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Thursday, 1 August 2019
Page: 1912


Ms PLIBERSEK (Sydney) (11:00): In the last week we've seen new data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research confirming what we already knew about this government, which is that it is unable to provide a plan for jobs for young Australians in particular. We see that this tired and out-of-touch government continues to let down people seeking an education to help them get a better job. There's no plan for jobs and no plan for skills. In the last week, all we've heard from the government is continued criticism of Labor, because they've come back and they've got no agenda for the future and no way of mapping out what they'd like to do to ensure that young people get the opportunities they deserve. What's their plan for young people in Maranoa or Page, where one in four people are jobless? Do they think that those people aren't having a go? They are certainly not getting a go.

Australians are relying on this government to come up with an economic plan, not just a slogan or a series of slogans. They need a government that is prepared to invest in education and in skills, to make sure that families have a future and that their young people have the opportunity of a world-class education. After six years, instead of a plan for jobs, a plan for the economy, a plan for skills or a plan for education, what do we have? We have record low wages growth. We've got debt of more than half a trillion dollars. This government has doubled our national debt, which is pretty rich from people who campaigned on the debt and deficit disaster. We've got one of the highest rates of personal debt in the developed world. We've had five years of weak productivity growth. We've got falling living standards, with people paying more for education, child care and medicines. We've got chronic underemployment and youth unemployment. We've got the Reserve Bank slashing interest rates to record lows. That's not the sign of a healthy economy. I remember when Joe Hockey was the Treasurer he talked about interest rates being an indicator of an economy in crisis. Well, they've fallen dramatically since that time. Despite the Prime Minister getting up during question time and boasting about the unemployment rate in this country, we now have a jobless rate that sees us at 19th in the OECD. We were eighth when Labor was last in office. We are now at the lowest ranking that Australia has experienced since these OECD records were kept. That is a shocking indictment of this government.

Young people are want to train, people who want to retrain or re-enter the workforce after being out of the workforce, people who want more hours of work—all of these people have been failed by a Prime Minister that continues to cut vocational education and training. In case you weren't convinced of how unimportant this is to this government, you only need to look at the fact that they've put Michaelia Cash in charge! I mean, truly. At the NCVER conference that the minister attended recently, she said when trying to defend the government's abysmal record on vocational education, 'This government is about jobs, jobs, jobs.' That is the message. Well, people are going to need all three of those jobs to make ends meet given what's happened to the labour market. People are working fewer hours and in insecure work, cobbling together income from different jobs to try and make ends meet.

When it comes to vocational education, the Liberals have presided over a crisis in the sector. Vocational education has been attacked day after day by privatisation, poor regulation and unhealthy competition among dodgy providers gouging the system. Since coming to office, first Prime Minister Abbott, then Prime Minister Turnbull and now Prime Minister Morrison have cut $3.6 billion from our vocational education and training sector.

According to that latest NCVER data that I mentioned earlier, since 2014 the number of apprentices and trainees completing their qualifications has dropped to 56.7 per cent. Since 2013, we've seen apprentice and training contracts decrease by 30.2 per cent, from 271,000 to 189,000. We've seen TAFE campuses shut their doors. In South Australia, seven TAFE campuses have closed and 700 jobs have been lost. In New South Wales one-third of the TAFE workforce have lost their jobs. We've had campus closures at Dapto and Quirindi. At Padstow college the impact of the government's cuts to TAFE has seen the commercial cookery courses cut, no information technology classes and the automotive workshop closed. Students are being locked out of vocational education because of rising fees, and we have 150,000 fewer apprentices today than when the Liberals came to office. We are presiding over the decimation of the vocational education system at the same time as we see high youth unemployment and skills shortages. These things should never exist even separately, but the fact that they exist at the same time in the same economy in the same society is an indictment.

No job should be on the skills shortage list longer than it takes to train a person to do that job. Despite the fact that we have youth unemployment rates of nearly 25 per cent in places like Coffs Harbour, we still see jobs, like panel beating, which have been on the skills shortage list for 20 years. Automotive electrician has been 21 years; motor mechanics, nine years; hairdressers, five years. Every other week, we hear stories about training providers going belly-up, leaving students unprotected, in many cases out of pocket and without the qualifications they need. So fixing this mess depends on restoring the funding that's been cut, getting the regulations right and focusing on training Australians for the jobs that are actually going begging in our economy at the moment. We've seen story after story. In Western Australia just recently, Western Australians have been missing out while WA mining companies are employing more and more overseas fitters, electricians and boilermakers.

The only way that we can fix this funding crisis is to restore the funding in full and to make sure that we've actually got the quality assurance that has gone missing from the system. Labor has made a very strong commitment that we restore TAFE as the central provider of vocational education in this country. Of course, TAFE and universities should stand side by side and work together to ensure that all Australians have the opportunity of a great education. When we were growing up, in our family my parents didn't say you had to go to university or you had to go to TAFE or you had to pick one over the other. What they said was, 'You need to get a job and do something that rewards you and that makes you a contributing member of our community.' I think most families feel the same way. They don't privilege a university education over a TAFE education. What they want for their kids is a job that will give them a good income, security, stability; something that gives them rewarding work. So, whether we choose university, TAFE or apprenticeship, we need to ensure that our systems make it possible for every person to make the choice that best suits them.

I've had the privilege over recent years of visiting a lot of university campuses and also many, many TAFE campuses right across Australia, looking at the aged-care training facilities, the nursing training facilities, the disability care training facilities; the laboratories that they are using to train these workforces; engineering and metalwork facilities. People could be employed in metal manufacturing and engineering and as electricians in the near future in the projects that we see around the country. We're not training young people for those jobs. We need to make sure that our TAFE system and our university system are both excellent, because nine out of 10 jobs that will be created in coming years will require either a TAFE or university qualification. The days of leaving high school, getting an entry level job and working your way up through an organisation just don't exist anymore. What we see more and more, in increasingly complex jobs and increasingly sophisticated workplaces, is an expectation that people will have a postsecondary school education, and there is increasing difficulty for people who don't. So making sure that our TAFE sector and our university sector support this workforce as it changes is absolutely vital.

I want to acknowledge the contribution of my dear friend former senator Doug Cameron, who did so much policy development in the vocational education sector for Labor before he retired at the last election. Doug will always be one of TAFE's most ardent defenders. In his time as the shadow minister for TAFE and vocational education he fought against every cut and shared in the successes of the constituents that he met.

We have seen so many uplifting stories of a second chance at education that vocational education has delivered—the 43-year-old single mum who had left school at 15, getting her first qualification and her new job in early childhood education and care, or a refugee who is now a university law student because of the English-language and tertiary preparation course that she did. These stories are the human face of our investment in vocational education and the reason that it's so important that we get this right. These examples tell the story of what a properly resourced vocational education system can do, not just for the individuals that I've met along the way but for our economy as a whole. It's through creating the skills needed in these shortage areas that we will see further economic growth. As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said, 'Productivity isn't everything, but in the long run it's almost everything.' Skilling our workforce for the jobs of today and of the future is the key to unlocking the potential of every person in this country but also to sustaining our economy as it changes.

What we saw from former Prime Minister Abbott, from former Prime Minister Turnbull and now from Scott Morrison, the current Prime Minister, is the neglect of our vocational education system. That neglect will flow on to economic growth. By investing in our public TAFE system we guarantee jobs, productivity, economic growth and fairness. Instead of ripping out more than $3 billion from vocational education and training, we should be reinvesting in these systems, not only for the individuals that need this education but also for our nation as a whole, to guarantee our prosperity into the future.