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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11818

Mr VAN MANEN (FordeGovernment Whip) (12:08): As much as I like the member for Scullin and there are some things in his contribution I would agree with, there are other things I would readily disagree with. But that's the nature of this place. I will agree with the member for Scullin that vocational education and training is incredibly important for our economy.

As I go around my electorate to the various manufacturing businesses and other businesses in my electorate, I talk to many people in those businesses that have been there for many, many years. They all have one thing in common: they started in those businesses as apprentices. They did their apprenticeship, they built their skills, they built their knowledge and they gained a long-time profession as a result. We don't often talk about people with trade and vocational skills as professionals, but I think it's fair to say that we probably should, because there are many skilled and talented people out there with vocational training and skills that are highly qualified in their particular trade, and our economy wouldn't function without those skills.

This bill is the result of having to fix a mess that was initially created by those opposite with the changes they made in 2012. It's interesting to reflect on the comments from the Australian National Audit Office in its 2016 audit of the VET FEE-HELP scheme, in which they characterised the amendment made by those opposite in 2012 as 'heavily supporting growth in the VET sector, while providing insufficient safeguards for students from misleading and deceptive conduct and inadequate monitoring, investigation and payment controls for poor or noncompliance by those same providers'. So this is just the latest in a tranche of bills in this space which have sought to clean up the mess created by those opposite as a result of those 2012 changes. This bill is designed to ensure that we relieve those students who were ripped off by those dodgy providers, by having their debts cancelled so they don't have to repay those debts.

We should recognise that, whilst there are those who have done the wrong thing by students, there are still many high-quality VET organisations in our community and in our country. Our vocational education training sector is world class. It serves millions of Australians, providing them with valuable qualifications but it also contributes $5 million of export income to the Australian economy. But, disappointingly, all too often, the achievements of those in the sector are overlooked because of the small number of providers who have done the wrong thing by students and Australian taxpayers.

Sadly, there were one or two of those in my electorate of Forde. Equally, there are some great organisations, who work very closely with our schools to ensure that the students at school who have a desire to follow a trade or a vocational pathway have the relevant opportunities and training available to them. Far too often we speak about schools in the context of those who seek to follow an academic or tertiary education path and we don't speak often enough about the students in our schools who, if you put a screwdriver or a hammer or a tool in their hand, light up with joy at being able to do a vocational trade.

We see every day as we drive around our electorates the importance of those trade skills. Think about the offices in this building for example. If it wasn't for the skilled tradespeople in our economy, we wouldn't have buildings such as this. Think about the mechanics that repair our vehicles. Think about our electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, tilers, hairdressers—any range of skills and occupations that we see across our economy and across our communities every single day. We sometimes forget that they had to go through a training course to develop those skills. That is why it's so important that, with the series of bills that we have passed over the past couple of years, we seek to ensure that this sector is well regulated and ensure that those students who want to follow those paths are not ripped off and get the training necessary to ensure they develop the skills to follow the profession that they wish to follow.

As I said, the bill will provide a remedy for students who incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt through the inappropriate conduct of those VET providers and their agents. It will introduce a new discretionary power to enable the secretary of the department administered by the minister administering the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to recredit a person's FEE-HELP balance where the person incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by a VET provider or its agent. In facilitating these amendments to the VET guidelines, a legislative instrument will be made by the minister. It will empower the Commonwealth to recover from the VET provider an amount that is equivalent to the debt remitted in circumstances where the VET provider treated a student as entitled to VET FEE-HELP assistance where they were not entitled to it.

At the end of the day, we're talking about students who have incurred a debt for no good reason, because they were ripped off. We're seeking to have these matters resolved by 31 December 2020—hopefully, I would say, before. An important feature is that the bill provides flexibility for VET guidelines to prescribe a later date which also allows appropriate management of costs and resourcing. As I said at the outset, one of the reasons why this is important is that we want to see and want to ensure that we have a robust, long-term, sustainable VET sector to ensure that those people who want to follow that path have the opportunity to do so.

Disappointingly, it's another example of having to tidy up the mess left by those opposite when they were last in government. Most importantly, we're ensuring that vulnerable Australians who were ripped off have their debts cancelled and can get on with their lives and have confidence in the vocational education and training sector. I commend this bill in its original form to the House.