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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Page: 71

Mr BYRNE (7:06 PM) —I rise tonight to discuss the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill 2006, which relates to the funding of Australian technical colleges. As we have heard tonight from a number of contributors on our side, Labor supports the bill but also supports the amendments moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Ms Macklin. They relate to some of our concerns about the implementation of these technical colleges and in reality what their effect will be on the elimination of the skills shortages in this country. I understand that the purpose of the bill that we are debating tonight is to bring forward the funding for the 25 Australian technical colleges for 2008-09 to 2006-07, but the total level of funding remains unchanged. I also understand that this bill establishes a regulation-making power to allow for funding to be carried over or to be brought forward into another calendar year, removing in future the need for recourse to legislation such as this to alter the timing of the funding. As I have already said, we support this bill.

The colleges are being funded by the bill we are debating tonight in an environment of a skills crisis in our country. We in this country, particularly those in the region that I represent, are crying out for skilled tradespeople: manufacturing workers, carpenters, boilermakers, welders, land managers and horticulturalists. In fact, we are debating this bill in an environment in which we are going to need about 100,000 extra skilled workers by the year 2010. We also find that this is the year that the first tradesperson is going to be produced by the technical colleges that have been funded by the government. I also understand that, out of the 25 technical colleges that have been put forward by the government, only four are in operation and that, in those four, currently fewer than 100 people are enrolled.

So, whatever the motivating factor behind these colleges is, my concern is this: how is this system, which already appears to be flawed in its implementation, going to reduce the capacity constraints that have been created? We know, as sure as night follows day, that, if you have capacity constraints in areas like this within our economy, what is going to happen is that you are going to have inflation. We are already seeing some of that wash its way through the system at present. This is an area and an issue that we need to address, because if we do not, it will be a further push in terms of demand inflation.

What concerns me in addressing this issue is that this is not new. We have known about the skills crisis for some period of time. The government, in its election document that was taken to the 2004 election, speaks about how they have been creating more apprenticeships. But there is nothing in it about our great need to move to fill the crisis of the lack of skilled tradespeople in our local area, our region—particularly my region—and our country, so there has been inactivity on this.

The other thing about the Australian technical colleges is that while the theory is good it ignores one thing: that the tasks that are mooted to be performed by these technical colleges are in fact already being undertaken by TAFEs, private schools and government schools in the region. There is a lot of talk about waste and the level of duplication between state and federal governments. But, in this era of governments trying to eliminate waste and duplication, why does the federal government ignore this by trying to supplant the state system and plant in its place a technical colleges system which appears to be fundamentally flawed, as is evidenced by the limited enrolments and the take-up rate? The government document that talks about these technical colleges speaks about 7,200 students ultimately washing through them in the next four years. That is clearly not going to be the case. There is quite clearly a problem here with the implementation of this system.

As I said previously, we do have an existing system. It is called TAFE. It does in fact work and it works very well in our region. My question as to skilled employment is: why have over 300,000 Australians been turned away from these TAFEs because of the lack of funding, while the government has imported over 270,000 skilled migrants over the past 10 years in those areas? Why is that the case? Why are we turning away young Australians who could take up a trade while we are bringing in foreign workers to take their place? This is unsustainable. This is not the Australia that I remember. I remember that when I was at school a kid wanting to do a trade could go to a TAFE and that person would get a trade. Why are people being turned away? Why are foreign workers being brought into this country in their place? It is unacceptable, and I can tell you it is a major issue in the electorate that I represent.

I would also ask this: instead of spending money to invest in our skills base through a strong education and training system, why has this government been denuding our TAFEs and our universities with cuts to funding in real terms? In fact, public investment in our universities and TAFEs has fallen by eight per cent since 1995 whilst the OECD average in comparable areas, in terms of spending by governments, has been a 38 per cent increase. Why is that the case, particularly given that we operate in a very hostile global trading environment?

The lack of funding for TAFEs and universities is quite clearly having a significant impact on our particular community. I know that there is an ATC in the eastern-south-eastern region, in Ringwood. It is in the electorates of both Phil Barresi, the member for Deakin, and Jason Wood, the member for La Trobe. But I would ask this particular question. The government spoke about putting Australian technical colleges in areas of need. Let me talk to you about the city of Casey and its population and ask why it is not an area of need. Its current population is estimated to be about 224,000. Its expected future population is expected to be about 350,000 in 10 years time, making it as big as Canberra is today. Currently, according to the latest estimates, we have about 55 families moving in every week, or 8,700 people moving in per year.

The really interesting demographic is that children aged zero to four make up about 18,000 people, or about 8.2 per cent of the city’s population, and there are approximately 38,000 students in primary and secondary schools. There are about 47,573 young people in the city of Casey aged between 10 and 24. Explain to me, given those population statistics, why the city of Casey has not been judged by the government to be an area of need. I can assure you that a lot of those kids will want to go to a TAFE or a technical college, however flawed it is; they want to have options.

What is happening in the city of Casey at the present time is that there is a tidal wave of young people who are coming through without the social infrastructure to support such rapid population growth. They need funded TAFEs. They need funded university spots. They could even have done with a government contemplating putting a technical college in the area. When the government first called for tenders for these Australian technical colleges, two consortiums in the region put their bids in to the government. One was to be a consortium that would be based in Berwick; another was to be a consortium based in Pakenham. Both were rejected. I do not know the exact statistics about the population in Ringwood, but I can say this for a fact: there is no way that it would have the same number of young people who would be seeking to perform a trade, looking in that environment or seeking to access TAFE. If we are looking at this as being based on an area of need, the statistics overwhelmingly argue in favour of the technical college being put in this area.

Notwithstanding the fact that we do not have a technical college in our area, why isn’t appropriate government funding going into institutes like the Chisholm TAFE? One thing I have forgotten to mention is that the Chisholm TAFE and my electorate border the manufacturing suburb of Dandenong. In fact, 25 per cent of employment in my electorate is generated out of manufacturing. This is an electorate—a region—that depends upon manufacturing and tradespeople as its lifeblood.

People who want to do a trade will generally go to TAFE. There are three TAFE campuses that I deal with that do great work for the community but that in my view are not sufficiently funded to perform the task that they are required to perform by government. Those TAFEs are Berwick, Cranbourne and Dandenong. In looking at Australian technical colleges, people talk about an enrolment of about 300 people per technical college. That is interesting. Let us have a look at the enrolments at each of the TAFE campuses I have just mentioned. The Berwick TAFE has a course enrolment of 3,056, the Cranbourne TAFE has a course enrolment of 1,803 and the Dandenong TAFE has a course enrolment of 13,041. That is a total of 17,900 enrolments in that area. Clearly there is a demand for a service in a facility like a Chisholm TAFE.

I would like to acknowledge that the federal government does in some small way recognise the importance of these TAFEs, because it has funded them. For example, it has funded capital works of $9.6 million for the Dandenong access and language building. There was $5.6 million for an enterprise centre in Frankston. And there was $13.1 million for the Dandenong Centre for Integrated Engineering and Science; it will be commencing soon. So the government has given some level of recognition to the performance of this particular TAFE. But if it is going to do that why doesn’t it provide additional funding for some of the courses? The waiting lists for people trying to get into these courses are huge.

Let me give an example of some of the waiting lists and the numbers for some of the apprenticeships—apprenticeships that we need to have so that people can graduate and get out there in the workforce. We are looking at areas like electrical, building and construction, automotive vehicle mechanics, automotive panelbeating, automotive paint and plumbing. There we are looking at a waiting list of 119 last year—119 people trying to get into the course.

Then there is building and construction. Our area is powered by the construction of houses. We have a huge uptake of housing construction in the area, so there is a huge demand for skilled apprentices and skilled tradesmen. If we look at building and construction apprentices and plumbing, we see that in certified plumbing we have a shortfall—about 472 people who have been on the waiting list, and another subcomponent of 48. All up, in a particular year, just for those two or three areas, we have waiting lists of 639 people. What is happening here? Why isn’t the government funding this to deal with the shortfall?

In addition, community leaders who talk to business leaders in this area say that there is a serious skill shortage in the area. There has been a skill shortage for some time. My question is this: if the government cannot even afford to put a technical college in my area, why can’t it fund this demand? Why can’t we offer our young people an opportunity to go to these three Chisholm TAFEs, graduate and get out there in the workforce? I would prefer young people who live in my area to be given the opportunity rather than their jobs being taken by imported labour. If you think that I am speaking out of tune, go and ask a lot of people in my electorate.

Labor has a plan to address this skills crisis. The skills blueprint was released in September 2005. We want to offer young people better choices by teaching trades, technology and science in first-class facilities and rid our schools of dusty and Dickensian workshops. We want to establish a ‘trades in schools’ scheme to double the number of school based apprenticeships in areas of skill shortage and provide extra funding per place—which is obviously needed in my area, as I have just said. We want to establish specialist schools for senior years of schooling in areas such as trades, technology and science. We want to establish a ‘trades taster’ program so that year 9 and year 10 students can experience a range of trade options which could also lead to preapprenticeship programs. We would also overhaul the failed New Apprenticeships scheme.

We would increase the number of young Australians completing apprenticeships, through incentives such as the $800 a year skills account which would abolish up-front TAFE fees. That is particularly important given the cost of living increases that my region has experienced. The money would be paid directly into a skills account for every traditional trade apprentice and could be spent on TAFE fees, textbooks and materials. We would also provide a $2,000 trade completion bonus under which traditional apprentices would receive a $1,000 payment halfway through their training and a further $1,000 payment at the completion of their apprenticeship. This scheme aims to achieve an 80 per cent completion rate.

Statistics indicate that in my electorate of Holt about 320 people commenced an apprenticeship in 2004. The national dropout rate is about 40 per cent, so 128 people who started their apprenticeship that year could drop out. We want to give them incentives to complete their programs. This country needs skilled tradespeople, and the fact is that we are not getting them. I do not believe we should import skilled tradespeople. I think it is un-Australian, particularly when we are turning young people—and potentially masses of people in the city of Casey—away from our TAFEs and facilities that their parents have paid for with their taxes. They have a right to access these facilities. It is their right to have a job and to not see it taken away by someone who has come in from overseas under a very suspect visa category and who is generally paid under award wages, which is what I have been told by people who have some experience of this. It is not Australian. It is not the Australia I grew up in; that is for sure.

We have to offer our kids opportunities. The proposal for the Australian Technical Colleges, however well meaning, is clearly not up to the mark. Only four colleges are operating, each with fewer than 100 enrolments. Clearly the system is not working. Labor support this system, the technical colleges and the amendments that have been moved, but if the government is serious about addressing these issues I ask that it funds the TAFEs, that it talks to the state governments and that it thinks about their kids’ and our kids’ futures rather than playing petty politics.