House debates

Monday, 15 June 2020

Bills

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

5:13 pm

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

I rise to speak about the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. Labor will not oppose this bill. It amends the governance structures of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the national VET regulator, and enhances information-sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

Key amendments will revise ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner, chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder—a CEO—and will establish the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. The advisory council is intended to provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator. The changes respond to initial findings from the rapid review of ASQA's governance, culture and processes.

Labor supports a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We will support changes that improve its capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers, but we will reject changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. We need to ensure that reforms to ASQA audit processes don't allow any drop in quality. In the past, we've seen this government be slow to act on quality issues, and it has done serious damage to the sector.

As I said earlier, Labor will not oppose this bill, but we will push to ensure TAFE and union representation on the advisory council. It's crucial that the public provider has a seat at the table. Given the important role the advisory council will play in providing strategic advice, Labor believes it is imperative that the council represents a cross-section of the sector, while providing essential expertise. As the public provider, TAFE plays a critical role in the sector and it should be properly represented on the council. We do not want to see an advisory body that is unduly weighted to representing private providers. This could undermine ASQA's stringent regulatory approach. Equally, trade union representation is vital. Union members, the workers, are at the coalface of training, and they know too well the system and the system's problems. They have played a critical role in the development of standards, career advancement, safety and quality of courses. To remove the voice of those at the coalface would diminish any work the council did.

More broadly, this is just another tweak from a third-term government that simply refuses to deliver a genuine reform package to overhaul the vocational training sector. The bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system. The outbreak of the coronavirus highlighted that more than seven years of Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and vocational training. The most recent figures show a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. I've spoken to small businesses who say they've been struggling to keep their apprentices on. The government did earlier offer a subsidy for apprentices, and that's one small step in the right direction, but this is a critical problem for us. We had skills shortages before the pandemic hit. Before COVID-19 we were simultaneously experiencing a crisis of youth unemployment and a crisis of skills shortages. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is a disaster. And here we are, confronted with just that. There's a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages.

While businesses are struggling to fill the skilled positions they have on offer, 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 those roles require. Why isn't the Prime Minister training these people for jobs in industries where there's a shortage of workers? Well, because the government has spent seven years neglecting our TAFE and vocational education and training system. It has spent seven years neglecting it. It has spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE, the public provider, plays in the growth and development of 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. Rebuilding our skills and training sector will be crucial to getting the economy going again post the pandemic.

We absolutely need to be properly funding our TAFEs and our apprenticeship programs. Sadly, we've seen $3 billion of cuts in recent years to TAFE and training. The government must restore the funding they have cut. They must invest in developing our younger generation of tradespeople in these areas. They need to take responsibility for this. As we learned last year from the federal Department of Education's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. The numbers involved are shocking. It is all sitting in the government's bank account, idling away, and that is in addition to the more than $3 billion already ripped out of the system.

We have TAFE campuses falling apart across the country, desperately in need of infrastructure upgrades. We have state governments closing campuses and ending courses, all while this pile of money remains unspent. Why? Because this government says there has been less demand than forecast. Every year since the Liberal Party came to office?

That just doesn't stack up. When underemployment is near record levels, employers are at the same time crying out for skilled workers, and young people cannot get jobs.

What is the result? Under the Liberals there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, and there is a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. The independent National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently found that over the past year 20 per cent fewer people were signing up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. This was even more extreme in a number of essential trades. Australians starting an apprenticeship or traineeship in construction, including carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing, dropped an alarming 40 per cent. There are more people dropping out of vocational training than finishing it. This doesn't happen by accident. The Liberal government's billion dollar underspend included incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help people finish their apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need.

At a time when we as a nation are screaming out for skilled workers, it's a travesty that this government has neglected the VET sector and has neglected our youth—not only our youth but the many other workers needing reskilling to get a job after they have lost theirs or have been made redundant. Think of autoworkers. They were highly skilled workers in good, solid jobs with decent pay and conditions that were gone at the whim of a past Treasurer and his government. Thousands of skilled workers were employed directly by the car companies themselves or in supply chains or services companies that relied on the sector. Research shows that, when an industry collapses or is shut down, one-third of workers get a similar job, one-third end up in lower paid, casual, less skilled jobs and one-third never work again.

Planning for full employment, in particular in the face of sectoral change, is complicated but necessary, and it can be done. All the VET sector—TAFEs, RDOs, community colleges, group training organisations—has a role in ensuring that we have maximum employment through skilling, reskilling and lifelong learning. In a world where people no longer have a job for life, where workers are more likely to move through the workforce and where technology changes at a rate faster than we can keep up, we must have an agile, comprehensive and valued VET sector.

I come from the Labor Party. That means I, along with my party, have a vision for the vocational education and training sector. It is one where courses are reworked to reflect new and traditional skills, where teachers are offered secure jobs in the sector, with good pay, and where the best of the best can be attracted to teach. It is one where students are proud to have secured a place at a prestigious TAFE and where they are delivered qualifications that can set them up for life. It is one where students have state-of-the-art equipment and world-class amenities, where qualifications are valued equally with those of the university sector, where dual qualifications may even be possible, where businesses compete for collaboration and opportunity and open the doors of expertise for people to be trained, and where businesses do their bit to ensure a future with a productive, skilled workforce. It would be a world leader in education and professional standards and growth.

We need a framework and a government with the vision to set this up. We need a regulator that has a compliance role, for sure. But we also need it to have a role in education, enabling and transforming and evolving the training organisations. We have a vision for TAFEs and the VET sector—one where it is vital, robust and valued. This government does not. It gives lip-service but does nothing useful. Yes, we support this bill, but it's just tinkering in a sector that is crying out for reform. For almost seven years this government has shown a palpable lack of leadership. But, suddenly, the Prime Minister has apparently clicked and knows it's important to the Australian people and the economy. He made some hollow references without any hard detail and without any policy announcements. There were no funding commitments and there was no indication of what this means. We are seeing piecemeal reforms in response to a flurry of disconnected reviews. But there have been too many wasted years, and there is no clear vision.

The Productivity Commission says the VET system is a mess. The Business Council of Australia is calling for fundamental reform. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called the government's commitment to VET lukewarm at best. The Chief Scientist doubts the system is equal to the challenges posed by a rapidly changing technological future. Business concerns in relation to skill shortages cannot be addressed with a piecemeal, half-hearted approach to skill acquisition, vocational education and our public provider.

I am a nurse, and I did a Bachelor of Education so I could play a role in the education of future nurses, enrolled nurses and carers. I've had experiences in both receiving and delivering quality vocational education, and it starts with a commitment to the end goal of skilled workers through real collaboration with industry, trainers and government. That connection between industry, training organisations and government is broken. In fact, in many ways the VET sector has divided—moved away from industry. It's no longer supplying the skills that industry demands nor is it providing the quality of training that is required. In fact, the VET sector is a perfect example of market failure, where the marketisation of the sector created the provision of cheap courses that served neither the workers' interests nor industries' interests—nor, for that matter, the economy's interest.

Everyone from the Business Council of Australia through to the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling for intervention to restart the process. The government's response has been poor. It is not listening. It is merely tinkering. The Prime Minister has no plan to create more jobs or to lift wages for those who are actually employed. As always, the Prime Minister would rather hide from problems than do the hard work needed to solve them. He would rather spin and deflect, bringing in marketing teams and celebrity ambassadors to distract from the real issue. Fiddling at the edges of the current system will not address the profound problems that undermine vocational education and training and, consequently, the productive performance and international competitiveness of our economy.

Consequently, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that:

(1) the Government has damaged Australia's world-class vocational training system by:

  (a) cutting funding for vocational education and TAFE by over $3 billion;

  (b) presiding over simultaneous crises of skills shortages and youth unemployment; and

  (c) failing to tackle falling completion rates, with more people dropping out of vocational training courses than finishing them; and

(2) this bill fails to deliver the reform needed to fix problems in the vocational training sector".

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

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The amendment is seconded, and I reserve my right to speak.

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

The original question was that this bill be read a second time. The honourable member for Cooper has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form 'That the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question'. I call the member for Fisher.

5:28 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There's never been a more important time in Australian modern day history to continue this government's commitment to reforming the vocational education and training sector. I've spoken often in this place and at length about the importance of the VET sector. But, as we navigate these choppy COVID-19 waters, we must maintain our focus and our commitment to VET, and that is precisely what this bill will do. The Morrison government understands well the importance of the VET sector. The political leadership exhibited by both the senior responsible minister, Senator Cash, and the assistant minister, the member for Swan, who was himself once an electrician, or what is colloquially known as a sparky—the member for Swan completed his own apprenticeship all those many years ago when one wonders whether there was, in fact, electricity around!

But I digress. The member for Swan is committed to VET, as is Senator Cash and as are all members and senators who sit on the government benches. The member for Swan has walked the talk; he is the real deal when it comes to passion for the VET sector—just like the Minister for Water, Resources and Northern Australia. He too is an electrician, having completed an apprenticeship and then going on to complete a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering. So too the member for Nicholls and the Minister for Aged Care, Youth and Support, Senator Colbeck. They both completed carpentry apprenticeships, as did I.

The ranks of government members on both the front and backbenches are replete with ex-blue-collar workers, or what many refer to today as 'tradies'. But, once a tradie always tradie. I'm still a registered builder—a proud builder—who likes nothing more than pulling the nail bag on and doing a few jobs around the house, and even helping out on community projects when time permits. That's not an invitation to have me around to your place, Mr Deputy Speaker! My point is this: members and senators on the government benches understand the importance of the VET sector—not from an academic or an economic textbook, or from some ideological basis, but from a real-world lived experience; from getting dirt under one's fingernails, from working all day in the hot sun and the cold wind and rain, and then going home and doing the books to pay one's suppliers, employees and subbies.

Whilst I want to acknowledge that this bill will pass with the support of those opposite—and I thank them for that—it's that lived experience that those opposite will never understand because they haven't walked a mile in the shoes of someone who is VET-sector trained. For all the talk from those opposite of purporting to stand up for the workers, how many of those opposite have actually done an apprenticeship, a traineeship or worked as tradies? Silence. Gone are the days of old, when the ALP's ranks were replete with blue-collar workers! Now it seems that Labor will do almost anything to bury what was once its heartland, its support base. Inconceivably, in the lead-up to the last election—and still—Labor believed that its miners should not be working in those jobs anymore. It seeks to close down coalmines and to prevent new coalmines from opening. In fact, it seems to want to prevent any type of mine from opening up.

Australian workers know that the $380 billion worth of additional taxes Labor took to the last election, and which still remain Labor policy today, would have killed and will kill the Australian economy if ever they get a chance to form government again. Australian workers are not mugs; they understood Labor's position in the lead-up to last year's election. When I stood on pre-poll for three weeks and on election day, I saw the wearers of high-vis—tradies—time after time making a beeline to me as the LNP candidate because they knew that we had worker-friendly policies, unlike those opposite.

Those opposite seem incapable of understanding that it is a tried and proven political maxim that you never forget your base. Not only have Labor forgotten their base but they have totally and utterly abandoned it. When a political party like the ALP has been taken over by political apparatchiks and professional trade unionists who do not understand the values of those it purports to represent then that voter base will simply vote with its feet. And as we've seen, that is just what many blue-collar workers and what many tradies are doing. Why? Because the Labor Party has abandoned them in favour of the cultural inner-city elites.

And do you know the really sad thing, Mr Deputy Speaker McVeigh? It's that they just don't get it. Labor just don't get it. They don't understand; they blame everyone else but themselves and their anti-business, anti-individual, reckless, green-ideological-groupthink policies. One wonders why organisations like the CFMMEU continue to support the ALP. It can't be about values or political beliefs, unless of course the CFMMEU have themselves sold out their own members. Unions like the CFMMEU continue to donate millions of dollars to the ALP each and every year. Perhaps that's why the ALP cannot break its umbilical cord with the CFMMEU: they both need each other. But it's not about workers, apprentices or trainees, it's about money, power and greed. The more money a union donates to the ALP, the more power it has over the ALP. Mr Deputy Speaker, do you recall when the Leader of the Opposition said that he would drive the secretary of the Victorian branch of the CFMMEU, John Setka, from his position? Guess what? Twelve months later John Setka is still the secretary of the Victorian branch of the CFMMEU.

I want to return to the significance of this bill to the VET sector. I want to speak to the apprentices and trainees out there who may be listening on their way home from building sites, or they may be in factories or workplaces around the country; perhaps they're still on building sites, although it's getting a bit late in the day. I want you apprentices and trainees to know that this Liberal-National government has your back. We have your back because we know and understand the importance of apprenticeships and traineeships, because many government members were once just like you. We've walked in your shoes. We've experienced what you are experiencing today. We understand that you may be nervous about your job. We understand that you may be concerned about what will happen to your future. How will you finish your apprenticeship or traineeship in these difficult times? I distinctly remember asking myself these questions during my own carpentry apprenticeship, when we endured Paul Keating's 'recession we had to have'. I recall sitting around at smoko on a building site, listening to my boss telling us that things were about to get very tough and that work would likely dry up for many. Thankfully, it didn't for us, and I was able to complete my apprenticeship. But I can hear my boss saying, like it was yesterday, that during a recession, 'cash would be king'. Peter Mahony, you were right then and you're still right now.

This Liberal-National government understands the importance of looking after apprentices and trainees. That's why the government, very early on in its COVID response, offered to pay 50 per cent of the wages of apprentices and trainees, an arrangement which has resulted in many employers keeping their apprentices and trainees. That was because we know that when this is over it's so important to the future of this country that that relationship is maintained. This 50 per cent wage subsidy runs up to 30 September. As at 30 April, claims for 15,562 apprentices and trainees have been finalised to assist 9,518 employers, resulting in a total of $72.7 million in payments. This program is part of the federal government's $1.3 billion Supporting Apprentices and Trainees initiative and it is saving jobs.

I do agree with the member for Cooper and some of those opposite, that there are simply not enough apprentices and trainees to meet the usual demand of Australian industry. Now, that demand may have been somewhat ameliorated during this health and financial crisis we are in, but when the economy fires again—and it will—we are going to need skilled tradespeople, and you can't have skilled tradespeople without apprentices and trainees. You can't have them if they are not formally trained in the VET sector. You can't just add water to a labourer and get a tradesperson. You need that formal education through the VET sector to get someone to that level.

Similarly, for these same reasons, the government introduced the JobKeeper program, which sees eligible employers receive $1,500 a fortnight for eligible employees to maintain that relationship during this crisis. That's at an estimated cost of $70 billion. It's the largest government response to an economic crisis in our history, and it is just part of the government's approach to maintaining our economy, at a cost of some $180 billion.

Today, we heard the Prime Minister announce the infrastructure program that will be rolled out. We will need more trainees and apprentices for the work that is about to be rolled out. Similarly, the government recently announced its HomeBuilder package. We've seen one housing estate on the Sunshine Coast, in my electorate, sell out in one day. The developers were attributing the fact that they sold out the entire estate in one day to the HomeBuilder program.

I want to say to mums and dads out there who may be talking to their kids about a future as a tradie: not every kid should go to university.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I hear that. In fact, the member for Cowan said exactly the same thing just last week. I agree with her on that. Not every kid should go to university. Mums and dads out there, your kids can get an absolutely fantastic career by taking a traineeship or apprenticeship, training through the VET sector and maybe starting their own business. The doors will open for your children if you encourage them to take on an apprenticeship or a traineeship. Greats thing will happen for them, as they did for me and apprentices and trainees across the country.

This bill includes a number of provisions to revise the governance structure of ASQA to align with best-practice regulation. It provides for the Governor-General to appoint a statutory office holder known as the Chief Executive Officer of ASQA as the national VET regulator on a full-time basis. This replaces the current arrangement of a chief commissioner and two other commissioners comprising the national VET regulator. It provides that the CEO is the head of the statutory agency for the purposes of the Public Service Act and the accountable authority of the listed entity known as ASQA for the purposes of the finance law. It provides that a person who is, or has been at any time in the two years before an appointment is made, an executive officer of a registered training organisation is not eligible for appointment as the national VET regulator. It also provides for the engagement of staff and consultants to support the national VET regulator. It provides that the minister may give directions to the national VET regulator in relation to the performance of the regulator's functions or powers.

Its establishes an advisory council to provide advice to the national VET regulator in relation to the regulator's functions. The advice will be in relation to the registration of an individual registered trainee organisation or the accreditation of a particular course as a VET accredited course. It provides for the advisory council to consist of a chair and up to nine other members with expertise in regulation, communications, delivering training, operating or managing a training provider. It provides that the advisory council may provide advice to the national VET regulator on its own initiative or at the request of a minister or the regulator. The regulator must have regard to any advice provided by the advisory council. It establishes arrangements relating to the national VET regulator and advisory council members' appointment, including remuneration, allowances, leave, resignation and termination. It provides that the minister may give written directions to the advisory council about the performance of its functions and sets out transitional provisions to preserve decisions and actions taken by previous commissioners.

I want to wrap up by once again encouraging young people to go out and get an apprenticeship; to go onto building sites, go and see businesses and knock on every door. That next knock could be something that changes your life and sets you up for life.

5:43 pm

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

It is, indeed, always a privilege to stand here and speak about vocational education and training and higher education, a topic that I'm very passionate about. I begin by acknowledging the excellent contributions by the member for Cooper and the amendments that she's moving here, but also the excellent contribution of the first four minutes and 10 seconds of the member for Fisher—particularly the nice little jab at the member for Swan that he included in there—and there were about 30 seconds towards the end of the member for Fisher's contribution as well.

I've spoken before about the need for governance in vocational education and training, and the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 certainly goes towards ensuring that we have regulation and governance in that space, so I don't want to speak too much about that today. What this bill actually does has been covered by my colleagues who spoke previously. But the member for Cooper, the member for Fisher and other members who have contributed to discussions about VET and about higher education have spoken about the need for reform. That's where I want to focus my contribution this evening, because I really want to talk about what reform might look like and how we might move to actual reform.

I think other speakers have acknowledged that our vocational education and training system is in desperate need of something. It desperately needs to be revived to its once former glory. That's something that I've certainly spoken about before. But I want to talk about a different kind of reform that brings together a framework of higher education and that looks at the opportunities both in vocational education and training and in university. To do that, I think we need to start by understanding the fundamental difference between VET and university.

A VET degree focuses on skills and what's called 'competency based' training. So as an instructor in vocational education and training, for example, you don't give your students essays as exams; you give them a practical test in which they have to demonstrate a capability to carry out a certain number of tasks. These tasks are essential to tick off so that they can perform a task and therefore have that particular skill. So it's about demonstrating an ability to carry out a task by demonstrating an acquisition of skills. That's competency based training.

University degrees, on the other hand, focus on cognitive, academic skills—for example, the ability to think critically, the ability to analyse a piece of literature or the ability to approach a contemporary issue through different theoretical lenses. Each set of skills is suitable in different areas and has different applications. Competency based training is suitable for trades and those sorts of skills, whereas academic training is more suited towards skills that require creativity and critical thinking. But, in speaking about reform, I'm thinking of a framework where we integrate these two approaches to the acquisition of skills and knowledge and where we integrate training with university—work skills with academic skills; and competency, competency based training and the ability to demonstrate competency based training with the ability to demonstrate critical thinking about particular issues.

I'm thinking that TAFE could play a larger role, for example, in providing competency based training to industries to upskill their workforce or to reskill their workforces in areas of transition and to address knowledge gaps and skills gaps. We could use the TAFE system for post-university competency based units—for university graduates entering the workforce. I'll give some examples of where we could have this integrated higher education system.

We all know that sometimes we get university graduates who can, like I say, analyse a piece of 19th century literature but can't write a briefing note. So what if, post university, a system within TAFE was set up to teach those competency based skills—to teach communication as a skill? Another example could be university lecturers undertaking workplace teaching and training units in order to be able to teach graduates to communicate—because that's essentially what university lecturers do; they teach through communication—all that knowledge that they've acquired through their university years.

I've spoken before about the potential for having people who work in law enforcement trained in cybersecurity. Where law enforcement has a difficulty in retaining graduates with cybersecurity qualifications, if we had people who were already in law enforcement who showed some aptitude for cybersecurity, we could get them trained through vocational education and training, for example.

When we think about skills and the workforce of the future, when we think about employment in the future and what work is going to look like in the future, with artificial intelligence and with increased automation it's very likely that regular physical activities or tasks associated with work are going to decrease as machines take over. What's going to increase, what's going to be more needed in the future, are tasks that are creative and service oriented—the kinds of things that you need humans for: creativity and the delivery of service. These skills in creativity and in service are both academic and vocational. An integrated approach to higher education, where you had academic and vocational skills working in tandem with each other, would prepare our future workforce and look at both the needs of industry as well as the needs of students and future workers.

In order to do this, we need investment. We need investment and we need a real commitment to reform and a real commitment to innovation in this space. A good example of what I'm speaking about is education hubs. Just north of my electorate of Cowan there is an education precinct in Joondalup, where Edith Cowan University, my alma mater, built their Joondalup Campus alongside one of the largest TAFEs in Western Australia. Included within that precinct is the Western Australian Police Academy. So you have the police academy, the TAFE and Edith Cowan University. When I was working at Edith Cowan University, lecturing in counterterrorism, security and intel, we often did a lot of work with the police academy as well as the TAFE, to the point where we started developing courses where you could start off doing a TAFE degree, acquire some of those competency based skills in security and then undertake a couple of units at the university in criminology, psychology or computer security, getting those cognitive academic skills up as well—research skills, writing skills and those sorts of things.

When I think about the future of a quality higher education system, this is what I would like to see. I'd like to see more of these education hubs around Australia where you have universities working in tandem with TAFEs and other training institutions as well, like, for example, law enforcement academies like the police academy. If we invest in this, this is how I think we can achieve real reform in our VET sector.

I also think that this is an opportunity for us to reclaim our ground in Australia and our reputation as being world class and world leading with a vocational education and training sector that responds to industry needs—particularly if, as I say, we think about not just the jobs of the future but the kinds of tasks and the kinds of skills that are going to be required in those jobs and if we ask ourselves, frankly and openly, the question: how do we equip a future workforce, not just with knowledge, which they can get through an academic university degree, but with the skills to apply that knowledge and demonstrate competency, which they can get through vocational education and training?

I see a future where vocational education and training isn't just about carpentry or electricians and isn't just for tradies, as the member for Fisher said, or chefs and the acquisition of those kinds of skills. I see a future where we have a vocational education and training system which is actually about competency and a range of skills across a range of industries and which works coherently with other higher education providers and other provisions for higher education.

That's my contribution this evening with regard to this bill, which I note is specifically on the governance of ASQA, the national VET regulator. As I said at the beginning, I think it is important that we have regulation, standards and governance in this space, but I reiterate what the member for Cooper said with regard to this reform not going far enough. I don't think it's good enough that we stand here and talk about reform without having a deeper conversation about what reform might look like and without having those big ideas about how we can have a higher education system that has, at its heart, both university and vocational education and training on an equal footing. For too long we've seen vocational education and training as second rate compared to a university education. It's not and it shouldn't be. In fact, there are some areas, as the member for Fisher acknowledged and as I have acknowledged before in this House, where a university degree just won't do and where you need to have competency based training and to demonstrate an acquisition of skills.

I started by pointing to what this bill does. We are not opposing this bill, but I do hope that we continue to talk in this place about vocational education and training. I hope that we continue to talk it up and that, as we move forward with this bill and with some of the other bills that have been presented in parliament over the last week and the last time we sat, we can work towards a national vocational education and training system that isn't just about better governance but is about quality of delivery and is a system that addresses the needs of industry, students and a future workforce.

5:57 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020, and I support the amendment moved by the member for Cooper. As indicated by the assistant shadow minister, Labor will not oppose this bill. The bill amends the governance structure of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, the national VET regulator, and enhances information arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. The key amendments will revive ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner, chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory officeholder—a CEO—and will establish the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council.

It is intended that the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council will provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator. It would also provide strategic advice to help ASQA's continuous improvement. The advisory council would consist of nine members and a chair. The legislation does not indicate the likely make-up of the council, including whether or not there will be representation of private RTOs, public providers, experts, employer groups or unions. It is important that all stakeholders are represented. Labor will push to ensure TAFE and union representation on the advisory council. It's crucial that the public provider has seats at the table—not just private providers.

I note the member for Sydney has written to the minister, Senator Cash, outlining Labor's concerns, including about representation on the proposed advisory council. It would be a huge conflict for the regulator to have an advisory body comprising largely only one part of that sector. It's a bit like putting the fox in charge of the chook pen. The member for Sydney has indicated that, if the government can't guarantee balanced representation, Labor will consider amendments in the Senate to correct this. I note that the minister has not given any guarantee of a balanced representation on the advisory council by including unions and TAFE teachers.

The second concern is that Labor isn't quite sure what defects the legislation is meant to remedy. As the member for Sydney outlined in her letter to the minister, the explanatory memorandum for the bill states the bill addresses a number of recommendations in the Joyce and Braithwaite reviews. However, neither review appears to make any recommendation concerning the proposed changes to governance structures. Yes, they do mention better connection to industry and providers but nothing specific as to governance arrangements. Labor has called on the minister to provide further background on the rationale for these amendments. However, I note that the ASQA rapid review by a consultant in April has confirmed the desirability of the governance changes and that there is general support for ASQA adopting an educative as well as regulatory role.

Labor support a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We will support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers. But we will reject the attempts to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. We need to ensure that reforms to ASQA's audit processes don't allow any drop in quality.

In the past, we've seen this government being slow to act on quality issues, and it has done serious damage to the sector. The relatively minor changes to governance proposed in this bill are just another attempt to distract the community from the lack of a real and genuine reform package in the vocational training sector. This bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system. More than six years of Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and vocational training. It has spent six years ignoring the vital role TAFE plays in the growth of our young people and our economy. It has spent six years cutting funding whilst underspending the meagre amount it's promised the sector. The numbers are shocking.

As we learned last year from the federal education department's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. That's a $214 million underspend in 2018-19, a $202 million underspend in 2017-18 and a $118 million underspend in 2016-17. That is all sitting in the government's bank account. All of this underspend is in addition to the more than $3 billion already ripped out of the VET system. We've got TAFE campuses across the country falling apart. We've got state governments closing campuses and ending courses. And all the while this huge pile of money remains unspent. Why? The excuse is that there has been less demand than forecast every year since the Liberal Party came into government. That just doesn't stack up when underemployment is at record levels.

In January this year, before COVID-19 struck in March, the youth unemployment rate rose to 12.1 per cent from 11.6 per cent in December. It is now more than double that figure. At that time, employers were crying out for skilled workers and, as we move into the recovery phase, they will again. Under the Liberals, there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. The independent National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently found that, over the past year, 20 per cent fewer people have been signing up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. In my seat of Corangamite, there are 113 or 7.7 per cent fewer trainees and apprentices today than there were in 2013. In the Minister for Education's own seat of Wannon, there are 1,044 or around 28 per cent fewer apprentices and trainees than there were in 2013.

I'm not saying that training carers for our young and older citizens in aged care or child care or workers for retail isn't important. However, to build our infrastructure and our manufacturing and resource sectors, we need plumbers and electricians, bricklayers and carpenters. We can't continue to let this slide in traditional trades continue. The impact for our nation is just too great, especially after devastating events like the recent bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis, which mean years of rebuilding work ahead. Let's be clear: private sector RTOs outside major companies don't normally invest in facilities for complex trade skills. The private sector usually wants to take the cream without having to produce the milk to start with. It has been the TAFEs that have done the heavy lifting where courses require workshops, sandpits and labs. The government's preference for private RTOs—indeed, its insistence on contestability as the basis of funding agreements with the states and territories—has driven a race to the bottom with the TAFE system. This has exacerbated the move away from commencements in critical trades. Once, TAFE received 70 to 80 per cent of funds, and there was a cap on the amount of funds that were contestable. But that disappeared years ago. At the same time, there has been no focus on trade and technical areas for the allocation of funds.

Neither the Joyce review nor the recent Productivity Commission review into the funding arrangements looked at this issue of contestability. It is the ideological bedrock of the VET system and it is untouchable. The problem is that until it is fixed we're going to have the continuing disaster we have now in trades and technical training, as thousands of very small training providers compete each other into the ground. The states are, certainly, also to blame for this shocking state of affairs. From the height of their contributions in 2012 they have dropped the ball in terms of funding to the tune of $1 billion a year collectively. The states have also agreed, even promoted, contestability as the basis of the funding system.

Worse than the poor commencement dates, the failure-to-complete rates are horrendous. Completion rates for apprentices and trainees who completed training in 2014—the last year for which figures are available—have decreased to 56.7 per cent, down from 59.9 per cent for those commencing in 2013. The completion rates for individuals who commenced in trade occupations in 2014 decreased to just 54.5 per cent, down 4.7 percentage points compared with those commencing in 2013, and it decreased to 57.7 per cent for non-trade occupations, down two per cent. This doesn't happen by accident. The Liberal government's $1 billion underspend included cuts to incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, cuts to support which helped people finish their apprenticeships and cuts to a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need.

While the Australian Industry Group says 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need, there are several million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We are simultaneously experiencing a crisis of youth unemployment and a crisis of skill shortages. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is hard to comprehend. While businesses are struggling to fill the skilled positions they have on offer, 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. That is not only bizarre, it is a huge drag on our productivity. With states like Victoria in the middle of an infrastructure boom, this is a disaster. Many civil and engineering construction projects are being pushed back because the necessary skilled workforce isn't available. So it's not surprising that after the summer bushfires the government's silver bullet to rebuild economies was to amend the rules around working holiday visas to enable backpackers to take up work in affected areas. Now, with an even more urgent need to rebuild post-COVID-19, we need a considered and strategic investment in skills and TAFE, and real workforce training including skills acquisition. However, the government's response isn't to pump money into training for young people in the building trades. Pre COVID, the answer was to try to fill the labour shortages through short-term overseas visitors. That option is off the table for the foreseeable future.

Why isn't this coalition government training local people for jobs in industries where there is a shortage of workers? It's because the Liberals have cut funding to TAFE and training; that's why. Young people have been clear about what they need: they need a skills training sector which is properly funded and properly resourced, and which has educators who are properly trained and able to skill these kids up for a pathway to meaningful employment. They need training in skills that are actually linked to their local economy and the potential growth in that local economy.

This government hasn't delivered on a single element of those requests. As always, the Prime Minister would rather hide from problems than do the hard work needed to solve them. As with his JobMaker launch last May, he would rather blame the states and territories than look at this government's performance over the last seven years. He would rather spin and deflect, or bring in marketing teams, to distract from the real issue. Remember Scott Cam, the celebrity appointed as National Careers Ambassador late last year? Mr Cam was being paid $345,000 of taxpayers' money for 15 months work. Have we heard of him since? No, and we won't, as he has, thankfully, relinquished the remainder of his salary because of COVID-19 and, I expect, any motivation to promote the trades. Up until that point in April, he had done one event and a few social media videos.

Fiddling at the edges of the current system will not address the significant problems that undermine our woeful vocational education and training performance. By implication, it also adversely affects the productivity and international competitiveness of our economy. Unlike Labor, the government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as the public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships or the value of hardworking and passionate TAFE teachers. We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary-school education, either at TAFE or university. We urgently need to increase participation in both our universities and our vocational education sector to make sure that our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is evolving very quickly.

If we do not value the role of an appropriately funded VET sector for the training skills and apprenticeships they provide, or its vital role in driving the economy and enhancing industry, then we are in for a very rocky road indeed. This third-term government simply refuses to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the sector and properly funds both vocational training providers and universities to deliver the services that their students need. It's about time they did.

6:12 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. The VET sector in Australia is large and diverse, and this was noted in the Braithwaite report of 2016, the later Joyce review and the most recent rapid review undertaken in late 2019. There are approximately 4,000 RTOs in Australia, and the Australian Skills Quality Authority regulates approximately 3,700 of them. There are close to 1,500 qualifications being delivered across Australia, and over four million students are enrolled in nationally recognised VET. Private RTOs deliver VET to approximately 58.7 per cent of students; TAFEs to 17.6 per cent and community education providers deliver to nine per cent. The providers vary in size and in scope. VET is also delivered by universities, schools, enterprise providers and a combination of the above. Modes of delivery include part-time, full-time, online, distance, apprenticeships and traineeships. The Productivity Commission review which came out in May advised that $1.6 billion is spent annually by governments in Australia on VET. That is $1.6 billion across sectors of government.

When I first considered this bill, it was pre COVID-19. The reflection I had at that time has been absolutely reinforced by what has transpired over the last three months, which was that Australia needs to have a VET sector delivering high-quality and relevant training qualifications which are reliable, accessible and affordable. We need a VET sector that can be quickly responsive to changing needs and demands. And VET is equally as important for individual Australians as it is for Australia as a nation. Individually, people deserve to have access to opportunities to learn skills and develop expertise so that they can utilise them in an ever-changing work environment. Skills and expertise empower people. They give them a higher degree of independence and autonomy and greater opportunities to participate in the workforce, to exercise initiative and to achieve. As we face an unemployment rate potentially as high as 10 per cent because of the impact of COVID-19, as we take steps to recover, reboot and rebuild, making sure that people have the ability to acquire new skills and new expertise to be able to move into different areas of employment is absolutely and vitally critical.

At a national level, the capacity for our national economy to grow, compete and thrive in a global economy is dependent on us having a workforce that is highly skilled, adaptable and resilient. At the same time, as we've seen over the past couple of months, uncertainty in international supply lines means that we as a country need to have internal expertise to step up and innovate when required. We have seen this over the past couple of months: distilleries making hand sanitiser and factories urgently repurposing to make essential PPE. This has been able to be done because we have a skilled workforce.

As good as our VET sector is, it can be better. An improvement that was identified in the Braithwaite review, the Joyce review and the rapid review and commented on by the Productivity Commission is the need for the regulatory environment to be fit for purpose and robust. Let us remember that we are spending $1.6 billion on this sector annually. Let us also remember that there are four million Australians enrolled or studying in this sector. It is absolutely vital that our VET sector is excellent. All three of the reports I just mentioned noted the many comments made by VET providers about the regulator, ASQA. They noted their experience with inexperienced auditors, their fear of not being treated reasonably and the lack of information and guidance given to them ahead of an audit, and they all noted that change is needed.

This bill picks up on those recommendations from the Joyce, Braithwaite and rapid reviews in relation to the VET regulator. Its purpose is to support a consistent, transparent, balanced and effective regulator and regulatory environment. These changes will support improvements to the national VET regulator's governance arrangements, regulatory practice and other critical areas of business, such as strategy, communication and sector engagement. The revised governance model contained in this bill draws on best practice for Commonwealth regulators. There are four key elements. The first element is the replacement of the existing three-commissioner structure with a single agency head, to be known as the chief executive officer of ASQA.

The rapid review noted that the current lack of clarity in the roles and responsibilities of the three commissioners led to inefficiencies and a lack of direction in ASQA itself. The rapid review also noted that, as at September 2019, of the 101 non-corporate Commonwealth entities—that is, entities such as ASQA—only three did not have an individual as the accountable authority. I've heard questions asked as to why it is necessary to change the governance arrangement, but good, proper governance and good, proper regulators have a clearly set out management structure. That is important internally, within the organisation, as well as externally, for those who have to deal with the organisation. Combining the three commissioners into one and having one clear CEO helps to address that.

The second element in this bill is the establishment of a statutory expert advisory council to advise the CEO of ASQA. The advisory council will provide ASQA with expert strategic advice to help it continuously improve as a regulator while maintaining its independent regulatory decision-maker. The council will not represent particular stakeholders or jurisdictions. Rather, it will comprise of members with diverse expertise in areas such as communications, delivering training and experience operating a training provider. It should really be noted that the advisory council will not be a decision-making body but rather a valuable support for strategic advice, a vehicle for confidential information sharing and a strong foundation for stakeholder confidence in the regulator.

The third element is the inclusion of the information-sharing arrangements that support the use of data collected by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. Improved information sharing will support governments and regulators so that the diverse needs and requirements of all Australians, including groups with different needs, such as people with disability and those where English is not their first language, are considered in policy, funding and regulation.

The fourth element of the bill is to clarify the nature of directions the minister may issue to ASQA to improve its regulatory process. The bill provides for the minister to give a broad direction to the national VET regulator in relation to the performance of its functions or powers. This power isn't unlimited, and the statutory independence of it as a regulator is preserved by prohibiting the giving of directions by the minister in relation to a particular regulatory decision.

As I noted right at the beginning, for our VET sector to be strong and to thrive, for it to best suit the needs of the students, the providers, the employers and the country as a whole, we need to have a system that we trust. There is $1.6 billion, and there are four million people undertaking VET studies. There have been questions about why we're focusing on changing the regulator. Is it important? Should we just be throwing more money into VET at this particular time? Having a strong regulatory body, one that is trusted and performs its functions efficiently and expertly, is actually a precondition for pouring money in. This ensures that the money is spent wisely and effectively. In order to make sure that the VET system delivers what we need, we need to start at the top, with the VET regulator. That is why this particular legislation is essential. Trust in the VET system is dependent on there being an effective regulator, one that starts and ends with a focus on quality and excellence. An effective and excellent regulator is one which strikes the right balance between its different functions of approving, quality monitoring, educating, and compliance monitoring and enforcement. An effective regulator is one which is respected by those over whom it exercises its jurisdiction. It's neither a toothless tiger nor a pushover. Nor is it a body which focuses on form and forms—on box ticking rather than substance.

As a result of the rapid review, there are going to be further changes and a longer-term program of improvement to support ASQA's continued evolution as a modern and effective regulator. There are going to be changes to VET and higher education as well. However, the changes being implemented now, based as they are on expert advice and following best-practice guidelines and arrangements of comparable bodies across Australia, will enhance ASQA's organisational capability and support best-practice regulation, continuous improvement and effective engagement with the VET sector. These changes will facilitate a shift towards the balanced regulatory approach that is essential for all those involved with VET in Australia and will support Australia in the longer term.

6:24 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to make a contribution to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. I must say from the outset that I agree with much of what the member for Curtin had to say but, with respect, I think she may have gilded the lily a little, particularly in relation to ongoing investment in the VET sector, but I'll come to that. It is clear that we, on this side of the House, will not stand in the way of good legislation. I think what is proposed in this bill is of material benefit. Therefore, it will be supported by Labor.

I wish to also draw the attention of the House to the amendment moved by the member for Cooper. There are certainly improvements that need to be made in vocational education, which this bill goes nowhere near. In the case of the bill, we will support, in a considered way, the reforms that have been made with respect to the Australian Skills Quality Authority's capacity to ensure responsiveness and transparency to students, communities and employers, and I think that that is a good thing. Nevertheless, we can't let the opportunity go, in allowing people to think that the government is so committed to the vocational education sector and that they're just tweaking it to one step below perfection—it is far from that. To put these reforms into perspective, they are just another tweak from a third-term government that's refused to deliver on genuine reform to the vocational education sector.

The bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made in Australia's TAFE and training system. In essence, the bill does two things. First, it revises ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner/chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder. This is intended to ensure that the statutory office holder will be able to perform the role more consistently with that of the head, including leading strategy, making managerial decisions and determining the objectives, resources and policies of ASQA. We agree that that's a good thing to do.

Second, the bill establishes a National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. It is envisaged this council will provide ASQA with the necessary expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator. This very much does follow with the recommendations of the Braithwaite and Joyce reviews. These reviews made it particularly clear that ASQA needs to better engage in the VET sector and to provide education and guidance to the administration of the VET sector and its key stakeholders. While the government doesn't include this aspect in the bill, I do think there's a case to be made that TAFE should be directly represented on the council, and so should teachers. Vocational education teachers should be there. Otherwise, we fear, the council could be skewed in favour of private providers, undermining ASQA's stringent regulatory approach. I simply offer that as a suggestion, on the basis that over the last seven years this government has made it very, very difficult for TAFE to function. It has given greater preference to private providers of vocational education, an area where we have seen many, many examples of mismanagement, and this does need to be rectified. I simply want to make the case that we've got to get the balance right. It is one thing to tweak at the edges to improve the management structure of ASQA's audit processes. They are decent things to be done, but not to actually address vocational education itself is an absolute missed opportunity by this government. It's not a near miss. The fact is that over the last seven years we've seen the poor management of this sector. It's left Australia facing a skills crisis, particularly in the areas of vocational training. This government has spent seven years neglecting TAFE and its training systems. It's spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the development of young people and particularly in the matter of growing our economy. In the last seven years this is a government that has been cutting funding to TAFE and training by ripping $3 billion from the system whilst underspending on other promises made to this sector. That's hardly the record of a government that values vocational education. The numbers are shocking, but they're clear.

When it comes to young people and the future skills necessary for building our economy the government's inaction is overwhelming. The federal education department's own data, which they released last year, quite frankly, is the icing on the cake. It reveals that the Liberals failed to spend $919 million on TAFE training over the last five years alone. That's money that was allocated in the budget which they failed to deliver. There's only one reason why you would do that, because you're trying to defund TAFE at the expense of the skills necessary for expanding our economy but in support of private providers. These figures really do speak for themselves. It's something that those on the other side shouldn't take any pride in.

According to the government their claim is there's simply been less demand. Clearly, Mr Deputy Speaker, you wouldn't accept that and neither would any of us. That's just not the case. We are seeing near record levels of underemployment and employers crying out for skilled workers.

By the way, I do congratulate the government on what they've done with respect to payment for retaining skilled workers. I think that's something that is worthwhile. I think JobKeeper has worked well. I do encourage them to think seriously before they try to rip that out, because we do want our economies to grow. We want businesses to extend themselves and be competitive in their emerging economy.

Getting back to this bill, this situation highlights that vocation education is getting worse. While we work together to combat the economic impacts of this pandemic, it is clear that with almost one million Australians out of work since the outbreak, according to the ABS data, we've got to be doing everything we can to keep Australians upskilled, make sure that they are going to be there for the jobs of the future. Particularly as our economy starts to extend and improve we need to have those people there.

The lack of the government's commitment to vocation education, quite frankly, has seen nearly 150,000 apprenticeships and trainees disappear from our skill base system. There is a shortage of skills services, particularly in the areas of plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and the mechanical trades—if you like, the basic trades. They are areas which are going to be so important for our economy as it re-engages and as we start to once again pit our competitiveness against that of countries in the international markets where we must operate. But the number of people in our apprenticeships and traineeships is now lower today than it was a decade ago, and no-one can seriously say that the need was just not there. What it does mean is that the government has been asleep for the last seven years and has allowed the system to unfold in that way.

An independent study by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research—not exactly a socialist body, I might add—claims that there has been a 20 per cent drop over the past year in the number of people who are signing up to do trade apprenticeships and traineeships. These are the people we've got to get into the system, and we've got to keep them. It's not just a matter of getting people there to do the first 12 months and then see them pull out. We need people who are going to be committed to entering the trades system. Therefore, we need to be able to support their vocational education and, effectively, support them into sustainable and well-paid jobs which are going to be critical for the future of this country.

I would have thought that investing in young people was in the interests of everybody in this place. We all have kids. Some of our kids will go to universities; some of our kids will aspire to be tradespeople. We all have kids and we are all concerned about their futures. If we simply stop investing in vocational education or if we limit the amount of investment we're putting into vocational education, what's that going to bring? It will be like what occurred under the former Liberal government of John Howard when, all of a sudden, they said: 'Shock, horror! We've got a mining boom on and we don't have the skills necessary. Where can we get them from? The Philippines, Korea, Vietnam—anywhere else we can bring people in from overseas.' Whilst short-term immigration is a good thing to plug holes we might have in our skill sets, it is not the future of this country. It's not the future that any of us as parents would want for our children, I would hope.

Whilst we support the passage of this bill, we're not going to let this government get away with thinking that they have done anything other than tweak at the edges of vocational education. As I said at the outset, I agree with the reforms to ASQA. I think they are good, and it's a good foundation. But the bill hasn't done anything about putting extra money into vocational education, and it hasn't done anything about replacing the money that this government has ripped out of vocational education. The government really does need to think about the future. It needs to think about the skills that we need. It needs to think about the society that we want to be in the future. It can't be that we're just going to import all those skills on a short-term basis to fill skills gaps. For the future prosperity of this nation, we must be investing in education. Every dollar we commit to education—whether it's school based education, tertiary education, universities or VET education—is an investment not only in those young people but in the future prosperity of our nation.

I call on this government to think seriously about delivering genuine reform to the vocational education system. We do need to make sure that we are in a strong position for the future, we do need to ensure that we are investing in our young people and we do need to ensure that, through this legislation, we allow Australia's economy to expand.

6:39 pm

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

It gives me great pleasure to rise and speak to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. I'm passionate about education, whether it's primary school, high school, university, TAFE or on-the-job training. Everyone should have access to the education they need, when they need it. It doesn't matter if you are eight or 80. It doesn't matter whether you live in the city or in the bush. The vocational education sector serves as a vital part of our overall education system.

I'm proud to be a product of the VET system and a former apprentice. I'm on the record saying that not everybody needs an arts degree to get a job. In fact, the most successful and the wealthiest people I know are self-made entrepreneurs. They are people that have come through the VET sector, and have worked hard towards their future. Like me, the Morrison government is committed to ensuring that Australians get the right skills for the workforce of today and tomorrow. This is particularly important in my electorate of Braddon in Tasmania.

During this critical period of unprecedented disruption to the labour market, it is important we prioritise quality improvements for VET, including building confidence in the Australian Skills Quality Authority's role to ensure that the regulation of the sector is reasonable, transparent and effective. To this end, the Morrison government announced a rapid review of ASQA, the bill reflecting initial findings from the rapid review of ASQA's regulatory practices, governance and culture. The findings of the rapid review have been released, and the changes build on recommendations from two independent reviews which called for ASQA to adopt a greater educative approach and reform elements of its regulatory practice. ASQA has already taken steps to ease some of the pressure on the sector that have come about due to the COVID-19 crisis by reducing the regulatory burden on VET providers, ensuring that more flexible approaches to training can be delivered and that students can continue to receive high-quality education and training in an appropriate way.

The government's recent announcement of waiving the ASQA fees and charges and the delay to ASQA's move to full cost recovery will help to maintain cashflow for VET providers and to support students to train. The government believes this improved organisational structure will enable better regulatory decisions, will better facilitate internal review matters and will ultimately allow ASQA to be a fit-for-purpose regulator for VET.

The bill contains a number of provisions to revise the governance structure of ASQA in order to align with best practice regulation, including the provision for the Governor-General to appoint a statutory officeholder, known as the Chief Executive Officer of ASQA, the national vocational education training regulator, on a full-time basis, replacing the current arrangement of a chief commissioner and two other commissioners, which was clunky and ineffective. It also provides that the CEO is the head of the statutory agency for the purposes of the Public Service Act of 1999, and the accountable authority of the listed entity known as ASQA for the purposes of financial law.

A person who is, or has been at any time two years before the appointment is made, an executive officer of a registered training organisation is not eligible for appointment as the National VET Regulator. It provides for the engagement of staff and consultants to support the National VET Regulator. It also provides that the minister may give directions to the National VET Regulator in relation to the performance of the regulator's functions or powers. The direction will be in relation to an individual training provider or VET accredited course. It also establishes an advisory council to provide advice to the National VET Regulator in relation to their function. The advice will be in relation to the regulation of an individual's registered training organisation or the accreditation of a particular course or VET accredited course. This advice will not only be in relation to registration of a particular provider under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000.

It provides that the advisory council is to consist of a chair and up to nine other members with expertise in regulation, communications, delivering training and operating or managing a training provider. It provides that the national advisory council may also advise the national VET regulator on its own initiative or at the request of a minister regulator and that the regulator must have regard to any advice provided by the advisory council. So you can see that this augmentation of ASQA's ability in the CEO gives it greater powers when it comes to governance. The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 amends the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act of 2011 to reform the governance structure of ASQA. The main function of the bill is to replace the current governance structure of a chief commissioner and deputy commissioners with a CEO.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Tasmania was, indeed, bucking the trend when it comes to the VET sector. Our state had 5,525 apprentices and trainees commencing work in the preceding 12 months ending 30 June 2019. This was up 9.7 per cent from the same period in the year prior. Importantly, we've also seen an increase in females taking up a trade or apprenticeship, which is great to see, with a 10.4 per cent increase from the year before. Not only are we producing more apprentices; we're producing quality apprentices, teachers, training providers, schools and businesses. This includes four national award winners in the Australian Training Awards held recently. The Australian Training Awards are the highest recognition for excellence in VET training in the country, and this was Tasmania's best result in a decade. In my electorate of Braddon, Debra Guntrip of Devonport was recognised for her commitment through 26TEN and TasTAFE to improving the adult literacy and numeracy skills of employees in Tasmania and to ensuring workforces are equipped to support employees with low literacy. Circular Head Christian School was also recognised with a national School Pathways to VET Award for its commitment to providing quality learning opportunities in years 10 to 12 that are specifically pathway focused for each student.

As we emerge from COVID-19, I know that these positive outcomes will again be the norm. I know that the opportunities will again be ahead of us in the north-west coast, the west coast and King Island, and the great success stories that I've outlined in the last couple of minutes demonstrate why it's so important to ensure that we have continuous improvements to Australia's skills and training sector, including the governance of these bodies. It's a vital part of ensuring that the regulator for VET in Australia is strong, responsive and transparent, particularly in Tasmania, and that is enshrined in this bill. I commend it to the House.

6:48 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 and the shadow assistant minister's amendment. There is a desperate need for reform in our training sector. After seven years of incompetent Liberal government, including cuts of more than $3 billion to the industry, Australia's TAFE network is a shambles. It can't meet training demands, courses are not contemporary and they don't align with industry needs.

We have 140,000 fewer trainees and apprentices, and there are critical shortages for key industries, like carpentry and plumbing, which are central to our construction sector—a sector which is absolutely essential to our crawling out of the recession that we are now in. In fact, there has been a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages under the government. Between January and April this year, there was a 73 per cent drop in advertisements for apprentices, and COVID only really hit the shores of this country in March. It's hardly a record to be proud of after seven years in government. There have been $3 billion in cuts and 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, and we hear reports from the Master Builders Association that, if nothing changes, there will be another 100,000 fewer apprentices and trainees by the end of the year.

The Morrison government has created a training environment where more people drop out of apprenticeships than complete them. Meanwhile, our unemployment rate, particularly amongst youth, is high. Last year's Brotherhood of St Laurence report into youth unemployment showed that, in Tasmania, the south-east region had a youth unemployment rate of 17.8 per cent, making it the sixth worst in the country. The Greater Hobart region was No. 9, with 16.9 per cent youth unemployment, and the north and north-west were No. 16, with 15 per cent youth unemployment—hardly records to be proud of. How can Australia, a country with 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth until this year, be experiencing a youth unemployment crisis at the same time as a serious skills shortage? The answer is serious endemic neglect that the nation's training sector has experienced under seven years of an incompetent Liberal government.

TAFE has a critical role in Australia. It is the public provider of skills and training, and its graduates are invaluable to our productivity and growth as a country. Yet the government, after years of watching the sector stumble—indeed, it's put its own foot out at times—is failing to properly resource it. It's refusing to do the hard work necessary to restore the reputation of our TAFE system, and the country is seeing poorly regulated, expensive and, in too many cases, downright dodgy RTOs fill the vacuum. We've all read the stories: students finish without graduating, certificates are not recognised by industry, there are enormous fees, there are poor skills and students graduate unable to do the jobs that they've been trained in.

We've seen RTOs time and again fined or closed, yet the government has been too slow and flat-footed to address the issue. It's been a total abrogation of responsibility. Firstly, it means a generation of Australians cannot access the pathway they need to fulfil their potential and participate in the career they want to pursue. Secondly, it puts at risk our nation's long-term prosperity and growth.

We should not rely on skilled workers coming in on temporary visas when there are people across Australia, including in my own electorate, who are unemployed or underemployed. There is absolutely a place for skilled migration, particularly long-term permanent migration. There's a place for short-term visa migration as well, through backpackers, for some skills that can't be filled locally in a short amount of time. But, frankly, under this government we've seen a massive increase in the number of short-term visas. When we've got a huge pool of underemployed or unemployed youth that require these jobs, that's where the first focus should be.

Thirdly, we compromise our ability to compete internationally and use the skills, knowledge and innovation of our own people. Australia has always punched above its weight when it comes to skills and training and what that means for our contribution overseas. But this reputation is rapidly diminishing as our TAFE system becomes less effective and less relevant.

The legislation before us is the first tranche of a set of reforms that responds to the recommendations of recent reviews in the VET sector—the 2019 expert review of Australia's VET system, the Joyce review; and the 2018 review of the National VET Regulator Act 2011, the Braithwaite review. This bill seeks to reform the operation of the Australian Skills Quality Authority—ASQA—the national VET regulator, to strengthen its powers, enhance protections for students and improve transparency to assist RTO compliance.

The amendments in the bill largely implement recommendations of independent reviews that have been supported by the sector. Stakeholders in the sector supported the intention of the bill but noted their frustration with a lack of consultation on the legislation. There remains some uncertainty as to how many of the changes will work in practice. Labor will not oppose this bill, but we are particularly concerned that the result of ASQA moving to a full minister-directed cost-recovery model may mean that some providers may pass the cost of ASQA services onto students. This is contradictory to the recommendations of the Joyce review specifically, which stated:

It is important that ASQA be adequately resourced to perform the guidance and educative role and to perform its role more generally. In many jurisdictions there is an understood difference between parts of the regulator’s activity that should be directly funded by the regulated through cost recovery arrangements versus what are broader activities for the 'public good, and should therefore be government funded.

So we do have concerns that this is an attempt by the government to cost-shift, to gouge out of students the costs that the regulator and government would normally bear. In light of this, it is important that we monitor the ongoing adequacy of funding to ASQA to ensure that it can continue to perform regulatory and educative tasks.

Labor support a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We will support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers, but we will reject changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. Labor have always backed and will continue to back a strong, comprehensive regulatory, compliance and education framework for ASQA. Following the widespread rorting of the VET FEE-HELP program, ASQA's work is crucial in attempting to rid the sector of low-quality and unscrupulous providers. We will continue to monitor the implementation of these and other forthcoming amendments to the regulatory arrangements to ensure they do not in any way compromise regulatory standards.

Broadly speaking, this bill is really a mild administrative tweak from a third-term government that simply refuse to deliver a genuine reform package to overhaul the vocational training sector. Real reform and real funding is needed, but what we are getting now is essentially new stationery and a slap of paint. The Liberals have slashed funding to TAFE and training—$3 billion. They've let apprentice numbers fall off a cliff and they've presided over a national shortage of tradies, apprenticeships and trainees at the same time as there is massive unemployment for young people.

As well as the $3 billion that they've ripped out of the system, they've underspent $900 million of money they budgeted towards TAFE. They had actually put it in the budget. They intended to spend $900 million but didn't. They will pat themselves on the back for that, saying, 'Aren't we good economic managers, saving a bit of money that we didn't need to spend?' I liken it to a car. When you run a car, you maintain your car. You spend money on the maintenance. You're not a good manager of your car if you're not spending money on the service and you end up with bald tyres and a dirty oil filter. It's the same with the TAFE and training senator. It's not like we have this brand-new, shiny-looking TAFE and training sector that's humming and working really well and is world's best practice. It's falling apart at the seams. It's not doing the job it's meant to, and there's $900 million that has been budgeted to spend on it just sitting in the bank gathering dust. That $900 million could be making a real difference to the quality of TAFE and training in Australia.

Let me give you an example of just how little those opposite value vocational education for our young people in Tasmania. In November last year, my office passed on correspondence from Sorell Council to the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business. The council was seeking federal funding towards the expansion of the Sorell campus of the South East Trade Training Centre. The trade training centres were an invention of John Howard. I think they were called something else at the time and, when Labor came in, we renamed them. But essentially these were a Howard construction. They're good. They were a good thing. When the Abbott government came in they dropped them like a hot potato. The Sorell campus was one of the last ones ever built under the Labor government. The new Liberal MP who came in in 2013 opened it, even though Labor built it.

And it's working a treat! It is absolutely humming along. The Sorell trade training centre, under the leadership of Rick Birch, is a great success. He's doing all sorts of courses there. He has mature aged and young people. He has it humming like a top, but it's running out of space. As good as it is, it needs space. The lack of facilities at the Sorell trade training centre are limiting its day-to-day operations, with some courses having to be delivered off-site. So I asked the minister's office if I could meet with the relevant adviser to discuss the council's funding request. The response? I'm still waiting—nothing. Silence. It's a legitimate request from a regional training provider that is being completely disregarded by the minister and by the government.

According to new modelling released this month by the National Australian Apprenticeships Association, Australia is set to lose a further 100,000 apprentices and trainees this year. It's a massive 35 per cent drop. Tasmania is set to lose 2,107 apprentices and trainees this year. It's no wonder that our nation has a shortage of bricklayers, plumbers, hairdressers, panelbeaters and other critical tradespeople. The number of people taking up construction trades last year plunged by nearly 12 per cent—further proof that the Liberals' cuts to TAFE had created a tradie shortage, even before the coronavirus.

This Prime Minister loves to put his arm around a tradie—somebody in a high-vis vest—and to make out that he's the best friend of tradies. Well, I think that, as the former Prime Minister Mr Turnbull can attest, if this Prime Minister has his arm around your shoulder then watch out. He's not your best friend. Watch out! If Scott Morrison has his arm around your shoulder, be very, very careful. This Prime Minister likes to put his arm around the shoulder of a tradie and make out that he is their best friend, but he doesn't tell them: 'Hey, by the way, I've cut $3 billion out of TAFE, I've underspent $900 million that was already budgeted, and there are 140,000 fewer apprenticeships and traineeships under my government.' He doesn't tell tradies that when he goes out to the pubs and the building sites. So a little bit of truth-telling is required there. The Australian Industry Group says that youth unemployment will skyrocket if there isn't a substantial increase in federal government support. So it's all very well to talk about construction projects and renovations, but you need tradies to build them and this Prime Minister has no plan for that.

I'll just come briefly to the 'HomeBlunder' scheme, which is related to the terms of reference for the amendments in this bill, in the failure for trades. The irony here is that, despite the inattention paid to vocational education by this government over the past seven years, it's now expecting those same industries that are suffering from a tradie crisis to pull this economy out of this recession—the first recession in 30 years. The HomeBuilder scheme—the 'HomeBlunder' scheme—is far too little, too late. Housing construction work is about to fall off a cliff, and the Morrison government has produced an ill-conceived and inadequate scheme, with no detail on how to access it. Let me be clear: the 25 grand for new home builds gets two thumbs up. They won't get an argument from me about that. I think that's a good thing and, largely, what Labor would have done. Twenty-five grand for new home builds—no worries. But renovations? A minimum of $150,000 for a renovation before you can get 25 grand? That's ridiculous. It locks out so many people—nearly everybody in Tasmania—from accessing that money. That renovation side of it will do nothing to assist the trades in Tasmania.

Tradies deserve better. Homebuyers deserve better. Home renovators certainly deserve better. We would have got a much bigger bang for our buck if they had allowed smaller renovation projects to be done. They would still employ tradies and still have carpenters out there fixing up kitchens. There has been an absolute failure by this government, and 'HomeBlunder' is emblematic of the total failure of this government in the trades. (Time expired)

7:04 pm

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020, which will make amendments to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011. These amendments build on those introduced last year by the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019. The amendments contained in this bill, as well as those contained in previous amendments to the act, aim to strengthen the role of the Australian Skills Quality Authority as the national VET regulator. These changes will support improvements to the national VET regulator's governance arrangements, regulatory practice and other critical areas of business, such as strategy, communication and sector engagement.

With these and other changes made to the act, this government aims to elevate the status of vocational education and training. We say to the Australian public that vocational education and training is not the second option; it is not the second best that many have considered it to be. We say that there are extraordinary training opportunities out there for young people and not so young people, and that we are committed to developing these opportunities for the prosperity of our nation. These changes are about delivering excellence in training. They are about promoting quality in the VET sector and they are about improving access to high-quality training opportunities for Australians.

Regional areas, such as my electorate of Mallee, stand to gain the most from improvements to the VET sector and from great access to high-quality training opportunities as our local economy begins to recover and refocus. Skilled local jobs create new opportunities for Mallee residents to find rewarding careers, with flow-on benefits across the region's economy and our community. As we continue to focus on new and emerging technologies and industries such as renewable energy, artificial intelligence and robotics, the demand for skilled local jobs will increase significantly. Access to high-quality training opportunities is critical to meeting this demand.

It's also essential to align skills and training provision with industry-specific demand. We have to know which skills we need, where we need them and how we can get them. In 2017, work was completed by the Victorian Skills Commissioner to answer these questions for the northern half of my electorate. The Mallee Regional Skills Demand Profile showed that future skills demand was highest in health care and horticulture. Linda Beilharz from RDA Loddon Mallee told me recently that work has commenced to refresh the skills profile for 2020 to gain an updated understanding of the region's workforce and skilling requirements. I've talked with her about the need for us to be future focused with a long-term, 10-to-20-year scope. Understanding regional and industry-specific demand in this way is so important in assisting training providers to respond to these needs effectively. I've been working closely with training providers and industry stakeholders to explore opportunities to expand the region's offering of VET qualifications.

In December last year I convened a think-tank discussion between training providers, industry groups, local government authorities and department representatives. The main issues raised at the forum were the complexity and bureaucracy of the VET industry, the need to provide further education and career advice for parents and students at an earlier stage, the quality of training programs provided to students in certain industries, and the need to reduce costs associated with taking on regional apprenticeships and trainees. The think tank was held in Charlton in Buloke Shire, which has been described as a black spot for vocational education and training. A report by the consulting firm, Nous, argued that the shire is at risk of becoming completely disconnected from the tertiary education system at a time when there are significant skills shortages in the region. TAFEs that were previously active in the shire have exited and many workers and trainees must travel many kilometres to other towns to undertake training, which incurs additional costs for individuals and businesses and discourages participation. Participants in the think tank were concerned that the region is squandering its potential local training opportunities, leading to skills shortages despite high demand from local industry.

Charlton is home to the North Central Trade Training Centre and has fabulous modern facilities that have the potential to provide extensive training opportunities. I'm eager to explore how local training providers can collaborate with industry to increase access to high-quality training opportunities for students in Charlton and Buloke Shire. In particular, I've been working closely with Geoff Dea and his team at the Sunraysia Institute of TAFE. In 2019 SuniTAFE was named the best large training provider in Australia, which is not difficult to understand given the outstanding leadership team, the professional staff and the dedication to the local community.

I'm very excited about SuniTAFE's SMART Farm, which aims to increase access to future technologies including robotics and automation for students in agriculture and horticulture. This project will provide students with unbridled access to the new technologies on which these evolving industries are becoming increasingly reliant. The project will allow our region to meet identified skill shortages in horticulture and agriculture and will help raise the profile of these industries as desirable career paths for our region's bright young minds. It will foster industry collaboration and lead to extensive research and development opportunities, and it will help the horticulture sector in the region shoulder the burden of economic recovery on the other side of the coronavirus. This project will mean greater access to high-quality training opportunities in key industries for students across the Mallee. This is why I was happy to support SuniTAFE's application to the Revitalising TAFE Campuses Across Australia Initiative for funds that will help see this project through to completion.

I've also been working closely with the Local Learning and Employment Network branches based in my electorate. Ron Broadhead from the northern Mallee LLEN has spoken to me about some of the fantastic work his organisation has been conducting. Ron is concerned about the proportion of students going into local apprenticeships compared to those who are leaving town to attend universities in Melbourne or Adelaide. The message Ron wants to send is that it's possible to have a fulfilling career and be successful without a university degree. His solution is also to start career education in schools a lot earlier than what we're doing right now. Kids need to know what opportunities are out there, and this needs to start as early as year 7 and 8, with involvement from parents, which is critical for success in the uptake.

Although the Local Learning and Employment Network is a Victorian state government initiative, the Morrison-McCormack government is eager to spread this message as well and has been active in promoting effective careers advice through the National Careers Institute, established last year. I would recommend that the National Careers Institute collaborate with our experts in the Local Learning and Employment Network.

This year I was pleased to coordinate a consultation via teleconference for the National Agricultural Workforce Strategy. This strategy is being developed by the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee, chaired by John Azarias. The strategy will recommend potential actions to address the future workforce needs of the agriculture, fisheries, forestry and related industries through actions that would target school education, vocational education and training, and higher education. It was great to hear from Professor Salah Sukkarieh, a member of the advisory committee and CEO of Agerris. For the past 15 years Professor Sukkarieh has been closely working with farmers and the agricultural community to build on farm robotics and AI tools. He works and advises the SuniTAFE SMART Farm project already, and he sees huge potential for the future of robotics in my electorate. We also heard from Dr Angeline Achariya, another member of the advisory committee and the executive director of innovation and growth at Simplot Australia. Dr Achariya is an expert in value-adding and commercialising innovation in agriculture. Her goal is to promote value-driven innovation rather than volume-driven innovation.

We all know that Australia produces enough food to feed 75 million people. The question now becomes how we best drive new value innovation. I'm eager to promote value-adding manufacturing in the Mallee electorate. Australia has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to refocus our economy towards vertically integrated production, and a highly skilled local workforce is a key component to achieving this.

The story is very similar with other emerging industries. Take, for example, the renewable energy industry, which, over recent years, has developed extensively in my electorate of Mallee. There has been extensive investment in solar farms in northern Mallee, with more to come as we see improvements to Australia's grid infrastructure and increasing reliance on renewables in our nation's energy mix. I'm also very excited about possibilities related to hydrogen energy to supplement our solar and wind resources in the Mallee.

Recently I met with Rebecca Wells and Leonie Burrows from the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre to talk about energy, especially hydrogen energy. Hydrogen technologies can play a valuable role in capturing and storing excess energy that's generated by renewables to use when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. I see enormous potential for these technologies to link in with Mallee's solar resources, and I look forward to further developments in the government's National Hydrogen Strategy and the $300 million Advancing Hydrogen Fund.

Again, with the emergence of these new technologies and industries, I come back to one crucial ingredient: a highly skilled workforce, which will enable growth in these industries. There is no reason that Mallee cannot be a hub for 21st century manufacturing and energy. However, if we are to meet this potential we need to foster local job creation that is supported and developed by effective skills training. For this reason, improving access to high-quality education for locals is crucial.

Everyone I meet with and speak to, including SuniTAFE, registered training providers, the local learning network, industry stakeholders, schools, parents and students, wants to see improved access to and uptake of high-quality training opportunities. Strengthening the role of the Australian Skills Quality Authority as the national VET regulator will work towards this goal. That's why I'm supportive of the changes contained in this bill as well as those contained in previous amendments to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011. They respond to the needs of regional areas that have been raised by members of my electorate. They will raise the status of vocational education and training and will improve access to high-quality training opportunities for all Australians.

7:16 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020, and I say upfront that Labor supports this bill. Despite the attempts by the Prime Minister in question time today to say that Labor plays political games, I would point out that most of the time Labor will support good pieces of legislation, and this one is a good, commonsense incremental improvement in what we can do. It's interesting that the Prime Minister, with a background in advertising, seems to be able to put a spin on everything without actually addressing the reality of how Labor has addressed legislation in this parliament.

This bill makes some changes to the governance structure of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, or ASQA, and enhances information-sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. The measures to be implemented by this bill are in response to findings from a rapid review of ASQA's governance, culture and processes that was conducted by external consultants. The proposed changes to the governance structure include replacing the chief commissioner and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder—a CEO—and establishing a national vocational education and training regulator advisory council. It is intended that the advisory council will provide ASQA with expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator.

It is important that such an advisory council is balanced. Concerns have been raised by TAFE and union representatives that if the advisory body is unduly weighted to representation of private providers it would undermine the regulatory framework. At the moment in Australia we have a balance between TAFE, which is trusted and true, I would suggest, and a section of training that actually spends a lot of time investing in capital for the bits of training that require more than a room with a whiteboard. This legislation does not indicate who would be represented on the advisory body. However, Labor would expect that TAFE Directors Australia, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council of Trade Unions should be represented on the council.

It is crucial that our public provider of VET is heard. Labor will seek to move amendments in the Senate to ensure that TAFE has a seat at this table. I do take some heart from the speeches provided by both sides of the chamber, but particularly by government members, talking about the great work that their TAFEs do in their electorates. Hopefully those words would be a guide for the composition of the council.

As I've said already, Labor does not oppose this bill. What we actually need from this third-term government in its seventh year is genuine reform to this sector. Skills and vocational training has been neglected by the coalition for seven years. Australia had a serious skills shortage way before we ever heard of COVID-19. The number of apprenticeships advertised has dropped not by five per cent and not by 10 per cent but by 73 per cent. The coalition has cut $3 billion out of TAFE and training. Think of the opportunities being denied young Australians because of the $3 billion worth of cuts that have been rolled out. We've heard individual government members talk about their TAFEs and the great work they do; imagine what work could be done if they hadn't cut $3 billion from this TAFE and training sector. I know how important TAFE is, I know how important training and apprenticeships are, and I certainly know how hard it is to find a tradesperson to fix a leaky pipe or a dodgy light switch. We have a skills shortage in this country and cutting $3 billion out of TAFE is not the way to fix it. It is short-sighted.

To make matters worse, the government has failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. $919 million is sitting in a bank account, when the VET sector is in crisis and when Australians are experiencing a skills shortage. Employers are crying out for skilled workers, but, under the Liberals, there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. It is hard to believe, but, in the midst of a skills shortage, the number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. In Queensland, the number of people undertaking training is down 4.7 per cent. More people are dropping out of vocational training courses than finishing them.

The Liberal government must shoulder the blame for the appalling state of the vocational education and training sector. Not only have they stripped $3 billion out of that sector but there is a $1 billion underspend in the funding that they promised. This seems to be very, very common behaviour for this government: promising big and then underdelivering. That's $1 billion that hasn't been spent, which was targeted for services such as incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help people finish their apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need.

Such measures, if actually implemented, would at least go some way to addressing the current skills crisis, because Australia is facing a crisis like we haven't experienced before. The coronavirus is obviously a serious health crisis but it is also a serious economic crisis, and Australians are already feeling the pain. Sadly, we've seen queues at Centrelink that stretch down entire streets. The unemployment rate has increased to 6.2 per cent and we all know it's going higher. What does education do? It helps create jobs. Education means higher wages and better quality of life for all Australians. This government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as a public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships or the value in hardworking and passionate public TAFE teachers.

We already know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary school education, either TAFE or university, so we need to increase participation in both universities and our vocational education sector to make sure our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is changing so very quickly. An appropriately funded VET sector will be vital in driving the economy and enhancing industry. Training skills and apprenticeships don't just magically happen; they are the result of a well-supported sector. They are the result of a leadership that values education and skills and actually uses its mouth to articulate that support.

It's not just the VET sector that this government is neglecting. The coalition government is sitting by and watching as universities shed jobs, close campuses—particularly in regional areas; where are the Nationals?— and cut back on courses and degrees. This coalition government has gone out of its way to exclude universities from COVID support by repeatedly changing its policy to stop university staff from accessing wage subsidies, and it's putting thousands of jobs at risk. We already know of job losses at Deakin University, at Central Queensland University based in Rockhampton—and some of their other campuses—and at La Trobe University. We already know that Central Queensland University are closing three of their campuses. This is a sectorwide crisis and the impact on regional communities will be particular devastating. Universities support 14,000 jobs in country Australia, not just academics but tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security and many others—many with families—all with bills to pay and commitments to meet. Across the board we're looking at tens of thousands of livelihoods being destroyed.

The coalition government is in its third term. It's time for them to take responsibility for their decisions, not just blame a Labor government from a couple of parliaments ago. They've failed to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the higher educational sector and that properly funds both vocational training providers and universities to deliver the services that their students need. In the middle of this coronavirus crisis, they have abandoned them. Young Australians who are in their last years of school will have less of an opportunity to go to university, if that's what they want, and less of an opportunity to get a trade, if that's what they want.

Even before the coronavirus crisis businesses were crying out for skilled workers. They couldn't grow their businesses because they couldn't find the skilled staff they needed. Australia's economy will get back on its feet but when it does so it will need a skilled workforce. It's so short-sighted to neglect this sector now.

Labor understands the importance of education. In government we continued that great Labor tradition by ensuring that a university education never remained out of reach for our brightest Australians. We invested in education. We opened up a system with demand driven funding in 2012, which saw an additional 190,000 Australians able to get a place at university before the government ended demand driven funding. In his 'Jobs and the future of work' speech, delivered on 29 October last year, the Labor leader announced our intention in government to establish jobs and skills Australia. '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.

The COVID pandemic has changed the way we think about ourselves, the way we work and our interaction with the world around us. We are now experiencing one of greatest economic transformations of our lifetimes. Reskilling and upskilling will be a big part of the post-COVID economy. We need quality providers such as TAFE and some of the top quality private providers. We are faced with choices about how to go forward. If we continue down the road being laid out by the Liberal government, with its track record of cuts and neglect of vocational education, TAFEs and apprenticeships, the effects will be devastating. Labor has a vision for a future with good jobs that are done using quality skills, setting working people up for satisfying and prosperous careers and lives. Sadly, on the other side of the chamber we see a government that lacks action and has no ambition for working people. They're happy to use them in advertisements, happy to put their arm around a tradie and happy to stand alongside a high-vis jacket and a hard hat. They're great at advertising, but hopeless at delivering. They put out the budget cup, but don't actually deliver the jobs that are needed or the funding that is needed. Unlike the Liberals and Nationals, the Labor Party believes that funding education is an investment in our nation's future prosperity, not a short-term cost burden. A government without a plan for education and training has no vision and no plan for Australia's future.

The reforms in this bill are welcome. The reforms in this bill are simply a tweak to a system that is in dire need of genuine reform. As usual, it is too late. I take you back to the fact that a $3 billion cut to our TAFE system under this government means that the Prime Minister can put out advertisements with tradies, that the Prime Minister can stand next to tradies, put his arm around them and pretend to the world that he supports trades, but we have a skills crisis brought on by the fact that this government hasn't been investing in apprentices and hasn't been investing in tradies. The Prime Minister is happy to talk about the Canberra bubble, but he needs to take his head out of that bubble and actually look at what he has done to the training sector, because it is a disgrace. He needs to stop embracing tradies and start investing in Australia's great educational system, in TAFE.