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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1410

Senator STOTT DESPOJA(11.54 a.m.) —The Australian Democrats support the Education and Training Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. One of the first aspects of this bill before the chamber today is to provide for the abolition of the training guarantee scheme and the training guarantee levy—something that the Democrats have supported. In fact, we put this forward in our 1994 budget proposal but, in doing so, we not only proposed a three-year suspension of the training guarantee levy but advocated a 10 per cent training investment allowance. So we have long recognised that the training guarantee levy has become, indeed, a tax on labour. But we believe that our idea would have provided an incentive, through rebates and other tax incentives, to encourage investment in labour.

However, the Democrats did support the advent of the training guarantee scheme in 1990, as we saw then, as we do now, a clear need for greater input from business and industry into the training needs of this country. In fact, at the time of the introduction of the training guarantee scheme, we moved a series of amendments designed to devolve the responsibility for the administration of the training guarantee scheme away from the Australian Taxation Office. We have always had a concern about the amount of red tape involved in the TGL, and that has been based on extensive consultations we have had with groups in the community—be they business and industry groups, or academic or union groups.

We have always expressed concern over the somewhat or sometimes dubious accreditation of schemes. Also, we have consistently called attention, in this place and others, to the flouting of approved industry standards and practices when it has taken place. We recognise that there is still a need, an increased need, for training in our workplaces, and we have long supported a greater role for employers in the provision of training. So today I urge the government to ensure that the abolition of the TGL does not occur in a vacuum; that it is replaced by other initiatives and incentives for business and industry to get involved in workplace training. I concur with Senator Kim Carr's comments on that note.

I believe that, at the time of the TGL suspension bill, the former government claimed the act had achieved its purpose. While I would like to think that was the case, I do take some issue with that statement, and I was heartened by Senator Carr's comments regarding the increased expectation among employers that they should invest in training schemes. However, we did note that there were still a number of employers who were paying directly into the ATO the money that they perhaps should have been spending on levies.

I certainly hope that since the introduction of the TGL there has been some kind of an attitudinal shift in this country. I believe it is reflected in the most recent ABS figures which note that changes to training expenditure in industries are now most likely to occur because of technological change and quality assurance.

In the last financial year it seems that technological change had the most impact on employers in the communication and public administration and defence industries, where 81 per cent and 51 per cent of employers respectively reported an increase in training expenditure as a result of this. In the manufacturing and construction industries, quality assurance most often caused employers to increase training expenditure, with that reason being cited in 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively of these employer cases. However, in the electricity, gas and water industry it was legislation other than the training guarantee legislation that most often caused employers to increase their training commitments.

I certainly hope that there is a greater recognition given by business and industry groups in our community to the fact that they have a responsibility to ensure that quality accredited training is available to their employees. It is also essential that this kind of training be available to all workers—and I should stress, the newer and younger members of the work force. As I stated in here a number of weeks ago in my first speech, I still believe that there is no other group in society which has been more subjected to the cruel and cutting edge of structural and technological change than that of young Australians. But of course it is not just young workers who need constant updating of skills and skill acquisition. I guess that increasing access to education and training in this country is a prerequisite now—not an option, but a prerequisite—for today's work force.

I should add that quality training should not come at the expense of worker benefits, and it should not be considered an optional extra but an obligatory part of the contract between employees and employer, business and industry groups. Nor should we see workers—any workers, but specifically young Australians—penalised for their desire to undertake training and skill acquisition. I really hope that the coalition bear that in mind when considering the industrial relations changes that they have proposed, and also that they stick to their election pledge that no worker shall be worse off under their strategies.

The second part of this bill—I refer to the changes to schools—fulfils a commitment by the previous government to provide an additional $20.7 million to the non-government schools capital program in 1996-97. I should add that the Democrats support these proposals. We recognise the ongoing need for government expenditure on non-government schools. However, we are firmly of the opinion that such expenditure should go to the less well-off non-government schools—those that are struggling to meet basic standards in equipment or facilities. We can see no justification at a time when the public school system is crying out for additional resources for us to be directing taxpayers' funds into the well-off non-government school sector. After all, it is the public or government school sector which is educating more than 70 per cent of Australian children.

I take this opportunity to remind the coalition of its election promise—another one—to take up the issue of Australia's low OECD ranking on government expenditure for school education. That was going to be taken up at the first COAG meeting after the election. The promise was to `at least maintain' Commonwealth specific purpose payments to schools in line with the forward estimates. I would like to hear from the minister today, as part of this debate, as to whether these commitments still hold.

I ask that question in light of recent comments by the Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training (Mr Kemp) suggesting the possibility of a significant shift in government funding away from the public school sector into the non-government school sector. In fact, just last week the minister claimed that the favourable impact on public sector savings of the surge in private schooling is justification for `more flexible funding' for non-government schools.

I am just curious as to what `more flexible funding' really means. Does it mean relaxing the rules so that the well-off non-government schools get more public funds? Does it mean increasing funding to the non-government sector at the expense of the government sector? Does it mean shifting even more of the costs of education from the government onto individual parents and students? I am curious to hear from the minister today in regard to those issues.

I know that the standard answer is that nothing can be revealed until the budget, but I believe the government can at least give a commitment that any increase in funding to the non-government school sector will not come at the expense of government schools. I think that those parents with children in the state school system—and that is the vast majority of parents, I might add—are entitled to an answer on that particular question.

They are also entitled to know whether such an increase is going towards the wealthier non-government schools at a time when, as I said, the government school sector is struggling and experiencing real difficulties across the board. I believe that most parents, despite reservations, probably have little argument with the idea of their taxes going towards assisting poorer non-government schools. Most parents believe children should not be penalised simply because of the decision their parents may have made as to what school they should attend, where it is or what kind of school they should be educated in. I do believe that parents draw the line at their taxes going towards well-off non-government schools where the services are already of a high standard, while their children are struggling to attend government schools that are resource strapped. So I ask the minister today if she is able to reassure Australian parents and the Senate that that proposal is not on the government's drawing board.

The last part of this bill corrects an oversight which would have prevented the minister approving expenditure for the open learning initiative. Obviously, the Democrats support that plank. In fact, we note that, when the open learning initiative was established by then Minister Dawkins, he claimed that all Australians would have access to education if they had a television and a letterbox. We know that that is not always the case; that there are many fees and charges associated with the open learning initiative and many of those charges occur up front. Certainly, the Australian Democrats have been involved in an ongoing debate since the inception of that scheme to argue that the minimum course load requirement in order to get a deferred payment option for OLI should be lowered.

We have always argued that the advent of the OLI initiative should be an exciting technological advance, especially for those groups in the community that have previously been disadvantaged or not had access to higher education and further education—be it because of home duties, disability or distance. I urge that we recognise once again in this chamber that fees and charges for education at whatever level are a psychological and financial disincentive to enter and pursue education. I would hate to see that a scheme that offers such access to different groups in the community had barriers such as fees and charges associated with it. I hope that that is something else that the coalition will keep in mind, especially at budget time as they are considering changes and possible cuts to the higher education sector.

They might also want to reflect on their promises not to cut operating grants to the higher education sector or their promises not to increase fees and charges such as HECS for current students. I say that on a day when we are seeing unprecedented academic and general staff strike action around this country—action that is being strongly supported by students, many vice-chancellors, I believe, and of course the Australian Democrats. I guess that is relevant in the context of today's debate, while we are talking about achieving a higher class, quality, contemporary education and training system. The Democrats know full well that we cannot aim for such a system while we have barriers to achieving and developing skills, especially in a work force that is subject to such massive structural and technological change—so much so that workers do require those skills.

I hope the parliament recognises today the profound changes that have taken place in our work force and the dire need for all workers to have access to skill development and acquisition. I hope that the coalition, when talking about these issues, bears in mind their election promises, especially their promise that no worker will be worse off under a coalition government.

To conclude, it is time we talked about increased commitments—financial and otherwise—to education and training, not a reduction in the amount that we are spending on our schools, on higher education courses, on further education, or on courses such as the open learning initiative. I commend the bill to the Senate.