Mr HAYES (Werriwa) (8.57 p.m.)—I am pleased to have the opportunity to support Labor’s amendments to the Skilling Australia’s Workforce Bill 2005 and cognate bill. These bills, being considered as a package, abolish the Australian National Training Authority, ANTA, and establish a new system to grant financial assistance to states and territories for vocational education and training. In the light of our growing skills shortage and this government’s desperate attempt to paper over the cracks of its serious lack of investment in education and training by increasing skilled migration, this package, on the face of it, may seem to be reasonable. Over the next few years, the government will contribute $4.4 billion to fund the states and territories—and the minister uses terms such as ‘high-quality’, ‘flexible’ and ‘responsive’ to describe the brave new world of funding—for vocational education and training. Again, on the face of it, it sounds reasonable. However, like always, the devil is in the detail, and it is the detail that I am concerned about.
Before turning my concerns to a number of statutory conditions attached to the allocation of financial assistance, I will provide some insight into my history and experience with the vocational education and training sector and, in particular, the Australian National Training Authority. It is important that ANTA’s significant achievements are not ignored in this debate. Considerable achievements in reform of Australia’s vocational education and training have occurred over the last decade and a half. The Hawke government recognised that Australia needed to build its skilled work force if it was to maintain its competitiveness in the global economy.
Reforms in vocational education and training were driven by ANTA to assist with the achievement of democratised skill recognition—a scheme of national and portable qualifications, which are now within the reach of every worker in every occupation and industry—the provision of learning and development pathways for all workers from entry level to managerial and professional ranks, equipping workers with the skills needed to remain competitive and encouraging flexibility and responsiveness in TAFE and other VET providers to meet the needs of industry and of the students.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The debate is interrupted. The honourable member will have the right to continue his remarks when the debate is resumed.
15 JUNE 2006
Mr HAYES (Werriwa) (9.02 a.m.)—Before the debate was adjourned last evening I was explaining both my involvement in the process of reform and my involvement in the National Training Authority, both of which are primarily based on increasing the portability of skills between occupations and across industries. In the 1990s I was appointed by the Australian National Training Authority—ANTA, as it is known—to a panel to judge the quality of training programs. My role was to identify training initiatives which were best practice, to recognise who was doing things well and to work out ways in which these programs and initiatives may be extended—in other words, to work out how you could take tried and tested and successful programs and use them to enhance the skills and development of youth and employees to the benefit of themselves and their employers to produce more productive employees.
Later I became the independent chair of Manufacturing Learning Australia. MLA was aimed at enhancing the productivity of Australian manufacturing and the promotion of learning across occupational groups by helping to develop and recognise workplace skills. In this capacity I worked with all groups involved in vocational education, from employers to unions and from individual workers to group training companies, and of course with the government agencies, including ANTA. With the financial support of the Australian National Training Authority my role with Manufacturing Learning Australia included the development of training packages in the hydrocarbon, oil refining and chemical industries as well as plastic, glass and cement manufacturing. The training packages developed were aimed at recognising the skills that were portable across a range of industries, in an effort to reduce duplication in training, and skill development to help achieve some cost savings through economies of scale. Although these industries were across diverse areas it was found that commonality existed and that consistent training packages could be developed and introduced across many of these industries.
Similarly, in my period with the Police Federation of Australia I was involved with a body that established and identified common skills in areas such as public safety. Again, while they were seemingly highly independent industries with often vastly differing skill sets, we were able to identify a number of common skills for police, fire and emergency services as well as the Australian military. As a result, again with the support of ANTA, we saw the introduction of training packages for these common skills across the occupational groups and the formal recognition of these skills.
I mention these experiences not simply to indicate a degree of knowledge of the area but to lend weight to the important work that ANTA was involved in and the initiatives and reforms that it has assisted. The area of training and reform that I have been associated with has had a dual purpose—namely, to increase the quality of training and portability of qualifications while, importantly for business, achieving economies in training costs. This brings some context to the debate and begs the question as to why these bills have been introduced. The Australian National Training Authority has been successful and has achieved significant reforms.
The abolition of ANTA from 1 July is not about skills development, it is not about the government acting decisively in an effort to alleviate pressures on business created by the skills shortage and it is certainly not about a commitment to VET. This is about ministerial control. VET has a history of being the poor cousin in the education family. I know that ANTA has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of VET, and now we have ANTA being subsumed by the Department of Education, Science and Training. I have grave concerns that VET will again be relegated to the status of a second-class citizen in the education and training bureaucracy as the department continues to focus on schools and universities. However, this is not my only concern about these bills. As I said earlier, the devil is in the detail. In this case the detail comes in the form of the statutory conditions which must be complied with before financial grants will be made available.
In my first speech in this place I took the opportunity to outline my concerns about the government’s industrial relations agenda. It would ordinarily seem odd, in speaking on bills on vocational education and training, that my mind would turn to industrial relations, but the statutory conditions associated with the Skilling Australia’s Workforce Bill 2005 and the Skilling Australia’s Workforce (Repeal and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2005 give me that opportunity. Once again the government has sought to piggyback its industrial relations agenda onto unrelated bills. Once again the government could not resist the opportunity of using a carrot and stick approach to force its industrial relations agenda down people’s throats. And once again it has attached industrial relations conditions to financial assistance grants. Under the provisions of this legislation a condition which must be complied with for financial assistance is the implementation of workplace reforms. TAFE colleges will be required, under these bills, to introduce more flexible arrangements, including AWAs where constitutionally possible and other forms of individual contracts where TAFE colleges are ineligible for Australian workplace agreements. I strongly support Labor’s amendments to break the connection that these bills seek to create between vocational education and training and the continuation of the government’s industrial relations agenda. Let us keep education funding and industrial relations quite separate.
It is interesting that the government has only recently sought to make up for the inadequate response to Australia’s skills shortage. It is interesting because the skills shortages that we are experiencing are not simply the product of a buoyant economy or low unemployment, as the government would have people believe. The skills shortages that businesses are experiencing are the result of a lack of commitment to vocational education and training by this government over many years and a continual decline in business investment in training. During the election campaign the government set about trying to hide behind economic management and employment growth as reasons that we are experiencing skills shortages. In fact, that was the excuse used in the first line of the Minister for Education, Science and Training’s media release on 26 September 2004 entitled ‘Building our trades—skilling Australia’s workforce for the future’. In that media release the minister claimed that the government had:
... an integrated and comprehensive plan to ensure that the value of the trades is enhanced as a career path.
The document goes on to outline the government’s policies on vocational education and training, including such things as the creation of new training colleges, the provision of new learning scholarships, the establishment of a network of industry careers advisers and, of course, the provision of an $800 tool kit for apprentices. At no time did it make mention of the abolition of the Australian National Training Authority and at no time did it make mention of financial assistance being tied to the extension of workplace reforms and the introduction of Australian workplace agreements within the TAFE system. In fact, the first time this plan was mentioned was when the Howard government ministry was sworn in on 22 October 2004. I find it interesting that the plan that the Minister for Vocational and Technical Education in his second reading speech referred to as ‘the most significant piece of legislation for vocational and technical education in the past 15 years’ did not rate a mention until well after the election. It did not rate a mention until the government realised that the $800 tool kit for apprentices was not going to solve the skills crisis. It did not rate a mention until the government realised that it could attach its industrial relations agenda to yet another bill providing financial assistance in an area that has been overlooked for funding for quite some period—an area that has been desperately in need of financial assistance.
What is more surprising is that the announcement of such a significant change was made without any consultation. In fact, during Senate estimates hearings last year, the Department of Education, Science and Training even admitted that it did not have a role in the decision to scrap the Australian National Training Authority. As Pat Forward, the Australian Education Union’s TAFE secretary, said:
It’s perplexing that people who have been at the forefront of vocational education for 15 years—state education departments, TAFEs, unions, small business—weren’t involved in these decisions.
I also find it particularly interesting that, in the most significant change that vocational education and training has seen in 15 years, we now see the needs of students seemingly taking the back seat.
In my experience with the development of training systems, the focus has been on the benefit to those being trained. I do not deny that the initiatives I have personally been associated with have resulted in cost savings, but first and foremost they have resulted in training improvements. They have been driven by a business need—a need to have high-quality training in order to produce better, more adaptable and more productive employees. However, the most significant change in vocational education and training in the last 15 years has turned this approach on its head. I do not deny that the needs of business are an important consideration. Any change and reform to education and training should not be driven solely by a desire for a quick-fix, enterprise-specific solution. The considerations of business should be seen in the light of having well-trained, high-quality and highly skilled employees well into the future.
I absolutely want more training places for young people. In my electorate, the second largest occupational grouping is tradespeople and those in trade related industries. There are thousands of tradespeople in Werriwa. In fact, two of them are my sons—one an electrician and the other a carpenter. I am completely indebted to those TAFE teachers, themselves highly skilled tradespersons, who have educated and mentored my sons. And there are plenty of other people in Werriwa, both at school and just out of school, who would like nothing more than the opportunity to attend TAFE and gain trade qualifications. They want to become tradespeople. They are among the 270,000 people who have missed out on TAFE positions since 1998. However, there is one thing they do not want—that is, to study and work hard to obtain their qualification only to find out in a couple of years time that, because theirs is one of the fast-tracked, enterprise-specific qualifications, it is somehow considered to be of lesser quality than those qualifications obtained in a more staged and traditional manner.
People in my electorate are finding it increasingly difficult to believe that everything is fine on the economic horizon. In the main, they have yet to significantly share in and experience the great job growth that the government trumpets almost daily. The unemployment rate in Werriwa remains just below seven per cent and youth unemployment remains around 24 per cent. My constituents want more training positions, but they do not want to see training places and a curriculum drafted specifically for a quick fix to an immediate enterprise condition. I am sure that all members of this House want an extension of training opportunities. I certainly want them for my constituents. People want the skills shortage addressed—businesses want it addressed, the government wants it addressed, and those who have missed out on TAFE places due to funding cuts want it addressed so they can have the opportunity to fully participate in the jobs market.
Let us increase funding to vocational education and training. Let us increase the number of people who will be able to gain skills and qualifications that allow them to seek and find employment. Let us increase the number of people with relevant, high-quality skills that will last them well into the future. Let us not get caught up in the trap of trying to cut corners to overcome an immediate skills shortage. If we are going to do it, let us do it right. Let us build the skilled work force that Australia needs to participate in a global economy, and let us do it without attaching industrial relations reforms to measures in a bid to force an ideologically driven agenda on people.
I support the extension of funding for vocational education and training and my constituents support that extension. But, more importantly, I support Labor’s commitment to remove the connection between education funding and the government’s industrial relations agenda. The government should not be seeking every opportunity to hold to ransom key expenditure areas, especially those previously deprived of funding, in a bid to prop up its industrial relations agenda.