational education training sector, this does not in fact refer to drug use; it actually refers to employers having the choice of a public or a private provider for his or her apprentices. Our government strongly believes in employer led training, national consistency and user choice. So if you are a carpenter or a boilermaker, or if you are running a small manufacturing company, and you wish to use a private training provider, you should be able to. There should be a minimum budgetary allocation by the collective governments to employers to make those choices.

The third reason why the agreement fell over was because this government—our government—believe that people should actually abide by the law when they are in workplaces. We are living in a country—and this is particularly the case in Victoria—where on building sites there is no freedom of association and there is frequent abuse and flagrant ignorance and neglect of the law at best. Before we put in $200 million per year to support infrastructure projects through the Australian National Training Authority agreement, we said that if there was more than $5 million contributed—and that represents more than half the cost of the building program—then we wanted to see that the program complied with our government's policies in relation to workplace relations; and we said that if there was more than $10 million of Australian government money then there must be compliance. The states were not at all happy with that, which is unfortunate.

As a compromise, I did say to the states, `If you like, the states would be able to take the proportion of the infrastructure money which would trigger compliance with the Australian government's workplace relations policies and roll that over into places.' That would have created another 186,000 places over the three years in addition to the 71,000 places that were originally on the table with the agreement. Unfortunately, the states decided that they would not sign up to the agreement. Some people—I would not do this—impute the motive in part to the fact that they would rather have a debate in a federal election year about these things than actually have an agreement to deliver resources for training young people.

Recognising that this was a political risk, I foreshadowed to the states and territories that, if they did not sign the agreement, not a dollar of Australian government federal money would be lost to training. What I did was remove $110 million from the $3.57 billion offer and I said to the states and territories, `We the Australian government will directly tender to the training marketplace for those places.' This year, there is just over $20.5 million available for a direct tender for 7,500 places, targeting especially mature age people, sole parents returning to the workplace who want additional training, and students with disabilities. We have now successfully completed the tender round and I can say that it is going very well.

What has happened is that that matching part of the agreement that the states and territories were required, through the course of negotiations, to provide has not been delivered; so, in some cases in some jurisdictions, there has been a reduction in training opportunities. In that sense, I should defend the state of Tasmania. As the member for Lyons has just said, Tasmania, unlike six of the other jurisdictions, has actually increased funding—I think by 6.7 per cent real—in its budget this year for training. For that at least it should take some credit, which I am very happy to acknowledge.

The reality in relation to training—and a lot has been said through the course of the debate about skill shortages—is that there are many things in this country of which we can be very proud: things that have been done by governments of Labor and of coalition persuasion. But one of our failings as a country is we have created a society in which young people feel that the value of their lives is determined by the educational choices that they make. None of us—it does not matter how earnest we are; I have three teenage children and it does not matter how much I love them or how much I attempt to understand—who live in the adult world will begin to understand what it is like to be growing up in Australia in 2004 and to be 14, 15 or 16.

We have created a country over the last 30 years—and I assign part of the blame to Mr Keating for this—where young people feel that if they do not get an outstanding year 12 result, a university education, a mobile phone, a BMW and fashionable clothes in some way their lives are of lesser value than those who do.

It is critically important in terms of our vision for education and training that every human being in this country, and every young person in particular, should be able to find and achieve their own potential—whatever that is. We should recognise that young people must have choices available to them. They should see university as an important part of their life horizon, but they should also see that training through TAFE, private training providers and apprenticeships is just as highly valued by Australia, and by their families, as are those opportunities that are offered through higher education.

For some young people, just getting to school and then from school to a job emotionally intact is a much greater achievement than anything that any of us here has ever achieved. Imagine being 15 years old and opening up a newspaper in any part of Australia on any day of the week, or turning on a radio or turning on question time—and I will get to that in a moment. What are you confronted with? You are confronted with a society that is obsessed with university education. Then we have parents, as inadequate as some of us can be in that regard, who at times project their own ambitions onto their children and want them to be what they are not, when young people work out in their hearts what they feel they are best suited to much earlier than we do. Then we have teachers, many of whom bring ideological baggage to the task of teaching our children. I know of a teacher who took a year 10 class to the Ford manufacturing plant in Broadmeadows and said to the students: `If you don't work hard at school you're going to end up here'—ignoring the fact that you can go in and get a certificate 1 in car manufacturing and come out at the other end with an MBA.

I had the experience of asking the Master Builders Association to find me the six builders in Victoria who build the largest number of homes. I spent an afternoon with them about 18 months ago talking about skill shortages and apprenticeship numbers in building and construction. They said, `You know what our No. 1 problem is? It is an attitude in this country, and it's often reflected in what is said to young people, not just by parents but at school.' They also said: `We've got a careers expo coming up in two weeks. We expect about 4,000 kids at it, and we are going to be promoting careers, apprenticeships and training in building and construction—home building.' The CEO of the Master Builders Association then said to me, `The careers adviser from the largest high school in Melbourne said that they won't be sending any kids to that because there are no tertiary outcomes.'

The first price that we are paying for this is a university drop-out rate that is amongst the highest in the developed world. Forty per cent of people who start a university course do not finish it. Three in four come back later, but 100,000 of the 228,000 people who got a HECS place at university this year will not finish that course—and 40,000 will have left before the end of the year and will never come back. Why are they doing that? It is because they are panic buying in year 12. They do not really know what they want to do, but they have been told: `If you do not go to university, you are not as good as someone who does.' They panic buy, they get a place, then they start to think about what they really want to do and they leave. So there is a human cost and an economic cost. The second price we pay is skill shortages in at least 11 key industries—everything from aerospace to marine manufacturing, road freight, rural industries and building and construction. It includes a whole range of industries, and we have identified 11 key industries. The third price we pay is having a significant minority of young people in early secondary school who feel that there is no place for them and that they are living in a society that says, `If you don't jump through these very strict and narrow academic hurdles then you're a failure.'

Every day we are here in parliament, we go through what some describe as the theatre of question time. But there is a very serious feature to question time. Question time is when the opposition of Australia sets its priorities and agenda. About now, the key tacticians in the Labor Party are probably having a meeting and deciding what questions they will ask of the government at two o'clock. In the almost three years I have had the privilege to be this country's Minister for Education, Science and Training, I have had 59 questions in question time. Fifty-four of those questions have been about universities, and five have been about training—and in those five questions the word `apprenticeship' appeared once, as an afterthought.

When Mr Keating was the Prime Minister of this country—when I was doing home visits in Bridgewater, which the member for Lyons knows only too well—he appeared on the ABC news in June 1992 and said that in the next decade, which is now, there would be no jobs in Australia for people pushing brooms. Most of us would support the aspirational sentiment underneath that, but this country will only ever be as good as the men and women that we can train in hospitality, in the automotive industry, in retail and manufacturing and as boilermakers, chippies, tilers, plasterers and electrotechnicians. At the end of this day, when those of us who are privileged to be in this parliament leave this chamber, men and women will come in here and clean this place. Noone in this country—particularly people who want to lead it—should ever demean the choices that people, especially young people, make because, as Socrates observed in 400 BC, there are two bases to any society. The first is mutual need—we need one another—and the second is difference of aptitude: we are all different. We are all good at something, and those of us who are parents know that our kids are different.

Last year, I asked my department to do some research—useful research. I asked it to go and survey parents and find out what they want in schooling—and their answers have been confirmed by what has been published in the Fairfax press in the last few days. Seventy-eight per cent of parents of children in non-government schools want their children to go to university. Seventy-two per cent of parents of children in government schools want their children to go to university. One-third of the parents said the kids would have no say in it. The government have announced a whole range of things to try and deal with this. For example, I recently announced that we will give 50 schools throughout Australia $10,000 each to be careers education lighthouses—to be exemplar models of best practice in relation to careers advice. At a cost of $4½ million, we are for the first time going to formally train and accredit careers advisers in Australian schools. We have developed interactive, ongoing professional development programs for them. We want to make sure that our 217 local community partnerships throughout Australia are funded to support and provide careers advice as well as careers transitions in local communities. We are also going to fund industry secondments for careers advisers so they can get out of schools and spend a bit of time in industry actually having a look at what happens in modern workplaces. We are going to provide a training module for every teacher trained in this country in terms of careers advice. And we are producing a parent tear-out, to go with a job guide that every year 10 student will receive, and it will give advice to parents about how to talk to their children about careers choices.

We want the support of the Labor Party in trying to shorten traditional training apprenticeships in automotive repair, automotive retail and building and construction. If we can train a doctor in four years, why does it take four years to train an electrician or a panel beater? Surely we can start to recognise prior learning. We need to cut through the way that the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations deliver jobs outlook forecasts to young people, and we need real information about what young people can actually earn in different careers.

In the last year there has been a 20 per cent growth in commencements in traditional trades—which is terrific. Also, over the last five years apprenticeships in traditional trades have increased by 2.7 per cent, whereas growth in that part of the labour market has been at 1.5 per cent. Today 147,000 of our 416,000 apprenticeships are in traditional trades and related occupations, which is a 17 per cent increase since this government came to office.

In the last couple of days we have seen what happens when a Whitlam protege gets into Government House in Tasmania; it beggars belief to imagine what would happen if one got into the Lodge. I have heard a lot in the last day ot two about apprenticeships and training. It is worth remembering what is was like in 1992, when the Labor Party was in power and Paul Keating was Prime Minister of Australia. He was saying, `There'll be no jobs in the next decade for people pushing brooms'—in other words, `If that's what you're good at, forget it; you're no good.' Under the heading `A national disgrace', the Sunday Herald Sun in June 1992 editorialised the following:

Welcome to the lucky country. University graduates are begging for unpaid jobs just to get experience in the workplace. Sacked apprentices are offering their services for nothing in return for a chance to finish their trade training. Welcome to the lucky country. Youth unemployment is an open sore on the face of Australian society. A desperate father is offering to pay an employer $100 a week for three years to give his son an apprenticeship, yet there's still no taker as teenage unemployment hits 46 per cent in Victoria—for that is what the young have inherited from the worst economic managers ever to sit in the Treasury benches in Canberra.

It obviously forgot the Whitlam government. That is what happens when Australia is not led by people who are stable and focused on doing what is right and best for Australia. If the leadership is unpredictable and erratic, that is the price that is paid. It is paid by the most vulnerable people in this country: kids, especially those from low-income families.

There is another thing that is very important. A lot has been said about TAFE here, but the members opposite have not said a word about the 300 per cent TAFE fee increases in New South Wales, thanks to a Labor government, and the 25 per cent increase in Victoria. What about the full fee degrees at Victorian TAFEs from the Bracks Labor government? Do I hear any opposition to that? None. Hypocrisy knows no ends. For those of you who are driving a social justice truck—and the member for Lyons is genuine in this regard: get on to the member for Grayndler and find out why he has not talked to this bill and ask him why he does not ask a few questions about apprenticeships. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Ms Livermore's motion) stand part of the question.