House debates

Monday, 5 September 2022


Jobs and Skills Australia Bill 2022, Jobs and Skills Australia (National Skills Commissioner Repeal) Bill 2022; Second Reading

7:21 pm

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | Hansard source

As a constructive opposition, we will assess proposals on their merits, but we will not be giving the Albanese government a blank cheque on anything, including this bill. Whilst we accept that Jobs and Skills Australia will be established, we are sceptical of the new arrangements given there is still no clarity on either how the organisation will be structured or its full remit and responsibilities.

The government introduced the Jobs and Skills Australia Bill 2022, the JSA bill, and the Jobs and Skills Australia (National Skills Commissioner Repeal) Bill 2022 in the last sitting. We note this legislation gives effect to one of Labor's election pledges: to establish the Jobs and Skills Australia, or JSA, agency. The government's stated objectives are to drive vocational education and training, VET, and to strengthen workforce planning by establishing an organisation that includes employers, unions and the training and education sector.

It is important to note that this is the first of two tranches of legislation regarding JSA. This bill merely establishes the agency within the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. It's unfortunate that the Labor Party were not able to outline the full remit and scope of this agency, or how it will operate, before they pressed ahead with establishing a new part of the bureaucracy. As a result, over 100 days into this new government, we still don't know how this purportedly vital organisation will function. There are also some worrying signals coming out of the government when it comes to the role of the unions in the JSA.

While delivering better information, coordination and leadership of Australia's workforce and skills needs is a noble aspiration, this function is already being provided by the National Skills Commission, established by the former coalition government in 2020. The NSC currently, under the leadership of National Skills Commissioner Adam Boyton, monitors, reports, researches and analyses employment dynamics across different groups, industries, occupations and regions. It considers how changes in the labour market will impact jobs and how those changes will impact the economy's education and skills needs. It also has an important role in simplifying and strengthening Australia's VET system.

The Minister for Skills and Training has actually stated that JSA will build on the NSC and has, given the resource profile, indicated that NSC staff will come across to JSA. In fact, we are told that JSA will be cost neutral because the existing funding for NSC will cover the work for JSA. So is the new agency doing more than the old one, or is it doing the same amount of work? Either Labor are just rebranding the NSC, or they have discovered a magic pudding that will pay for all the new work the agency will apparently be charged with.

We will be watching, because we do know that the NSC has already done exceptional work. The NSC was a key part of how the Liberals and Nationals got the Australian skills sector on an even keel. The Liberals and Nationals cleaned up the mess across our skills sector caused by Labor when they were last in government.

We're over 100 days into the Albanese government, and what has become increasingly clear is that, rather than wasting not even a single day when it comes to skills, they've in fact wasted every single day. The Labor Party inherited a booming skills and training sector from the coalition government. There was real momentum in skills and training, thanks to the Liberals and Nationals. And what have Labor done? They've introduced uncertainty into apprenticeships. They've signalled they may cut skills funding for apprentices to pay for their pet projects. The few announcements that they have made have been delayed, to align with the much hyped Jobs and Skills Summit, where the Prime Minister announced an additional 180,000 fee-free TAFE places for 2023.

It sounds good but belies the truth. We've since learned the Prime Minister misled the Jobs and Skills Summit. His much vaunted training blitz is nothing more than marketing spin, with the vast majority of funded positions not new or additional at all. Reports in the Australian suggest, of the 180,000 committed places, over 66 per cent already exist and will only be further subsidised. Just 45,000 will be new, and all of them were already announced as part of Labor's fee-free TAFE pre-election commitment—most incredibly, 15,000 aged-care places announced in the coalition government's March budget through its Job Trainer Fund. So the Labor Party have re-announced 15,000 new places that we announced, when we were in government, in March. The Prime Minister's big skills reveal at his summit is a façade, which is fitting for a summit that was ultimately run by unions, for unions, with pre-determined outcomes.

What is also concerning is the Prime Minister's explicit statement that funding will go to public training providers only. This has sent a shiver through the industry-led training providers, because we know private RTOs do 70 to 80 per cent of training across our VET sector, and they're estimated to train 79 per cent of all women across the skills system. We need an even-handed approach, to the entire skills sector, that provides choice for our next generation. We would be extremely concerned if JSA imbedded a bias for any part of the skills sector, so we need to safeguard and prevent unions from dominating this agency and turning it into an entity that only backs public providers.

We want this agency to succeed because, if it hits the mark, Jobs and Skills Australia will play an important role in the skills system. We know this because, right now, the NSC plays a vital role. If Labor are intent on abolishing a body doing good work for another body that could do good work, any failures, any bad outcomes, any delays to the progress we were making, will all be on their heads.

Labor's record on skills is embarrassing. Everything the Labor Party has ever touched on skills has made things worse. When they were last in government, Labor delivered system-wide policy failures. Apprenticeship numbers took a nosedive. The reality is, when it comes to skills policy, Labor failed. When they last left office, apprentice and trainee numbers were in freefall, with the number in training collapsing by 22 per cent or 111,300 between June 2012 and June 2013. This was a direct result of funding cuts by the Gillard Labor government in 2012. They oversaw widespread rorting of training incentive payments that were supposed to help apprentices get a skill but, instead, just subsidised existing workers' salaries.

Labor's VET FEE-HELP disaster saw the reputation of the Australian skills system hit rock bottom, as tens of thousands of Australians were loaded up with debt for doing courses that would never land them a job. The taxpayer is still picking up the tab for this enormous public failure, a tab which is now over $3.3 billion. The scheme, established by the Labor government in 2008 and expanded in 2012, was plagued by system-wide rorting, with some training providers exploiting loose rules and charging students substantial debts for training that they never undertook or benefited from. It also targeted people with disabilities and substance abuse issues, public housing residents, non-English speakers and others with offers of free laptops and other incentives.

The stories are harrowing, such as a young single mother who travelled to Cairns to enrol in what soon became apparent was a dodgy diploma taught by a teacher that didn't have a clue. She racked up $12,000 in debt, with nothing to show for it. There are literally thousands of stories like this. And who presided over all these failures? None other than the former—and now returned—skills minister, the member for Gorton. So what could go wrong? I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.


No comments