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Monday, 24 August 2020
Page: 3738


Senator O'SULLIVAN (Western Australia) (12:42): I too rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. Australia's skills and education system has always been a very strong passion of mine. I've spent my working life getting people into work, and having the right skills and training packages, which respond to industry needs, is a critical enabler of that. I've seen the life-changing impact that this government's focus on skills and training continues to have, and I'm proud to stand here on this side of the chamber to speak on this bill, which is another demonstration of how important this issue is to our economic agenda.

Skills, education and training have never been more important to our nation than right now in the recovery phase of this challenge. Our national economy and the businesses within it will continue to see significant upheaval. I don't believe there has been another point in our recent history when the labour market in Australia has experienced such a high level of fluidity. The ability of our skills and training system to adapt to this environment so as to respond to the rapidly changing needs of industry will be critically important as we recover, and this bill goes some way to addressing that. It is a critical piece of our economic response to this coronavirus challenge. We know that skills and training will be crucial to Australia's economic recovery. That is why VET reform is a key pillar of the Morrison government's JobMaker plan. We know we need to move quickly to position the VET sector to support Australia's economic recovery. The jobs created as we come out of this crisis will not be the same as the jobs that were lost, and it's critical that Australians can access high-quality and relevant training to reskill and upskill.

The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Government and Other Matters) Bill amends the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 to reform the governance structure of the Australian Skills Quality Authority. The main function of the bill will be to replace the current governance structure of a chief commissioner and deputy commissioners with a CEO and advisory council. This will modernise the regulator so that it can take on a greater educative role and have a more effective regulatory approach. This bill also enables ASQA to engage external help as required and ramp up information-sharing, among other reforms. This means the organisation will be more adaptive and responsive to the needs of industry and the demands of the broader Australian economy.

As part of our recovery plan, the government have announced we will partner with state and territories to establish a $1 billion JobTrainer fund. This fund will rapidly provide around 340,700 additional training places that are free or low-fee in areas of identified skills need for jobseekers and school leavers. We must always ensure that any funding is directed to training for jobs that exist or for jobs that are in need, and that's what this package is designed to do. We're not interested in just funding training for training's sake. We're not going to fund underwater origami courses—courses that won't actually lead someone to a job; we're going to fund training that matches the needs of industry and matches the needs of employers. Senator Faruqi said the Greens have a great opposition to funding private training providers. Well, I've just been through the Pilbara, and I've met businesses that are providing their own training. And guess what? Those businesses are the best people to train people for their jobs, and we should be doing everything we can to support that, not just have the government provide the training. When the industry know what they want and industry know what they need—that is something that I'm always going to support because we know that it yields even better results.

To access the JobTrainer funding, states and territories need to sign the Heads of Agreement for Skills Reform, which sets out immediate reforms to improve the vocational education and training sector and provides the foundation for long-term improvements. I understand that there are discussions going on right now with the Western Australian government and, while I'm not privy to those discussions, I know that my home state in particular is experiencing a lot of churn in critical sectors, some of which power the national economy. I hope that they are able to conclude those negotiations very soon so that we can get on with the task of providing necessary training to meet the needs of the jobs that are ahead of us. The priorities in the heads of agreement are all aimed at ensuring that the VET system is delivering for students and employers.

In addition to this, we've announced the $2.8 billion Supporting Apprentices and Trainees measure, which commenced on 2 April 2020. The most recent figures demonstrate the government has provided over $462 million to support over 50,000 businesses employing more than 87,000 apprentices and trainees. This has been a game changer for the apprentices and the businesses which employ them. For us there was no other option. It is absolutely critical to the success of our nation coming out of this pandemic that those who are completing their apprenticeship are able to continue to do so and that more apprentices should be taken on. I completed an apprenticeship between the 1996 and 1999, and I'm so grateful that my employer stuck with me and gave me the opportunity to complete it, even though there were times where it was difficult for that employer because the business was going through some structural change, and they could have easily let me go. But they stuck with me. Now, as an adult looking back on those years when I was an older teenager and a young adult, I'm so grateful for the support that was provided to me. This government is working with industry, working with employers, to ensure that they are able to keep their apprentices, even during this time, and encouraging more businesses to take on more apprentices, because we know that that is going to be critical for the future.

Eligibility for the subsidy will be expanded to include medium-sized businesses with 199 employees or fewer and who had an apprentice in place on 1 July 2020. The duration of the wage subsidy will also be extended by six months to cover wages paid up to March 2021. The JobKeeper payment will also support many apprentices and trainees to remain connected to their employer as a result of the pandemic.

Substantial regulatory and fee relief has also been provided to the vocational education and training sector. Fees charged by ASQA will be refunded or waived. This is important. These measures put some $100 million back into the cash flow of Australian education and training businesses so that this money can be used to retain employees, reshape education offerings and support domestic and international students. There will also be a six-month exemption from the loan fees associated with VET student loans in a bid to encourage full-fee paying students to continue their studies despite these difficult times.

We are focused on delivering the skills for the future. We have a $585 million skills package designed to strengthen Australia's vocational education and training system. We have a $48.3 million National Skills Commission which provides independent, evidence based advice on the labour market trends and industry driven demand. Industry led skills organisations are also preparing us for jobs of the future, giving us information we need to see what skills are required, what type of qualifications will be most suitable and how our education and training system should adapt for us to take full advantage of the next great industrial opportunities.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more that this government is doing to give Australians every possible opportunity to embark and retrain for their career of choice. There is no doubt that the coronavirus challenge has changed the way Australians live, work and study, and the ramification of this change will exist for some time to come. These measures will make sure that we as a nation are well prepared for the future. I'm proud to be a member of this government, which is prepared and which is future-proofing our VET system.

Those opposite often like to forget that we are paying to fix their failed VET FEE-HELP scheme. Since 2016, over 91,000 students have had their VET FEE-HELP loan debts of over $1.5 billion recredited by the Commonwealth. Australians haven't forgotten what Labor did to the VET sector went they were last in government. Apprenticeships fell by 110,000 between July 2012 and June 2013 after they ripped out $1.2 billion in employer incentives—the largest ever annual decline. We are working with states and territories to reform the system and clean up the mess that was left by federal Labor.

The government is investing more in a better system. To commit more funding we need to have confidence in a VET system that will deliver what the economy needs. The coalition government is committed to ensuring that we are equipping Australians with the skills that they need for good, secure and long-term jobs. So I commend this bill to the Senate.