Monday, 24 February 2020
Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I, too, rise to speak on the Trade Support Loans Amendment (Improving Administration) Bill 2019. As part of our commitment to vocational skills, the Australian government introduced the Trade Support Loans scheme in July 2014 to help Australian apprentices successfully complete their apprenticeship. These loans provide up to $21,078 over four years to eligible apprentices to assist them with the costs of living and learning while undertaking their training. The bill represents a reasonable and measured change to the program to provide for offsetting, where participants remain eligible for TSL payments in the future, and a range of other administrative changes.
The scheme was introduced at a time when Australia's skills pipeline was incredibly broken. There weren't enough apprentices going into training, and even fewer were completing their training. Many of those who did fell by the wayside because of the fragmented approach to skills and employment in place under previous governments. This took place under a backdrop of an economy in repair—one which was only just starting to produce the jobs that we are now starting to see the results of today.
Since 2014 this program has been extraordinarily successful. This has been due in no small part to the coalition government's broader economic agenda. Not only are we providing support to young Australians looking to get into their chosen profession; we're ensuring that there are long-term and sustainable jobs for them when they finish their training. The economy we have overseen is delivering for them. We're helping so many young Australians to realise their aspirations. In fact, 55,998 in the last financial year alone participated in this program.
Unlike many in this chamber—the Greens and those opposite—we want people to have a go. We want people to undertake a qualification, to get out there and start a business, if that's what they choose to do, and to make a success of themselves. And we know that as a government our role is to ensure that the economic conditions in this country are such that all Australians are able to realise the opportunity we are afforded as members of this great nation.
We are a lucky country. It's a phrase we hear so often in this place, but for me as a Western Australian there is no place with more opportunity and potential than the great state that I represent. As someone who has come into the Australian Senate having spent my working life getting people into meaningful employment through gaining vocational skills, there is no-one more proud of this government's record than me. But I didn't start my career working in the vocational sector; I was actually a student in the vocational sector. That's where I started. I did an apprenticeship in electronic servicing. Back then, there wasn't a loan scheme; there was only a small grant that you'd get provided as an apprentice. From memory, I think it was about $250. I used that money to buy a soldering iron, to buy a pair of cutters to put in my tool bag and to buy a volt meter, which I had to use as part of my job. I still have those items today, and I cherish them very much. I use them quite regularly when I've got a repair job at home.
But I would have loved to have had the kind of support that this government is providing through this scheme as a young apprentice starting out. I had a 1972 Honda Civic—that vehicle is older then me—and it wasn't very reliable. There were times when my boss was quite upset at me, because my car would break down on the way to work, and it was becoming quite an issue. It wasn't until I got into my apprenticeship and started to earn the salary that I could build up the means to buy my next car, which was a Toyota Celica—which wasn't exactly the best choice of vehicle, I've got to say. It took me some time. For that first nine months or so I was very irregular in getting to work on time, because I had problems with my car. But had I had this loan available to me then, I wouldn't have had such a hurdle in starting out in my career, because I could have used those funds to help me get into a reliable vehicle much earlier. This scheme is available for the person receiving it to use it for what they need in order to advance in their career and in their trade.
These programs don't operate in isolation. We know that you can't just throw money at a program and expect it to work. It's a convenient point of oversight by those opposite that this government has a range of policies and initiatives in this place to ensure that our strong, job-creating economy is one that delivers benefits and opportunities for all Australians. The Morrison government is delivering the job opportunities, providing pathways and ensuring that all Australians are able to realise their aspirations—programs such as the Try, Test and Learn Fund; the Individual Placement and Support program; the PaTH program, which is helping young people as well, providing a new and bright future for so many in this country who want nothing more than a job. As a Liberal I'm extremely proud that the coalition government has committed over $40 million to roll out the VTEC program across Australia, a program I was involved in that is seeing tens of thousands of Indigenous people go into training with a guarantee of a job at the completion of that training program. We know, from the data we've seen through that program, that over 70 per cent of those jobseekers are still in work some six months later. This is a remarkable achievement by those individuals who have gone into the program as well as by those who are delivering it—those training providers, those support workers, those mentors who are helping jobseekers to address their barriers to employment and to see them train and then successfully go into those jobs.
Throughout my life, I've worked with people from all walks of life—from our cities to our remote regions—many of whom were individuals and families who had found themselves entrenched in our welfare system, with significant barriers to finding a job. Have I ever heard them sympathise with the unfunded empathy and meaningless gestures of those opposite? No. They want new skills. They want meaningful employment. I've been privileged to see the reality and practical effect of this on countless lives. When you lift people up so that they can see the horizon, when they earn their first pay cheque, when they see that they can independently support their family and take part in all the advantages that 21st century life enables, the transformation is truly amazing.
That is why I'm proud to be part of a government that has seen over 1.5 million jobs created since coming into office—a government which is overseeing an economy that will create 1.25 million jobs over the next five years. These are not just part-time and casual jobs; they're full-time, long-term, well-paying and sustainable jobs. This means that we've also seen the lowest levels of welfare dependency in 30 years. This is our record, the record of the Morrison government. Between 2014 and 2019, 185,000 fewer Australians were on welfare, despite a population increase of over two million.
We're committed to ensuring that Australians have the right skills for the workforce of today and tomorrow. This is what our economic agenda is delivering, and this is what our $3 billion investment in vocational education is delivering. We're providing an increasing share of funding to train the next generation of Australians. This includes $1.5 billion to the states and territories every year through the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development; $1.1 billion to fund the government's own skills programs, including employer incentives and support for apprentices; and $175 million to the states and territories via the Skilling Australians Fund to support increased apprenticeship and traineeship numbers.
In addition to this, we are paying to fix Labor's failed VET FEE-HELP scheme. The failure of Labor's scheme and the impacts of Labor's cuts cast a long shadow over the entire sector. Since 2016, over 66,500 students have had VET FEE-HELP loan debts of over $1 billion recredited by the Commonwealth. Repairing this disastrous program has been an ongoing agenda item across all three terms of this government.
We've ended the systemic exploitation of students by dodgy providers, where they signed up to accumulate huge debts for training packages that were never delivered. There is nothing more demoralising than going into a training course, having been told it is going to be something terrific for your life, and getting sold a pup—going through that training course, and there's nothing at the end of it. It's completely demoralising. We remember the days when we saw ads for dodgy providers, standing out the front of Centrelink, preying upon vulnerable Australians, handing out laptops and iPads, the latest tech, if you signed up for a course with extraordinary fees—exorbitant fees.
We've ensured that this will never happen again. No government in good conscience could allow this behaviour to flourish, yet Labor did. In contrast, we've introduced VET Student Loans so that students can access financial support to gain their qualifications, safe in the knowledge that they will not be ripped off. The students have the control here. The loan is in their hands, and they are in charge of their own finances. They've got the ability to make their own decisions, and we're empowering them to be able to do that.
Let's reflect on the appalling record of those opposite in this space. Over just two years, all the same faces opposite gutted over $1.2 billion from the employer incentives to take on apprentices. Nine times in two years the Labor Party wielded the knife against apprenticeship incentives. Every time they needed to make a cut they went straight for the apprentices. This was a consequence of a Labor government that could not control the budget. When the Leader of the Opposition was Deputy Prime Minister, he, along with Senator Wong as the finance minister and the member for McMahon as Treasurer, cut over $240 million out of apprenticeship incentives in a single year. That has to be a record. This is just the beginning of the mess that Labor left behind—a mess that has taken us six years to fix. They presided over an economy that failed to create jobs, and this resulted in our vocational education programs training many Australians just for the sake of it, with little prospect of employment at the end.
You'd think that from all of this they would have learnt a lesson. Whilst we on this side of the chamber continue to stand for growing jobs and growing our industries, they do not. We want to encourage new investment in resource projects across the country that drive jobs in regional centres and lift millions across the world out of poverty. All those members over there, including those in the Otis group, do not. This is the type of country they want to see Australians living in—no investment, no industry, no jobs, no regional economies and no future. It seems that only under duress do they support any industry that drives our economy.
The Morrison government is undeterred and focused on getting on with the job of ensuring Australia has a world-class vocational education system. I'm a product of the trade training system. That was part of my early career. It laid a foundation for me. I know what impact that this is having. I have met many apprentices who are benefiting from the support of this program. I know what it would have meant when I was a young apprentice. I can see the difference that it's making in their lives. The government is committed to providing support to young apprentices so that they can get on and build a fantastic career and have the economic independence that they deserve.