This Government is out of touch

 

Read the full speech below.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:04):  It's a pleasure to rise to speak in relation to the Education and Training Legislation Repeal Bill 2017. It's quite pertinent to talk about skills, because I've just come from a conference of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, a group of people in their late teens and early 20s who are very worried about the future of this country and the future that they each face, given some of the economic circumstances we are in at the moment. We have a situation now where people under 40 have incredibly high levels of household debt and at the same time very low levels of home ownership, where incomes have slightly declined since 2012, according to HILDA, and where this year the wage price index, which has been at historic lows—the lowest it's been since we started keeping it in 1997—fell below the CPI, so wages grew less quickly than consumer prices. These are all very important concerns that should be on the minds of young people.

It is important that this government seek to focus on the full gamut of education: vocational education, higher education and, of course, schools and early learning as well. It is incumbent on this government to do something meaningful when it comes to skills. We need people to have the skills they will need not just for the jobs that exist now but for the jobs of the future. We need that so they will have lives that are lived in relative comfort and so that this economy will have a workforce able to fulfil the jobs that exist. We want to be in a situation where we have full employment in this country, rely less on temporary skilled immigration, and have a workforce in a position to make that contribution and, as a consequence, live the sort of good life that comes from having a secure job. That's a benefit that comes only if people have the skills they need to hold those jobs. It is important that this government focus on skills.

This particular bill is a non-controversial one in the area of skills. Part 1 of this bill repeals four obsolete acts made under the Howard government: the Australian Research Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2001; the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia's Skills Needs) Act 2005; Skilling Australia's Workforce Act 2005; and Skilling Australia's Workforce (Repeal and Transitional Provisions) Act 2005. Part 2 of the bill includes a consequential amendment to the definition of VET provider used in the Social Security Act 1991. Part 3 contains a savings provision applicable to any outstanding agreements under the ATC legislation. The legislation we're debating today also provides that the minister may by regulation make rules prescribing matters of transition. As I said, this is a non-controversial piece of legislation and therefore Labor supports this bill.

In repealing and tidying up these pieces of legislation which have become obsolete, this bill is an important part of the legislative process. The Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia's Skills Needs) Act 2005 underpinned the Australian Technical Colleges program which was wound up by the end of 2009. Any continuing functions were rolled into the broader education and training system. Australian Technical Colleges, which are referred to as ATCs, were to provide trade training pathways to year 11 and 12 students while they simultaneously completed a secondary certificate of education. ATCs were a coalition government creation that, unfortunately, proved to be both expensive and ineffectual. They suffered from low enrolments and problems sourcing staff, and contributed very little to filling the trade shortages they were funded to reverse. We've seen the consequences of that now, 10 or 12 years later, where there are still significant skills and trade shortages in this nation, to the extent that we are continually relying on temporary skilled migration when in fact we need to have the necessary skills present in our workforce. The ATC program was yet another attempt by the coalition government to undermine TAFEs and public schools. The government wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on poorly-thought-through ATCs while underfunding public provision of vocational education and training.

I am very pleased to say that the Leader of the Opposition's first significant speech this year, which was held at the National Press Club, had a very strong focus on skills and training. Mr Deputy Speaker, you would also be aware that Labor has held a very successful skills summit to bring together people from various stakeholder groups who are interested in skills for the future. In the Leader of the Opposition's speech at the Press Club, he talked about the importance not just of vocational education and training but of publicly funded vocational education and training. I believe the focus on public TAFE has been very warmly received by the Australian community.

Repealing the now-obsolete ATC act serves as a reminder of the coalition's past and current failure to develop and implement a workable means of improving the provision and uptake of trades training. I have got to say it has been a great shame to see this government, since its election in 2013, seek to continue to further dismantle trades training in this country. For example, I thought the decision to not continue to fund trades training centres was a very sad one. Balmoral State High School, which is very close to where I live, has an excellent trades training centre with really good facilities. Centres such as this one assist with the integration of vocational education and training into schools. I'm very pleased that the centre at Balmoral State High School is a legacy of Labor's work in trades training. It's a great school. It has a partnership with Boeing Australia and there is an aerospace program with an aerospace club. The kids are so enthusiastic. When I visited the program, the kids were there at lunchtime. It was incredibly impressive. One of the most impressive things about it was that there were a lot of girls in the program. It was not a male-dominated program by any stretch. In fact, I suspect the girls slightly outnumbered the boys when I was there. It is great to see schools embracing industry partnerships and it is great to see schools embracing vocational education. As I said, that particular school has a great trades training centre.

It is a shame that the coalition has done very little to promote school based training and to promote connections between schools and vocational education. More to the point, unfortunately it has done a lot to undermine publicly funded TAFE and has failed to properly invest in skills in this country. The consequence is that there are 148,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in training across Australia, including some 46,900 fewer trade apprentices, which is a drop of 22 per cent in trades training since the Abbott-Turnbull government took office. It's concerning to me, because in my electorate the number of people in apprenticeships has fallen through the floor since the election of this coalition government.

It is wonderful to see trades training. When I was at a plumbing and gasfitting industry awards dinner recently, I was so fortunate to get to see some of the incredible apprentices that are working in the industry. The apprentice of the year was an amazing guy. He had gone to university and done a degree in hydraulics but had decided that what he really wanted to do was to get a trade in plumbing so that he could have a really intimate knowledge and understanding of the practicalities involved. Having gone to university, he was a little bit older—not much—than some of the apprentices there. I think he was in the fourth year of his plumbing trade. It's really inspirational to see people who are committed to the trades. The trades are so important. Of course, they're important economically, but it's important for all of us that we have very safe, high-quality professions, particularly in plumbing and electricity. These are trades where failure to have high standards, high quality and great training can lead to genuine risks to public health and safety. It was great to be at the plumbing awards to see people like the apprentice of the year being recognised for their work in the trades. We need to acknowledge that this doesn't happen just by accident. It takes investment in skills and training by governments to ensure that we have people learning the trades and in apprenticeships and, more broadly, that we have people in vocational education and training.

I talked about the trade training centre at one of my local schools—Balmoral State High School, which is very close to where I live—and I mentioned that this was a legacy of Labor's policy of supporting trade training centres. I think it was really disappointing to a lot of people that, when this government took office, one of the first things it did was cut funding to trade training centres and also get rid of trade cadetships. There's been continuous chopping and changing in relation to vocational education and training in schools policy areas because I don't think this government cares whether vocational education and training in schools succeeds or fails.

One of the most gut-wrenching things for me was when the government scrapped the Tools for Your Trade grant and decided to make it a loan instead and I had a mother contact me. Her daughter was 16 years old and had planned on how they were going to engage with her apprenticeship around having that Tools for Your Trade grant. So it wasn't just that future apprentices and trainees would no longer have access to the grant—they cut it from people who had entered into their apprenticeship on the basis of those then current policy settings. They were just told out of the blue: 'You know that payment you were getting? You're not getting that any more. Go get a loan for your equipment.' People just don't have money laying around. It's not the case that people have spare cash they can draw on for these things. It is actually really important, when people go and make plans based on a set of circumstances in relation to the support that they'll get in order to get their trade, that the rug not be pulled out from underneath them. That is a really important issue. If you are a 16-year-old apprentice, you might be wealthy, but you're probably not particularly wealthy, so I thought changing the goalposts, pulling the rug out from underneath someone in that way and changing that policy was really disappointing. That poor mother who contacted me was beside herself. They didn't know how they were going to be able to manage this, and I think asking young people to take on more debt is just really disappointing.

This is a government that seems to have completely failed to notice that, by shirking the responsibility of the Commonwealth and trying to take responsibilities that we have as a Commonwealth and shift them onto the shoulders of teenagers and people in their 20s, they are actually failing in their obligations as the custodian of this nation and of its future. They're doing the same thing in higher education. This idea that we're going to take less responsibility as a nation for the future of higher education and for the future of skills, knowledge and the sorts of qualities that you get from higher education and that we're going to shift that responsibility from the shoulders of the nation onto the 16-year-old, 17-year-old, 18-year-old and 19- to 25-year-old shoulders of school leavers seems to me to be highly irresponsible and reckless. There's this idea that what we really need to do for young people today is say, 'It's really great that you've got massive levels of debt and it's really great you've got very little prospect of being able to afford a house, so what we're going to do is we're going to increase the debt that you have while, at the same time, doing nothing about the fact that your incomes are declining.' That seems to me to be very disappointing, upsetting and reckless and irresponsible, but that's precisely what this government is doing at the moment with its higher education package.

To me, the combination of the cuts to vocational education and training, the cuts to higher education, the increased debts that young people are being expected to carry for many years and the economic circumstances in which they find themselves, including, as I said, high levels of household debt and low levels of ownership et cetera demonstrates a government that is not really paying attention to the concerns of people, and you can see why. This is a government that's spending all of their time wondering whether their Deputy Prime Minister is validly in the parliament and spending all of their time trying to find ways to prevent marriage equality from being passed. That's what this government is focused on. They're focused on themselves, and they're focused on trying to stop progress. What they should be focused on is the very real problems that young people—and, in fact, everyone in our community—are facing today. Just as a citizen, I don't mean as a member of parliament, I hate the fact my national government is spending all of its time carrying on with nonsense instead of actually coming to grips with these problems, including high household debt, low home ownership, declines in incomes et cetera.

To return to this bill, the Skilling Australia's Workforce Act, one of the bills being repealed, provided grants to the states and territories to support the National Training System from 2005 to 2008, after which it was superseded by payments arrangements under the Federal Financial Relations Act in 2009 via the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development. It is an obsolete Act. Unfortunately, the government is focused on doing things other than acting in the best interests of Australians. It's great that they are repealing these obsolete acts, but they are not focusing on the genuine substantive skills issues that we're facing. There's no agreement with the states and territories to replace the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform, which expired at the end of June, for example. Both the ATC program and the Skilling Australia's Workforce Act are reminders of this government's ongoing obsession with destroying unions and compelling organisations to adopt the government's ideologically driven implementation framework.

Funding to the states and territories under the Skilling Australia's Workforce Act was contingent on a range of ideologically driven reforms designed to damage TAFEs, and education unions for that matter. It was reminiscent of the university space. This was about requiring take-up of so-called workplace reforms for increased employment flexibility—which of course is just code for reduced employment security—and encouraging the uptake of Australian workplace agreements. Remember those individual statutory instruments that allowed employers to cut penalty rates, annual leave loading and a range of other conditions? If I remember rightly, about 67 per cent of those Australian workplace agreements cut those types of conditions, and here was a piece of government legislation from the coalition aimed at forcing people into those individual agreements in which, of course, they had substantially less bargaining power than they did in collective agreements; and also including performance-based pay. This bill was actually aimed at trying to impose the government's ideological industrial relations agenda on unsuspecting TAFEs. I think that was very unfortunate. The then Department of Education, Science and Training guidelines for the Australian Technical Colleges stated that operators of ATCs were required to offer AWAs to all staff as well as offering performance-based pay.

As I've said, it's very disappointing that this government has such a woeful and inadequate record when it comes to skills and training in this country. I'm pleased that we're supporting the repeal of these bills, but the government needs to get its act together when it comes to education and training in relation to vocational education and training. It also needs to get its act together on higher education, schools and early learning, stop the politically driven ideological nonsense and focus on better outcomes for Australians.

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