Wednesday, 10 June 2020
National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020; Second Reading
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Government:
(1) has damaged and neglected Australia's vocational education and training system, cutting over $3 billion from TAFE and training;
(2) is presiding over a disastrous decline in apprenticeships and traineeships; and
(3) is failing to work with employers, unions and TAFEs to rebuild Australia's world-class vocational education system".
The National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 establishes a new statutory office, the National Skills Commissioner, responsible for advising government on trends in the workplace. This office was proposed by the Joyce review into vocational education and training, which was released last year. The Skills Commissioner would be supported by employees in the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and would function as the head of the National Skills Commission in that department. The Skills Commissioner would also be charged with providing public information on these matters as well as annual reports on current, emerging and future skills needs.
Of course Labor is not going to oppose this bill, so far as it goes. The Skills Commissioner will offer useful information to policymakers in an area that is very significant for our nation and where there has been significant policy failure in recent years. Of course Labor understands the importance of having evidence about skills needs and taking expert advice in education, training and skills. In fact, when Labor was last in government, we established Skills Australia in 2008. We set up Skills Australia, and in 2011 Skills Australia became the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. That agency analysed and reported on Australia's workplace development needs, helped to forecast skills shortages and suggested ways to fill them. Some of the saddest words in political life are 'I told you so'. We actually set this agency up in 2008, essentially to do what's being expected of the new National Skills Commission. Sadly, in 2014, when Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, one of the first things the Liberal Party did was abolish the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. When the coalition made that decision, we raised our concerns and we emphasised what important work the agency was doing. The member for Cunningham, the then shadow minister for vocational education, spoke of the 'critical, strategic significance of the work performed by AWPA'. She said that she wanted an assurance that 'the rigour and independence of this work is not lost when the tasks are taken into the department'.
As I said, some of the saddest words in public life are 'I told you so'. Labor warned against what was done in 2014, but, of course, we're happy that the government has finally seen the error of its ways and has gone back to a system where we have, hopefully, some more independent advice in this area. It's taken the coalition six years to understand this and to rebuild a small part of what it previously destroyed. Even then, this office will still be in the same department, so, basically, as far as we can tell it's the same people doing the same functions as were being done by the department. There is no real independence or a genuine partnership here with business, with state or territory governments, with unions or with education providers. Sadly, it seems that at this point—I hope I'm proved wrong on this one—this is once again a rebranding exercise, an effort to be seen to do something. But it is better than nothing and we won't oppose the bill.
This is, I suppose you would say, a minute change, given the scale of the challenge that is ahead of us. The vocational education system has seen billions cut from it and all sorts of retrograde action. It would be absolutely ripe for major change, rather than this minute change. This is even more necessary now that we have entered our first recession in a generation. It's always better to have more information rather than less. But you can't keep taking money out of the vocational education sector, year after year, and expect to see improvements. You can't systematically underfund vocational education and then ask the sector to meet the complex and evolving skills challenges that we face. But that's exactly what this government has been doing. The government has spent seven years cutting funding to TAFE and training and, on top of cutting funding to TAFE and training, even underspending the funding that it has allocated to the sector. It's spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the growth of our economy and the growth of our young people.
Since coming to office in 2013, the Liberal and National parties have cut $3 billion from TAFE and training, and, as we learnt earlier this year, that $3 billion cut comes on top of nearly a billion dollars that has been budgeted for the system but was never spent—a $3 billion cut and a $1 billion underspend. These are enormous figures and the consequences for our students and for employers and industry have been dire. Every time this government cuts funding to TAFE and training, we see fewer qualified graduates and we see falling performance across the sector. In fact, even before the recession hit, we had more people dropping out of courses than completing them. We had TAFE campuses falling apart, right across the country. We had state governments closing campuses and ending courses. Then we had a federal government that had a billion dollars sitting around that they'd budgeted for the sector and nevertheless refused to spend.
Before COVID-19 hit, there was a mess in vocational education and training. It was already a serious problem holding our country back. In fact, before COVID-19 three-quarters of Australian businesses were struggling to find the skilled workers they needed to expand and grow, three-quarters of businesses wanted to be employing Australians but couldn't find the qualified workers they needed. That's when we had close to two million Australians unemployed or underemployed already. Now that we are in a recession, that problem has turned into a crisis. That mess is a genuine national crisis.
Nowhere is this more important than in the collapse in apprenticeship numbers. Even before the recent shutdowns, the recent hit on our economy, Australia had lost 140,000 apprentices and trainees since those opposite came to power. Now, according to new modelling that we've had from the National Australian Apprenticeships Association, we're set to lose another 100,000 by the end of the year. So if the Prime Minister does nothing, if he lets the training pipeline collapse without federal support, we are looking at losing a generation of apprentices and trainees.
It's already happening. Between January and April this year there was a 73 per cent drop in advertisements for apprenticeships, in apprentice job ads. We know from past recessions that a five per cent increase in unemployment results in a 30 per cent decrease in apprentice commencements. That is a disaster for young Australians and it would reverberate throughout our economy for decades. It's all very well to talk about construction projects and renovations, but you need tradies and apprentices to build them.
What's the Prime Minister's response to this crisis? We heard it at the National Press Club just last month. There was all the hype leading up to this Press Club address. It was going to be the government's opportunity to lay out their vision for apprentices and trainees. Instead, what we got was another exercise in marketing and spin. The Prime Minister's so-called JobMaker scheme involves no new funding, no detail and no time line. In fact, outside of a few perfectly pleasant-sounding statements, the speech involved nothing new, no substance at all. There's nothing there. It's a phoney response to a serious problem. It's certainly not enough to address the crisis in apprentice numbers or to revive the TAFE system.
We are happy to support sensible legislation in this area. We're happy to support this bill as far as it goes. But, truly, as a nation we need to do so much more. We need to be so much more ambitious than this tweak that we're discussing today, and we need to offer the sector much more than rhetoric. We need to offer apprentices who are facing losing their jobs so much more than the rhetoric that the government's got on offer. We are experiencing one of the most significant economic transformations in our lifetime. A response to these challenges can either reduce the pain and the depth of this recession or shape a country that will see a longer, deeper recession and more long-term unemployment. The decisions that we're making today will shape our nation for decades to come.
We've got really important choices to make as we go forward. We've got the highest level of unemployment in decades. You would think that a well-funded, functioning vocational education sector would be more important than ever. But, basically, no matter how they dress it up with measures like these today, the government's just offering more of the same. Their track record is clear. If we continue down this road, with this history of cuts and neglect, the effects will be devastating for the individuals who will miss out. Those people who should have had the chance of being trained in a trade that would have given them a secure income for years or decades to come will miss out. It's devastating for them. But it's also such a problem for our economy, for our nation, long term.
Really, if we want a strong recovery we have to invest now in giving people as individuals the tools to work their way out of unemployment. We have to give our nation the tools it needs to work its way out of recession. Unlike those opposite, we believe that investing in education and training is an investment in the future of our people and the future of our economy. It's an investment in, not a burden on, our national prosperity. We need better workplace information and some forecasting looking at where the skills gaps are going to be—of course we do. By the way, that's why we set up the agencies we set up when we were in government—the ones that Tony Abbott, as Prime Minister, got rid of. More urgently, we need the resources and the will to deliver meaningful training at this time.
This is a government without a plan for education or a plan for training and with no plan for Australia's future or for economic recovery. We won't oppose this bill, but the changes here do little to address the enormous problems facing our skills and training system. If we want to save a generation of lost apprentices, help Australians get back to work and accelerate our recovery, we need to do much, much more.