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Wednesday, 20 June 2001
Page: 28069

Ms KERNOT (12:51 PM) —At the outset, let me say that I have not had a single word of information from the AEU, nor have I spoken to the AEU about any of the comments I intend to make on the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2001. I do not need to; I am quite capable of forming my own opinions by wide reading and by looking around with my own eyes at the places I visit as shadow minister.

When it comes to believing the words of those opposite, I am reminded that the minister we are talking about, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, is the minister who told us earlier that youth unemployment had halved under the coalition government. When this statement was made, youth unemployment had in fact fallen by 0.5 per cent—7,300 people—over five years. If we had taken the minister's assertions at face value, it would have taken another 29 years at the same rate of reduction for his statement to be true. We do see an awful lot of fiddling around and demonising by those members opposite. You never hear them talk about the NFF, ACCI or the Master Builders.

Mr Entsch —Wonderful organisations.

Ms KERNOT —They never lobby, do they? They never have an opinion! They never put out flyers! It only happens with the old AEU! Let us have a look at the coalition government's record on training. It was Labor that introduced the ANTA agreement back in 1992, because we have a commitment to national frameworks and because we believed that, to get some agreement to move this country forward, it was very important to have some transferable, mobile skills. The first thing the coalition did when they got into government was to slash funding for ANTA. The member for Moreton does not like us to talk about cuts. Of course, it was Labor's fault that the Howard government made the choices that it did in the 1996 budget. In the 1996 and 1997 budgets, $240 million was taken out. Much of this was through the notorious growth through efficiencies dividend, another little piece of coalition ideology. The 1998 ANTA agreement locked in these funding cuts, as it was established at a lower base level of funding. After five years of funding being below what it would have otherwise been, the government have come back with an offer that is $10 million less than what they took out. That is the government's true record on training.

Let us go back and look at this ideology of growth through efficiencies. What was the government's rationale for this? I recall them saying at the time that somehow, magically, by reducing the amount of money they put into training, they could force a more efficient use of resources and create more places at the same time—and that you could do this infinitely, so that is where you could make all these savings. While some commentators and some TAFE administrators have said that some of the disciplines of growth through efficiencies were good for them, it is very flawed to conclude that this kind of underfunding can go on infinitely. What in fact happened was that there was a significant decline in the quality of training—and that is what matters. This was starkly identified in the Schofield reports. If you want to take the coalition's usual lowest common denominator level of measurement of anything, and that is the dollar rate, the hourly expenditure on training declined significantly. In 1996 it was $11.24 per course hour and today it is $9.82 per course hour. That might not be a bad thing if, for this lower price, you were getting a better product or at least an equal product. Unfortunately, as I think the evidence now shows, this has also corresponded to a decline in quality.

We often hear about household budgets in here; we always look for different ways of doing things. If we can improve ways of doing things, okay, let us do them. But there is a bottom line. You simply cannot keep taking lots of money out and at the same time expect there to be more places and no decline in the quality provided. This government—the evidence is in now—has presided over a policy for dumbing down the quality of education, both vocational and ordinary education, in this country. It has presided over what I call el cheapo training. I see a lot of this in my employment portfolio. Some Job Network providers either fail to offer the kind of training I am talking about or put up only a very minimal version of it as an alternative to quality training. I am pleased to say that Dr Kemp has abandoned his growth through efficiencies policy. Maybe he understands that you cannot get infinite efficiencies. You just cannot—and you cannot get infinite productivity either. He has had to be forced every step of the way to provide any growth money at all to this vital sector. Last year there was not one extra dollar for training provided through ANTA, despite significantly rising demand. This is what I think is the important point. It should not be about playing politics. In March of this year, to stop VET from collapsing, Dr Kemp came to the states—

Fran Bailey —What's this?

Ms KERNOT —We are talking about a national framework, the need for cooperation and the need for sufficient funding for rising training needs in this country. When Dr Kemp came back with his new funding offer, everyone was stunned by its miserliness. His offer would have provided an extra $13 per student per year in the first year and then only an additional $3 per student per year after that. What can you buy with that that is meaningful?

With an election looming and the states unable to sign up for an agreement that would see TAFE continuing to turn away thousands of students every year, Dr Kemp came back with another offer. This was for an average of $77 million per year over the next three years. People on the other side say that this has been a most generous government. If you look at the value of this offer, it will not go very far to give places to the 45,000 Australians who are turned away from TAFE colleges every year. That is 45,000 Australians who could have had training but probably do not as a result of this. It does not go very far. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, who is at the table, said that ACCI is a wonderful body. It is. And it has called for $130 million a year extra for vocational education and training, just for industry training, to cope with increased demand. It does not go very far compared to ANTA, which has calculated that it needs $150 million a year to keep up with demand. It is not responsible not to keep up with demand and to ignore demand.

To add insult to injury, the funding was made conditional on states matching the funding. At the beginning we are told: `Oh, it's Labor's fault. We had to make all these cuts. We didn't have any priorities of our own; we just cut everything.' And now it's the states' fault because they have that wonderful bottomless pit of a GST! So the Commonwealth does not have to show the national leadership that is so required if we are to have in place a truly national framework of training. States are now asked to sign up and cough up the money that should have been there in the first place. What I think we can object to most of all is the re-dressing and the rebadging that says, `Aren't we wonderful for giving you back less than the money that we took out in the first place.'

Then there is the matter of user choice. There is so much euphemistic misinformation used by members opposite about choice. Whether it is about public versus independent schools or public provision and private provision of training, there are some fundamentals. There is always a role for public provision because private providers will not go where there is no money to be made—

Fran Bailey —Parents have a right to choose.

Ms KERNOT —and there is a responsibility of governments to make sure not only that that public sector is available but also that it is adequately and appropriately funded. Despite the interjection that it is about people's right to choose, not everybody actually has economic choice. That is why it is the role of government to make sure that there is a strong and appropriately funded public sector, to make sure that that choice is there for those who do not have the same economic choice as those people whom those opposite champion usually seem to. We have seen, in the use of the enrolment benchmark adjustment in education, funding leaving the public sector and finding its way into the private sector. I was very interested to hear the member for Moreton say he thought the TAFE in his electorate was fantastic. That is what you find from those opposite: their one local TAFE is always fantastic but the national system and the funding for that national system is of course not required and not a major priority.

Training is not just about this one-off debate here about this particular amount of money. I think we really need to talk more about a different kind of approach to training—a more seamless approach, a continuum of training—and we need to do a better job of integrating the Job Network.

Fran Bailey —That's what Jobs Pathway is about—a seamless approach.

Ms KERNOT —That only works in one little area. And that was our idea too. I am glad to say that in the budget some steps were taken to address the lack of training in Work for the Dole and the lack of quality accredited training being provided by Job Network providers. The money does not come on stream for at least 16 months, and $800 is only a start. Nevertheless, it does address a major defect that has been out there in the whole training continuum in this country. On top of that, I think the funding model that has been set up means that there is a disincentive for one organisation to refer an individual to another part of the continuum in case it means a lower payment from the government to them. We need to address that.

Most of all, we really do need to have a nationally recognised training system. This should be the top priority for any government. We are a nation of only 19 million people. We are an innovative, entrepreneurial lot and we should be doing a much better job of ensuring that people can move freely between the states in search of employment or in search of training opportunities without having to go through the most enormous rigmarole of paperwork to have their qualifications recognised.

I want to finish by pointing to the skill shortages in this country. Labor's Workforce 2010 research found that 60 per cent of all new jobs in Australia would require a post-school qualification. This figure is made very stark by the fact that only 40 per cent of the current adult population have a post-school qualification. No wonder there is rising demand. There is huge need—huge, huge need. It is ironic that at a time of rising unemployment there are still so many occupations that cannot fill their positions. It is not because people are job snobs. It is because the vacancies are skilled vacancies that require qualifications to perform. You cannot just turn up and be a chef simply because you have had a bit of practice cooking breakfast. You actually have to have some training as a chef. Australia currently has skilled vacancies in, amongst other things, child care and nursing and for pharmacists, motor mechanics, chefs, hairdressers and nurses, according to the department of employment's latest skilled vacancy survey. That is what our imperative has to be: a training system that responds, and responds as quickly as possible, to these ongoing skill shortages. If we do not, we count the cost in other ways—in higher unemployment.

Labor will pass this bill. We do not want to see TAFE teachers' salaries put in jeopardy or students' schedules disrupted. But at the next election this government will have to stand on its record with regard to training, and I think there will be a lot to be said. The Australian public are very well aware of the longer term consequences of massive cuts to public infrastructure and the consequences that has for delivery of service. We have seen tens of thousands of students miss out on courses. The Australian public will not be fooled by a government that comes back five years later and lauds its own generosity for giving back less money than it took out of the system. Dr Kemp's offer does not make up for five years of neglect. More importantly, it does not meet the growth in demand that the vocational sector is experiencing. It does nothing to integrate Australia's training system into one coherent organisation that is responsive to the needs of the jobs of tomorrow.