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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 22

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Vanstone, representing the Minister for Vocational and Technical Education. Is the minister aware that a detailed Senate report into skills shortages entitled Bridging the skills divide was tabled in the Senate on 6 November 2003? Is the minister also aware that this report contains over 50 recommendations, the vast majority of which were supported by government senators on the committee and could form a valuable blueprint for fighting the current skills crisis? Can the minister explain why, nearly 18 months later, the government has still not managed to even formally respond to the report, let alone put this constructive blueprint into action?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I thank the senator for his question. Yes, I am aware of the report to which he refers, and it may well be the case that the government has not responded. I note in the latter part of his question he says, ‘let alone put anything into action,’ which creates the impression, not necessarily intentionally on the senator’s behalf, that the government is not in fact doing anything about skills shortages, in particular the domestic supply for skills shortages, which of course brings you to the training system. I say first up that I will make an inquiry of the minister as to when we might expect a formal government response. I will also ask him, in the context of that, to indicate what the government has been doing in the meantime. I am sure the minister does understand, from his long history with the union movement and their arguments with governments, that governments do not simply do things because a report recommends something and they certainly do not stop doing things because there is a report—a lot keeps happening in the meantime.

You would understand, Senator, the very strong commitment the coalition government has to a training system for vocational education. You would understand that in the election the government announced $1.06 billion in new funding over three years for vocational education and training. That is, as I am advised, one of the most significant boosts to vocational training ever undertaken by any government. The government has increased overall VET funding by 35.5 per cent between 1997-98 and 2003-04. In fact, if we look at the increase since the 1995-96 budget, the total Australian government contribution to VET has increased by 57.5 per cent in real terms. As I am advised, that is not a nominal dollar increase; that is real bucks in the pocket, in either today’s dollars or 1995 dollars. In any event, in real terms, in the same dollars, it is a 57.5 per cent—nearly 60 per cent—increase.

This year, the Australian government will spend a record $2.1 billion on vocational education and training. That includes over $1 billion to the states and territories under the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act to support the states and territories in their training systems. The Australian government’s contribution to states and territories under the VET Funding Act has grown from nearly $800 million—$778 million, roughly—under Labor to $1.15 billion under the coalition government in 2005, a very substantial increase of some 48 per cent. That one is not in real terms; it is a 22 per cent increase in real terms.

I have made this point here before: in 2004-05 most of the states and territories cut their training. All states and territories rejected the Australian government’s offer for the proposed new agreement of $3.6 billion—a 12.5 per cent increase. If they had accepted that offer, that offer would have created up to 71,000 new training places. They would be in addition to the extra 15,750 places for aged care training announced in the 2004-05 budget. The government’s offer of a further six months rollover of the current ANTA agreement to 30 June this year, when ANTA’s functions will be transferred to the Department of Education, Science and Training, has been accepted by all the states and territories. The minister has also given them a guarantee of the level of Australian government funding to 2005. That will provide certainty in the current academic year for vocational education and training.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —I ask a supplementary question, Mr President. As the minister would be well aware, in this area it is not what you spend the dollar on, it is how you spend the dollar. Obviously, with the current skills crisis we have, you have not spent the dollars wisely. I ask the minister: when she seeks a response to the committee’s report from the appropriate minister in the other house, could she also ask the minister to indicate why the government did not implement all the recommendations of that report, given that they had received broad support from all members of the committee?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Of course I will I do that. The senator gives me the opportunity to point out that 38 per cent of new apprentices are in the trades and related occupations, covering trades such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians, while those occupations make up only 13 per cent of the work force. So 38 per cent of new apprenticeships have been in an area that comprises 13 per cent of the work force. For the 12 months to 30 September, there were 68,500 new apprenticeship commencements—an increase of 19 per cent on the previous year. What does that tell you, Senator? It tells you a well-managed economy runs well; there is increased demand and growing demand for jobs. This is in stark contrast to the previous time of a Labor government. This is in stark contrast to when you had a million people who could not get a job.