Oct 15, 2002

Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002


15 October 2002

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (8.00 p.m.)—The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 provides funding to be distributed by the Australian National Training Authority to the states and territories for capital and recurrent purposes and for national projects. It provides expenditure of $952 million in 2001 and $956 million in 2002.

I wish to use this opportunity to make some comments about the government’s failure to provide appropriate vocational education and training. For six years this government has commissioned reports, set up task forces, established expert groups and reference groups, and hosted consultations—breakfasts, lunches and teas. It has had round tables, square tables and even green tables. It has had teleconferences and videoconferences, forums, focus groups, think tanks and even possibly float tanks. But what the government has not done is provide an appropriate coordinating role at the national level.

Despite the frenzy of activity, it is an appearance of activity. The government have managed to actually do very little in the way of responding to the reams of recommendations that all these committees and activities have produced. But this is pretty consistent with the attitude of the Howard government because no matter which area you look at—whether it is age care, child care, the environment et cetera—it is all the same. There is a standard routine: set up a working group, get them to produce a report but then do nothing with the findings of the report. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the member for Richmond, made the understatement of the year a few weeks ago at a child-care reference group meeting on 23 September when he said:

One of the hallmark traits of the coalition government is that we do not just leap into decisions lightly.

Too right they don’t leap into action! And that is the problem in the area of vocational education and training, because there has not been even so much as a muscle twitching when it comes to acting on any of the reports that they themselves have commissioned.

Sadly, this happens even when they have a report that graphically describes a tragedy that is unfolding right on their doorstep. The report I refer to here is Footprints to the Future. This is a report that the government commissioned nearly three years ago. The government said that they commissioned the report to see how government agencies, communities, state governments, businesses and schools could better work together to secure successful transition from school to post-school life for young people and to make school more relevant to young people—the 70 per cent of students who are not seeking an academic career when they leave school.

The report only saw the light of day because Labor had the good sense to table a leaked copy in this parliament. The government had not wanted the report released because it provided proof that many young people were finding it more and more difficult to make that transition from school to work. The report found that there were over 200,000 young Australians who were marginalised—marginalised from education, training and employment. The report also found that some of the government’s policies were providing little assistance to young people and, in some cases, it was actually having a negative impact on their self-esteem. Finally, the report found that Job Network was `harsh, rigid and complex to navigate’ and operates in isolation from those support services and community groups that assist young people in crisis.

This harsh finding is consistent with the Productivity Commission report tabled in this parliament last month and also with the government’s own DEWR report into the Job Network. Whenever the Job Network is looked at, it is found to be inadequate. The Productivity Commission report has found that the third round of the Job Network has done little to fix the structural problems that are there in the Job Network system. Finally, this report said that some government policies were depriving young people of their income and of training opportunities of which the consequences had been, in some cases, homelessness.

I can certainly understand why the government was ashamed of the report and wanted to hide it, but I believe it is an absolute disgrace that it has not done anything about it. The state and territory training ministers estimate that there are 11,000 more people at risk now than in 2001. It is clear that serious action needs to be undertaken. This government must take up its responsibility so as to ensure that young people are able to make that successful transition between school and employment. The key to developing strong pathways is having a strong and vibrant TAFE sector. TAFE colleges and other providers of vocational education and training need to be funded effectively so that they are able to attract young people to their courses and support them.

The government must make sure that the TAFE colleges and other providers of vocational education and training are able to play a major role in supporting young people between school and eventual work. This is critical for all young people but it is particularly crucial for young people who have low levels of education and poor language, literacy and numeracy skills and who have to battle with issues such as food, shelter, family relationships, child care, transport and health. I believe that you judge a government not by how it looks after those people who will get on in life due to the opportunities that they have, due to the income and wealth that their parents have and due to the affluent schools that they are able to go to, but on how government gives a hand up to the vulnerable young people in our community. And this government fails that test.

It is not surprising that it is these very vulnerable young people who are finding it the most difficult to make that transition from school to further education and training and eventually to a job—not just any job but a career enhancing job; a job that gives them the opportunity to aspire to a better life not just for themselves but eventually for their own children. It is these young people who are most affected by the government’s changes to youth allowance. It is these young people who are in increasing numbers going to TAFE to have their learning needs met. So in order to achieve good outcomes in TAFE and in other vocational education and training systems these young people require extra support from staff with specialist skills in areas such as counselling and case management. It is the federal government’s responsibility—a core responsibility of government—to ensure that these institutions are able to support these young people so they stay connected, so they stay involved and so they eventually are able to find meaningful employment in the community.

For these reasons, I wish to move an amendment, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has come into the chamber to second the amendment I am moving here tonight. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not seeking to deny the Bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for:

(1) failing to develop comprehensive transition strategies to assist young people, thereby abandoning at least 205,300 15 to 19 years olds, placing them at risk of not making a successful transition from school and work;

(2) failing to keep its election promise to young people to provide a comprehensive response in the 2002 budget to the Youth Pathways Report;

(3) failing to address youth unemployment, which is on the rise;

(4) refusing to acknowledge the substantial adverse impact that the Government’s Welfare Reform initiatives are having on TAFE;

(5) failing to take a holistic approach to the needs of indigenous Australians resulting in a decline in participation in courses leading to a qualification;

(6) the Minister’s double standards in espousing concern for the welfare of young Australians but failing to take any meaningful action to invest in their training needs; and

the House further notes that State and Territory Labor Governments have made significant achievements in the implementation of VET in schools while the Commonwealth has refused to provide growth funding, making the Labor States and Territories the leaders in this field”.

We have moved this amendment because we believe it is important that these issues are addressed as a core function of government. Young Australians need a government with vision which can articulate a policy continuum for their education and training and their eventual employment. The Howard government over the past six years has proved that it cannot and will not do that.

This bill on which I speak tonight is one of the many examples of that. This bill does nothing to address the massive funding cuts that the vocational education and training sector was hit with in the Howard-Costello budgets of 1996 and again in 1997. The bill does nothing to address the lack of leadership the Commonwealth has shown in shaping and driving national priorities when it comes to vocational education and training. The funds flowing from the passage of this bill will not enable one more person to be reached out to by a TAFE teacher and to be supported while trying to pull their life together and get some skills that would eventually lead them to meaningful employment.

The lack of appropriate funding comes at a time when more and more people are participating in vocational education and training. Participation has increased from 1,459,000 students in 1997 to 1,757,000 in 2001. There is also a high level of unmet demand, with the number of people not being able to secure a place rising from 35,000 in 1998 to over 40,000 in the year 2000. Here we have a system that the government has on the one hand driven more and more people into—and more people with higher support needs—yet it is the same system that the Commonwealth under this government wants to spend less money on. No-one thinks that this is a good idea: not the teachers, not the students and certainly not the future employers, who need people with quality skills and education.

As I said earlier, increasingly young people are being redirected to TAFE to have their learning needs met, either from schools or via community agencies. In New South Wales, for example, the hours of training for 16- and 17-year-olds doing general education in TAFE have increased by 92 per cent from 1998 to the year 2001. This increase has largely been due to the government’s changes to the youth allowance. These changes have meant that all under-18-year-olds who do not have year 12 or equivalent qualifications are generally required to undertake full-time education and training. This in itself is a worthy aspiration and something that Labor does not object to. Everyone knows that people do much better in all aspects of life when they have a good education. However, such aspirations need to be funded properly. They must reflect the special needs of the many young people who participate in these programs and they must reflect the fact that many of these students do not have the basic skills to learn through traditional systems.

The government may think they are saving money. But what is the cost of having more young people experiencing alienation from mainstream society and experiencing homelessness, of the increase in drug and alcohol abuse, or of young people coming into contact with the juvenile justice system? That is exactly what happens when young people experience dissociation from education and training opportunities. That is exactly what happens when you take resources away from services that keep young people engaged in education and training. Those resources are needed to create a flexible, supportive environment so that different needs can be catered for. We will all, as a society, pay a much higher price in the end for neglect of this sector—not only a much higher social cost but also a much higher economic cost.

We are already paying a high price for the government’s New Apprenticeships scheme. The government list this scheme as one of their greatest success stories. Yet in many cases, when we examine the details of this scheme, we see nothing more than corporate subsidies. A report by Jobwatch, a community legal centre in Victoria, provides evidence that employers are increasingly exploiting the Howard government’s New Apprenticeships scheme as a source of cheap labour rather than as an opportunity to skill up the unemployed. This is occurring to the detriment of those undertaking traineeships as well as the future growth of the Australian economy. The report highlighted the case of Stephanie, who lost her full-time job after her employer found out she had already undertaken a traineeship in a fish and chips shop back in high school in order to get some extra pocket money and would not be entitled to any wage subsidy from the government. Therefore, Stephanie missed out on a real opportunity for real training and real employment. That is a real example; other examples are there.

Under the government’s New Apprenticeships scheme, we have the absurd situation where completing a traineeship can hinder rather than improve a young person’s chances of getting a job. The report by Jobwatch came on top of recent media reports which we have raised questions in this House about. One example we used, which was shown on the SBS program Insight, was that of Hungry Jack’s. Hungry Jack’s opened a new outlet in Hornsby in the northern suburbs of Sydney where every single one of its 50 new employees was employed as a trainee. Many of these young kids were simply looking for a little bit of extra pocket money. You have to ask yourself a pretty commonsense question: if Hungry Jack’s at Hornsby has 50 employees and every single one of them is a trainee, who is doing the training? The truth is there is not any.

The pious minister, the member for Bradfield, lectures us day in and day out about values. He says, `The growth in the New Apprenticeships scheme is all in hospitality and it’s in these new industries.’ When I had my departmental briefing upon being given this shadow ministry, I raised it with the department or with the minister and said, `Actually, I don’t think there’s much training and skilling up involved in many of these jobs; I think it’s just a rort to give people an excuse to be paid less, and I think young people know it and that’s why they are objecting to it, and that’s why their parents are objecting to them being exploited as well.’ The response from this pious minister was, `You’re just being snobby; you’re saying that somehow there is a false distinction between someone who works at McDonald’s or Hungry Jack’s and doesn’t get any training and someone who might have a four-year apprenticeship in one of the traditional trades of carpentry, plumbing et cetera.’

It was interesting when I met with the department, who ran the minister’s line. I said to them, `I actually worked at McDonald’s.’ I doubt that many of the spivs who went to those elite category 1 private schools had to work at McDonald’s or had to do paper runs to work their way through school. I doubt they had any experience of that, but I did. I know exactly how much training I got at a place like McDonald’s. I am not critical of them employing young people. I think young Australians get very useful life skills from earning their own wage. The discipline of turning up to work and the discipline of engaging with people at the workplace can be very useful. I am not critical of McDonald’s, but I am critical of a system which says that somehow that is real and appropriate training when there is no real training component there.

I am critical of a government that boasts about growth in apprenticeships when it knows there are shortages. At the same time that it boasts about this, when you talk to people in the industry, they tell you about the shortages. They will tell you, for example, that the average age in Australia for aviation engineers is 49 years. It takes seven years of training. Surely we do not want people who have been through one of these shonky traineeship schemes, where they get to flip a burger, fixing aircraft. This is serious; seven years of serious training. Yet the industry is saying that there will be a massive shortage in that industry. People from the pharmaceutical industry have met with me and have spoken about the shortage of skilled chemical engineers. Industry after industry will tell you about the shortages.

This is not just about education, training and employment as if they were separate from the economy. This is about the type of economy we will have and the type of society we will have. What we need are high-skilled jobs. The government has a role in determining demand. If it just leaves the market to determine where the demand is, you will find often that it will go the low road. One of the core policies the Hawke and Keating governments were about was creating a high road for the Australian economy and creating an opportunity for people, regardless of their background, income and the families they were born into, to get a better life for themselves and to get the fulfilment of a well paid job. We cannot compete in our region unless we go the high-skill road.

According to the Australian Industry Group’s Heather Ridout, the growth in the New Apprenticeships scheme also disguises an `alarming fall in technical and engineering apprenticeships’. For example, engineering enrolments in New South Wales TAFE colleges alone have been down 35 per cent over the past eight years—a drastic decline. A further indication of the scheme’s failure is the consistently high non-completion rate amongst trainees. Almost 50 per cent of participants in the scheme do not complete their training course.

The government says it is proud of the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002. In his speech on the bill, the minister attempted to claim the high moral ground for marginally increasing the funds available next year. But the truth is that the Commonwealth contribution to vocational education and training operating revenue fell by $112 million between 1997 and 2000. Yet the Howard government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table to even agree to make that small increase from last year’s funds and to make a decision to invest in Australia’s future and in our greatest resource—our young people.

Tonight we are talking about investing in our future and making decisions to invest in our young people, to support them in their pursuit of a different pathway to high skills in further education, training and employment. But this government would prefer to give more money to elite private schools than to schools with high needs. This government must take up the responsibility to put pathways in place. It must work hard to be always developing better pathways which do not have gaping holes in them, so that our young people can have a good future ahead of them and do not have it cut short at 15.

Young Australians fear that they will not make it through the maze, that they will not eventually get a job which will enable them to have a fulfilling life that includes a car, a house, family and friends, and a better future, indeed, for their children. Young people know that the government is choosing not to invest in them. They know that there has been a massive increase in funding to the elite private schools. They know that there have been massive rises in HECS and an attempt to price ordinary Australians out of universities and into `quiet ponds’. They know that they have no time to study and enjoy university because they are working record hours to pay the rent and buy food. They know that there is a GST on everything from going to the movies to travelling on public transport.

Young Australians know that the government’s New Apprenticeships scheme has developed into a dodgy subsidy for shonky employers. They know that the youth job market is getting tougher and life is much more uncertain. They know that this government believes in driving down youth wages. From the time that John Howard was Treasurer, he advocated that in a very public campaign. They know that there are record levels of youth homelessness. If they live in Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne, they must just shake their heads at the possibility that they will ever own their own home. They know that they are being ripped off by this government.

This government wants to believe that our young people can somehow be Americanised and believe in the rights of the individual. We see that young people want to belong to a community. Young people want to belong to Australia’s history. Look at the resurgence of the ANZAC tradition. Every year more and more young Australians are making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, not to celebrate war or nationalism, but those values of mateship that make us better and define us as a nation. These traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. I have a great deal of faith that the current generation of young people will be at least as wise as their predecessors. I know that young people are watching this parliament and what we do that affects their future directly. They will hold us to account.

Today in the Illawarra, we saw the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, along with the candidate for Cunningham, Sharon Bird, launch an investment program which Labor would undertake as an apprenticeship pilot for Illawarra’s youth. If you look at the regional dimensions of youth unemployment, there are great disparities.

In conclusion, I return to how I began my contribution tonight. Governments should be judged not by how they look after those people who do not need a hand up because, due to the families they were born into and the opportunities they have, those people will do okay. This bill is about the issue of vocational education and training and giving all individuals an opportunity. It is not about leaving people behind because they go to Marrickville High School rather than Newington, a category 1 school. It is about giving all young people an opportunity for fulfilling employment. It is about more than the individuals and a relationship between employers and individual young people. It is also about the type of economy we have. We have no choice but to go down the high-skill road and invest in the education and training of our young people. I commend the amendment which has been circulated in my name and ask that it be supported by this House.