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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 40

Senator BUCKLAND (3:14 PM) —I rise to speak on Senator Vanstone’s answer to Senator Wong’s question on skills shortages. Just as a sign of friendship towards Senator Tierney, if I get time before I leave this place at the end of June, I will try to sit down with him and explain that a skills shortage does not necessarily equate with unemployment rates. In fact, it does not have anything to do with it. This is the problem with this government: they look at one thing and say, ‘We’ll fix our problem by diverting attention to something different.’ That is what they are trying to do here. It seems that it is terribly late for the government to wake up to the fact that we have this skills shortage. There is no doubt, as you go around industry and talk to industry leaders, unions and workers, that there is a crying shortage of people trained and ready to do those jobs, particularly in the traditional trades. There are a number of reasons that this has come about, and it has come about since this government has been in power.

I argued many times before coming to this place with employers and told them not to go down the line of saying: ‘We don’t need people who are non-core to our business. We don’t need tradespeople. We’re manufacturers. We’re producers of a product. The tradespeople are incidental.’ Try as you might, you could not convince these employers that they were taking the wrong approach in using labour hire companies to bring in tradespeople to do the work. They have botched it because the labour hire companies simply do not want to train tradespeople. They want someone else to train them, but who is there to train them? They are all labour hire. So the companies made that choice, supported by government policy.

Companies were more interested in buying out older workers and indeed young workers with packages and incentives to leave the industry. They said, ‘If you don’t want to leave your trade then we’ll offer you a job as a production worker.’ All those skills have been lost, thanks to the policy of this government. Then they have the hide to stand up in this place and try to take us back in history to unemployment rates, which have got nothing to with it. You will have unemployment or full employment regardless of what the skill levels of people are. There will be work for people who want it if it is offered in the proper way. But this government just simply want to take advantage of a situation they did not see coming.

The majority of Liberal senators agreed with the recommendations contained in the 2003 report but did not have the courage to press it with the government—to press their point of view—and get the minister to do something about it to address the needs of industry. I took part in much of that inquiry. We went to industry and asked the questions. Time and time again they were saying, ‘We can’t get people to come into traditional trades.’ As a parent with young sons going through school, I understand that we all aim to have our children achieve the highest possible results. We all get caught up with the idea that they are going to university. That is what the schools want. Outcomes at school equate to going to university, and that is supported by this government.

But suddenly the government are saying, through the Prime Minister, that there is nothing wrong with being a tradesperson. Yet it is too late to catch up with what we have got in front of us now. The shortage is immediate. We cannot overturn it immediately. It is a demonstration that this government just took their eye off the ball yet again. They tried to whack the workers and say: ‘We’ve got it right. We’ll get a highly educated, highly motivated work force.’ But they had it already, and they bought it out. (Time expired)