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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 41

Senator WEBBER (3:22 PM) —I must say that it has been quite a remarkable performance by those opposite. So far, in discussing the downturn in the Australian economy, the government have managed to blame the Asian economic crisis, SARS, bird flu, the Senate and a government that lost power some 13 years ago. What we are really witnessing is a government that has been in power for 13 long years and that cannot accept responsibility for its own inaction.

Senator Murray —It is nine years, not 13 years.

Senator WEBBER —Yes, indeed, Senator Murray. This government has been more than happy to claim all the good economic news since its election in 1996 but now we are seeing the result of its inactivity. At last that is coming through. We have an economy that the Prime Minister recently claimed is a victim of its own success. It is not a victim of its own success; it is actually a victim of this government’s sloth and plain old-fashioned idleness—the do-nothing approach while things are good. This government has been idle while the economy has leapt ahead—there is no doubt about that. There have been signs for a long time, yet the government has chosen the easy way out. It has sat and watched the economy grow and then taken all the extra tax revenue that has come along and frittered it away on buying its way back into office time and again. Last year we saw a classic example.

Now we face, amongst other things, a skills crisis. There is a lack of skilled people—a lack of tradespeople. This crisis has not sprung up overnight, as Senator George Campbell has said. It takes years and years for shortages like that to develop. Trade unions and business have been warning for years that a skills crisis was coming, and this government has done almost nothing. In fact it has probably done worse than nothing; since 1997 it has actually turned away over 400,000 people from vocational training or university studies. That is one hell of a record to be proud of. This government’s New Apprenticeships system has not delivered tradespeople in the areas where they are now required. The government’s offer of toolboxes and technical colleges is a case of saying something and offering Australians something way too late. It is clear that the act of announcing something does not actually address the long-term problem. From what we hear in Perth, it may take years before these new technical colleges are built and operating. How is building a technical college that may be ready in five years going to help us now?

Then there is the notion that we can source our labour offshore. Whether that is through guest worker programs, increases in skill migration or the now infamous class 457 visa process, it again smacks of desperation. Surely all those experts that we have at the departments of immigration and employment should have recognised the warning signs of the impending skills shortage through the sheer number of class 457 visa applications over the last few years and through the increases in job vacancies that were unfilled, especially in the trades. The government has been blind to these problems because it is committed to implementing its Job Network and workplace agreements policies while the main game was about the lack of new tradespeople—the game it chose to ignore. At a certain level, Australian business is also to blame for not training new apprentices but who can blame it—another element of the blame game—when the government’s assistance package for apprentices does not compare to the easy and cheaper option of sourcing labour from overseas?

In my time in this place I have dealt with a number of class 457 visa applications. They deal with new categories of labour shortage, and I am sure that Senator George Campbell is aware of them: the fertiliser engineers—the fertiliser plant manufacturers. To the lay person out there, they are actually good old-fashioned workers, but companies on the Kwinana strip and companies in the north-west of Western Australia apply for category 457 visas in these specialised labour areas so that they can import cheap labour from overseas rather than commit to the long-term training and development of Australian labour.

There are many other class 457 visa applicants who come to Western Australia on the promise of working on resource projects in the north-west of my home state. It is not hard to see why qualified tradespeople in other countries would want to work on our resource projects where wages are high. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.