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Monday, 24 August 2020
Page: 3748


Senator WALSH (Victoria) (13:20): It seems appropriate to be talking about national vocational education and training during this week, National Skills Week. This is a chance for us to acknowledge just how important TAFE and training are for our communities. Right now, as we face a jobs crisis in this country, we must acknowledge that TAFE and training are a key part of getting our country back on track. But this bill is just another tweak, and it's a tweak from a third-term government which has actually spent seven years undermining and underfunding our critical TAFE system. While this bill largely implements the recommendations of independent reviews that have been supported by the sector, there are still some concerns. There remains uncertainty as to how some of the changes contained in this bill will work in practice. This isn't helped by the lack of consultation that many stakeholders in the sector have reported on this bill.

But let's look at the real issue here, which is this government's record of failure and neglect on skills and training—seven years, three terms, three prime ministers, each of them just as responsible as the last for the skills crisis that Australia currently finds itself in. This is a skills crisis that existed before the COVID-19 crisis, a skills crisis that will hold back Australia's economic recovery. In this country, we have a serious mismatch between the skills that workers have to offer and the skills that businesses need. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more than two million people were unable to find enough work. At the same time, businesses couldn't find workers with the skills that they needed. That has got a whole lot worse. Today over 2.5 million Australians are unemployed or underemployed. This is a number that we know, tragically, is predicted to keep rising.

If you look at the government's own skills shortage list, you will find that as a country we are lacking people with the skills to become bakers, nurses, electricians, midwives, early childhood educators, teachers and so many more. Employers are actually crying out for people for these roles. So why is it that so many children finishing school today cannot count on their government to deliver them the skills, training and education that are needed to fill those vacancies? These are core jobs, essential jobs, and yet as a country we can't fill them. This is just one example of how the government can barely manage today's economy, let alone manage the recovery and the future that we need to grapple with right now.

Why do we have those skills shortages? It is because of seven years of cuts, seven years of neglect. In Victoria, my home state, we've seen the loss of 35,000 apprentices and trainees since the coalition came to government. That's a loss of over one-third of Victoria's apprentices and trainees. Across the nation, over 140,000 apprentices and trainees have been lost. The Liberals and Nationals have cut $3 billion from TAFE and training. We've heard today that Treasury expects effective unemployment to reach 13 per cent by the end of the year. We currently have over one million Australians unemployed—the first time in Australia's history that that figure has been reached. TAFE, training and apprenticeships are going to be crucial in ensuring that Australians have the skills for the jobs that become available as we recover from this recession. So we cannot afford for the Morrison government to continue down this path of cuts to and neglect of our public TAFE and training system, a path that will undermine our recovery, a path that will undermine the opportunity for so many Australians to get the education they need to secure the jobs that they need today and for the future.

These cuts are locking Australians out of TAFE and training, and that is locking Australians out of jobs. This is what it should be all about right now for this government—jobs, saving jobs, creating jobs and making sure Australians have the skills to do those jobs. At a time when unemployment and underemployment are at record levels, this government cannot tell us what its plan is for jobs. This government has no plan for our recovery. Right now, the government is far more interested in photo ops, another press release, another press conference and another reactive announcement, without the follow-through that is really needed.

What is the JobTrainer program? What is it going to do to make up for seven years of cuts to and neglect of TAFE and training? What is the HomeBuilder program? It's a program that is not building any homes. And the JobMaker program? If someone in the government could tell us what that is we would really appreciate it. It's another program, another slogan, another name without a plan and without anything real that Australians can get behind to know that they are going to have good, decent and secure jobs with the help of this government. This government is too busy announcing plans that are all talk and no substance, plans that are so light on detail they don't really make it past 24 hours in the media.

When it comes to TAFE, training and skills, this government vacated the field when it came to power seven years ago. A government without a plan for education and skills is a government without a plan for the future. Right now, it screams of a government without a plan for our economic recovery either. Now, more than ever, we need a government that is serious about creating good, decent and secure jobs and one that will provide Australians with the skills they need to do those jobs. No more nonplans, no more empty announcements and no more tweaks to legislation—we need a real plan for jobs and we need it now.

Unlike the Liberals, Labor understand the value of TAFE and training. We know that vocational education is a key part of Australia's recovery. We will always back a strong, comprehensive regulatory compliance and education framework for ASQA. We'll support a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We'll support this bill. But this bill in the current environment is just more tweaks to a vocational training sector that needs a national plan and needs proper support from this government.

We know that we're going to need skilled workers to recover from this recession and that people desperately need good and secure jobs that are supported by quality training. The Labor team are focused on this and we have always been focused on this. Last year, Labor leader Anthony Albanese announced our intention to establish 'Jobs and Skills Australia', and this is the type of reform we should be talking about right here, right now, today. An independent statutory authority would provide a genuine partnership with business leaders, state and territory governments, unions and education providers, bringing everyone together to make sure that workers have access to the skills and jobs that they need and that businesses have access to the skilled workers that they need and are seeking as well. This will be a model of genuine partnership and collaboration, investing in the skills of Australian workers. That is the sort of reform that we should be talking about here today in the Senate and in this parliament in the middle of this crisis, in the middle of the first recession in almost 30 years. We need this kind of plan now, more than ever, as we look forward to a recovery post COVID-19. On this side of the chamber, in the Labor team, we have a vision for decent and stable jobs that are supported by quality training. This is in Labor's DNA. We see education and training as an investment in our future, and we will always support hardworking Australians who want a quality education. We will always support good, secure jobs for all Australians.