House debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Tertiary Education

3:37 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry) Share this | Hansard source

At no point in that contribution did the minister explain why there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in this country. After seven years, on average there are 20,000 fewer apprentices for each year this government has been on that side of the chamber. As we know, the education sector has been hit and the economy has been savaged by the pandemic. We understand that. And, of course, we've sought to work with the government to work out ways to best mitigate the impact, and we have done that.

But we also have an obligation to make sure that we raise concerns about deficiencies in government responses to social and economic challenges the country confronts. That's absolutely vital, and it was vital back in March when we insisted the government consider a wage subsidy for workers who were going to be unemployed. The government and the Prime Minister responded by saying they were going to rely solely on the jobseeker payment—that is, increasing Newstart as a form of welfare and not having a wage subsidy package for workers in this country. They returned to their electorates and saw unemployment queues they'd never seen before at each Centrelink office. They came back, I'm glad to say, and we welcomed their change of heart and mind. They listened to Labor and others and they introduced the JobKeeper package. But what we've made clear all along is that the JobKeeper package has to provide support for the sectors of the economy that have been hit hardest.

The paradox we have before us is that the government has not sufficiently supported sectors of the economy that have been forced to close down for legitimate health reasons. In many instances, those sectors have a high proportion of workers who are ineligible for JobKeeper. Look at food and accommodation, where there's been a 30 per cent reduction in jobs. They have a high proportion of casuals who haven't worked 12 months, so they are getting less support. And we're not just talking about workers getting less support. If you're not providing JobKeeper to those workers, you're not subsidising the labour costs of those businesses. So not only are we seeing more people disconnected from the labour market; we're also seeing businesses collapse as a result of the lack of support. So there are design faults with the JobKeeper package, and we're bringing that to the attention of the government and will continue to do so.

Today's figures were quite alarming. The headline 'unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent' does not in any way properly describe what is happening in the labour market and our economy. The reality is that if every person who lost a job between March and May were counted as being in the labour market still, if they were still looking for work, the unemployment rate, according to the ABS, would be 11.3 per cent. That's as of last month, not even now, because it is a lagging indicator. So the fact is we are confronted with the biggest problem in the labour market we've seen since the Great Depression, and what we are saying to the government is that we understand it is largely due to the pandemic, even though there were problems with underemployment and underutilisation prior to the pandemic. What we are saying to the government is: you can attend to this and mitigate the impact if you do things better. You should have brought JobKeeper in earlier, it should have been wider in its application and it should now go for longer in those sectors which are suffering. Otherwise, you're going to see a very significant decline in businesses. There are going to be more bankruptcies and more businesses will collapse as a result of a failure of support.

What we've seen this week, as has been reported in the newspapers, is the government talking about shifting people from JobKeeper to jobseeker. The Liberal Party once used to say, 'The best form of welfare is work.' If that report is true, now they're saying, 'We're going to move people from work to welfare.' That's what will be happening if they move people from JobKeeper to jobseeker, so they should rethink that position.

With respect to higher education and TAFE, it has been impoverished under seven years of this government and it needs to be provided with more support. We have seen our export industry of higher education absolutely poleaxed. We have seen no worker in the higher education system being backed in and supported by the JobKeeper package. It seems to be a complete discrimination against higher education not to provide support given the circumstances they're confronted with. The government have got to stop this addiction to temporary visas and start focusing on skilling up our workforce for the emerging areas of demand in our labour market and economy.

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