Monday, 18 June 2007
Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007
In summing up, I would like to thank all those who have spoken on the Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007, which deals with apprenticeship wage top-ups for Australian apprentices. At the same time I would like to acknowledge the support indicated by both sides of the House for the provisions in this legislation.
In saying that, I am sorry that many of those opposite took the opportunity to rewrite history and also to misrepresent the very significant steps that have been taken and are being taken by the Howard government in regard to vocational and technical training, especially the leadership that the Howard government has shown in raising the status of vocational and technical training and the occupations that relate to that training. You would think that the state governments would be undertaking that role, given their responsibilities, but in fact after listening to all those opposite you could be forgiven for thinking that the state governments have absolutely no responsibility for vocational and technical training, much less primary responsibility, a responsibility they have sadly neglected.
It is really only through this government’s leadership in the last couple of years with the Australian technical colleges, where on the initiative of the Howard government we have introduced 20 new colleges which are open and a further eight which are in the pipeline, that the state governments have promised in excess of 40 technical schools. It is a great thing that they have followed the lead of the Howard government. We now have just on 70 new technical colleges promised throughout the country. It is a great initiative. It will mean that, by 2009, close to 35,000 young Australians will be in dedicated technical colleges for their years 11 and 12, finishing their year 12 certificate and also being one-third of the way through an apprenticeship. This is a great initiative. It is a real revolution in technical education. The leadership shown by the Howard government and the importance of the states now following suit in so many regards must be acknowledged.
The Social Security Amendment (Apprenticeship Wage Top-Up for Australian Apprentices) Bill 2007 deals with the apprenticeship wage top-up for Australian apprentices announced by the Treasurer on budget night. This measure will provide $2,000 tax free to apprentices to help in their first two years of an apprenticeship when their wages are not as high as they might otherwise be. Apprentices are important to our ongoing economic growth, and we need to make sure that those who commence an apprenticeship are given assistance to see it through.
The other important aspect of this initiative is to provide $1,000 tax free at a time when apprentices are earning somewhere between $15,000 and $19,000 and when their mates are often going down the road and taking unskilled jobs in warehouses or somewhere else for another $5,000 or $10,000. There is a great temptation not to look to the future and to go and seek money in those early years just after leaving school. This $1,000 top-up for those first two years is not only an important contribution that will provide some valuable dollars in the pocket to help apprentices through that period but also a signal from the government on behalf of the broader community that what these apprentices are doing is something that we as a community value. There is a strong commitment from the government, on behalf of the broader community, to these young people to make the most of the talents that they have been born with.
The bill exempts apprenticeship wage top-up payments for Australian apprentices from income tax through an amendment to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. Very importantly, to ensure that the wage top-up is not taxed, they will get $1,000 in their pockets to spend as they see fit. Importantly, the bill also amends the Social Security Act 1991 and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to exempt the apprenticeship wage top-up payments from social security and veterans’ entitlement income testing. This ensures that Australian apprentices receive the full benefit of all of these measures in the initial years of their training.
The wage top-up is one of a number of measures that the Howard government is providing to assist apprentices. Apprentices may also be eligible for apprentice fee vouchers of $500 a year in the first two years in those trades where we are facing skills shortages. They may be eligible for $1,000 Commonwealth trade learning scholarships and $800 for tools for the trade. There is also support for mid-career apprentices. We are providing a total of $15,000 in wage subsidy for those over the age of 30 who are undertaking a mid-career apprenticeship. There are now many thousands in that category. This initiative begins on 1 July this year.
They may also be eligible for living away from home allowance, which begins at $17 per week in the first year; Austudy; Abstudy; and youth allowance—a whole raft of measures which are directed specifically to the apprentices themselves to make it easier and possible for them to get through those apprenticeship years, which are financially difficult but, importantly, to show that there is serious acknowledgment and a level of support in the community for them to make that effort and give full expression to the talents they have.
Not only are we providing initiatives for apprentices; we have also got initiatives and incentives for employers of apprentices who may be eligible for commencement and completion payments of up to $4,000 in total. There are $1,000 innovation payments, additional payments for employers taking on Australian school based apprentices, rural and regional incentives, declared drought area incentives and mature age worker incentives. Ensuring that Australian apprentices have the support they need to undertake their training will encourage people to participate in Australian apprenticeships. Apprenticeship numbers have already increased 158 per cent since 1996 with currently 400,000 apprentices in training compared with 154,000 in 1996. These initiatives will encourage more young people to see an apprenticeship as a valued career path.
The Howard government has increased real spending on vocational and technical education by 99 per cent in real terms since 1996 from $1 billion to just short of $3 billion; an enormous contribution, an important contribution—a contribution which you would not be aware of if you listened to those opposite during this debate. It is a very significant attempt to assist the states, which have prime responsibility for social technical training, to meet the skills gaps that we are confronting after many years of uninterrupted economic growth and an ageing population, and the pressures which come with both of those developments. We are seeing a record $11 billion commitment over four years from the Howard government on initiatives such as support for Australian apprentices but also on Skills for the Future for those in mid-career for training of people throughout their life. There is also support for 28 Australian technical colleges and $5 billion to the states to assist them through the Skilling Australia’s Workforce agreement to provide important funding for TAFEs and other registered training organisations.
This is a huge commitment from a government that has been working very hard over 11 years to provide leadership on vocational and technical education. These measures will assist Australian apprentices, who are an important part of our workforce, and I commend the bill to the House.