Monday, 18 June 2007
Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007
If you walk through that door you will see a huge portrait of Charles McDonald, the first member for Kennedy. In his first speech when he came into this place he spoke diametrically against what the honourable member for Pearce was endorsing in her speech—that is, the bringing of people from overseas to take our jobs at what he saw, and at what a lot of us see today, as a much lower wage level than would otherwise occur. At the time, the population of Queensland was predominantly Chinese, not European. The majority of Queensland’s population before the turn of the century was Chinese, and large numbers of Kanakas had been blackbirded into Australia, some of them with great violence. The honourable member for Dawson is here and has probably read the famous book on the Kanakas coming to Queensland. McDonald’s vehemence was quite understandable. People had fought fiercely to get a fair go for the worker and, when they had achieved these conditions, they saw employers bringing people in from overseas who worked at nothing like the award wages, completely undermining all the work that they had done to establish some sort of decent income for the Australian working class.
To put that in perspective and to clothe it in reality, in the mining industry—off which my forebears in Australia have lived for close to 130 or 140 years—in the early 1900s one in 32 of us who went down the mineshaft never came back up or came back up with a terrible lung disease. That was overcome by union action, and even though I have always been on the conservative side of politics I have always been a very strong supporter of trade union action because I can clearly see the necessity for it, particularly in a large workplace such as a mine. If you want to see what happens when the big mining companies run a country, you have to look at the model of Cecil Rhodes, who destroyed a fair proportion of the Matabele nation and destroyed some 28,000 women and children in concentration camps. Regrettably, we were fighting on the side of the British, so we must share some of the blame for what happened to the Boers—the white Africans, if you like—in those concentration camps. They lost the war, and the running of the government was taken over by the huge mining magnates who brought massive amounts of cheap labour in from central Africa.
The government of South Africa accepted this; they rolled over. They accepted the argument that they could not be competitive in mining unless they had this supercheap labour from central Africa. So they accepted that. The Boers—the South Africans, if you like—woke up one morning and found that they did not actually own their country, that the people who had come from central Africa owned their country. They did not have a very pleasant time afterwards. It may well be said that they did not give these people a very pleasant time before.
Fiji has suffered exactly the same problems. The British colonial rulers in Fiji decided in their wisdom to bring out labourers from the Indian subcontinent and from Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, as it is now called. Again, the Fijian people woke up one morning and found that they did not own their country. In the Torres Strait—and I had the very great honour of being the state minister with responsibilities for the Torres Strait for a significant proportion of my life—people had pictures of Rabuka in many of their homes. They regarded him as a great hero, because they did not want to lose their country to some foreigners. And, if you bring in workers under section 457 visas, which is a very great controversy—the government has pulled back on it, thank goodness—one can clearly see where we might head.
There are those who would construe those remarks of Charles McDonald, the first member for Kennedy, as very racist. But I would defend him and say that they were not racist at all; they were about working-class people who had fought hard for pay and conditions and were winning the battle. At the time he made those speeches, as I said, one in 32 of them who were going down the mine did not come back up, or did so with a terrible terminal lung disease. He represented mainly Charters Towers, which was the biggest city in Queensland then, and he represented mainly those people, and they had a fight that was literally about life and death. So we view this situation with very great worry.
Now, if we are not going to bring in people under section 457 visas then we have to train people ourselves. I want to quote Councillor Fox, who is a member of the Cardwell Shire Council in my electorate. He is a builder, and of course with Cyclone Larry there has been immense demand for builders. Councillor Fox is a great advocate of employing apprentices. He says that ‘it really is a good deal for the employer’. There are many people who say, ‘We lose these people for two months of the year and they get paid very high wages relative to their value to the operation.’ But Councillor Fox spoke very strongly in favour of having apprentices.
I want to bring this important issue to the attention of the House. Through the great game of rugby league, which creates lines of communication which no other institution or mechanism in this country can create, when we were handing over the trophy for rugby league supremacy for the gulf and mid-west to Travis Fraser, who is the very outstanding captain of the football team up there, I said, ‘How’s work going; are you doing an apprenticeship?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but I had to give it up.’ I asked why, saying, ‘I’m very intrigued about why you would give it up.’ They have big mines near Doomadgee, his hometown, so there is very good work, very highly paid work, available to them, particularly if they have trade qualifications. So I was very surprised that he gave up his apprenticeship. But he has a wife and two or three kids to support—his little son was playing touch football with us. Travis is still a very young man. He is at the age when people should be doing apprenticeships. But people get married and have children—or they have children and do not get married, whatever the case may be—and they have responsibilities. What I am saying is really very spot on, because under an apprenticeship you get, I don’t know, $30,000 or $35,000 and you cannot possibly, particularly in country Australia, have any hope of keeping a wife and kids alive on $35,000 a year. That might be possible if you are living at home in a city, but it most certainly is not possible when you have to set up your own home and look after a wife and kids.
A lot of these people, if they do not have an apprenticeship, will simply go on the dole, unemployment benefit. The government has got to consider the case of Travis Fraser, because on that unassailable logic turns the country’s prosperity at the moment. There is no doubt that in the mining industry in Australia—and the comments of the member for Pearce are very accurate—we are desperate for skilled tradesmen and, unless we want to go down the Fijian or South African road and see our country lost to different races of people that will come into Australia, we must confront the issue of apprenticeships.
The thing that intrigues me greatly is that I come into this place and hear everyone stand up and talk about apprenticeships. I think it was the third highest ranking issue in the last federal election; certainly, in the electorate of Kennedy I would have put it at No. 2, second to health, which was a state government matter, so as a federal government matter it was probably the major issue. All I can say is that, in the major two cities, the major two population centres, in the Kennedy electorate, Mount Isa and Innisfail, there were TAFEs built at a cost of some $40 million to $50 million, and both of them are empty. A secondary school has moved into the one in Mount Isa, so it is half a secondary school and half a TAFE. With the other one, they are desperately trying to find people to lease it out to or, arguably, I am told, to sell it to.
When I was elected member for Kennedy, I went along to their annual nights at which they give out their diplomas and, at both those centres, I would have thought there were 700 or 800 people there. If they had a diploma night now, we would be lucky to get 20 there. So, whilst everyone is talking about it, all I can say is that on the ground the TAFEs are simply vanishing. There is simply nobody there. But 200,000 people live in the Kennedy electorate—in fact, a little over 200,000 people—and there is effectively no TAFE operating inside Kennedy. These people are not wealthy enough to be able to go and live in cities like Townsville, Cairns or Brisbane to complete a TAFE course, and that is the reason the TAFEs were put in the area originally.
I do not fully understand who is to blame for this and I have a limited amount of time to devote to it. But, as I understand it, tertiary education comes under the federal government’s responsibilities, so we in this place must take full responsibility for this. We are sitting here congratulating ourselves on handing out $1,000 over two years. I do not think that is going to influence anyone’s judgement—neither an employer’s nor an employee’s. I laud the government for doing it and say, ‘Yes, that’s very nice.’ But I doubt whether there is a single person in Australia whose judgement it is going to influence. It most certainly is not going to influence the judgement of Travis Fraser, who was in his third or fourth year of his apprenticeship. He just could not sustain keeping his family alive any longer.
As on so many other issues, we come in and talk about it but no-one has sat down and thought this thing out. All I can say is that, on the ground, there are 200,000 people living in North Queensland in the biggest mineral province on earth, I think we are producing about $12,000 million a year from the gulf and north-west Queensland and we cannot get any apprentices. We cannot get any apprentices because of the argument that Travis Fraser so eloquently put to me that evening at the rugby league handover.
Lawrence Hartnett was the founder of the motor vehicle industry in Australia—one of the truly great Australians. He came from a very wealthy, upper-class family and he did his apprenticeship at Vickers in England, at that time the greatest engineering company on earth. They built giant ships, power station generators, aeroplane engines, motor vehicle engines; they were the greatest builders of that age on the planet, going back to the early part of the last century. When Lawrence Hartnett applied for the job, he got an interview with the international head of Vickers. He wanted to do their management traineeship because he wanted to be an engineer and become a very powerful and influential man inside Vickers. That was his ambition as a young man but the boss of Vickers, internationally a person employing some 100,000 people, said, ‘In this outfit, if you want to take my job then you start as a fitter and turner as I did.’ So Lawrence Hartnett started as a diesel fitter. He said, ‘I went from starched collars and cuffs to greasy overalls and the rougher demeanour of the working class.’ He said, ‘I grew to like them very much.’ When he came to Australia, he was home because it was a place made up of very much those sorts of people.
But the point of the story is that if you have enlightened corporate government then what you want at the top is not someone who is used to playing with figures on a computer screen or on the stock market and playing at becoming a boardroom tiger but someone who actually knows how to put a screw into a hole. That is a very important thing for people to know: how a piece of machinery works. That was the great strength of the British nation and the great strength of the Vickers’ operation in those years. They created people like Lawrence Hartnett, who came to Australia and, along with Ben Chifley, created our great motor vehicle industry in Australia, which may be collapsing now but served this country well for half a century. The point I am trying to make is that, when England was great, their people were trained in a trade not at a university. Even if they were, like Lawrence Hartnett, from a very rich, upper-class background, just like the head of Vickers, they were expected to get their hands dirty and grease under their fingernails on the workshop floor.
In conclusion, I pay very great tribute to Charlie Sartain, the head of Xstrata Copper worldwide, also the head of Mount Isa Mines, and his appointment of Steve de Kruijff as the boss. It is the first time in my life that a major mine in Australia has been run by a person with trade qualifications and in this case probably even less than trade qualifications initially. Whilst Mr de Kruijff might have trained later on and undertaken some courses, he came straight up from an unskilled labourer’s position with the company. It is a great tribute to that company. One of the reasons that it is going so well at the present moment is the sort of enlightened leadership that it provides in areas such as this.
There is only one School of Mines in Australia; I think it is still operating in Western Australia. The whole country’s economy depends upon mining and we have one School of Mines. We have only one metallurgy school in Australia, which is also in Western Australia. Is the government serious about this $1,000? Seriously, is anyone going to take on an apprentice or take on an apprenticeship for an extra $1,000? The sorry nature of this is that Travis Fraser is not, and Travis is the person who we have to be able to put into an apprenticeship if this country is going to survive and prosper in its present situation.
One of the great industries of Australia, the motor vehicle industry, up until very recently anyway, was created by a person who simply had a trade. In fact, the great Henry Ford never went near a university; he was simply a tradesman—that was all he had. The great Alexander Graham Bell was also a tradesman and had never been near a university. If you want these great industries to prosper and thrive, it has to be through people who have got dirt under their fingernails and know how things work at the lowest level.
For a person who spent a fair few years at university and has their name in gold lettering above the door at the law faculty library at the University of Queensland, I of all people know only too well it is so easy to get the technical knowledge that you need but so hard to get the practical knowledge, which we are not providing in Australia. All I can say, on behalf of the 200,000 Australians whom I represent, is that we have effectively no TAFEs operating for those 200,000 people. We cannot afford for our kids to go away to the big city, they cannot afford to go away and most certainly their employer cannot afford to see them go away for block training. We are simply locked out of this training. There are thousands of Travis Frasers out there, and $1,000 is not going to solve that problem.
We urge the government to sit down and look at some serious approaches that will enable us to go down this pathway. I venture to suggest to the government that if we are paying somebody with a wife and three kids some $35,000 a year—or whatever it is—in unemployment benefits then surely we can afford to put some of that towards paying these people to do a trade. That would benefit the mining industry tremendously. It would head off where we are heading pell-mell at the moment—down the Fijian or South African road which so terrified Australians back in 1901, when Charles McDonald stood in this place. Lastly, it would give our young people a go. Maybe there are a lot of Lawrence Hartnetts out there. Maybe a Travis Fraser who is a Lawrence Hartnett in the making, but under the present system a Lawrence Hartnett can never happen in Australia if he comes from country Australia. (Time expired)