May 11, 2005

Social Security Amendment (Extension of Youth Allowance and Austudy Eligibility


11 May 2005

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10.24 a.m.)—I am pleased to make a contribution in this debate on the Social Security Amendment (Extension of Youth Allowance and Austudy Eligibility to New Apprentices) Bill 2005 but not pleased that there is such a crisis in our skills base. This measure is one of the measures announced by the federal government during the last election campaign. That was in response to an outcry from industry, unions and people in the community about the issue of skills shortages, which are there as a direct result of government policy. This measure, which Labor also announced during the election campaign that it would do, is worthy of support, although I draw the minister’s attention to the issues raised by the shadow minister, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, about the anomalies which will remain between new apprentices and students in full-time study as a result of the detail of this policy measure.

The government for a long time said that skills shortages were not an issue. In the time I was shadow minister for employment services and training I issued 62 media releases about skills shortages and the need for action. On this side of the House we understood that this was a critical issue facing, in particular, young people but also mature age people trying to get back into the work force, and industry. Over time, as a result of government inaction, everyone from the Reserve Bank down understood the nature of this crisis. Indeed, people such as Peter Hendy from ACCI—no friend of the Labor Party—were talking about this and the need for action. At the first meetings I went to upon becoming shadow minister for training I was informed about the disappointment of business and unions over the failure to address these issues.

And it is a result of policy failure. With the creation of its New Apprenticeships program the government essentially amalgamated what Labor had created through the Australian traineeship system with the former apprenticeship system, called it New Apprenticeships and used it to boost the numbers as if there were actually extra people getting skills training. We know that what that led to, and is continuing to lead to and has not been addressed by this government, is distortions and rorts whereby many of the people engaged in the New Apprenticeship system are not getting any training whatsoever. We have examples of fast food stores being established with 50 employees, where each of the 50 is a trainee. The question has to be asked: who is doing the training? We have examples of young people working at the local fish and chip shop. In order to get a government subsidy, they are told they are ‘new apprentices’, but when they conclude their schooling and want to go for a real new apprenticeship they are told, ‘No, you cannot because you have already been through the system.’ So they actually get excluded from getting the skills and jobs they need.

We know that years of neglect have meant that 270,000 Australians have missed out on a TAFE place since 1998. We know that during that time 178,000 skilled migrants came to Australia. The only new initiative in the budget last night was again the importation of more skilled labour in order to fill the void that has been created as a direct result of government policy—where for six out of the last nine years there has been no growth funding.

The fact that we have a skills crisis at the same time that 40,000 people are missing out on TAFE each year—15,000 of them being young people who are eager to do a new apprenticeship to get the skilled job that they and Australia need—is an outrageous abrogation of government responsibility. Last night in the budget, in spite of the fact that we have a massive surplus due in large part to the particular circumstances of the price of commodities, we squandered the opportunity to secure long-term prosperity. This comes about due to ideology—the fact that this government is so hateful of anything to do with the public sector that it has starved TAFE, the major provider of skills training in the nation, of proper funding. The attack on TAFE over such a long period of time has meant that they have been starved of funds; but the consequences of that flow through to young people in particular not being able to get the training they need.

For the last two years the Governor of the Reserve Bank has repeatedly spoken about the skills crisis and the threat that that poses to economic growth. According to Group Training Australia there are currently national skills shortages in all key trades, including engineering trades, vehicle trades, construction trades, food trades, electrical, electronics, printing, wood, hairdressing, furniture and upholstery. And it is not just in the blue-collar area. Services such as nursing, child care and teaching are also desperate for new entrants to keep up with demand.

In July last year the ACCI survey of investor confidence found that for the first time in 14 years the availability of suitably qualified employees was the No. 1 constraint on future investment decisions. At that time, 79 per cent of firms surveyed said recruiting employees with appropriate skills was a major or moderate concern. Over the next five years it is expected that 175,000 workers will leave the traditional trades, with only 70,000 expected to enter them. The government cannot say it was not warned. Labor established a Senate inquiry into these issues in 2002-03 and a report was handed down in 2003. It warned that Australia would not have enough skilled metal, engineering and manufacturing workers to carry out the $20 billion worth of major infrastructure and resources projects needed in the next 10 years. It has been estimated that current skills shortages could cost Australia $9 billion in lost output over the coming decade.

What we saw during the election campaign was not a serious attempt to address these issues. That should not be a surprise, because only Labor has ever taken the issue of vocational education and training seriously. It was, of course, the Whitlam government in 1973 that first provided Commonwealth financial support for apprenticeships through the establishment of the National Apprenticeship Assistance Scheme. It was the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s that took on the states and territories and put in place new industrial arrangements that enabled the traineeship system to be created in the first place. And it was the Keating Labor government that in 1992 got the agreement of all states and territories for the establishment of the Australian National Training Authority, a statutory body which sought to overcome the inconsistencies of our federal structure and bring a national focus to the delivery of VET.

But what we have seen over the nine years of this government is a complete absence of visionary initiatives and reforms. Commonwealth VET funding in real terms has been cut over the past nine years. In fact, since 1997 real funding per teaching hour has dropped by around 19 per cent and the proportion of VET funding coming from the Commonwealth has fallen from 25 per cent to 22.2 per cent. Inevitably, these cuts have undermined the quality of training that more than 1.7 million Australians receive from the VET sector.

At a time when we most need our federal structure to work cooperatively, the minister undermined ANTA by refusing to have an ANTA agreement in place. We know that that was supposed to occur last year. The minister was simply silent all through the year, knowing what he had in his back pocket: an announcement that would be made after the election—not during the election—that ANTA would be abolished. So much for honesty in government. With no agreement, the fundamental structure at the core of our VET system was to be abolished. Was that mentioned in the election campaign? Not on your life. What we did get during the election campaign was the announcement of the Institute for Trade Skill Excellence. This would provide:

… industry endorsement of qualifications provided by private and public training providers, including TAFE, identifying excellence and the “preferred providers” of high quality and industry-relevant training’.

That is what ANTA used to do, of course. They did not announce that they were abolishing ANTA; that would have been too honest.

There were to be four shareholders of the institute. Not all of them knew until the night before that they were going to be shareholders. There was ACCI, AIG, the BCA and the NFF. There was no representation from TAFE, no representation from unions. After the government had gone through this whole process of establishing skills councils, measures in the announcement included the establishment of an industry reference group for each key trades industry. Once again, the government were not being honest with the Australian public prior to the election. The announcement was that zero of the $18.3 million—a subsidy for the government’s friends in the corporate sector—would be spent on training. During the election campaign, the minister did not bother to front at the TAFE Directors conference held in Sydney on 22-24 September. Even the junior minister did not bother to front. They sent along a parliamentary secretary. That is more than they sent to the WorldSkills conference held in Brisbane at the convention centre earlier last year. In that case, there was no government representation whatsoever at an event where tens of thousands of young people learn about their opportunities to attain skills.

The government did not just do that, of course. Once again showing a victory of style over substance during the election campaign, it made an announcement about toolboxes. The toolbox idea is, on the surface, a good one if toolboxes are provided, but once again it was policy on the run. Obviously the government is not aware that construction, electrical, metal fabrication and other awards contain tool allowances of up to $22 a week—more than people are going to get out of this grant. When I spoke to employer reps and asked whether they would guarantee that they would keep the allowance in the award, they said no. Of course they said no. We are going to get the government giving money from the taxpayer for what is already in the award, what apprentices in areas such as the building and electrical industries already receive. It is absolutely absurd. It could mean, if apprentices lose this allowance, that they will actually end up worse off. The government did not think that through.

And we have the technical colleges. The government starved TAFE of funds, undermined it for nine years. There are some 40,000 people wanting to get into a TAFE course, 15,000 of them young people. What is the government’s response? To set up a parallel system—to be run by the private sector and to have AWAs as a condition of participation, to undermine industrial conditions. That system will not produce a single apprentice—not one—until after 2010. We have a crisis now. I do not know if the minister just boycotts TAFE conferences or if he has ever gone into a TAFE. If he went into a TAFE, he would see hardworking men and women, particularly in areas like construction, who make sacrifices to teach. They would earn more on the job than they do in the TAFE training young people, but they do it out of their commitment, their pride in their skills and the satisfaction they get in imparting those skills, to younger people in particular. They do it out of their commitment to this nation. The government has contempt for all that. We will go through this costly exercise of creating, or attempting to create, a parallel system in order to produce a few thousand people sometime after 2010.

During the election campaign the minister could not say where the new colleges were, where they would be or who would run them. There was just this vague concept. There was talk about one of them being in Gladstone. If the minister had spoken to anyone in Gladstone, he would know that there, through local industry, through the local high schools, through the local group training organisation—already in place—young Australians doing a VET in Schools course were working with industry, getting those skills. Those linkages are there. If the government was serious, with the same amount of money it could have had a serious impact by working from the basis of the existing VET in Schools program or working through skills centres such as the ones that exist in Brisbane. It could have worked through the models that are there.

It is all about ideology. The people who will suffer are the young people who will miss out on opportunities to gain skills. (Time expired)