House debates

Wednesday, 10 June 2020


National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020; Second Reading

4:46 pm

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Sydney 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 as: that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a former apprentice, I know firsthand about education and the vocational education system and just how important it is to young people. It serves a vital part of our overall education system. I'm on the record as saying that not everybody, particularly in my electorate, needs an arts degree to get a job. In fact, the most successful people I know are self-made entrepreneurs who have come through the VET system. During this critical period of unprecedented disruption in the labour market, a vibrant VET sector will further improve our capacity to grow, to compete and to thrive in a global community.

The National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 will establish a new statutory position, the National Skills Commissioner, and specify the functions for that commissioner. The commissioner will provide independent expert advice and national leadership on the Australian labour market. Further, the position will review current and future skills needs and workforce development issues. This role could not be more timely as we address the critical challenges of managing the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the outbreak, Tasmania was bucking the trend when it came to the VET sector. Our state had 5,525 apprentices and trainees commence work in the 12 months ending 30 June 2019, up 9.7 per cent from the same point last year. Importantly, we've seen a continued increase in the number of females taking up a trade or an apprenticeship, with a 10.4 per cent increase on the year before.

Only last week, I caught up with a group of young people from the region. They are at different places in their careers and at different stages in their lives in the vocational sector, but they are all benefiting from the federal government's assistance and the importance that we are placing on the VET sector. I met with four young wonderful people—Zen, Daniel, Amalia and Tyler—from Hellyer College and I listened to them. They are from Brumby Hill Aboriginal Corporation. These four are part of a great program that links Indigenous students with a trade that suits them best. I also met with two scholarship holders from the regional youth VET scholarship program, Daniel and Conor, who were unemployed but are now receiving federal government assistance to undertake a VET course. And I met with two wonderful young women who were working on a building site in Wivenhoe, just outside Burnie. Young Kate is an apprentice with Vos Construction and Joinery, and Nicola is an apprentice with Brad's Painting Service. They told me stories, and they were all positive. They were excited. They'd found their first rung on the ladder of success. No doubt they will be wonderful role models for our future young people looking at working in a trade or in the construction sector. These on-the-ground examples of the Morrison government's commitment to driving improvements in the quality, relevance and accessibility of the VET system, along with the National Skills Commissioner and the National Skills Commission, will underpin Australia's economic recovery. I commend the bill to the House.

4:50 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. As the member for Sydney has said, we will not oppose this bill. The bill will establish a new statutory office, the National Skills Commissioner, to provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demand, the labour market and workforce development issues. The commissioner will provide advice in relation to Australia's current, emerging and future workforce needs; efficient pricing for VET courses; the public and private return on government investment in VET qualifications; the performance of Australia's system for providing VET; and issues affecting Australian and international labour markets.

Labor will always ensure that we act on strong expert policy evidence and advice, and it is no different with our skills and workforce development needs. Labor has the track record. In government Labor established Skills Australia in 2008, which became the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011—a body that I was proud to be a member of under both names. That agency analysed and reported on Australia's current, emerging and future workforce development needs. In contrast, one of the first actions taken by the Abbott Liberal government on taking office was to close it down, in April 2014. It's taken another seven years for the Liberals to understand that, to create a quality vocational education system that is fit for purpose, at the very least we need reliable and independent analysis of our labour market and skills needs.

It is a crucial time for the government to be establishing an agency that advises on skills and workforce development issues. Off the back of an already weakening economy, COVID-19 has exacerbated the double-whammy crisis of skills shortages and high youth unemployment. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is hard to imagine. And yet here we are confronted with both. Before COVID there was already a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages. While businesses are struggling to fill skilled positions, we have young people desperate for work who can't fill those positions because they haven't been given the chance to gain the skills that the roles require. The most recent figures show a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. I've spoken to small businesses and medium-sized businesses who say they've been struggling to keep their apprentices on.

So why isn't the Prime Minister ensuring there is training for these people for jobs in industries where there is a shortage of workers? Well, because the government has spent seven years neglecting our training system. It has spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the development of our young people and the vital role it plays in the growth of our economy. It has spent seven years cutting funding while also underspending the meagre amount it promised the sector. The consequences of this failure are being felt right throughout Australia, from Bathurst to Bendigo, from Joondalup to Junee. The Prime Minister has abandoned our TAFEs, and the Liberals have no plan of action for good jobs and quality skills development. This is a travesty. This government has neglected the VET sector and has neglected our young people.

Now the Prime Minister says it's his greatest goal to reform the skills sector with the JobMaker program, as he's calling it. Well, excuse me for being a little cynical, but how can we trust him? His announcement was a hollow one with no extra funding, no time frames and basically no detail. He thinks he can fix this with a marketing campaign rather than actually investing in training and educating our young people. The Prime Minister, it seems, would rather spin, deflect and bring in celebrity ambassadors than really tackle the issues before us. But this will bear out, I'm sure, when young people are finding themselves deserted, victims of empty broken promises, as today we are finding with aged-care workers, who are missing out on payments that the Prime Minister promised would be tax free but are now to be taxed, or our childcare workers, who now find that JobKeeper will be cut short for them. And then it will be our young people. As the Leader of the Opposition said, it seems to be women and children first.

We know that as part of the reform process those who sit opposite will want to deregulate and fragment, to put course designs in the hands of companies and the private sector, to bring more flexibility into the sector. We can't let this happen. I come from the trade union movement, and whenever we heard the word 'flexibility' we coined it to be the new F-word. It always meant that workers were about to be done over, that wages were about to be cut, that jobs were about to disappear.

Short courses aren't of themselves poor for the sector. There may be good reasons for workers with a qualification to want to upgrade skills in a niche area. However, the fact is that subjects not delivered as part of an accredited national program and those with no discernible qualification happen to be the primary areas of significant enrolment growth for VET. This is of significant concern for the consideration of youth pathways. They don't equip anyone with a job for life. We've seen the growth in low-quality, privately delivered courses putting pressure on TAFE providers and other quality providers trying to keep standards high, resulting in a race to the bottom. As a result, across the VET system we've seen a decline in outcomes for students, with dropping enrolments and low completion rates. Costs have shifted to students, who have been hit with fee increases and growing limitations on access, particularly students in our regions, and less government support. The cost of many courses is now perceived to be prohibitive for many working-class teenagers. Many aren't convinced that paying $10,000 for a VET course and being paid an apprentice or trainee wage is a good deal. Free TAFE courses in states like my home state of Victoria have demonstrated that there is demand for vocational education if it is accessible and affordable.

COVID-19 has changed the world. It is now clear that the market cannot deliver our education system. From early education to schools and skills training, our public sector institutions are crucial to our communities and our economy. Government has a role in ensuring that children come to school ready to learn, that families can participate in the workforce, that vulnerable Australians are safe and that everyone has access to skills development for a productive lifelong career in areas of the economy that are a priority, too, and not just in areas where the market finds it easiest or wealthiest to place students.

We are about to enter a time where it is likely we will see a rapid increase in unemployment and massive underemployment, especially amongst young people. Rebuilding our skills and training sector will be crucial to getting the economy going again and ensuring that people can access and remain in decent secure jobs. The Liberal government wants to do more of the same in vocational education. No matter how they dress it up, the emperor has no clothes when it comes to the Prime Minister's skills policy. If we continue down the road being laid by this government, with its track record of cuts and neglect of vocational education, TAFE, and apprenticeships, the effects will be devastating.

Labor has a vision for a future with good jobs that are made using quality skills, setting working people up for satisfying and prosperous careers and lives. Unlike the National Skills Commission proposed in the bill, Labor's Jobs and Skills Australia would be an independent statutory authority, providing a genuine partnership with business leaders, both large and small; state and territory governments; unions; education providers; and those who understand particular regions and cohorts. In government, Labor would enhance the National Skills Commission, which would become Jobs and Skills Australia, to establish a more collaborative and enduring structure. My question to those opposite is: do you really have a plan for vocational education and training? There is no substitute for proper funding in this sector and there is no substitute for leadership, and currently it seems you are lacking in both.

5:00 pm

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's my pleasure to speak to the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. This legislation, these laws, we are about to pass here couldn't be more timely as we all seek to address the critical challenge that will come about, economically, in this country from the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The National Skills Commissioner office to be established will help prepare our labour market, our workers, in this country for recovery. They will be establishing a robust, new, fact based system that will strengthen our education and training networks.

The varied roles of this commission demonstrate a huge potential for it to quickly become a vital hub in supporting and enhancing the operation and analysis of the workforce we need, which is important for those people entering the workforce—to know where the gaps are, where to get training. Australia's economic recovery will be very reliant on its workers, working Australians, being skilled, resilient and adaptable. The skills needed for the new economy, for the new Australian society, are likely to evolve, and jobs that will be made as we come out of the crisis may not be the same as the ones that perhaps have been lost.

The government identified, in the recently announced JobMaker plan, that skills and training are a priority. We have outlined a reform agenda that will look at making vocational education and training actually work for Australians once again. It will do so by providing a trusted system of training that can deliver workers with high-quality and relevant skills and supports. It'll include rapid upskilling. It'll include reskilling in growth areas. It'll ensure that a new generation of Australian workers can participate in the economic success of this nation and guarantee the essentials that our nation relies upon.

The commission will do market analysis. It will look for areas in which we are short of workers in Australia, where skills are needed, where training is needed. That's important, because that information will go from this commission to the National Careers Institute. It will provide young Australians, those who are entering our workforce, with key information—accurate and up to date—on where the jobs are and what skills and qualifications they need to go out and get hold of in order to obtain those jobs of the future.

It will help show that trades and skilled jobs are ones to aspire to as the first and best option, not to be looked down upon as the second-best option, which is a pervasive view that really does need to be knocked completely and utterly on the head. The National Skills Commissioner, established with this legislation, will also have the task of driving down and getting rid of the costs involved in our vocational education training system, and developing and maintaining a set of efficient prices, the best and lowest cost prices on courses that are on offer to Australian workers and budding workers. That will improve transparency, consistency and accessibility and, most importantly, affordability—affordability for workers and affordability for students wanting to get into the workforce.

Currently, around the nation, if you have a look at vocational education and training prices, and the subsidies on offer for vocational education and training, you see this completely patchwork system. It is terrible. We've got a difference of nearly $12,000 in subsidies between Western Australia and the eastern seaboard of Queensland for students that are studying a Diploma of Nursing. It's just absolutely not clear why there is such a differential or why there is such a big difference.

If you were a budding building designer and you wanted to study a Diploma of Building Design, there's actually a difference of nearly $7,000 between the subsidies available for students studying at TAFE NSW and TAFE Queensland. And, actually, the Queenslander faces the higher cost. It's very sad, as a Queenslander, to know that the student who wants to go into that job is going to pay more. And it's not just a little bit more. In New South Wales, a student going into a Diploma of Building Design would pay only $3,600, while in Queensland they would face a cost of $10,455. It's absolutely ridiculous that we would have two different costs, and I've got to say it's very disheartening to hear that the cost burden on Queenslanders is so much more.

We can look into those that are wanting into blinds, awnings and security screens. This is a growth industry, particularly as the new HomeBuilder program rolls out. We've got the Certificate III in Blinds, Awnings, Security Screens and Grilles, where they receive a subsidy of only $3,726 in Queensland but a subsidy of $9,630 in New South Wales. There is a complete and utter differential there, with the Queenslander losing out in comparison to what the New South Wales student or apprentice receives. It is completely and utterly crazy that we have a system where there is a difference of that magnitude. So that's going to be looked at and hopefully fixed up so that we have one single system, with the lowest cost possible for everyone in the nation, including those in Queensland.

One of the big things that this commission is going to do is look at outcomes. We come up with all these different schemes from this place called Canberra. They seem great on paper, but, no matter what it is, the one thing that nearly always goes missing is outcomes—to work out whether these programs are actually working and whether they're doing the job that we set them out to do. That's why I'm really very grateful that this part of the puzzle is in here. The commissioner is going to do an analysis of the effectiveness of the VET system and advise on what the return on investment actually is for the government—whether we are getting people into jobs that are needed or whether we just have people going on training merry-go-rounds.

This is going to mean understanding vocational education student outcomes. It's going to mean understanding whether that apprentice or student actually got a job and what they're now earning as part of that job, as well as the public benefits of the stronger workforce, particularly in areas that are needed, like health care, aged care and disability care. It's going to enable governments, once we have this data, to actually look towards where we can target investment—direct investment towards high-quality courses that give students, apprentices and budding jobseekers the best chance of scoring a job in the future and strengthening our nation, strengthening our society and strengthening our economy.

That is all extremely welcome, but I have to say it's on the back of some very good things that have happened in concert with this pandemic. The $1.3 billion program, the initiative supporting apprentices and trainees, has been most welcome. That support is being provided to small businesses right now to retain their apprentices through a 50 per cent wage subsidy, and that's going to continue up to 30 September. As at 5 June—so, very recent data—a total of 55,400 apprentices and trainees and 31,500 employers have been assisted through the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy. That's about $252 million in payments, but it has kept those young apprentices working. It has kept them in their apprenticeship and not just kicked out onto the street because of this pandemic and the economic challenge that has presented many, many businesses. That is something that this government has done and something that should be welcomed by just about everyone in the chamber.

We are the government that actually introduced the Australian apprentice wage subsidy. That created 3,200 new apprentices in rural and regional Australia, even though those on the opposite side called it a 'political fiasco'. Can I say, just to pre-empt what I know is coming, there will be criticism that regional Australia isn't mentioned in the bill. Well, the fact is that skills go all around the nation, including in regional Australia, and this national skills commissioner is going to be looking right around the nation, particularly in regions, where we need skills. We are already doing that with programs like the Australian apprentice wage subsidy. I could refer locally to where the commissioner will be able to build upon some of the good work happening.

In Mackay, we have young Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Australians attending a local business called Global Product Search that has been funded by the Morrison Liberal-National government to the tune of $1.4 million to provide direct training in truck driving for the resources sector. This is a high-paying job and it is one that is very much-needed throughout Central and North Queensland. About 150 people are going through a holistic program that is not just simply learning how to drive a truck; it is learning how to manage the big bucks that you get into if you have never been on them before. It is to learn all of the skills that are needed—interpersonal skills and other skills—in the workplace. For Global Product Search manager Warren McGraw, and the Indigenous people who are rolling out that program, it is to be applauded that we have local businesses upskilling people like this in a direct way, in a holistic way.

In the Whitsundays, we are going to have a big problem with the loss of a lot of staff who have just gone because of the closure in tourism, which is going to continue on for some time. A lot of those people engaged in that industry are pretty much itinerate workers anyway, but we will still need to see a great deal of upskilling after we come out of this pandemic. It has been a pleasure to have led the charge to invest $2.5 million in a new Whitsunday maritime training centre in Airlie Beach that is going to be operating and running quite a number of courses. It is going to be doing more than it has done before. It has got a very small training room at the moment in the sailing club but this investment is going to allow a full-blown college that will provide training for more skippers, more shipping engineers, more crew to work on all of the boats and more tour operator crew and that is going to be a big benefit for local tourism businesses. This will mean more job opportunities in the Whitsundays. There will be 100 jobs created during construction.

In 2019, at a small level, this training college had about 274 enrolments. This college is looking at getting close to 400 enrolments when it actually opens. This is the work that is being done on the ground in places like Airlie Beach, an ideal location for maritime training.

During normal circumstances there are up to 300 skippers working in the Whitsunday tourism industry and that demand is set to increase as we come out of this pandemic. These are the skills that we need to focus on, these are the areas that we have built a very solid base for right across Australia, including regional Australia, and these are areas that the national skills commissioner will be looking at. The commissioner will be ensuring that right across Australia, including regional Australia, it is noted where the skill gaps are, where we need to focus new expenditure, where we need to get students and apprentices to so that they, the workers of the future, have the best opportunity to make the most out of the Australian economy, which, no doubt, is going to power ahead as we come out of this pandemic.

5:15 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

As a former rural health researcher, I know how crucial it is for policy to be rooted in sound logic and evidence. The establishment of a National Skills Commission is a first step towards ensuring future initiatives and reforms in the VET sector across Australia are based on the best available data and labour market analysis. It's on that basis that I welcome the introduction of the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020.

As a former rural health researcher, I also know how often regional Australians are left out of the picture when it comes to data collection and analysis, and I'm afraid to say this bill has the same blind spot. I was pleased to hear the member for Dawson talking about outcomes, because it's outcomes that we are so interested in. It's why we're here, really. I guess it's important to say that, when we talk about outcomes, it mustn't be just in a speech. It's important that outcomes are set out in legislation.

The government has decided not to mention regional Australia in this bill, and, ultimately, that can leave regional Australia behind. This is despite specific recommendations in the Joyce review, which delivered its final report to the government last March, that this new National Skills Commission have a particular focus on regional skill and workforce development. The Joyce review confirmed what I see and hear every day across my electorate of Indi. The Joyce review found that VET providers in regional Australia 'have significant difficulty recruiting experienced trainers with relevant experience when compared to non-regional areas'. It found that regional employers and RTOs felt their local skill needs were being ignored in national qualifications and curricula and that their calls to make qualifications more region-friendly fell on deaf ears. It found that we need regional-level demand forecasts with direct inputs from local industries and local government to give regional Australia the best chance at ushering in new industries and growth.

Regional Australia cannot afford to start behind the eight ball once again. We already know VET enrolments are increasing faster in metro areas than in regional areas. The unemployment rate for people with a cert III or above is 3.9 per cent compared to 7.9 per cent for those without. With more skills and training we could start to tackle pockets of high unemployment right across regional Australia. The government's own analysis indicates that, if we halve the skills gap between metro and rural populations, it would increase GDP by 0.6 per cent or $11 billion per year. There is massive opportunity in regional skills that could be unlocked if we had the right data to back stronger policies.

The Napthine review found that the most important thing was increasing access to training for regional Australia. We need to create training opportunities in regional areas for regional areas, and we cannot do this without robust, targeted and reliable data. For example, the government estimates that the planned expansion of the NDIS will require another 90,000 disability workers—about double the size of the current workforce. Most of this will be in regional areas. The 2019 national mental health report tells us there is a critical shortage of qualified mental health workers in regional areas. For those of us who live in the regions, that is abundantly clear. As Australia inevitably shifts to renewable power stations across regional Australia, we'll need thousands of skilled technicians, electricians and construction workers to drive a multibillion dollar industry. We will fail those relying on us to meet this demand and seize these opportunities if we do not specifically task the National Skills Commission with collecting and analysing region-specific data.

While I'll acknowledge the willingness of the government and Minister Cash to speak with me about the importance of regional workforce development, I was disappointed to learn that the government will not include them in this bill, as recommended by the Joyce review. I will still call on those present to support a short amendment that has the potential to do so much for an electorate such as mine in Indi but also for regional electorates right across the nation, such as those represented by the member for Dawson and so many others here.

The purpose of this amendment will be very simple—to ensure this new National Skills Commission does not leave regional Australians behind.

5:21 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The obvious issue here is that we, as a nation, need to move towards a process that gives us the capacity to get out of the current issues pertinent to the coronavirus. This has been something that we've seen, and I believe our capacity to get out of this is going to be more determined by the skill sets of the people that we have than by the debt we take on board. Right now we are seeing the skills that will be required if we are going to utilise the most recent iteration of the government's stimulus package. I support stimulus as a mechanism to get things going, but I must say I do have concerns right now about the extent of the debt that Australia is taking on board. I note that today the amount of Australian government securities issued stands at $666.3 billion—obviously it's never been that high before—and we haven't managed to pay back any of our gross debt since about 2008, which was pertinent to the sale of Telstra at that time.

We have to be careful of this, because obviously this debt is going to be incumbent upon those who come after us. We have a responsibility to those people to make sure that we do what is necessary but absolutely no more than is required. However, on this component, we have to see that the establishment of the National Skills Commissioner is a critical new piece of Australia's economic infrastructure and a vital element of the Prime Minister's recently announced JobMaker plan. This, I believe, also goes to the Prime Minister's sentiment, which is something I agree with, about the innate capacity of the Australian economy to rebuild itself rather than being reliant on stimulus actions, especially in areas where you can't really see it adding to the general capacity and growth of the economic platform of Australia.

The growth of the economic platform would be better suited to the construction of such things as dams, railway lines, roads and power stations, especially power stations that produce affordable power, such as coal-fired power. Those are the sorts of things that would give us the capacity to find people who have the pertinent skills and give them a job. Obviously, cheap power is one of the ultimate food stocks for having a manufacturing centre and having the capacity for people, especially those in blue-collar jobs, to have a job.

It is timely that we address the critical challenges of managing the health and economic impacts, especially after COVID-19. The COVID-19 issue has brought things such as this into clear focus. As Sir Leo Hielscher so aptly put it, an economy that has taken us years and decades to build up was put at risk in merely a few weeks of a pandemic that, to be frank, no-one really foresaw. It gave us a very strong lesson of where the strengths and weaknesses of our domestic economy lie. Our domestic economy has to be broadened and has to be strengthened away from the pre-eminence of the service sector. The belief that all economies will work freely and will be able to cover the holes of their own inadequacies with imports has been stringently tested and has left us wanting in so many areas. It was best explained with the requirements for personal protective equipment.

The National Skills Commissioner will help ensure the skills and training systems support all Australians, including vulnerable cohorts, in facing the challenge of working out how to live, work and retrain in a way that creates a sustainable COVID-safe economy. A COVID-safe economy is one that obviously has the capacity to build on the requirements that are needed in an issue such as a pandemic. Together with the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020, this bill delivers the same key elements of the 2019 expert review of the Australian VET system, led by the Hon. Steven Joyce. With a name like that, one would have to say that he would be an eminent person and obviously supremely qualified to do his job—and, like all Joyces, he is to be found at the centre of all controversies!

The commissioner will examine the cost drivers and develop and maintain a set of efficient prices for VET courses to improve transparency, consistency and accessibility for students. But more and more we have to be absolutely certain that a person's future is not reliant on them just being able to go to university. More and more, especially in the age of the internet, the services that are the most resilient are the ones that actually require a person to be there to do them. As I've said so many times, if you can do it at a keyboard, you can do it from any corner of the globe; it doesn't have to be done from Australia. We're seeing that now more and more with back-office work. Whether it's for accountants, whether it's for engineers or whether it's for any form of drafting, or even where there's a common-law principle, these jobs can be done overseas. In many instances, they are done overseas much, much more cheaply than they can be done in Australia.

To get further resilience into jobs that can only be performed in Australia by Australians, we obviously have to focus on trades, which takes me back to the point: if you're going to have an economy that has a future in trades and a future in manufacturing, it has to have one of the primary sources of delivering that, which is cheap power—because the alternative to cheap power is cheap wages, and people don't want cheap wages. They want a certain standard of living, so we have to find our competitive advantage in something that we can deliver, which in the past was the cheapest power in the world. Now, unfortunately, we have the dearest power in the world.

I commend the so-called 'big stick' legislation, which was something that we discussed with Prime Minister Turnbull at the time, especially in our dealings with AGL. We want to make sure that we understand that one of the fundamental reasons that you'll have an economy and people working at such places as the Gladstone smelter is if we have cheap power. If you have dear power, that smelter closes down and those jobs go.

I will leave it there. I'd like to commend the wider aspects of the bill. I believe that you can see it in no better form than what's in this chamber at present and the way this chamber has been operating. I must say that, for me, parliament during the COVID time is like parliament in a fog. It's hard to actually get the proper grasp of what we're doing. I think we're becoming more and more attached to what we do in our electorates, which is fine, but Canberra as an article of parliament is becoming more and more distant—or it certainly is for me. I've noted that in recent times I've managed to lose a lot of weight as I go back to doing things such as fencing and cattle work and mustering. The longer you do that, the less relevant this place seems to become in your life.

5:29 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Financial Services) Share this | | Hansard source

What a disaster this government has been for vocational training and skills development in Australia! The record says it all. They've slashed $3 billion from TAFE over the six years they've been in government. They cancelled the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program that was working so well within our schools and providing a pathway into trades for students to begin their apprenticeship in years 11 and 12 and get a foothold in a trade in this country. This government cancelled that program within our schools. There are 140,000 fewer apprenticeships, and 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, in this country since this government got elected. They massively increased TAFE fees, in concert with Liberal governments at the state level throughout the country. Some of these increases in TAFE fees were in the vicinity of 400 to 500 per cent, making it completely unaffordable for many young Australians to look to go into a trade into the future. They've cut courses at local TAFEs. Most TAFE colleges now specialise in particular areas and have cut out a lot of their courses, so a lot of young people looking for an apprenticeship in a particular trade will have to travel literally hundreds of kilometres to another region or across to the other end of a city to actually look at getting into a TAFE course because of the cuts that have been made to particular courses in TAFE colleges throughout the country. And, of course, we all know that they cut a number of teaching positions in those TAFE colleges as a result. That's the result of a massive underspend on skills and vocational education and training in this country.

The results speak for themselves. We've got massive skills shortages in Australia at the moment, where a number of employers in particular industries simply can't find the workers that they want to put on to perform roles in their businesses because the skilled workers simply aren't there in Australia. They're not there because they weren't trained. They weren't given the opportunity to take on a particular trade under this government, to the tune of 140,000 fewer apprenticeships.

But that's alright. This government's answer is: 'Don't worry about that. Don't worry about the fact that we have skills shortages. Don't worry about the fact that employers can't find skilled workers. We'll just bring them in. We'll import them from overseas.' That's exactly what they have been doing. They've been importing workers on temporary visas to fill the skills shortages that they've created by underinvesting in vocational training and education in this country. That's the reason, or one of the reasons, why the Australian economy, pre COVID, had been growing under this government. It was not because of business investment, which has fallen through the floor, not because of improvements in productivity, which is actually going backwards under this government, and not because of innovation, which has been stifled by this government as well, but because the Australian population was increasing on the back of this government importing workers to fill the skills shortages that its policies have created. That's the sort of economy that has developed under this LNP government, and it's now showing during this crisis, because many of those employers now face the prospect of not being able to import those workers anymore because of COVID restrictions. They're seeing the handbrake that's going to be brought to their businesses by this government's inadequate policies when it comes to vocational education and training.

All this will have a dramatic effect on our economy, and it has been doing so to date. As I said earlier, we've had skills shortages, which has resulted in the importation of workers, and all of that has been a handbrake on productivity. For the first time since records were kept about labour productivity in this country, we've had a fall in labour productivity. Under this government, labour productivity in Australia, for the first time, has actually fallen; it's gone backwards. That means the amount of income being produced per worker in Australia under this government pre-COVID was actually less then it was a year ago. That says everything about this government. They claim to be good for the economy. Well, they've been the exact opposite. Labour productivity has actually fallen, and that's been a handbrake on economic growth. That's why we've had this underperformance of economic growth. That's why we've had below-trend economic growth in Australia—and that has resulted in no real wage increases for workers in this country for many, many years and in many of them struggling to make ends meet with some of the highest levels of household debt in the world.

That's the sort of economy that has developed under this LNP government. There is no investment and no vision for the development of skills in Australia, because there's no investment in vocational education and training to deliver those skills to ensure employers have the skills necessary to make Australia an innovative nation, one that continues to grow and one that continues to be more productive. The opposite has occurred under this government. That's their record. And now there's been a push from industry about the economic cliff they see coming because they can't import workers anymore. They have pushed this government to look at the issue of skills. If this government thinks that by establishing a Skills Commissioner they can fix all of the problems in vocational training and skill shortages in this country that they and their policies have produced, they are kidding themselves and it demonstrates how out of touch this government really is.

Labor will not oppose this bill. We won't oppose a bill that establishes a statutory body that looks at the demand for skills in this country and workforce development. This bill will establish the office of the National Skills Commissioner to provide to the minister and the secretary of the department advice on skills demand, the labour market and workforce development issues. We'll always ensure that we are working for strong expert policy evidence and advice, but the creation of a National Skills Commissioner is another bandaid from this government for a vocational education and training system that is fundamentally flawed and broken. It is fundamentally broken, and this ain't gonna fix it. We need much more than the development of a Skills Commissioner, nestled within a government department, to fix what is wrong with vocational education and skills development in this country.

Our TAFE system and the vocational education system are under enormous pressure as a result of this Liberal government's poor and incoherent policies and massive cuts. As I said, we've already seen $3 billion worth of cuts to expenditure. We've seen 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in this country. And now we've got more modelling, from the National Australian Apprenticeships Association, warning that 100,000 more apprentices and trainees will go by December unless this government does something serious about vocational education and training in this country. This is a situation that's going to be much worse than the global financial crisis. As I mentioned earlier, at least the borders were still open during the GFC and workers could still come to this country where there were skill shortages. But for the foreseeable future that's not going to be the case, and that's going to be a big handbrake on activity and economic growth and getting our economy going again and rebooting it and getting people back into work.

But this government doesn't seem to care about that. Its philosophy is to leave vocational education and training to the private market and they will sort it out. Well, we've seen what happens with that in the vocational training sector in Australia. We've had some horrific stories of people being coaxed into taking on courses they could never complete. They have been offered inducements to take on those courses, and then the provider picks up the government payment and the student falls out of the course and never completes it.

We need a coherent set of policies in Australia that really focuses on the needs of industry around skills development, working with a fully funded TAFE sector and other providers to make sure that the courses are tailored to the needs of the employers, provide the skills for the workforce of the future and ensure that people who want to go into the traditional trades of carpentry, bricklaying, plumbing, hairdressing and others get the opportunity to do so at a reasonable price and within their local vicinity so that they can access that training. Well, this government has no plan for that. This government has no plan to provide those opportunities for young Australians.

The situation with apprenticeships and trainees in Australia has gone from bad to worse. The Australian Industry Group is now warning that youth unemployment will skyrocket if there isn't a substantial increase in government support for vocational training in this country. We know that between January and April this year there had already been a 73 per cent fall in apprenticeship job ads in Australia as a result of the COVID crisis. Because of the cuts that have been undertaken by this government, it's no wonder that we now have a shortage of those traditional trades that many Australians could have relied upon in the past as being good, secure jobs for a lifetime. Those jobs are now disappearing. I'm talking about a shortage of bricklayers, plumbers, hairdressers, panel beaters and other critical trades that basically keep an economy going and keep it growing, provide housing and provide manufacturing jobs for this country. Those trades are all under pressure and their industries are all having skills shortages because of this government's approach.

Australia now has fewer apprentices and trainees than when this government came to office. Despite the fact that we have a growing population and a growing need from industry and business for more apprentices, we've actually got fewer than when this government came to office. That statistic alone says everything about this government's commitment to vocational education and training, to providing that option for young Australians, to growing our economy and to creating a manufacturing base into the future. The commitment from this government is simply not there.

At the moment there are more people dropping out of vocational education and training than there are people who finish it. Again, that's an indictment of and a blight on this government's record. By locking Australians out of vocational education and training, the Liberals are locking Australians out of jobs, and that is inexcusable in this type of distressed economic environment. We're experiencing one of the greatest economic transformations of our lifetime and we're forced to make choices about how we go forward, but this Liberal government wants to do more of the same when it comes to vocational education and training, and that's simply not good enough.

Labor are offering an alternative. We went into the last election with a series of policies to invest more in TAFE, to invest more in vocational education and training and to boost the number of apprentices and trainees. The Labor leader, in his 'Jobs and the Future of Work' speech in October last year, announced Labor's intention, if we were elected, to establish Jobs and Skills Australia. Unlike the government's National Skills Commission, proposed in this bill, Labor's Jobs and Skills Australia would be an independent statutory authority providing a genuine partnership with business, both large and small; state and territory governments; unions; education providers; and, most importantly, those that understand the regions, ensuring that there was a dialogue between business, governments and unions in Australia about where skills shortages are and about developing the training mechanisms and the investment in those industries to ensure that there is skills development in the future through vocational education and training. It would not simply be leaving it up to the private sector and the market to work it out but would be actively ensuring that you have policies that promote vocational education and training and skills development in this country. That will be Labor's approach, unlike this government's, if we are elected at the next election.

5:44 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to be able to make a contribution this evening to the debate on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. I should say at the outset that Labor will, of course, support the creation of the National Skills Commissioner, because we know that critical national decisions should be based on expert advice and evidence rather than on the hunches, biases and ideology that so often drive the thinking and practice of conservative governments.

Really, this is another case of too little, too late, from a government that has been waging a campaign of starvation and unrelenting attacks on our skills and training sector for seven years. Seven years and $3.2 billion worth of cuts: it is actually unthinkable, but, sadly, it is true. When I set up a community petition against these cuts, close to 1,500 people signed it. Many told me of their white-hot fury about this intentional neglect. As a result of that neglect, 140,000 apprenticeships have disappeared nationally, more than 1,000 of them from my electorate of Newcastle. Now we have a critical shortage of skills, something we've been warning the government about for years and years. There is a shortage of trade skills in bricklaying, plumbing, hairdressing and baking and of electricians, mechanics, panelbeaters and so many other vital trades. All of this has taken place at a time when, tragically, we have millions of Australians looking for work.

What is most heartbreaking is what the Liberals have done to our once very proud training icon, TAFE. Make no mistake, this once proud public institution of vocational education and training is in a diabolical state, and unless urgent remedial action is taken our economy, indeed our nation—our people—will pay the price. New analysis reveals that without urgent action a further 100,000 apprentice and trainee positions will be lost this year. That is an astonishing figure for anyone to contemplate. TAFE should be at the absolute centre of the government's thinking and of the skills and training system in Australia, but, instead, the Prime Minister and his fellow vandals have ripped $3 billion out of this system: in New South Wales we've seen over 6,000 TAFE jobs and 175,000 enrolments disappear as a direct result. This is a false economy. The small mindedness of this is too astonishing and too shocking for words. Any savings made come at the direct expense of our national capability, our economic resilience and our ability to ensure that we have the skills we need to prosper into the future. By locking Australians out of education and training the Liberals are locking Australians out of jobs.

There could be nothing more shameful in an environment where we're confronted with a global pandemic and now record unemployment numbers than that we go into that chaos not well placed at all in terms of the kinds of training that we have been providing young people in the lead-up to this crisis. I don't think we should pretend for one minute that Australia entered this crisis with our vocational education and training system in good shape, and any suggestion otherwise would be complete pretence and, indeed, folly. The government are now really forced to put this forward—despite having had industry tell them for so long just how badly prepared this nation is for providing the skills basis that is required for not only the jobs of today but also the jobs of the future—because they're facing record levels of unemployment. And, in regions like mine, that hits really hard.

Nobody in this chamber would forget those long lines out the front of their Centrelink offices. The last time I saw that in Newcastle was when there was mass retrenchment from BHP, back in the mid-eighties. It brought a chill down everyone's spine. Those of us that have lived in Newcastle long enough to recall the days before BHP, before they pulled the plug and left town, know full well of what mass unemployment looks like and feels like in your city.

The government were put on notice about skills shortages, not just by Labor opposition members here in this chamber but also by industry groups around the nation. Ai Group has long warned about the shocking skills shortages and the challenges that are confronting industry in terms of not being able to find the skilled workers that they need to undertake jobs in Australia. For too long, through our immigration programs and skilled worker visa programs, this nation has relied upon being able to bring in skilled workers from overseas. Well, that option no longer exists. With COVID-19, you don't have an open border anymore. Industry players don't have the option of recruiting labour from offshore. That's when the brutal reality really hits you in the face. This nation is so ill prepared for the training of a strong workforce equipped with the sorts of skills that it requires in an ever-evolving industrial landscape. Our manufacturers in Australia have done extraordinarily well in being able to pivot through the COVID-19 pandemic to be able to produce other sorts of goods and services that were required in our community and that we would previously just have imported. They did a terrific job in trying to very quickly turn around what was a very diabolical situation for them. But they are also looking at the future and what the next generation of work looks like for them. They have for a long time been putting us on alert about the need for increased numbers of skilled workers in Australia.

So it's of some relief, I guess it is true to say, that this National Skills Commissioner Bill is before us, because at least there's some inkling now that the government is giving serious consideration to these issues. As I said at the outset, regretfully it really is a matter of too little, too late, but Labor will support this bill because any efforts, quite frankly, have to be better than the seven years of utter neglect so far.

When it comes to thinking seriously about these issues, Labor went into the last election with a terrific set of policies around ensuring that TAFE could regain its position as a strong, central, public institution of vocational education and training excellence. We wanted to see TAFE positioned at the very centre of our decision-making around options for young—but not always young—Australians in terms of their tertiary education options in Australia. Not everybody wants to go to university; we know that. In my part of the world, Hunter TAFE has long enjoyed a very strong reputation for producing highly skilled workers. We've had a very strong industrial base in my part of the world, over many decades, and we've always required a good steady pipeline of trades, apprentices and traineeships coming through. But, as I said, in the last seven years that pipeline has really dried up. Even before this pandemic, small and medium-sized enterprises and manufacturing businesses were not engaging apprentices and traineeships. There is a real problem when your industry is no longer training up the numbers of apprentices and trainees that it did once upon a time. When we're not investing in the pipeline and not insisting that there be good, strong public institutions of vocational education and training, we then become part of the problem too.

The reason I emphasise the importance of public institutions is that we saw the diabolical effects of privatising vocational education and training schemes. Some of the shonkiest cowboy operators out there were just skimming cream from the public purse and providing absolutely zero in return—or, even worse, entrapping people who didn't understand the documents that they were signing in order to gain an iPad and who found themselves thousands and thousands of dollars in debt after signing up for courses that were completely inappropriate. There were some seriously dodgy private RTOs operating out there, and this government has had to confront that brutal reality. It beggars belief that there isn't a much stronger level of support for insisting that TAFE—an institution that we know can be accountable to government—be the government's preferred provider.

Anyway, as I said, Labor is happy that the government is finally starting to think about these issues again and bringing some legislation before the Australian parliament. I can assure you that Labor has never forgotten about these issues and the importance of training the next generation of Australian workers. Indeed, I pay tribute to the Labor leader, who, in his most recent 'Jobs and the future of work' speech, which was delivered last October, outlined Labor's intention in government to establish Jobs and Skills Australia. Unlike the National Skills Commissioner, which is before the House today, Labor's Jobs and Skills Australia would be an independent statutory authority, providing a very genuine partnership with business leaders both large and small; state and territory governments; unions; education providers; and all of the people that you need present at a table to make this work, including those who understand regions and specific cohorts that are often hard to reach. Making sure that those people are part of the national conversation is important.

In government, Labor would enhance the National Skills Commissioner so that it could become this independent statutory authority that we would prefer—Jobs and Skills Australia. It's a much more collaborative and enduring structure. It's a shame the government hasn't seen fit to really just pick up Labor's policy and run with it. We would have happily gifted it to the government. It's an excellent proposal and, given that the government has really struggled for seven years—and 'struggled' is a polite way of putting it—to get its head around vocational education and training, it could do worse than to actually adopt Labor's policy positions right now.

6:00 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to enter the debate and to speak on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 and I will be speaking also in support of the second reading amendment. As we have heard from previous speakers, including the member for Newcastle before me, we will be supporting the bill, which will establish a new statutory office of the National Skills Commissioner, to provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demand, the labour market and workforce development issues. This proposal is to legislate an important role, which Labor will endorse the need for, which of course is to ensure all Australians are looked after and respected. Labor will not be opposing the changes put forward by the government, but I want to spend some time in my remarks tonight highlighting a few things—in particular, with the second reading amendment moved by the member for Sydney, about the neglect and damage to Australia's vocational education and training sector and also the appalling record of apprenticeships and traineeships under this government—in particular, in the context of Queensland, the state that I proudly come from.

Going through the bill and reading through the provisions, a lot of speakers tonight have also said that this is too little too late. When you look at the record of the government, particularly when it comes to skills and supporting trade industries, this really is just a drop in the bucket. According to the National Australian Apprenticeships Association, as we've already heard, we're set for a massive 35 per cent drop in new apprentices. That figure is 100,000, to be precise. When you put that into perspective in my home state of Queensland, that's a decrease of 20,000 apprentices here in my home state.

It's vital that this sector is under more scrutiny, for the sake of the future of Australians, particularly in light of COVID-19, and I'll speak a little bit about that in my remarks tonight, and particularly about where Australia's economy is headed. The coalition government have, time and again, as we know, become professionals at making commitments and then walking them back. We remember, in 2014, when the Abbott Liberal government closed down the established Skills Australia, which the previous government had established and which had been running since 2008 and later became the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011, which the member for Cooper spoke about in her remarks. Since shutting it down, it has taken the Liberal government another six years to understand that to create a quality vocational education system at the very least we need reliable and independent analysis of our labour market and skills needs. The vocational education system does not need just a national skills commissioner. In my opinion, it needs a complete and comprehensive overhaul to see meaningful reform.

On a practical example of what this means: earlier this year, on the eve of the pandemic, and before we saw our economy move into shutdown mode, the shadow minister for education and training, the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, came to my Oxley electorate, and to what was announced as one of the worst-hit suburbs in Australia for apprenticeships and skills and training opportunities. We visited a fantastic local business in my electorate, Amore Fine Foods and products, run by a local couple, Doug Everard and Michelle Mieth. They do a fantastic job. They've got some amazing young female apprentices. They were all simply told they could not put on skills based training programs anymore, and that the administration behind the systems were incredibly hard to use and difficult to apply for. So here is a business that is doing really well but simply is not getting the support from this government to see it expand and improve. Fiddling around the edges is not going to fix this problem but will just reveal more of the profound problems undermining our vocational education and training system, which have a direct impact on the productivity, performance and international competitiveness of our economy.

There's no denying from anyone in this building that our TAFE and vocational system has been suffering under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's poor and incoherent policies and, of course, their massive cuts. Remember, these cuts are not just about programs; they are affecting the future of Australians who want to provide a better future for themselves and for their families. I'm not sure how the government can get up in this place tonight and go on about how great they are in the area of skills and training when they've let apprentice numbers fall by 140,000 and presided over a national shortage of trades, apprentices and trainees. Their mistakes in handling vocational education are having roll-on effects on an economy that is really struggling under the Morrison government. We know that, time and time again, the government fails to meet the needs of working Australians who are committed to growing our economy and to providing for their families. These Australians deserve better, and our TAFE and vocational sector deserves much better as well. They deserve better than what the Liberal government has provided.

Our track record in this area, as many know, has been to make sure our skills industry is looked after. We established Skills Australia in 2008, and that was replaced by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011. This agency worked to every detail to ensure that the current opportunities were filled, that more skills programs were created and that demand was analysed and reported as it evolved. Rather than making desperately needed reform, the coalition prefer to simply adjust the window dressing of our struggling vocational education system, and this National Skills Commission is just the latest example of this. We need much more than another commission nestled in a government department to fix what is wrong.

Australians need and deserve a quality vocational education system. With 2.6 million Australians either unemployed or underemployed, the government should not be ignoring the vital role TAFE plays in the growth of our communities and young people. Too many Australians have been locked out of TAFE or lost confidence in the promise of vocational education. The consequences of this failure aren't just being felt in our cities. Some of the hardest-hit regions on record include Bathurst, Bendigo, Joondalup and Junee. The government has no regard for these people. We know that in times like this, when people are out of work and looking for work, skill development breaks down. Because of this race to the bottom that the Liberals have encouraged in our tertiary training sector, we've seen a decline in outcomes for students, with dropping enrolments and low completion rates. Our young people are not just losing skills; they are losing opportunities to get them back as well.

I noted during the Prime Minister's National Press Club address that he's finally realised this after seven years. After watching students, particularly in the regions, be gouged, exploited and defrauded by unscrupulous providers just for trying to get ahead in the jobs market, all of a sudden he's found the words 'vocational education'. The Prime Minister also talked up his JobMaker proposal, or, as I call it, the 'JobFaker' proposal. What he hasn't mentioned yet is that it is to be a skills taker. In the last seven years, we've seen cuts to vocational education and training. You only need to look at what has happened around the nation. As I've said, in my home state we've seen a drop of 32.8 per cent in the number of apprentices and trainees. We've seen in Western Australia a drop of 29.8 per cent, in New South Wales 30.5, in Victoria 34.9 and in South Australia 50.5.

Unlike this government, we've got a vision to ensure that the future of work in this country is secure. I was really pleased last year that Labor leader Anthony Albanese promised the establishment of Jobs and Skills Australia, an independent statutory authority offering genuine partnerships with business, governments and unions. Unlike the government's National Skills Commission, this would provide a more collaborative and enduring structure to provide Australians with robust and transferable skills for the future. In preparing for today's debate, I noticed some of the reports that came forward earlier this year. Back in February 2020, we saw new reports and new data that showed apprenticeships dropping, as I said, by up to 50 per cent.

I want to highlight a local business in my own electorate that has done some fantastic work, and that is the business of PFi, located in the Wacol area, which is a defence and aerospace manufacturing facility. I visited that a number of times and it really is at the cutting edge of manufacturing. When these figures, which showed a collapse in the number of apprenticeships and traineeships across Australia, were released in February, the general manager of PFi, Nick Green, said in relation to the figures: 'The only limitation to growth in our business is the skilled labour. We have calculated that we would be about 40 to 42 per cent growth based on jobs we've had to turn down because we haven't had the capacity.' Mr Green said they were flooded with university graduates but struggled to find tradies. He said: 'We are letting our kids down. In our company, we have 20 engineers and over 110 tradesmen, and what that means is there a massive skew in society. Trades are seen as second class and they should be first. They are an amazing first step for a successful career.' I agree with him 100 per cent.

Under this government, kids who want to do a trade are treated as second-class citizens. They are not given the support that they need to reach their full potential. The Australian Education Union federal president, Correna Haythorpe, said the issue is compounded with the number of TAFEs being slashed from 57 in 2004 to 35 from 2014 to 2018. Not only do we have cuts but money has been redirected toward private providers. In my home state of Queensland, the TAFE and training sector was absolutely gutted by the failed experiment which was the Newman government from 2012 to 2015. Among the horrific cuts that we saw under that hopeless government, we saw cuts to TAFE, with TAFE teachers being sacked and exorbitant fees being placed on students. I have my disagreements with the LNP in Queensland. Time and time again, they show that they simply cannot be trusted. The Newman government absolutely decimated TAFE in my home state.

Thanks to the leadership of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the skills minister, the Hon. Shannon Fentiman, we have seen TAFE rebuilt in my home state. We have seen skilling for Queenslanders. The member for Goldstein might want to listen to this: there was a fantastic jobs program to skill people, to get them fast-tracked into work, and one of the very first actions of the Newman government was to get rid of that program. So what did the Newman government do? It absolutely gutted that system and redirected those funds. Since that program has been reinstituted, I have attended the graduations and I have met with some of the recipients, so I know how important it is to get people back into work. Time and time again, when we have looked at these issues, we have seen a massive decrease in the number of apprenticeships and traineeships under this government, and now we are expected to believe that, after seven years in government, all of a sudden this government is showing an interest.

As the shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, mentioned last week, we have had the hollowing out of TAFE, with fewer training places at the end of this seven-year period than at the beginning. As we head towards a post-COVID environment, what is that going to mean when we don't have an adequate training and vocational education system in place? I refer to media comments regarding this issue about how COVID 19 could wipe out a generation of apprenticeships. An article earlier this month said:

The skills shortage crisis is predicted to be six times worse than the GFC, according to new industry data. The dire new numbers come on top of—

as we know—

the 140,000 apprentices and trainees that have been lost in the past seven years and will hamper the anticipated Federal Government's stimulus …

So we have got disagreement about how the stimulus package has been delivered by this government, with whole sectors missing out and a one-size-fits-all that simply hasn't worked.

I want to quote the National Australian Apprenticeship Association, which said, of its new real-time modelling, that the data shows the 'recession could be up to six times worse than the GFC when it comes to the falling numbers of apprentices meant to start their careers, quickly to be followed by an enormous drop in the numbers of apprentices in training'. Their modelling shows a 44,360 reduction in apprentices who were set to start their jobs. If we do not arrest this, if we do not take action to ensure that we do have skills and training in place, our country will be the poorer for it. So, whilst we'll be supporting this bill tonight, this government has a lot to do to earn the trust of Australians when it comes to vocational education and training. (Time expired)

6:15 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Vocational education and training in this country is in a mess. And it's not the fault of the teachers and educators at TAFE, who are doing their best and doing amazing work to ensure that students and apprentices across the country get the skills that they need. It's in a mess because, for years and years and years, Liberal and Labor decided to treat education as a commodity—not as something that would be good for the population and good for the people receiving it but as a commodity where everything had to be subject to the laws of the market, where you sink or swim and some people make a lot of money at the expense of other people.

As a result, what we've seen over many, many years is the central role of TAFE as the main provider of world-standard technical and further education in this country go down and down and down, and we've seen the rise of dodgy private providers, who are in it for the money and who sign up people as quick as they can, deliver something that is a substandard education, may well go bust a year or two later, and make a lot of money out of the public purse along the way. You see this happening right across the board, in the privatisation of everything from electricity and essential services to universities and the technical and further education sector. Whereas governments once saw a clear role for themselves, to oversee and fund vocational education and training, in recent decades they've taken their hands off the wheel, invited in private operators and set up this crazy funding system that encourages and rewards people to get money from the government for providing so-called education and skills to students as cheaply as they can. And it has brought in the shonks, as it would.

Over time, I've seen that in my electorate, all over the place. Some of these operators set themselves up next to the public housing flats and offer qualifications, certificates and diplomas in courses that people go and enrol in in good faith, because there's someone with a big marketing budget coming in and saying, 'Come and do this course,' and they do it. And then, at the end of it, they get a qualification that it turns out, in the real world, isn't looked on very highly—it is looked on nowhere near as well as a TAFE course or a TAFE qualification—but the private provider has got the money, they've put it in their pocket and they might disappear a year later. They might have enticed people with a free iPad or some deals along the way. But who gets hurt? Well, the student gets hurt because they end up with a piece of paper that doesn't help them find a job, and the taxpayer gets slugged because we've handed out money to a private operator when we could have just given it to the public sector to do a world-standard job.

Over the years, vocational education and training has suffered death by a thousand cuts, and privatisation by stealth. It has taken this government six or seven years to wake up and do something about it. They have overseen cuts to the TAFE system and to the vocational education system, and now, during the coronavirus crisis, we're all waking up as a country, and they're realising, 'Oh, perhaps placing our faith in free trade agreements and just assuming we can buy everything in from overseas isn't the way to go; perhaps we should have spent the last seven years building up capacities and skills in this country instead of attacking our TAFE system.' But they're not the only ones who are responsible. It happened before that as well, because this idea of starting to treat education like a commodity, where everything is subject to the laws of the market instead of just doing it on the basis of public good, was actually something supported by the Labor government. They brought in a scheme that gave private operators an incentive to lure in as many students as possible in order to get government subsidies but without there being a commensurate obligation to provide students something close to useful training. As I've said, it was one of the biggest rorts in the nation's history that resulted in billions of taxpayer dollars wasted, left thousands of students without qualifications and saddled with debt, and did little to build the capacity of the Australian workforce.

The answer, though, can't be to just paper over it by rebranding it with the new National Skills Commissioner; I'll come back to this in a moment. There are some useful steps in this bill, but those who've been around here for a while will have a sense of deja vu, which I will go through in a moment. We've got to do more. Imagine if we treated our primary schools the way the government treats TAFE and we said: 'Oh, well, no, we don't think it's the government's responsibility to ensure that every child can have a place in public schools if they want. Everyone should have to go out and compete, and look to private providers with big marketing budgets coming in. Perhaps we'll just give out vouchers for school systems. We won't see it as the government's core responsibility to provide a public school education for everyone.' There would be an outcry. There would be an outcry if people weren't guaranteed a place in good, world-standard public schools.

But both Labor and the Liberals decided over many years that something apparently is different about tertiary education, just as something, according to Labor and the Liberals, is apparently different about university education. They've turned it all into one big market, but the thing about markets is that there are winners and losers. It's what happens in markets. Markets have their place, but turning education into a market is not the place of a market. Governments over many, many years have gone out of their way to take one of these things that we all have in common—like our utilities, like our education system—and then break them apart and sell them off to the highest bidder. Who ends up getting hurt? The taxpayer, and, in this case, the student.

If you are serious about reforming the vocational education training sector, you would put TAFE back on a pedestal and make it the primary provider. You would not have this scheme that says, 'Perhaps we'll give some taxpayer money to some private operators so that they can go and make a profit out of educating people.' No. We treat education as a public good and we treat the creation of skills in this country as a public good. For years and years now, whether it's by the decimation of TAFE, the corporatisation and marketisation of our universities or Labor and the Liberals signing up to free trade agreements that have undermined our manufacturing capacity, one of the things that has been highlighted by the coronavirus crisis is that we have lost a lot of abilities and skills in this country. We've lost a lot of the capacity to make things here, because under Labor and the Liberals we were told the answer is: 'Don't worry. Just sign up to free trade agreements, even if they make it impossible to do things that would promote local industry.'

Let's take an example of some of the things we could think about doing if we want to tackle the crises that we're facing at the moment. We could say, 'Let's make Australia a world leader in green steel,' which is steel that's produced from renewable energy. Let's say that we've got some projects, like high-speed rail or renewable energy projects, that we want to get built. Let's say that we'll put in place some local content rules that say, 'You've got to buy Australian green steel to put on those.' Let's say that we're going to give preference to Australian companies that employ apprentices to do it. And let's say we're going to use government money to subsidise it. A lot of people would think: 'That sounds like a good use of government money. Let's use it to skill up people and to get Australia to the point where we've rebuilt our manufacturing capacity, where we've got things to sell to the rest of the world that they want from a zero-carbon economy.' Most people would think that is a sensible use of government, of education and of public money.

But it would probably fall foul of a host of free trade agreements, because you're not allowed to give that kind of support and preference to your local industries—or certainly many of our competitors have the capacity to argue that. Under the free trade agreements that the Liberals and Labor have signed us up to, state owned companies in China would have the ability to take the Australian government to court and sue them and get them to change the law, because they have said, 'You have passed laws that benefit the Australian people.' So, we have found ourselves in a situation where we have lost a lot of the skills that we need, because of the systematic attacks on TAFE and the deprioritising of TAFE by Labor and the Liberals and because of the deprioritising of developing Australia's manufacturing capacity, and now that the coronavirus has hit everyone is running around pretending, 'It wasn't me, it wasn't me.' Well, Labor and Liberals, you have been caught with your pants down. This is what three decades of neoliberalism gets you and it won't be fixed just by renaming it as a skills commissioner.

We need to go back to basics and say that the purpose of government is to ensure that education is free and available to everyone who wants it and that it is going to provide the skills that this country needs to ensure that we can have a manufacturing renaissance in this country, that we can have a construction-led recovery where we build half a million public and social housing units over the next 15 years, which would generate 40,000 construction jobs and 4,000 apprenticeships and help to house the homeless. That is the direction that we need to go, so a bit of rebranding isn't going to do it. For those who wonder why we are cynical about this bit of rebranding, back in 2008 the Rudd government established Skills Australia as an independent statutory body to provide 'expert and independent advice in relation to Australia’s workforce skills needs and workforce development needs', which included advice on skills shortages, training priorities, workforce participation and productivity and competitiveness. In 2012, the Gillard government rebranded Skills Australia into the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, basically the same independent body, with responsibility for advice. Then, in 2014, the wrecking ball that was the Abbott government abolished the AWPA. Labor, as is often the case, opposed the abolition of the AWPA but voted for the bill.

So, in the last 12 years, the parliament has established, renamed and abolished an independent skills authority, and now we are establishing one all over again. We will support this bill, because it is taking some positive steps, but establishing, then reimposing and then rebranding and renaming a body is not the answer. The answer is to say that TAFE is important, that VET is important, when delivered by our public teachers and lecturers, who know what they are doing. We should not turn this into a business or a market. There are many things that of course should be businesses and markets, but government provided vocational education is not one of them.

With the skills crisis and jobs crisis in this country we see nearly four in 10 young people at the moment either without a job or without enough hours of work. It is a national crisis, and it is only going to get worse. It has been bad for a long time—since the GFC. Young people have basically been in recession since the GFC and it is going to get worse, because we have lost a lot of entry-level jobs. If we want to deal with the jobs crisis, the skills crisis, the economic crisis we are facing and the climate crisis, then government needs to get its hand back on the steering wheel and say, 'We are going to do things that are in the country's interest to rebuild our skills and rebuild our capacity here.' That is why we have been advancing a Green New Deal that has at its core a skills and jobs guarantee for young people, where they will be guaranteed a free place at TAFE or university, a guaranteed income that they could live on and a guaranteed job, if they want it, working on some nation-building, planet-saving projects to ensure that we tackle all of those crises and get this country back on track.

We have so many things that we need to do in this country. We have a manufacturing sector to rebuild, which was decimated not only by free trade agreements that Labor and the Liberals signed up to but also by the mining boom, which decimated manufacturing in non-mining states. Everyone thought we could just keep digging things up and selling them off and that it wouldn't come with consequences, no matter how high the dollar was. Well, it decimated manufacturing in places like Victoria. We have to rebuild that. We have to get to 100 per cent renewable energy in this country, as quickly as we can. We have to house the more than 100,000 people who are homeless every day. We have to find jobs for people working in the construction industry. We can do all of this with a green new deal. With a government led plan of investment and action we can meet the challenges we face, we can find decent, well-paying jobs for people and we can restore the skills base in this country.

I'll conclude by saying we're not going to stand in the way of this bill, but if you want to get skills back in this country, which the Greens do, you've got to restore funding to TAFE and you've got to make TAFE the central provider of vocational and technical education in this country.

6:30 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor is not going to oppose this bill, the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. We agree with the bill, which would establish a new statutory office of National Skills Commissioner to provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demands, the labour market and workforce development; and advice in relation to Australia's current, emerging and future workforce needs; the pricing of vocational education and training courses; public and private return on government investment in vocational education and training qualifications; the performance of Australia's system in VET; and issues affecting the Australian and international labour markets.

It seems a bit of a no-brainer that we would support a bill like this that seeks to improve the quality of the vocational education and training sector. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a reason why we wouldn't want improvements to the vocational education and training sector, and it's good to see that this government has finally come to the party on wanting to ensure quality in vocational education and training.

I want to talk about some of the research I've done in the past on vocational education and training. In 2000, I undertook a study looking at women in particular and at how much they value the VET sector. The findings of that study suggested that vocational education and training was highly valued among women, particularly among women who were seeking to return to the workforce after being a stay-at-home parent for a period of time and also by migrant women who were coming in and looking for ways in which they could contribute to the economy through entering the workforce. Shortly after that, in fact a few years after that, I joined a different research team, and we looked at tradies and training for tradies. One of the findings from that particular study was that we were losing quality training for tradespeople—it was during a construction boom and there was a high demand for tradespeople—and we found that fewer and fewer people were going into the trades. Not long after that, in a different role, I travelled with a delegation to the Gulf nations, where we talked a lot about Australia's world-class training system. Those nations were looking to Australia and to the Australian model of vocational education and training to model their own vocational education and training systems within their own countries. They were looking to Australia as a prime example of a successful training and skills industry.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. Sadly, under this government our vocational education and training system has taken a hammering. They have gutted what was once held up as a world renowned model for vocational education and training. As an educator myself and somebody who comes from the background of being at one point a teacher at TAFE and then later on at university, I always have said and will continue to say that not everybody could, should or needs to go to university. We definitely need to have a strong training sector that is not just there as a second choice for those who can't get into university but is a sector—and an industry and an area—that young people aspire to be a part of to get the skills that they need through vocational education and training, whether it be in trades or other skills.

Labor has always supported a strong vocational education and training sector. In 2008 we established Skills Australia. Skills Australia provided the same kind of advice that the proposed National Skills Commissioner would provide, but it was a more robust body. I think that's a fair enough assessment to make—that Labor's previous iteration of an advisory body was essentially a lot more robust than what is being proposed under this particular bill. In 2011 Skills Australia was rebranded as the Australian Workplace Productivity Agency. The functions continued as before; it was a rebranding. But then in 2014 the Abbott government decided that it didn't need expert advice—the kind of expert advice, mind you, that we have come to rely on through this recent period of pandemic. They decided they didn't need expert advice on vocational education and training, workforce productivity and skills, and they abolished the AWPA. This particular bill, as I've mentioned, is some way from reclaiming some of that former glory that Australia had with a strong and robust vocational education and training system as a mechanism for providing advice.

I'd like to take a minute here, because good, quality training is actually a passion of mine. In particular, training around cybersecurity is something that I'm very interested in and very passionate about. In the last parliament, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement undertook an inquiry into law enforcement capabilities around cybersecurity. One of the recommendations of that inquiry was that there needed to be substantial measures taken to address some skills gaps in our law enforcement capabilities around cybersecurity, particularly because law enforcement attracts people, young people in particular, who have the kinds of skills that are needed. They stay for a little while and then they move on to a better paid position in law enforcement.

One of the ideas that I've looked at is using our vocational education and training system to upskill and train law enforcement officers, sworn officers, in some of the skills they need to move into the cybersecurity roles. But we can't do that if we don't have quality vocational education and training. We can't do that if our TAFEs are closing. We can't do that if TAFE teachers are losing their jobs. We can't do that if TAFE courses are no longer being made available to students, because there's no funding. We cannot build on the skills that we need to move forward as a nation if we don't recognise that we are responsible for ensuring that young people, people who are returning to work and people who need to change their work have access to quality training in order to acquire those skills.

Labor has a plan for this. We're not standing up here just to criticise this bill or criticise the government; we're standing here with an alternative. We're standing here with a solution. We're standing here with a proposal. Unlike the National Skills Commissioner that's proposed in this bill, our Jobs and Skills Australia would operate as an independent statutory authority, with a genuine partnership between business leaders of large and small businesses, state and territory governments, unions and education providers—those at the grassroots level, at the coalface, who understand the regions, the cohorts, the demographics and the needs of all the stakeholders. You cannot design a robust, responsive and effective vocational and educational training system if you do not include all the stakeholders. You can't do it if you don't include industry. You can't do it if you don't know your demographics. You can't do it if you don't include businesses. You can't do it if you don't include state and territory governments. And you can't do it if you don't include education providers.

This is one of the flaws of this proposal before us. It really doesn't provide as comprehensive a mechanism as it could for addressing what I would say is a fairly substantive and urgent issue, particularly given the current situation and particularly as we move into the next few months, with unemployment levels being what they are. There are people who will have no jobs to go back to. We talk about unemployment, but a lot of those jobs that people were in have gone. People won't be going back into those jobs. They're going to need to be reskilled into areas where there is a demand for employment. You cannot be serious about having an effective mechanism for developing a program or an industry if you don't have a mechanism by which all the key stakeholders and all the experts can come together and design a comprehensive way forward.

In government, Labor would enhance this National Skills Commissioner, as it stands before us, and turn it into the vision that we have for Jobs and Skills Australia. It would be a collaborative and comprehensive framework and it would also be an enduring structure that would look at designing not just for the near future but for the middle and far future as well. We're at a time in history—and I hate to use the word 'unprecedented', because I think it's been a little bit overdone, right? But we certainly are at a time in history where—

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

An unprecedented statement!

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, indeed, Member for Goldstein! We have an opportunity to stop and pause. I think it's a good thing to see this as an opportunity to stop and pause—to look at the way in which we think about ourselves, to look at where we're going, to look at where we've been and to look at where we could be better. I would really love, whenever it is that I end up leaving this place—and inevitably I will return to the education sector, which is where I've spent the last two decades—to return to a sector that has been restored to its former glory. I would love for that to happen. For as long as I'm here, I will continue to work towards that. I know that I'm in the right party to do that, because I know that Labor stands for a strong vocational education and training sector and for a sector that is responsive to the needs of industry but also to the needs of the population. This isn't just about filling gaps in industry; this is about giving opportunity. This is about fulfilling aspirations for young people.

I'll end by referring to my electorate of Cowan, where the predominant profession is in the trades. Over the past seven years or so, we've seen an attrition in the number of tradespeople in Cowan, and that is not due to natural forces—that is not natural attrition. I know that because every week I get parents contacting me because they cannot find a traineeship or an apprenticeship for their child who seeks to become skilled in a trade. I know it's not because of natural attrition; I know it is directly as a result of this government's lack of commitment to a strong vocational education and training sector. I hope that we can change that.

6:45 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As has been said by previous speakers, Labor will not oppose the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. One of the reasons we won't oppose it is that it sounds an awful lot like Skills Australia, which we established in 2008 and which then became the Australian Workplace and Productivity Agency in 2011. That agency analysed and reported on Australia's current, emerging and future workforce development needs. But, sadly, on taking office one of the first decisions by the Abbott Liberal government was to shut it down, because apparently we didn't need it anymore. Six years on we see the consequences of that decision. That wasn't the only decision that was made, but certainly that took away the ability to get reliable and independent analysis of our labour market and skills needs.

Labor won't oppose this bill. We do think there needs to be a body that provides advice about workforce needs, now and into the future, about pricing for VET courses, about the performance of the system for providing vocational education, about the issues that affect Australian and international labour markets. We look forward to the new National Skills Commissioner providing to the minister and the department advice on skills demand and all of those labour force and market issues. We on this side of the House believe in strong expert evidence and advice that informs our policy. Our skills and workforce development needs are no different than any other policy area that this parliament needs to make decisions about. But, unfortunately, what we've got here tonight is just a little adjustment. It's not really going very far to reform the vocational education system, and right now we all know that that system is absolutely vital if we are to recover from the economic shock that we've faced. If the COVID recovery is going to be one that doesn't just snap back to the problems we had before but takes us into a space where we deal with and address some of those issues, then the TAFE system, the vocational education system, is absolutely fundamental. There will be so many people looking to reskill and retrain as we move through this recession. TAFE is going to have to have a key role, so I hope this isn't the last piece of legislation or the last policy on vocational education that we see from those on the other side.

In the few months of the pandemic, we've already seen how important TAFE is as a support to many people, and it was terrific to see the fee-free short courses that were offered in New South Wales to help people who had lost their positions, through absolutely no fault of their own, and who already wanted to start reskilling so that they would be in a better position to get a job when the crisis finally eases. It was terrific to see a range of things offered, from administration skills, health and medical courses, leadership, business and, importantly, digital skills.

I just want to give some perspective about why a strong vocational education system is so important in areas like mine, on the outskirts of Sydney—peri-urban areas. Technicians and trade workers were the second most common occupations in the 2016 census for the electorate of Macquarie, and that represents about 15.6 per cent of employed people aged 15 and over. Another seven per cent of the population was attending technical or further education at the time of the census. This represents not just tradies; it represents businesses. These are people who are self-employed and have skilled themselves up. They have a skill that others don't have. They use that skill not just to benefit their clients, fix problems, create fantastic houses, create wonderful landscapes and help the horse racing industry in my area; they use it because they are building a business for their family. So we have a strong belief in the value of taking trade skills—and I'm glad that the member opposite does too.

Many of the young people I speak with, including during this COVID crisis, aren't aspiring to go to university. They want to do an apprenticeship or a traineeship. That's what they want. It's what their parents have done; it might not be what their parents have done, but they can see that it's a fantastic option for the skills that they have. But we know that getting an apprenticeship is harder than it has ever been, with 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships having been lost in recent years. It's really concerning to see the modelling from the Mitchell Institute which suggests that one in every three Australians who had been planning to take on an apprenticeship could miss out as a result of the pandemic. That means the future generation of skilled trades men and women—and that means the building industry and so many industries—is really up in the air.

Sadly, the HomeBuilder program, based on the feedback I am getting and what the analysis is showing, is not going to be anything that fixes that problem. Unless there is significant policy development by those opposite, unless they have a plan—and we haven't seen it yet—the prediction is that the number of new apprenticeships and traineeships will fall by at least 30 per cent over the next two years. That is shameful. That would mean roughly 45,000 fewer apprentices a year for the end of the financial years of 2021 and 2022. If I'm an HSC student or a year 11 student hoping to do an apprenticeship, it's a really dim future that I'm looking at without some action by those opposite. In New South Wales alone we have lost close to 31,000 apprenticeships. With COVID-19 and losing apprenticeships at a rate of knots, I think those opposite need to be offering us much more than a National Skills Commissioner.

I hope those opposite will stand up and take note when they hear this piece of information: Australia has fewer apprentices and trainees now than when this government came to office. So you haven't added to the numbers; they've gone backwards. That's not something to be proud of. Under the last Labor government the number of apprentices and trainees never dropped below about 400,000. Remember, that was during a global financial crisis. Under this government, prior to COVID, they'd been hovering at around 260,000 or 270,000. The Prime Minister might think he looks good in his hard hat and high-vis vest, but he is overseeing a Liberal government that spent seven years creating a tradie crisis in Australia. And the $3 billion cut from TAFE and training has led to so many other shortages. The shortage of workers has been plugged by temporary visa workers. That is not a solution; it is a stopgap. The solution is to train up our young people and make it easier for older people to retrain.

I read with interest the comments recently by Gary Workman, the CEO of Global Apprenticeship Network, which collects the apprenticeship vacancy numbers. He says they have never fully recovered after the GST as employers turn to casual workers, subcontracting and 457 visas to make up the skills shortfall. So the data is showing what we all know, and that is that there has been no real solution put in place.

We've seen the growth in low-quality privately delivered courses under this government. That's put pressure on TAFE and providers who offer quality courses, and that's really put pressure on standards. It has real consequences for quality. Across the VET system we've seen a decline in outcomes for students, with dropping enrolments and low completion rates. I think what horrifies me most is the cost shifting. It's shifted totally to students, as they've been hit with fee increases and growing limitations on access, particularly for students in areas like mine. It's a disincentive for people to do extra training. We should be incentivising people to go towards vocational education, not making it harder for them. We want them to learn how to build a brick wall; we don't want to put one in front of them. But that is what is happening.

This government has also overseen what is the very nastiest of behaviour in the trade training sector, with so many people defrauded of funds they wanted to use to educate themselves and improve their lives. They were exploited, and it took those opposite far too long to act. The current government has spent the last seven years watching it all unfold and has done absolutely nothing about it. So when we see these little things coming back, yes, we welcome it, but I question their commitment. After seven years, this is just a very small piece of the puzzle.

I have to say, I listened really eagerly to the JobMaker announcement, thinking that the Prime Minister had really discovered TAFE and vocational education, but it turned out to be a fake. There is no new funding, no time line and no details. Honestly, go to Google and look for yourself. All you can find is the foreshadowing of the announcement. It is impossible to find any sliver of detail about what was actually announced. It really was just all froth and bubble.

By contrast, we have a really solid vision of how we improve peoples' lives by giving them access to the TAFE and vocational education system. In the 'jobs and future of work' speech delivered by Labor leader Anthony Albanese, last year, we stated very clearly our intention in government to establish Jobs and Skills Australia. We see that this independent statutory authority could work to provide a genuine partnership with business leaders, the big ones and the small ones—the small manufacturers, the small construction businesses in my community, the bakers and the hairdressers who really want to draw on TAFE for their apprentices.

We also need to be able to give employers the support they need to do just that. It takes time to share your knowledge and your skills. I know as an employer that it's sometimes easier to do it yourself, but I pay real tribute to the employers who take the time to have apprentices. I was speaking with Nick Schwarz, from Wentworth Falls, who has high praise for the TAFE teacher who trains the apprentices who work in Nick's bakery. He said they're responsive to his needs, the demands of his business and the realities of what it's like to be a baker in Wentworth Falls making some of the most amazing and fattening doughnuts. TAFE is made up of incredible people who pass on their skills to the next generation, skills they've acquired over a lifetime in their sector, whether it's as an electrician, a roof builder, a concreter or a hairdresser. If it's Wentworth Falls TAFE, it can be in the disability sector, in outdoor education or as a pastry chef. If it's Richmond, it's caring for animals or horticulture or working in the horse industry. I think we need to see our local TAFEs offering more courses in their local areas. Certainly, the specialties have centralised and concentrated. While that can work really well in some sectors of the industry, there are a lot of subjects you can't study within cooee of my electorate.

We are now experiencing one of the greatest economic challenges and transformations of our lives. We're facing choices about how to go forward, and in Western Sydney there are huge opportunities. There are big construction projects underway, which need to be worked on by local workers not by imports from other states or beyond. We have a wonderful opportunity at Richmond TAFE and Western Sydney University, side by side—the opportunity to really see those two sectors work collaboratively. There is a wonderful proposal that is currently being put forward to build on the existing greenhouse, which does protected cropping. The university is looking at upscaling that and creating a logistics hub. This would provide jobs, globally competitive production and logistics research. It would allow us to really revolutionise what we're doing in Western Sydney around food distribution, building the supply chain capacity and closing the gaps that we have. These are really practical things that would have huge benefits for local manufacturers, and I would urge the government to get behind those proposals. If we continue down the road being laid by the Liberal government, with their track record of cuts rather than investment, the impact on TAFEs and apprenticeships—and, therefore, the economy—is going to be devastating.

I want to finish with a quote from Maxine Sharkey from the Australian Education Union:

Right now TAFE is the only institution ready to meet the challenge of rebuilding Australia's workforce. TAFE must be the government's preferred solution …

I hope the government hears that message.

7:01 pm

Photo of Ben MortonBen Morton (Tangney, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all members for their contributions to this debate. The vocational education training system is the engine room of Australia's future growth. It is the place where over four million Australians go every year to learn new skills, gain nationally recognised qualifications and springboard on to their first or next job. It is the place that employers turn to in order to ensure that their employees receive high-quality training to enable them to do their existing jobs better and to perform new roles. Now more than ever before Australia needs this training system to be the best it has ever been. Australia's economy is changing rapidly, and millions of Australians need to reskill and upskill in growth areas.

The National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 establishes a new independent statutory office, the National Skills Commissioner, and sets out the commissioner's functions. The commissioner will lead thinking on Australia's skills and workforce needs and provide a critical new piece of Australia's economic infrastructure. The commissioner will consolidate and strengthen labour-market and skills-needs analysis and be an independent and trusted source of information about what is happening in the Australian labour market now and into the future. This research and analysis will draw on emerging data sources and cutting-edge analytic techniques to ensure that Australia's labour market analysis capability is world-leading.

The commissioner will examine the cost drivers in delivering quality training and will develop and maintain a set of efficient prices for VET on a course-by-course basis to improve transparency, consistency and accessibility for students. Currently, VET prices and subsidies vary considerably around Australia, with students paying different prices for the same course and varying levels of quality. An efficient price does not mean the lowest price but one that provides value for money. Central to the commissioner's work will be a focus on quality to determine the price that delivers the skills that employers need and that sets up students for a valuable career.

The commissioner will also lead research and analysis to examine the effectiveness of the VET system and advise on the public and private returns on government investment. This means having a better understanding of VET student outcomes such as whether a student got a job and what they are now earning, as well as public benefits such as building a strong care workforce. This analysis will enable governments to direct investments towards high-quality courses that give students the best chance of getting a job.

The Liberals and Nationals in government have a strong, long record of investing in vocational education and skills in rural and regional Australia. It was the Liberals and Nationals in government who introduced the Australian apprentice wage subsidy, which has created 3,200 new apprenticeships in rural and regional Australia. Through this scheme, apprentices are receiving training and are helping to grow small businesses. Those opposite in the Labor Party opposed this scheme, calling it a political fiasco. We have established the first two of 10 industry training hubs: in Burnie in Tasmania and in Townsville in Queensland. The hubs will help improve opportunities for young people in areas of high youth unemployment, creating better linkages between schools and local industry, and repositioning vocational education and training as a first-choice option.

We're also investing $9.9 million to deliver the remote community pilots, which are to be located in the Northern Territory, in Western Australia, in South Australia and in northern Queensland. In the design of the NSC, the government undertook a co-designed program in partnership with state and territory governments, industry and other key VET stakeholders. This included workshops in all capital cities and five regional locations: Bendigo, Cairns, Orange, Karratha and Mount Isa. Consultation in these regional centres helped ensure that the unique views and issues faced in these areas were captured.

The NSC will provide detailed labour market analysis, including an annual report each year setting out the skills Australia needs. Regions will be able to leverage analysis undertaken by the National Skills Commissioner on the performance of VET. Data from the NSC will power the National Careers Institute, providing students, including in regional Australia, with the most accurate and comprehensive data on where jobs are and will be, and what skills they'll need to get them, moving them quickly from learning to earning. The National Skills Commissioner will produce information with the flexibility to respond to local needs and demands. I note the work that the National Party have done not only in ensuring that vocational education and training is supported in rural and regional Australia but also in ensuring that the unique needs and challenges that these areas face will be considered by the National Skills Commission, which the minister for employment and skills is ensuring.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the importance and the increased urgency of this work, re-enforcing the importance of our existing commitment to the reform of the VET system. This bill is part of the Morrison government's $585 million Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow Skills Package and builds on our vision for VET to be a responsive, dynamic and trusted sector. The role of the National Skills Commissioner is underpinned by the principles of independence, transparency and accountability. It will support a stronger and more agile VET system, enabling us to navigate economic recovery, lift productivity and lay the foundations for a prosperous future. One again, I thank all members for their engagement on this bill, and I commend this bill to the House.

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 Sydney has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.