10 June 2020 - House of Representatives
Mr DICK: (Oxley) (18:00): I rise to enter the debate and to speak on the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020 and I will be speaking also in support of the second reading amendment. As we have heard from previous speakers, including the member for Newcastle before me, we will be supporting the bill, which will establish a new statutory office of the National Skills Commissioner, to provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demand, the labour market and workforce development issues. This proposal is to legislate an important role, which Labor will endorse the need for, which of course is to ensure all Australians are looked after and respected. Labor will not be opposing the changes put forward by the government, but I want to spend some time in my remarks tonight highlighting a few things—in particular, with the second reading amendment moved by the member for Sydney, about the neglect and damage to Australia's vocational education and training sector and also the appalling record of apprenticeships and traineeships under this government—in particular, in the context of Queensland, the state that I proudly come from.
Going through the bill and reading through the provisions, a lot of speakers tonight have also said that this is too little too late. When you look at the record of the government, particularly when it comes to skills and supporting trade industries, this really is just a drop in the bucket. According to the National Australian Apprenticeships Association, as we've already heard, we're set for a massive 35 per cent drop in new apprentices. That figure is 100,000, to be precise. When you put that into perspective in my home state of Queensland, that's a decrease of 20,000 apprentices here in my home state.
It's vital that this sector is under more scrutiny, for the sake of the future of Australians, particularly in light of COVID-19, and I'll speak a little bit about that in my remarks tonight, and particularly about where Australia's economy is headed. The coalition government have, time and again, as we know, become professionals at making commitments and then walking them back. We remember, in 2014, when the Abbott Liberal government closed down the established Skills Australia, which the previous government had established and which had been running since 2008 and later became the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011, which the member for Cooper spoke about in her remarks. Since shutting it down, it has taken the Liberal government another six years to understand that to create a quality vocational education system at the very least we need reliable and independent analysis of our labour market and skills needs. The vocational education system does not need just a national skills commissioner. In my opinion, it needs a complete and comprehensive overhaul to see meaningful reform.
On a practical example of what this means: earlier this year, on the eve of the pandemic, and before we saw our economy move into shutdown mode, the shadow minister for education and training, the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, came to my Oxley electorate, and to what was announced as one of the worst-hit suburbs in Australia for apprenticeships and skills and training opportunities. We visited a fantastic local business in my electorate, Amore Fine Foods and products, run by a local couple, Doug Everard and Michelle Mieth. They do a fantastic job. They've got some amazing young female apprentices. They were all simply told they could not put on skills based training programs anymore, and that the administration behind the systems were incredibly hard to use and difficult to apply for. So here is a business that is doing really well but simply is not getting the support from this government to see it expand and improve. Fiddling around the edges is not going to fix this problem but will just reveal more of the profound problems undermining our vocational education and training system, which have a direct impact on the productivity, performance and international competitiveness of our economy.
There's no denying from anyone in this building that our TAFE and vocational system has been suffering under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's poor and incoherent policies and, of course, their massive cuts. Remember, these cuts are not just about programs; they are affecting the future of Australians who want to provide a better future for themselves and for their families. I'm not sure how the government can get up in this place tonight and go on about how great they are in the area of skills and training when they've let apprentice numbers fall by 140,000 and presided over a national shortage of trades, apprentices and trainees. Their mistakes in handling vocational education are having roll-on effects on an economy that is really struggling under the Morrison government. We know that, time and time again, the government fails to meet the needs of working Australians who are committed to growing our economy and to providing for their families. These Australians deserve better, and our TAFE and vocational sector deserves much better as well. They deserve better than what the Liberal government has provided.
Our track record in this area, as many know, has been to make sure our skills industry is looked after. We established Skills Australia in 2008, and that was replaced by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency in 2011. This agency worked to every detail to ensure that the current opportunities were filled, that more skills programs were created and that demand was analysed and reported as it evolved. Rather than making desperately needed reform, the coalition prefer to simply adjust the window dressing of our struggling vocational education system, and this National Skills Commission is just the latest example of this. We need much more than another commission nestled in a government department to fix what is wrong.
Australians need and deserve a quality vocational education system. With 2.6 million Australians either unemployed or underemployed, the government should not be ignoring the vital role TAFE plays in the growth of our communities and young people. Too many Australians have been locked out of TAFE or lost confidence in the promise of vocational education. The consequences of this failure aren't just being felt in our cities. Some of the hardest-hit regions on record include Bathurst, Bendigo, Joondalup and Junee. The government has no regard for these people. We know that in times like this, when people are out of work and looking for work, skill development breaks down. Because of this race to the bottom that the Liberals have encouraged in our tertiary training sector, we've seen a decline in outcomes for students, with dropping enrolments and low completion rates. Our young people are not just losing skills; they are losing opportunities to get them back as well.
I noted during the Prime Minister's National Press Club address that he's finally realised this after seven years. After watching students, particularly in the regions, be gouged, exploited and defrauded by unscrupulous providers just for trying to get ahead in the jobs market, all of a sudden he's found the words 'vocational education'. The Prime Minister also talked up his JobMaker proposal, or, as I call it, the 'JobFaker' proposal. What he hasn't mentioned yet is that it is to be a skills taker. In the last seven years, we've seen cuts to vocational education and training. You only need to look at what has happened around the nation. As I've said, in my home state we've seen a drop of 32.8 per cent in the number of apprentices and trainees. We've seen in Western Australia a drop of 29.8 per cent, in New South Wales 30.5, in Victoria 34.9 and in South Australia 50.5.
Unlike this government, we've got a vision to ensure that the future of work in this country is secure. I was really pleased last year that Labor leader Anthony Albanese promised the establishment of Jobs and Skills Australia, an independent statutory authority offering genuine partnerships with business, governments and unions. Unlike the government's National Skills Commission, this would provide a more collaborative and enduring structure to provide Australians with robust and transferable skills for the future. In preparing for today's debate, I noticed some of the reports that came forward earlier this year. Back in February 2020, we saw new reports and new data that showed apprenticeships dropping, as I said, by up to 50 per cent.
I want to highlight a local business in my own electorate that has done some fantastic work, and that is the business of PFi, located in the Wacol area, which is a defence and aerospace manufacturing facility. I visited that a number of times and it really is at the cutting edge of manufacturing. When these figures, which showed a collapse in the number of apprenticeships and traineeships across Australia, were released in February, the general manager of PFi, Nick Green, said in relation to the figures: 'The only limitation to growth in our business is the skilled labour. We have calculated that we would be about 40 to 42 per cent growth based on jobs we've had to turn down because we haven't had the capacity.' Mr Green said they were flooded with university graduates but struggled to find tradies. He said: 'We are letting our kids down. In our company, we have 20 engineers and over 110 tradesmen, and what that means is there a massive skew in society. Trades are seen as second class and they should be first. They are an amazing first step for a successful career.' I agree with him 100 per cent.
Under this government, kids who want to do a trade are treated as second-class citizens. They are not given the support that they need to reach their full potential. The Australian Education Union federal president, Correna Haythorpe, said the issue is compounded with the number of TAFEs being slashed from 57 in 2004 to 35 from 2014 to 2018. Not only do we have cuts but money has been redirected toward private providers. In my home state of Queensland, the TAFE and training sector was absolutely gutted by the failed experiment which was the Newman government from 2012 to 2015. Among the horrific cuts that we saw under that hopeless government, we saw cuts to TAFE, with TAFE teachers being sacked and exorbitant fees being placed on students. I have my disagreements with the LNP in Queensland. Time and time again, they show that they simply cannot be trusted. The Newman government absolutely decimated TAFE in my home state.
Thanks to the leadership of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the skills minister, the Hon. Shannon Fentiman, we have seen TAFE rebuilt in my home state. We have seen skilling for Queenslanders. The member for Goldstein might want to listen to this: there was a fantastic jobs program to skill people, to get them fast-tracked into work, and one of the very first actions of the Newman government was to get rid of that program. So what did the Newman government do? It absolutely gutted that system and redirected those funds. Since that program has been reinstituted, I have attended the graduations and I have met with some of the recipients, so I know how important it is to get people back into work. Time and time again, when we have looked at these issues, we have seen a massive decrease in the number of apprenticeships and traineeships under this government, and now we are expected to believe that, after seven years in government, all of a sudden this government is showing an interest.
As the shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, mentioned last week, we have had the hollowing out of TAFE, with fewer training places at the end of this seven-year period than at the beginning. As we head towards a post-COVID environment, what is that going to mean when we don't have an adequate training and vocational education system in place? I refer to media comments regarding this issue about how COVID 19 could wipe out a generation of apprenticeships. An article earlier this month said:
The skills shortage crisis is predicted to be six times worse than the GFC, according to new industry data. The dire new numbers come on top of—
as we know—
the 140,000 apprentices and trainees that have been lost in the past seven years and will hamper the anticipated Federal Government's stimulus …
So we have got disagreement about how the stimulus package has been delivered by this government, with whole sectors missing out and a one-size-fits-all that simply hasn't worked.
I want to quote the National Australian Apprenticeship Association, which said, of its new real-time modelling, that the data shows the 'recession could be up to six times worse than the GFC when it comes to the falling numbers of apprentices meant to start their careers, quickly to be followed by an enormous drop in the numbers of apprentices in training'. Their modelling shows a 44,360 reduction in apprentices who were set to start their jobs. If we do not arrest this, if we do not take action to ensure that we do have skills and training in place, our country will be the poorer for it. So, whilst we'll be supporting this bill tonight, this government has a lot to do to earn the trust of Australians when it comes to vocational education and training. (Time expired)