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Monday, 26 March 2018
Page: 2097


Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:12): My question is also to the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham. Can the minister confirm that, under the Abbott-Turnbull government, 140,000 Australian apprenticeships have been lost?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Education and Training and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:12): I can, indeed, inform Senator Watt that there has, as statistics show, been a decline in relation to apprenticeship commencements that dates right back to changes that were made in 2012 in relation to apprenticeship incentives. Who was in government in 2012? It was the Gillard government who was in government in 2012. It ripped out a range of employer incentives for commencement of apprenticeships and employment of apprentices. The consequence of that is that, given it takes three or four years for an apprentice to be employed, there has absolutely been a time lag in seeing the full impact of those policies of those opposite that had a demonstrable effect in reducing the rates at which employers chose to take on new apprentices or new trainees.

The Turnbull government have worked to clean up a range of areas of dissatisfaction and mess created in vocational education policy by those opposite. The greatest example of course is the VET Student Loans scheme, which saw billions of taxpayer dollars wasted in a dodgy loans program established by the Labor Party which we have had to fix and eventually eliminate and completely replace with a new targeted and more effective regime. And of course, in last year's budget, we announced a commitment to ensure that, in future, investment and co-investment with the states in apprenticeships and traineeships is targeted at ensuring that Commonwealth dollars aren't just used as they have been as a substitute for state and territory investment but actually deliver additionality of investment to create further growth in apprenticeships and traineeships into the future.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, a supplementary question.

Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:14): Was the minister consulted as a part of the Turnbull government's deal with One Nation to fund 1,000 apprenticeships in return for a $65 billion tax cut for big business? What is the total cost of the pilot program in dollar figures and as a proportion of the massive handout to big business?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Education and Training and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:15): Senator Watt comes in here and seeks to try to run hypothetical questions about discussions that—

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Wong, on a point of order?

Senator Wong: It's not hypothetical. It's the government's announced deal with One Nation.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Wong, it's for ministers—

Senator Cormann interjecting

The PRESIDENT: I was happy to rule on it, Senator Cormann, but if you'd like to, on the point of order?

Senator Cormann: On the point of order: the government has made no announcement. Senator Birmingham is quite right. The government has not made any announcements. The minister is quite right that this is just hypothetical at the moment.

The PRESIDENT: It is up to ministers how they answer a question. I will take on face value that ministers make announcements on behalf of the government they represent. Senator Birmingham.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I can assure Senator Watt and all senators that the Turnbull government will continue to work hard to undo the damage caused by the Labor Party to Australia's vocational education system; that we will continue to work hard to ensure that the VET Student Loans program is a success; and that we will absolutely be open, as we have been, to ensure that we continue to look at areas to grow apprenticeships and to pilot or trial different programs. Indeed, as this government has demonstrated, we are also willing to work cooperatively with the crossbench—indeed, with anybody in this chamber. What we would welcome is an opposition who wanted, once in a while, to work constructively, but, of course, that is far too much to wish for, that those opposite could ever work in the national interest rather than their own political interest.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, a final supplementary question.

Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:16): Was Senator Hanson made aware that the pilot program funding a measly 1,000 apprenticeships represents 0.7 per cent of the 140,000 Australian apprenticeships lost under the Abbott-Turnbull government?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Education and Training and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:16): Although Senator Watt continues to pursue a hypothetical line of questioning, I will say that many on the crossbench engage constructively on these issues. Many on the crossbench want to explore policy options to work with the government to see what we can do to rebuild the system in vocational education from the failings of those opposite—from the budget decisions of 2012; from the poor design of the VET FEE-HELP scheme. We've welcomed, on a range of fronts, cooperation from the crossbench, and we'll continue to welcome cooperation from the crossbench. We would welcome cooperation from the Labor Party, if ever you were willing to come to the table. But we won't be holding our breath, because your track record shows time and time again that you will play politics first and put policy second. That's why we are happy to keep working for a business tax regime that creates incentive to invest and creates incentive to employ more apprenticeships and traineeships by being a more competitive business tax regime into the future.