Monday, 24 February 2020
Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I'm delighted to rise in support of the Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019. Unlike those on the other side, we haven't walked away from the mining, farming, agriculture and forestry industries. There's no point in doing an apprenticeship if you haven't got a job to go to. If you want TAFE to flourish, you need to support these industries, not make promises on the never-never about having a zero carbon target in 2050, which is only going to smash the farming industry, the mining industry and the forestry industry. We're going to end up having our entire manufacturing industry going offshore. That is not what we want.
In response to Senator Ayres, who talked about us being on the side of the suits: no-one loved suits more than Paul Keating. What a great job he did with the manufacturing industry, with the Button plan! He absolutely destroyed Victoria. Once the jewel in the crown, the manufacturing state of this country, it has now been destroyed thanks to Paul Keating and Bob Hawke and their neoliberal agenda.
Anyway, I'm pleased to rise in support of the Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019. It is an important step in ensuring that both the vocational education and training sector and apprenticeships are treated with the same importance, respect and focus as the university sector. It is particularly important that we do more to restore balance and sustainability to the higher education system. As a government and as a parliament, we must do all we reasonably can to encourage more Australians to take full advantage of vocational and trade training. It's a great pathway to a rewarding career and financial security. Apprenticeship data from last year shows that the number of apprenticeship opportunities is increasing. This is a positive sign, but there is more to be done.
Passing this bill will certainly strip much of the red tape from the current trade support loans, a worthwhile program, not dissimilar to HECS, which provides income-contingent loans to Australian apprentices in a range of occupations. This bill promises to make gaining and paying for a trade qualification that much easier. An apprentice receiving payments under the TSL program may incur an overpayment debt to the Commonwealth should their circumstances change. It is a strict requirement that any such overpayment be repaid immediately, often triggering a recovery process which is both frustrating and protracted for the Commonwealth and the apprentice alike. Changing circumstances under the program may include if a business shuts down, causing an apprentice to lose both their income and their TSL eligibility. It's easy to see how, in a situation like this, a young apprentice may forget to notify the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network within the required 14-day window. The introduction of a longer, more practical notice period is one of the measures in this bill designed to reduce the pressure on Australian apprentices.
Additional amendments to the Trade Support Loans Act 2014 that form part of this bill include specific offsetting arrangements for apprentices who remain eligible for future TSL payments. These arrangements can be implemented relatively quickly and easily and allow for overpayments to be offset against future TSL instalments, while total TSL debt is transferred to the ATO and recovered through the taxation system. The alignment of notice periods for persons to respond and provide information under the act will help to further reduce the administrative burden for both the apprentice and the AASN provider.
The Morrison government supports our apprentices and trainees in every possible way. Rather than treating those with a vocational education as second-class citizens, as many of the university educated urban elites now do, this government aims to do precisely the opposite. Only this Liberal-National government will ensure that Australia's vocational training and apprenticeship programs are administered and delivered with integrity, with value and in a financially sustainable way.
The evidence is clear. This is why during the last financial year we supported over 50,000 apprentices across Australia with the Trade Support Loans scheme alone. We know things can be tough and we want to ensure that our apprentices can manage while they focus on completing their training. This bill will significantly reduce the burden on our apprentices.
We should never forget that the largest decline in the number of apprenticeships in our nation's history occurred in 2012-13 under the last Labor government. Those opposite cut a whopping $1.2 billion from employer incentive programs to take on apprentices. This is Labor's record on apprenticeships. This was Labor's record when today's shadow Treasurer was the chief of staff of the then Treasurer and when Senator Wong and the member for Grayndler both had seats at the cabinet table. What did they do when not signing off on school halls, pink batts and the dismemberment of John Howard's border protection regime? I'll tell you what they did. They took a knife to the vocational training sector and they slashed it to blazes in a pathetic attempt to prop up a failed budget. And they have the gall to come into this chamber with mock virtue trickling from the corners of their mouths and claim to stand up for hardworking Australians. Well, the Australian people are on to them, and Australians won't be fooled a second time.
In stark contrast to the appalling failures of those opposite and in addition to the sensible measures announced in this bill, the Morrison government has expanded the wage subsidy trial for apprentices to create a further 80,000 places and has invested funds for a new skills shortage payment. However, government can only do so much. I'm confident that the Morrison government's significant investment in our vocational education sector will encourage parents and young people to appreciate what vocational training and apprenticeships can do for them. It is unfortunate that in recent decades we have seen a powerful urban culture slowly shift importance and esteem away from vocational education. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians and butchers all create and grow small businesses which drive our economy and create jobs.
It is unfortunate—no, it's worse than that; it's tragic—that in my home state of Queensland the Labor government is working so hard and so deliberately under state treasurer and de facto premier Jackie Trad to entrench this anti-trade sentiment. Only last May the Queensland Audit Office revealed that Queensland TAFE faces a significant financial risk due to declining student numbers. This revelation from the Queensland Audit Office is a direct result of the gross negligence and financial mismanagement of the Palaszczuk Labor government, a government which has spent millions on rebranding hospitals and giving handouts to senior bureaucrats, not to mention over $2 million spent on international travel in the last two years alone.
Federal Labor will, of course, point to other essential government reforms in the vocational education space, including reforms to correct their own policy failures, such as the disastrous VET FEE-HELP program. We should never forget that VET FEE-HELP was yet another stroke of policy genius from the Labor Party, a policy that quickly turned to scam and only let dodgy operators prosper while leaving a trail of debt laden victims with virtually zero employment prospects in its wake. This is a rare Labor skill. Only Labor can design a scheme that costs countless millions of dollars and only makes the situation worse.
Labor don't only make a dog's breakfast of the VET sector by their direct mismanagement when in government; they also threaten to choke off the very reason for vocational training itself. Labor's policy positions on climate, energy, industrial relations and taxation effectively provide a clear and present danger to the industrial and mining sectors, which provide the jobs that apprentices ultimately perform. Labor's ongoing war on mining, forestry and manufacturing means that apprentices seeking work and rewarding careers in these industries are firmly in Labor's sights. Labor say they believe in education, and that's fine, but the whole point of a vocational education is to have a meaningful, well-paying and rewarding job at the end of that training. If the industry isn't there then the job isn't there, and if the job isn't there then who needs training? It's a pity Labor appears wilfully ignorant of the real economy side of the VET coin.
This bill builds on the government's proven commitment to the VET sector. It was the Liberal-National government which made available up to $1.5 billion over five years for the Skilling Australians Fund and, in the process, helped to create thousands of extra apprenticeships to build the national skills base and create the jobs that underpin our strong economy. I am proud to be part of a government that is working hard to restore vocational education and training to its rightful place and make our VET system world class. While the reforms outlined by this bill may seem relatively modest and administrative in nature, their impact will be widely felt. A stronger VET system means an even stronger economy, especially when underlying industries are encouraged and supported, by this Liberal-National government, with lower taxes, less red tape and greater access to markets. I commend the bill to the Senate.