Monday, 24 February 2020
Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise tonight to speak in support of the Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019. Apprenticeships and getting young Australians into trades is incredibly important for the future of our nation. Almost every aspect of our future depends, in a large part, on having a skilled workforce to help build this nation. Whether it's in the construction centre, building the infrastructure such as the homes and the offices that Australia needs in order to grow and expand; in the energy sector, which has so much opportunity for the future; or in the mining sector, which employs so many people around Australia and will continue to be a key industry and a major competitive advantage for Australia in the decades to come, apprentices are critical. The Morrison government has a strong plan to support them. That's why we took a very significant policy to the election to create more apprentices. I look forward to speaking about that policy here tonight.
The reason that I nominated to be considered for the Senate and the reason I ran as a Liberal candidate is I've seen too many young Tasmanians, people my age, having to leave our island state for job opportunities that they feel they can't have at home. These people don't want to have to leave, but they feel that they can't enjoy the employment opportunities in Tasmania that they could in other places. We, as a government, need to be making sure that there are opportunities for our young people in Australia more broadly but also in my island state—perhaps a little selfishly as a Tasmanian. I'm advocating very strongly that we should make sure there are job opportunities in my island state for our young people, and investing in the trades is a really important part of doing this. Not every young Australian wants to go to university. Not every young Australian wants to pursue a career that might require them to have a university degree, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We should be encouraging as much choice for our young people as possible so that they have options for future study. I think investing in the trades is an incredibly important part of this. That's why I was so proud to stand as a candidate in the federal election last year and stand alongside my coalition counterparts and fight for these policies—part of which we are obviously discussing here in the chamber this evening—to make sure that Australians across the age spectrum, but particularly our young people, can have opportunities, whether that's higher education at universities or pursuing a trade. This piece of legislation here this evening is a really important part of that.
In speaking about the election policies that we were fighting for in May last year, the coalition had a $585 million Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package that will create more apprenticeships around the country. This means an additional 80,000 apprentice positions will be created over five years in occupations with skills shortages through incentive payments for employers and apprentices. We're establishing 10 national industry training hubs in areas of high youth unemployment to ensure vocational education meets local workforce needs. As part of this package employers and the new apprentices they hire in 10 national skill shortage occupations may be eligible for the additional identified skills shortage payment. This payment will deliver up to $4,000 in support to eligible employers and $2,000 to new apprentices. This is a really important new incentive to boost occupations with critical skills shortages.
We also established phase 2 of the Australian Apprentice Wage Subsidy trial, in July last year. That trial provides support to employers in the first three years of an Australian apprenticeship, offering 75 per cent of the first-year award wage, 50 per cent of the second-year award wage and 25 per cent of the third-year award wage. We are also lowering the age of eligibility for the Support for Adult Australian Apprentices incentive from 25 to 21 years for apprentices commencing from 1 July last year, and that gives employers more support when they seek to engage adult apprentices in areas of identified skills need. These are practical measures to support those who want to employ an apprentice and further incentivise those business owners who might be considering putting on an additional apprentice. Like I said, these policies are all about creating new opportunities and encouraging people to enter the trades.
Another important skills initiative of the Morrison government in my own home state of Tasmania is the Energising Tasmania initiative, and this is something that I'm very excited about. This policy is an investment of $17 million, through Energising Tasmania, to develop a Tasmanian workforce with the priority skills needed to support the Battery of the Nation initiative and renewable energy and these related sectors. It is a really exciting partnership with the Tasmanian government to address critical training and skills development needs of high priority. I was with Minister Cash in the north-west of Tasmania with the then candidate for Braddon—now member for Braddon—Gavin Pearce, when we announced the funding for this commitment. It is a very exciting project. But the most important thing about Energising Tasmania is that government and industry are working together to identify what skills are going to be required. We know that Battery of the Nation is a very exciting new venture for Tasmania and we know that there will be opportunities to train and retrain people in the appropriate skills that they need if this project is going to be a success, so that's why the government has invested this $17 million through Energising Tasmania to make sure that our local workforce can keep up with the demand of this new and emerging industry, and I think that's very exciting.
In talking about the fact that so many young people of my age have had to leave Tasmania—this Energising Tasmania, Battery of the Nation was not an opportunity that was around when I was finishing high school and considering my future career. I'm not sure I would have quite been cut out to build the Battery of the Nation myself, knowing that my practical skills are, perhaps, not quite up to scratch in that regard. But it is fantastic that these opportunities are here. It is about giving young people more choice and understanding of what those opportunities are for them to contribute to their local economy.
The point of Energising Tasmania is to remove the up-front costs associated with vocational education and training to lift barriers to training so more Tasmanians can train for the skills that local business and industry need. Fee-free training will be available in the priority areas identified by industry, including project management, civil construction, electro technology, resource management, building and construction, water industry operations and engineering.
Through our new training grants fund up to 2½ thousand fully subsidised training places will be provided over the next five years, including traineeships, apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships in areas of identified skills need. This is exactly what skills programs should be doing—identifying the growth industries in each state. We know in Tasmania that hydro and pumped hydro potential, along with other technology, is a growth area. Putting in place mechanisms to build the workforce that's needed to deliver on that potential, this initiative will contribute strongly to the aims of the Battery of the Nation project to achieve an affordable and reliable clean energy future for Tasmania and for the rest of the country. It will drive increased employment opportunities across Tasmania, including in regional areas with high unemployment. To that end, I'm sure the member for Braddon, Gavin Pearce, would agree with me that this is a such fantastic initiative for the north-west coast of Tasmania. This is an area that needs initiatives like this so that the young people there, and the locals there, can work locally if they want to.
The bill that we're discussing here tonight is just another element of our commitment to supporting apprentices. The Australian government introduced the Trade Support Loans Scheme in July 2014 to help Australian apprentices successfully complete their apprenticeships. The loans provide just over $21,000 over four years to eligible apprentices to assist them with the costs of living and learning while undertaking their training.
During the 2018-19 financial year, the Trade Support Loans program provided financial support to 55,998 Australian apprentices. Arguably, those are 55,998 Australian apprentices who may not otherwise have been able to seek out an apprenticeship. The TSL debts are normally repaid through the Australian taxation system once a former apprentice's income reaches the minimum repayment income threshold. These payments are managed by the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network providers. While in receipt of Trade Support Loans, apprentices must notify their AASN provider of any change in their circumstances that may impact their eligibility for TSL—for example, if their apprenticeship is suspended or if they change employers. Where an instalment payment is made and the apprentice has not notified their AASN provider of the change, the apprentice may incur an overpayment debt to the Commonwealth, which needs to be repaid immediately. The amendment that we are discussing here today will allow offsetting arrangements to be implemented where the apprentice is eligible to receive TSL instalments in the future.
As I said, this piece of legislation that we're discussing here tonight is just one of a whole suite of measures that the Morrison coalition government is putting in place to support industries, to support apprentices and to make sure that we have the skills that we need for the jobs of the future. The coalition government is committed to ensuring that Australians have the right skills for the workforce of today and tomorrow. Indeed, in 2019-20 we are investing over $3 billion in vocational education and training, which includes $1½ billion given to the states and territories every year through the National Agreement on Skills and Workforce Development; $1.1 billion to fund the government's own skills program, including employer incentives and support for apprentices; and just a little bit left over to the states and territories via the Skilling Australians Fund to support increased apprenticeships and traineeship numbers.
We are also, of course, still paying to fix Labor's failed VET FEE-HELP scheme. Since 2016, over 66,500 students had VET FEE-HELP loan debts of over $1 billion re-credited by the Commonwealth. Under this disastrous scheme, dodgy providers flourished and student exploitation was high. Students were systematically exploited and signed up to accumulate huge debts for training packages that were never delivered. That's why we've introduced VET Student Loans—so that students can gain their qualifications safe in the knowledge that they will not be ripped off. The government's skills package is contributing to an increase in Commonwealth funding to VET over the budget forward estimates. Funding from the Commonwealth to the states and territories under the national agreement has been steadily increasing from around $1.36 billion in 2011-12 to an expected $1.6 billion in 2022-23. The numbers speak for themselves. This government has a very firm commitment to ensure that our VET sector continues to flourish.
Just in summarising what I've said here tonight, because I recognise that my time is not far from expiring, as a relatively new member of the coalition government—and I will still lay claim to being relatively new for maybe another six or so months—it is personally pleasing and satisfying for me to be here working in a government that is taking really seriously the issue of ensuring that young people can have access to the skills that they need for the jobs that they want to have. Coming from Tasmania, this issue is always so front and centre for me. I've seen so many of my friends and my family members leaving Tasmania—whether it is when they've finished high school, when they've finished university or a couple of years into their chosen career—because they feel that they can't have employment opportunities in Tasmania like they can on the mainland. I've always considered myself incredibly fortunate to have lived and worked in Tasmania all of my life, but I know that I'm one of the lucky ones. Most people haven't had the pleasure of doing that. Some of my friends now living interstate want to come back to Tasmania. They know we have a fantastic lifestyle in Tasmania and they want those opportunities there—not just for them to be able to come home to, but of course, for their children as well.
So policies such as the ones that I've talked about tonight, enabled through the legislation that we're debating here this evening, are such an important part of this government demonstrating to the Australian people its commitment to our next generation of workers—its commitment to ensuring that there are job opportunities there for the next generation and that, most importantly, they are appropriately skilled to go into those jobs and have a successful career. As I said at the start, for some people, that's going to university. I was one of those people, and there is nothing wrong with that, but at the same time we should still be concentrating much of our efforts on the trades, because, as I've set out here tonight in talking about everything that's happening in my home state of Tasmania, the trades have such an important role to play. What we really need to be doing, I believe, is making sure that our young people are aware of the trades and the potential career benefits that can come out of a pathway that they pursue through that. This policy, this legislation that we're discussing here this evening, is an important part of that. I commend the bill to the Senate.