House debates

Thursday, 8 February 2018


Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017, Migration (Skilling Australians Fund) Charges Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:19 am

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Blair has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form 'that the amendment be agreed to'. The question is that the amendment be agreed to.

11:20 am

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

In the brief time I had last night, I was outlining to the House how it is possible that the government thinks, in this migration legislation that it has put forward, that people on this side of the House and people in the community can be expected to trust the Minister for Home Affairs when it comes to the critical issue of labour market testing. Why is labour market testing critical? Because it goes to the fundamental reason for temporary skilled migration. We have a real problem in this country and it's been building over time, for almost a generation now. A generation ago, you could finish school, finish university, finish your TAFE qualifications and walk into an entry-level job. They existed—the Commonwealth Bank, the Public Service and anywhere there were jobs available. People who are in their 50s and 60s say that, even if you didn't like that job, you could quit that job and get your next job tomorrow. Today those entry-level jobs don't really exist. There are fewer and fewer of them. Even in the Commonwealth Public Service today, we're employing far fewer young people in entry-level jobs than we did a generation ago.

What that has meant is that over time we have created skills gaps in some of our industries. I want to acknowledge that there are genuine skills gaps in our country, and I think what the government is trying to do is actually create a fund to help train people to fill those gaps. However, they cannot be trusted in that commitment, given the funding cuts that they've already made to skills, education, TAFE and vocational education; the way in which they've really failed to prioritise, within their own procurement policy, such things as apprenticeships; and the way in which they have forced casual jobs upon the Public Service as opposed to creating good, secure full-time jobs.

I know that in my part of the world we do struggle to attract chefs. I personally think we've got to do better at promoting ourselves. We have some fantastic foodie restaurants that people can work in. We aren't that far from Melbourne, we have affordable housing and we have a great lifestyle, but we have struggled to attract qualified chefs to our region. This isn't just Bendigo; this is throughout regional Victoria—in fact, throughout Australia. There is a disconnect there, however, when the same enterprises try to sit down with TAFE and talk about the need for training chefs. They struggle. When they try to raise this issue with the federal government or federal MPs on the government side of the House, they struggle to get them to understand.

There are other industries where we have skills gaps that from time to time need to be filled by temporary skilled migration. As a personal position, I prefer permanent skilled migration, giving that person and their family the opportunity to choose to settle here, over temporary skilled migration. We are Australia. We've been built on a proud history of migration. My parents migrated here, and there are so many Australians who have migrated here or whose parents or family migrated here. It was never temporary. They got to choose to move here and bring their families with them.

There are real problems with our temporary skilled migration program. It is being gamed and manipulated by some employers and some sectors. Rather than investing and training and skilling up Australians, they are choosing this alternative. Corporate Australia and big businesses have really broken the social compact that we had for a long time in this country with the current generation of young people. They are no longer doing what they did a generation ago, which was to take on people at an entry level and train them up, giving them that same opportunity. Instead, they are going overseas and looking for workers who have skills and experience. I have a real issue with that. I want to see corporate Australia and our businesses do better. The role of the federal government is to engage with them and to encourage them to put a system in place that sees them once again give young Australians a go, and they're not.

I should say that it's not all companies. We have a mine in Bendigo. We've discovered gold again, and the mine is doing well. Over the last 12 months they've increased their workforce by at least 25 per cent. They've employed an extra 100 people. They are entry-level jobs. Hopefully, those people will now have a career in mining. They are learning skills on the job. We want to encourage and bring back that culture, that style of system which used to happen in Australian workplaces. Unfortunately, the scrappy way in which this bill has been put together is a demonstration that the government doesn't understand that. They haven't engaged with and put it to big business and corporate Australia to give the next generation a go.

I spoke briefly last night about our problem that people who have skills and qualifications are not able to get a start—for example, young nurses. The nurses' union has raised on several occasions that young graduates are not able to get a start in our health system, because of 457 visas. I know that, within the aged-care sector, recently arrived nurses, unaware of their conditions, are quite often working in very crowded, unsafe situations, because they're here as guest workers and feel pressure about raising workplace issues.

This is not isolated to nursing. A report released by the Fair Work Ombudsman not that long ago, which the government hasn't properly acted on, found that one in five people who are here on a temporary skilled migration visa—back then 457 visas—were being underpaid or not working in the role in which they were recruited. The government hasn't put forward a comprehensive plan on how to stop that exploitation. Whether they be 457 visas, backpackers or international students, the exploitation of temporary and migrant workers in this country is ongoing. The Ombudsman continues to release report after report that people are having their visa held over them as leverage, that they are not being paid and that they are literally taking jobs away from locals. That's a practice that has to stop.

In this legislation the government is also putting forward their attempt to take money from the employers of people entering this country on a 457 visa and put it into a training fund. However, as others on this side of the House have highlighted, their numbers don't stack up. There's no commitment in this funding to TAFE. The public vocational education sector around the country has been gutted by conservative governments at state and federal levels, particularly in regional Australia, where we have some of the skills shortages I just referred to. There's no commitment whatsoever in this bill that funding will go towards rebuilding our TAFEs. The Abbott-Turnbull government have ripped $2.8 billion out of TAFE skills and training over the past five years alone, including $637 million in the last budget, yet they're hoping that taking money when people enter the country will help bridge that gap. It will not.

The other thing that the government has failed to do is properly engage with the sector and re-establish the tripartisan way in which we used to approach skills shortages. We have heard from our pilots and our pilots' union that we have a shortage of pilots in this country. It's too hard to train people. Australians aren't going to stop flying. We are an island nation. This is one of the industries and jobs that we can attract young people into—encourage them to become pilots—but, as the pilots' association says repeatedly, it's too hard in this country to train young pilots. There has been no commitment by the government to engage unions collaboratively in how we can help fix our country's skills shortage.

This legislation that has been put together by the government lacks any decent understanding of how we can create the good, secure jobs of the future. It doesn't really offer, in a meaningful way, real jobs for Australian workers. Their continued attack on unions, their continued attack on workers, just demonstrates how so many of their ideas are driven by their own political agenda. We saw in this place, not yesterday but the day before, the minister who would be responsible for labour market testing attack a group of workers because of a logo that they had on their T-shirts. This is clearly not somebody who's thinking logically or realistically or inclusively about how we can bring workers and employers and industry together.

It is true that our economy is going through transition; however, a lot of the jobs that we have today will still exist in the future. We need to work together, through reforms in the IR system and partnerships, to make sure that these are good, secure jobs going forward. This is why we've moved an amendment and why we're referring this bill to a Senate inquiry: because we really need to test out how committed they are to labour market testing. You know, it's a fundamental belief of Australians that you give local jobs to locals first—and they're right. You should be made, as an employer, to look locally. Our job agencies, another area with real problems in our community, must be made to work with employers to match people.

I've had an unusual experience in my electorate. We have a Karen community that have moved in. They've chosen Bendigo to settle in. They're a big part of our community, the Karen Australians. There is such a disconnect going on with the job agencies in my part of the world that I was the one who introduced the Karen community to our local meatworks, which wants to move away from 457 visas and backpackers and wants to employ locals. We've become a matchmaking service between people who are looking for work and employers who want to take them on. These are more of the entry-level jobs that I was talking about. It shouldn't have to be about an MP's personal relationship; this should just be what the government, government contractors, government agencies and government funded services do.

The government, when it comes to labour market testing, cannot be trusted. The minister that they want to put in charge of labour market testing cannot be trusted. That is why Labor will refer the contents of this bill to a Senate inquiry, so it can be properly scrutinised to make sure that, if there is a local job in this country, it is offered to a local first. We must really put it on corporate Australia to step back up to the plate and recreate entry-level jobs. (Time expired)

11:33 am

Photo of Justine KeayJustine Keay (Braddon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017 because there are so many parts of this legislation that directly relate to my electorate in north-west Tasmania. The previous speaker, the member for Bendigo, talked about labour market testing. A little bit later in my speech, I will give an example of how this coalition government and the Tasmanian Liberal government have failed not only local workers but also local businesses in that area. So there is a little bit of a bittersweet irony that this government proclaims itself to be supporting Australian workers and their skills, when all actions to date really suggest that it's the complete opposite.

Labor does have genuine concerns that this legislation will not go far enough, that it will not legislate strict labour market testing across not just a number of occupations but all occupations and all skilled visas. Ordinarily, legislation that seeks to protect the jobs of Australians from overseas labour would be something that this side of the House would endorse, but, when it comes to matching the rhetoric with reality, this government cannot be trusted. The member for Bendigo gave examples of how that has occurred in her own electorate. For each of these policy failures, Labor has a solution—a solution that this government seems incapable of finding and implementing because it's simply blinded by ideology.

As I have said, this government has form when it comes to labour market testing. When Labor were last in office, we strengthened visa laws so that employers were required to look locally first. The now Prime Minister, the now minister for immigration and the now Treasurer all voted against Labor's sensible changes. When in opposition, they voted against better market testing and more controls, and they've taken almost five years in government to do something about it. But even now what the government is proposing comes nowhere near Labor's policy to support local workers. Labor's policy genuinely puts local workers first.

Our Labor leader and member for Maribyrnong has previously introduced a private member's bill to this place on these issues. That legislation is about supporting the Australian wages system, upholding our standards and creating Australian jobs. It sets more rigorous evidence requirements for labour market testing for firms seeking to use 457 visas with: a mandatory requirement for jobs to be advertised for a minimum of four weeks; a requirement for labour market testing to occur no more than four months before the nomination of a visa worker position; a ban on job ads that target only overseas workers or specified visa class workers to the detriment of locals; and a crackdown on job ads that set unrealistic requirements for vacant positions, as specifically designed to exclude locals. Under Labor's plan, if employers genuinely need a 457 visa holder for their business, they should have to provide evidence and information to prove it. Labor simply asks employers to show their need for the nominated occupations and to prove none of these positions can be filled by Australians.

This brings me to the example in my electorate where a couple of years ago the state Liberal government decided to use some money in cash reserves to refurbish the Spirit of Tasmaniavessels. It was a $20 million to $30 million project. They contracted a UK-based company to undertake the work, and that company brought in 44 per cent of the labour used in that project from overseas. I remember getting a phone call from a local businessman who, after complaints in the media that local businesses and workers were being excluded from this work, said to me that the government had asked the contractor to drip-feed local businesses some work—a little bit here and a little bit there—to keep them quiet. This man, who had his own business, said to me, 'There are foreign electricians running cables on the vessel that any electrician can do.' It was absolutely disgusting, but he could not speak out about it, because if he did the government would exclude him from any further work. This impacts on not only the workers but the businesses in my community. I'm absolutely outraged that the federal Liberal government is doing nothing and that the state Liberal government is complicit in bringing in overseas workers on a publicly-funded project.

On this side of the House, we know temporary work visas are not the long-term answer to the national skills shortage. We need a national training agenda. We need to invest in TAFE, training, skills and apprenticeships. We should not be discouraging people from learning a trade or getting a qualification by sending them the message that employers can just bring in someone else who is willing to do the job for less.

The policy failures of this government, when it comes to skills and training, have hit hard in Tasmania. Under the Liberals, 1,900 apprentices have disappeared from Tasmanian industry. The biggest loss has taken place in my electorate of Braddon, where there are now 704 fewer apprentices than when the Abbott-Turnbull government was first elected. The trend continues under the Hodgman state government. The skill sector and TAFE have lurched from one crisis to another.

Overall, the amount of federal government support for apprentices, TAFE and VET has been cut by $3 billion under the Liberals. The Abbott-Turnbull government has also abolished the Industry Skills Fund and has dismantled the cooperative approach to skills involving unions, employers and government. When it comes to growing the skills base of Tasmanians, this is simply not good enough. I am pleased that the Tasmanian Labor leader, Rebecca White, has formulated a real plan to deal with the issues at a state level. Tasmanian Labor will establish industry advisory councils to create what is missing—a strong link between industry and education providers. I can tell you from every meeting I have with industry in my electorate that there's no connection between them and education and training.

I know from the work I have been doing as the secretary of Labor's Australian Jobs Taskforce that there is real disconnection between schools, training providers and industries, not just in my state but across the country. The first task of Tasmanian Labor's industry advisory councils will be to conduct industry audits to gain an understanding of what the skills needs are in those various sectors—a very sensible first approach. State Labor will also back business with an apprentice bonus scheme, which state Liberal leader Will Hodgman belatedly copied, of course—it's a good thing when your opponent copies good policy—after sitting on his hands for four years.

At a federal level, Labor's plan for jobs and skills development will see increased investment in TAFE and increase quality traineeships and apprenticeships. Federal Labor will restore the $637 million cut by the Turnbull government from VET funding in the 2017 budget. Federal Labor will make TAFE the centrepiece of our training system by guaranteeing that at least two-thirds of all government VET funding goes to TAFE and by investing $100 million in revitalising campuses across the country. Federal Labor will ensure that one in 10 jobs on all Commonwealth priority projects is for an apprentice. Labor will expand pre-apprenticeship programs for young jobseekers and invest in advanced adult apprenticeships for workers in transition. This side is serious about lifting our skills base and is serious about giving our young people across the country the ability to gain a trade.

If there is one area in my electorate, in Tasmania, that highlights the government's policy failures when it comes to skilled labour, it's of course the agricultural sector, and particularly the horticultural sector. Just last week, along with the member for Bendigo, I met with industry players and heard that the Tasmanian horticultural industry is facing a severe labour shortage. This means that the crop will fall to the ground. I want to put on record my thanks to Mike Badcock from Enchanted Isle Farms for his help in bringing these people together.

The forum heard that, while the industry has just managed with the summer harvest, a much larger workforce is required for the late summer and autumn harvests as apples and pears come on line. The forum highlighted a number of issues, including the backpacker tax—funnily enough; I think the writing was on the wall on that one—and changes to the 88-day second visa requirements. The forum was also told that exploitation by unscrupulous labour hire companies, strip picking versus select picking, and inconsistent piece rates are just some of the contributing factors. There is no consistency among the ways in which farmers secure their labour. Some use labour hire; others, Gumtree; and others, word of mouth, and many just pop up on the doorstep. Without a consistent method of securing labour, farmers are continually struggling to meet their labour needs.

It was pointed out that a lack of support from regional job service providers—we hear this everywhere, and the member for Bendigo mentioned it as well—was another issue, with examples of providers not being connected to local farmers. These farmers should be the clients of these agencies, and they are not, because it's the jobseeker who comes with the money, so they can just tick the box and send them on their way. Some don't even go to the farms and talk to the farmer about what he or she needs. They are just not interested in securing a person capable of doing these jobs.

Another well-made point is that there is a need for the department of employment to gather the empirical data on why young people do not last working in the horticultural sector. They come for a day; they leave; and no-one knows why. What are the barriers put in place for this person in not staying on? That's the information we need to know to help support these industries and young people in our communities.

The overwhelming consensus from the forum is that the agricultural labour supply issues are a mess, created by a series of policy failures. The industry is calling on all levels of government to come together and work collectively to find a solution. Labor is prepared to do that. One outcome from the forum is that the Tasmanian horticultural industry will supply case studies and evidence to support future policy development, and I thank them for that.

Part of this policy solution may include what I consider to be a very valuable suggestion from the forum—that we trial community hubs where potential worker and industry needs can be matched up. It is pretty simple. I'm sure that, with some work on it, it will work. These hubs will potentially remove the middlemen and make it much easier for industry to secure a workforce—whether that is local or backpackers. We understand there is always a need for backpackers.

The Tasmanian industry generally want to engage with all levels of government, but, to date, all they have received from this government is lip-service and an industry-destroying backpacker tax fiasco. After the forum we also met with a local orchardist who told his story of trying to secure labour and what visitors tend to do. I have previously mentioned the disconnect between education and industry as being a contributing factor. A number of speakers at the forum were at pains to point out that there was no encouragement at school for young people to pursue a career in the primary industries sector.

Today I received a real-life example of this situation. I received a copy of a letter written by a young person from my electorate to Costa Group, who have a number of berry farms across my electorate. This young person has been fortunate to receive a North-West Scholarship in Agricultural Science from Costa Group. I want to read into Hansard the last sentences of his letter to Costa Group. He said: 'Your generosity has inspired me further to help others and to give back to the community. I also wish to advocate for change in Tasmanian's secondary education. During my secondary education, I found you were not educated about agriculture in any of the core subjects and did not have the opportunity to study agriculture as an elective.' This young person's letter sums up just how much work is needed to address the labour and skills shortages in our primary industry sector.

The legislation before the House is just one small piece in the jigsaw but a piece that can and should be better. What is needed is a government that has a genuine plan for education and training, a government that has a genuine plan to ensure employers look locally first before employing overseas labour, a government that will genuinely work with industry, unions and key stakeholders to develop the policy solutions that are needed to create decent and secure jobs for Australian workers. I am sad to say that I don't think this current government can deliver that.

11:47 am

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak in this House on something that's incredibly important—the training of Australia's workforce and the rather poor efforts of this government to improve what has been an appalling standard of and commitment to training over the last five years. The member for McPherson, speaking yesterday, summed up the whole problem in one paragraph. I'm going to read a little bit of that and explain why that single paragraph sums up the problem of this government when it comes to training. This is what she said: 'The Turnbull government, in last year's budget, announced the $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund, designed to inject much-needed funds into the apprenticeship space.' When I speak about apprenticeships, I'm talking about Australian apprenticeships, including apprentices and trainees. We know that a lot of work needs to be done just to start to lift us up to the levels we had back in 2012-13. In case anybody doesn't understand what that date is, it's the date Labor lost government and the Liberals won government. Since then, training and apprenticeships have fallen to such an extent that the government now needs to act.

The member for McPherson goes on to talk about the disability sector, for example, and health and ageing as some priority areas where 'we know we need to make sure that we have people who are properly skilled, so the $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund will put a much-needed injection of funding in there to deal with the shortfall in apprentices'. If you don't know the background to this, all you get out of that is that single sentence which says that the numbers have fallen so seriously since they came to government that they now feel the need to act. But what the member for McPherson doesn't say in there is how much money the government have cut, how they have slashed and burned training in this country. They have actually cut $2.8 billion out of skills and training since they came to government. On top of that, last year alone they cut $637 million from TAFE and training and apprenticeships. So we are now in a situation where there are close to 140,000 fewer trainees and apprenticeships than when the Liberals came to government, including 41,000 fewer trade apprentices.

Since Labor lost government and this government got their hands on the training levers, we have seen an extraordinary drop-off in the amount of money that is invested in our workforce and an extraordinary drop-off in the number of apprentices, the number of people actually training in our workplaces. It is really an indictment of this government. At a time when we know that skills are one of the most important determinants of a country's future, at a time when the need for different skills is changing and growing so rapidly, at the very time probably in the last hundred years when you would be least likely to pull money out of training, that's exactly what we've done. We've got small businesses now saying that finding skilled people is one of their biggest problems, and we're seeing businesses bring people in from overseas in record numbers. This is entirely in the government's lap. This is entirely the result of this government's policy. And now we see a bit of a bandaid.

There are some good things in this legislation. The government are increasing the levy that businesses pay when they bring in an overseas worker, but they are only increasing it by $10 a week—hardly enough to dramatically change the behaviour of businesses in the decisions they make about whether or not to bring people in from overseas. But it still shows no real commitment. For a start, they are not even beginning to undo the damage they have done—not in any way. It's such a small amount of money relative to the damage they've already done. The money itself also depends on overseas visas. It essentially comes from there. There's $1.47 billion in the budget papers, which the member for McPherson calls $1.5 billion, with $1.2 billion of that coming from these training contribution charges and about $261 million coming from government funds to tide the program over until the fees start to be collected in March 2018. So, really, the small amount that they are contributing comes from bringing in skilled migrants. If that number falls because the training miraculously improves—unlikely—we would then see that amount of money shrink again. So the training actually comes from the bringing in of overseas workers. It's a strange sort of reliance between the amount of money we have to train and the number of people that are being brought in from overseas. It's too little and it should have been addressed quite some time ago.

On this side of the House, we've been talking about skills shortages since we lost government. Since the first cuts came through, people on this side of the House that care passionately about skills have been talking about TAFE, have been talking about our vocational education and training system. We were talking about it while we saw it go into freefall with the rorts in the vocational education system, with colleges that had virtually no graduates—no graduates at all—in spite of receiving millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. We have been talking about it—we on this side have been yelling about it—

Mr Giles interjecting

Yes, the member for Cunningham has been incredibly vocal on this, but so have industry groups, so have our TAFEs, so have people in my community. People all around the country have been yelling at this government, asking them to do something, and this is too little and much, much too late.

The biggest concern for me is that this approach by the government has no real commitment to labour testing. In my community, where about 60 per cent of people were born overseas, I have people coming into my office who have come to Australia from elsewhere—they have come from India, Malaysia, Africa, you name it. They have come with skills. They have come as skilled migrants, and they have watched other people from their first homeland come into Parramatta on skilled visas, with no better skills than theirs, and occupy the jobs that they could have got. My Indian Australians in the workplace know who's an Indian Australian and who's a foreign worker, and they're two different things. My Indian Australians work here. They came to Australia to settle. They have families here. This is where they live. This is where their commitment is for the rest of their life and their children's lives. Yet they are being squeezed out of the labour market now by people with no better skills who come in on temporary visas. And this doesn't happen just occasionally. This is a common story now that I hear in my electorate.

So the commitment to labour testing—making sure that, in order for a business to bring in a worker from overseas, they have tried to find an Australian first—actually matters. I doubt that there's anybody out there, other than the people on the government benches and a few businesses who seek to exploit foreign workers, who wouldn't agree with me. We need Australians to work, we need our young people to know that they can and, in order to ensure that, we need to make sure that we have proper market testing.

The ACTU released some interesting figures lately that say that 10 per cent of the Australian labour force are on temporary working visas. That's extraordinary. So I would say to people that, when the government stand up here and talk about the number of jobs they've created in the last year, you have to ask them how many jobs they've created for Australians, or whether the slack nature of the market testing means that many of those jobs are filled by people who do not have better skills than Australians, but those jobs are in companies that didn't bother to make sure there wasn't an Australian available first.

The proper market testing in Labor's policy gives a real indication of just how serious this is. I'm going to read Labor's market testing requirements, which were put forward in our private member's bill Migration Amendment (Putting Local Workers First) Bill, back in 2016. When I read these to you, you'll think, 'What? That isn't already the case?' Because it's not. There will be a mandatory requirement for all jobs to be advertised as part of labour market testing obligations, a requirement that jobs be advertised for a minimum of four weeks, a requirement for labour market testing to have been conducted no more than four months before the nomination of a 457 visa worker and—the fact that you even have to put this next one in, but you do, because this is what is actually happening—a ban on job advertisements that target only overseas workers or specified visa class workers to the exclusion of Australian citizens and permanent residents. In other words, Labor believes that you should have to advertise to Australians—that it's not okay to place ads where Australians don't see them. It's not okay to do that. It's not okay to say, 'Only people on 457s may apply.' The government thinks it's okay to do that. The government isn't interested in ensuring that Australians get the first crack at jobs.

We also require a crackdown on job ads that set unrealistic and unwarranted skills and experience requirements for vacant positions with the effect of excluding otherwise suitable applicants, because we know that's happening too. So that's Labor's policy. But, in this bill in front of us and the government's approach to this, labour market testing is not strict enough. They do not have a commitment to ensuring that Australians get the jobs first.

In my electorate, that is incredibly important. Those in my electorate come from all over the world. They bring skills from all over the world. They bring language skills, they bring knowledge of culture, they bring flexibility, they bring an ability to span more than one cultural norm. They are incredibly valuable workers, and we can see that in the fact that there are now head offices and regional offices of some of the big accounting firms moving in. You can see the big companies starting to move into Western Sydney because they want its labour force. But, in spite of that, we have far too many—far too many—people who are unemployed.

Parramatta's unemployment rate in the 2016 census was 2.5 per cent higher than the average in Sydney and 1.5 per cent higher than the national average. So we have a high unemployment rate and many, many skilled people in my community that should be in work can't get in. They tell me of labour hire companies that are being used to fill vacant positions in some of the companies in the area, and that those labour hire companies only employ overseas workers. They recruit overseas, they do not recruit locally—and this government thinks that's okay. This government, the Abbott-Turnbull government, is not prepared to stand up for Australian workers when it comes to market testing.

Youth unemployment in some areas of Parramatta can reach over 50 per cent. In the south of my electorate, according to the social atlas commissioned by the Parramatta City Council, there are areas with over 50 per cent youth unemployment. That's not okay, and it's not okay that you say to those Australians: 'We don't require businesses to look at you first. We don't require businesses to train you.' It's not okay that the government has cut $2.8 billion out of the training budget and left so many of those young people without the opportunity to gain skills.

We also have a situation in Parramatta where we're already seeing the effect of that slash and burn in training, with fewer and fewer people doing diplomas and certificates in vocational training places. We're already below the national average by five per cent for cert III, and that is a direct result of this government's incompetence in managing the vocational education system when we saw it in freefall due to the rorts and ripping off of taxpayers' money by various training companies, who were taking money and not providing the training. When I'm doorknocking in some of the areas in the south of the electorate, I'm finding people who were enrolled in courses without their knowledge—incredible rip-offs. This government was so slow to act, just as it has been slow to react on the reduction in apprentice numbers. There are 1,111 fewer apprentices in Parramatta now than there were when we lost government in 2013. It is shameful. Areas like Granville South have seen people dropping out of school before year 9 at rates five per cent above the Sydney average.

Again, what have the government done to give young people the idea that there is actually a place for them in the work force and a training path for them? They have hacked away at our training system, cut $2.8 billion and sat silent and inactive while our vocational education system went through the floor in terms of its standards and quality. Now what we've got is a bandaid solution that does not actually deal with the issues. There is insufficient money and commitment to training, and there is insufficient genuine commitment to market testing that ensures that Australians get a first crack at a job when it becomes available—that Australians get a job and Australian families get the first crack. These labour hire companies that only recruit overseas should not exist here. There should be no job given to an overseas worker unless we have sought an Australian first. It is a bandaid solution, not good enough, and you will be condemned.

12:02 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Preventing Family Violence) Share this | | Hansard source

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, training and skills shortages are a significant issue in this country and they have been for many years. In fact, I remember about a decade ago holding a policy consultation in Emerald, which, as people will know, is a town quite near Gladstone in Central Queensland. There was a lot of talk at the time about the resources boom and what might be done to ensure that we would have the skills needed for the jobs that existed then and the jobs that would, people hoped, exist in the future. People came to that consultation from a lot of different places. Some of them drove for many hours to be there to raise their concerns that they had then about the use of guest workers, the failure to train people, big firms' failure to invest in training people, and big firms assuming that small business would undertake the training and then poaching people once they'd completed their apprenticeships and traineeships.

It was clear then, as it's clear now, that the training system that we have in this country needs a lot of work. When I say it's also clear now, one example that was given by the member for Parramatta is the drop in apprenticeships since this government was elected. It's the same in my electorate, where apprenticeships have fallen through the floor. They've dropped by about a third since this Liberal government was elected back in 2013.

So I think we would all agree that what this country needs to do is to work on the issue that we're facing, which is that we don't have enough apprentices or trainees being trained, employers aren't necessarily investing in training people to the extent that we would all like, and vocational education has been underfunded for a very long time now.

That's why it's important to acknowledge that the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017, which seeks to impose a training levy on those employers who use guest workers, temporary skilled migrants, will make a contribution to apprenticeships and training in this country. It's something that a number of people, including me, have called for in the past, saying that, if you are going to benefit from the fact that, for specific skills shortages purposes, we will allow into this country temporary skilled migrants, then you ought to make a contribution to our community in return for that benefit, and the contribution should be in the form of training new people for the jobs that exist now and the jobs that will exist in the future.

The corollary to that is that, if we want to be serious as a nation about saying that temporary skilled migration is for skills shortages, then we need to be confident that temporary skilled migration is actually being used for that purpose and not for other purposes. I'm sure you will have heard, as I have heard, from people who say that on worksites where they're working there are people on 417 or 457 visas working next to them, doing the same sorts of work that they're doing, while at the same time there are people in our community who live here, who are permanent residents or citizens, who are unable to get that sort of work. We need to stop this.

Temporary skilled migration should be for the purpose of filling temporary skills shortages. That means that, firstly, before we have employers hiring temporary skilled migrants—people on 457 visas particularly—they should have to be absolutely prudent and confident in ensuring that there are not Australian citizens or permanent residents with those qualifications who would be suitable for the work. In other words, labour market testing is very important.

Secondly, we must do what we can to ensure that skills shortages are genuinely temporary. The point of temporary skilled migration is not to obviate the need to train for the future; in fact, it emphasises the need to train for the future. If the use of temporary skilled migration is an admission that we do not have sufficient skilled workers in Australia to undertake certain jobs, certain roles and certain functions, then that is a clear signal that we need to train people now to develop those skills so that they can fill those jobs. It's not enough to look at the importance of labour market testing when you talk about skilled migration. You cannot talk about temporary skilled migration without also being committed to training to end the skills shortage.

We know that we hear from employers from across all industries in respect of skills shortages from time to time and to varying degrees. I've certainly spoken to people in the oil and gas industry, for example, who are frustrated when they can't necessarily obtain the local skilled labour that they're looking for in relation to specific types of work. You hear that in all sorts of occupations—in construction and in other occupations as well—and I've certainly got a lot of people in my electorate who are here on temporary skilled visas.

The fact that everyone is talking about these skills shortages should be a very clear signal to government that there needs to be serious investment in training. We need to be training people for the jobs now and the jobs of the future. That should also be made clear by levels of youth unemployment, not just in my electorate, where it is usually in double digits, but in more regional areas and more remote areas such as Far North Queensland, where youth unemployment can be up around the 20 to 25 per cent mark. It is an absolute indictment on this country when we have regions in which youth unemployment is so high, and at the same time we still have such a large temporary skilled migration program.

For those reasons, I want to make a couple of observations about the bill in respect of labour market testing, and I want to make some observations in respect of the investment in training that's needed in this country. Firstly, in respect of labour market testing, Labor wants genuine labour market testing. We do not want a box that can be ticked so that you can say, 'Yes, I've certainly looked around, and, sure, there are definitely no Australian workers that can do this.' We don't want a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise that can be easily undermined; we want genuine labour market testing.

The reason that we want genuine labour market testing is that Australian Labor wants to put local workers first. Australian Labor wants to put local workers first. Not only can you see our commitment to that from the responses that we're making to the bill that we're discussing today but you can see that in the private member's bill that Australian Labor have moved in this parliament; you can see it in the policies that we took to the last election; and you can see it in the policies that people like the shadow minister, the member for Gorton, and the Leader of the Opposition have been announcing.

We are concerned that the labour market testing obligations under this legislation are insufficient, will not be genuine and will not lead to employers being forced to offer employment to Australians first where there are suitable Australians ready, willing and able to do the job. That's all we ask for: that locals be given that opportunity. If you've got a suitable person in the community who doesn't have a job, then they should get it before you start to import people from overseas.

The second thing I wanted to say about labour market testing is that, whenever we have raised concerns about international agreements that have eroded labour market testing, the epithets hurled across the chamber towards us that we're somehow against free trade for doing so are completely unreasonable. We will never make any apologies for standing up for labour market testing. We of course want to see international trade. Of course we do; it's incredibly beneficial for the community. But the support of international trade is not something that requires you to be uncritical about the provisions of bills that you feel are not sufficiently respecting the interests and rights of Australians, including Australian workers.

In saying this, I wanted to make the very clear point that labour market testing remains important to avoid the misuse of temporary skilled migration, and I don't want to see the misuse of temporary skilled migration. Temporary skilled migrants are vulnerable compared to Australian workers. They're at risk, if they lose their job, of having to return home. That, of course, puts them in a slightly different power dynamic to the power dynamic that Australian workers have. The consequence of them having less power vis-a-vis their employer compared with Australian workers is that they may be less willing to stand up for themselves. They may be more prone to vulnerability and exploitation.

I've spoken here before about a former client of mine who was a temporary skilled migrant who was expected to work unpaid overtime. He actually stood up for himself, and the consequence for him ultimately was that he prevailed, but in the meantime he had to go back home because falling out with the company meant that they left him in a situation where he was no longer eligible to hold the visa. Ultimately he prevailed, as I said, but not all temporary skilled migrants are so lucky. They are vulnerable compared to Australian workers, so we do need to be very careful before we start to increase the numbers of temporary skilled migrants.

Their vulnerability doesn't just affect them, of course. They may be less willing to stand up for strong pay and conditions. And in a nation like ours where we have incredibly weak wages growth—in fact, the lowest levels of wages growth since we started keeping the wage price index in 1997—the last thing we want to do is have a workforce that feels too cowed and too weak to stand up for better wages and conditions. So it is important that we remember, when we're using temporary skilled migrants, whether they are 417 or 457 visa holders, that they may be less powerful and therefore may be more prone to accepting lesser wages and conditions and to voting in enterprise bargaining ballots for conditions that may be less appropriate or less generous than might be voted for by Australian workers.

I also said I wanted to say something about investment in training. As I said, the use of temporary skilled migration implies that there is a temporary skills shortage. If we want the skills shortage to be temporary and not permanent, the way to deal with that is to invest in training. Investing in training is important not just for Australian businesses, to ensure that they will not face skills shortages in the future, but also for Australians more broadly, because people who are in the workforce now do not want to have to be in a situation where companies might avoid labour market testing or comply with weak labour market testing requirements and, therefore, seek to hire temporary skilled migrants rather than local workers. It's also important for young people who are looking into the future and thinking about what they might want to do. It's important for them that there be training opportunities. That means investing in training.

When you look at the funding of vocational education in this country, the erosion of public funding for TAFE, the attractiveness of trades training, the fact that, for example, this government cut funds to trades training centres in schools so that very few of them, particularly in my electorate, actually have trades training centres, it's no surprise to anyone that the message that is sent about training is that it's something that is not particularly attractive to young people. That's the last thing we need.

We need training to have the same status as university education. That means we need to invest in training. When I say that, I don't mean that middle-class kids should go to uni and working-class kids should go into training. That's the opposite of what I mean. If training had the same status then a kid with a great academic record at an elite private school would be equally attracted to the trades as to academia. We're seeing more and more people doing both vocational and higher education. If we can make our trades more attractive, including by investing in training, that will open up more and more interesting career paths for the kids today who are looking around and trying to make a decision about what to do. That's really important, because as an economy we don't want skills shortages that will lead to distortions in the way that firms operate, but as a nation we want our citizens to have every opportunity available to them into the future.

While I welcome the levy being discussed in this legislation, it's not enough to say, 'We're going to start this Skilling Australians Fund using the levy.' It's a good start. I don't oppose the levy; I support the levy. It's something I've previously called for myself as many as 10 years ago—I started this speech by talking about a policy consultation I held back in Emerald about a decade ago—but it's just not enough. We seriously need to invest in training. We need to get TAFEs up to scratch. We need investment in public TAFE. We need skills focused training that looks, as best we can, at what changes might happen in the future, what industries might exist in the future and what skills people might need for those future industries and future jobs. We need to make sure that training is directed towards those things.

There are some great things happening in training. It is not all doom and gloom. In my home state of Queensland people like Construction Skills Queensland, Electrical Skills Queensland and Industry Training Queensland are doing some absolutely fantastic training work. A range of training bodies have been set up in a tripartite partnership between government, industry and unions representing the workforce within those sectors. Good work is being done. The resources states, particularly my state, are facing challenges as the resources boom winds down. About 10,000 people were working to construct Curtis Island. It's now constructed, and you need only a few hundred people to operate an LNG plant like that. We have a lot of people who need to look at what their skills can evolve into. I suggest that, if there is funding in this fund, my state of Queensland would be a very good place to look at for the expenditure of that funding. I'm sure you may have a slightly different view, Mr Deputy Speaker Hastie, being a Western Australian. Regardless of what happens, this is a start but is so far from being enough. We need to invest more in training, we need to support the futures of our kids and we need to support the future of our economy.

12:18 pm

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy) Share this | | Hansard source

One industry sector in this country is paying particularly close attention to this debate and the broader policy development occurring in this area. It's our local tech sector, which provides a lot of jobs for a lot of young talent and is generating a lot of wealth for the country, but is also confronted with the fact that skills shortages are holding back their further growth and their ability to meet the needs of so many other firms that are reliant on either the innovations they produce or the support they are able to provide, bearing in mind that tech is a massive enabler of industry. We all feel it as well. Every single member of this place is loaded up with so many items of equipment: phones, iPads, laptops, desktops. All the people that work with those MPs are reliant on technology solutions to do their jobs. All the people employed within the Australian parliament—not just the hardware but the brains behind it—to support them to meet the needs of business and government, shows that this is massive. You need talented people to make that happen.

We have had estimates produced about the likely shortfall in the number of people required versus the number of people being produced, and one suggestion is that we will be 100,00 short in the number of people required in the ICT space to meet the demands of local industry. So, it's two things; it's not just the support that's provided at the moment but, importantly, the brains that are used to help drive growth within early-stage innovation companies, particularly. Having those people available is crucial for them when they have a concept and need a tech solution to help create the bridge from where they are at the moment as a concept to it becoming a reality.

This is not a new thing. These skills shortages have been known about for many years. It has been well understood that the inability to access talent is, I would dare say, holding the Australian economy back. Just in the last few months we've had people who are closely tied to innovation in this country raising again their concerns about some of the problems that we're facing. Someone I've got a lot of time for is Bill Bartee, who runs the government's own $200 million CSIRO Innovation Fund Main Sequence Ventures, who stated:

If you look at the number of computer science graduates coming out of universities it is actually declining and half of them are foreign nationals who are going to leave the country. So we have a declining population of developers and engineers at a time when we need them more than ever.

Bill Bartee has been involved in supporting innovation in this country for many, many years.

I too have been speaking up for the sector by saying that we need to focus more on this, because I believe it is choking the local tech sector. It is holding back the digital economy. Skills shortages are preventing us from being able to reach our full potential. I emphasise that this has been known for a while. We're not producing enough graduates. There are concerns about the quality of graduates being produced. The ones who do get produced get poached by overseas firms. The ones that do remain are in high demand and, given that high demand, they are rightly asking for better remuneration outcomes, which drives up costs for business. A number of different proposals were put many years ago, some of which are now being embraced by our competitors—for instance, creating ICT digital traineeships, providing a vocational pathway and a vocational entry point for people to enter the tech sector and get involved. That was proposed in the Australian context nearly five years ago now. This type of thing has been put forward because people know that we need to find not only tertiary sources, from our universities, sources of people who can provide talent, but also vocational pathways. Now we see, in the UK for instance, major tech companies and players opening up those vocational pathways.

What's being done here? Not much. In regard to digital traineeships, it is very hard to see much evidence that a lot is being done to provide young people in this country with a pathway into the sector, so there's this whole pressure building up locally. It's been known about for a long time, but not much is being done. Bizarrely, we have a government—this government—cutting investment in schools, in TAFEs and in universities at a time when we need greater generation of talent. The answer that you would assume would help in part to alleviate this is not being done, so you have this as well. Then what happens? In this environment, last year the government suddenly decided that it will cut, through these rushed changes to the 457 visa arrangements, the only other pathway for getting talent into the local sector.

We need to find a way to generate jobs for locals. But, if we're not doing enough to generate the skills to fill those jobs and then we make changes to the way in which these firms, who are hard pressed to find anyone, fill those roles and we suddenly turn off the tap, what's supposed to happen? Are these firms supposed to be told: 'We just expect you to wither on the vine. We expect you to be choked of talent. If you can't find anyone locally, tough'? This is exactly what happened last year.

Atlassian is a massive success story for Australia. It originated here in this country and is now spreading and is being recognised all over the world as successful. It's an Australian success story. When local players and local tech firms, like Atlassian, say to the government, 'Changing these visas will affect us and the broader sector badly,' Peter Dutton, the immigration minister, doesn't listen to what's being said. In the classic hit-first-think-later response, he chips Atlassian for having the temerity to raise their concerns about a legitimate problem. He said that Atlassian should focus on hiring more local people. Well, Atlassian have done just that. They have an active program of recruitment to bring in locals to be able to fill local jobs. They support people locally.

One of their founders, Scott Farquhar, is a great Western Sydney success story. He emerged out of Western Sydney and has now been involved in this fantastic company. He is part of a firm that invests in skilling up, particularly low-income countries. He also invests in local skills development to ensure that young people are ready for the jobs of the future. They hire people locally as much as they can and they invest in skills development through their foundation, and then they are told off by the immigration minister, who says, 'Do more.' Scott Farquhar rightly pointed out:

The Australian government has gone a long way towards damaging our reputation as a place that people want to come and work globally.

…   …   …

Even before these new ideas have become law, the sentiment that the government has sent globally is that they are almost shouting out that Australia is closed for business.

We cannot have a situation where the government cuts funds to skill up Australians, does not provide enough support in schools, vocational education and university education and then suddenly decides it will cut off any other source of talent from overseas to be brought into these firms. The government then tells the firms to, effectively, shut up and not complain about it and to hire more locals, when it is not doing the heavy lifting in terms of skills development. It's an outrage. You can understand why people are upset.

The government has talked a lot in fits and starts about innovation. When it wants to get positive media coverage, the government manages somehow to find a report that it can release and says it's committed to innovation, but it actually doesn't do the things in a meaningful, tangible, concrete way to support innovation in this country. The government believes innovation is generated one report at a time, rather than through long-term investments in people that will ensure our country is a smarter country and a country that does things smarter, has a much more efficient economy and generates long-term jobs. That is not the stuff of press releases; it is the stuff of policy. The commitment is there for a longer period of time than the fleeting moment of a tweet. This is where we need to invest real dollars long term to build up local skills and determine how we can bring in people to help work with local talent to build up the broader sector. That's what's completely missing from the government's agenda.

I rate the skill shortages that are affecting the tech sector as the biggest issue confronting that sector right now in this country. We know that automation and technological change are going to have a big impact on the world of work in the longer term and that the jobs people are currently performing are likely to be radically transformed. The race is on to skill up our people so that we have a bridge to take them from their jobs now to new jobs that emerge, so that they're ready for that process. On our side of politics, we are acutely aware of this. It is why we are so focused on this; it is why we intend to set up a particular portfolio relating to the future of work. We recognise that we need to be prepared. People's jobs, as I said, are going to be changed by technology. The jobs they're performing today may not be there tomorrow. New jobs will open up; we need to get people ready. Being able to address the types of things that are required for this sector means that not only young people get skilled up for it but also people in the workforce at the moment who want to get new skills. We need to have some ability to do that.

Our vocational sector is the prime supporter and enabler of that. It should be increasingly seen as the mechanism that will be used when people in workplaces affected by technological change need to get new skills. We must have our vocational sector, our TAFE sector, there at the ready to help people and to help industry with employer-run training to help their workforces, the people who work for those companies, get ready. This is the stuff that's required. But if the government aren't making the investment, aren't making the changes necessary to skill people up, and then suddenly make these rushed changes that they're doing, then they basically put the handbrake on particular sectors like this, like the tech sector, from getting the job done. And it is simply staggering that they would be prepared to tell local firms: 'Just starve yourselves. Don't do your work, because we're not investing in education and we're making these hurried changes.'

It's really Labor that have been pushing the agenda to ensure that we skill up people locally, that we give them opportunities to perform and that we keep a close eye on 457s schemes so that they are not abused and do not deny locals the ability to get the work that they richly deserve. We need to do all this sensibly, not in a rushed or hurried way but with an eye to meeting the needs of companies and workers now, as well as looking after them into the future. Again, Labor have very deep concerns about what has been done previously by the government, and we trust that they will act properly, responsibly and accordingly in the future.

12:32 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Medicare) Share this | | Hansard source

In speaking on the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017, I speak in support of the amendment moved on behalf of Labor by the member for Blair. This legislation is a dismal response by the Turnbull government to what has become a very serious problem for Australia, which will become an even greater problem in the future if it continues to be mismanaged. I refer to the situation that Australia currently has where around three-quarters of a million people are unemployed and more than one million people are underemployed, but overseas workers are still coming into Australia to fill jobs that could be filled by locals. It's an absurd situation to be in.

Of course the simplistic response is that the local unemployed are not suitably skilled for the jobs listed, but I have real doubts about that. It's true that as a result of flawed and short-sighted government policies over many years Australia has been left with a shortage of skills in many vocations. There were years of shonky 'skills-training' organisations rorting the system and producing very few properly skilled people for the jobs where genuine skill shortages existed. The sell-off at state and federal levels of government-operated utilities and workshops in building, construction, electricity, transport and other areas, which were once where most of Australia's apprentices were trained, also saw a marked drop in apprenticeship training across Australia. The private entities that took over those entities and those responsibilities did not continue to employ the apprentices as did the governments when they were responsible for them.

The skills shortage then created an opportunity for unethical migration agents and employers to exploit the 457 visa process and bring in cheap labour from overseas or labour from high unemployment countries. Over the last five years, the Turnbull government has also slashed skills funding to TAFE by $2.8 billion, including a $637 million cut in last year's budget alone. Not surprisingly, there are now around 140,000 fewer trainees and apprenticeships than there were five years ago when this government came into office.

Communities understandably expect that, when jobs become available, priority should be given to Australians looking for work. They also understand that, from time to time, overseas workers with specific skills may be needed. That's why a labour market testing process was made a prerequisite to the import of overseas workers. But that very process of labour market testing has been rorted. What has been happening is that workers have been brought in under a claimed skills shortage application, but when they get here they're actually employed in another area of industry, in another area of the business that brought them in, where indeed there was no shortage. I have known of cases where workers in a particular area also managed to get colleagues from the country from which they came here to Australia under the same rorting of the system—a combination of rorting by the employers and by the migration agents. Not only were the labour market testing provisions being rorted or circumvented; but the coalition government entered into free trade agreements that specifically excluded labour market testing with China, South Korea and Japan. Now we have the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement being negotiated where countries like Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam may also have exclusions within that agreement with respect to labour market provisions.

The government's commitment to labour market testing is indeed shallow. It's very easy to understand that, however, because it fits in with the coalition government's ideology and its agenda—an agenda which wants to keep wages down and to weaken unions. Bringing in workers from overseas enables the government to put pressure on wages in Australia and ensure that they do remain down, because, as we all know, workers from overseas are prepared to work for lower wages because most of their money goes back to the countries they came from. And in their countries, even lower wages represent a good income for them and their families, so they will be prepared to make that sacrifice and come to Australia. I totally understand that, and I do not criticise them for doing that, but that is the reality of the situation. In turn, it means that, if they are prepared to work for lower wages, employers will offer the jobs to them ahead of offering the jobs to the Australians who apply for the jobs and are suitably qualified to do them but who will not get them because they will have to be paid the full rate of Australian wages.

We also know—and I have had discussions with people with respect to this matter—that when people come over here from overseas, even if they are being paid lower wages and even if they are being exploited, they are less likely to go to the authorities and make complaints or raise concerns about what is happening to them, because they know that, if they do, they will lose their job. They would rather have their job than do that, and again that's something that seriously concerns me. The other matter is, of course, that whilst that is all happening and the jobs are going to people from overseas, we know full well that those people are very likely not to become union members. The union members lose their jobs, and again that's an indirect attack on the unions, which this government is renowned for.

The labour-market-testing provisions in this legislation also give me real concerns. I'm not surprised that the labour-market-testing provisions in this legislation give the immigration minister new powers, which ministers in the past have not had, to prescribe by legislative instrument how the testing will be done. But the minister wants the legislative instrument, which is effectively a law of parliament, to be exempt from disallowance—unlike all other legislative instruments or regulations that come before this parliament, which can be disallowed. The minister wants to deny parliament its right to approve or disapprove what are effectively the laws of this land. This is a minister who is getting carried away with his self-importance and his authority.

I contrast that with federal Labor's approach. If Labor is elected, a new independent labour-market-testing body, which will be known as the Australian Skills Authority, will be established. That body will work with all of the stakeholders—employers, union organisations, training organisations and the like—to establish not only the list of skills shortages that occur or skills that are needed in Australia but also how the labour-market-testing provisions might apply. It will assist the government in an independent way in managing what is often a complex matter. That's what should be done rather than saying, 'We have a minister who knows everything, and he's the expert, and we will trust his judgement about what we should and should not do.' Even if it were the case that the minister felt that he did know everything, and the parliament had confidence in the minister, once legislation is enacted it's enacted for all future ministers as well. I believe that giving any minister this kind of authority is the wrong course to go on.

Put simply, this legislation imposes a fee of around $10 a week on foreign workers, paid for by their employer, with the money collected then going into a Skilling Australians Fund. This is the Turnbull government's miserly commitment to skills training in Australia. A fund will be established, at the rate of about $10 a week for each employee that comes in from overseas, that will be used to train the rest of Australia and meet the skilling needs of the rest of Australia. The problem with that is twofold. Firstly, the fund will never be sufficient to meet all the skilling and training requirements of Australian young people and others that want to be skilled. Secondly, it creates a situation where the government is dependent on bringing in foreign workers in order to fund the program that is then going to be used to skill up the rest of the nation. It's a contradiction, and it creates a dependence for the government to continue to do what we all know is wrong. I also point out that I have no doubt that the $10 a week will ultimately come out of the pockets of the workers who come here; I am sure most employers will find a way of doing that.

The new skills shortage list that the government has produced and touted as the government's clampdown on 457 visa rorting is more spin than substance. I will make some specific comments about that in respect of the medical profession and the recruitment of overseas doctors over recent years. It all began with the medical profession limiting the number of university places for medical students. That created a genuine shortage—there is no question about that—which triggered an influx of overseas doctors and overseas medical students training in Australia then getting work here. They filled a gap and provided necessary medical services, particularly in regional, rural and remote Australia. Indeed, the AMA believes that around 40 per cent of the doctors working in regional, rural and remote Australia are overseas medical doctors—that is, they either come from overseas or they came to study here from overseas and then got work here. On my figures—and I stand to be corrected—that means we have about 7,000 doctors working in regional, rural and remote Australia who are working under our visa program, which enabled them to do so because there was supposedly a shortage in the bush—and there was. Universities then opened up extra medical places, and new universities also came on board with new medical training skills. I understand that there are some 22 universities across Australia today that now provide medical training.

Now the medical profession is saying that Australia is heading towards an oversupply of doctors, and we no longer need overseas doctors coming into Australia. Yet there is still a shortage of doctors in the bush, and so the government has resisted calls by the medical profession to limit the entry of overseas doctors. What is the government's solution to what is clearly a dilemma for it? The government doesn't have one and just muddles along, hoping that the problem might one day go away and solve itself. Well, it won't, and it's a serious problem because it affects the health quality of people in regional, rural and remote Australia.

In closing, I say this is important legislation. It's important legislation because it goes to the heart of managing the workforce needs of Australia now and into future. It's important legislation because it deals with and tries to address the very important issue of skilling up our workforce for the future needs of this country. It's about supporting families that already live in this country and are struggling to find work—or find more work if they are underemployed. It's a case of building the Australian economy through having a competent workforce that can actually innovate and deal with issues that emerge and that will continue to emerge in the future. But the simplistic answer of this government is a miserly change to the 457 visa program which will be grossly inadequate to adjust and meet the future needs of this country. That's why the amendment moved by the member for Blair should be supported.

12:47 pm

Photo of Alan TudgeAlan Tudge (Aston, Liberal Party, Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to sum up the debate and, in doing so, I thank all the speakers from both sides of the chamber for their contributions to the debate on these two bills, which we are debating concurrently: the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017, as well as the Migration (Skilling Australians Fund) Charges Bill 2017.

As members are aware, these two bills collectively introduce a training contribution charge, known as the SAF levy, which is a critical element of the reforms to sponsored skill migration in this country to ensure Australian workers are given first priority for jobs. The revenue collected, in essence from the sponsoring business of the short-term skilled visas, will be going into a new fund called the Skilling Australians Fund. The idea behind collecting this revenue and putting it into this fund is that that training fund will then be used to go towards precisely the training in the areas where we need further skills so that, in the future, we hope, businesses will no longer need to bring in as many foreign workers to fill the gaps that exist presently. We estimate that about $1.2 billion will be raised in this fund, and that will support an estimated 300,000 apprenticeships and traineeships over the forward estimates. So it's a very significant amount of money which we forecast will be raised and a very significant contribution to the upskilling of Australians in order to ensure that they can fill the jobs of the future.

The bill also amends the act so that the minister may determine the manner in which labour market testing must be conducted. This enhanced labour market testing will ensure employers are first providing Australians with the opportunity of a job before they seek to bring in workers from overseas. The bill also amends the act to formalise the current practices of accepting nominations for temporary overseas skilled workers by businesses that have applied to be a sponsor or entered into negotiations for a labour agreement rather than awaiting the outcome of that process.

The bills complement the other 457 visa changes we are making—very significant changes, which we announced last April. The overall objective of these changes is to ensure that, as much as humanly possible, Australian workers get the first opportunity to get Australian jobs. Of course, there will be cases where there are no Australian workers able to do those jobs, so we still need a system for businesses to be able to fill those particular positions by bringing some skilled people into the country on a short-term basis.

We were concerned previously that there were problems in the 457 visa category. We have addressed those problems by making significant changes. We have had wave 1 of the reforms already, which, for example, involved reducing the number of occupations on the skills shortages list from 651 down to 461. We have introduced two lists: one for very short term skills shortages, for two years, and the other for medium and longer term skills shortages. We have already introduced new integrity measures, and next month, from 1 March, we'll be introducing the next wave of reforms in relation to the 457 visa process. We are doing so in order to ensure that Australians have the best chance of getting those Australian jobs.

I just want to reflect on a couple of the points the shadow minister and other Labor members have raised, including reflecting on the amendment they're foreshadowing. In essence, they are saying—and it is even in the amendment they have foreshadowed—that the government has failed to protect local jobs. I find this astounding. If they are criticising us for failing to protect Australian jobs, clearly the shadow minister is not up to date on what is going on in the Australian economy today. For the benefit of members opposite I'd just like to go through a few key facts that show how well we are doing in ensuring that Australians are getting jobs. The first point is that in the last 12 months alone 400,000 jobs have been created in the economy, three-quarters of which are full-time jobs. That is a record for the number of jobs ever created in this country—400,000 jobs were created in this country.

The second point I would make relates to this, and it was in part due to the good work of Minister Porter, who is sitting beside me in the chamber. It is that the number of people on unemployment benefits or on working-age welfare payments is at its lowest level in 25 years. The number of people on working-age payments has dropped by 140,000 while we've been in government, whereas it actually went up by 250,000 when Labor was in government.

I have talked about the new jobs created and I have just mentioned that, as a process of that, we have the smallest proportion of people on welfare we've had for 25 years. The third element of that, which goes directly to the bill we are discussing today, is that we've done this at the same time that the number of people coming out on 457 visas has actually dropped significantly. So it's quite an incredible trifecta that we can have more jobs being created, fewer people on welfare and fewer overseas workers coming in and being needed to fill the gaps. That's a good outcome overall for Australian workers.

The contrast is stark when we compare it with what occurred under the previous government, where the welfare queues went up, where job creation was lower and where we had a record number of people coming in on 457 visas. While the welfare queues were going up, they were bringing in a record number of people on 457 visas. That's why we are so strongly saying that the amendment they're proposing is so fundamentally flawed and so fundamentally wrong.

This government has done very, very well at job creation. We've still got more work to do. We've done very well at reducing the number of people on welfare—we still have more work to do—and we've done well at ensuring that Australians get the first opportunity for those jobs before we need to introduce people from overseas to fill the gaps.

I once again say thank you for the contributions of people to this House. I hope the members opposite will reflect on the trifecta which I've just outlined in terms of job creation, fewer people on welfare and fewer people from overseas coming into this country. It is something that we can all be justifiably proud of because it means that more Australians are getting good jobs in this country and they are more secure jobs.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Blair has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. Therefore, the immediate question is that the amendment be agreed to.