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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 68

Senator MARSHALL (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for Small Business and Tourism and the Minister for Workforce Participation. Is the minister aware that the Westpac industrial trends survey for the March quarter showed a 19 per cent jump in the number of businesses finding it more difficult to hire skilled workers? Is the minister further aware that the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey for the March quarter showed skill shortages were the biggest barrier to new investment by small and medium sized businesses? In light of these survey results from Westpac and ACCI, what has the Howard government got to say to small business owners who want to grow their businesses but cannot because they cannot find skilled workers?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Marshall for a question which in fact covers two portfolio areas. I am more than willing to take the question under either of the portfolios that I represent. The government, of course, are aware of the skills shortage that is facing this country. That is why we have put in place a number of policy initiatives. Unlike those opposite, we have actually worked on this problem. We have got a wonderful scheme of setting up technical colleges right around Australia to assist in that area. Unfortunately, state Labor governments have not done that which they should have done in this important area.

Senator George Campbell interjecting—

Senator Forshaw interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator George Campbell and Senator Forshaw, this is an early warning.

Senator ABETZ —Indeed, the Minister for Vocational and Technical Education issued a media release recently, which just shows how importantly the government is treating this issue. There are currently almost 394,000 people undertaking a new apprenticeship, an increase of almost 200,000 since 1998. With the opening of technical colleges across the country, this number will only get higher. Wouldn’t it be nice, Mr President, to have an opposition who actually contributed to the issues rather than carping from the sidelines? As the Prime Minister so eloquently noted, these shortages are ‘a problem of success’.

The Howard government are focused on tackling the shortage of skilled workers across the country. We are providing solutions and options. The Labor Party provide the carping from the sidelines without an alternative. Our responsibility is to find ways of increasing participation in the work force. The government are currently looking at ways to encourage parents and people on disability support pensions back into the work force by providing relevant assistance and work experience opportunities. Another initiative is the new pilot encouraging parents to volunteer to participate in Work for the Dole to update their skills and gain valuable experience that may lead to work or contribute to building the self-confidence needed to apply for jobs.

We need to look at ways of increasing participation if we are to address our labour shortages. Assisting people on benefits back into work is not a cost-cutting exercise; it is giving people an opportunity to demonstrate their capacity, support their families and contribute to the community. We are about assisting those in most need and providing opportunities for those who can work. The Leader of the Opposition has acknowledged the need for reform in these areas, but all he does is criticise our proposals without coming forward with concrete proposals of his own. We as a government have a good record on increasing employment in this country. We have a burgeoning economy, and when that happens there will, from time to time, be skill shortages. We as a government are addressing this in a way that will assist the economy—with good policies, starting with increasing training and looking at a whole host of other areas—whereas all Labor can do is carp from the sidelines. I must say that they do it very well, but it is of no assistance.

Senator MARSHALL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister aware of the Prime Minister’s comments that skills shortages are a consequence of low unemployment? Is the minister further aware that ABS data released over the last week shows that there are two million Australians who either are unemployed or want more work? Minister, isn’t the Howard government’s quick fix of more skilled migrants an admission of its failure to invest in these two million Australians so they get the skills they need to fill Australian jobs?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I do understand that the Prime Minister has said that—and I think, in general terms, quite rightly so. The success of the economy has driven this skills shortage. I do have a bit of doubt about one area of the Prime Minister’s assertion: I do not think you can suggest that success has been the driver of the skills shortage in the Australian Labor Party. That is my only reservation about the Prime Minister’s comment. As to the economy generally, yes, the success has led to this skills shortage. That is something that we are working on and that we will address. The Australian economy and job opportunities will grow as a result.