Matters of Public Importance - Abbott Government Fails Its Own Employment Test

Click here to watch Sharon's speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:34): This week is a year since the Abbott government was elected, and what a dismal year it has been for millions of Australians. Let us just have a look at where exactly so many Australians are at the moment. I want to draw the House's attention to a particular commitment that was made before the election by the now Prime Minister, in a press release on 4 September last year. The now Prime Minister said: Within five years I am confident that our economy can deliver at least one million new jobs; and two million new jobs within the next decade. As the member for Grayndler pointed out in his speech on this MPI, in the infrastructure sector there has been a complete and total failure of those opposite to meet the commitments that were made before the election. Twice today they have failed to be able to indicate one project that was actually commenced under them in government and is now under construction. Let me take members to the reality of what has happened in the employment sector, and then I want to particularly touch on my own portfolio area, of vocational education and skills. We have seen unemployment now having risen to the highest level it has been at in a decade. In 10 years, we have not seen unemployment at 6.4 per cent. Now we do. How on earth could the Treasurer have made any sort of claim in question time today that that delivers on a promise to create a million jobs? There are people in communities across this country who are facing increased levels of unemployment. In particular, as the Brotherhood of St Lawrence has recently documented, young people are looking at increased youth unemployment. How on earth they could take any comfort from a government that promised a million jobs before the election and now thinks that having the highest level of unemployment in a decade is a good outcome I do not know. They are now putting increasing expectations on people who are unemployed at the same time as they slash and burn the programs that provide the pathway for people to get into jobs. Let us look at the Youth Connections and Partnership Brokers programs, both well regarded—I am sure there are many of my colleagues who avoid, like the plague, people in their electorates who are running those programs, because they know that they are effective, well-designed programs delivering real pathways into jobs. They were slashed in the last budget. Today I had the opportunity, with the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Canberra, to visit some apprentices at CIT at Fyshwick. At that place, we met a lot of apprentices who were studying in the first, second or third year of their apprenticeships. Around 20 per cent of them were mature-age apprentices who were actually retraining and looking at changing their long-term job future. Those apprentices have seen $1 billion ripped out of the support provided to them and future apprentices in the last budget—$1 billion, with no replacement and no view to future support for apprenticeships. Ms Scott: That is completely not true. Ms BIRD: I will go through it for the member opposite, who says that is not true. Are you saying to me that there was not $1 billion in the budget taken out of apprenticeship programs? Ms Scott interjecting— Ms BIRD: Okay, then I will outline for the member opposite what exactly you did: a $20,000 loan—I am sure apprentices are so thrilled! Let me tell the member opposite: you abolished the Tools For Your Trade— Ms Scott interjecting— The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Craig Kelly ): Order! The member for Lindsay knows that if she wishes to interject she should be in her seat. The member for Cunningham has the call. Ms BIRD: Stop encouraging the member to make a fool of herself, Deputy Speaker! Let me tell you: not only did you abolish the Tools For Your Trade program, but let me name the four other programs that you abolished in the budget for which there was no replacement. No. 1 was the Apprenticeships Access Program. I was out in Western Sydney as a minister visiting the Motor Traders' Association who ran the Apprenticeships Access Program, and they were busily telling me how important and significant it had been for Western Sydney to have that pathway for disadvantaged young people. Then the Apprenticeships Mentoring Program was abolished. The Apprentice to Business Owner Program, helping them to establish small businesses, was abolished. These programs were all abolished on your watch. (Time expired)

Higher Education And Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

Click here to watch Sharon's speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (19:06): I rise—and this probably will not surprise the House—to speak against the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014. The previous speaker, the member for Mallee, said that he is concerned that people are being frightened by the sort of money that is being talked about by the opposition and that they have no reason to be. I would very much caution him about going out to his electorate and making assurances that people will not be facing the potential costs of university in those sorts of figures, because the very point of deregulating is that you cannot make those guarantees, you cannot make those commitments to the electorate, and that is exactly the concern that the opposition has. The bill seeks to implement the government's unfair budget changes to higher education. There are two aspects that are particularly a problem for the opposition in dealing with the proposal put in the budget. The first was that yes, this is massive change and reform in the higher education sector, and there has been no lead-up to it whatsoever. There was nothing about these proposals before the election. There was no conversation with the community more broadly about what the government was proposing to do in the university sector. For a government that in opposition regularly scaremongered about what reforms meant and how they should appropriately be introduced, this government is completely contradicting every benchmark it has set for any government in this place. It did not put the reforms before the population before the election. It did not engage in an extended and detailed conversation with the community about them. One year ago, before the election, the Prime Minister—the then opposition leader—actually promised the Australian people that there would be no cuts to education. He said: I want to give people this absolute assurance, no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions and no changes to the GST. I acknowledge that the last point might be a contentious one for those opposite today. The Liberal Party policy document was Real Solutions. What did it say? It said: We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding. After the election, in November last year, Minister Pyne further reinforced the government's promise from before the election. He said: We want university students to make their contribution but we're not going to raise fees. When asked at the time, 'Why not?' he replied 'because we promised we wouldn't before the election'. And then, in the Liberal government's first budget, they broke these promises. It was a triple whammy of higher education changes. Course funding was cut, fees were deregulated and, to add the final hit, compounding interest was introduced. These changes reflect the government's twisted priorities. We need to be investing in education—exactly the point that the previous speaker, the member for Mallee, raised—and in particular in regional and rural Australia. We need to be investing to create a future workforce where we can ensure that the demands of our modern economy will be met and, most importantly, that our children are able to receive the education, skills and training that they need in order to start a pathway to their lifetime career. This bill seeks to deregulate university fees. So, as I said, the previous speaker and many of those on the other side cannot, despite their claims to the contrary, make any guarantees about what will happen with university fees. In fact, universities holding O weeks for students across the country at the moment cannot make guarantees to students as they seek to get them to enrol for the beginning of next year on what their fee structure will be before they finish their courses. Mr Nikolic: How do you know it is going to be $100,000? Ms BIRD: Well, let me take the member through that. Let us talk first of all about the fact that current undergraduate degrees have had a funding cut of, on average, 20 per cent. At the moment, what the Commonwealth funds towards the cost of running a course has been cut, on average, by 20 per cent. The figures produced by University Australia indicates that some of those will be up to 67 per cent. Mr Nikolic: 'Indicates'—oh, 'indicates'! Ms BIRD: If the member has any evidence—and I am sure he will speak after me—any evidence at all that courses will go down in cost, I am waiting breathlessly to hear it, because we have challenged those on the other side to give us one piece of evidence, one piece of international research, one piece of domestic research that says that the cost of university courses will go down or indeed stay the same, and they have produced no evidence. We have relied on the work that has been done by people like Universities Australia. Mr Nikolic interjecting— Ms BIRD: The member laughs at them. Mr Nikolic: Where is your data and evidence? Ms BIRD: Universities Australia have produced research on what the impacts will be, if the member wants to look at that. He could also look, for example, at the cost structures that are put in place under deregulation for international students and the sorts of costs that are there. There is plenty of evidence available. Currently the government proposes, first of all, to decrease the amount the Commonwealth pays towards the cost of courses. Then, of course, universities have their fees deregulated. So, what they will seek to do—and most universities will have to do this—is at least increase the fee to cover the cut in the amount that is Commonwealth-supported funding. So, for students who are looking at those courses, their share will increase, at minimum, by the amount that the Commonwealth funding for that course has been cut so that universities are not actually going backwards. Then, of course, the government touts its Commonwealth Scholarships Program. Well, how are the scholarships funded? It is not Commonwealth government money. What actually happens is that universities, once they have covered the cost of the cut to the subsidy for the course, can then charge whatever they like. So, if they decide to charge additional, above and beyond making up that cut, they then are required to use $1 in every $5 to create a scholarship. To give an example, I and my colleague the member for Melbourne Ports are at university and we are enrolled in a class. Mr Hartsuyker: What a class it would be! Ms BIRD: It would be a class of great quality. The member for Melbourne Ports is paying his fees, so the university thinks, 'Well, we'll charge an extra 20 per cent to the member for Melbourne Ports.' Mr Danby: I'll drop out. Ms BIRD: And with the poor old member for Cunningham, the university thinks, 'We'll be charitable to her and give her one of these Commonwealth scholarships.' The member for Melbourne Ports is actually paying for that scholarship. The reality is that those students who will be paying additional costs for their courses will be funding people who will be sitting with them in the classroom but who will have a scholarship. So let us be honest: this is not a Commonwealth scholarship; students will be funding their colleague students through the increased costs that they will be paying for their education. This is what is going on here. Continue reading

Speech To The TAFE Directors Australia Conference, Vision 2020, Sheraton On The Park, Sydney

Thank you for the invitation to join you today to participate in your national conference with a focus on the vision of our public TAFE system in the Year 2020. I know that your program has been ambitious, covering questions such as identifying where the jobs of the future will be and the competitive advantages we have as a nation from which to build these jobs; including the emerging focus on the role of technology and government in this task. Many of your forums are exploring the nature of the partnerships that will build that future – with students, communities, industry and business and government at all levels. It is clear to all of us, I am sure, that the role of TAFE as our public provider has been under sustained pressure and I commend you for the focus on developing innovative approaches to sustaining a vibrant and relevant public provider in the vocational education and training sector. It is my view that this is critical to the strength and viability of our overall sector and I look forward to working with you on this task in my current role as the Shadow Minister in keeping the government to account on its policy proposals and funding decisions.  Of course, I am also ambitious to work with you in the future – as near a future as possible – in a Labor federal Government and, in that regard, I look forward to working with you in the development of Labor’s policy positions for the next election. I would like to explain the value I place on our VET system with reference to my own electorate, based in Wollongong. Many of you would be aware that the Illawarra is a region that has strong historical connections to the mining industry, indeed I come from five generations of coalminers myself.  Being a coastal community it is not surprising that in the twentieth century a thriving manufacturing industry grew up to maximise the opportunities of accessible coal reserves and port facilities.  The Hoskins steelworks established and then was bought out by BHP in the twenties and still continues today as Bluescope Steel.  Many small and medium manufacturers grew in the region to service the coal and steel industries. However, since the 1980’s we have seen waves of restructuring across these sectors, until as recently as 2010, when Bluescope undertook another significant restructure that lead to hundreds of workers being made redundant. There are many regional communities, like mine, going through the same process. I believe that the critical role that vocational education and training plays in ensuring workers are well equipped to adapt as the businesses they work for look to adapt to changing market circumstances; the initial post-school courses that young people undertake to get a start in the workforce; the women who have been out of the workforce raising families and seeking to re-establish themselves in work; or the workers made redundant through restructures who look to have established skills recognised and to add to them or to strike out in new work directions; all of these people in all of these circumstances so often look to our VET options to provide these opportunities in an accessible, affordable way and with the assurance that the content and quality are sufficient to be valued in the jobs marketplace. As Government’s work to support these transitions and to ensure the people and communities affected are well-equipped for their futures it is even more important to have our public providers, our TAFEs, strong, affordable and accessible.  In my own area there would not be a local forum on industry redundancies and restructuring; a local working group on youth unemployment or a local business chamber or labour council event on future business and job opportunities; where our TAFE Institute have not been an absolutely essential leadership player.  The “common good”, “community obligations” or whatever you choose to call it, that TAFE carries as our public provider must never be lost.  I would like to publicly acknowledge here the efforts in this regard of Di Murray and many of her team as well as the TAFE Teachers’ Association who have sat around many of those tables with me. I know that the voice of management and unions are most often heard in their disagreements but I am extremely thankful for the dedication and professionalism that both groups bring to the table in their determination to maximise the well-being and success of students and our community more broadly. I think the decisions of the current Federal Government to increasingly lock-out forums where union voices in tripartite groupings are heard – witness the appalling decision to disband AWPA – are bad enough; but I have also been critical of their recent decision to lock out voices such as TAFE Directors as well – witness the recently announced VET Advisory Board. The reason why I feel so strongly on these issues was clearly described in July this year when the Illawarra Mercury ran a weekend article on the restructuring occurring in our industries and they featured a gentleman called Shane Szabacs. Shane is 39 and was one of the 80 workers who had been made redundant from the manufacturing company, MM Kembla.  Shane has applied for jobs as a production supervisor, plant operator, sales assistant and storeman and his applications in customer service, construction labouring, fence building and pizza delivery had also been unsuccessful. He has had some success with labour hire work and is keen to learn new skills and would like work that is more based on working with and helping people.  Shane’s own words to the journalist are powerful: “You’ve got to think outside the box” he said. “I’d love to go to uni, I’d love to do a social services degree, or get a Certificate 3, Certificate 4, and basically be a case manager for DOCS.  That would be my ideal job. I want to give back, I want to help people. But you can’t just jump into that sort of stuff. “The advice that I would give? I should have continually upskilled. I should have continually been doing tickets, TAFE courses, not rested on my laurels. That’s the mistake I made.” At the same time as people like Shane; sectors like manufacturing; and regions like the Illawarra; are in the process of significant structural change - the nature of work and the relevance of knowledge and skills are also changing. This is also reflected in the nature and structure of businesses – the expansion of contract work, small business operations, home-based entrepreneurs and so forth; all providing new and significant opportunities and real innovation that contributes to the growth of the nation’s productivity, wealth and well-being. Given how significant, therefore, the VET system is to this national task and how critical it is to the success of individuals, businesses, communities and the nation; I feel very strongly that we must be vigilant in protecting the system as a whole. After the election, I was particularly keen to see how the new government would manage the Skills portfolio. They had said very little about Skills in opposition so there weren’t many pointers as to what direction they would be likely to go in, I think the only pre-election commitment was the one regarding the apprentice loan scheme. Like many people when the Ministry was announced, I presumed that the Skills portfolio had moved with Higher Education into Minister Pyne’s portfolio and was a bit surprised to find it wasn’t there. Like many people I had to go hunting for it, there was no Minister for Skills identified by title in the Ministry. That was probably the first sign that I was correct to have real concerns about what the new government was going to do with the portfolio. Following that we saw the release of the Government’s Commission of Audit and, again, that caused me very great concern, it recommended that the federal government fundamentally abandon the field on Vocational Education and Training and I think that is absolutely the wrong way to go. What Federal and State Governments of all persuasions have been doing now for decades is in fact getting together to better co-ordinate a national approach. People move around the country and they do expect that there is a more consistent national approach to the portability of their qualifications, so I think the Commission of Audit very much reflected a failure to understand the national significance of the Skills area and the Vocational Education Training path that so you are involved in delivering. The Commission of Audit was followed by the Federal Budget and there are areas that are of real concern for Labor in the significant cuts from the Skills Portfolio. This includes firstly what has happened with apprenticeships. The government did move to introduce its Apprentice Loan scheme but  we were quite angry on behalf of apprentices that the Government before the election gave them no indication that this program would be at the cost of the Tools for Your Trade payments which provided direct financial support to all eligible apprentices to get the tools they need for their trade and to assist with other costs. Just as importantly for me were other very significant apprenticeship support programs that have been abolished in the Budget. The first one is the Apprenticeship Access program which particularly targeted very disadvantaged young people to get them the skills and appropriate knowledge to get access to apprenticeships. Another program that was abolished is the Apprenticeships Mentoring program. Many of you would be aware that there has been a consistent concern about the number of apprentices that are actually completing their training and this program was very much appreciated, not only by the apprentices, but also by employers and so I really am at a loss to understand why that in particular has also been abolished. The other more recently introduced program that has been abolished is the Apprentice to Business Owner Program. Labor started this program as we quite clearly understood that across a whole lot of industry sectors people finish their apprenticeship and then go out and operate as a sole trader/small business operator and the AtoB program was a good initiative to provide them with the sorts of skills they might need that you don’t get in your apprenticeship, those sorts of small business type skills. So we had nearly $1 billion over three programs plus the incentive payment of Tools for Your Trade that were cut in the Budget, I think was a very short sighted action and apparently quite contradictory to the Governments increased “Earn or Learn” requirements. The other area I just want to mention about the Budget cuts is some of the co-investment programs, in particular the Workplace English Language and Literacy program and the National Workforce Development Program. Both of those have been instrumental in providing opportunities in the up-skilling of existing workers – exactly the sort of programs that could assist workers such as Shane. One great example that I saw when a Minister was when I visited some aged care facilities where people were getting a program that combined the language and literacy skills within a digital skills course and for many of these aged care workers it was a first time they had done a qualification since their time at school and they were really proud of what they had achieved. I would point out, for example, that the Australian Industry Group, in its own Budget Submission to the federal government, indicated their support for those programs continuing. Now I acknowledge there are some replacement initiatives in the Budget. There was a new Industry Skills Fund, it’s half as much money as the abolished programs and it is very specific and narrow in its targeting to small and medium enterprises and to a small and very specific range of industry sectors as well. I acknowledge that the Discussion Paper has been released and remains open until 7 September and I am sure that many groups, including some of you here today, will be raising the importance of upskilling workers more broadly. All of this occurs in the midst of the Minister’s initiated VET Reform Review and the changes proposed by the Higher Education Minister (introduced finally into the House of Representatives last week) with no indication that funding will even be restored to previous levels in the Skills Portfolio. The role of TAFE in the national task and where it sits in the current review process is of great importance.  You will be aware of the concluded Senate Inquiry and the current House of Representatives Inquiry into the role and future of TAFE, indeed the TAFE Directors have been instrumental in providing both written and verbal evidence to those inquiries. The Senate Report was not bipartisan and the Dissenting Report of Government members gives further concern about how this government will approach the public provider’s role.  The Dissenting Report has a section titled “TAFE is a State Responsibility” and it states: “The ability for TAFE to tailor their services to the local community they are based in, and to react to emerging issues in that community such as re-training workers from particular industries or addressing specific shortages, is another advantage of the system being owned and operated at state level. If the federal government had any direct responsibility for service provision in the VET sector, this local knowledge and agility would be lost.” The foundation for much of the criticism behind this conclusion relates to specific evidence about real or perceived “lack of flexibility” and “lack of responsiveness to industry”.  This perspective is consistently re-affirmed in the Minister’s and the Government’s commentary on VET and TAFE. I too believe that the voice of employers and industry is invaluable and critical to effective policy-making and funding decisions. However, I also believe that the voice of RTOs, in particular TAFE from all States, are also invaluable and critically important.  The expertise on skills analysis, program design and delivery, assessment and quality assurance must never be lost. But I would also like to raise with you a perspective that I am increasingly concerned is getting lost – and that is the perspective of Shane – the student or potential student who seeks to build a lifetime of work from the knowledge and skills they gain from their education and training. Continue reading

Speech To The ACPET National Conference, Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle

Thank you for the invitation to join you today.  I note that you have a very full program as always for your National Conference and I would particularly like to talk to you today about the Vocational Education sector. I particularly asked Bill Shorten for this Shadow Portfolio because it is an area of the broader education and training task facing our nation in shaping a competitive future and supporting individuals and industries through the transitions that have been occurring in various sectors and will, undoubtedly continue to challenge us for a good time to come. For me the importance of this task is clearly demonstrated in my own electorate.  The Illawarra is a region that has strong historical connections to the mining industry, indeed I come from five generations of coalminers myself.  Being a coastal community it is not surprising that in the twentieth century a thriving manufacturing industry grew up to maximise the opportunities of accessible coal reserves and port facilities.  The Hoskins steelworks established and then bought out by BHP in the twenties, still continue today as Bluescope Steel.  Many small and medium manufacturers grew in the region to service the coal and steel industries. However, since the 1980’s we have seen waves of restructuring across these sectors, until as recently as 2010 when Bluescope undertook another significant restructure that lead to hundreds of workers being made redundant. There are many regional communities, like mine, going through the same process.  I believe that the critical role that vocational education and training plays in ensuring workers are well equipped to adapt as the businesses they work with look to also adapt to changing market circumstances; the initial post-school courses that young people undertake to get a start in the workforce; the women who have been out of the workforce raising families and seeking to re-establish themselves in work; or the workers made redundant through restructures who look to have established skills recognised and to add to them or to strike out in new work directions; all of these people in all of these circumstances so often look to our VET options to provide these opportunities in an accessible, affordable way and with the assurance that the content and quality are sufficient to be valued in the jobs marketplace. At the same time that the nature of work and the relevance of knowledge and skills are changing so is the nature and structure of businesses – the expansion of contract work, small business operations, home-based entrepreneurs and so forth and providing new and significant opportunities and real innovation that contributes to the growth of the nation’s productivity, wealth and well-being. Given how significant, therefore, the VET system is to this national task and being so critical to the success of individuals, businesses, communities and the nation; I feel very strongly that we must be vigilant in protecting the system as a whole. There are a number of aspects of this task that I would like to talk to you about today.  Firstly my concerns that the Abbott Government has failed to prioritise Skills as a portfolio and narrowed the task of what is left after the budget far too much for the national good; the positive continuation of some of the Labor government reform in the introduction of the Unique Student Identifier and the reason this is so important; and some concerns I have about the emphasis on cutting red-tape in its relation to sustaining – indeed improving – quality. Obviously after the election I was particularly keen to see how the new government would manage the Skills portfolio, there had been very little said, by them, about Skills in opposition so there weren’t many pointers as to what direction they would be likely to go in, I think the only pre-election commitment was the one around the loans availability for apprentices. Like many people when the Ministry was announced, I presumed that the Skills portfolio had moved with Higher Education in Minister Pyne’s portfolio and was a bit surprised to find it wasn’t there and, like many people who had the similar experience, had to go hunting for it, there was no Minister for Skills identified. That was probably the first sign that I was correct to have real concerns about what the new government was going to do with the portfolio. Following that we saw the release of the Government’s Commission of Audit and, again, that caused me very great concern, it recommended that the federal government fundamentally abandon the field on Vocational Education and Training and I think that is absolutely the wrong way to go. What Federal and State Governments have been doing over recent decades is in fact getting together to better co-ordinate a national approach. People with education qualifications and work demands move around the country and they do expect that there is a more consistent national approach to these things so I think the Commission of Audit very much reflected a failure to understand the national significance of the Skills area and the Vocational Education Training path that so many of you are involved in delivering. The Commission of Audit was followed by the Federal Budget and  there are areas that are of real concern for Labor in the significant cuts from the Skills Portfolio. This includes firstly what has happened with apprenticeships. I acknowledge that the government had indicated prior to the election that they were going to introduce the loans for apprentices program, the $20,000 is going to be available to apprentices on a similar to HECS type loan and, with some amendments we supported the passage of this legislation through the Parliament. However, we were quite angry on behalf of apprentices that the Government before the election gave them no indication that this program would be at the cost of the Tools for Your Trade payments. This provided direct financial support to all eligible apprentices to get the tools they need for their trade and to assist with other costs. Just as importantly for me were other very significant apprenticeship support programs that have been abolished in the Budget. The first one is the Apprenticeship Access program which particularly targeted very disadvantaged young people to get them the skills and appropriate knowledge to get access to apprenticeships. As the Minister I visited many programs in construction and automotive and other traditional trade areas who are doing some really great work, so to have that abolished was a real concern. Another area of apprenticeships that was abolished is the Apprenticeships Mentoring program. Many of you would be aware that there has been a consistent concern about the number of apprentices that are actually completing their training. Obviously some of that is to do with the fact that at times movements in the broader economy means that they were being lured away early before finishing by higher wages or being laid off due to downturns. However, it also is often related to the  need to provide apprentices with direct mentoring support in order to help them get through and complete their training. Again it’s another program where, in recent years, I have been able to visit and have a look at and I would have to say that it was very much appreciated, not only by the apprentices, but also by employers and so I really am at a loss to understand why that in particular has also been abolished. The other more recently introduced program that has been abolished is the Apprentice to Business Owner Program. Labor started this program as we quite clearly understood that across a whole lot of industry sectors people finish their apprenticeship and then go out and operate as a sole trader/small business operator and the AtoB program was a good initiative to provide them with the sorts of skills they might need that you don’t get in your apprenticeship, those sorts of small business type skills. So we had nearly $1 billion over three programs plus the incentive payment of Tools for Your Trade that were cut in the Budget, I think was a very short sighted action and apparently quite contradictory to the Governments increased “Earn or Learn” requirements. The other area I just want to mention about the Budget cuts is some of the co-investment programs. I know a lot of you would have been involved in these with various businesses, in particular the Workplace English Language and Literacy program and the National Workforce Development Program. Both of those have been instrumental in providing opportunities in the up-skilling of existing workers.  Again as Minister I saw some great examples of that, as an example I visited some aged care facilities where people were getting a program that combined the language and literacy within a digital skills course and for many of these aged care workers it was a first time they had done a qualification since their time at school and they were really proud of what they had achieved. I would point out, for example, that the Australian Industry Group, in its own Budget Submission to the federal government, indicated their support for those programs continuing. Now I acknowledge there are some replacement initiatives in the Budget with smaller amounts of money for them, in particular, obviously there was a new Industry Skills Fund, its not as much money as those other programs that have been deleted and it seems very specific and narrow in its targeting to small and medium enterprises and to a small and very specific range of industries as well. I acknowledge that the Discussion Paper has been released and remains open until 7 September and I am sure that many groups, including some of you here today, will be raising the importance of upskilling workers more broadly. All of this occurs in the midst of the Minister’s initiated VET Reform Review and the changes proposed by the Higher Education Minister (introduced finally into the House of Representatives yesterday) with no indication that funding will even be restored to previous levels in the Skills Portfolio. Continue reading

MH17 Condolence Motion

Click here to watch Sharon's speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (11:49): I want to add a few words to the condolence motion before the chamber today. My colleague the member for Throsby spoke earlier about the impacts of this terrible tragedy on our local community so I want to endorse his comments. More broadly, I join my colleagues from this parliament in supporting the statements of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the parliament yesterday offering the condolences of the nation to the MH17 victims and confirming our resolution to seeking justice, not only for the 38 Australians killed in what was a barbaric act but for all of those who died from nations around the world including so many from the Netherlands. The horror that this act struck in the hearts of people around the world was so powerful, I believe, because it was a civilian aircraft carrying people undertaking simple acts of everyday life. They were holidaying, visiting family or working—indeed, as we know, many were attending the international conference on AIDS here in Australia. As the Leader of the Opposition said, they were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, partners and parents, friends, teammates, classmates, colleagues, wonderful people who loved and were loved, people who laughed and learned and made a life under the Southern Cross. They could easily have been any one of us. They could have been our families, our friends and they were, as many colleagues have indicated, they were members of our local communities. I join my colleague the member for Throsby in recording in our parliament the sentiments that we were able to share at the condolence events in our own area over the loss of two wonderful locals in this terrible event: retired teachers Carol and Michael Clancy. The local paper, the Illawarra Mercury, obviously reported on this terrible tragedy and how it had affected us so close to home and opened a condolence book on their site. I thought it was one of the great opportunities that social media provides—for people to find that space and be able to express their sense of loss and grief for the family, and for our community more broadly. I think it was particularly moving for many of us because both Carol and Michael as teachers had given a lifetime's dedication to enriching the lives of others. I know many of my colleagues would hold their own teachers from their younger years in great esteem, and it is a very noble profession. That was absolutely reflected in the case of both Carol and Michael by the many, many former students who went on to the website to record their expressions of appreciation, of how they had touched their lives as students—and the member for Throsby read some of those comments into the record today. There was also a recollection of how Michael would play Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody at the beginning of lessons to settle students down and to get the day underway, and recollections of how he knew every student's name. He would wander around the school and greet not only them by name but their family as well if they were on the grounds. Continue reading

National Health Amendment Pharmacuetical Benefits Bill 2014

Click here to watch Sharon's speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (17:23): I want to take the opportunity, as brief as it is to speak on the National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical Benefits) Bill 2014. I think there is something particularly sad about the fact that this debate has been gagged by the Minister for Communications, but the hypocrisy is fairly consistent with the government's approach to most policy areas. I am taking the opportunity to make it clear that I oppose this bill and in the short time available to each of us to put something on the record for the House about why I have that view. Like my colleague the member for Lingiari, I want to talk about a group who are particularly vulnerable in all our communities and who do not often have a good rate of accessing health services: young people. When I talk about young people, I am talking about post-school-age young people who are struggling in insecure and unreliable jobs, who might have irregular income or a little bit of income support, obviously at the lower level as is the case with younger people—it is going to be even worse under this government for people under 30. All of us with kids in their 20s are pretty horrified at the government's thought that anybody under 30 is going to be living at home for ever and a day. I would have thought that most of them would have been encouraging young people to get out and be independent and not be looking for some support from home at the age of 30. Sadly, for many young people, there is not a home to look to for that support. Like many of our colleagues, the member for Throsby and I often visit some of the homeless services for young people in our area and talk to these young people. A lot of them are also young parents. What is the reality of the cumulative effect of health initiatives that they now face in this government's budget? Let us put that together. Let us say there is a young mum living at one of those services with a toddler. She is homeless, has very limited income and is probably trying to get some education to improve her chances in life. Then the flu hits and they get sick. They go to the doctor; it is $7 for both consultations: her own and her child's. That is $14 to start with, under the brilliantly conceived GP tax that is about to dismantle the universality of our healthcare system. The doctor says, 'Look, I just want you to go and have a quick blood test each. I want to do some diagnostics.' So they go to the local pathology service—that is another $7 each. There is $14 extra there. We are up to $28 already. Unsurprisingly, you are not allowed to read your own pathology test, so you have to go back to the GP for another appointment for the both of you. There is another $14. Now we are up to $42, and we have not even got to the point of filling the script. This is the cumulative effect of the impost that this budget is putting on people who can least afford it in the health sphere. For that family, there will be another $5 to $6.90 added to the cost of the prescription. For two prescriptions that is at minimum another $10. This one period of illness will cost an extra $50 for that mum and her kid on what they would previously have had to pay. The outcome of that situation is that people will make the decision not to go to the doctor. If the doctor gives them a reference to a pathologist or any other sort of diagnostic services, they will walk out saying, 'Yes, doctor, I will go and do that,' and they will not follow up and get it done. If they follow it up and get it done, they might then be deciding whether to go back to the doctor and considering whether they can afford it. Even if they go back to the doctor for some peace of mind about the outcome of the tests, it is increasingly likely that they will not get a prescription filled. Every barrier you put in the chain of decision making about accessing health services increases the likelihood, particularly for the most vulnerable, that patients will drop out of that chain and not access those services. That is the reality we face. I would have thought everyone in this place would understand that an ounce of prevention is much better than the cost of the cure. We all know that if you get preventive and primary health care right and you get people engaged and participating, you save money for the budget bottom line in the long run. It is not only bad health policy but also bad fiscal policy as well. Last week, I got a letter from a radiology group in my own electorate expressing grave concerns about the impacts of exactly the sort of scenario I have outlined. This bill should be opposed. It is bad policy. It is a bad fiscal decision.

Muslim Community - Federation Chamber

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:37): I take this opportunity to extend a sincere thank you to a local couple, Nihal and Cetin Uckan, who invited me into their home last Thursday evening to enjoy an Iftar dinner with them, for our local Muslim community and their holy month of Ramadan. The family had fasted and broken their fast at sunset, and had extended hospitality to the community on that important occasion for them. They invited me to join them for a meal. It was a wonderful location. Their two sons joined us as well. That was particularly pertinent to me as Nihal had gone to the same primary school as me, and we are much the same age and our two boys are much the same age. We were able to talk about the challenges facing young people today. It was organised by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation and our local representatives, Nurhayat and Bilal Aydemir. They were also present at the dinner and have been very active in our community organising all sorts of dinners to reach across religious differences—things that should actually bind us together not divide us. It was a great occasion and I thank them.

Road Safety Renumeration Tribunal

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:18): I take the opportunity in this brief amount of time available to me to talk to the chamber of about an issue that I know many of us in regional and rural areas grapple with, and that is road safety. In particular, members may notice I am wearing the 'Save the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal' badge. This is an organisation specifically targeted at the task of road safety and is under threat from the government. It was the result of a campaign for over 20 years that the Transport Workers Union have been running to create not only a safe workplace for the drivers who manage these big rigs on our roads to move the goods around the country that we need but also on behalf of the communities that they travel through—those that are using our roads as drivers and pedestrians who rely on our professional truck drivers to be able to do their job in a safe way. The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was established to ensure that it could make orders about the minimum remuneration and entitlements for drivers; the conditions about minimum rates of remuneration and conditions of engagement for owner drivers; about industry practices for loading and unloading vehicles, waiting times, working hours, load limits, payment methods and payment periods; and, in particular, removing incentives pressures and practices that not created unsafe work practices for our truck drivers but just as importantly endangered all users of our roads. I commend them on the campaign. It was a good Labor outcome to establish a tribunal and I urge the government not to dismantle it.

Consideration of Legislation - Trade Support Loans Bill 2014

Click here to watch Sharon's speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:06): What a very, very strange way to show you are very proud of a piece of legislation—to gag it! It is an extraordinary position to take. The Leader of the House says to us that the bills before us are such a centrepiece of the government's budget that they do not want it discussed in this House. Extraordinary! We are not opposed to the bill. We have some very good points that we would like to put to the minister for him to consider in the implementation of these bills. We have several more speakers. The Leader of the House might like to know that the members who are going to speak on this side of the House are actually raising the voice of their constituents. Their constituents have contacted them, asking them to put on the record some of the issues that they would like the minister to look at in implementing the bill. But, just as importantly, there are 18 more speakers on the government side—outrageous! I think the one thing we have learnt from this is that the Leader of the House is not doing the numbers on the backbench. I think that is pretty clear, because they have got nothing positive in the budget to talk about. These poor backbenchers on the government side have got to do their newsletters and send them out to their electorates. They need to find something good to say about the budget and have something they can promote and say, 'I was in the parliament talking about what a great initiative this was.' They have lost their one opportunity. The trade support loans bills might have given them the chance to make an on-the-record comment— 'I am a champion for skills and trades'—and the opportunity to put a little video up on their Facebook page: 'Here's me in the parliament defending apprentices, talking about a great government initiative out of the budget.' It might have given them the chance to get on their Twitter feed and say: 'Have a look at me in the parliament, putting the voice of the people, my constituents, on the record about this great initiative out of the budget.' They have been gagged—outrageous! The Leader of the House clearly has no leadership ambitions. Quite clearly, the one thing we have got from this is that he has no leadership ambitions. The backbench will be very cranky, Leader of the House. You have denied them the opportunity to get their nice little video up on Facebook and to get the good story into their newsletters about their opportunity to talk on these bills before the House. As I indicated in my speech on the second reading—and sadly many of my colleagues both in the opposition and the government have been denied the opportunity to talk on these bills—there are some issues of concern that are being raised by apprentices, their employers, local businesses, and some things they would like the government to consider in the implementation of the bill. For that reason, I moved a second reading amendment, to give the opportunity for members of the parliament to put on the record, for the minister's consideration, some of those matters that have been raised with them. Sadly, for all those local constituents who have taken the opportunity to talk to their local members, from both sides of parliament, about some of the implications of this bill that they want considered, their members of parliament have been gagged by this government. I will give the House a few examples from my colleagues of the sorts of comments that their constituents wanted them, as their elected representative—with the right, one would think, to speak in this parliament—to put on the record. The member for Fowler, for example, has in his seat some of the expanding residential areas of south-west Sydney, where there is very high youth unemployment. For many of the young people in his area, the Tools For Your Trade program that is being abolished in order to establish this Trade Support Loans scheme was a really important support to young apprentices. He made the point to me—and would have liked to have done it in the House—that, as the father of two sons, Nicholas and Jonathan,who went on and completed apprenticeships, he has a very good understanding of the challenges that that provides and the importance of government support. Continue reading

Trade Support Loans Bill 2014

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (17:41): I thank the parliamentary secretary for his summing up. I think it is fair to say that there are two arguments going on here which are clashing and, I hope, not consuming the importance of the concerns that we raise in our second reading amendment. I am keen to give the parliamentary secretary the opportunity in this part of the debate to give some clarity around the matters that we were seeking to deal with in the second reading amendment. The government's proposal for trade support loans is not something that this side of the House opposes. It is not the provision of the loan in and of itself that causes us a problem. There are some things we would seriously like the government to think about, because you cannot equate these trade support loans directly with the HECS-HELP scheme, because they are going to be provided to school-based apprentices. I think, genuinely, those opposite, as parents, would understand the concern that members of the community are raising about credit being offered to school-aged apprentices. In the interests of making this work in the way that I am assuming the government wants it to, and as part of those amendments on the second reading, I would like to give the opportunity to the parliamentary secretary to put on the record some assurance to this House—and, therefore, to apprentices, their families and carers more broadly—that an extra level of diligence will be applied to the work that is done in making this option available to school-based apprentices. Parents have contacted us saying that the first they knew about this was when the apprenticeship centre sent a letter to their apprentice— the young person in their family—saying that the Tools For Your Trade program was no longer proceeding but they now had access to a loan. Anybody on that side of the House, like myself and many of my colleagues, who had a son or daughter in year 11 or 12 would be very concerned about a government letter coming to them saying that they can access credit. And you would expect that that would be managed at a much higher level of diligence than might be the case when young people are enrolling at university and signing up for HECS-HELP arrangements. That is what the nature of those concerns go to. I really would ask the government to understand that we are not opposing the loans. We have not, by voting, opposed the bills. But we seriously do want the government to put extra thought into the diligence that is required in these circumstances. The parliamentary secretary made the point that indexation will be applied. He will excuse us for being a bit confused because the budget paper actually uses the term 'concessional interest rate'; it does not say 'indexation'. It is important that we get that clarified and on the record. The parliamentary secretary has indicated that it will be CPI indexation, but he further went on to say, 'as happens with the HECS-HELP'. The HECS-HELP rules changed after people had signed up to them, and I think it would be good to make some guarantees to apprentices—particularly young people in school based apprenticeships—at the time they are signing up to these, that those rules will not change for them over the lifetime of that loan.   Continue reading