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Thursday, 15 February 2018
Page: 1226


Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (12:16): We are absolutely committed to making sure that Australians get a fair go when it comes to getting access to the type of education they need to participate fully in the economy.

The Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2018 amends the Migration Act 1958. It endeavours to provide a framework that will collect an additional levy, the nomination training contribution charge, which will come from employers who are accessing workers under the temporary and permanent employer sponsored migration programs. Fundamentally, gathering a training contribution charge from employers who benefit from training is not, in essence, a bad idea, and Labor support that notionally. However, there are a number of amendments that Labor have referred to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee for inquiry because we are very concerned about the expressions of great mistrust about what is being enacted in this legislation by the government.

Stakeholders have had a lot to say about this. Before the debate was interrupted at 11.45, I was quoting Professor Peter Noonan, from the Mitchell Institute for health and education policy. He was talking about the cyclical nature of funding that is proposed by the government. He clearly indicated that it was countercyclical to the purpose for which it was established. Other key stakeholders who indicated they had great concerns included the Law Council of Australia. The concern they raised was that, should the number of skilled migrants decrease due to the levy, so would the funding; if less funding for training and vocational education is provided to Australian and permanent residents, the demand for overseas labour may increase.

The Law Council suggests that the levy should not provide the only source of revenue for the fund. There's a good reason for that, because the vulnerability to these sorts of variations in funding that are proposed by this legislation before us mean that organisations that do want to provide quality education, that are prepared to invest in buying the necessary machinery—particularly the heavy machinery that is required for much of the training—can't do that. They can't do that on a wing and a prayer; they can't do it at the whim of a government or at the whim of a labour market—and I'll have more to say about labour markets as we go forward. That would have such a fluctuating effect on funding as to provide incredible instability for the sector.

Other concerns were raised by the National Apprentice Employment Network. This is the organisation that represents group training companies right across the country. Group training companies have significant knowledge about the impact of this proposed legislation, because they are invested in the lives of up to 10 per cent of the apprentices across this country. That organisation said:

The VET sector should never be in a position where the best it can do to ensure sustainable funding for apprentices, going forward is to encourage increased skilled migrant employment.

The concerns of the Victorian TAFE Association were:

… the levels of funding provided should first and foremost be driven not by the amount of money raised by migration charges but by the level required to train and educate Australians that maximises their contribution to Australia’s economic success, future productivity and growth.

We're not talking about small concerns here. We want to be able to provide stable, adequate funding for high-quality training and education through a technical and further education system. It was once the mighty TAFE system, now so much degraded by failure to look after that sector or to fund it properly. In the course of this federal government's entire governance of the country, they have indicated through their legislative program a step away from involvement in assuring our nation of an adequate supply of skilled labour.

It's always somebody else's responsibility when it comes to this government. They say that it's not their responsibility. In fact, in the seat of Robertson, where I live and of which I was proud to be the member in the period from 2010 to 2013, we've got the local member constantly telling everybody in the electorate that there's no responsibility; she has no responsibility for anything to do with TAFE and further training. Yet we see in this piece of legislation a fundamental change to the way that funding is going to be allocated to provide for training. This government is actually up to its eyeballs in this training situation, and the reality is that they're not doing a very good job for ordinary Australians. That's why it's good that people are paying attention to what's going on here, because it's the con that's often a part of what the government says.

These pieces of legislation are actually, typically, misrepresenting what they're doing. We've got the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2018 and the Migration (Skilling Australians Fund) Charges Bill 2017. What we're talking about is a cut to the funding and building insecurity into the funding of skilling Australians. That's what this bill is really about.

ACCI indicated that the federal government has sent a strong negative signal about their commitment to vocational training. I don't know about anybody else in this country, but I like to think that, if an electrician is coming to do work at my house, they're going to have careful and adequate training to make sure that they do a very good job. The great union that represents the electrical trades is none other than the Electrical Trades Union, the ETU. This is what they had to say. They called the government's proposal 'absurd'. They said:

The budget of the fund needs to be guaranteed—

They're referring to a fund that is provided to do training—

The budget of the fund needs to be guaranteed, consistent and decoupled from how much money is actually brought in by the levy. There needs to be a guarantee of funding to ensure there is adequate training and, obviously, the levy can be used to defray. We should not have a system where there is funding for training of Australian workers contingent upon the importation of temporary workers

I think most Australians would absolutely agree with that.

I know that unions in this place are the whipping boy of this government; they're always out there saying what a bad job they do. The reality is that we have here evidence of unions presenting evidence to this committee, fighting for ordinary Australians who use the services, fighting for apprentices and fighting for workers in these trades. They understand that if funding for training in Australia is made insecure then we're going to have a big problem, and it won't just be confined to what happens in this chamber. It will reach into the homes of every single Australian right across this country.

The ACTU, if I can put this as the last comment from stakeholders, said:

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.

I'm a senator for New South Wales and I like to talk about things that are relevant to New South Wales. But something happened in Victoria that I think we need to continue to get on the record. Many people in my electorate are very alarmed when I tell them this fact. The fact is that there were 10,000 students in the state of Victoria whose qualifications were so inadequate that the qualification they paid for and that they'd studied for was actually withdrawn. So there they are. They went to TAFE—well, it wasn't actually TAFE; it was dodgy VET providers who weren't maintaining the standards. These young people, predominantly, had finished what they thought was a course and got to the end of it. They were so poorly skilled, so unable to participate properly in the workforce, that everything that they'd invested of themselves, their time, all their travel, all their hopes—all of that—was dashed, for 10,000 people. So, if you mess with the VET sector and you get it wrong, the implications are very, very significant.

Sadly, this piece of legislation is another signature of a government that fails to listen to those who know and fails to act in response to the good warning that they've been giving about not doing the wrong thing. What's been going on with this piece of legislation in the last couple of days is also very, very important to note. The reality is that there were amendments that were put to the House yesterday, and, sadly, this government just used its numbers to push on through, and it is continuing to resist changing important parts of this piece of legislation.

The Turnbull government voted against a Labor amendment, which is a change to the bill to make it better—a Labor amendment to ensure that local workers are given the first opportunity to apply for a local job before an employer brings in an overseas worker. That's what our amendment was. It was to make sure that the government constructs legislation that gives Australians who live here, young people, middle-aged people and older people in the cities, in the regions and right across this country, local workers, the best chance to get a job before they bring in an overseas worker.

We know that our market can move, and sometimes we've got to bring in overseas workers, but we shouldn't be constructing a system that puts overseas workers ahead of proper training of young Australians, who are just asking for this government to take responsibility to give them a fair chance to do the learning that they want to do, to undertake the growth that they need to, so they can become a great worker in this country. Ultimately, many of those who do get a chance will go on, and they will become the small-business employers right across this country—great young people with a future, whom this government seems determined to separate from that future that I think is their right.

At the heart of what we are concerned about with regard to this legislation is a thing called labour market testing. What's that? What is labour market testing? We talk in these words around this place, but what does that actually mean to Australia? It means that, if you're an employer and you want to employ somebody, we want to test the market and say, 'Are there Australians out there who can do the jobs?' We should encourage Australian companies to employ Australian workers with fair and decent wages. That seems eminently reasonable to me. And that is what I think most Australians expect should be the case.

But market testing is something that the government want to muck around with. They want to change things. They want to change it up. They want to make it a whole lot more flexible. That takes away opportunities from Australians, and that's why we're very concerned about it.

Labour market testing, when it's done properly, puts local workers first by making employers prove that there are no experienced local workers available to do the job, before a skilled visa is made available. Labor's amendment to the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2018—the one that's being discussed here in the Senate today—if they'd agreed to it in the House yesterday, would have done some pretty important things. It would have required that jobs be advertised for a minimum of four weeks. That seems fair to me. It would have required that job advertising be targeted so that Australian citizens or Australian permanent residents would see it, rather than some smart person out there—or they think they're smart; I just think it's malicious—organising that the advertising goes to overseas workers instead of to Australian workers. That was what our amendment sought to fix. It was rejected by the government. They all voted en bloc against it.

Our amendment would see advertising set out any skills or experience required that are appropriate to the position, rather than creating unrealistic or unwarranted skills just so that you don't have to employ an Australian. This is what we have seen in too many of the sectors across this country. You might get somebody in from another country who absolutely wants to have a chance; they want to have a crack at life. That's fantastic, but what skills do they actually have?

Do they understand the type of job that they're taking on when they get here? Do they understand what fair wages, according to the Australian system, are?

What we've seen are unscrupulous employers. Some of you might remember the 7-Eleven situation where we've had a lot of young people, a lot of overseas workers, who've been paid as little as $7 an hour. That's bad for a whole lot of reasons. It's certainly bad for that person. It's unethical for that employer. In fact, it's against the law for that employer to do that. It also takes away job opportunities for young people to get in and learn and go on with their careers—young Australians who were born here. I can't understand why the government doesn't get that we need to make sure that advertising is realistic about the skills that it's advertising for and makes sure that it gives Australians an opportunity.

Labor's amendment yesterday, had it got up in the House, would have been to secure labour market testing that has to be conducted no more than four months before the nomination of a visa. So it has to be timely and connected. The government seems to be pretty well out there on its own, and it could respond to this in a much more positive way. The amendments in the House were supported by the Greens, Mr Wilkie and Mr Katter. I think that this government has the opportunity here today to do something much better than it has currently indicated is the case.

Instead of protecting labour market testing conditions in the legislation that we have before us, the Turnbull government expects Australian people to rely on Peter Dutton to do the right thing by local workers. This is what is of great concern to me. We know that Minister Dutton simply, in my view, cannot be relied on as the only person who is going to make a determination about a legislative instrument. He has proven time and time again that he cannot do the right thing. (Time expired)