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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 111

Senator BUCKLAND (8:55 PM) —I would like to make a few comments in response to the Governor-General's speech on the opening of this 41st Parliament. I make these comments understanding, if not somewhat disappointed, that the Australian people have given this government its fourth term in office. In spite of my own disappointment that we do not have a Labor government, I am confident that democracy is alive and well in our great nation. But how much that democracy is appreciated by the government will be better judged after 1 July 2005 when it has a majority in this chamber. This, in my view, will be the real test for a government which is already arrogant in the way it goes about its business. It will be a test to see if government ministers and government backbenchers support the Prime Minister in his commitment to use its mandate wisely.

Of great interest to me arising out of the Governor-General's speech is the government's determination to divide the community through its proposed workplace relations reforms. We already know that workers in Australia are low on the government's agenda and that, after numerous earlier attempts, the one-sided earlier unfair dismissal laws will be forced through the Senate, giving the Liberal Party masters—that is, the employer organisations or, if you like, the employer unions—what they want. It is a frightening thing to contemplate. Only today I read in the Advertiser that Business SA's Chief Executive in South Australia, Peter Vaughan, is claiming that the South Australian workplace relations reform agenda is `bad for business, bad for families and bad for jobs'. In fact it is good for all parties involved in industry and business in South Australia. But they do not see that. It is like Senator Santoro thinking, I assume, that it is more important to give tax cuts to business than worry about the unfair dismissal laws—something that we can pursue at another time.

It seems to me that the real agenda of many within the Liberal Party—and I do not include all—is to see if we can get back to the days of slavery and have workers there as fodder for the gains of industry. The days when employees of small business had the same rights at work as employees of medium and large business will be gone once the legislation is passed through the Senate. If you think through this with a clear head, the whole concept of the proposed unfair dismissal laws does not make any sense at all. Anyone who believes that employment will grow because an employer can simply sack a worker without reason has to be the sort of person who believes in the tooth fairy. Will a small manufacturer employing six people suddenly put on four extra staff simply because they can sack them at will? It is time to get real about what it is the government is seeking. If the manufacturer could sell their product and have the right sort of assistance to do that, they would employ the four extra people now.

If this is the way the government thinks it will get more people into work, I can only say, `Think again.' The concept is simply crazy. Having more people in part-time or casual employment or being participants in a Work for the Dole type project does not address the real problems confronting industry or the real problems confronting those on welfare who want genuine, full-time work. It is using a bandaid approach to hide the government's lack of ability to deal with this problem. I am sure there will be ample opportunity for me to address this issue in more detail before I retire from this place in June next year, but the pursuance of a law for the termination of employment without the opportunity for the employee to challenge such a termination is not only morally wrong but even more wrong if it only applies to one section of the work force—and more wrong again when it affects the most vulnerable in the work force. It will, as I said at the beginning, divide the community.

Perhaps the only positive that I noted in the Governor-General's speech was his comment: `No young Australian should feel less valued for choosing an apprenticeship over university.' That I applaud. I applaud the comment by the Governor-General, and I applaud the government if it is genuine about achieving that—giving equal recognition to people pursuing trades or non-academic vocations over those who go to university. For far too long, there has been the perception—often promoted by secondary schools and their boards and by governments of all persuasions—that you contribute less to society if you do not complete your education at university. I have seen this in practice. It worries me. It does not offend me; it cannot offend me, because I have always ensured that my two boys excel at what they do, whatever course they wish to pursue. If it is university, it is university; if it is not, it is not. But they must strive for the best. And, for someone who does not have a university education, the achievements of my two sons—one still at school—give me great satisfaction. Perhaps they do listen to their father saying that they should do their best.

Something promoted by schools to lift their status within the community is their saying, `We got so many acceptances into university.' So wrong it is. How much has that perception cost our nation over the past 20 years? We have successfully created a chronic shortage of skilled tradespeople in this country. If the government carries through that proposal to get more people into the trades then I applaud and support the government's moves, but I do not know how it will work.

It was only a few days ago, on 17 November, that the new member for Hindmarsh, Mr Steve Georganas—who is a great friend of mine and, I am pleased to say, who after a lot of effort won the seat of Hindmarsh—highlighted the acute shortage of wall and ceiling fixers for the Adelaide Airport terminal development. It is so acute that the contractor has to pay up to $200 a week above the industry rate. The people are not there. They have to pay those rates to get them from other jobs. Reports are that, in some of the trades on that particular project, as much as $800 and $900 a week above the industry rate is being paid, so short are tradespeople and skilled people to do these tasks. There can be no question that we need nurses and motor mechanics as much as we need scientists and engineers, but until something is done to create the pathway from learning to work—something that gives every young person the confidence to pursue their vocational dream—we will continue to flounder with little hope of moving forward.

I take great pride in attending some of the award ceremonies of young scientists and young medical students, because I think they contribute so much and they have vision and enthusiasm. At a function with a group of young scientists not all that long ago, I was interested to be told by one of the senior people that many of them will never fulfil their dreams because the funding for their particular interest is not available. We lose there, and they find their way into other vocations that are not suited to what they really want. We do have to get this right.

So far behind reality is the government in this regard that, late in the recent election campaign, the Prime Minister said that a Liberal government would `revolutionise vocational education and training' by offering `both academic and vocational education to students while completing their school studies'. How out of touch could the Prime Minister be? Last year alone 202,900 senior high school students participated in the VET in Schools program and with that already established model we have the grand plan to create 24 Australian technical colleges. At first blush that sounds great, and again I will support the government if this works, but I cannot see it working. What will these technical colleges do that our TAFE facilities are not already able to do? From talking to people from TAFE over the last week or so it is clear that not only am I confused as to where the technical colleges fit into the scheme of things but also that some Liberal senators are equally confused about how it is going to work, who is going to be involved and how it will be funded. What is going to happen to TAFE? Are we going to reinvent the wheel but this time give it some air so that it runs? I do not know. This new body is a smokescreen to hide the government's failure since it came to office to adequately fund the vocational education sector. Even worse, the technical colleges will not start operating until 2006 and will not be fully in place until 2008.

The final matter I want to address is services in regional Australia. I trust that the government will get serious during this term of office as it presses on with providing better services in regional Australia. I am not sure whether that includes the full sale of Telstra but that is one area where to date the government has at the very best scored an F for failure. Despite what it now appears The Nationals are saying in their latest round of confusion, the government has not fully addressed the problems we have with Telstra. I know that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Vanstone, who is here tonight, visits regional centres in South Australia and I applaud her for that. Sadly, from my point of view, she is quite popular in the regions—I say that not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Senator Vanstone, in the cool of the evening, would probably agree with me that there is a lot to be done to get Telstra services in regional Australia fixed up. It is time now to be serious about services to the regions so that people living in non-metropolitan areas are not further marginalised. It does not matter what we say or what we have done to date—we have not addressed this. There are services in the regional centre where I live which have not been addressed—for example, health care and dental services. As my good friend and colleague Senator Denman commented moments ago, dental health in the regions is, to be very blunt, pathetic.

We have to get serious about providing services to people wherever they might live, so that they can feel part of our great nation. At the moment, they do not. Serious efforts have to be made to ensure that health, education, communication and transport services are vastly improved in rural and country areas, so that industry development occurs and job opportunities are created. We have to create jobs so that we do not have the great exodus of young people moving to the cities and families dividing because job opportunities no longer exist not just in the smaller communities of 200 or 300 people but in communities of thousands of people. That is what is happening in South Australia. Despite courageous efforts by the state government, the federal government is not putting in the same effort in that regard.

Parts of the Governor-General's speech did give me scope for encouragement, but the real test will come when the government has control of this chamber. That is something for which we wait with bated breath. Hopefully the promises made during the election campaign will come to fruition.