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Monday, 24 August 2020
Page: 3741


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (12:53): I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. No matter how many times I stand in this place and speak about the value of vocational education, I am yet to be assured that those opposite are actually listening, because their policies aren't demonstrating that they truly understand the importance and needs of the sectors. The Liberals have slashed funding to TAFE and training, let apprentice numbers fall and presided over a national shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees. We are not just talking little cuts; the Liberals have cut TAFE and training by over $3 billion. I'll repeat that: $3 billion. We have in those opposite a third-term government who simply refuse to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the vocational training sector. We need to stop the cuts to TAFE. We need to properly value the educational sector, from early education right through school and tertiary education. We need to recognise that education is something that benefits all of us, not just those who are studying. It's something that we need to invest in as a society for the benefit of society. We need to compete in this century with our partners and competitors overseas as the smart country, not via a race to the bottom on wages and conditions.

Particularly in my home state of Tasmania, we have seen that there is a desperate—absolutely desperate!—need for more skilled workers across many sectors of the economy. To grow or even just to continue their operations, businesses need skilled workers. Skills training is especially important for young Tasmanians. I understand the importance of vocational education. While working for the Australian Services Union, I set up the first union job skills program, which obviously included a component of vocational education. I also represented the union on many industry training advisory boards. I know these kinds of training programs can transform the lives of young people. The youth unemployment rate in Tasmania is 15.1 per cent and since March this year 6,400 young people have lost their jobs. Upskilling young Tasmanians is a fantastic way to create jobs and employment opportunities.

Tasmanian Labor will take to the next Tasmanian state election a policy that advocates for free TAFE and VET education, and I welcome that. The government cannot use COVID-19 as an excuse for reduced numbers of apprenticeships and trainees; there were certainly skill shortages long before COVID-19 hit. Much more needs to be done right now to support apprentices and trainees. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government spent seven years neglecting our TAFE and training system. In Tasmania, we need to train more Tasmanians because we don't have enough of the skilled workers that we need. Many kinds of workers are still being allowed into Tasmania, despite our border restrictions, with claims that there are no suitably qualified Tasmanians available to fill these positions. While I suspect that there are Tasmanians who could do the work if we looked to find them, it still highlights the desperate need to significantly increase the number of people completing vocational education in Tasmania.

We need real leadership and a real commitment in this sector. However, the bill before us today does not do that. It makes minor, technical changes to the governance arrangements regarding vocational education. It is just another tweak from the third-term government who simply refuse to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the vocational training sector. While the bill is welcome—Labor won't oppose it—it is disappointing that the best the government can do is tinker around the edges in a sector which is struggling due to massive funding cuts. This bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system.

The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 amends the governance structures of The Australian Skills Quality Authority, or ASQA, and enhances information sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the NCVER. The legislation builds on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019 and responds to the Braithwaite and Joyce reviews, which both called on ASQA to adopt a greater educative role alongside its regulatory role. The changes also respond to initial findings from the rapid review of ASQA's governance, culture and processes. Key amendments will revise ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner or chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder, and will establish 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.

Having previously been a member of many Tasmanian advisory committee boards, I feel that an important feature of an advisory council is that it takes advice from a wide range of people, including those who have experience in, or in representing, the sector. Labor knows the value of TAFE and union representation and believe their views should be heard and considered when it comes to the VET sector. Labor's amendments will ensure that the public provider has seats at the table. I hope the crossbench will support our amendments. The reforms in this bill are needed, and we support a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We will 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 need to ensure that reforms to ASQA's audit processes don't allow any drop in the quality of training.

In the past we've seen that this government is slow to act on quality issues, and it has done serious damage to the sector. More than seven years of Liberal government have 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 past five years. These funds are just sitting in the government's bank account, when they should be used to improve our TAFE system. This is in addition to the more than $3 billion which has already been ripped out of the system. State governments are closing campuses and ending courses; TAFE campuses are falling apart and in desperate need of repair—all while this funding remains unspent.

The government claims that there has been less demand than forecast every year since the Liberal Party came to office. This comment doesn't stack up when unemployment and underemployment are at near-record levels while, at the same time, employers are crying out for skilled workers. Under the Liberals there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. Each of us relies on these services in our lives. We cannot simply close our eyes and wish for problems in the training sector to vanish. Proactive government policies are needed to turn things around.

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 signed up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. This drop was even more extreme in a number of essential trades. The number of Australians starting an apprenticeship or traineeship in construction, including carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing, dropped by an alarming 40 per cent. In some areas there are more people dropping out of vocational courses than there are people finishing them. That doesn't happen by accident; it's a consequence of this government's neglect. That's just not good enough—we've got to do better.

The Liberal government's underspend of almost $1 billion has affected incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help people finish their apprenticeships, and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need. We're simultaneously experiencing a crisis of youth unemployment and a crisis of skills shortages. One of these would be bad enough, but here we are confronted with both. To be faced with both at the same time is pretty hard to imagine, especially when there's an easy solution which fixes both: better funding for training in the vocational education sector.

There has been an increase of nearly 10 per cent 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. While businesses are struggling to fill the skilled positions they have on offer, we have young people desperate for work who can't fill these positions because they haven't been given the chance to gain the skills that the roles require. Why isn't the government training these people for jobs in industries where there's a shortage of workers? I'll tell you why. It's because the Liberals have cut funding to TAFE and training. I don't know whether it's ideological, whether they're just short-sighted or whether they're maybe a bit snobby and there's a stigma about university and vocational education, but the government refuse to properly fund the sector. They simply refuse to give the sector the proper reform that it so desperately needs.

Young people have been clear with what they need. They need a skills training sector that is properly funded, is properly resourced and has educators who are properly trained and able to skill these kids up as a pathway to meaningful employment. Why is this so hard for the government to understand? This government hasn't delivered on a single element of those requests. The Liberal government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better post-school system. Scott Morrison has no plan to fix the skills crisis he created. He has no plan to create more jobs or to lift wages for those who are employed. We've seen a continuous attack on pay, conditions and workers' rights from this government. As always, the Prime Minister would rather hide from problems than do the hard work needed to solve them. He would rather spin and deflect, bringing in marketing teams and celebrity ambassadors to distract from the real issue, because we all know this Prime Minister is all about surface over substance.

JobMaker is another marketing slogan with no real substance. JobTrainer goes nowhere near replacing the funding the government has stripped out, and we still don't know what it will do. Fiddling at the edges of the 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, the government obviously doesn't understand the critical role of TAFE as the public provider, the values in skills and apprenticeships, or the value of the hardworking and passionate public TAFE teachers. If we continue down this path we will severely jeopardise our future economic growth, undermine the opportunity of individual Australians to meet their full potential, and, very importantly, compromise our ability as a nation to compete with the rest of the world using the skills, knowledge, discovery and invention of our own people.

We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary school education, either TAFE or university. So we need to increase participation in both universities and our vocational education sector to make sure our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is changing ever so quickly.

This third-term government simply refuses to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the higher education sector and that properly funds both vocational training providers and universities to deliver the services that their students need. This government has spent seven years ignoring the vital role TAFE plays in the growth of our young people and the vital role it plays in the growth of our economy. It has spent seven years cutting funding models, underspending the meagre amount it promised the sector. Rebuilding our skills and training sector will be crucial to getting the economy going again, and the government needs to properly fund our TAFE and apprenticeship programs.

We've seen $3 billion of cuts in recent years to TAFE and training. As I said, Labor won't oppose this bill, but the government can and should be doing much, much more to reverse the dreadful effects its cuts have had on the TAFE and vocational education sector. The government must restore that funding that they've cut. The government must invest in training the next generation of tradespeople in our country, because a strong economy relies on a skilled workforce. Young Tasmanians, young Australians, deserve this and the wider Tasmanian and the wider Australian economy needs this, as does the rest of Australia.