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Monday, 24 August 2020
Page: 3734

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (12:20): Labor does not oppose the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. The bill amends the governance structures of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the national VET sector regulator, and enhances information-sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. Key amendments in this legislation before the chamber today revise ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner/chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder, in this case a CEO. It establishes the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. The advisory council is intended to provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator.

On this side of the chamber, in Labor, we know the value of TAFE and of union representation. Their views need to be heard and considered when it comes to our vocational education and training sector. That's why today in the Senate we'll seek to move amendments to ensure the public provider has seats at the table. We support a fair and considered approach to these reforms and we support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers, but we'll reject changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. We in this chamber need to ensure that the reforms to ASQA audit processes don't allow any drop in quality. In the past, we have seen this government be slow to act on quality issues. In Labor's view, this has done serious damage to the sector. There is considerable need for reform. But, more broadly, in the case of reform, the bill before us today is just another tweak from a third-term government that has refused to deliver genuine reform that overhauls our vocational training sector. Today the bill before us does not come close to fixing the mess that the Liberal government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system.

In our nation we have, very clearly, a skills shortage which existed before COVID-19 hit. The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted that more than seven years of Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and in vocational training. The most recent figures show a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. Indeed, I have spoken to small businesses that say they've been struggling to keep their apprentices on. This government did offer a subsidy for apprentices. That's a step in the right direction, but this is a critical problem for our nation. Much more needs to be done in offering support to newly starting apprentices and trainees. If we as a nation fail on that score, we will have a much deeper and greater skills shortage in the years to come.

We had a skills shortage before COVID-19 hit. The government spent seven years neglecting our TAFE and training systems. It has spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the growth of our young people and the vital role it plays in the growth of our economy. We have had seven years of cutting funding from the sector while there has also been underspending in the meagre amount that the government promised to the vocational education and training sector. So rebuilding our skills and training sector will be crucial and critical to getting our economy going again.

We absolutely need to be properly funding our TAFE and apprenticeship programs. We've seen $3 billion worth of cuts in recent years to TAFE and to training. This government must restore the funding that they've cut. The government must invest in training the next generation of tradespeople in their areas, and we need them to take some responsibility in doing that.

We've seen a litany of skills and vocational training failures under this government. More than seven years of Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and vocational training. As we learned last year from the federal education department's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the last five years. All this money is sitting in the government's bank account—all in addition to the more than $3 billion already ripped out of our system.

We have TAFE campuses falling apart in our country. We've got state governments closing campuses and ending courses. All the while, money remains unspent. Why? Because the government says that there's been less demand than forecast. The Liberal Party has said this every year since it came to office. I'm sorry to say that this simply does not stack up when underemployment is at near record levels at the same time as employers in our country are crying out for skilled workers. What's the result of this underspend? There are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and there's a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics.

In our country, the number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. The Independent National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently found that, over the past year, 20 per cent fewer people were signing up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. This was even more extreme in a number of very essential trades. The number of Australians starting an apprenticeship or traineeship in construction—including carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing—has dropped by an alarming 40 per cent. In some areas, there are more people dropping out of vocational courses than there are finishing them. This doesn't happen by accident.

There has been a $1 billion underspend from this Liberal government. That funding included incentives for business to take on apprentices and support to help people finish their apprenticeships, and there was a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need. The government's proposals to support education and training in our country are simply not working. This brings us to a skills crisis in an era of rising youth unemployment. We have, simultaneously, a crisis of youth unemployment and a crisis of skills shortages. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is hard to imagine, particularly at this time. But here we are confronted with both.

There's been nearly a 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages, while the Australian Industry Group says that 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. There are almost two million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We see businesses struggling to fill the skilled positions they have on offer. At the same time, we have young people desperate for work who can't fill those positions because they haven't been given the chance to gain the skills that those roles require.

Why isn't the Morrison government training these people for jobs in industries where there's a shortage of workers. Why? Because this Liberal government has cut funding to TAFEs and training. And, even though this is the case, and it's plainly obvious that it is, the government still refuses to properly fund the sector. It refuses to give it the proper reform that it so desperately needs. Young people in our country have been very clear about what they need. They need a skills and training sector that is properly funded. They need that sector to be properly resourced. They need it to have educators who are properly trained and able to skill-up young people as a pathway to meaningful employment. This nation needs that now more than ever. This government has not delivered on a single one of those requests.

We have a Liberal government that has no plan to fix our nation's skills crisis. It doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better post-school education system. Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has no plan to fix the skills crisis he has created. He has no plan to create more jobs for those who are unemployed. He has no plan to lift wages for those who are employed. As always, this Prime Minister would rather hide from problems than do the hard work that is needed to fix and resolve them. We have from our Prime Minister spin and deflection, bringing in marketing teams and celebrity ambassadors to distract from the real issues that confront our nation on skills.

We have in JobMaker another marketing slogan with no substance. JobTrainer goes nowhere near replacing the funding the government has stripped out and we still don't know what it will do. A government that is fiddling at the edges of our current system will not address the profound problems that undermine vocational education and training and consequently the productive performance and international competitiveness of our economy. Unlike Labor, this government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as a public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships or the real value of the hardworking and passionate public providers in TAFE, our TAFE teachers. If we continue down this path we, as a nation, will be severely jeopardising our future, including our future economic growth. We will also undermine the opportunity of individual Australians to meet their full potential and, most importantly, compromise our ability as a nation to compete with the rest of the world, using the skills, knowledge, discovery and invention of our people.

We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary school education, at either TAFE or university. So we need to increase participation in both our universities and our vocational education sector. We need to make sure our young people are prepared for the world of work—a world of work that we have all seen recently changing so very quickly. If we do not value the role of an appropriately funded VET sector for the training, skills and apprenticeships it provides so many Australians, its vital role in driving the economy and enhancing industries will be overlooked. This is a third-term government that simply refuses to deliver genuine reform that overhauls the higher education sector and that properly funds both vocational training providers and our nation's universities to deliver the services that their students need.