NATIONAL SKILLS CRISIS

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (18:29): I thank my colleagues for the opportunity to jump in on this debate. Hopefully, I can cover what I want to talk about in five minutes. The minister made his opening statement in this portfolio area with a focus on the skills component of the portfolio, and I acknowledge some of the initiatives that he talked about that are part of these appropriation bills that we're looking at.

But I want to say to the minister that this is a very small drop in the ocean, given the massive cuts that have been made to this sector over six years, three prime ministers and—to be quite honest, I've lost count of how many ministers have had responsibility. I want to briefly talk about what they are and lead into my questions for the minister.

What we have seen whilst this government, over six years, has been in place is the loss of over 150,000 apprentices. Again, this week, national reports indicate the significance of this loss. This has been a direct result of the cuts of over $3 billion that have occurred, time and time again, under this government since the first budget of the Abbott government in 2014. I will acknowledge that before the election Tony Abbott promised that apprentices would be better off, under his government, if they were elected. Yet in the very first Abbott budget they slashed $2 billion from apprentices, skills, vocational education and training, including a whopping $1 billion from apprenticeship programs, and the cuts did not stop.

The Abbott government hit hard. They axed a billion dollars and demolished the Tools for your Trade program, which supported apprentices to buy the equipment they needed. They slashed a further billion dollars of investment in skills by cutting funding to programs such as the National Workforce Development Fund, the Workplace English Language and Literacy program, the Australian Apprenticeships Access Program, the Accelerated Australian Apprenticeships program, the Australian apprentices mentoring program and the Apprentice to Business Owner Program that helped apprentices transition to become their own small businesses.

They did announce a much smaller program, the Industry Skills Fund, which was only $27 million in the first year and wound down to $1.9 million in the 2018-19 budget. In November 2014, we learnt the Abbott government was taking the axe to funding for the Joint Group Training Program: $12.5 million; 20 per cent in that year, and the program was completely gone by 2015-16. Just a month later, in December 2014, adult apprentices were dealt a blow with the announcement of a $66 million cut to direct adult apprentice assistance payments.

Before their second budget, in anticipation of their contempt for schools and training, key peak national industry bodies warned the government in pre-budget submissions about the problems that were occurring with not investing in skills and training. There was statements by the AIG, the Business Council of Australia and the ACTU, to no avail. In the second budget, there was a 20 per cent cut in funding across the portfolio, including abolishing Industry Skills Councils. Later that year, in the December MYEFO, Malcolm Turnbull promised new leadership but cut a further $273.8 million over four years from the Industry Skills Fund and $122.9 million from the Skills for Education and Employment program.

I'm going to run out of time to get through all these cuts but I'll do my best. It should have been ringing alarm bells when it then was discovered that there were 100,000 fewer apprentices. But, no, on budget day 2016 they axed a further $247 million from the portfolio and had no new initiatives. On budget day 2017, when there were now 130,000 fewer apprentices, they cut another $600 million from the portfolio.

Today the Prime Minister in question time said that TAFE has nothing to do with the federal government. He said it's a state government responsibility. If we are serious about skills development and the issues that the minister raised in his opening statement, it can't just be rhetoric and it can't be bandaid programs. This government must get back seriously in the business of investing into skills development. I want to ask the minister whether he agrees with the Prime Minister that TAFE is not a federal responsibility and, therefore, doesn't see a role for the federal government in it. How will the minister be arguing to close that chasm in investment, not just with rhetoric?

Watch Sharon’s speech here.