House debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2024


National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Strengthening Quality and Integrity in Vocational Education and Training No. 1) Bill 2024; Second Reading

4:39 pm

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

I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Strengthening Quality and Integrity in Vocational Education and Training No. 1) Bill 2024. In doing so, I note that the most significant change proposed by this bill is for the Minister for Skills and Training to seek to directly control market entry of new registered training organisations

I note the bill introduces a new power that allows the minister to direct the regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, by legislative instrument to pause the registrations of new RTOs. I note this would need to be agreed with state and territory skills ministers. The bill also tightens rules for RTOs in their first two years of operation and makes a number of changes to the way ASQA processes and prioritises the registrations of new training organisations.

The government has framed this bill as a response to integrity and quality issues within the training sector, as highlighted in the Nixon review, the Braithwaite review and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's report 'Quality and integrity—the quest for sustainable growth': interim report into international education.

While I thank the minister and his office for their constructive engagement on this bill, I also note feedback from across the sector that there was very minimal consultation on the bill before it was introduced. Given the track record of this government putting government-run training providers first, instead of students and their outcomes, the approach to this bill was cause for pause.

That said, I have sought the views of the training sector and business groups on what this change would mean for them. While there is a high level of caution around this bill, particularly the minister's new power to pause the establishment of new training organisations, there is broad alignment on the intent of the bill. The opposition shares the views of the sector on this bill.

Notwithstanding the alignment, noting the concerns around transparency and accountability of this new ministerial power, the opposition will be seeking to work constructively with the government and with the crossbench on some minor amendments that would force the minister to publicly justify the use of this power to the sector, to the parliament and to the public.

We will also be seeking to mandate that a determination to pause the establishment of new training organisations be in place for no longer than 90 days. We believe this establishes a guardrail for this new power. I understand that, for process reasons, the government may seek to incorporate these amendments in the other place if there is not sufficient time in the House. The principle here is that we expect this power to be rarely used and therefore there should be transparency and accountability on it.

It's important that we do not overreach with intervention. We have to support our dynamic and innovative skills and training sector. It is important that the government does not overbalance in pursuit of the worthy objective of quality outcomes. But, equally, we need to be aware of the consequences when the government gets this area of policy wrong. We should not forget why we are in this position in the first place and why we need to strengthen this regulator.

I would be remiss if I did not remind the House of the record of Labor and skills policy when they were last in government. When they were last in government, everything the Labor Party touched on skills was made worse. Apprenticeship numbers took a nosedive. When Labor last left office, apprentice and trainee numbers were in freefall, with the number in training collapsing by 22 per cent.

But perhaps the most egregious of Labor's failures was their VET FEE-HELP disaster. Labor's VET FEE-HELP scheme saw the reputation of the Australian skills system hit rock bottom, as tens of thousands of Australians were loaded up with debt for doing courses that would never land them a job. The scheme, established by the Labor government in 2008 and expanded in 2012, was plagued by system-wide rorting, with some training providers exploiting loose rules and charging students substantial debts for training they never undertook or benefited from. It also targeted people with disabilities and substance abuse issues, public housing residents, those from non-English-speaking backgrounds and others, with offers of free laptops and other incentives.

In 2014 the Hon. Michael Lavarch, then commissioner responsible for risk, intelligence and regulatory support at the Australian Skills Quality Authority, said of Labor's VET FEE-HELP:

I have been in and around public life for a long time. I think I can fairly say that this was the worst piece of public policy I have ever seen.

The taxpayer is still picking up the tab for this enormous public policy failure, which is now over $3.5 billion. And who presided over all these failures? None other than the former and now returned Minister for Skills and Training, the member for Gorton. So we hope the powers in this bill might save the minister from himself.

The bill is important because it is important we get regulation right in skills, and we are starting to see the impact of Labor's approach. The latest data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research demonstrates that the Albanese government is overseeing a wholesale collapse in the number of apprentices and trainees in every single state and in almost every electorate across the nation. After just one year of Labor, there are over 50,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in training today than when Labor took office, a loss of one in 10. The data, which has also been broken down by electorate, shows that, in the final year of the coalition government, in-training numbers increased in every electorate bar one, while under the first year of Labor's skills policies the number of apprentices and trainees dropped in every electorate except four.

In the Minister for Skills and Training's own electorate, in the last year of the Liberal government, numbers went up by 32 per cent. In his first year in office, he lost 10 per cent of the apprentices and trainees in his community. In the Treasurer's electorate of Rankin, in the final year of the Liberal government, numbers went up 43 per cent. In his first year of office, the Treasurer has overseen a 15 per cent drop in the number of apprentices and trainees in his own community.

What was the response from the minister to these worrying drops in numbers? With the dexterity of maybe a newborn giraffe, he backflipped on the long-run narrative Labor have been spinning about the coalition and skills. For nine long years, Labor have clung steadfastly to their fiction that the coalition cut funding from skills. The minister has now decided the real reason Australia lost 50,000 apprentices and trainees in Labor's first year of government is that the coalition was putting too much funding into skills. The member for Gorton actually said the coalition spent $3.8 billion annually to 'prop up' the apprenticeship system. Does he mean 'investing in Australian apprentices and funding skills opportunities for the next generation of Australian workers'? Labor can criticise the coalition either for cutting funding for skills or for overfunding skills, but they can't do both.

We will work with the government and with the crossbench to improve this bill and get this policy area right. We handed the Albanese government a skills and training system for not just training up but powering ahead on the back of record investments guaranteed by a strong economy. Our policies invested over $13 billion in skills over the final two years of government alone. We didn't just clean up Labor's mess; we made the most significant reforms to Aussie skills in over a decade. Our policy settings got apprenticeship numbers up to record levels—levels which have now dropped by 10 per cent. We did all of this while saving a generation of Australian workers from the biggest hit to Australia's workforce since the Great Depression.

Labor came to power promising it would solve skills shortages and deliver more opportunities for Australians to get into training. But the reality is that they have delivered a collapse in apprenticeship and traineeship starts and in the number of Australians in training. We will do what we can to push them in the right direction. This is just too important for the future of our young people, the future of our training system and the future of our economy. I thank the House.

Debate adjourned.