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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1463

Senator COLSTON(4.45) —The Senate this afternoon is debating whether a certain matter is one of urgency. Senator Vanstone, a Liberal Party senator from South Australia, has moved that the following is a matter of urgency:

The Government's cynical abuse of the employment hopes of young Australians and the need for it to immediately address the abject failure of its education and training policies.

If there is any cynicism, it must lie with Senator Vanstone for putting forward a motion of this nature. I completely reject the proposition which she has put forward. In fact, this urgency motion contains three propositions, although one of them was perhaps overdone by Senator Vanstone. One is the abuse of the employment hopes of young Australians. I will refer to that in a moment. I reject the proposition. Another is the failure of the Government's education policies. I will have something to say about that. The urgency motion also says something about the failure of the Government's training policies. I will mention that matter. I reject all three propositions. The proposition about training policies featured for about 15 minutes of Senator Vanstone's argument. But the others are worth mentioning as well. I shall mention all three.

The urgency motion refers, as I mentioned, to the Government's alleged cynical abuse of the employment hopes of young Australians. Any Opposition member who makes an allegation like that has a very short memory. Let me indicate what the previous Government achieved in this area. From March 1978 to March 1983 total teenage employment dropped by a massive 67,000. This was a decrease of about 10 per cent. That was the type of employment opportunity provided by the Fraser Government. It was hardly an achievement. Perhaps we should be talking about that record as being an abject failure. Again, in that time teenage employment dropped by 67,000.

In contrast, teenage employment has increased under the Hawke Government. From April 1983 to January 1987 teenage employment increased by 74,700, or by about 12 per cent. This is an achievement of which the Government is justly proud. That is the comparison: An 11 per cent decrease under Fraser, and a 12 per cent increase under Hawke. I do not understand how anyone can talk about the abuse of employment hopes of young Australians when one looks at those figures, or how the Opposition can talk about it when it thinks of its own record. This Government, far from abusing the hopes of young Australians, has given new hope-hope that would not have existed under the tired and inappropriate policies of the Fraser Government.

When the employment figures for February this year were released, Opposition members interpreted the increase of two percentage points in the youth unemployment rate as a marked deterioration in the youth labour market. No one on this side likes to see an increase in unemployment in any area. But monthly figures are noted for their fluctuation. Taken in isolation, they are not necessarily reliable. Previous increases in the monthly youth unemployment rates have been followed by subsequent falls in the following month. The Government's long term record is what should be examined, not the peaks and troughs which occur in monthly figures. The Government's record is a sound one. It is a record which should not attract this type of comment in an urgency motion.

The Hawke Government is deeply concerned about teenage employment, but it should be mentioned-and I will mention it, as Senator Vanstone mentioned that it was referred to in the other place-that, in comparison with other major industrialised countries, Australia is by no means lagging. Figures produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1986 indicate that the youth unemployment rate in Australia is lower than that of Canada, the United Kingdom and the total OECD countries. Only the United States of America has a more favourable rate of youth employment than Australia. Youth as defined by the OECD is the age range 15 to 24 years. Youth unemployment is not a phenomenon unique to Australia. Other countries are similarly affected, but Australia is in the forefront of alleviating youth unemployment. We are not saying to young people that they are relatively well off. We are saying that in comparison with other countries we are in the forefront of doing something about the problem. I reiterate that the Government's record in youth employment is far superior to that of the previous Government. That is a statistical fact, but we are by no means complacent about what is a major problem. The steps the Hawke Government is taking in this area are not those of an uncaring government. They are those of a government which is resolute in its efforts to solve Australia's economic problems in contrast to the nation's Opposition, which is hopelessly divided.

Let us examine some of the measures this Government has taken to improve the situation of young people in this nation, especially our training policies which the Opposition incorrectly terms a failure. The previous speaker, Senator Vanstone, could not find anything right with the Australian traineeship system. I will indicate in a moment that there are some aspects that I would like to see working better, but they are far better than no traineeship system. One did not exist prior to this Government introducing its scheme. This system is gradually being introduced as a major new vocational training system for young people in the non-trades area of the work force. The system, instituted in 1985-86 with the endorsement of employees, employers and unions, is directed primarily at 16- to 18-year-olds who leave secondary school before completing year 12. It offers 12 months off and on the job training for young people who would otherwise enter the labour market with few skills or qualifications.

Although it is slower than was originally anticipated, development of a traineeship system is gaining momentum. As at the middle of this month some 85 training and industrial agreements have been concluded in a wide range of industries and occupations, in both the public and the private sectors. More than 5,700 young people including young people in Queensland, the State I represent, have already commenced a traineeship, with acceleration expected during the rest of this financial year. Around 1,300 employers in the private sector are now participating in the Australian traineeship system. The Opposition suggests that it has not gone far enough. Perhaps it has not gone as far as we would like it to have gone, but it is proceeding. It is providing employment opportunities so that those people, having finished their traineeship, will be able to go out into the work force and have better skills for the employers who hire them.

How can this be regarded as a failure, as the Opposition suggests in its motion? This scheme is a further illustration of the Hawke's Government commitment to young Australians. Our ultimate objective is to create a major new avenue of entry into the work force for many thousands of young people. In this respect I mention apprenticeship opportunities, which have also increased dramatically during the term of this Government in the context of substantial government assistance. Intakes of apprentices have risen by almost 50 per cent during the term of this Government, from an abysmally low 34,800 in 1982-83 to over 51,000 in 1985-86. The Government will spend some $122m to assist about 94,000 young apprentices in the current financial year. The Government's increased expenditure commitment in this area will be crucial to maintaining a high level of trade training opportunities for young people. We should not in this great nation of ours rely on immigration for the skills we need. We should be providing these skills to our young people who will be here for the next generation and they should be able to develop the skills we need as a nation. The Government is doing this by providing assistance to apprenticeships so that we have the increase which I have just illustrated.

In addition to these two specific areas, that of traineeships and apprenticeships, we have considerably strengthened other support services for young people. Community youth support scheme funding, totalling $35.3m for 1986-87, has virtually been doubled since 1982-83. Some 37 youth access centres were established within the Commonwealth Employment Service network during 1986 to provide comprehensive information, referral and counselling assistance to young people. The Government has now decided to expand the number of youth access centres to 100 by the end of the calendar year. The Hawke Government's community volunteer program announced on 2 March will provide unemployed people with a chance to participate in voluntary activities of benefit to themselves and to the community. It is expected that there will be 15,000-20,000 placements a year. The Federal Opposition has not yet announced its employment policy. However, there is little doubt that compulsory work for unemployment benefits will be a key plank of the policy. One black cloud on the horizon of youth employment is the figures for Queensland, the State I represent. It has the highest rate of unemployment and the highest rate of youth unemployment for any State in Australia. This throws doubt on the ability of the Queensland Premier to look forward to a job in the Federal Parliament. Perhaps the lesson in this story is that he should stay at home and do something about Queensland.

I wish now to move to education. Senator Vanstone in her urgency motion refers to the alleged failure of the Government's education and training policies. The Federal Government has a direct financial responsibility for 19 universities and 46 colleges of advanced education throughout Australia. As a Queensland senator, I am particularly interested-as I am sure you are, Madam Acting Deputy President-in the institutions in that State, such as the three universities, namely, the University of Queensland, the James Cook University and the Griffith University. Queensland has a number of colleges of advanced education. I refer to the Brisbane College of Advanced Education; the Queensland Institute of Technology, a most remarkable institution in the capital city; the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education; the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education; and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. If anybody from an institution that I did not mention is listening, I hope he will forgive me. All those institutions are very sound and some follow particular areas of expertise and carry out some excellent work.

Let us look at some of the facts that highlight the achievements of the Hawke Government in this area. Since the Hawke Government took office in 1983, education funding has increased by almost 8 per cent in real terms. This is a clear indication of the Government commitment to higher education and in itself demolishes the argument in the matter of urgency that this Government has failed in its education policies. A relevant question to pose is: How does this 8 per cent increase in real terms in higher education funding compare with what occurred prior to the election of the Hawke Government? In the last four years of the previous Government there was a decline in tertiary funding-not an increase-of 0.6 per cent. This is similar to the situation which I described earlier in relation to youth unemployment. The previous Government lost jobs for teenagers, but this Government has increased the numbers of jobs available. We are now berated for the fact that our education policies are wrong, but we have had an increase of 8 per cent in funding in real terms compared with the previous Government's decrease of 0.6 per cent.

It must be admitted that Senator Vanstone, who has moved the alleged matter of urgency today, was not a member of the Federal Parliament when tertiary funding declined. But that is the yardstick that we must use in determining whether this Government has played its part in providing tertiary education opportunities, not only for young Australians as mentioned in the motion, but also for the many other Australians who desire to undertake tertiary studies. If Senator Vanstone had looked carefully at the higher education achievements of this Government compared with those of the previous Government, she could not really speak of the `abject failure' of this Government's approach in this area. By implication, her urgency motion pours scorn on her own Party's record. In addition to mentioning the increase which has occurred since the Hawke Government has been in office, it is pertinent to outline the level of resources made available in the current Federal Budget for higher education. In this Budget the funds for the current financial year were increased by $60.3m in real terms. This year the Hawke Labor Government will spend $2,383m on higher education. Put in another way, that is $2.3 billion.

So far I have mentioned the funds allocated by this Government for the 65 higher education institutions throughout Australia. But what does this mean in terms of student places? A significant amount of the increase in funds has been directed towards expanding higher education provisions. For example, the Hawke Government has increased the number of higher education places by 36,500 since it assumed office in 1983. This is an increase of 14 per cent and a four-fold increase over the number of places provided in the last four years of the Fraser Government which could manage only 8,000 places in that time. Honourable senators should compare our 36,500 places with the 8,000 provided by the Fraser Government in the same period. Put another way, if the Hawke Government had proceeded in a similar way to that of its slothful predecessors, there would now be 28,500 fewer places in higher education than there are at present. Almost 30,000 Australians currently pursuing higher education studies would not be able to do so had this Government been content to follow the policies of its predecessors. We were not prepared to do that and for its efforts in this area the Hawke Government should be applauded. Severe budgetary constraints faced the Government last August, but even so the Budget brought down that month provided for 3,000 more places in the universities and colleges of advanced education throughout Australia. Our commitment to provide places for Australians, especially young Australians, who are appropriately qualified for tertiary studies has not waned.

The Hawke Government is committed to returning youth participation rates to the previous high levels of the 1970s. Participation rates declined sharply under the former Liberal-National Party Government. It is one thing to have a commitment to increase participation; it is another to actually fulfil that objective. In this respect the Hawke Government has succeeded and the participation rate in higher education this year is expected to be the highest level ever recorded in Australia.

I wish to say something about the places which we have available in universities and CAEs in Australia. It would be churlish to suggest there are sufficient places in tertiary institutions in this country at present. We are not suggesting that. However, we are increasing the number of those places. There are many qualified people in Australia who could take advantage of a place if one were available. We are increasing the numbers of places at a far greater rate than the previous Government, and we will continue to do so. I see that the 20 minutes allotted to me has almost expired. That is a pity because I was going to say something about the National Party's policies on education. Perhaps one of my fellow senators will be able to do so. In conclusion, I completely reject the three propositions that were in the urgency motion. I reject the claim that this was a matter of urgency. At that point I rest my case.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bjelke-Petersen) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.