Senate debates

Monday, 14 July 2014


Trade Support Loans Bill 2014, Trade Support Loans (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading

12:20 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I foreshadow an amendment. I believe that amendment has been circulated in the chamber. It calls on the government to determine a method for achieving parental or guardian approval for apprenticeships under the age of 18. It is quite extraordinary that, as a country, we would allow 16-year-olds to be signing up for loans when we are not clear what role the apprentice will play in working out what the loan is. We are particularly concerned about approval for apprentices under the age of 18 and school-based apprenticeships at the point of signing up for loan amounts. I am foreshadowing our amendment.

Although Labor will be supporting this bill, given that the Tools For Your Trade participants have already been notified of the program closure, Labor cannot let that pass without the reminder to the government that this is yet another broken promise. This is a $2 billion broken promise for Australia's apprentices and workers. As we know, there has been a litany of broken promises. Before the election the now Prime Minister assured us that the coalition would provide better support for Australia's apprentices. Given the record of Liberal governments on this, I am not quite sure why people would believe that. Nevertheless, that was the commitment the coalition gave.

But it did not take Mr Abbott very long, once he became Prime Minister, to axe all of the vital support for Australia's apprentices and workers, putting our skill base and future job creation at risk. Right across our economy, we are seeing a real dumbing down, by the Abbott government, of the smart skills the Australian workforce needs to be competitive. We need to be a smarter economy, and that means we need to be looking to the future to develop up the skills and workforce that we need. We do not need the government to be ripping down every support scheme, completely deserting the field and somehow leaving it to the will of the market. The market will not provide the future skills necessary because most businesses are in the business of making a profit from today and very few are looking to our future needs. That is the role government has to play. It has to look at what smart skills we need for the future, how we as a country will develop those, and what the role of government is. It is not the role of government to completely desert the field.

We need to be competitive, absolutely. We need to support our economy and we need to provide our workers with real opportunities to earn a decent wage. The way to do that is to provide a skilled economy. But what we have seen the Abbott government doing so far is the complete reverse of that. They have made university degrees unaffordable, they have cut funds to TAFE, they have ripped funds from our school and, most recently, they have attacked the benefits family use in relation to child care, which is absolutely critical. If we are to get men and women in Australia contributing to the economy, we have got to have affordable child care; but we have seen the government rip that apart too.

Unemployment is on the rise, particularly youth unemployment. In many places in Australia youth unemployment is a very, very serious problem. What is the government's response to that? What are they doing to support young people into work? Where is that support and assistance from government? 'Earn and learn' is not a support program; it is a punishment. Support programs have been cut, and earn and learn has taken the place of a whole range of those programs. It seems that the government's agenda is about a job at any cost. And what of the jobs in our economy? The biggest growth has been in health care and social assistance, important areas of our economy, critical areas. But what is happening to our manufacturing skills base? As companies close, as the car industry starts to tail down, what is the government's commitment to ensuring a skilled workforce in other areas of our economy for the future? Where is that development going on? What we are seeing now in the health and social assistance workforce is the emergence of low-paying jobs. The majority of the workforce in that sector, unless they are skilled—nurses, physios or doctors—earns about $22 an hour. Not only is that not enough to bring up a family; it is not enough to sustain an individual. Where is the government's commitment to the skilled jobs of the future? I am really struggling to find it. I do not believe they have that commitment; they are leaving it to the market.

Tools For Your Trade, no matter what spin the government tries to put on it, does absolutely nothing to create new apprenticeships. It is fine if you have already got an apprenticeship, because you might be able to enter into a loan—although Labor is very concerned about 16-year-olds entering into loans—but it does not encourage new jobs and it certainly does not encourage the development of new skills. Prior to the 2013 election Mr Abbott announced the Trade Support Loans. In doing so, he certainly did not tell our apprentices that the government was going to scrap Labor's $1 billion Tools For Your Trade program, which gave apprentices about $5,500 each to assist them with the cost of tools. Nobody would suggest that apprentices have the money to buy the sorts of tools they need to develop their skills, but this seems to be the only program the Abbott government has left in place. The government has changed the program and tailored it—and we are now going to have 16-year-olds entering into loans if Labor's amendment is not supported—but, in and of itself, it will not create one additional job.

Another promise Mr Abbott has broken was that Australia's 400,000 apprentices would get more financial assistance to help them learn their trade and find a good job. Well, where is that assistance? Tools For Your Trade does not find people a job and it does not create new opportunities for apprentices. After the election Mr Abbott has ripped away most of that support and broken his promise to apprentices. It would seem that, prior to the election, the coalition was prepared to promise anything; and then, on winning government, they just change their minds and pretend they have not broken a promise. But clearly, in relation to Australia's future workforce, the government has severely let them down.

This broken promise or omission of the full story by the Prime Minister now means that what was an optional loan available, in addition to the Tools For Your Trade payment, is now the only financial support offered to apprentices. If the coalition think that this is some kind of job-creating scheme, they are sadly mistaken. Not only that, they are misleading Australia's future apprentices.

We know that many apprentices have huge costs for tools and equipment and, under the Abbott government's program, they will now be left with a debt rather than being provided with funds to purchase tools. Again, what we are seeing from this Abbott government is a complete misunderstanding of how the apprenticeship system works. Apprentices are on very low wages. They incur costs. Many of them are required to supply uniforms. They have to travel to and from work. They have general living costs. Mr Abbott and his government are now saying: 'On top of that low wage, you have to take out a loan. We don't know whether you'll have much say in that loan. It is a debt that could be privatised sometime in the future, but you will take out a loan and that's all the support that we're offering.'

Many of those apprentices who have already commenced their trade will now have the payments they were expecting to receive cancelled. That could mean a loss of up to $3,700 for first-year apprentices. Suddenly, because the Abbott government has failed to deliver on yet another election commitment, those apprentices have been left out in the cold. And $3,700 is a lot of money for anyone in this country, but it is a massive amount of money for a young apprentice who is earning maybe 50 or 65 per cent of the adult wage. It is a big loss and all we have to take its place is a loan, the details of which we are not sure.

The provision of the optional loan is not opposed by Labor, but it should not have come at the expense of the Tools For Your Trade scheme. It should have appropriate advice in place to ensure informed and voluntary decisions by apprentices, some of whom are school-based apprentices.

It really should be ringing alarm bells—it certainly is for Labor—that we can say to a 16-year-old, who is perhaps still at school, 'You're able to take on this loan,' when that person in the normal course of events is not able to sign contracts or vote. They have few opportunities to really exercise the rights we afford adults. Yet the Abbott government sees fit to say to these young people: 'It's okay for you to take out this loan. Just trust us, it will be all right. We'll hit you with a debt. At some future date we might privatise that debt and you will incur further costs. And, by the way, at the end of your apprenticeship we'll do nothing to help you get a job so that you can pay back the debt.' It is very alarming that we are saying to young people, at the age of 16: 'It's okay to sign up for a debt.' Will that happen without parental guidance? Who knows? If there is a default on the debt, will the parents of a 16-year-old suddenly be labelled with that debt? What happens when the apprentice perhaps fails and does not complete the apprenticeship? There are a whole range of unanswered questions and Australians have the right to be informed. But we know that the Abbott government is particularly good at lacking in transparency and certainly very good at breaking promises. What the Abbott government has probably been the best at to date is breaking its pre-election commitments and promises.

Not only do we now have uncertainty around this tools scheme, but the Abbott government has taken the axe to all of the support programs for apprentices. It is tough to be an apprentice in this day and age, to commit yourself to a low wage for quite a few years of study, at the end of which you will be rewarded with a job. It is a tough decision, when your mates are out being young people and you have got commitments, study and so forth. We should be doing everything we can to promote and support apprentices in this country. But, again, from the Abbott government, that is not so.

As well as axing the Tools For Your Trade program, the Abbott government have also axed the Australian Apprentices Access Program, again, against the backdrop of very high youth unemployment. They have axed the Australian Apprenticeships Mentoring Program and the Apprentice to Business Owner Program. It seems as though the Abbott government are saying to business: 'Yes, we want you to increase the number of apprentices you have in your business, but guess what? We're not going to give you any support to do that. You are well and truly on your own.'

We know that businesses will not offer apprentices unless there is support. Support for tools does not support a business, it does not create the skills of the future and it does not create ongoing employment for apprentices once they finish their trade.

To make a loan of $20,000 available to a school-based apprentice needs some further explanation. Clearly, we need to see the detail of what is being made available. We need to see how parents or guardians sign onto that scheme. We need those checks and balances in place. What we do not want to see is people as young as 16 entering into loans and perhaps defaulting on those loans. But it seems at this point the government has failed to put in place any measure to protect children. And they are children at 16. They are not able to vote, to drive or do a raft of things in our community and yet the Abbott government sees fit to saddle them, seemingly without any protection, with a very expensive loan. We must have parental or guardian oversight of these sorts of loans.

On top of this, Mr Abbott says he wants people to work until age 70, while at the same time cutting investment in training for workers. His priorities and those of the Abbott government are severely twisted. If we want to be a skilled-up and productive economy, we must invest in training opportunities. We have to be the smart country, but there is no investment coming from the Abbott government. It has just been left to the market, which, as we have seen before, will not look at the opportunities for the future. And the government have indicated that that they are looking to outsource, to give away, the debt management for the trade support loans, so we could have young people with a debt being pursued by loan sharks, getting a black mark on their credit rating and not being able to take credit out in the future because of this ill-thought-out scheme which seemingly enables 16-year-olds to take on a massive debt. This is clearly not right and it is why Labor is foreshadowing an amendment to require parents or guardians to be signatories to these loans. To saddle 16-year-old children with $20,000 debts which are then put into the hands of private debt collectors is quite disgraceful.

The Australian Apprenticeships Access Program assisted vulnerable job seekers who find it difficult to enter employment with nationally recognised prevocational training, support and assistance. I do not understand why a government which says it is concerned about youth unemployment—across many parts of our country, there is very high youth unemployment—would axe that program and leave absolutely nothing to replace it with. We have just thrown young people aside, and all we have got is: 'You have to earn or learn, or you will be severely punished.' We know that many young people, particularly in areas of high unemployment, need additional support. They need prevocational advice and support, and they certainly need mentoring to stay in the workplace, to successfully complete their apprenticeships and to be the highly skilled and well-paid workers that we need into the future to ensure that our economy remains productive. But, again, the Abbott government just seems to want to dumb this down. The Australian Apprenticeships Mentoring Program assisted young people who face barriers to participation. This is another program that has gone. So I really question where the Abbott government's commitment to young people in our country is. We have got a program of debt being able to be taken on, and we have got support and assistance programs slashed and burnt. I have foreshadowed the amendment that Labor wishes to move. I urge the government to take a serious look at it and support it.


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