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Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (15:10): I start my contribution by wishing everybody a very happy National TAFE Day today. I know that many TAFE colleagues are out and about in the parliament meeting with members and senators to talk about the importance of TAFE in all of our communities.
The reason that I put this matter of public importance on the record is because, sadly, on National TAFE Day we have discovered through the release of government's federation green paper that they are giving serious consideration to abandoning any federal responsibility for vocational education and training in this country. The reality is that in an area of public policy where one would think that the national interest would require an active supportive federal government we have actually got a federal government that in their very first budget in this place decimated the budget of the skills portfolio. Secondly, they included in their Federation white paper serious consideration of throwing their hands up and saying, 'It's all too hard. We will just buck-pass it back to the states.' The result of that is the that the remaining $1.8 billion in the skills budget would be gone—absolutely gone.
This morning, with the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Canberra, we visited the Canberra Institute of Technology—a fantastic facility. I am sure it is replicated in TAFEs in many of our seats across this country. We met with apprentices who were studying in the automotive section. It was a great cross-section of apprentices who told us some fabulous personal life stories. In particular, I would report to the House that probably a third were mature-age apprentices who had had an original career and had made a decision they wanted formal qualifications and wanted to enter into a trade area. There was one young woman doing automotive and she made a plea to all of us to get out and support more women into the traditional trades and into apprenticeships. She was doing really well. This was a great opportunity. I know members do visit their TAFEs and I would encourage everyone to continue to do so.
The serious problem that TAFEs are facing across this nation is as a result of significant withdrawal of funding across conservative state governments. Indeed, we have only just recently seen the New South Wales budget. The implication that has come out of that, with the loss of jobs in the TAFE sector, is a 30,000 decrease in the number of students enrolled in TAFE as a result of what has been happening in that state alone.
It is absolutely critical at this point in time, if we do not want to lose what is a national asset, that all governments, including the federal government, get active on finding ways to support our public TAFE and also to make sure that they remain available across the nation. I noticed the member for Herbert is here paying attention to my contribution. The member for Herbert chaired with the member for Perth as co-chair and produced an excellent report on TAFE: TAFE:an Australian asset—a bipartisan report. What we found in that report—I was a member of the committee—was that TAFE indeed provides education and training across the nation, in particular in what would be called thin markets, which are areas where it is not able to turn a profit for anybody else
Mostly that is in our regional and rural areas. The minister at the table, I am sure, would be well aware of that.
TAFE is actually the only serious player in town for so many of those communities. If we do not want to see rural and regional Australia slip further behind, then I think every one of us in this place—whether we are based in regional areas, as I am, or rural areas or indeed in cities—has a responsibility to ensure that TAFE continues to prosper and be the backbone of our vocational education and training system.
The other thing that we found was that there is a range of areas that are very capital intensive to provide training for. We saw an example of that this morning in the automotive industry. It costs a lot of money to put the equipment in, to keep it updated; as we know, technology across the trades is expanding at a rapid pace. The jobs of the future in the trades as much as in the ICT sector are changing at a rapid rate. And we were looking at some of the computer technology that people were being trained on for mechanical repairs only today. That is expensive investment. It is investment by governments over a long period of time. I am pleased to say that Labor at the federal level in government uses significant proportions of capital investment in the post-secondary sector to put money into TAFEs. That needs to be utilised and taken advantage of.
We need premises in place. We need them in there, getting the training. But the Abbott government has taken away $1 billion of support for apprentices. The mature apprentices we met, who quite often have to take a significant drop in their income to undertake an apprenticeship, have lost the mature age incentive payment that they previously got to help them manage the cost of doing an apprenticeship. I have to say: we are not very happy about that at all. It was a decision by the government in MYEFO last year. We need to keep apprentices training in those facilities. We have seen about a 20 per cent decrease in commencements over the last 12 months and a 20 per cent decrease in completions. How is that training people for the jobs of the future?
I also want to make the point that that capital investment is only ever going to be done by public providers to that extent. I do not want anyone to get a mistaken impression; I have met many really excellent private providers out there in the sector doing great work. But the reality is our public providers need to be the backbone of our system, and that sort of facility is really significantly important for so many communities and for their training efforts. That is another particular reason why the uniqueness of our public provider has to be supported.
The other thing I want to draw the House's attention to in the development of the new economy is that many people—we had people talking to us about it at the facility today—are coming to the understanding that they may have trained in their trade or their profession over recent decades but now the technology that is intrinsic to just about every job, no matter what job you do, is requiring them to upskill, to add to their skills base, in order to be more effective at their job. And a lot of these people are small business owners, looking to get the modern skills they need to keep their businesses flourishing. So often, TAFE is the option that allows them to access the right sort of training, and at the quality they want. So, TAFE is critically important for the upskilling effort, for the expansion and innovation in many of our small businesses across the nation.
I want to make the point, on National TAFE Day, that this is absolutely the wrong time for the federal government to even consider an option that says: 'We are going to abandon the vocational education and training sector—nothing to do with the national effort, nothing to do with national productivity, no role in national participation, nothing to say about national innovation, nothing to contribute to growth and new job opportunities in this country. The whole vocational education and training sector can just be passed back to the states and we do not have to take any responsibility.'
It is wrong to even allow it to sit out there in discussion. I think the government needs to take immediate action on the back of that federation green paper to make it clear to the over-one-million Australians who are participating in vocational education and training in any year that they are not about to abandon them. The government need to make it clear that they are not about to walk away; because people with those kinds of qualifications are, unsurprisingly, mobile. They want to move across state borders; they want to move between industries; they want to upskill and be part of the modern national economy. To do that, they need an active federal government. They need a federal government that understands the sector and they need a federal government that absolutely invests their TAFE and public providers as well, as part of that mix.