House debates

Tuesday, 16 June 2020


National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020; Second Reading

5:55 pm

Photo of Anika WellsAnika Wells (Lilley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to rise on this bill this evening and speak on behalf of the apprentices in my electorate on the north side of Brisbane. Many of them have been in touch over the previous months since I was elected to talk about the crisis in TAFE and the need for more investment in the sector.

Labor will support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 this evening, because we believe that students studying in Australian TAFEs deserve to study high-quality courses. That's what they deserve. The pandemic and the associated economic downturn have made it clearer than ever just how important education is. You never know when you're going to need to pivot, whether as an individual or as a nation.

The VET system is fundamental to the Australian economy, but it has been neglected under this government. The changes proposed by this bill, while possibly helpful, are relatively minor and they certainly don't deliver on the significant level of reform that our TAFE system needs. I feel that this is possibly the third time I've risen in this House to make this point, and it represents another missed opportunity this evening for us to do more for our VET sector and our TAFE students.

The bill amends the governance structures of the Australian Skills Quality Authority and enhances information sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. The key amendments will revise ASQA's governance structure and replace the existing chief commissioner and CEO and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder. It will also establish the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. That's intended to provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator.

The lack of TAFE and union representation on the advisory council is a serious oversight by this government, and, to be honest, it smacks of ideology rather than the provision of best advice to ASQA. Union membership is very strong within these industries. They are typically trained by TAFE themselves. They understand the work that the construction workers, the care workers and the workers in other heavily unionised industries do—the people on the frontline. As such, they understand the training that they need. With TAFE staff who are also strongly unionised and TAFE teachers who are clearly expert in the provision of VET courses, why on earth wouldn't they be on the top of the list for these seats on the council? Their views should be heard and considered when it comes to the VET sector. That's what we believe on this side of the House, and that's why we'll seek to move some amendments to that effect, to ensure that the public provider has seats at the table. We will do that in the other place.

We support a fair, considered approach to the ASQA reforms. We will support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers, but we'll reject changes that attempt to weaken the regulatory framework. We need to ensure that reforms to ASQA audit processes don't allow any reduction in quality. In the past, we have seen this government be slow to act on quality issues. That has done serious damage to the sector. That's a real problem, because quality is vital in this sector. Lives and safety depend on it. A poorly trained builder or a poorly trained carer can do serious damage.

TAFE creates our skilled workers who build our country and keep it operational, but it hasn't been delivering what we need it to, what our students need it to and what our future students need it to for a very long time. Australia now has a crisis in skills and vocational training. After seven years of a Liberal government, Australia has experienced a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. The government has cut the system to the bone. It has removed $3 billion from the TAFE and training sector. We need this funding restored and we need a serious investment in VET, a sector that will be vital to the economic recovery our nation is about to embark upon.

We had skills shortages before COVID-19 and, as we recover, we will need a strong and well-funded VET system to train and upskill our workforce so that they can participate in the new economy. If people are unemployed because of this crisis, and we know that they will be, and we know that one million Australians who weren't employed at the start of 2020 will be by the end of the year, then we need to enable them to access new training opportunities and to skill them for new work. But not only has the government cut VET to the bone; it has also failed to spend the money that it budgeted for skills.

The federal education department's own data shows that the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the last five years. With acknowledged skills shortages in this country, how is an underspend even possible? With high youth unemployment across various parts of Australia prior to COVID-19, how is there an underspend? I know in my home state of Queensland, the unemployment rate is something like 6.3 per cent for the Brisbane east area, higher than the national average. But the youth unemployment rate is at 11.2 per cent, double the national average. In parts of Queensland, particularly North Queensland—and I note the member for Leichhardt has just come in—youth unemployment has risen as high as 25.7 per cent for kids who are growing up in regional areas like Cairns or Mount Isa.

We have a crisis in youth unemployment and we have a crisis when it comes to skill shortages, but for some reason the government fails to put two and two together and continues to underspend. It boggles the mind. One of these is bad enough to be faced with if you are a kid growing up in regional Australia, but both of them at the same time, and now with this pandemic, is very, very tough. We should be doing more here in this place. That's what people elected us to do. Our apprentices and tradies, people who were told that if they had a go they would get a go, have been the worst affected by this. The school students and the young jobseekers in my electorate of Lilley have been clear with me about what they need. They need a skills training sector that is adequately funded, that is properly resourced and that has educators who are properly trained so that they can aspire to and secure the highly skilled, highly paid jobs in technical industries. The coalition government needs to come up with a better plan than this.

According to the Australian Industry Group, which is hardly a bastion of socialism, 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. At the same time, almost two million Australians were unemployed before COVID or were looking for more hours of work. So why isn't the Prime Minister training jobseekers for jobs in these industries where there is a shortage of workers? This seems like first-year economics 101 stuff: supply should meet demand. Where we have employers crying out for more qualified workers and jobseekers desperately looking for more work, only this government could fail to connect the two.

Late last year, I had the pleasure of visiting a TAFE north of Brisbane, Bracken Ridge TAFE, which is, I will admit, just outside my electorate in the member for Petrie's electorate. But many of the students there are from Lilley, so I go there as often as I can possibly get myself invited. I took the member for Sydney and the Queensland state minister for TAFE with me for a tour of the facilities. The campus has a shared delivery arrangement with TAFE Queensland SkillsTech and the Queensland Pathways State College. We heard about the fantastic work that the Queensland Labor state government is doing despite the federal funding cuts, including providing free apprenticeships for people under the age of 21. There are over 20 free apprenticeships for those under 21 available on the Brisbane North campus, including apprenticeships in electrotechnology, construction, plumbing and marine mechanical technology. Since July 2019, over 115 new apprentices commenced training on that Brisbane North campus. Put simply, when TAFEs are properly invested in, we get results, and I'm sure the member for Petrie would agree with me on what a great job the Queensland Labor state government is doing in that space.

When I was speaking to these apprentices on that visit at the end of last year, what really stood out for me was the relationship they had with their teachers and the outstanding work their teachers are doing in leading them through. I met Andrew Begbie, who was teaching carpentry and cabinet making; John O'Shea, outdoor powering equipment; and Dave Compton, automotive industry. And I met all of their students, who were diligent and hardworking in the hopes that they would be able to secure a job as a result of their efforts.

We need to make sure that these fantastic teachers have the support that they need. They are passing on their knowledge and their skills to young people who want to learn and to work, and they deserve better than $1 billion in underspending. I also want to take this opportunity to commend Zupps Aspley, who are providing certificate III apprenticeships in light vehicle mechanical technology to young locals on the north side. They are stepping up and doing what this government should be doing.

The Prime Minister isn't training young people for jobs in industries that are facing skill shortages. Instead, he's starving TAFEs and training funding and wondering why the rates of apprenticeships and traineeships are dropping. Australia's economic growth has been the slowest since the global financial crisis, and that was before we faced the pandemic this year. Wages were stagnant. Household debt had skyrocketed, and business investment was at its lowest level since the 1990s recession. A decline in vocational education and training only worsens those outcomes for everybody, and it worsens them for generations to come. Fiddling at the edges of the TAFE system, as we are seeing here again now, will not address the problems that this government has created in vocational education and training. If we continue down this path of underfunding, we will sabotage future economic growth, undermine the opportunities for young Australians looking to upskill to meet their full potential and compromise our national productivity.

We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need post-secondary-school education, including TAFE. We need to act now to increase the participation in our vocational education sector to make sure that our young people have the skills necessary to meet this demand. Look at what adequate funding has done on the Brisbane North TAFE campus. I know how important vocational education and training is to our local economy and for our local jobs. The Liberal government either doesn't care or doesn't have the capacity to do that hard work that needs to be done to build a path to skilled jobs. Tonight is another failed opportunity to do more in this space. The Prime Minister claims that he wants to lift the status of vocational Australia, yet his actions, like the failure to move more significant reform than that provided to the House this evening, prove that he doesn't. Australians are sick of the marketing, the hollow men, the publicity stunts and the empty gestures. The vocational education and training system managed by this government is failing students, it is failing workers, it is failing local business, it is failing local economies like the north side of Brisbane and it is ultimately failing the national economy. Australians want this government to take serious action now and to grow the job opportunities for the young people of today and of tomorrow.

Under this government there are 15,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. The independent National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently found that over the past year 20 per cent fewer people were signing up to do trade apprenticeships and traineeships. This was even more extreme in a number of essential trades. The number of Australians starting an apprenticeship or traineeship in construction, including carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing, dropped by an alarming 40 per cent. There are more people dropping out of vocational training courses than there are finishing them. These numbers have to get better, not only for the economy but for the young people who a decade ago would have been undertaking this training but are not today. As the Leader of the Opposition outlined in his vision statement on emerging from the shadow of COVID-19, we need to support people to train. For many young people, that will mean a liveable youth allowance payment.

Over the past two months, I have been contacted by students who are desperate for assistance but who are unable to access anything from this government's COVID-19 assistance package. What makes a government exclude young people during a national crisis? On what metric does this funding need to be restored? We need serious investment in VET, a sector that will be vital to the economic recovery that our nation is about to embark upon. We had skills shortages before COVID-19. As we recover, we will need a strong and well-funded VET system to train and upskill our workforce so they can participate in this new economy. If people come to be unemployed because of this crisis—and we know that one million Australians who weren't unemployed at the start of 2020 will be by the end of 2020—then we need to enable them to easily access new training opportunities and skill them for work.

Now is the time for this House to act. The parliament is together to make amendments and to make good reform in this space. I urge the government to reconsider and to put together more significant amendments to this bill so that we can support our TAFE sector.


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