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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 38

Senator WONG (3:03 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by opposition senators today.

Senator Vanstone —Buy yourself a tape recorder and play yourself back!

Senator WONG —Thank you for that contribution, Senator Vanstone. I am actually going to talk about Senator Vanstone’s answers in question time—or her failure to answer, yet again, questions about the skills shortages which have developed under this government. The minister was asked about two reports, one presented to the Senate in 2003 and one presented to the House of Representatives this week, in which the Howard government’s failure to deal with the skills shortage is documented. The fact is that under this government we have seen skills shortages emerge which are now a substantial constraint on economic growth.

Government senators interjecting—

Senator WONG —This is not something that just the Labor Party are saying; this is something that the Reserve Bank is saying. You do not like hearing this, do you? You do not like the fact that you have been warned about skills shortages over a number of years and—you know what?—you have done nothing about it. What you have seen since 1996 is a reduction in the share of new apprenticeships in the traditional trades. You do not have an answer to that.

The fact is that the Reserve Bank, other commentators and Senate and House of Representatives committees have been saying that there is a skills shortage emerging, and what has this government done? It has done nothing. What it has done is ensure that we have increasing numbers of new apprenticeships in areas where there are no skills shortages and a reducing share of apprenticeships in areas where there are skills shortages. This is hardly a sensible policy towards vocational training; it is hardly a sensible economic policy.

Why is this a concern? Clearly it is a concern because skills shortages are a constraint on economic growth. Under this government what we have had is neglect or wilful ignorance which has allowed the skills shortage to build into a substantial economic constraint. It is not just a constraint in terms of economic growth; it is clearly also a constraint in terms of people’s capacity to fill jobs in the Australian labour market. This is not a new issue—it is an issue that has been documented for some time—but it is clear from more recent employment data that these skills shortages or skills deficits are growing as a constraint on people’s ability to enter the labour market.

Just last week we had the ABS statistics of persons not in the labour force, where it was clear that of the discouraged job seekers—these are people who have given up because they do not think they can find work—almost 50 per cent, that is, 48 per cent, identified a skills related issue as the reason they were discouraged; 25 per cent indicated that they lacked the necessary schooling, training, skills or experience; and 23 per cent indicated ‘no jobs in locality or line of work’. That is clearly a skills and job-matching issue.

Also, just today other ABS figures have been released which show that around 55,000 part-time workers in Australia identified that there are no vacancies in their line of work—that is, their skills do not match the current vacancies—and a further 30,000 lack the necessary skills or training for the work that is advertised. Now what does this mean? What this means is we have a gap between the skills which are required by employers and those which prospective employees have—a significant gap, a significant loss of employment potential and a significant effect on employment outcomes for Australians.

What is the government’s response to that? Again, we see a short-term fix response from this government. We see an emphasis on skilled migration, on bringing in people instead of training Australian workers. What do the government say to the unemployed young people in Newcastle? What do the government say to the unemployed young people and mature age workers in Geelong? They say, ‘Sorry, we haven’t worked on this enough since 1996, so we’re going to bring a whole range of skilled workers in from overseas to take these jobs.’ Perhaps one of the most damning things that has happened this week in relation to this is that in the report tabled in the House of Representatives the government’s own backbenchers have confirmed that they know there is a skills shortage. They know that the Howard government need to do more. They know what seems to have escaped the ministers in this place: that more needs to be done by the government if we are going to address the skills shortage. Even the government’s own backbenchers have identified the skills shortage and identified that the government have to do more to address this shortage and to maximise the uptake of traditional apprenticeships. In tabling the report, the member for Deakin noted one modeller’s predictions that in 2020 there will be half a million jobs in Australia with no-one to fill them. (Time expired)