Monday, 15 June 2020
National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020; Second Reading
This evening we are, of course, debating the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020, and Labor does not oppose this bill. We note that it establishes a new statutory office for the National Skills Commissioner that will provide the minister and secretary of the department with advice on skills demand, labour market and workforce development issues. We also note that the commissioner will provide advice in relation to current, emerging and future workforce needs; pricing for VET courses; the public and private return on government investment in VET qualifications; the performance of Australia's VET system for providing VET; and issues affecting Australian and international labour markets.
The commissioner is also supposed to collect data and analyse it to inform policy development and program delivery—noble objectives, if the government had sought to get them a bit more quickly and also hadn't abolished our previous governance put in place by Labor that allowed these kinds of things to happen. We on this side of the chamber want to see that we always ensure and act on strong expert policy, evidence and advice.
Our skills and workforce development needs should have this advice and be acted on. We have an excellent track record in Labor. In government we established Skills Australia in 2008, and of course this became the Workforce and Productivity Agency back in 2011. This agency analysed and reported on Australia's current, emerging and future workforce development needs, and in contrast what did we get from the Abbott Liberal government? One of their first acts in government was to close it down back in April 2014. So, here we are, some six years later—and it's taken six years for this government to come to understand that, in order to create a quality vocational educational system, we do, at the very least, need independent, reliable analysis of our labour market and our skills needs. So, Labor does not oppose this bill. It has an important objective.
We see that the creation of the National Skills Commissioner is yet another tweak in a vocational education system that needs systematic and comprehensive reform—something that we've yet seen no sign of from this government. We need much more than a skills commissioner nestled in a government department to fix what is wrong in this system. A government that's prepared to fiddle at the edges of the current system isn't going to address the very significant, profound problems that undermine Vocational Education and Training in our nation. Consequently, the productive performance and international competitiveness of our economy is undersupported through skills in our nation.
The very unfortunate truth is: Australia's TAFE and vocational education system is under significant pressure. It's under this pressure because of Liberal's poor and incoherent policies, and indeed their significant and very, very massive cuts. There has been a palpable lack of leadership from this government in the Vocational Education and Training system. When the Liberals took government, the Commonwealth essentially vacated the field. Instead of continuing the task of building a strong and reliable system of vocational education, what did we see? We saw slashed funding to TAFE, slashed funding to training by $3 billion and an underspend of your own budgets by another $1 billion.
Under your watch, we've seen apprentice numbers fall by 140,000. This government's presided over a national shortage, a shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees. So it's all very well for the Prime Minister to draw attention to this problem when in six years we've had a government that hasn't done anything about it. A further 100,000 apprentices and trainees will be lost by the end of this year alone if this government fails to take immediate action to keep current apprentices in jobs and support employers to take on new ones.
The nation calls on you to take this action, and yet there's nothing in your policies in this COVID economic crisis that significantly addresses this problem. Australians need and deserve excellent TAFEs and universities, and the Liberals have gutted both. The Prime Minister and the Liberals have spent seven years ignoring the vital role of TAFE and the critical role it plays in the growth of our communities and young people and in the growth of our economy. At the same time, we can see in our nation that we have 2.6 million Australians either unemployed or looking for more hours of work. We've seen years and years of abandonment by the Liberal Party, and too many Australians either have been locked out of quality TAFE training or have lost confidence in the promise of a vocational education.
The consequences of this failure are being felt right around our nation, from Bathurst to Bendigo, Joondalup to Junee. The Prime Minister has abandoned our TAFE and the Liberals have no plan of action for good jobs and quality skills development. We've seen this government forsake casual workers under JobKeeper, showing disregard for these working people. We know that skills development breaks down in poor-quality jobs. That's what comes of poor skills development: poor-quality jobs—casual and part-time jobs where people barely get the training they need to do those jobs. We've seen massive growth in low-quality, privately delivered courses putting pressure on TAFEs and other quality providers trying to keep standards high being undercut. This does nothing but result in a race to the bottom.
Across the VET system we've seen a decline in outcomes to students, with dropping enrolments and, very importantly, low completion rates. Costs have been shifting to students as they've been hit with fee increases and growing limitations on access, particularly for students in our regions, and less government support. At its very worst, we know what we've seen in terms of the defrauding and exploitation of people trying to improve their lives through getting an education and qualifications.
In the last seven years, we've had a government that has simply watched this all unfold. They have done nothing but make further cuts and contribute to further costly mistakes. Now we are in a situation where they are returning small parts of the things that they have stripped out, and they are returning those things into a broken system. We have seen seven years of utter failure and utter neglect. This government has finally at this point in time decided to establish the National Skills Commission—and, yes, we will support them in doing so. It is the right thing to do, but given the state of the crisis in our nation currently it's barely a start, given the magnitude of the problems this government has created.
Turning to the issue of skilled visas within this context, the bill establishes the Skills Commissioner to have a focus on current, emerging and future workforce needs and Australian and international labour markets. The bill—and the government—is very quiet on the issue of skilled temporary visas and how these areas will be managed in the future. This government has had an absolutely ham-fisted approach when it comes to reform in this area. The government announced changes to the old 457 visa system and then had to backpedal because those changes had been such a failure. As part of this reform, the Liberals introduced a new Skilling Australians Fund. Some three years later, just $463 million of this fund has been reallocated—money that could've and should've been spent to support hundreds of thousands of apprentices and trainees. You should be spending money to keep those apprentices and trainees in those jobs now, because that's what the money is for. It's to get Australians skilled so that you don't have to draw down on a foreign workforce.
There are plenty of questions that have been left unanswered in this legislation—such as what role the commissioner will play with Home Affairs to determine the requirements of Australia's temporary skilled workforce, what role the commissioner will play in reviewing the short-term skilled occupation list and the long-term strategic skills list, and how the views of workers and their representatives will be taken into consideration by the commissioner. We know that the interim Skills Commissioner is a former Liberal chief of staff, former chief economist at Deutsche Bank and former chief economist at the Business Council of Australia. So how will those views be balanced and all of the options taken into consideration?
These are very important issues that this government has neglected. I think it shows how transparent the government is in wanting to talk up this area when it has done nothing to address the balance between training and bringing in skilled labour from overseas. The first time we really heard the Prime Minister of this nation do anything key about skills—when was it? It was when the flow of international labour migration was turned off. That was, really, the first time we saw these issues elevated in any way.
We've had a failure on JobMaker—better known as 'JobFaker'—from this government. This government has been a skills killer. It should not have taken a pandemic for this government to turn its attention to our vocational training system. This government's spent seven years creating a tradie crisis in Australia: $3 billion cut from TAFE and training, widespread skills shortages and 140,000 apprentices and trainees gone. This is a big mess. But what has been the Prime Minister's solution? This phony announcement. It's a phony announcement with no extra funding—no money—no time frame and no detail. It's more spin, more spin from marketing. This is exactly what we've come to expect from this ad man: no plan, heavy on rhetoric, very light on detail.
In contrast, Labor put forward, with Anthony Albanese, on 29 October, its intention to establish Jobs and Skills Australia. Unlike the Skills Commission in this bill, Labor's Jobs and Skills Australia would be an independent statutory authority providing genuine partnership with business leaders, large and small; state and territory governments; unions; education providers; and those who understand particular regions, cohorts and skills. We would enhance the National Skills Commission to become Jobs and Skills Australia, to establish a more collaborative approach with an enduring structure.
It's significant that the COVID pandemic has changed the way we think about ourselves, the way we work and our interaction with the world around us. We are now experiencing one of the greatest economic transformations of our lifetime, and we are faced with choices about how to go forward. We have a government that lacks action and has no ambition for working people. Unlike the Liberals and Nationals, Labor believes that funding education is an investment in our nation's future and our future prosperity, and that it is not a cost burden. A government, such as this government, this Morrison Liberal government, without a plan for education and training, has no plan for Australia's future. We do not oppose this bill today but, as usual from this government, it is too little, too late.
I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. The bill before us today implements one of the key recommendations of the Joyce review, which is to set up a skills commission at the core of the skills system. The Joyce review examined Australia's vocational education and training system to strengthen skills and reported in March 2019. The National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 establishes a new statutory office to be known as the National Skills Commission, which is to be headed by the National Skills Commissioner. The bill also specifies the commissioner's functions and enables the establishment of an advisory committee to advise the commissioner. I flag upfront that I will be moving an amendment to ensure that the advisory council is somewhat balanced, with at least one TAFE representative on it. We know the Liberals' agenda on vocational education and training is one of massive privatisation. We simply cannot have an advisory council that is fully stacked with business interests and private providers.
The Greens support this bill. But I also want to talk about how all of this is merely window-dressing so the Liberals and Nationals can hide their decimation of our incredible public TAFE system. A publicly owned and properly funded TAFE system plays an essential role in building an economically and socially just society by offering lifelong educational opportunities and skills development across the country—in regional, rural and metropolitan areas. But, in typical Liberal-National fashion, they manage to continue to degrade TAFEs and ignore the rot at the heart of their conservative approach to education.
The bill in front of us, sadly, does nothing to address the destruction the Liberal-National government has wrought on public VET in Australia. Skills and training have been underfunded by tens of millions of dollars in the last year alone. It was only recently that we saw Labor and the Liberals team up to abolish the $4 billion Education Investment Fund. Combined with a chronic underspend in skills funding, the result is that TAFEs, TAFE teachers and their students are being starved of resources. What is entirely missing from this piece of legislation, and, indeed, from any vocational education and training legislation the government have on their agenda, is any sign that they intend to cease their slow but purposeful destruction of our public TAFEs.
People who go to TAFE perform incredible work that is socially important. If the COVID pandemic has taught us anything, it is that vital work such as nursing, child care, early childhood education, social work and community services is central to how we organise as a society and how we care for each other. The benefits of the hands-on experience and technical skills that students acquire in TAFE are unmatched. The cuts by the Turnbull government a few years ago to arts courses across the country pretty much wiped out vocational arts education. These skills and others become even more vital as we work to rebuild after the bushfires and the pandemic. Failing to fund them properly is incredibly short sighted, and it's destructive. Yet we've seen TAFE being slowly destroyed by the government's neglect, by a lack of funding and by privatisation. Skills and training are, of course, vital for the future—a future where we set ourselves up to be a renewables powerhouse; a future with a just transition from polluting fossil fuels to long-term, sustainable and life-making work.
Most importantly, we cannot forget our regional and rural communities. Not only do TAFEs have strong relationships with their rural and regional communities; they can play a leading role in education, training, skills development and the economy. Yet this bill neglects focusing on this important need. I will be moving an amendment that was moved by the member for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, in the other place, which inserts into the commissioner's role a much-needed focus on regional areas.
Skills and training will also be essential for the resurgence and recovery of Australian manufacturing. That, in turn, is fundamental to addressing the twin challenges of growing inequality, and environmental and climate crisis. Just and sustainable manufacturing with decent jobs that value workers is fundamental to a future that is livable for all of us. That's what workers deserve, and that's what we're working on as part of the Green New Deal.
We can't talk about this future and not talk about vocational education and training. Over the last decade, we have seen a decimation of our world-class TAFE, with massive funding cuts, increasing fees and the privatisation of the sector which saw the entry of shonky providers. In the last fortnight alone, we've seen further decline in apprenticeship numbers, news that the government has now been forced to repay more than $1.2 billion in student loans because of the rorting of Labor-Liberal VET privatisation, and yet even more alarming language about even more marketisation coming out of the Productivity Commission. As Maxine Sharkey from the Australian Education Union said last week of the Productivity Commission report:
The report's recommended options, including voucher schemes and increasing income contingent loans, are extremely risky, and open the sector up to a repeat of VET-FEE-HELP style rorting by unscrupulous private operators.
This disaster needs to be reversed and it needs to be reversed now. Our TAFEs are vital for people to be able to gain the skills needed for transition and transformation. This is good for individuals and even better for the whole of society.
On vocational training, the government says one thing and does another. They say they want to encourage people into trades, but then they underfund skills training by tens of millions of dollars. The motivation for the deliberate undermining of TAFEs by state and federal governments is no mystery. They are ideologically opposed to the very principle of lifelong public education, particularly when there's a buck to be made for their friends and donors in the for-profit education corporations by directing public funds their way.
The Greens are and always will be the party of public education, and we are proud to support our TAFEs. We have a plan to rebuild TAFE as the vocational training provider of choice for students. We will remove the Gillard-era contestable funding requirements and make TAFE and uni free for all, remove private for-profit providers entirely from federal funding of vocational training and make TAFEs first priority for all federal funding for vocational education and training. This is a bold vision, and we need that vision for VET in Australia, not the piecemeal and destructive approach that the government has taken.
It's my pleasure to rise this evening to speak on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. The reason for this bill is the overwhelming importance of skills in a modern post-COVID economy. We've been asked this evening by previous speakers to provide the money, the time and the detail. And that will be provided. That is provided. It's a noble objective, said Senator Pratt, and Senator Pratt will support this bill.
The National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 will establish a new statutory position, the National Skills Commissioner, and specify the functions of the commissioner. The establishment of the National Skills Commissioner is a critical new piece of Australian economic infrastructure and a vital element of the Prime Minister's recently announced JobMaker plan, enabling us to navigate economic recovery, lift productivity and lay the foundations for a prosperous future. Vocational education and training, one of the key career pathways, can further improve our capacity to grow, compete and thrive in a global economy, particularly a post-COVID economy. The commissioner will provide independent expert advice and national leadership on the Australian labour market, current and future skills needs and workforce development issues. This role could not be more timely, as we address the critical challenges of managing the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The commissioner and the National Skills Commission will help prepare Australia's labour market for recovery. They will establish a robust new evidence base to strengthen the Australian education and training system. The varied roles of the National Skills Commission demonstrate huge potential for it to quickly become a vital central hub, supporting and enhancing the operation and analysis of the national labour market, as well as striking through the complexity of the current VET system and strengthening the architecture of VET in Australia.
Australia's economic recovery will be particularly reliant on a highly skilled, resilient and adaptable workforce. The skills needs of the economy are likely to evolve, and the jobs that will be made as we come out of the crisis may not be the same as those that were lost. The government has identified skills and training as a priority in the recently announced JobMaker plan. We have outlined a reform agenda that will make VET work for Australians again. It will do so by providing a trusted training system that can deliver workers with high quality and relevant skills and support rapid upskilling and reskilling in growth areas to support a new generation of economic success and guarantee the essentials that Australians rely on.
The National Skills Commission will help ensure that the skills and training system supports all Australians, including vulnerable cohorts, in facing the challenge of working out how to live, work and retrain in a way that creates a sustainable COVID-safe economy. The commissioner will provide detailed labour market analysis, including an annual report, setting out the skill needs of Australia. The NSC will also publish close-to-real-time data on labour markets to flag emerging skills shortages and other labour market trends. Data from the commissioner will power the National Careers Institute to provide students with the most accurate and comprehensive data on where jobs will be and what skills and qualifications they need to get them. This will help show that trade and skills jobs are ones to be aspired to as a first-best option, not looked down upon or seen as a second-best option. It builds on our $585 million Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow skills package and contributes to COAG's agreed vision for VET to be a responsive, dynamic and trusted sector. Together with the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020, this bill delivers some of the key elements of the 2019 expert review of Australia's VET system led by the Hon. Steven Joyce. The Morrison government is committed to driving improvements in the quality, relevance and accessibility of the VET system, to underpin Australia's economic recovery.
Let me talk a bit about the content of the bill. The functions of the National Skills Commissioner that are set out in this bill will support a stronger, more agile VET system in a number of ways. Firstly, the commissioner will consolidate and strengthen labour market and skills needs analysis to provide an independent and trusted source of information about what is happening now and into the future. The innovative use of new data sources and advanced data analytic techniques will support the commissioner in becoming a trusted source of sophisticated labour market information, analysis and forecasting. This research and analysis will draw on emerging data sources and cutting-edge analytic techniques to ensure Australia's labour market analysis capability is world leading. It will help close skill gaps and provide confidence to employers, students, tertiary educators and Australian governments that we are investing in the right skills at the right time. This is essential to prepare Australians for the future opportunities of today and tomorrow.
Secondly, the commissioner will examine the cost drivers and develop and maintain a set of efficient prices for VET courses, to improve transparency, consistency and accessibility for students. Current VET prices and subsidies vary considerably around Australia, with students paying different prices for the same course and facing various levels of quality. For example, there is currently a difference of $11,745 in subsidies between Western Australia and Queensland for students studying a Diploma of Nursing, and it is not clear what is driving this. For the Diploma of Building Design, there is a difference of $6,855 in subsidies for students studying at TAFE NSW and TAFE Queensland, with the TAFE NSW students facing a cost of $3,600 and the TAFE Queensland students facing a cost of $10,455. And a student studying a Certificate III in Blinds, Awnings, Security Screens and Grilles will receive a subsidy of $3,726 in Queensland, $9,630 in New South Wales and no subsidy in Victoria unless the qualification is taken as an apprenticeship.
Core to the commissioner's pricing work will be the consideration of quality. An efficient price does not necessarily mean the lowest price but one that provides value for money. It means the price that needs to be paid to secure training delivers the skills that employers need and sets the students up for a valuable career.
Finally, the commissioner will lead research and analysis to exam the effectiveness of the VET system and advise on the public and private returns on government and investment. This means better understanding VET student outcomes, such as whether a student got a job and what they are now earning as well as public benefits such as building a strong workforce. This will enable governments to direct investment towards high-quality courses that give students the best chance of getting a job whilst strengthening our economy and society.
Those opposite have claimed the National Skills Commission is replication of Labor's policy. It is not. We are not recreating the Australian National Training Authority or the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency or AWPA's precursor, Skills Australia. These agencies were designed for a very different time.
The National Skills Commissioner would be tasked with using the advanced data analytics real-time web based information on the labour market to build a much stronger evidence base, to inform VET investment and to better understand the outcomes students achieve with VET. The analytics and information available to the commissioner did not exist in the days of ANTA, Skills Australia or AWPA. The bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted how much information on economic activity is actually available and the importance of having a trusted, independent authority who can synthesize that information and sort the wheat from the chaff to ensure decision-makers have access to right information at the right time.
The role of the commissioner is underpinned by the principles of independence, transparency and accountability. The commissioner is a statutory position. The commissioner will be appointed by the minister following an open and transparent merit based selection process, in line with the Public Service's merits and transparency policy. The maximum term of the appointment is up to five years to enable stability and consistency for the commission. The Remuneration Tribunal will determine the commissioner's pay and recreation leave. The commissioner will be supported by departmental staff, who, as public servants, will be made available by the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Additional staff will be engaged to support the commissioner's new core functions. The minister is able to give direction by legislative instrument to the commissioner about the way in which the commissioner is to carry out the commissioner's functions, and any direction the minister gives will be tabled in parliament and made publicly available. This bill gives the minister the power to appoint one or more advisory committees to support the commissioner. This could provide an effective mechanism for industry and state and territory involvement.
The coalition has a very good record on achievement on skills, particularly on COVID-19 support. Through the $1.3 billion Supporting Apprentices and Trainees initiative, support is being provided to small businesses to retain their apprentices through a 50 per cent wage subsidy, up to 30 September 2020. As of 5 June this year, a total of 55,400 apprentices and trainees and 31,500 employers have been assisted by the supporting apprentices and trainees wage subsidy, resulting in a total of $252 million in payments—and that does not include assistance under JobKeeper. The JobKeeper payment will also support many apprentices and trainees in remaining connected to their employers throughout the pandemic. In addition, significant regulatory and fee relief has been provided to the vocational education and training sector. Fees charged by ASQA will be refunded or waived. These measures put some $100 million back into the cash flow of Australian education and training businesses so this money can be used to retain employees. New cost recovery arrangements for ASQA will also be deferred by 12 months to 1 June 2021. There'll be a six-month exemption from the loan fees associated with VET student loans in a bid to encourage full-fee-paying students to continue their studies despite these difficult times.
Australians have not forgotten what Labor did to the VET sector when they were last in government. We were accused of having a poor and coherent sector by Senator Pratt. I can almost feel Senator Pratt channelling Senator Doug Cameron, except for the accent. Labor were responsible for a fall in apprenticeships by 110,000 between July 2012 and June 2013 after they ripped out $1.2 billion in employer incentives—the largest ever annual decline.
We are working with states and territories to reform the system and clean up the mess left by Labor. The government is investing more in a better system. To commit more funding, we need to have confidence that the VET system will deliver what the economy needs. The coalition government is committed to ensuring we are equipping Australians with the skills they need for good, secure jobs. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020, which establishes a new statutory office, the National Skills Commissioner. Labor does not oppose this bill or the creation of this office, which will provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demand, labour market and workforce development issues. Labor has a track record of supporting and acting on expert policy advice and evidence on skills and workforce development. In 2008 we established Skills Australia, which then became the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011. One of the first things the Abbott government did on taking office in 2014 was to close it down. Since then this government has systematically decimated vocational education and moved this country to a dangerous dependence on short-term temporary skilled migration.
To rebuild our workforce, to change it from one that is planned simply around the wishes of a few large employers to one that serves our economy, we need independent data, and so Labor does not oppose this bill. But to fix the skills shortage we need much more than someone in government somewhere or an overpaid renovation reality TV star like Scott Cam. Without better leadership and investment in things like TAFE, this bill would just be window-dressing, created for the benefit of government being able to appoint another one of its mates to a highly paid Public Service position. To be clear, from all accounts, the person they have appointed to this position is a Liberal mate. As he is a former Liberal staffer and Business Council of Australia economist, we all know where his loyalties lie. The government underspent on VET by nearly $1 billion. Now they are appointing representatives of big business to critical positions in vocational education and paying them, I suspect, half a million dollars a year for it.
To fix this, though, we first need to rebuild what was once a world-class vocational educational sector, at a time when the government have let apprenticeships fall by 140,000 and presided over a national shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees; slashed funding to TAFE and training by $3 billion; and underspent their own budget by another $1 billion. A further 100,000 apprentices and trainees will be lost by the end of the year if the government fails to take further action to keep current apprentices in jobs—way beyond the steps taken so far—and support employers even further to make sure that occurs.
Employers currently have a wage subsidy in place for businesses to keep their existing apprentices, but, like JobKeeper, it too expires in September. What will be left after September is what the government is calling JobMaker. Well, it's better referred to as 'JobFaker'. It's an announcement with no extra funding, no time frame and basically no detail. It's just more spin from 'Scotty from marketing'.
Australians need and deserve TAFEs and universities that are centres of excellence, and the Liberals have gutted both. At the same time we have 2.6 million Australians either unemployed or looking for more hours of work. This will only increase when JobKeeper ends in September and jobseeker goes back to its normal state. Business groups like the Australian Industry Group agree on that. They say the end of JobKeeper will result in a 'difficult period of high risk, uncertainty and anxiety for businesses and households'. Even the Liberal New South Wales Premier agrees. On 4 June she noted that New South Wales was yet to absorb the full economic shock of COVID-19, saying:
… we are staring down, literally, hundreds of thousands of extra people coming off JobKeeper and going straight onto the dole queue.
Now, urgently, vocational education needs serious reform if it's going to continue to deliver the skills that Australian workers need. The government needs to consult not just with big-business mates but with unions and all businesses. Cutting funding and appointing your mates while locking workers out of the reform process is no way for the government to rebuild TAFE and vocational education. It also needs be integrated with the migration system. The government needs to go back to work and to the recommendations of the report commissioned by the minister in 2014 which examined the 457 visa system. The report titled Robust new foundations was completed by four eminently qualified panellists, including its chair, John Azarias, who examined the integrity of the skilled migration system. It should inform policy development into the future.
In 2012, the then minister for immigration, Chris Bowen, acting on the recommendations of the report, convened the first Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, MACSM, to provide the government with expert advice on the role of skilled migration in the Australian economy. MACSM is a tripartite body with representatives from unions, government and employers. It provided independent advice to help develop our migration policies and program in a way that was tailored to our real present and future needs. Rather than letting our skilled migration system be run by a few large employers, this body was independent and reconciled the needs of business and future workforce needs with the need for long-term planning for the economy.
And what did the Liberals do with it? First, they ignored it. When Turnbull replaced the 457 visa system, he did not discuss it with MACSM, this tripartite organisation; he completely bypassed it. Of course, had they brought the proposal to MACSM, MACSM might have advised a different approach, a more thoughtful approach—an approach that had been genuinely considered by everybody right across the economy. My Labor colleague in the other place Ged Kearney, who was then on the council, said at the time:
I would have made it clear that the occupations that remain on this list, which include roof tilers, carpenters, joiners, chefs, cooks, midwives, nurses and real estate agents, do not accurately reflect the genuine labour shortages in Australia.
Two of the important tasks of the ministerial council are to advise on, firstly, skill shortages in the labour market which cannot be met from domestic labour force and domestic training and education programs and, secondly, policies to ensure that Australian workers are afforded priority in the labour market. This is to make finding Australians who can meet these skill gaps a priority of government. Every single position on this board is vacant. Just as on climate change, this government does not want to listen to the experts; it just wants to select its Liberal mates. Instead of sitting down with workers, employers and labour market experts to get the skills mix right, the government simply ignores them.
There are real consequences from the lack of action by this government on the skills market. It is young Australians who are missing out. They are not getting the opportunities to start new careers or the support they need to succeed in the labour market. The COVID-19 pandemic will be the biggest challenge to our labour market in our lifetime. It will be a defining event for young people and their entry into jobs and careers. We owe it to them to do everything we can to ensure they get the chance we have all had when starting out in our own careers. I hope the commission is successful, and the next Labor government will build on this initiative to ensure that we are maximising our young people's potential for the future of the nation.
I rise this evening to speak in support of the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. As senators would know, I've already spoken in this place about the importance of a post-COVID-19 return of manufacturing opportunities in Australia, particularly in my home state of South Australia. Under the visionary premiership of Sir Thomas Playford, South Australia was a manufacturing powerhouse. South Australia was clever and knew how to take wartime industries and adapt them into a postwar world. Post COVID-19, however, everything has changed, and the job of rebuilding our economy is now ahead of us. Part of that rebuild involves the need to return manufacturing to our nation. During his address to the National Press Club last month, the Prime Minister outlined the importance of a highly skilled workforce to support a modern, competitive and advanced manufacturing sector.
This bill will establish a new statutory position, the National Skills Commissioner, and specify the functions of that commissioner. This is a vital element in the government's JobMaker plan, enabling us to navigate our economic recovery in this global economy. The commissioner will provide independent expert advice and national leadership on the Australian labour market, current and future skills needs, and workforce development issues. The commissioner will examine the cost drivers and develop and maintain a set of efficient processes for VET courses to improve transparency, consistency and accessibility for students. This role really couldn't be more timely as we address the critical challenges of managing the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indeed, the Productivity Commission's interim report suggests the government's view—that the VET funding arrangements are currently flawed and overdue for replacement to address concerns of inconsistency, poorly designed function and a lack of transparency. Vocational education and training, VET, is one of the key career pathways, and it can further improve our capacity to grow and to compete and thrive in a global economy. The Productivity Commission further noted in this report:
Regardless of the extent to which State and Territory governments adopt a common national approach to subsidies, there are strong grounds for them to use common methods to measure costs and determine loadings.
There is no denying that the world, the market and the needs of the market have changed as a result of COVID-19. The commissioner and the National Skills Commission will help prepare Australia's labour market for that recovery. They will establish a robust new evidence base to strengthen the Australian education and training system. As the economy evolves we do need to ensure that jobs and associated training are relevant to the jobs that will be available as they come out in this crisis. This is why the Morrison government has identified skills and training as a priority in the JobMaker plan, so that the government is investing in the right skills at the right time. This will help us to close the gaps in the market and provide confidence to employers, students and tertiary educators that we are providing a consistently trained and competent labour force.
Australia's economic recovery will be particularly reliant on a highly skilled, resilient and adaptable workforce. The skills needs of the economy are likely to evolve and the jobs that we make as we come out of the crisis may well not be the same as those predating the crisis. So the commissioner will provide detailed labour market analysis, including an annual report each year setting out the skill needs for Australia. The commission will publish close-to-real-time data on labour markets to flag emerging skills shortages and other labour market trends. Using this data, we will be able to provide students with the most accurate and comprehensive data on where jobs will actually be and what qualifications they will need in order to secure them. This will help show that trade and skilled jobs are ones to be aspired to as a first-best option, not looked down upon or seen as a second-best option in favour of a university degree. This builds on the government's $585 million Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow skills package and also contributes to COAG's agreed vision for VET to be a responsive, dynamic and trusted sector.
Together with the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill, this bill delivers some of the key elements of the 2019 Expert Review of Australia's VET System led by the Hon. Steven Joyce. The Morrison government is committed to driving improvement in the quality, relevance and accessibility of the VET system to underpin Australia's economic recovery. This is important because COVID-19 has exposed certain deficiencies or shortcomings in our strategic autonomy. It has shone a spotlight on the matters that I touched on earlier, being the urgent need to return some form of additional manufacturing capacity to our shores.
For this reason, earlier this year I started a campaign to bring local manufacturing back to South Australia. It's my view that in order to best represent the needs of that particular sector, or industry, it's important to listen to their needs. It's important to do that to enable us to adapt in this post-COVID-19 world to the new challenges these industries will face as well. To assist in that understanding and in understanding the needs of the manufacturing community, particularly in my home state of South Australia, I have spent several weeks visiting those businesses to try and understand their needs and those of the industry and the ways in which we in this place can help provide more opportunities and incentives to bring manufacturing back home. Last month, in fact, I visited the facilities and production lines of a company from South Australia called PakPot manufacturing. PakPot is an impressive South Australian company in the northern suburbs of Adelaide that produces plastic packaging containers for a range of different industries. They have invested in state-of-the-art machinery, allowing them to produce high-quality, efficient packaging. They have developed state-of-the-art designs and tooling which allow them to manufacture plastic products that are highly sought after in the market. I was shown their extraordinary systems which have been set up to ensure that this process can take place. The machinery itself and the processes are highly advanced and require employees with advanced training. They also require employees with the skills to operate these machines and to operate those processes. This is absolutely critical. The National Skills Commission will aid businesses like PakPot to continue to be world leaders and to do so from the safety of our shores.
I was also given a tour of the facilities operated by Novafast Systems. Novafast Systems are producers of innovative pipe solutions and composite equipment production, providing equipment to all sorts of sectors—the oil, defence, marine, gas, mining and industrial sectors. Established in 1999, they are a proud South Australian company. They are proof that Australian, including South Australian, manufacturing businesses can flourish on the national and world stages. They are another example of how Australian know-how in providing jobs, intellectual property and capacity to the market is absolutely achievable for Australian businesses.
I was also pleased to visit the manufacturing facilities of Axiom Precision Manufacturing, also in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. It is important because South Australia, as we all know in this place, is the defence capital of this country. Defence projects of this nature require defence based manufacturing skills, and companies like Axiom Precision Manufacturing are great examples of South Australian SMEs which are rising to the challenge of providing advanced manufacturing solutions. They are providing precision machine parts, tooling and injection moulding components to high standards. They are yet more proof that South Australia can provide superior solutions—and, once again, importantly, manufacture them all from the security and surrounds of my home state.
These businesses are just a small cross-section of the businesses in South Australia which show what we all know—that Australian businesses are well placed to both compete on the world scene by providing world-leading products through advanced manufacturing and play a critical role in the rebuilding of Australia's manufacturing base. Those businesses and many future South Australian and other Australian businesses will lead that charge in the rebuild. They will lead the way for other complementary businesses to play their part in what will be a strategic rebuilding of our sovereign manufacturing capability. We need to build it here.
There's no reason why this country can't play a large part, and why South Australia can't play an even larger part, in the industrial and manufacturing renaissance of this country. We have a growing defence sector and one of the largest health science precincts in the Southern Hemisphere, not to mention the Australian Space Agency. Advanced manufacturing is a growth area, and it is an area to be fostered using these sectors as leverage. The National Skills Commission is therefore not just about jobs; it's about protecting our sovereign interests. The sight of pallets of important medical and personal protective equipment being shipped back to China at the time of the medical crisis by companies with links to the Chinese Communist Party may prove to be the most important lesson we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic. As we move forward in our economic recovery, we must not forget these lessons. We can no longer be reliant solely on other nations or on authoritarian regimes like the Chinese Communist Party. Australia is a resource-rich country. However, the previous few decades have seen our manufacturing base placed under great pressure.
This bill is a step in the right direction to ensure that Australians have the right skills for the workforce of today and the workforce of tomorrow. I commend the government for acting quickly to ensure that we support local businesses and manufacturing opportunities post COVID-19. It is a proud moment to be a member of the Morrison government—the true party of the workers, the true party of small business. I commend the bill to the Senate.
( his government's record on TAFE training and skills can be summed up with two words—cuts and neglect. It is workers and businesses that have paid the price. This government has cut billions from TAFE and millions from universities, and has overseen the loss of 140,000 apprentices and trainees. This has been at the same time as business has cried out for skilled workers, and everyday Australians are crying out for jobs.
In this country, we have a serious mismatch between the skills that workers have to offer and the skills that businesses need. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, almost two million Australians were unable to find enough work. At the same time, nearly three-quarters of businesses were saying they couldn't find workers with the skills that they need. So, even before the pandemic and recession, we were facing a jobs and skills crisis in Australia. Now 2.6 million Australians are unemployed or underemployed, a number that is of course predicted to rise over the coming months. If you look at the government's own skills shortage list, you'll find that we're lacking people with the skills to be early childhood educators, car mechanics, midwives, electricians, bakers, nurses, teachers and many more. So why is it that kids finishing school today can't count on this government to deliver them the skills and training that they need to fill these vacancies? How is it that we've got to a situation where we have high unemployment, high regional unemployment, high youth unemployment and, at the same time, we can't train Australia's young people for these absolutely core essential jobs? The answer is: cuts and neglect from this government.
The National Skills Commissioner won't do enough to fix the mess that this government has created. We are facing one of the greatest economic transformations of our lifetimes, and the speed of that transformation will only increase with this pandemic. We have choices as a nation about how we deal with that. The choice is: do we continue down this government's path of record cuts and of neglect, a path that lacks ambition for working Australians, or do we actually seize this opportunity? If we seize this opportunity, what we're going to need is a government that actually plans for tomorrow's economy, a government that is focused on creating good and secure jobs and ensuring Australians have the skills to do them and are supported to get their skills through a quality and robust TAFE, training and university sector.
The government has demonstrated that it can barely plan for today's economy let alone tomorrow's. Even before COVID-19 hit, this government had over two million Australians either unemployed or underemployed while at the same time businesses were saying they needed people now. This is now 2.6 million workers. It is young people who are really doing it tough, who really have it particularly bad under the Morrison government. They were already struggling for opportunities before COVID-19. But now the youth unemployment rate has hit almost 14 per cent and in some regional parts of Australia youth unemployment is as high as 24 per cent. Many of the industries that have been hardest hit by the shutdowns in the health response to COVID-19—sectors like retail and hospitality—are large employers of young people. Many young people have struggled to find a place at university or at TAFE in recent years. Why is that? It's because this government has inflicted cuts and underspends on our TAFE, training and university sectors. From TAFE alone, the government has cut $3 billion and underspent its own budget by another $1 billion. Apprentice numbers have already fallen by 140,000 since this government took office. If the government doesn't take action, apprenticeship numbers are predicted to fall by another 100,000 by the end of this year. That would mean a 35 per cent drop in numbers this year alone.
We all know that we're going to need skilled workers to recover from this recession and that people desperately need good, secure jobs that are supported by quality training. It's one thing for the government to announce construction projects and $150,000 bathroom renovations, but they're actually going to need people to do the work to build these $150,000 renovations, just as we need nurses in our hospitals, carers in our nursing homes, early childhood educators, electricians and mechanics. These workers come from our TAFE system and also from our university sector—two sectors that have been absolutely hung out to dry by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government.
So we support reliable analysis of our labour market and skills needs. That's a good idea, and we hope that the National Skills Commissioner will provide that analysis. But what is the government going to do with the information that they get from the National Skills Commissioner? What are they going to do when the commissioner reports that there's a skills shortage that needs to be filled, only to find out that TAFEs and universities no longer have the capacity to train in those areas? Australians deserve excellent TAFEs and universities. They have pride in our TAFEs and universities. But the Liberals have gutted both sectors, and right now they're doing nothing to protect universities and TAFEs from the impacts of COVID-19 and the shutdowns that it has created. This is incredibly short-sighted because, in the university sector alone, we know that courses are being cancelled, campuses are shutting and 21,000 jobs are currently at risk.
Instead, what is the government focusing on? They're spending their time announcing plans that are all talk and no substance—plans that are so light on any detail that you can't really call them plans at all, like JobMaker. I mean, what is JobMaker? We don't really know. When the government first announced this plan without a plan a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister slammed the training sector as 'unresponsive'. Perhaps when he did that he forgot that his team had been in government for the past seven years and that he was in fact talking about his own failures and that it's this government that has been unresponsive to the needs of Australians for good quality training and for decent, secure jobs. If he was so concerned that the sector wasn't working, why did it take a global pandemic for him to make any announcements about it and to finally turn his attention to it? Perhaps he could try to do better than a phoney announcement, with no time frame, no extra funding and essentially no detail at all. When the coalition took government, they vacated the field on this issue.
So the creation of the National Skills Commissioner is really just a tweak, when we actually need major and real reform. We support the need for analysis of our labour market and we absolutely support making policy based on expert advice. But the National Skills Commissioner essentially replaces the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, which this government scrapped in 2014, six years ago—six years wasted, while other countries have been doing the right thing and investing heavily in skills and education, while we've been left behind.
As usual with this government, this is just too little too late. It's not a plan, just like the JobMaker program isn't a plan. And a government without a plan for education and skills is really a government without a plan for our future. Even more concerning, it screams of a government without a plan for our economic recovery either.
Right now, in our first recession for almost 30 years, we need a government that is serious about creating good, decent, secure jobs. We need a government that assesses its decisions by whether they create decent, well-paid work for all. That is what Australians need going forward. And we need a government that provides Australians with the skills that they need to do those jobs.
The Labor team is focused on this. The Labor team has always been focused on this. In fact, it was last October that the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, announced our intention to establish Jobs and Skills Australia. This will be an independent statutory authority that provides a genuine partnership with business leaders, state and territory governments, unions and education providers. It will bring everybody together to make sure that workers have access to the skills and jobs that they need and that businesses have access to the skilled workers that they are seeking as well. This will be a model of genuine partnership and collaboration, investing in the skills of Australian workers. We need this now, more than ever, as we look towards our recovery post COVID-19.
On this side of the chamber, we have a vision for decent and stable jobs, supported by quality training. This is absolutely in our DNA and we are already there. We see education as an investment in our future and we will always support hardworking Australians who want a quality education. We will always support good, secure jobs for all Australians.
I too rise to speak on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. I'm a bit perplexed by what Senator Walsh was saying, although I shouldn't be surprised when she says she doesn't know what job making is, because I suppose Labor is just good at decimating jobs. So it is little wonder that the concept of JobMaker is something those opposite really struggle to get their head around.
To the matter at hand, I take great pleasure in standing to speak on this bill, which is very important. My background before coming into this place was all about creating jobs, getting people into jobs and, importantly, keeping them in jobs. In the environment we find ourselves in today, such a position has never been so important for our nation. As we embark on the recovery phase of the coronavirus challenge, a measure of our success will be the focus we have on workforce training and development and how our training and education systems respond to what will be a significant demand from Australian industry as they rehire, retrain, and get people back into work. I come into this place as a self-confessed 'senator for jobs'. I've spent the entirety of my working life working with people, and most have been some of the most disadvantaged Australians, those with some of the highest possible barriers to employment. I've helped them to gain meaningful employment in long-term sustainable jobs.
Before I get to the substance of this bill, let me touch on why it is so important. Prior to coming into this place, I was the chief operating officer of Generation One, an initiative many in this place would be familiar with, in that it has created over 50,000 jobs for Indigenous Australians. We turned the training and employment system upside down. Typically, someone out of work would go to Centrelink to register for payments. Centrelink would then send them to an employment services provider and they would undertake training in a particular discipline. More often than not, they'd end up with more training tickets than a raffle book, none of which usually resulted in finding a job, sadly. Then they would start the process again, all as part of their mutual obligations. Under Generation One, our model was originally pioneered by Fortescue Metals Group and trialled in Fitzroy Crossing and it became the template for the Vocational Training and Employment Centres program. We started with an employer who had a job and we designed the training around the requirements and guaranteed the individual a job, before they commenced. What was the result? When a jobseeker could see the course that they were doing was actually going to lead to something, the change in their life was immense. At the outset, it was clear the standards were going to be very high. They had to show commitment and they had to turn up on time—and, boy, did these training participants rise to the occasion. In fact, in my first speech I spoke about this. I noted that some 70 per cent of those who completed the course and started in the job were still in that job six months later. This was about three times the national average for similar programs. This is what is required. When you stay in a job for this long, you as an individual see changes not only in your life but in the lives of your family as well. Your lifestyle will change, new habits will be formed and you'll start to see the impact on families and the broader community. The change is systemic. And this is where our focus will be, because I believe that too many of the challenges we face, whether they are in our remote regional centres or communities or in our cities, stem from unemployment. We do say that the best form of welfare is a job. It's not rhetoric. It's something that we know to be absolutely true. Well, I've been privileged to see the reality and the practical effect of this on countless numbers of lives. When you lift people up so they can see over the horizon, when they earn their first pay cheque and when they see that they can independently support their family and take part in all the advantages of the 21st century that life offers, then this transformation is truly quite life changing.
Though it's true that a job doesn't change everything, without it nothing will change. This is why I'm proud to be part of a government which has consistently overseen job creation since coming into office. Now, in today's climate, our focus on jobs will be absolutely critical. As I've said, it will be our measure of success, and a new era of thinking is required. A new way of consultation with industry, our vocational education providers and our universities is absolutely critical—a new way of bringing together all the different programs and initiatives that exist around the nation and making them all work together as an effective and efficient pipeline. And that's what the National Skills Commissioner will do.
The role is a critical new piece of Australia's economic infrastructure. It will complement and support the Prime Minister's recently announced JobMaker plan, enabling us to navigate economic recovery, lifting productivity and laying the foundations for a prosperous future. It's going to enable us to get back on track. The commissioner will provide independent expert advice and national leadership on the Australian labour market, current and future skills, and workforce development issues. The functions, as set out in this bill, will support a stronger, more agile vocational educational and training system in a number of ways. Let me take you through them.
Firstly, the commissioner will consolidate and strengthen labour market and skills needs analysis to provide an independent and trusted source of information about what is happening now and, importantly, into the future. The innovative use of new data sources and advanced data analytic techniques will support the commissioner in becoming a trusted source of sophisticated labour market information analysis and forecasting. This is critical so that we can ensure that training is matching the needs of industry so that we're not just training for training's sake but actually training people for jobs that exist and are needed for the labour market. This research and analysis will draw on emerging data sources and cutting-edge analytical techniques to ensure Australia's labour market analysis capacity is world leading. It will help close skill gaps and provide confidence to employers, students, tertiary educators and Australian governments that we are investing in the right skills at the right time. This is essential to prepare Australians for the workforce opportunities of today and of tomorrow.
Secondly, the commissioner will examine the cost drivers and develop and maintain a set of efficient prices for VET courses to improve transparency, consistency and accessibility for students. Currently, VET prices and subsidies vary considerably around Australia, with students paying different prices for the same course and facing varying levels of quality. For example, there is currently a difference of $11,745 in subsidies between Western Australia and Queensland for students studying a Diploma of Nursing. It's not clear what is driving this. There are a number of similar examples between other states. Core to the commissioner's pricing will be consideration of quality. An efficient price means not necessarily the lowest price but one that provides value for money. It means the price that needs to be paid to secure training to deliver the skills employers need and set the students up for a valuable career.
Finally, the commissioner would lead research and analysis to examine the effectiveness of the VET system and advise on the public and private returns on government investment. This means better understanding of VET student outcomes, such as whether a student got a job and what they are now earning, as well as public benefits such as building a strong care workforce. This will enable governments to direct investment towards high-quality courses that give students the best chance of getting a job, whilst strengthening our economy and our society.
Those opposite like to think that they have the monopoly on jobs. They have some archaic vision in their minds that they're all about trades and skills. It's almost like they're still out on the union beat. But if there is any indication that they've lost the magic touch that they thought they had with everyday hardworking Australians, it was at the last election. The Australian people know who backs them. They know who wants them to succeed. They know who will give them the tools to do so. And it's not those sitting opposite. In fact, you haven't had their backs for a long time.
There have been some claims made in the public arena and in this debate, so let's make something clear: we are not re-creating the Australian National Training Authority, ANTA, or the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency or its precursor, Skills Australia. These agencies were designed for a different time. We are in a new era, and it is more pertinent because of the coronavirus crisis we are dealing with. The National Skills Commissioner will be tasked with using the advanced data analytics and real-time web based information on the labour market to bring a much stronger evidence base to inform VET investment and better understand the outcomes students achieve from VET. The analytics and information available to the commissioner did not exist in the days of ANTA, Skills Australia or AWPA.
The bushfires and the coronavirus crisis have highlighted how much important information on economic activity is available and of the importance in having a trusted independent authority that can synthesise that information, to ensure that decision-makers have access to the right information at the right time. This is just another demonstration of our commitment to Australian jobs and home-grown skills. In 2019-20 we're investing $3 billion in VET, which will include $1.5 billion given to the states and territories every year through the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development. There will be $1.1 billion to fund the government's own skills programs. And there'll be $175 million to the states and territories for the Skilling Australians Fund, to support apprenticeship and traineeship numbers.
Despite all the commentary from those opposite, people haven't forgotten about what they did to our skills and training system. People have not forgotten about the VET FEE-HELP scheme. I've met many people, in my career, who felt completely ripped off by that scheme and were really set back as a result of it. It was just another program in a long list of failed Labor schemes, just another example of pretending to deliver for people they claimed to represent. Under your government, dodgy providers flourished. Students were systemically exploited, signed up to accumulate huge debts for training packages that were never delivered. And we had to fix up your mess. Since 2016 over 91,000 students have had VET FEE-HELP debts of over $1.5 billion credited by the Commonwealth government.
We have 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. But that's not all. Labor were responsible for a fall in apprenticeships by 110,000 between 12 July to June 2013—after they ripped out $1.2 billion in employer incentives. It was the largest ever annual decline. And we are fixing this. The government is investing more in a better system.
The next step, as enabled by this role, will allow us to deliver more targeted funding. It is to have confidence that the VET system will deliver what the economy needs, what employers need, so that they can not only provide jobs for those people but create even more jobs. This is what this commissioner and this role will enable this economy to achieve. And that's what the National Skills Commissioner will do, along with the support of their team.
I don't think there's anyone in this place, aside from maybe Senator Cash herself, that is more enthusiastic about this bill. There may be others, but I am absolutely passionate about this, because it is absolutely necessary. We know it to be true—just ask any employer out there that has demand for people that can actually do the job with the skills, that can operate with the competence that's required and that, importantly, are safe and can go home to their families, because they have the requisite skills and the knowledge to do it. I can't wait until the office is in place, and I look forward to working with the commissioner to deliver better outcomes for all Australians, particularly those in regional and remote WA. I commend the bill to the Senate.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I support this bill, though we need to do far more. We need to get manufacturing moving. We need to protect Australia from the risk of sources of imported goods drying up and we need, as Senator O'Sullivan has said: jobs, jobs, jobs.
Queenslanders and Australians everywhere have heard us speak about the gaps in our productive capacity, the gaps in our economic resilience, the gaps in our economic sovereignty and the gaps in our national security. That was before COVID, and now it's even more so, especially since COVID revealed that we did not even have enough personal protective equipment to protect our valued healthcare workers and everyday Australians. And now, we have to store our own oil in the USA because we have nowhere to store it here. At first, after COVID, we couldn't even manufacture ventilators. It is all thanks to Aussie ingenuity—and a personal thank you to all those innovative Australians who did step up to fill this gap.
Certainly we need the skills. Australia needs the skills and the capability to ensure that we can protect ourselves from future health disasters and economic disasters, especially things like the prolonged border closures, international transport closures or blockades cutting sea transport. These are possibilities. We see the news of what's happening in the South China Sea. We see the growing confrontation between America and China. We need to think about our security.
This government has presented a bill for the creation of the position of National Skills Commissioner, yet we need to ensure this is not just an advisory role. Just setting up this office for four years is costing taxpayers over $48 million. I quite often hear Liberal and Labor people and the Nationals saying, 'We've spent a million here, we've spent tens of millions here, we've spent hundreds of millions here and we've spent a couple of billion here.' It's not the money that matters; it's the environment in which that money can be turned into something beneficial for the people of Australia. So we expect a return on investment on that $48 million by giving the commissioner the teeth to ensure that vocational training across Australia is high in quality, consistent and competitively priced. Training by itself is not the answer. It needs to be good, effective training.
Where is the accountability between the federal funding of approximately $1.5 billion a year to the states, to the vocational providers, to ensure that our vocational trainees get a high-quality education and an affordable education that really lands them a job? If the government is going to invest $1.5 billion per year in vocational education and training, then Australians have a right to ensure that our taxes are well spent. We need a review of the performance of the National Skills Commissioner after 12 months, or possibly after three years. We need that review. We also need to understand that it is not the commissioner who is going to get us effective training. It is not the commissioner who is going to decide what skills are needed. Government—Liberal, Labor, Nationals—have shown a very poor track record of anticipating demand for specific skills. Those decisions must be based upon what the market needs. It's the men and women in work, it's the men and women investing and it's the men and women leading corporations that determine the skills we need—and, actually, going beneath that, it's the market that drives those skills. They will tell us what skills are needed to service the market.
More importantly, we need to restart manufacturing in our country, and that needs more than training. It needs much more than training. It needs an integrated approach: an industry and economic environment which enables and encourages Australian investment. How the hell can people afford to invest when energy prices are so high? How the hell can it be that we don't have reliable, affordable, stable, synchronised electricity? We have the cheapest coal in the world, the highest quality coal in the world. We export that to China and they produce coal far more cheaply. They sell it to their manufacturers at 40 per cent of the price we sell it. Why? Because our own electricity prices have doubled in the last 10 years. Why? Because of Liberal, Labor and Nationals policies, based on rubbish. A climate scam is what is destroying our manufacturing industry. Labour costs are a smaller component of manufacturing these days than they used to be. Electricity prices are significant. We have gone from the lowest priced electricity to the world's highest prices. That's been due to regulations based not on data but on opinions from the Liberal, Labor and Nationals governments.
How can it be that China takes our coal thousands of kilometres and sells it at 40 per cent of the price we sell it for? It is because of regulation. It is government screwing with the market. It is the government screwing with regulations. Listen to some of these factors, all government driven: the renewable energy target introduced by John Howard's government and the national electricity market introduced before John Howard, if memory serves me correctly, but worsened under John Howard's government. The national energy market is a racket, not a market, and the people in Australia are paying the price.
The retail margins are guaranteed in some states at high levels with very little risk. The networks are gold-plated because of regulations. And then we have privatisation. In Queensland, our state, the Labor Party in the state government uses that as a tax. The government receives $1.4 to $1.5 billion dollars a year in tax, due to excess charges from the generators. Privatisation, the sale of assets, is failing around the country. That is an essential asset and it is crippling our manufacturing, crippling jobs right across agriculture. Farmers will not irrigate because the price of pumping water is too high.
The second thing is tax. That is part of the business environment. Multinationals in our country are going without paying any company tax due to agreements from Robert Menzies' Liberal government in 1953, perpetuated by the lack of tax on the North West Shelf gas that was enabled by Bob Hawke's Labor government in the 1980s. Both sides have done that. Former deputy commissioner of taxation Jim Killaly said in 1996 and again in 2010 that 90 per cent of Australia's large companies are foreign owned and, since 1953, have paid little or no tax. What that means is that mums and dads, families, small businesses, Australian-owned businesses have to pay more tax than they need to. It means Australian businesses are at a competitive disadvantage of about 30 per cent because they have to pay company tax. Larger companies have to pay company tax but the foreign companies don't. So we need to set a level playing field by taxing multinationals and reducing the tax burden, by simplifying the tax system and by having a comprehensive review of tax, because that is one of the most important factors driving the lack of investment from Australians.
We also have an abundance of regulations that are crippling our country. We have red tape from the bureaucracies at the state, federal and even local level. We have green tape, driven by rampant environmentalists. We have blue tape, driven by the UN. The blue tape is arguably the largest component of tape and the most expensive of all, put in place by Liberal, Labor and Nationals governments.
We then have economic management. How can companies prepare and plan for the longer term, which is needed these days, when we have governments making economic management decisions based purely on electoral payoffs, not just every three years, as it used to be, but now annually. Budgets are based on bribing taxpayers to vote for a particular party. Economic management is now a 12-month issue, very short-term, and is counterproductive to a good business environment. We have states now with lower accountability because competitive federalism has been white-anted. The Queensland Labor government can sit on closing its borders and decimating tourism and small business in our state. Why? Under the Commonwealth Constitution, we're supposed to have competitive federalism. Yet in 1943 income tax was stolen from the states and given to the federal government. And now, essentially, more than 50 per cent of state government expenditure is from the federal government, tied to federal government conditions and guidelines, which effectively means that the federal government is running much of what the states do.
The federal government is running much of what local councils do around Queensland and around Australia. I was at the Balonne Shire Council in February 2017. In answer to a question of mine they told me that 73 per cent of their annual revenue comes from the federal government, with strings attached. Not only does the federal government tell them how to manage their local community; the federal government only has three- to five-year windows, which means local councils can't go beyond that time frame in doing their planning. How can local councils make a long-term plan? This is what's hampering governance in this country.
I plead with the government to make sure that we focus on our economic productive capacity, our economic resilience, our economic sovereignty, our economic security, our economic independence, which has been smashed by the elitist quest for interdependence, which is really depending on others—that is, a loss of dependence. Nonetheless, this legislation will help all Queenslanders to improve our state's economy and to repay the debt hole in which the Labor government in Queensland has buried Queenslanders. We need training but we need jobs. We need Australian jobs, we need Queensland jobs, especially in regional Queensland. Training is a minor component yet an important component. Beyond that, we need to get back to basics to create the economic environment to drive Australian investment.
I will say it again. We need our economic productive capacity to be restored, we need our economic resilience to be restored, we need our economic sovereignty and independence to be restored, and we need our economic security to be restored. Australia has the people, the resources, the opportunity and the potential. We just need to get back to what we had, get back to the basics. Australia led the world in per capita gross domestic product and income in the early years of our Federation—when our Constitution was followed and the states behaved competitively towards each other. That's what we need to get back to—a productive environment.
It's good to hear from another Queensland senator tonight about some of the issues facing skills in Queensland. Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I congratulate Senator Roberts for bringing up so many issues around manufacturing and skills—and even privatisation. We know that some of the best and brightest apprentices in Queensland are Ergon apprentice electricians and we want to make sure that we do not privatise our electricity assets, because we would not have those apprentices there.
Tonight I want to speak a little bit more about the National Skills Commissioner Bill. There has never been a more important time for this country to make sure that we have the skills for the future so we can recover and rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic. While the Prime Minister is out there making announcements about bringing forward infrastructure, which is something Labor had been calling for before this pandemic, we are in a skills crisis. We have slogans about how much infrastructure we're going to build, but we don't have the skills to build it. We have a government with a track record of killing skills, underfunding TAFE and ignoring young people. Although Labor supports this bill, we urge the government to step up to the plate and build a skills system that will deliver the skills that we need and the jobs that young Australians deserve.
As indicated, I'd like to speak about the skills crisis facing regional Queensland at the moment. When it comes to apprentices and trainees, the Morrison government is failing North Queensland. And new modelling suggests that it's likely to get much worse. According to Department of Education data, in Townsville, in the electorate of the member for Herbert, Phillip Thompson, there has been a massive drop in the number of apprentices. There are 1,200 fewer apprentices and trainees—or 35.88 per cent—than when the Liberal-National government came to power in 2013. In Mackay the member for Dawson, George Christensen, has seen his electorate suffer the steepest drop in the state, with 77.46 per cent or 1,453 fewer apprentices and trainees since September 2013. In the federal electorate of Leichhardt, in Cairns, where I live, MP Warren Entsch has already overseen a massive drop of 28.66 per cent or 932 apprentices and trainees since the Liberal-National government came to power in 2013, and that's according to data from the department of education. In the federal seat of Kennedy we've seen another significant drop of 46.16 per cent.
It's clear from these numbers that North Queensland has suffered a large drop in apprentices and trainees, falling from 17,837 in September 2013 to 9,575 now. This drastic fall will come on top of the 20,000 apprentices and trainees that Queensland is expected to lose this year alone, according to new modelling from the National Australian Apprenticeships Association. The Liberal-National government has created this tradie crisis by presiding over cuts to TAFE, including $1 billion of underspending. Suffering TAFES in regional Queensland deserve better.
The government has had seven years to work with the states and territories to improve the vocational education and training system and associated outcomes, but it's failed to do so. This skills crisis is happening at the same time as youth unemployment is going up. Figures released by the ABS reveal that 14.7 per cent of young regional Queenslanders are now without work.
Senator Colbeck interjecting—
I'll take that interjection. You may not want to hear statistics, but this is a particularly important one, Minister Colbeck, because it is 13.8 per cent of young people in Australia that are unemployed. I do believe that it's your responsibility to deal with that, but so far I haven't heard a contribution from you in this place that has talked about how you're going to assist young people. All we've heard from the minister for youth is a declaration that he was going to 'cut red tape' to help young people.
Senator Colbeck interjecting—
I listen to everything you say, and I know that young people are not being listened to by this government. Youth unemployment in Cairns has jumped 2.5 per cent since last year. It's now 12.1 per cent, and in Townsville it has reached a shocking 16.4 per cent. That's not just a statistic. Those are young people without work, looking for jobs.
So how do the LNP fix a skills crisis in regional Queensland? When they're faced with an issue like youth unemployment, what do they do? How do they go about fixing a crisis? Before the last election, this skills crisis was evident in regional Queensland, so the federal government sought to fix it in Far North Queensland not by creating more apprenticeships, supporting trainees or putting together a plan to make sure that people were employed in good jobs but by entering into a Designated Area Migration Agreement with the Cairns Chamber of Commerce. My criticism of this agreement is not a criticism of the chamber; they are working with what they have been given. It's a criticism that asks why we needed a DAMA to fix a skills gap in regional Queensland if the government had planned ahead and invested in the skills we need and if the government was doing something to fix youth unemployment.
Although an announcement was made in the days before the last election, the details of the scheme were not released by the local member, Warren Entsch. All we had before the election was a press release. We didn't actually have the details of the DAMA, so people in Far North Queensland did not get to see the agreement before the election; they didn't get to understand exactly how extensive this agreement was. We've got the details of the agreement now, and the DAMA provides for 200 migrant worker visas per year.
We have significant industries in Far North Queensland that are suffering from a skills crisis under this government. So it is understandable that some occupations might need to access a scheme like this. We concede that. But there is a list of occupations that are covered by the DAMA in Far North Queensland. It is a list of 70 occupations under this agreement. Again, I'm not criticising the chamber, but this is a list that shows the extent of our skills crisis. If I go through some of these occupations, they are aged care or disability worker, aircraft maintenance engineer, building associate—there are 70 here, so there are a lot to go through. We've also got an electronic instrument trades worker. That's the extent of the skills crisis in Far North Queensland. We've got to put that occupation on a DAMA. There are also metal fitters and machinists, motor mechanics, small engine mechanics.
Sometimes people will say, 'Well, of course we need skilled migration in places like Far North Queensland,' because we do have a tourism industry that needs specialist people working as dive operators or as chefs or working in restaurants, but this is an extensive list. It did surprise me to see one of the other skills that is on this list is vocational education teacher. We don't even have vocational education teachers in Far North Queensland under this government. They've had to put it on the DAMA.
Some of those occupations also have concessions for skills and languages. They've had concessions attached to those occupations, so they don't have to meet those requirements. That's understandable in some circumstances, but there is also a concession in place called the TSMIT. When I saw this abbreviation, I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but it's the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold. It's a salary that's set at $53,900, above which temporary skilled migrants must be paid. As the ABC explained, occupation lists, labour market testing and equivalent salaries for migrants in local jobs all help support the integrity of visas. But the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold is the core mechanism preventing the importation of migrant workers on lower wages. It is the core mechanism that stops migrant workers being imported into Far North Queensland on lower wages than what local workers would be being paid. And it is the core mechanism that is meant to stop jobs going to people other than local workers or young people.
The threshold has been held at the same level since 2003, meaning it hasn't risen with living costs, but the concession is a discount. Under the DAMA, they essentially can pay people less. Again, you would think that there are some occupations that this government thinks are worth being less than what the threshold is. It's okay getting a concession. I guess you would think that maybe one or two of the list of 70 should apply for this threshold, but 62 of the 70 occupations are eligible for this concession, meaning they do not have to pay an income equivalent to other visa requirements. Sixty-two occupations are able to get away with not paying the migrant threshold income.
In year 2 of the scheme, variations have been sought from the Department of Home Affairs to include additional occupations and more concessions as DAMA is in place in Far North Queensland. It's shocking that this government thinks that this is the solution to our skills crisis in Far North Queensland—to put together an agreement and allow extensive occupations to be added to that agreement, to allow concessions and to allow people to be paid less than what local workers would be paid.
They're not going to go out there and fund TAFE the way they should be. They're not going to go out there and give money to the Great Barrier Reef International Marine College, a fantastic TAFE facility in Cairns, where we train people like dive operators, who are listed on the DAMA. Instead they are going to use this DAMA to fill the gaps that they have created by failing the system. There is a place for skilled migration in our country, but this government cannot use the system alone to fix our skills crisis.