Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:30): I have spoken in many debates in this House on this very important sector of the education system, vocational education and training. I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 today to support the amendment moved by this side of the House and to indicate that I would support the bill regardless. I do that because it is important that action is taken to provide a scheme that gives remedy to the many thousands of Australians who were the victims of very, very unscrupulous behaviour in the sector by far too many providers.
I was very active in campaigning on behalf of this side of the House on those issues post 2013. I take issue with the characterisation of the problem that we're addressing by those opposite, when they lay claim that this is somehow Labor's fault and that they're trying to clean up the mess. I was there, right at the front of that whole process. Labor did extend the access to FEE-HELP for VET students with the support of those opposite at the time—no crying about concerns with the system at the time those amendments were made—with the intention of making access to vocational training more readily available to more Australians. And in that construction, as my colleague has just pointed out, the cost of the scheme was about $1.4 billion over five years.
Then, at the 2013 election, we had a change of government and those opposite took government. At the time, I must say, I reflected in this chamber and more generally in public that I thought it came as much of a surprise to former Minister Macfarlane that education was in his industry portfolio. I thought it came as a shock to him. We then had a subsequent regular turnover of ministers responsible for vocational education. And it became very apparent in 2014 that those opposite really had taken their eye off the ball of what has happening in the sector.
There began to emerge reports of concerns about very dodgy behaviour going on in the abuse of this scheme. At the time, I took issue on numerous occasions with government ministers who tried to portray those reports as a one-off or an unusual circumstance and it just required an intervention with a particular provider and so forth. But it very soon became, over the next 12 months, glaringly apparent that the signal that had been sent, the hands-off approach by the government in education, had seen a massive ramp-up of the abuse of the scheme. What was playing out was not only a massive cost for the scheme but also a really appalling exploitation of many, many vulnerable people in our communities.
By 2014, the amount that the scheme had signed up in debts had absolutely ballooned out to $1.8 billion. The following year, it was $3 billion. If these were not alarm signals to the government that this was a scheme that needed its attention, I don't know what were. Those on this side of the House and many people in the community, including the media, the Consumer Action Law Centre and others, were starting to raise their deep concerns about the scheme.
What's important about this bill is the fact that it provides an easier and more reasonable opportunity for people who have debts under the FEE-HELP scheme in the VET sector to get those debts remedied. I've spoken to people across the country on these loans, and there are people who don't even know that they have a VET FEE-HELP debt until they get a job and they put a tax return in. That's the first time they know they've got a debt, because of the way these shonky practices are operating in signing people up for these training courses—and people don't even realise that that is what they are doing.
I heard stories from Western Sydney about a group of non-English-speaking women, an elderly group, who had a social group. They just wanted to learn some basic computer skills. This provider came in and said, 'Yes, I can do that,' and actually signed them all up to a diploma. All they wanted was some orientation, some basics, about using a computer. They all signed the forms, because they didn't know any better, and then discovered that they'd actually signed up to a diploma with a significant debt that went along with it. They were told, 'Don't worry about that, because you're all older and you'll never earn enough to have to repay it.'
Wherever you go, there are extraordinarily disgraceful stories about providers going in and ripping people off. It's all very well for them to say to people, 'Oh, you'll never have to repay it,' but, for many people, that feeling of anxiety that is caused by owing a debt of that size is real. It causes enormous distress in many communities. People go out and target remote Indigenous communities, with a car boot full of free laptops, and sign people up to diploma courses. It is just rampant.
It is important that the previous bills we've dealt with have tightened up that whole scheme, and now this bill before us will give some relief from that anxiety to people who have a debt, particularly those who never got any qualifications out of that process, who were misled in what they were signing up for and who may have got extremely poor service and support. All the time I talk to people who tell me that they tried to pull out before what is called the census date—that is, the date at which, if you haven't pulled out before then, you will incur the debt—but they couldn't get people to return their emails and acknowledge what they were trying to do. There are so many examples, and so it is important, given the anxiety that comes from having that sort of debt, that we take action as is proposed in this bill before us to give some remedy for that.
There is another side to what's happened in the sector. It sits alongside this problem of the nature of the VET FEE-HELP debts, and I want to cover it in the time I have remaining to me.
Not only did we have the VET FEE-HELP blowout debacle playing out, along with the government's failure to respond, but, at the very same time, we had a government that, at every budget and every MYEFO midyear budget adjustment, cut funding out of programs in the vocational education and training sector. Under this government's watch, there were cuts to the sector that now tally about $3 billion.
That meant that the opportunity to go to a reliable, trusted provider—some of them are some of the good-quality private providers out there, but most significantly the public provider, our TAFEs, where people know that what they're being provided a quality product from a reliable provider—was absolutely decimated under this government's watch. Those opposite who get up and talk about how much they value the career opportunity and lifetime employment that comes out of vocational education and training would do this nation a service by telling that to their succession of ministers and treasurers, because we have seen no follow-through with actual investment into the sector.
The Skilling Australians Fund, which looks to fund apprenticeships out of the money collected by bringing people in under skilled migration programs, has just been a complete failure in addressing the massive decline we've seen in apprenticeships in the country. There have been over 140,000 fewer apprentices since those opposite came to government at a time when we know that there is demand out there for many, many trainees and apprentices in relevant fields and a great career opportunity, particularly for our young people but also for older Australians who might be looking to reskill and retrain, to undertake an adult apprenticeship. This is a really important pathway, and the government have completely failed to address the massive decline under their watch.
In my state of New South Wales, the combination of this government and the state Liberal government is seeing TAFEs close. So we're not just losing courses and we're not just losing teachers and expertise; we're seeing TAFE campuses closed. The Dapto TAFE campus sits in my colleague the member for Whitlam's seat right in the middle of a fairly disadvantaged community with high youth unemployment. They have shut that TAFE campus. It's an unbelievable combination of neglect at both the state and federal level.
I have been critical of the state government, as have my Labor colleagues, but they are, I have to acknowledge, also dealing with the fact that their federal colleagues have been significantly cutting the funding that the federal government provides to TAFE—as I said, $3 billion over the term of their government. You can't say that you're serious about valuing apprenticeships, traineeships, TAFE and vocational training when all you're doing is slashing the funding that actually goes to providing those opportunities. We are seeing the outcomes in a massive decline not only in TAFEs and apprenticeships but in the numbers of people studying in the vocational education sector. Increasingly, we're seeing reports about that drop in the number of people, particularly in the higher levels of vocational training. This sector deserves better than lip service. It needs real action by government and real funding.
I'm very proud that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party team took a whole raft of policy initiatives to the last election, including requiring that for major Commonwealth projects, projects being built with Commonwealth funding, one in 10 of the employees on those projects be apprentices. That's government leading by example and actually ensuring that that opportunity is provided. They included providing funding for transitioning for older workers who are being restructured through an adult apprenticeship into new career paths and providing protection for our TAFE system and direct funding for our TAFEs. These policies continue on the table from Labor now, today. I hope that we get the opportunity to implement them, because I am quite honestly very concerned that if we have another three years of those opposite in charge of the sector it's going to be really, really difficult to rebuild after the decimation that we've already seen and how that could be compounded upon by more neglect and more cuts.
So I commend the amendment moved by our shadow minister, because it is important to make the point in each and every one of these debates that those opposite have, despite lip service, completely failed to deliver in either direct injection of funding or direct support for TAFEs, apprenticeships or traineeships.
Our young people, our restructured workers and our communities are paying the price for that—particularly those in rural and regional areas of Australia. I have to say, the National Party have a history of being great supporters of the TAFE system because, I take it, they understand how important it is in their local communities. I hope they can make their voice loudly heard in the joint party room so their colleagues get on board, because they need to be out there fighting for these services in their communities too. Perhaps it hasn't been loud enough yet, but maybe it will get louder, fighting within their own joint party room for better funding.
We need to back TAFE, we need to back our apprentices and we need to back traineeships. We need to be doing that in real and meaningful ways. That's got to be a commitment that is debated at the next federal election. I know communities want it debated. We saw in Victoria how significant TAFE was as a campaign issue in the Victorian election, and we saw the complete dismay that the conservatives in Victoria had no policy in this space. I look forward to having that debate at the federal election because I know it matters to our communities.