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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 7

Senator CARR (1:00 PM) —I rise to speak in the second reading debate on the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004. For the last few years I have had the dubious pleasure of standing here to speak to similar bills—similar not just in a formal sense but insofar as this bill is part of the annual routine of amendments to VET funding. What is depressingly similar is that every year I have had to address the fact that this government's policy position on the vocational education system has remained lamentably underdone. The truth of the matter is that in recent years—in fact since Dr Kemp left the job—there has been a stalling of the national vocational education agenda.

We have seen a whole series of crucial measures in the vocational education framework remain in limbo and many problems and issues remain unresolved. Of course, these are matters that I have raised again and again through a number of Senate inquiries, and I once again draw the Senate's attention to the failure of this government to complete a program of genuine national consistency in training regimes and qualifications across the country. There remain huge flaws in the administrative arrangements. We simply do not have a system in place where a qualification earned in one state is recognised in every other state. I know the rhetoric says differently but in practice that is not the case.

There is in fact a climate of growing skill shortages whereby the issue of the national recognition of qualifications will become even more acute. It must be fixed. There is no evidence whatsoever in the government's forward program that it intends to fix this issue. The situation remains where a hairdresser in one state is not recognised in every other state across the country. We have a major problem with nationally consistent quality assurance regimes. The training curriculum, including the review of the training packages, has stalled. The revamp and the review of the ITAB structure is essentially proceeding at a snail's pace.

When you look at the major elements of the vocational education reform agenda in this country you see there is no serious work being undertaken. On top of that, the Prime Minister has unilaterally announced the destruction of the Australian National Training Authority, even though our vocational education and training system, despite every criticism I might have of it, is regarded internationally as being one of the leading systems in the world. I have always argued that it could be so much better. We have missed so many opportunities. We have failed to undertake our full responsibilities in the Commonwealth's role in this regard. If it had not been for some difficulties within New South Wales at the time when ANTA was actually established, we may well have had an entirely different system of administration back in the early nineties.

But now the Commonwealth has unilaterally sought to abolish the Australian National Training Authority. ANTA's national role, which has been crucial to the development of whatever progress has been made, is now to be pushed aside. Just after the federal election an announcement was made by the Commonwealth—an announcement which of course was never mentioned in the election campaign itself. No discussion was possible on this matter during the election campaign. There was no consultation with TAFE providers, with staff or with clients. There was no consultation with the states or territories, which of course were always seen to be partners in the national training agenda. They have been completely ignored. The decision was essentially raised unilaterally by this Prime Minister.

I take it that the Minister for Education, Science and Training was somewhat taken by surprise, because he too was not adequately consulted; he was told. This was a prime ministerial stunt. It was driven by the Prime Minister's office without the involvement of the Department of Education, Science and Training, let alone the minister for education. We do not have any really clear understanding of what the government intends to do in the period post-ANTA. It makes the approach to ATSIC look like it has been thoroughly thought through. The government is essentially at sixes and sevens. But there was a new regime announced by the government during the election campaign of the establishment of 24 technical colleges—and more about that in a moment. It is, frankly, disingenuous for this government to say that it is concerned about the future of school leavers, concerned about skill shortages and concerned about the imbalance in the arrangements between vocational education and university education. It is completely disingenuous when the government has unilaterally announced the abolition of ANTA.

This takes us back 15 years to a world in which the training system was essentially run like the old Victorian railways. That is where we are going, back to the Victorian railway style of administration where separate state instrumentalities dealing with parochial, inward-looking arrangements will be free to do their own thing, and there will be no nationally consistent set of policy frameworks. Nothing could highlight this administrative incompetence and this political vandalism more than the government's decision to announce unilaterally that it will establish 24 technical colleges to train what it says are 7,000 students over four years.

The 7,000 students over four years are merely a drop in the ocean of what is actually required, and it does not address the fundamental question of skill storages faced by this country. It does not face up to the grave concerns being expressed by both employer and union groups about the failure to deal with the skill shortage question. It does not address the fundamental blockages on productivity that arise as a result of the government's failure in this area—a failure, I might say, that is pointed out by the Labor Party year upon year—when it moved to its cheap and nasty training scheme away from traditional trades and put in place a series of mickey mouse training programs in the form of this so-called New Apprenticeships scheme.

Essentially, we have a government that seems determined to duplicate bureaucratic structures and the training facilities themselves. Because we do not have any quality assurance regime in place or any understanding of what the government intends to do with regard to the protection of the quality, probity or integrity of the administrative arrangements, we can only presume that the experiences we have seen in the past are likely to be repeated. The Department of Education, Science and Training has an appalling record when it comes to contract management. It has an extraordinarily inept approach to contract management, yet we are told that this new entity will be created with no guidelines and no arrangements put in place to determine what the quality assurance regime will be, and we are supposed to have some confidence in it. I ask the question: what will these new colleges look like? What sort of staff will they employ? Some of the statements I saw during the election campaign implied that they would be non-union, which I would have thought would be a breach of the Industrial Relations Act as it is currently proposed. There is no suggestion about the quality of the qualifications of staff to be employed or the need to ensure the curriculum meets modern training needs.

We have nothing more than a rather crude attempt to give private vocational education and training arrangements a leg up through the use of public subsidies, yet again, where the government seeks to use public moneys to bolster a privatised system. We are entitled to ask: what sorts of fees are likely to be charged, and how will students be able to afford them, what areas of skill shortages will be addressed and what areas of the current unmet demand will be addressed by these new programs? I think there is a real danger that these so-called technical colleges are about dumbing down training in this country and that institutions can be set up as cheap as chips, quick as you can with pared back training to working-class students who are pumped through from year 12. There is a real danger that they will not meet the needs of a modern economy; they will meet the political needs of a government that is seeking to run some populist lines about the failure of public education in this system and the failure, as the government perceives it, of the current TAFE programs. We are entitled to argue about what the relationship will be between these bodies and existing TAFE colleges.

This year the budget the government brought down actually cut TAFE funding and we have got a proposition in this bill where that is carried forward. This bill is supposed to be about supplementary funding as agreed to as part of a longer term arrangement. But there is no ANTA agreement, so the funding in this bill cuts the funding that has been allocated. This is a bill which is symptomatic of the total failure of the Commonwealth and the Howard government to come to honest and reasonable terms with the states. The principles underlying the ANTA agreement, which should have been embodied in this bill, were about consensus and mutual cooperation. They were about shared responsibilities. They were about mutual obligation between the Commonwealth and the states. All those principles are gone under this government. What you see is a unilateral approach. It is a great irony of modern liberalism, isn't it, that it was said to be the bastion of a system of government which was centred on a federation whereby the states had an extremely important role? In reality, we have a government that sets in place a highly centralised model of unilateralism where the government seeks to impose its will upon the states using somewhat dubious administrative practices.

I can tell the officers who are here today: we will have a field day with this at Senate estimates. Be prepared, because I can see year upon year of incompetence exposed as a result of this sort of policy making. I do not blame the officers for that. The great disadvantage they have is that they are being asked to implement a political decision without proper processes being set in train, without the necessary public policy rationale being explained and without a clear understanding of what can and cannot be done. We have a political device established by the Prime Minister—in defiance, in my judgment, of even the minister's view about propriety—which will inevitably, given the past practice, lead to administrative disaster.

The principles at stake here are very important, and they ought to be defended by this parliament. I am very sorry to say that, given the circumstances in this Senate for the coming three years, those principles may well be abrogated as the Commonwealth seeks to impose a politically derived interest which of course is poll driven. It is not based on evidence. It is not based on hard fact. It is based on perceptions that the government has that it believes to be to its short-term advantage by attacking public education and the states in this area with no clear policy imperatives being established as an alternative. These fundamental questions about skill shortages, probity in contractual arrangements and the necessity of ensuring quality assurance will not be able to be protected on the basis of what we have seen to date.

The unmet demand in 2003 in this country for vocational education places is said to be about 57,000 people. In particular, these are older people who are desperately seeking training to improve their job prospects and are not able to secure an opportunity through the existing arrangements. And what is the government's answer? These bodgie, half-baked proposals to set up private colleges for 7,000. So you can see that this is all about short-term appeal for electoral advantage without any proper examination of what the needs of the country are.

We have acute shortages emerging. Just on the weekend I was advised of a company in Ballarat that is seeking to employ boilermakers. They say that they cannot and that they are seeking several dozen boilermakers. The company says, `We can't find them in the country at the moment.' I say that is nonsense, but nonetheless they say that we need to import an entire factory full of boilermakers from China because we cannot provide sufficient trained personnel in this country. Firstly, I do not think they have tried too hard and, secondly, it points to the fact that for years upon years the government has encouraged short-term, cheap and nasty training arrangements and has neither provided the necessary investment itself nor encouraged others to do it. We now have a situation where the government is saying that it seems to be all right to import boilermakers from China to work in Ballarat if it is for undertaking the necessary work. It is appalling for a country of our sophistication and prosperity not to be able to provide sufficient trained personnel in a trade such as boilermaking.

In its July survey of investor confidence, ACCI stated that the lack of sufficient skilled workers is the No. 1 priority on its list of the top 10 constraints on investment in this country. It is well known that the number of trade apprenticeships has in fact increased but it has not kept pace with the necessary demand. The rate at which we have been training apprentices is some 15 per cent below what it ought to be. We have had enormous energy placed in training people how to make cappuccinos and how to flip hamburgers, but sufficient attention has not been paid to getting people to undertake high-level skills training in this country.

We all know the facts: it is expensive. It is easier for employers to get a government wage subsidy to take on an AQF3 in burger flipping or cappuccino making than it is for employers to provide the necessary support and investment in the higher level of skills training. So we have training rates that have fallen far too low as a percentage of the work force. A detailed study undertaken by the NCVER has shown that training rates for the metal trades fell from 12 per cent in the period 1987-92 to 9.8 per cent for the period 1993-2001—a drop of almost 20 per cent. There has been a similar decline in the electrical trades, at 23 per cent, and in the building trades, at 15 per cent. Rather than having a simplistic view and looking at the numbers of people in training, you have to look at the actual demand. The demand for skilled trades is not being met in terms of the investment that either the government or the private sector is putting into the traditional trades.

Of the 417,000 new apprentices in training, only 32 per cent are in the traditional trades areas. The vast majority of the so-called new apprentices are undertaking short-term training projects in retail and hospitality. While those areas are important, there cannot be undue emphasis on them. You cannot have an unbalanced approach to your training profiles, which is what we have at the moment. We need tradespeople with the depth and breadth of the four-year training programs that are available, and we need to make sure that this is seen to be the backbone of our productivity growth in the country.

Different rates of training apply in the various states and territories. For instance, in Tasmania the proportion of the new apprenticeships in the traditional trades is only 22 per cent, and in the Northern Territory it is only 11 per cent. We have a failure of policy at a national level, accentuated by a failure of policy at a regional level. We have a series of employer incentives being paid by the Commonwealth under the program, which has been geared towards providing additional support to, and undue emphasis on, the short-term trade areas.

The ACTU recently released a study of the cost to the economy of the trade shortages. The study proposes that, over the decade to 2014, the cost to the economy will grow from about $1 billion today to $9 billion. The 250,000 apprentices missing from the work force will in 10 years time cripple our manufacturing and construction industry. The cost to my state of Victoria will be some $2.4 billion. In New South Wales the estimated cost will be some $3 billion. That translates into many thousands of jobs and a huge loss of opportunity for our economy and our society. However, we have a situation where the government puts $2.3 million into advertising and spends an inordinate amount on promotion and employer incentives—some $500 million per annum now—but does not meet the necessary obligations of the real needs of the economy. In this bill we have an unfortunate situation that has gone on for far too long, and it will become more acute as this government moves ahead in this parliament. (Time expired)