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Thursday, 15 February 2018
Page: 1201

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (11:20): We have the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2018 and the Migration (Skilling Australians Fund) Charges Bill 2017 before us today. We know that these bills seek to amend the Migration Act to provide a framework to collect an additional levy from employers accessing workers under the temporary and permanent employer-sponsored migration programs. This is a worthy endeavour, and one worth supporting, but it is inherently flawed in terms of whether it will do due justice to our TAFE and education and training sectors. I want to say from the outset that the government has a long way to go in this regard.

The charges enabled in this legislation will apply to the temporary skills shortage visa, which we know replaces the 457 visa—that happened last March; the employer nomination scheme (subclass 186) visa; and the regional sponsored migration scheme (subclass 187) visa. We also understand that the immigration minister can determine by legislative instrument the manner in which labour market testing must be undertaken for a nominated position and the kinds of evidence that must accompany a nomination.

As I've said, Labor does not disagree that an additional levy on temporary skilled visas is, potentially, a skilled migration policy that can help ensure that local workers get the first shot at local jobs. But the simple fact is that this bill does not go far enough in ensuring that local jobs for local people come first. Equally importantly, this bill does little to ensure adequate funding for our TAFE and further education sector—which is what we need to support in order to drive the creation of the skills that this nation needs, so that we don't have to rely on overseas labour.

So there are issues with this bill, particularly with the Skilling Australians Fund. The revenue collected from the training contribution charge provided for in this bill goes to the Skilling Australians Fund, as we know. It is a training fund administered by the Department of Education and Training for the funding of apprenticeships and traineeships. In theory, this sounds terrific. Of course we should be putting more money into skills and training. But the funding in this bill is not stable and it is not guaranteed. The bill relies solely on skilled visas as the source of income for this fund to train local workers. The funding is dependent on the number of skilled visas and subsequent revenue from the nomination training contribution charge.

What is perhaps most concerning is that the Skilling Australians Fund makes no reference to critical support for our technical and further education sector. Any serious discussion about skills and education in our nation must have a conversation about TAFE, must include TAFE, must fund TAFE and must prioritise TAFE. We cannot in this nation allow our economy to rely solely on for-profit providers, many of which have a track record of exploiting people in the training sector. I have seen this firsthand. I've seen training providers offer training courses hand over fist in things that are cheap to run and easy to deliver, at the expense of what our economy really needs. The kinds of courses that TAFE can deliver—this is particularly an issue with things like diesel mechanics, welders and fitters—are all those trades where you need proper facilities and proper example trade environments to run your training. TAFE is the backbone of that quality training in our nation, yet more and more, because of underfunding, TAFEs are closing their doors on the very courses that are part of the skills shortage in our nation. We must ensure that our public vocational education sector is well funded to provide the training and skills we need in our country for the future.

The Liberals have a terrible track record. Labor doubts the shaky funding for the Skilling Australians Fund will ever raise enough revenue to ensure the skills and training for Australians through the TAFE sector. In examining this legislation, independent analysis has very much backed up these concerns. That analysis shows the design of the Skilling Australians Fund is inherently flawed. If the number of visas goes down, so will funding for skills. The ACTU highlighted this at the Senate inquiry, where they said:

In the absence of real transparency and firm commitments from the federal government about guaranteed levels of VET funding, the measures proposed by these bills will simply never be enough.

The government needs to invest in education, skills and training more than ever, and Australia really needs it. TAFE Directors Australia submitted the following to the inquiry:

… TDA wishes to raise the broader concern that the Skilling Australians Fund risks focussing on apprenticeships and traineeships at the expense of responding to other important priorities facing the Australian economy. The priorities include mitigating the impact of automation, artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies on the levels and types of skill workers, and ultimately ensuring that all Australians are active participants in the labour market, which is so central to sustaining the nation's GDP, and ensuring our ongoing international competitiveness.

I share those concerns. In other words, without strategic thought and investment about where skills and training need to go to cope with the future economy of our nation, we will be in trouble.

This bill provides none of that strategic foresight and none of that investment; instead, it provides a fund where the market can let rip on who gets to train and do what, which is an incredible mismatch with the kinds of skills and education that young people and older people retraining need to engage in the workforce. The ACTU included in their submission:

It is our opinion that the VET funding model outlined in this proposal fundamentally fails to address the real weaknesses in our current VET system. A relatively small, unstable funding source is not an effective remedy for a system in which few of the current issues can be considered to be caused by lack of funding.

So, at the core of this is not only a lack of funding; it is also a lack of systemic oversight for our TAFE sector. Essentially we have a government in the Liberal coalition that refuses to take any responsibility for sitting down with industry and sitting down with technical and further education providers to work out what the priorities of our nation really need to be. We've gone a long way backwards in this regard in recent years.

I agree with comments of my fellow Labor senators in their dissenting report from the inquiry into this bill. They've raised serious concerns with the design of the fund. Skills and training policy should never be dictated by the number of visa applications being made. Importantly, any funding from this fund could never make up for the massive cuts to TAFE that have taken place under this government.

There are issues with this bill also in relation to labour market testing. It is of great concern that this bill does not legislate strict conditions for labour market testing. It provides no defined parameters and relies on the immigration minister to determine the manner in which labour market testing is undertaken by legislative instrument. That is simply not good enough for us on this side of the chamber. Temporary visas should be used only where there is a genuine skills shortage, and vigorous labour market testing needs to be conducted to ensure that there really are no suitably qualified workers available to fill a position before permission is given to bring in overseas workers.

These changes, according to the ACTU, leave the labour market testing process virtually entirely in the hands of the minister. In other words, there doesn't have to be any process that's agreed by industry, that's agreed by people in this place, that's worked through with the TAFE sector, and that matches up with where skills shortages are and actually aligns skills shortages with where we invest in education and training places. This is simply not good enough. The ACTU also said, 'Poor labour market testing standards have facilitated the widespread use of 457 visas and the real harm done to many temporary visa workers through exploitation and wage theft.' My own union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, raised concerns. They said: 'The ease with which temporary worker visas can be achieved is driving higher demand. We think that calls for greater regulation, tighter regulation in respect of labour market testing.'

We share these concerns from the ACTU and the AMWU. This bill does not provide strict enough labour market testing across all occupations and skilled visas. We're simply asked to trust that Peter Dutton will do the right thing with his instrument. But Minister Peter Dutton has proven time and time again that he can't be trusted to do the right thing in labour market testing. Time after time the government proves that they cannot be trusted on labour market testing. You can't trust the Turnbull government with local jobs, and this bill is further evidence of that. The bill simply fails to legislate for strict labour market testing across all occupations and all skilled visa areas.

Mr President, can you blame us on this side for being sceptical? This government has a terrible track record on training. This government has a terrible track record on labour market testing. The Abbott-Turnbull government has ripped $2.8 billion out of skills and training over its five years in government. That has had a terrible impact on people's opportunities in this nation. We know that there was a $637 million cut from skills and training in the last budget alone. There are close to 140,000 fewer trainees and apprenticeships since the Liberals came into government. There are 41,000 fewer trade apprentices. And there was a 30 per cent drop in government funding for the TAFE sector between 2013 and 2016 alone. What an appalling track record. This bill can in no way go nearly far enough in making up for this government's lack of commitment to education and training in this nation.

Now, we know and those opposite should also know that the future of TAFE is absolutely vital to the future of our country, but they are not interested in investing in skills. A government with no plan for technical and further education in our training has no plan for Australia's future—no plan for jobs, no answers on skills, no answers on training and no answers on TAFE. This government simply can't deliver on the most fundamental aspects of a skills policy for our nation: a secure and rational funding base that deals with the real issues in our labour market and matches them up properly. This is a government that's simply not up to the job.

We have in our country underemployment at record highs and unemployment that is far too common, especially for young Australians and people in our regions. I see this right around Western Australia. Investing in skills and training to enable these young people and these local workers to get well-paid and secure jobs is essential. I see firsthand, right around Western Australia, the daily struggle of our young people in accessing the opportunities that they need. We've got fantastic up-and-coming economic opportunities in Western Australia with rail manufacturing and with defence manufacturing, but we will not have the skilled workforce that we need to do these jobs, because the government is simply not connecting people up with these opportunities with the education and training that they need to do them. What's the point in expanding and investing in these industries if, essentially, you then have to pull in overseas workers to do the job?

We must invest in education and skills training more than ever. Effective skills formation is the critical fundamental to our national economic and social prosperity. The Turnbull government should be preparing Australians with skills for a transforming labour market, for the massive technology changes that we know we will experience. But we see a designed training fund that relies exclusively on a levy for skilled migrant visas. It demonstrates how out of touch the Prime Minister is and how, yet again, they're relying solely on skilled visas and the fees attached to those to train local workers through this very unstable fund. It's simply not enough.

Those opposite have also failed to protect the penalty rates for 700,000 of Australia's workers and are now failing to protect local workers in getting the first shot at local jobs. Only yesterday in the House the Turnbull government voted against a Labor amendment to ensure local workers can apply for local jobs first before an employer can bring in workers from overseas. Our amendments moved in the lower house and in this place should be supported. Labor's agenda with amendments to this bill and our agenda in government is about having a plan for local jobs and about having a plan for TAFE. That is at the centre of our agenda. It is about having a genuine plan to put local workers first and to ensure businesses are training and employing local workers. This is what the real agenda for our nation should be.