Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Statements by Senators

National Skills Week

12:23 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I am very pleased today to be joining the Senate from Far North Queensland. I'm keen to talk to you today about National Skills Week. We know that it is National Skills Week this week. The government has cut funding to TAFE and training over the last eight years, which has led to a desperate situation where we have a skills crisis in North Queensland, which is putting our recovery at risk.

Before that though, I want to talk briefly about Senator Cash's self-congratulatory comments yesterday in question time. Yesterday Senator Cash took a dixer on notice about National Skills Week and she responded with what were supposedly the wonderful things that the Morrison government has been doing for our vocational education system. It is very interesting to hear the author of the PaTH program talk so glowingly about what they've done. But the truth is that what she failed to mention is the systematic and ongoing massive cuts to training during the last eight years of this government. It must have been slightly confusing for Senator Cash to be talking about the decent skills training in this country, because the first two minutes of her answer yesterday were directly ripped off from the front page of the National Skills Week website. I'm not joking. You can go and check Hansard and then compare that to the website, where you'll find the first half of Senator Cash's response right there on the front page.

The reason I raise this is that it shows how serious the Morrison government are when it comes to investing in skills and understanding the skills crisis. The fact is they're not serious at all. They don't think about it. They copy and paste. They think TAFE is for basket weaving. They would rather exploit overseas workers than invest in local jobs. Cutting government services rather than investing in working Australians, and then having to write speeches about them as if you support them, must be a fairly familiar feeling, but investing in skills and training has to be so important to the foundation of our strong and vibrant economy. Why then has the Morrison government spent the last eight years destroying what once was one of the greatest training and skills programs in the world, our TAFE education system? Let's not forget that before the pandemic the federal LNP, right across Australia, cut $3 million from traineeship, apprentices and TAFE.

In regional Queensland we are suffering from a massive skills shortage thanks to eight long years of funding cuts by the LNP. Everywhere I go, every business I speak to has the same complaint. They want and need good skilled workers, but the government isn't delivering skilled workers fast enough or in the right professions. I've travelled throughout regional Queensland. I've spent some time in other electorates and in other states as part of Labor's postpandemic recovery jobs task force, and I hear the same story over and over again. The government will deny that it is the case, and they'll talk about some of the programs that they have funded, but what we know when we look at the results of those programs is that they don't deliver. The Morrison government's own data shows this terrible decline in skills. Data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment has revealed that, on the LNP's watch—in the nearly eight years they have been in government—from 2013 to September 2020 they have overseen a fall by 33 per cent in the number of trainee apprentices in North Queensland. We have lost a third of apprentices and trainees in North Queensland under the LNP. In Far North Queensland that means that we've got 1,000 fewer training opportunities for locals. In Townsville it equates to 1,259 trainees and apprentices. In Mackay and the Whitsundays region it means we have lost 1,470 local opportunities. And in Capricornia, covered by the Central Queensland areas of Rockhampton and out to Maryborough, we know that we have lost a whopping 1,523 apprentices and trainees under the Liberal-National government.

I need to remind you that in May 2020, when we were facing this pandemic but looking at what we would need to recover, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he saw skills as the key to Australia's economic recovery, which is an extraordinary statement from a Prime Minister who has been the Treasurer and the Prime Minister of a party that has cut skills and has watched a 33 per cent decline in North Queensland. This is a region that supported Scott Morrison at the last election, but when they need him, he goes missing. No wonder local businesses are facing a skills crisis now.

It needs to be said that there is no-one who considers that we wouldn't need some sort of skills migration program in the future. Of course those opportunities should be there. But we need to understand why the federal government, the Morrison government, under Scott Morrison's leadership, would choose to introduce programs like the designated area migration agreement to a place like Cairns, which has a skills shortage, but not to invest further in TAFE and apprenticeship training schemes. We've got local people here who want to work and get the right skills, and they want to get those skills in the industries of the future, but unfortunately, under this Prime Minister we've got businesses that are desperate for skills and workers who are desperate for jobs. We know that businesses across North Queensland are desperate for skills right now. It's time that the Morrison government started investing properly in vocational training or handed over to someone who will.

We also know that this pandemic has exacerbated the skills crisis. But it's not a new phenomenon; this was happening before COVID. COVID has made it worse. What we need to understand is what the plan will be. We know that the government hasn't got a plan to recover in our regions, not a plan that includes skilled workers from our local areas. It concerns me that we are now also looking at losing skilled workers in places like Cairns because the federal government is failing to deliver any type of income or wage support to areas that are locked out but not locked down. The big issue that we saw last year was the risk of losing skilled people in industries like tourism and hospitality in an area that can barely afford to lose any skilled workers at all. We need a wage subsidy scheme in Far North Queensland right now so that we can keep the skilled workers that we have. Senator Cash stood up in question time yesterday and talked about National Skills Week, but we are losing skilled workers right now in Far North Queensland. If the government wants to help skilled workers and if the government wants to make sure that we've got the skills we need when we want to recover, then the very first thing they should be doing this week—during National Skills Week—is delivering a national wage subsidy scheme for places like Far North Queensland, which are locked out but not locked down.

When it comes to delivering the recovery that we know we need in the regions, we need a very big plan, and skills have to be at the centre of it. Federal Labor has a plan to deliver this. We've talked about bringing manufacturing back home to regional Queensland. We have talked about the fact that we will, through the national reconstruction scheme, make sure that we deliver $15 billion of funding to manufacturing. A really big part of that is skilling our young kids so that they have a career and a future in manufacturing for the rest of their lives and that they can live and work in regional Queensland without needing to leave.

We know that we've got a plan to deliver manufacturing skills for regional Queensland that will transform and recover our regions so that we're not dependent on one single industry. More industries and more jobs—that's what the Labor Party is going to do after the next election. I want to make sure that every kid who wants to get a job or go to TAFE in Far North Queensland, Townsville or Central Queensland has the opportunity. I am worried that, if the Morrison government gets its way at the next election, we will lose another generation of young, skilled people who want to work in industries like manufacturing but will never get the opportunity.