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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 59

Senator CROSSIN (4:22 PM) —I rise to make my contribution in the second reading debate on the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 to reduce the appropriated funding to be provided to the states and territories, following the failure of this government to reach agreement with them earlier this year in the signing of the Australian National Training Authority agreement. This government has repeatedly failed over the years to provide adequate growth funding through ANTA. It fails to recognise the unmet demand, and therefore no growth funds are being provided or have been provided for many years.

This government continued its mean penny-pinching ways in reducing real funding for a field of education and training that has been growing fast. Of course, it tried to push the responsibility for our national skills shortage onto the states and territories. Now it has gone further and announced the abolition of ANTA—something that was not mentioned at all during the election campaign but which was announced minutes after this government again claimed victory. It was decided during the election campaign launch, where the Prime Minister announced a record amount of billions of dollars to be spent to get the government re-elected, that they would spend $289 million on building 24 new private technology colleges. Geoff Maslen, in an article he did for the Campus Review in May this year, said:

The Federal budget failed to provide money for additional places to meet the needs of the estimated 50,000 Australians who were unable to enrol in TAFE courses this year ...

The government claimed that the package being offered for the 2004-06 ANTA agreement would deliver 71,000 new places over the three years. The states and territories believed this to be a gross overestimate, their figure being only 18,000. They naturally defended their case and sought more growth funding, based on past trends and expectations of high levels of enrolment growth. Unfortunately—and this is so often the case with the government—the government decided that after so many years in power they knew best and failed to consult with the states and territories. The government believe they do not need to listen or consult. They made appropriations for the 2004 year in anticipation of their offer being accepted, but we now know that the states and territories held out. They stuck to their guns, with the result that there has been no new agreement and this bill before us offering a reduced fallback funding.

The deal was initially rejected by the states and territories in December 2003. The Minister for Education, Science and Training then rolled over the existing agreement for a further 12 months but withdrew the indexation of growth funding and maintained all other funding at the 2003 level. The minister then went on further to demonstrate his annoyance by taking millions of dollars away and putting it out to private providers—10,000 new places in priority areas such as for older workers and people with a disability. However, when successful tenders were announced in May 2004, the number of new places had dropped to only 7,500 places, at a cost of $20.5 million.

This government is desperate and grasping at straws and has gone further by committing $289 million for private technology colleges. The government sees this as a genuine response to the national skills shortage which its policies over eight years have created. I will return to this point later in my speech. Reaching agreement on growth remains a key problem for this government. Estimates on growth vary. In January, in a Campus Review article entitled `States reject ANTA offer', it was estimated that unmet VET demand would be 57,000 places. Figures I have obtained from the ABS suggest that there was a shortage of around 43,000 places in 2003. These figures give an indication of the situation in the recent past, but we have a skills shortage and a need for many more places right now and into the future.

The new private technology colleges will not even start for two years, and they are hardly the answer for here and now. As was stated by the shadow minister in the debate on last year's VET funding amendment bill, this government has not provided one extra cent of funding in six out of the nine years it has been negotiating ANTA agreements—and now it has suddenly turned around and discovered that it has a skills shortage on its hands and a crisis in industries in this country. The Australian Education Union says that over the past seven years cumulative budget cuts have reduced spending in TAFE by $240 million. Is it any wonder then that TAFE is critically short of funds and that so many young people are missing out on places? The truth is that this country has youth unemployment running at around 20 per cent, not the 7.5 or so per cent the government tries to have us believe. We have a national skills shortage, but we have had that for some years under this government.

The Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee conducted an inquiry into this very matter only a year or so ago. There are anywhere between 40,000 and 50,000 young people unable to get TAFE places, yet we have an education minister who will not reasonably negotiate but who picks up his bat and ball and goes home when the states and territories try to argue for a better deal for young people in this country and try to address the skills shortages.

The Dusseldorp Skills Forum report How Young People are Faring 2004 reveals that a disturbing number of young people are being left behind, facing insecure employment and reduced earnings over the long term. More than 25 per cent of the 2002 school leavers experienced a troubled transition six months after leaving school. We in Labor are again saying that we do not like the situation, but we will not refuse this funding bill as there has to be some funding guaranteed. However, we condemn the government for failing again this year, as they have over the last eight years, to adequately fund an important area of the education sector to reflect real increases, to meet skills shortages, to guarantee young Australians a secure future and to assist older workers to upgrade or retrain.

As was pointed out by my colleague Dr Emerson in the House of Representatives, this government has been unable to accept that there is a skills shortage. It has seen the main problem as being one of industrial relations, where the solution is just to remove all workers rights and to allow wages and conditions to be eroded. It believes this will create jobs. The tragedy for the nation is that the jobs are already there. It is not that there are not enough trained and skilled people to fill them and it is not as if we have not been talking about a skills shortage in this country for years. I remember standing in this place arguing that this government needed to have a long-term strategy to address skills shortages the day it was announced that the Darwin to Alice Springs railway was to be built and still nothing had been done in the Territory to address that.

I want to digress for a minute. When I speak to small business in the Territory, the No. 1 issue it always raises with me is the skills shortages matter, not the industrial relations matter. Sometimes the issue is tax and the complicated BAS system they are working to, but nine times out of 10, repeatedly for the last 6½ years, small business in the Territory has put a case to me that there is a chronic skills shortage in the Northern Territory. The second biggest thing it says to me is that young people are not attracted to picking up a skill or a trade and that what the government needs to do is to spend some money on an advertising campaign to make training and having a trade skill attractive to young people, encouraging them to pick up a skill or a trade.

Dr Emerson went on to point out that even the ACCI—which surely must be closer to the government than the trade unions are in this country—was telling the government that skills shortages are the main problem confronting business. So you are hearing it nationally and I am hearing it locally. Similar advice comes from the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, both one would believe notable and well-informed organisations in the field of Australian industry and business and both at the coalface of trying to fill jobs with skilled and ready workers but unable to do so in anywhere near sufficient numbers.

The government have kept to the same old recording to the states and territories for years, saying to them, `You have GST revenue that is growing; you have to take on more responsibility for education or for health,' which is hardly a demonstration of national leadership and hardly what one would hope for from the highest-taxing government ever in the history of this country.

Let me go back to Dr Emerson's speech where he refers to this government's action in attempting to further strip awards and remove skills based career paths as an allowable matter. He said that this government does not even believe that employers should have any obligation to support staff training. There is a little bit of confusion there at the moment: maybe Minister Hardgrave does and Minister Nelson does not. So why should we think it might attach real importance to training nationally? Perhaps working towards a policy of private technical colleges offering $100,000 trade qualifications, as it has moved to do in the higher education sector.

So at a time of acknowledged and well-documented skills shortages, the Howard government not only has severely limited funding for VET—limiting growth of places, ducking and weaving on its national responsibilities and pushing its training agenda onto the states and territories—but also has removed any responsibility for employers to support training. How can it possibly believe this is the way to continue Australian growth, prosperity and international competitiveness? Every year over 10 per cent of Australians over 15 years of age study in the VET system. In 2002 there were 1.3 million people in the public TAFE system, which provides entry level VET for young people and also further opportunities for older workers and a second chance education for the economically disadvantaged. It is therefore a wide-reaching sector, important not only to us as a nation but to individuals too within that nation. It is perhaps especially important in my own electorate of the Northern Territory where large numbers of people access TAFE, especially disadvantaged Indigenous students for whom university is less of an option but for whom VET represents a real chance of training for employment.

The minister may well boast that under this government the number of people on traineeships and apprenticeships has doubled. Maybe that is true at the entry level, but how many of those entrants are completing their trade qualifications? That is a different figure. The truth is that many of the traineeships are short-term fixes, and most of this growth has been in certificate level training in retail and fast food, not in the traditional trades areas in which we are now facing severe shortages—trades such as building, panel beating and metal fabrication. This government has not had a strategy to examine skills shortages and respond accordingly. It still does not have a strategy. It wants to plug the gaps with 24 technical colleges. It has allowed the quick fix where statistics look nice—double the number of trainees and apprentices—but the final outcome does not fit the national demand for skills. It fits government political expediency but not national strategy. The results are now clear, and business is facing a massive skills shortage.

This latest idea of 24 private technical colleges is not an appropriate national strategy either. These colleges will barely make a dent in the skills shortage. They do not start until 2006 and will not be fully operational until 2008, and by then tens of thousands more young Australians will have missed out on places. Furthermore, these colleges are to provide high-quality tuition for students in years 11 and 12, according to the minister's press release of 12 November, so many potential TAFE students will be excluded. The colleges may well provide tuition to more than 7,000 students but, to return to the figures from the ABS quoted earlier of around 43,000 places short in TAFE, these new colleges are nothing short of a gimmick and are not a serious attempt to reduce the shortage of places or skilled tradespeople.

Let us take the practicalities that exist in Darwin, which is supposed to be a place where one college will be located. If they are looking at getting at least 300 students into that technical college from the pool of year 11 and 12 students in the Darwin and Palmerston area, it has to be recognised that there are only about 1,000 or 1,200 year 11 and 12 students in that area at this stage. One has to wonder where they are going to find those 300 students. Obviously they will come out of the existing high schools that are already set up and that have well-established VET in Schools courses.

Before these colleges get anywhere near to being operational, Australian businesses will have spent many more fruitless and costly hours trying to recruit skilled workers who just are not there. Australian business cannot wait years for action from the Howard government. If the government were to put that $289 million into existing TAFE facilities and programs, we could see action right now and the shortage could be reduced far quicker than waiting until new colleges are built and operating. These new colleges are simply a wasteful duplication of facilities, which the nation's young people cannot afford. They will simply add another layer to the education system—another layer to the bureaucracy—and take funds away from the well-established state schools and TAFE institutions.

I am well aware that this bill is not about the establishment of the 24 colleges; it is about funds going to the vocational education and training sector of our education system. It is about the fact that this government is not providing enough growth funds in the vocational education and training sector. What it does mean is that the $289 million that has been set aside for the technical colleges is, as I said, a wasteful duplication of resources and facilities. In Darwin we have the Charles Darwin University, which has a massive amount of equipment and resources sitting waiting to be used by potential VET students. We have VET in Schools courses operating at Casuarina Senior College, Darwin High School and, particularly, Taminmin and Palmerston high schools. I believe we need a strategy that actually encourages these schools to work cooperatively with Charles Darwin University and to share the resources that we have got rather than simply setting up another building—another lot of bricks and mortar—which I do not think people believe is the answer to this problem. Building another building will not close the gap in skills shortages. What we need is better use of the current resources and a long-term strategy to attract people into the trades area and to ensure that these places come on board now, not in 2006 and 2008.

I know that Senator Allison mentioned comments by Pat Forward, the AEU federal TAFE secretary, who said on behalf of her members of the current proposal to set up the technical colleges:

This is a ham-fisted attempt to bypass the public TAFE system. It arises from the government's inability to establish positive and productive relationships with the Labor State governments, particularly in the area of vocational education and training.

This government has failed to realise that there needs to be growth funding in this industry. This government has failed to work cooperatively with state and territory governments to address the skill shortages and to properly give due recognition to the needs of and the resources required by the public TAFE system. The Labor Party believe that this bill is a great disappointment for our nation but, as I said, we will not be opposing it. Some money flowing into the VET system is better than no money and there must be some funding for 2005. I particularly condemn the government for its failure to adequately fund the vocational education and training sector repeatedly over many years to guarantee our young people a secure future, to meet skills shortages and to assist older workers to upgrade or retrain.

I noticed that Senator Carr this morning made comments about the technical colleges, the abysmal waste of money that this will lead to, the lack of recognition from this government that this money needs to be put into creating places right now and a promise that we will pursue this in estimates at every chance we possibly get. We will be raising this as an issue every year for the next three years. The government just discovered during the election campaign that it had a skills shortage on its hands. I do not know why it has taken the government this long to realise that. Certainly the committee that Senator George Campbell and I have been working on had raised this as an issue in an inquiry over 12 months ago. Businesses have been raising this as an issue with me for the last 6½ years. This government's answer is not to put $289 million into places here and now but simply to establish more capital works, more buildings, to create a privatised TAFE sector, to bypass the states and territories and to make sure that it is only available for year 11 and 12 students when there is currently a very good system in place—the VET in Schools system—which is working but which is severely underfunded. This is not the answer to the skills shortage in this country. (Time expired)