Private Members Business - National Year of Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (18:37): I think it is the first time I have addressed the chamber while you have been in the chair, Deputy Speaker Oakeshott, so I also add my congratulations to you for joining the speakers panel. In the same vein, I have been following the debate from earlier today on the motion of the member for Lyons and I commend all those who have contributed to it. It is a particularly important issue that many of us feel very strongly about.

The member's motion correctly identifies that the 2006 ABS Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, which is the most recent national survey of adult literacy and numeracy and the competency in those matters, found that 46 per cent of Australians aged 15 to 74—that is, about seven million people—have prose literacy levels below the level that COAG has since agreed is needed for an individual to meet the complex demands of work and life in a modern economy.

The survey was also conducted internationally and showed comparable and concerning results for the developed English-speaking nations such as Canada and New Zealand. These results suggest that there is a significant number of Australian adults today who do not have the reading or writing skills needed to participate effectively and confidently in a modern economy. The jobs of the future will require higher skills and this means that those without adequate reading and writing skills will be left behind when it comes to getting a job, to having a career path, to changing jobs or indeed to improving their qualifications over their lifetime. And, as many speakers indicated, the low-literacy issue is not just an issue for jobseekers and workers who want to thrive in their job but it also means they will find it difficult in today's workplace.

Our communities across our society and each of us in this place would be aware that our institutions are making much more use of digital technology and online media to communicate. We are using it to provide access to news and information, to access essential government services, and to run small businesses and enterprises. Those who do not have the founding reading and writing skills required to effectively utilise technology will find it increasingly difficult to participate fully in our community in ways that many of us take for granted. The foundations for strong literacy skills are laid in early childhood and built on at school. However, there are many Australian adults who left school without adequate literacy skills and who would benefit from literacy support and training. It is the case that many adults are unaware of their potential to benefit from some form of additional literacy learning, or they are deterred by the difficulty of fitting learning activities into their busy day-to-day life, or they are put off by the stigma that they might feel is attached to having trouble with reading. This is why it is so important for governments and communities to promote strong literacy through initiatives such as the National Year of Reading and the national day of reading. They are important ways of raising awareness.

For many Australians, developing their reading and writing skills is a critical first step on the path to a job or qualification. In my own portfolio as Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills, this government has made significant investments in projects and initiatives to improve the literacy and numeracy of Australian adults. Since 2010 the Labor government has allocated significant additional funding of over $250 million over four years to programs that improve adult literacy, including the Workplace English Language and Literacy program; the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program; and the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practitioner Scholarship Program. Indeed, we have worked with states and territories to take forward a National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults, which will be released later this year. These programs and these initiatives continue to complement the Labor government's effort to support the quality of early childhood education, to improve literacy and numeracy results in schools, and to reform our training system, all of which should provide stronger skills to Australians.

I particularly want to commend the points made by the previous speakers about taking the opportunity of reading to young people and to acknowledge that for many adults with literacy problems not being able to read to their own children is a major impetus to getting literacy skills themselves. It is important that we have opportunities in place, when they realise that, for them to take that up. I support the member for Lyons's motion, and I would encourage all MPs, as others have said, to promote national reading day in their communities.