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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 53

Mr RIPOLL (12:42 PM) —It is a great privilege for me to speak on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2007 today. The reason for that is quite simple: I believe in training and in skills and I think it is important that this parliament does everything in its capacity to enhance and support that. To that effect, Labor will not be opposing the bill. But it is interesting to note a number of things that bring about the amendment to this bill. This is the third cost blow-out for the government in relation to—what I would call at this stage—their failed Australian technical colleges. They must be failed because they have not yet succeeded. There can only be one or the other; it is an on-off technical point. If they have not succeeded, they must have failed. The first round of funding was $343 million, which was not enough. It had to be increased to $456 million, and that was not enough. Now it has been pushed out to $548 million. The government might try to explain away as to why there have been these additional costs, but they are not really additional costs; they are cost blow-outs. They are a failing on the part of the government to understand in the first place why it did not need to introduce these colleges.

It goes to the intent of why these ATCs are there in the first place. The Australian technical colleges were put in place not as a solution, not for an outcome, not for training needs, not for skills and not to do something in the national interest; they were quite simply put there as a political tool. It was about an election outcome. Let us be clear about that right from the outset. There is no way from anything I have read, anything I have seen or anything I have heard, particularly not from government members or the Minister for Vocational and Further Education—in fact, the more I listen to them the more I am convinced that this was about an election outcome—that success is measured in students, results or outcomes in the national interest. Success is measured in whether this mob got re-elected, and in that they did succeed. Their primary goal of setting up something which would cost the taxpayer half a billion dollars to get them re-elected was successful.

However, we need to do something for young Australians. We need to do something for skills and for the crisis which everyone acknowledges is real. On that score the government have failed, because they are not interested. That is the reality; the government do not care. They would not spend five minutes looking at what people really need but they would spend $500 million looking at what they need for an election outcome. That is what disappoints me—the lost opportunities, the waste of taxpayer dollars, the false hope that the government put out to people in terms of providing something extra. We could put this money to good use, and I will deal with that as I consider the bill today.

This is a failed program by the government. The amendment bill before us means that there will be three new ATCs. I would have thought that the government would have concentrated on the existing ones and the ones that have not opened yet, rather than setting up new ones. There will be new colleges in Perth, Brisbane and Western Sydney. I welcome them. If, in the end—no matter how painful and how much it costs—there is an outcome for skills and for young people, I welcome it. I understood what this initiative was about. In the heat of an election campaign, there was desperation and the government needed to do something. We all understand that. There is no question that people understand what this government is about. But if there were an outcome and some students had some skills at the end, you could give it a tick and say, ‘We’re at least getting something.’

Probably one of the best submissions, or tenders, put forward to the government was from my electorate of Oxley. If you look carefully and closely at the government’s guidelines on Australian technical colleges—and this is about what they say, which is different from what they do—you find that they talk about skills, working with industry and partnerships. They use all the usual terms to try and convince people. They talk about outcomes and areas of need. I could not find a higher area of need than the western corridor in Queensland. The government want to talk about partnerships? We have got it all. We have the TAFE institution of the year in my electorate. I looked at the guidelines and thought: ‘This is fantastic. Finally, the government will acknowledge that we need to do something in the western corridor of Brisbane and we are going to deliver something on the ground.’ I was excited. I did not agree with their policy, because I understood what it was about—it was about the politics, not the outcomes—but I thought, ‘At least I’m going to get some money in my area.’ Guess what? There is no funding for the western corridor. I do not want to be cynical about this. As John Howard always says: ‘We’ll let the record tell the story. We’ll let the record stand for itself.’ Why is it that 90 per cent of ATCs are in coalition marginal seats?

Mr Price —Really?

Mr RIPOLL —Yes, 90 per cent. If it were about a fair balance of need, you could not go much further than Labor electorates in parts of Western Sydney or in western Brisbane in my electorate. There is genuine need. People are crying out for support from this government but they get absolutely nothing. Why is that? Maybe it is because of what I mentioned at the start: political outcome, not educational or training outcome. Everything in this whole dogged exercise from the government has been about the politics and about saving their own skin. All that this government, the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Treasurer, Peter Costello, are about is their political hide. We saw it this week. I will not discuss it here as there are other forums to do so. We saw what the Treasurer is about. It is about his wanting to become the Prime Minister. He could not give two hoots about what happens to anyone in this country—young people, old people. He does not care about housing affordability or interest rates—nine interest rate rises in a row. Do they care? No. All they care about is re-election. The imperative of all government policy and funding is re-election. It is in everything they do and in all of their policies. It is disgraceful. The government will pay a very high price for it.

I do not really care about the price this government will pay because no price is too high to pay for what it has done. I am concerned about the price that young Australians are paying and the price that our national economy is paying. No matter how good the economy, it is never good enough. No matter how well we are doing and how low the unemployment rate is, it is never good enough. This government went to sleep years ago thinking that its job was done, that it was finished. It thought: ‘No more needs to be done. The economy’s great. Interest rates are at so-called low levels’—but after nine interest rate rises you would have to ask yourself how real that was—‘The job is done.’ It is all about being re-elected.

Currently in Australia the TAFE system is the one that provides real outcomes, real skills and real training—and it does it very well. There are 230 TAFEs in this country and they do a fantastic job. The courses and the training that they provide give young people the ability to take on apprenticeships. It gives them access to coursework and courses that allow them to earn credits towards a bachelor’s degree or recognised diploma. It is the primary provider of skills and training in this country. I do not think anybody can dispute that. This is the largest organisation in Australia that provides some 85 per cent of all outcomes—the outcome of not just getting people through the door but getting people out the door, the ones getting the real jobs and the real training. You would think that anyone with a bit of common sense—and, I have to say, a bit of honesty—would have asked: ‘Shouldn’t that be the system we support?’ It is not about the system. When I talk about support, I am talking about supporting the young people who go there. I am talking about their educational needs, outcomes, training and skills. It is not the system.

What have the government done over the last 11 years? What have John Howard and Peter Costello done? They just keep taking money away from TAFE—defunding it further and further each year. Year on year it has received less money. That is how committed the government are to training and skills and to looking after young people. They have created a massive problem. Labor have been talking about skills for many years. That mob opposite used to laugh at us and say: ‘Skills? What skills problem? Crisis? There is no crisis. You’re overstating it by saying the sky is going to fall in.’ Guess what? There is a skills crisis. Business—small, big and medium enterprises—and young people agree; everyone agrees. Sure, young people are getting jobs, and that is a good thing, but there is a price to be paid for it. Let them get a job, but let them get skills and training. Let them get the bits of paper that say they have a skill beyond what is the economic resource boom of today.

Things change, and we are starting to see that now in the mining industry. This government think they can just skate home on the back of the mining and resources sector; they should look at how productivity levels in mining have dropped. They should look at how people are now losing their jobs in mining. Of course, we have plenty to dig up; we have literally 200 years worth—an endless supply—of resources in just about everything. But we can’t get it out the door fast enough. That means reduced productivity. Reduced productivity, in the end, means fewer jobs. So people who went to the mines and earned incredible amounts of dollars are now coming back out. The problem for some of those people is that they have nowhere to go in terms of their skills, so they are getting unskilled jobs. The government just do not understand this. The sad part is that they do not want to understand. If you refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists, you will never find a solution for it. In the mind of the government, it does not exist.

It is the same with interest rates. One of the biggest issues in my electorate is housing affordability and housing costs. When the Liberal candidate in my electorate is asked what the big issues for the election are, he says, ‘Oh, there’s a road.’ Of course, I have been talking about the roads for 11 years, but nobody on the government side ever listened to me because they could not care about roads in south-east Queensland. The Liberal candidate said, ‘No, it’s just a road.’ When asked specifically about interest rates, he said, ‘No, everyone’s doing fine; the economy’s great.’ Which planet is he living on? How much does he pay for his mortgage or rent?

Families are doing it really tough, and it is all interlinked. This is the part that really gets to me, because it is all interlinked—this whole question about skills and about providing the educational pathways in schools. We still have government members who are living very deeply in the past—10, 15 or 20 years ago. They still talk about the competition, the class warfare, between getting a trade and getting a university degree. That is old stuff. We do not talk about that anymore. People in schools, at TAFE, at uni and in trades do not talk about that; it is all about different pathways to get to where you want to be. You do not have to start in one place and stay there for the rest of your life. You can actually learn for the rest of your life. That is what we should all be doing.

With respect to young people finishing school, I say to the member for O’Connor that maybe in his day it was all right to leave school at 15, get an apprenticeship and be set for life. That was fine; that was a normal thing to do. But today, it is very dangerous to give that sort of advice to young people. There are not too many employers out there who will give a 15-year-old a job. The other issues are the type of job and the sort of money that you would be earning. There are also the things they will miss out on. The data today is pretty clear: no matter what job you apply for, employers really want people who have completed year 12.

The government cannot have it both ways. They talk about numeracy and literacy levels and how important they are in terms of skills in industry and business. You are not going to get the sort of numeracy and literacy skills that you need by age 15. You are going to need those couple of extra years. That is really important.

I do not really care whether a young person transitioning in school wants to be a scientist, a doctor, a tradesman as I was, or go out and start their own business. They can do whatever they want to do. That is the great thing about our system: it allows people to have that flexibility in choice. But you have to provide for it. This is where government plays its role at the federal level. It is not just the fault of the states all the time. It cannot always be somebody else’s fault. Sooner or later, you have to step up and ask: ‘Where do we do something for the country?’ When is this parliament going to do something for the country? When are we going to invest in young people? When are John Howard and Peter Costello going to say, ‘Hang on, maybe we should take some responsibility’? Why is it always somebody else’s fault? It is because they do not care. As long as they get re-elected, they just do not care.

I simply suggest this to the government: have a close look at the sort of money you are spending. The provision of three new ATCs will take the figure to 28 in the country. They are not located in the areas where we need to do the most but they are still good. They are there; we are not going to take them away. It adds another layer. Again, it is about more duplication. Today, in the modern world, we talk about reducing bureaucracy and duplication. This government want to keep adding layers of bureaucracy and burden. We have perfectly good infrastructure out there called the TAFE system, with really wonderful teachers and students, yet this mob want to undermine them. I just do not get that—I do not understand it.

Maybe I do understand it a little bit: it is all about having a go at the states. The federal government is really angry that the states have the TAFE system and it does not. It has said: ‘How are we going to create a pseudo TAFE system? We’ll rebadge it and call it Australian technical colleges.’ So there is a Commonwealth badge instead of a state badge. Who cares? How about doing something for young people who have training needs? I do not really care what badge is out the front of the bricks and mortar of the school. Obviously, this government does. It is all about the badge out the front—whether it is the coat-of-arms and the Commonwealth badge out the front rather than some state badge. Personally, I could not care either way. I do not care what badge is out the front.

What I do care about is turning up to a graduation ceremony and seeing young people, accompanied by their parents or grandparents, who are proud as punch that they now have a certificate IV in whatever it might be, or they have an apprenticeship and have graduated. They are out there contributing to the economy, participating fully as a member of society and in life. Instead, we now have more than half-a-billion dollars being spent, yet delivering a zero outcome.

With respect to the zero outcome, the Audit Office report gives the details. I did not make this up; I just turned to the report to see what the government body was saying about it. I wanted to see what the government’s independent arm was saying about these sorts of programs. If you read it, you will fall off your chair, because you just will not believe how bad it is. It is even worse than you might think.

The Audit Office says that there is ‘insufficient attention paid to state and territory governments’. Again, we know why that is: they want to bypass them as if they do not exist. The Audit Office says that ‘initial tender applications were weak and inadequate’, that ‘there was little choice among ATC applicants’ and that there were ‘no student outcomes’. We have not had any graduates. Over the full life of the program, if there is a 100 per cent success rate, we will get 10,000 graduates by 2010. The problem is that we have 200,000 new skilled positions to be filled. So the figure should be 200,000, not 10,000.

The government’s solution to a problem which comprises a figure of 200,000 is to say, ‘We’ll give you five per cent, but it’ll cost you more than half-a-billion dollars.’ Do you have to be an economic genius to understand simple mathematics? Five per cent ain’t going to solve the problem, but it is a huge cost. You need to take that same money, half-a-billion dollars, and invest it back into the TAFE system—into the quality teachers and the quality infrastructure.

That is what Labor’s policy is about. We are saying that we want to work with people. We want to partner with the states, we want to partner with education and we want to partner with schools. Why bypass the schools themselves? They have 1.2 million students in years 9, 10, 11 and 12 that are currently going through the education system who need the assistance. Why not partner with them? I think it would be really good if the government actually looked at that, but it cannot look beyond itself.

Again, it all gets back to where I started: it is never a plan about an outcome or about skills or about fixing the real problem; it is a plan for the government’s own re-election and survival. And those plans always fail because they are no good for the country, for young people or for training. They do not have an outcome. We have the outcome from the 2004 ATC policy: they got re-elected. Fine; I am sure they are happy. They pat themselves on the back. They must be so proud of themselves. When they go to bed at night they must think, ‘Jeez, we have achieved a lot—zero outcome students for half a billion dollars.’ But then again, it is not their money; it is your money. It is taxpayers’ money, and the government can spend it like there is no tomorrow—like drunken sailors.

After 11 long years of this government, I think people are starting to wake up to the incompetence and to the nine interest rate rises in a row. There is a lot of irony in this place; it is one thing that I love. I just cannot get past this: in 2004 John Howard, the Prime Minister, did a fantastic job—a brilliant job—of convincing everybody that he was 100 per cent responsible for interest rates. He was responsible personally; he controlled them so much so that to vote for anyone else would be disastrous on interest rates and they would go up. People believed him. He did a good job—they believed him. Guess what? They still believe him today. He is responsible, and I believe he is responsible. I say that tongue in cheek. They believe he is responsible today for all nine interest rate rises—for the five since he made the promise. Yes! You are right! In 2004 you convinced everybody that you were responsible, Prime Minister, and they still believe you today, and now they are going to make you pay for it.

I would like to see Labor’s policy adopted. We can do something real about the 200,000 gap we have in skills—the crisis. We can do something beyond just importing labour; we can train young people. We can give them real training for real jobs. That can be achieved, and, with the half a billion dollars being spent on the ATCs, we will keep them but we will do it right. We will do it in partnership with industry, schools and the states. We will actually talk to people and consult with them, because we believe in the outcome of young people getting skills and jobs, and a national economy that works for everybody—not just the government. (Time expired)