Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.

National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

June 15, 2020

Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (18:24): I also rise to make a contribution to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. I must say from the outset that I agree with much of what the Member for Curtin had to say but, with respect, I think she may have gilded the lily a little, particularly in relation to ongoing investment in the VET sector, but I'll come to that. It is clear that we, on this side of the House, will not stand in the way of good legislation. I think what is proposed in this bill is of material benefit. Therefore, it will be supported by Labor.

I wish to also draw the attention of the House to the amendment moved by the Member for Cooper. There are certainly improvements that need to be made in vocational education, which this bill goes nowhere near. In the case of the bill, we will support, in a considered way, the reforms that have been made with respect to the Australian Skills Quality Authority's capacity to ensure responsiveness and transparency to students, communities and employers, and I think that that is a good thing. Nevertheless, we can't let the opportunity go, in allowing people to think that the government is so committed to the vocational education sector and that they're just tweaking it to one step below perfection—it is far from that. To put these reforms into perspective, they are just another tweak from a third-term government that's refused to deliver on genuine reform to the vocational education sector.

The bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made in Australia's TAFE and training system. In essence, the bill does two things. First, it revises ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing Chief Commissioner/Chief Executive Officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder. This is intended to ensure that the statutory office holder will be able to perform the role more consistently with that of the head, including leading strategy, making managerial decisions and determining the objectives, resources and policies of ASQA. We agree that that's a good thing to do.

Second, the bill establishes a National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. It is envisaged this council will provide ASQA with the necessary expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator. This very much does follow with the recommendations of the Braithwaite and Joyce reviews. These reviews made it particularly clear that ASQA needs to better engage in the VET sector and to provide education and guidance to the administration of the VET sector and its key stakeholders.

While the government doesn't include this aspect in the bill, I do think there's a case to be made that TAFE should be directly represented on the council, and so should teachers. Vocational education teachers should be there. Otherwise, we fear, the council could be skewed in favour of private providers, undermining ASQA's stringent regulatory approach. I simply offer that as a suggestion, on the basis that over the last seven years this government has made it very, very difficult for TAFE to function. It has given greater preference to private providers of vocational education, an area where we have seen many, many examples of mismanagement, and this does need to be rectified. I simply want to make the case that we've got to get the balance right. It is one thing to tweak at the edges to improve the management structure of ASQA's audit processes. They are decent things to be done, but not to actually address vocational education itself is an absolute missed opportunity by this government. It's not a near miss. The fact is that over the last seven years we've seen the poor management of this sector. It's left Australia facing a skills crisis, particularly in the areas of vocational training.

This government has spent seven years neglecting TAFE and its training systems. It's spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE plays in the development of young people and particularly in the matter of growing our economy. In the last seven years this is a government that has been cutting funding to TAFE and training by ripping $3 billion from the system whilst underspending on other promises made to this sector. That's hardly the record of a government that values vocational education. The numbers are shocking, but they're clear.

When it comes to young people and the future skills necessary for building our economy, the government's inaction is overwhelming. The Federal Education Department's own data, which they released last year, quite frankly, is the icing on the cake. It reveals that the Liberals failed to spend $919 million on TAFE training over the last five years alone. That's money that was allocated in the budget which they failed to deliver. There's only one reason why you would do that, because you're trying to defund TAFE at the expense of the skills necessary for expanding our economy but in support of private providers. These figures really do speak for themselves. It's something that those on the other side shouldn't take any pride in.

According to the government, their claim is there's simply been less demand. Clearly, Mr Deputy Speaker, you wouldn't accept that and neither would any of us. That's just not the case. We are seeing near record levels of underemployment and employers crying out for skilled workers.

By the way, I do congratulate the government on what they've done with respect to payment for retaining skilled workers. I think that's something that is worthwhile. I think JobKeeper has worked well. I do encourage them to think seriously before they try to rip that out, because we do want our economies to grow. We want businesses to extend themselves and be competitive in their emerging economy.

Getting back to this bill, this situation highlights that vocation education is getting worse. While we work together to combat the economic impacts of this pandemic, it is clear that with almost one million Australians out of work since the outbreak, according to the ABS data, we've got to be doing everything we can to keep Australians upskilled, make sure that they are going to be there for the jobs of the future. Particularly, as our economy starts to extend and improve, we need to have those people there.

The lack of the government's commitment to vocational education, quite frankly, has seen nearly 150,000 apprenticeships and trainees disappear from our skill base system. There is a shortage of skills services, particularly in the areas of plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and the mechanical trades—if you like, the basic trades. They are areas which are going to be so important for our economy as it re-engages and as we start to once again pit our competitiveness against that of countries in the international markets where we must operate. But the number of people in our apprenticeships and traineeships is now lower today than it was a decade ago, and no-one can seriously say that the need was just not there. What it does mean is that the government has been asleep for the last seven years and has allowed the system to unfold in that way.

An independent study by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research—not exactly a socialist body, I might add—claims that there has been a 20 per cent drop over the past year in the number of people who are signing up to do trade apprenticeships and traineeships. These are the people we've got to get into the system, and we've got to keep them. It's not just a matter of getting people there to do the first 12 months and then see them pull out. We need people who are going to be committed to entering the trades system. Therefore, we need to be able to support their vocational education and, effectively, support them into sustainable and well-paid jobs which are going to be critical for the future of this country.

I would have thought that investing in young people was in the interests of everybody in this place. We all have kids. Some of our kids will go to universities; some of our kids will aspire to be tradespeople. We all have kids and we are all concerned about their futures. If we simply stop investing in vocational education or if we limit the amount of investment we're putting into vocational education, what's that going to bring? It will be like what occurred under the former Liberal government of John Howard when, all of a sudden, they said: 'Shock, horror! We've got a mining boom on and we don't have the skills necessary. Where can we get them from? The Philippines, Korea, Vietnam—anywhere else we can bring people in from overseas.' Whilst short-term immigration is a good thing to plug holes we might have in our skill sets, it is not the future of this country. It's not the future that any of us as parents would want for our children, I would hope.

Whilst we support the passage of this bill, we're not going to let this government get away with thinking that they have done anything other than tweak at the edges of vocational education.

As I said at the outset, I agree with the reforms to ASQA. I think they are good, and it's a good foundation. But the bill hasn't done anything about putting extra money into vocational education, and it hasn't done anything about replacing the money that this government has ripped out of vocational education. The government really does need to think about the future. It needs to think about the skills that we need. It needs to think about the society that we want to be in the future. It can't be that we're just going to import all those skills on a short-term basis to fill skills gaps. For the future prosperity of this nation, we must be investing in education. Every dollar we commit to education—whether it's school based education, tertiary education, universities or VET education—is an investment not only in those young people but in the future prosperity of our nation.

I call on this government to think seriously about delivering genuine reform to the vocational education system. We do need to make sure that we are in a strong position for the future, we do need to ensure that we are investing in our young people and we do need to ensure that, through this legislation, we allow Australia's economy to expand.