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Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Page: 4741

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (19:12): It is very timely; I was persuaded this week by my federal electorate council to start sending out cards to people on their 21st birthday. The thrust of the budget, of course, is around necessary measures towards reducing middle-class welfare. I think we know that over the period of the Howard government, when massive infrastructure needs in this country were ignored, there was large expenditure in this area, and it has been quite interesting. My electorate particularly would be appalled by the emphasis over the last fortnight on the sad state, as the opposition apparently regards it, of those people on $150,000 a year—how sad their situation is and how basically we should not move money elsewhere to help those more in need. Another thrust, of course, is mental health, the need to support low-income families, and regional health and education infrastructure.

I want to talk about two areas that particularly affect my electorate of Werriwa. They are the question of training, skills and apprenticeships; and the issue of mental health. Both these affect people personally close but are, in the broader sense, crucial issues in the electorate of Werriwa. People speak about a two-pronged economy—states that are progressing well in regard to raw materials and those such as New South Wales in particular that are lagging. We have a different concept of a two-state economy, as this country has only 4.9 per cent unemployment, a very good record by the standards of the advanced industrial countries, and it is predicted that over the next two years 500,000 jobs will be created. However, within that situation, we have 230,000 people who have been out of work for at least two years. On the other hand, we are also seeking an increase in skilled migration because of the dereliction of duty that has characterised the way in which skills and apprenticeships have been ignored over a period of time. I remember the rhetoric of the previous government in parliament day after day carrying on about how there were too many aspirations for working-class people and that they should not all be going to university. That was just code for people not going to university from working-class areas; it was not a promise by the previous government to actually do anything about apprenticeships, about TAFE and about vocational education. If it had been, they would have more credibility.

We have a situation here today where only 50 per cent of apprenticeships are completed. It is no wonder that a major aspect of this government and this budget is to do something in regard to training. It is important in my electorate, which is a young electorate in far contrast to my previous electorate with families consisting of two working parents on many occasions, a significant number of children and a large youth population. It is also on the edge of Sydney and involves very significant cross-city movement of people, congestion et cetera because of the availability of jobs in other regions of Sydney. So this is important.

We see in this budget over $100 million going towards mentoring 10,000 apprenticeships to make sure that people actually complete them. I have indicated the abysmal completion rate of only 50 per cent. Something has to be done about it. That is a major initiative in this budget. A similar figure is going towards accelerated apprenticeships. Obviously we should be concerned if there is any deterioration of standards in that acceleration process. It is a way in which people can be brought into the work force, set up for life and for establishing families, and at the same time they can be accelerated through the award payscales that otherwise would stretch for many years. So there is a degree of attraction for a person to come towards apprenticeships if this succeeds where their apprenticeship will be completed earlier. People will be able to utilise those skills at an earlier point and thus able to get higher income. There are special measures that give grants to employers in crucial skilled areas.

In addition, $560 million will go to a National Workforce Development Fund, and a significant amount of that will be spent working with industry to make sure there is a national workforce capability and an agency will be established to give independent advice to the government. It should not be conceded for a moment that, despite these very significant initiatives by the government, little has been happening in the interim because in actual fact there has been a doubling of funding on apprenticeships and to employers since 2007.

In this budget we see $143 million over a four-year period going towards language, literacy and numeracy. We all understand this is a significant problem for individuals, for their families and for their lifestyle but it is also a major difficulty for our country in regard to productivity in that large parts of our workforce are not able to fully utilise their skills and are not attractive to employers because they lack these skills. So we see money that is very necessary going into that area.

Even for people in employment, and this is a situation which has deteriorated in this country. I remember the days a few decades ago particularly in Victoria—where most progressive action on this front occurs—where the Italian, Turkish and Greek workers were fighting for workplace English. It has fallen by the wayside under both sides of politics in the interim. But in this budget $20 million is going to workplace English for people already in employment whose situation is precarious because of their lack of English.

An amount of $80 million is going towards an endeavour to get job training for 30,000 sole parents. People on the other side of politics stigmatise, attack and assail people in this situation, but the reality of life is that many of these people do not have options because of a variety of circumstances. This government is going to try to do something about it.

For vulnerable job seekers, there is nearly $20 million to help 5,000 people whose situation in the workforce is vulnerable maybe because of technology, because of the disappearance of some jobs or because other people are available in the workplace. This will go towards increasing their skills, making sure they have more possibilities. There is a very strong emphasis on the direct partnership with industry to try to make sure that 130,000 new apprenticeships are provided through that cooperation. One thing that I am not as attracted towards is the proposal in this budget that COAG work towards vocational education. That sounds nice, and let's be hopeful that the outcome is positive. It speaks about catering to employers' needs, and that should always be a significant factor but not predominant. It talks about high quality training and an investment in the right skills. Again, that is laudatory that we try to get the right skills, but it speaks about a degree of choice for people. They can supposedly choose training organisations that perform best and meet their needs. I for one am a very strong defender of government provided technical education in this country.

Under the previous government we saw one of the biggest immigration disasters that has ever occurred in the way in which they handled the international student situation. Hundreds of thousands of people came into this country, essentially attracted not by education but by the possibility that they could live here for the next 50 years. One of the situations that the current government had to deal with in that area was the growth of very questionable private sector colleges. This government has had to go out and require all of those to be certified again. I am not highly attracted to the private sector education-for-dollar concept in this area. I hope that what happens in COAG does not go in a direction which says that education in TAFE is too broad, too humanistic, that it covers too many subjects the employer does not want and that it is cheaper to do it through these private providers. Quite frankly, we will get a third-rate outcome. So I very much commend the government's initiatives in this area. It is something that my electorate needs very much.

I want to mention another initiative of the government. I recently attended with the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, the opening of an extension to the Macquarie Fields TAFE. I saw young people there who obviously wanted to go into the building sector and they had a site available where they could construct buildings on site. I met a young woman, an inspiring person, who worked at Bunnings, decided that she knew a bit about carpentry and decided to go into that career. She was the spokesperson on the day for all the students and it was truly inspiring to see the opportunities she will get in life to be a female carpenter. She very much stressed that the TAFE providers were in no way gender discriminatory.

Another matter I want to deal with in the limited time is the question of mental health. Again, for me this is very different in my new electorate. I represented an electorate of many migrants and new arrivals and there was often a bit of a tendency to hide mental health problems behind doors. All the statistics indicate that. In this new electorate, because of the higher prevalence of public housing, it is even more of an issue than in my old electorate. When you have a high public housing presence, you have a higher level of disadvantage and a consequent preponderance of disabilities and mental health issues. I have been surprised in my area to see organisations such as Beautiful Minds, the Campbelltown Mental Health Service on Brown Street, Waratah House at Campbelltown Hospital and the Liverpool Hospital Mental Health Centre. I do not think any other electorate in this country has such a plethora of disability and mental health organisations working in the community.

It is indeed important to my electorate that one of the central focuses of this budget is mental health. There is $2.2 billion over a five-year period. It is aimed at areas most in need. There is intensive support, better coordination. Funding is devoted to those people who have severe and persistent problems and complex needs. There is an accent on support for areas and communities that are socioeconomically disadvantaged because, as I noted earlier, that is where there is a preponderance of these problems. There is also a very strong emphasis in this budget on looking at early detection, supporting young people and ensuring that people get options in life and have the possibility of participating in the workforce. One thing that was great which I saw in the last few weeks was the relevant minister, the member for Sydney, coming to my electorate to open a centre where a large number of services will be provided at the one site. This seems to be increasingly emphasised by the government in the area of workforce participation.

There will be a mental health commission which will directly report to the Prime Minister and will provide, for public scrutiny, an annual report. The fact that those reports will be going to the Prime Minister reveals her commitment to it and the priority it will receive, and this is shown by this budget.

I think the previous member spoke about Medicare Locals and there will be a responsibility for them to better coordinate services with significant NGOs. There is funding towards headspace and to provide far more early psychosis prevention and intervention centres to give young people the possibility of resilience in that area. I want to commend that area of the budget because, as I say, it is very significant locally.

Foreign aid is another facet of the budget. I noticed that Caritas Australia very strongly commended the decision by the government to move its foreign aid commitment to 0.35 per cent of gross national income, which is a step towards to the commitment to 0.5 per cent. It is a step forward, but I and many other members of this parliament will continue to advocate for the government to place an even higher priority on it. Caritas also noted that despite this significant advance it still places Australia only 14th out of the 23 OECD countries, and these are the countries we should compare ourselves with. They said:

The responsible increase of aid and development spending, announced tonight, will see Australia increase the delivery of life-saving development initiatives in some of the world’s least developed countries. When the Government is in belt-tightening mode, Caritas Australia welcomes AusAID’s commitment to prioritise the poorest of the poor.

It is interesting that some emphasis has been placed on expanding assistance to Indonesia. I have to note the lamentable performance of the opposition when they recently decried the government spending money on education in Indonesia to try to build moderate Islamic schools as an alternative to Saudi-financed extremist schools. While the opposition members nod their heads, I advise them to go and see their foreign affairs spokesperson to get their message across.

There is also an emphasis on improving education in the Pacific, eliminating violence against women, and improving water, sanitation and hygiene. I commend the budget to the House.

Debate adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 19:28