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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 67

Senator FORSHAW (2:54 PM) —My question is to Senator Vanstone, the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Is the minister aware of the Prime Minister’s explanation when he stated, ‘Skills shortages are the result of low unemployment’? Is the minister aware that the latest ABS data shows that the number of Australians available to work is 1.4 million—equivalent to 13 per cent of the work force—including 600,000 who are unemployed and 800,000 who are not counted as unemployed but are either actively looking for work or available to work within four weeks? Isn’t it the case that Australia is not running out of workers but running out of skilled workers, and that this is a direct result of the government’s failure to invest in skill development?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —The answer to your question about whether I am aware of what Mr Howard said in that context is no. However, I thank you very much for indicating what he said, and it sounds very sensible. We have a historically low unemployment rate in Australia—quite the opposite of what we had, with respect, Senator, when the party to which you belong was last in government. The senator opposite mentioned how many workers we have available for work, without taking the opportunity to mention that it was his party that put a million people out of work in Australia and had historically high unemployment rates in all age groups. It may suit the senator to believe that the issues associated with the skills available in the country are as simple as having put more people into particular skills three or four years ago and reaping the benefit now; that the issues are unrelated to the strength of the economy and the unemployment rate; and that the strength of the economy therefore gives people an opportunity to use those skills. The senator may not recognise the interplay between those things and the immigration system, which of course can be used, as I outlined in this place the other day. So the short answer is no, I had not seen the comments, but, as you relate them to me, they sound perfectly sensible.

Senator FORSHAW —Is the minister aware that, while traditional apprenticeships in skilled trades desperately needed by industry and exporters declined by 2,300 between the years 2000 and 2003, apprenticeships in sales and services rose by 25,000? Is the minister also aware that, according to the Australian Industry Group, 175,000 people are expected to leave the traditional trades area over the next five years, with only 70,000 expected to enter the fields that are obviously so important to the Australian economy? Why is the Howard government turning thousands of people away from studying plumbing, carpentry, motor mechanics and electrical trades?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —The short answer is that the Howard government is not turning people away from traditional trades. People may be choosing to train in other areas. The senator’s question did not, as I understood it, address the question of people doing traineeships in areas that go to the traditional trades, which might not give them the equivalent certificate at the end, but in the current climate it certainly allows them to earn the same, if not more, money than they would have under previous circumstances. This government is not turning people away. I refer the senator to answers given over the last couple of days, indicating that an offer was made by the Commonwealth for the Australian National Training Authority agreement which would have resulted in tens of thousands more places being available. Each of the Labor governments in the territories and states declined the offer.