Monday, 24 August 2020
National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I resume my speech on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. I'll tell you what these big talkers have done so far. They've brought out a fancy marketing campaign to try and hide the fact that they've taken a sledgehammer to our TAFEs. It's been happening for years under both majors. That's what they've been doing. They very quietly ripped $4 billion out of TAFEs last year. That's our government. That's supposed to be a party of the fair go, but apparently not for tradies and not for apprentices. No fair go for those guys. And the ALP, the supposed party of the worker, helped them do it. The hypocrisy of it drives me absolutely nuts and actually makes my blood boil.
Just imagine what we could have done with that money. It could have gone to desperately needed upgrades to the equipment that we should be training our kids on. That money could have fixed the holes in the windows, the leaks in the roof, the asbestos throughout those buildings. We could have used it to fund new courses so that students in the regions don't have to move away from home to get any choice in what they want to study. This is the situation that our TAFEs are in. This is the sad reality. They are getting by on the smell of an oily rag. I still can't wrap my head around the fact that my local TAFE is training students on machines that date back to the Cold War. Yet these guys are still supposed to be able to go straight into a new job with new machines that actually work off IT systems, not something from the Cold War. That's what the government are setting them up for—they are setting them up for failure. The majors have been letting the TAFEs struggle along for years, to the point of no return—God forbid! God help our children that don't want to go to universities. I tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President, there are a lot that don't.
Now that the government are in crisis, they turn around and expect TAFE to be able to help pull us out of this. Well, you're kidding yourselves. You've absolutely trashed them. You've trashed them for our kids, you've trashed them for our apprentices and you've trashed them for the teachers who want to teach our kids. You want to turn this around, saying we need it turned around before Christmas time. Come on. Be realistic. Be honest with yourselves. You've gutted the sector, you've turned a blind eye and you've put us in this mess. We aren't going to get out of it with a bunch of governance bills to make tiny changes to the way the sector gets regulated. I mean, hello! You are shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic. Our TAFEs are sinking under a weight they were never going to be able to handle, and the people who need TAFE are being let down.
I got an email last week from another young apprentice, just one of many, who can't finish his degree because—guess what?—he can't access the teachers to finish his course and start working. He can't go any further with his apprenticeship. How many more students end up at university because they know they won't have the support they need at TAFE? The support is no longer there. How many people are winding up on the dole queue because they can't get retrained? And yet the federal government announced they were fast-tracking 15 critical infrastructure projects, putting $1.5 billion—that's right—into the economy in July. In the last two weeks, Queensland, Western Australia and my own home state of Tasmania announced record spending on infrastructure. The government's HomeBuilder program is rolling out now and it's supposed to keep the construction industry going. But will the sparkies, the chippies and the scaffies be there to make those renos happen? I don't think so. There's your problem. The follow-through just isn't there. That's the problem with this whole government idea of yours. You are so out of touch. When it is election time, those politicians can't wait to get into some high-vis jackets. Let's be honest: you all love having cameras on you on high-vis day. But, when it comes to making sure our next generation of tradies have the equipment, the facilities and the teachers they need you actually don't give a stuff.
We need to get our TAFEs cranking for our kids—not next year, now. If you haven't started already you've failed, so I guess you've failed. This is not just about our kids. It is not just about our TAFEs. This is for the hearts of our communities. This is for our economy. This is why we need to get this moving. Properly sourced, we could make our TAFEs what they were a generation ago—community hubs that offered our young people trade skills that would actually get them good jobs, supporting them, their families and their communities for years to come.
Three generations of my family went through the Devonport TAFE. It got my mum off the factory floor, it got my son his tradie ticket and it got me a business degree. It was a place where we went to find a new future. It was the heart of the community. Everyone keeps saying we're in this together, but are we? Are we really in this together? Or is it just more lip service? For Australians who want to be able to upskill at their local TAFE, it sure doesn't feel like we're in this together. Devonport's TAFE is teaching student nurses on floorboards that let in paint fumes from the floor below. You guys have been very aware of that. Your Tasmanian Liberal counterparts have been very aware of that and still nothing has been done. I raised this with you guys well over 10 months ago. It hasn't been fixed. You are not showing any initiative; I can tell you that much.
We're teaching kids trades on equipment that's older than they are. Some of it was made during the Cold War. Floors are rusted through and roofs are falling in. Yet the coalition, the ones in government, are arguing over who is to blame. Great! It doesn't matter how much TAFE costs if the qualifications it offers aren't valued. I want TAFE valued, I want it honoured and I want it fixed. You are all arguing that it is the other guys who need to do something about it. Get real. Show some initiative. Just show some initiative. Make some good, solid decisions. Get in there and fix it. Instead of paying lip service, actually fix it.
Voters don't want to know who to blame for the collapse in the training and trades sector. They are not interested. They don't care. They just don't care about that. Voters want a trades and training sector that isn't collapsing, full-stop. Let's be honest: that is what is happening. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, it is crumbling in front of our eyes, and yet the coalition in government are arguing about how many commissioners should sit on a board of an ineffective regulator. It's just another board sitting on top. It's just another one that will get nothing done. It's just to make it look like you are actually achieving something. That bothers me terribly. As soon as you can't get something right and make it happen, you put up a board. That is what you do. That is the normal Liberal way.
If you care about our trades, care enough to save them. Until then, spare us the speeches about how bad the other guys are. I won't waste a second arguing who is worst. I just want what's best, because I went to TAFE, like my mum and like my son, and I see what it did for my family and what it has done for the people in my part of town and my community and what that heart and soul meant when it was up and running and pumping at 110 per cent.
I've seen how much that meant to our community and how much was achieved for our kids, and all I see now is that it's got a boot on its neck and it's struggling. It is struggling to breathe, and we've got the time in the Senate to give it some breathing room, but instead we're spending hours debating who gets to be on the board of a regulator, getting overtime and no doubt paid an arm and a leg—to do what? Another regulator? Another board? To do what? To do the job that, apparently, ministers on that side are not able to do, because, if they were, they wouldn't be paying their mates to try to get the job done, which they don't either.
This is where parliament in this country has got to these days. A minister can't get the job done. They pay their mates to do a board; that's how it works. Quite frankly, you should be ashamed of yourselves. If that's what you're doing—and that's what you are doing—you should not be a minister in this country.
I rise to sum up the debate on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 and I thank all senators for their contributions to the debate. Delivering excellence in training lies at the heart of the coalition government's skills agenda, and that can only be achieved with a regulatory approach that is fair, transparent and effective and with a regulator that continually evolves, builds organisational capability and engages with the vocational education and training sector.
This bill before the Senate ensures that the national VET regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, otherwise known as ASQA, has a more effective, modern and fit-for-purpose governance structure. It responds to both the Braithwaite and Joyce reviews, which called on ASQA to adopt a greater educative role and to improve its regulatory approach. Further, it aligns with findings from the rapid review undertaken by regulatory experts into ASQA's governance, culture and processes. The government released the final rapid review report on 30 April 2020.
The reforms before us will ensure that ASQA is well positioned to support the VET sector with navigating the current COVID-19 environment and, more importantly, to guide the sector's recovery and regrowth once the pandemic abates. In this context, on 12 April 2020 the Australian government announced measures that provide regulatory fee relief for the VET sector. Certain fees and charges between 1 January 2020 and 30 June 2021 will be waived and relevant fees already paid will be reimbursed. This will assist the financial viability of registered training organisations, support business operations during the pandemic and foster recovery once travel and operational restrictions are relaxed. The revised governance model in the bill will also assist as it draws on best practice for Commonwealth regulators and will enable ASQA to better allocate and clarify operational roles and responsibilities and to improve regulatory decision-making.
The existing three-commissioner model will be replaced by a single agency head to be known as the Chief Executive Officer of ASQA, who will lead ASQA's strategic direction and improve efficiency. Starting reform at the top and working down ensures a positive impact on the agency's culture and supports a revised and revitalised organisational structure anticipated as part of the agency reforms.
Further, the bill establishes a statutory advisory council consisting of diverse multidisciplinary experts who will provide ASQA with access to strategic guidance and direction. These appointments will be based on experience and/or knowledge rather than representing particular stakeholder interests. It is critical that the independence and expertise of the council is maintained and that one stakeholder group is not preferenced over others. This mechanism for selecting the advisory council is based on recommendations from the rapid review and accords with best-practice regulation in similar settings, thus ensuring the CEO of ASQA is provided with high-quality, independent expert advice.
Significant reform is anticipated in the VET sector over the coming years, and these changes will position the CEO to make the necessary changes to ASQA's internal practices, enhance its educative role and address future challenges. The information-sharing provisions in the bill support the disclosure of data collected by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research to a range of bodies.
It is the intention of the bill for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research to be able to disclose information to state and territory departments that have responsibility for vocational education and training, even where they are also listed on the national register as a registered training organisation. Enhanced information sharing helps governments and vocational education training regulators so that the diverse needs and requirements of all Australians are considered in policy, funding and regulation.
This bill is further evidence of the government's commitment to VET sector reform. It is the next stage of measures that will strengthen ASQA to engage more effectively with stakeholders while continuing to improve its regulatory approach and enhance student outcomes. A strong national regulator supports access to quality vocational education and training, and I commend the bill to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.