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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 41

Mr SNOWDON (4:59 PM) —I thank the member for Kennedy for another challenging and entertaining contribution. He reflects, I think, the concerns of many who live in regional Australia, and across the Top End in particular, about the issue of skill shortages and the failure of the education system to adequately provide tradespersons and others in areas in the workforce where there are skills shortages. That is reflected in the mobility we are now seeing across the workforce. Workers are attracted to areas like Mount Isa, no doubt, but certainly to other mining areas in the Top End where there are severe labour shortages and skilled workers are able to attract very high remuneration.

However, we support the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia's Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006, which purports to produce 25 technical colleges as a result of a promise at the last election. Although we think it is a marginal start in what is a huge job, we support it. But I have to say the capacity of the government to deliver on its promise is clearly evidenced by the lack of performance in producing outcomes and getting colleges operating, and in failing to have a plan that properly addresses the skills shortage across this nation now or into the future.

We know that these technical colleges will not produce their first qualified tradesperson until 2010. We are informed by the Australian Industry Group that by that time we will need at least an extra 100,000 skilled workers. Just think about it. We are getting 24 technical colleges. As of the first semester, only four of these technical colleges were up and running, with fewer than 100 students enrolled across Australia. If we assume that each one of those students who is enrolled in training as a tradesperson commits and goes through their three- or four-year training, they will have produced 1,000 of the extra skilled workers Australia will need by 2010.

We know that in the case of the Northern Territory there was an announcement on 22 February last year on ABC radio that a technical college would be set up for a new year start—that is, the beginning of 2006. The report quoted the federal Minister for Vocational and Technical Education asserting that a college would be set up by that time. Yet today there is no technical college funded in this way by the Commonwealth up and running in the Northern Territory. It was of course to be placed in Darwin, and I will come to that issue in a little while. But we now know that, according to the government’s own website, they propose to have this new college operating by February 2007. Apparently, it is a non-government school catering for years 11 and 12 students. Last year we were promised it would be running by the beginning of this year; this year we are told that it will be running by the beginning of next year.

On 4 May this year, the consortium which was given the tender to carry out this work, including the Northern Territory Construction Association, the Chamber of Commerce and Group Training NT, were apparently told that if they did not hurry up and put in a feasible business plan they would potentially lose their funding. So we had a crisis in the middle of the year, following the fact that it was announced last year that there would be no commencement at the beginning of this year. After the crisis in the middle of this year, we were told that it will open at the beginning of next year. We do not know how many students there will be. I am told there could be—let us hope there are—around 50. Think about that. This magnificent edifice, this great monument to the forward thinking policies of the Howard government will, if it actually operates, have in its first intake around 50 students. Let us be kind and assume that they do three-year apprenticeships and that they begin in 2007; they might have finished by the completion of 2010. Some will do other courses and longer courses and might not finish until 2011 or 2012. Of course, we know that under normal sets of circumstances not all will finish. So this great contribution to alleviating the skills shortages in the north of Australia will, having been announced last year in 2005, at the very best, by the end of 2010, produce, we hope, somewhere between 40 and 50 new tradespersons. You would have to say that that in itself identifies the problem—the failure of this government to come to grips with its obligations in the area of higher education and TAFE.

We know from question time today that the government is well behind OECD standards in the area of funding for higher education and TAFE. Yet we have seen a cutback of eight per cent or thereabouts in funding here in Australia. This is a country with major skills shortages, and we see a debate going on about bringing foreign workers, and indeed foreign apprentices, into this country. We have huge labour shortages and yet across the north of Australia a huge untapped labour force which this country and this government is ignoring by dint of failing to address their needs.

I might say that this is not the case for industry, and I refer particularly to the mining industry. There was a time when you would be hard-pressed to find an Indigenous person working in the mining industry in Australia. It was not too long ago. But now, with the emerging skills shortages, there is a recognition by the mining industry—forthright recognition, I might say—of their obligations as Australian companies and as good citizens of this country to deal properly with Indigenous Australians, both in terms of their native title rights and interests but also, in the case of the Northern Territory, their rights under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. They had a community obligation to deal with those people properly and fairly, so many of them have changed in terms of their employment of Indigenous Australians.

What they have sought to do is to source labour from Indigenous communities across the Top End of Australia. In the case of a few organisations—Rio Tinto is one I can name; BHP is another, and we had a discussion only last week with Alcan Gove—they recognised that, if they want to actually fix their own skills shortages over time, what they need to do is to engage with the Indigenous communities in the areas in which they live, to provide them with the skills they need and require, to get them access into the training programs that they require to get the skills that they need to work in these organisations.

Last year I was fortunate to travel with my colleague Simon Crean and others and we visited the Argyle Diamond Mine. In the workshop we came across a young Aboriginal woman from the Kimberley—not from Kununurra but from a community not too far away—who I think at the time was around 18. Do you know what she was, Mr Deputy Speaker? This is a commendation of the work which was being done by the company and of her attitude as a young person: she was a trainee welder. Not only was she a trainee welder but she was seen as a gun welder. This is an area where, for a start, women were not welcome in the workplace for many years, but we have seen a liberation of ideas. Even the member for Parkes would tell us that it has happened in his own electorate, with any sort of luck. But not only that—here we have a young Aboriginal woman, who would have had not a ghost of a chance of getting a job of this type a decade ago, being welcomed with open arms by an industry which knows it has skills shortages and needs to work as a good citizen, keeping in mind not only its obligation as a company to get a return for its shareholders but its obligations to the community to provide skills and training for these Indigenous people.

Why that is important is that the knowledge of the skills shortage is not new. Indeed, I was responsible for launching a study of skills shortages across the Top End of Australia in 1995 or 1996. What that skills shortage survey demonstrated is what this government has failed to do and the need that this government has ignored for a decade, since it came to power. The way to address skills shortages in the regional and remote parts of Australia, in the north of Australia, is to work with, educate and skill up the Aboriginal community. Yet the government has failed miserably to do it.

In the case of the Northern Territory, let me say specifically that the Northern Territory government’s Workforce NT report for 2005 notes the following:

The NT economy is predicted to continue to strengthen over the next few years with increasing exploration and resource development, continuation of major project construction activities, and a strengthening tourism market. In the current climate where skill shortages exist across a wide range of occupations, it is reasonable to assume that the demand for skilled workers and the demand for labour will continue at both the local and national level.

We know that has been the case. The skills in demand list of October 2005 from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations showed at the time a Territory-wide shortage of workers in child care, accountancy, nursing, midwifery and other health specialist areas, as well as in the engineering, automotive, electrical and construction trades—not a bad list. If you ask an employer who lives in any of the regional towns in the Northern Territory whether they are able to attract labour, you will find most of them will say, ‘It’s bloody hard.’ Yet we know that, sitting there, waiting to be tapped, is a large Indigenous population with very high levels of unemployment. This government has failed to see the light.

A more comprehensive snapshot of the skills shortage is contained in the Workforce NT report, the result of an NT-wide survey conducted in 2005 by six training advisory committees. Across the Territory in 2005, 53 per cent of businesses reported difficulty in recruiting staff, and the most difficulty was experienced in the central region, which includes Alice Springs—which is where I live, by the way—where 65 per cent of businesses reported difficulty. That was followed by the Barkly region, which is around Tennant Creek and across to Borroloola, including the McArthur River Mine, with 59 per cent.

Tradespersons and related workers were nominated as the most difficult group of workers to recruit, with 34 per cent of responses citing difficulty. Labourers and related workers followed on 13 per cent, professionals on 12 per cent and clerical and service workers on 12 per cent. If you go across the east Arnhem region, the Katherine region, the Barkly region or the central region, they have similar data, which shows huge skills shortages and an inability of the business community to attract staff.

I have referred to Indigenous employment. My electorate and the regions identified in the Workforce NT report have a significant Indigenous population—indeed, in my electorate of Lingiari it is approaching 40 per cent—but it is a population that faces serious barriers to engagement with the jobs market. None of these barriers is going to be addressed by this technical college in Darwin, by the way. The Workforce NT report noted:

... over 83 per cent ... of the Indigenous population aged 15 years and over—

in the NT—

reside in remote areas. This existing and potential labour force is characterised by:

High rates of disengagement from the labour market;

High rates of employment through Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP);

Declining mainstream employment ...

Dr John Taylor, in a 2003 Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research discussion paper titled Indigenous Economic Futures in the Northern Territory, wrote:

The only growth in census-recorded Indigenous employment—

in the NT—

since 1996 has occurred in the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, with Indigenous numbers in mainstream (non-CDEP) employment actually falling ...

Now, that is an absolute indictment. He continued:

The CDEP scheme has thus overtaken mainstream employment as the primary employer of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory.

He also said that the number of Indigenous adults in mainstream or non-CDEP employment has declined by 10 per cent since 1996.

I am a strong advocate of the CDEP program but you have to think about it and think about the changes to the welfare reforms which the government has implemented. Dr Taylor recorded:

To date, the thrust of Commonwealth policy aimed at reducing welfare dependence and raising economic status has been towards increasing mainstream employment, especially in the private sector.

Yet, as we have seen, and as Dr Taylor notes, in the Northern Territory this has been alarmingly unsuccessful. And we have to ask why that is, because it reflects the indolence and complacency of the policymakers and those people administering government policy here in Canberra.

I note that the various ministers responsible for Indigenous affairs in this place are yet to come to terms with their obligations to understand this issue, to understand the educational shortfalls that exist within the Indigenous community and to understand that kids are not going to school. I am talking of thousands of young Aboriginal kids in the Northern Territory alone—and I know this is true of other parts of Australia—older than the age of 13, or of school-age, who do not go to school. They do not go to school or they do not have schools available to them.

In fact, up until 2001, as I have said in this place time and time again, the previous CLP administration—the conservative administration in the Northern Territory—closed down high schools in the bush and there was not one government school in the remote communities of the Northern Territory that provided a mainstream high school education to one Indigenous person—not one! They had no access to high schools, so how were they to achieve the skills required to get a job—if they could compete in the labour market in their vicinity or elsewhere—or have basic skills to get entry into the training programs required to get a trade? Ask yourself the question. You do not need to be Einstein to work it out.

We need to have a significant increase in expenditure in education and training in the bush if we are to address these skill shortages over time. This paltry effort being made by the government in terms of these technical colleges is but a drop in the ocean. If we are fair dinkum about addressing skill shortages across the bush in the north of Australia this government—or any government—should invest appropriately in Indigenous education, Indigenous TAFE services and higher education. Then they will get some decent results. (Time expired)