Student Identifiers Bill 2014 Second Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (11:43): It is a pleasure to speak on the Student Identifiers Bill 2014 and to indicate that the Labor opposition will be supporting the bill. Indeed, it is almost identical to the bill that we introduced into the parliament in March 2013 so it is probably no surprise to the House. That bill lapsed with the dissolution of the parliament. There are some slight changes in this bill, which I will address, but it is our intention to support the bill. The bill did stand as part of a significant body of policy and programs that had been put in place by the previous Labor government in the VET sector. I just want to set it within the context of what was going on when the proposal in the Student Identifiers Bill was developed. Labor had made a record investment in skills and jobs because it was a critical area of priority for us. On coming to government there had been numerous reports by various agencies and peak bodies about two areas where bottlenecks were developing in the economy. One was the rollout of infrastructure and the other was the development of skills. These were two specific priorities for Labor in government. In total we invested over $19 billion in skills funding between 2008 and 2013, which was a 77 per cent increase on what was invested by the Howard government. Sadly, we have seen the Abbott government revert to under-resourcing the skills sector. It is clearly not a priority for the current government. I have mentioned in this place before the interesting conversations I had after the election with a number of organisations and individuals with an interest in vocational education and training. They were asking, 'So who is the minister for skills?' because they could not quite work it out. It does not sit obviously with the Minister for Education, who has all the other variations of education. It has been left in the industry portfolio and it is not included in the minister's title so it creates quite some confusion. Indeed, in an earlier matter of public importance debate on vocational education and training and youth unemployment I challenged about 20 members of the coalition government who were sitting opposite to name the minister for skills and there was a deafening silence. I suspect it has been well hidden, and that is probably a reflection of why it has not got the priority it should have and why it has suffered significantly in the budget. There are $2 billion of broken promises in the skills sector in the most recent budget. In this bill we are talking about providing the opportunity to record and track the participation of the Australian population in vocational education and training. I want to identify the significant cuts that have occurred to that very sector and the programs that have been abolished that provide opportunities for people to participate. The most recent budget has slashed the National Workforce Development Fund, a very well-regarded co-investment fund which organisations like the Australian Industry Group before the budget were calling for the government not to cut, and the Workplace English Language and Literacy Program, which again is a very important program that often worked in conjunction with the National Workforce Development Fund to upskill existing workers. I had the opportunity in the previous parliament to visit a number of these programs in the manufacturing sector and in the aged-care sector. Companies were using these programs to bring together upskilling opportunities for their staff. A lot of the staff I met had done no training since they left school and most of them left school early and had not gone through to our equivalent of year 12 today. They had been very intimidated and frightened by the prospect of having to undergo training again and were absolutely thrilled to participate and graduate with certificates from these programs. But these are cut in the current budget. In the apprenticeship sector there is the Australian Apprenticeships Access Program, a program that targets the most disadvantaged young people to get them prepared to be able to access an apprenticeship, and the Australian Apprenticeships Mentoring Program, the very program that works with young apprentices to provide them, and indeed their workplace as well, with support. Their employer is often a good person to work between the two to make sure they are able to complete their apprenticeships. Then there is the Accelerated Australian Apprenticeships program, which is a targeted program to look at ways and means by which we can accelerate people through the apprenticeship program. They were all cut in the current budget. The national partnership agreement on training places for single parents has been cut. Then there is the alternative pathways program. The Apprentice to Business Owner Program is a very important initiative. As many in this House would understand, when apprentices complete their apprenticeship a lot of them are not kept on by the company they did their apprenticeship with. They use the opportunity to train up a new apprentice and give them an opportunity. Many set up their own small business. The Apprentice to Business Owner Program is specifically designed to give them the skills and knowledge they need to do that. That has been cut in the budget. The Productive Ageing through Community Education and the Step into Skills programs are very critical and important programs. When Labor were in government they recognised that not only do we need to invest in the training opportunities to get into jobs but we also need to work with workplaces and employers to train and upskill existing workers and to provide opportunities for those who are most disadvantaged to get into training. So this is, I would argue, a very short-sighted decision in the budget. It is great to have the bill before us but, sadly, I think as a result of the budget there will be less work for this bill to do as fewer people will have opportunities to gain qualifications. The bill, as I have generally indicated, will establish a unique student identifier for VET students and will make rules about obtaining access to the individual's authenticated VET transcript. When in government I often used to refer to this as the shoebox solution. Many members would be familiar with this experience. If you have any children who have completed school, you would have experienced the multitude of statements of attainment, certificates and qualifications that they get. When they go to apply for a job or want to get some recognition of prior learning for a further course, it is a matter of finding out the exact name of the course and finding the certificate to see whether it has a list of the modules and subjects that they did. In my house we kept all of those in a box so we could easily find them. I think many households would be the same. As the workplace has got more complex, people have many more of these documents. Given that a lot of training occurs through private RTOs or work based training, often they do not know who it was that provided the training, so if they do not have the records or the information it will be very hard for them to track it down. This bill will mean that there will be a single reference point for all of that registered training where they can get transcripts of what they have done. I think this is a great initiative that is much needed. The reason that I would suggest it is particularly important in the VET sector goes to exactly those issues—the size, the scope and the complexity of the VET sector and the increasingly common participation by Australians in training and skill development. This will continue into the future. Lifelong learning, which we talked about when I first went into training, is in fact now a reality and it is something that is valued and important. But you do not want to lose the story of what your qualifications and skills are. So it is important to have an initiative like this in order to enable us to achieve that. The main difference between this bill and the previous bill, which I actually introduced into the House in March 2013, is that the current government has decided to not proceed with the establishment of a stand-alone agency for the unique student identifier but is instead creating a registrar, with staff for that registrar to be provided by the department. A government member: Hear, hear! Ms BIRD: That seems to have stimulated some excitement over there. But I would say that it is important that the task is done and that it is done efficiently, and that is where the priority should be. I want to put on the record a bit of a story. If I have any frustration with the national discussion about vocational education and training it is that I think too often in commentary at a public level—particularly in the media—and in some of the debates that happen in the community, people do not quite understand the size and scope of the sector. It is very important to understand what exactly it is that we are talking about when we talk about the vocational education and training sector. It is interesting that very often when you talk to people they simply perceive it as young people who have left school and are going to TAFE; yet it is so much broader than that. Continue reading

Constituency Statement: Budget

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:08): I want to report to the House about an issue raised with me by a delegation of local constituents who are members of the GetUp! organisation who attended my office on 7 May and I indicate to the House that I am joined by a famous television personality and acclaimed feminist in talking about this issue in the House today. Of course, I am referring to Peppa Pig. Members may be aware that the shadow minister has expressed concern about the future of Peppa Pig and has indeed put out a press release recently expressing, 'Peppa Pig: Roasted by Abbott's budget porkies.' I invite Peppa Pig to have a seat here while I talk about what the GetUp! campaigners raised with my office. Obviously they were concerned, because before the election the Prime Minister indicated, 'There will be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to the pension, no changes to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.' The GetUp! petitioners, like so many people in my electorate, greatly value the ABC. In particular in our area, we have an ABC regional radio service which is very important to our local community. Sadly, as much as I was hoping that I could give them good news after the budget, I was not able to do so. It was another broken promise by this government. The budget in fact cut $232.3 million from the ABC and another $8 million from SBS. It abolished the Australia Network, despite the fact the network reaches up to 167 million households, giving our vital Asian neighbours and the world an insight into Australian life and values. The ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, confirmed the ABC cuts were a broken promise and said ABC services will be affected. I quote his words directly: The funding cuts will be disappointing for audiences. The government gave repeated commitments before and after the election that funding for the Corporation would be maintained. There are concerns not only in my area but right across rural and regional Australia. Many colleagues in the chamber now who represent those areas of Australia understand the absolute importance of the ABC to all of our communities. I think it is fair to say that they feel particularly betrayed, because they were given a promise before the election that there would be no cuts. Labor invested strongly in the ABC. We believe in the public broadcaster and we are very concerned to see that it is retained as a strong provider of services across all of our communities. I will continue to fight, I can assure those GetUp! members, for the strength of the ABC into the future.

Appropriations Debate - Budget

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:02): It is an important opportunity each year for members of this place to talk in the appropriations debate about the budget that has been presented to the nation in that year. This is important because budgets, by their very nature, are not simply the dry tallying of figures or assessment of income and expenditure; they are, indeed, a description of the priorities and the view of the nation held by the government of the day. Given the budget that was brought down in May by the new Abbott government, it would not surprise the chamber that, for an area like mine, we have grave concerns about, and take serious exception to, the priorities that are set out in this budget and also to the view of Australia that is encapsulated by the way those priorities are constructed and put together in the budget. I will go to quite a few of matters, but I want to address one matter directly that I did not have in my notes, which the previous speaker has just raised in terms of his lack of understanding of how members of the Labor Party can be concerned about the Medicare co-payment and, at the same time, be happy for the cost impact of the carbon price to remain on households. His bemusement by that position completely fails to recognise that one of the reasons we are supportive of the structures we put in place for a carbon price is that we provided a household assistance package which ensured that those who are at the most vulnerable end of our community, in particular, were protected from the cost impacts of the flow-through of a carbon price. I notice the current government has not dismantled it. We did not put an extra impost on families and households without having a package in place to provide assistance for them to manage it. This is the big difference. Families are now facing a Medicare co-payment, on top of things like additional fuel costs and changes to their payment entitlements, for which they are getting no compensation. It is an issue that the previous member needs to have a closer look at if he is still bemused by that position. He also went to the issue of the budget's financial position. I would point out to him that it was not a case, as he described it, of the sacking of Rome at the end of the Labor government in terms of the nature of the financial position. In fact, we left this country with a triple-A credit rating. That is unprecedented, and it was a very important indication that, as many nations acknowledged, we had managed the nation through one of the most difficult international times during the global financial crisis in a way that meant that our financials were on a strong footing and the impacts on things like employment that make a real difference to people's lives had been ameliorated by the sorts of measures that we had put in place. Many countries were looking to Australia to see exactly what we had done and why we had managed so well through that process. Of course, all governments always have a responsibility to look to the sustainability of their budgets over the longer term. All governments do that. The reality is that in the lead-up to the election the current Prime Minister was asked time and time again by journalists, community members and so forth: if you are saying that there is a budget problem and something has got to be done about it, what exactly are you going to do? He constantly made assurances about the things that he would not do in creating his solutions to longer term budget sustainability, and he made them pretty clearly. That is why people are white-hot angry about what has actually been put in place in this budget. They are angry in my area as well. The member for Throsby and I have had a lot of comment and contact at our offices from people who were particularly concerned about the Medicare co-payment. It has been the case that we have valued our universal healthcare system in this nation for many decades now. It is such an important part of the social fabric of this nation that those opposite and their leaders have always declared that they are, indeed, the 'best friends that Medicare has ever had'. They know it is absolutely untenable to say anything else to the Australian community, because we do value the fact that in this country it is your Medicare card that will determine your access to health care not your credit card. You only have to talk to the older generation who remember the pre-universal health care days where people were struggling to pay off massive debts that they ran up to their general practitioners during periods of illness to understand this. This is an underpinning social support network in this country that has been well supported for a long time. Australians are not fools. They know that the co-payment system will dismantle the universality of that system, and they are not going to stand for it. Stephen Jones, the member for Throsby, and I organised an opportunity for people to come together in Wollongong on the weekend to have a talk about the impacts that this decision, this GP tax, would have locally on the community. Over 300 people came together within less than a week to express their grave concerns about it. We were joined by a young doctor who is in training who indicated that the university based doctors who are in training have a national association, and that national association had joined together with that hotbed of radicalism, the Australian Medical Association, to indicate their opposition to the GP tax. Speakers opposite might one after the other say, 'This is just those terrible Labor people. They don't understand the reality.' What they need to understand is they are also telling that to almost the entire medical profession who are also rejecting the GP tax as a policy implementation out of the budget. In my own area, the Illawarra Mercury spoke to some local doctors and they repeated exactly the same concerns. Continue reading

Matter of Public Importance: Importance of Education,Training and Support for Unemployed Youth

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:37):  I absolutely endorse the matter of public importance put forward by my colleague the member for Adelaide, and I am very proud to contribute to this debate as the shadow minister for vocational education and training. I would hate to ask those sitting on the opposite side at the moment to name their minister for vocational education and training. It is not the minister who was at the dispatch box. I bet most of them would not even know who it is. That is the priority the current government has given to vocational education, training and skills. I have not heard any yelling out of the actual name so far. I would suggest that is a pretty good indication of where their priority lies. The particular matter of public importance is before us because, like my colleagues, I happen to believe that the vast majority of young people are not only very keen to get a job or to do the training they need to get a job but also are actively out there trying to do so in what can be a very tough environment for young people in the workforce. In my own area, in the Illawarra, we have a high level of youth unemployment. I actually have a lot of faith in the young people in my area that they are not just lounging around being lazy and not being bothered to get off their bums to go out and get some education or find a job. That is not what is going on. The reality is that the vast majority of them really do want a job—and it is tough out there. Of course we support the importance of focusing on providing the education and pathways that young people need in order to get into those jobs. There is no argument about that. Of course, we support it. What we do not support is saying, 'If you don't comply, you can starve.' We do not support saying, 'If you've already done one qualification and you therefore are not entitled to free access to another qualification, we're going to cut your money off so that you have no chance of actually having the money to pay the fees that will be required for another qualification.' We do not support the proposal that says, 'If you'd like to be an apprentice'—an entirely worthwhile ambition, according to the minister—'and you are having some difficulty accessing an apprenticeship job, we'll cut the apprentice access program.' I have visited providers like the Motor Traders Association in Western Sydney who used and ran this program—the very program that provided the links and opportunities for disadvantaged young people to get into an apprenticeship. If people get into an apprenticeship it is really important that we help them and their employers support them getting through to completing that apprenticeship. But what do you do in government? You cut the apprentice mentoring program—the very program that worked with those young people and their employers to keep them in those jobs and get them through to completion. We do not say, 'If you want to get the skills that you need in basic literacy, numeracy, computer skills, job-seeking skills and presentation'—thinking about how you need to deal with interviews and present yourself to get a job—'we will just cut the programs that provided that training.' I visited Youth Connections in my area with the member for Throsby. I met a whole room of young people, sitting on computers, doing courses, talking to people about interviews they were going to and how to best answer questions and doing a bit of practice. It is a wonderful program with highly successful outcomes. What happened to that in the budget? What happened to that in the priority of connecting young people to jobs? Gone again! Then I went along to a local function held by the Partnership Brokers. Again, this is in our community—local organisations and not-for-profit organisations all coming together and working with employers to connect young people to jobs. What happened to that in the budget? How does that fare under the government's claims that it wants to make sure young people get into education and training? Gone again! This is the reality of a government that fundamentally does not trust young people, that fundamentally would rather attack their motives and their commitment to finding a job than put in place the funding and the programs that will deliver. I will answer the question that I started with. The minister who has responsibility for vocational educational and training and skills—for those on the opposite side who still, after four and a half minutes, have failed to find a name for him—is Minister Macfarlane. He thinks they waste their money on tattoos and mag wheels. Young people are better than that, and they deserve the support of the government—not the cheap attacks that they have seen on them and their opportunities in this budget.

Constituency Statement: Health

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (10:29):  I want to take the opportunity today to speak on behalf of constituents about their very serious concerns about the Abbott government's GP tax. This, in particular, has been raised in our local paper, the Illawarra Mercury today, and I want to reference some of the comments that have been made. But I should indicate that it has been in response to the front page of the Illawarra Mercury yesterday, which I have here for those who were not able to see it. This is what it said 'Pain. Pain. Pain.' It reflects the front page of the Illawarra Mercury under a previous Liberal government budget where taxes were increased and the impact on health was a concern. So this ran yesterday in the Illawarra Mercury, and it prompted some locals to write in and raise their concerns. What is the size of the problem? Illawarra-Shoalhaven Medicare Local statistics show that we had 2,130,799 GP consultations in the region last year. There are over 50,000 pensioners across the region, so this is no small impact. In Cunningham specifically, there were 800,489 bulk billing services in 2013—that is, 86.24 per cent of the GP services delivered. At $7 per visit, that will lead to an increase in my electorate alone in costs for GP services of $6,497,575. It will not surprise members that locals are very concerned. In particular, today in the Illawarra Mercury local Milton GP Brett Thomson has outlined his concerns as a health professional. He said that he bulk bills the majority of this patients. The changes announced in Tuesday's budget for him will mean his patients will pay $7 up front or, if chooses to waive that fee, he will receive $5 less in government rebates; He said: I do think it will have some effect on some people and unfortunately it will be the people who are most vulnerable, I suspect. The people who are the poorest, people who are older and socially disadvantaged. We say to people here, 'Oh you need to drive to Wollongong from Milton for a specialist appointment' and they say 'I can't afford the petrol. I can't go this week because I don't have petrol'. We don't realise there are people living on the edge. They've said people who are under 30 and unemployed aren't going to get the dole for six months. If they're not eligible for the dole, how are they supposed to make a co-payment? These are the concerns of locals, pensioners, GPs and all sorts of health professionals. I think the government should seriously reconsider this proposition.

BILLS, Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 Second Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:10): I take the opportunity to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 and acknowledge that its purpose is to amend the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security Administration Act 1999 for three specific purposes: firstly, that recipients of Green Army allowance are not also able to receive a social security benefit or pension, with the exception of family assistance and childcare payments where participants are eligible; secondly, that income-testing arrangements that will apply to the social security pension for the partners of Green Army participants; and thirdly, that participants in the Green Army program who are not Green Army team supervisors are not to be treated as workers or employees for the purposes of certain Commonwealth laws. I acknowledge that the shadow minister, the member for Port Adelaide, has moved an amendment to the bill. It does not decline to give the bill a second reading, but it seeks that the House note a number of matters. I indicate that I support the amendment put by the shadow minister. The amendment requires that the House note, firstly, that the program will be deeply flawed in its design and implementation, given the poor environmental record of the current government; secondly, that the bill provides insufficient protections for participants in the areas of occupational health and safety, workers compensation and rehabilitation; thirdly, that the government should clarify why participants do not have employee status, even though they are to be removed from the social security system and paid an equivalent training wage; fourthly, that the government must provide assurance that the Green Army Program will not displace or reduce employment opportunities for existing workers; fifthly, that there is a lack of detail of the training provisions in the program, namely specified minimum hours, provision of accredited and recognised training and opportunities for ongoing training and career pathways; and, finally, that it is important to support young people to make the transition to meaningful work and further training opportunities. I would like to take the opportunity today to outline why the amendment is worth supporting, as it raises a series of very important issues about the program that need to be debated. Whilst this bill deals only with the social security elements of the Green Army Program, it is clear that this is as much an employment program as it is claimed to be an environmental one. I will not go specifically to the issues about the total inadequacy of this initiative, as it sits forlornly in an environmental framework that has torn apart action on and protection of our natural environment by this government. The shadow minister for the environment addressed this extensively in his speech during the second reading debate. I would in particular draw the House's attention to the article referenced by the shadow minister in that speech that was published in TheIndependent in the United Kingdom and entitled 'Is Tony Abbott's Australian administration the most hostile to his nation's environment in history?' It is a harsh assessment but, I would suggest, one that is pretty accurate. In considering the merits of this particular program, I would acknowledge that the concept of combining action on environmental challenges with commitment to training and lifting the skills of the population is neither new nor a concept that this side of the House is opposed to in and of itself. In fact, we believe that environment based work and training programs can be an effective opportunity for job seekers who have an interest in, and a capacity for, this type of work—an opportunity to gain some real skills, knowledge and experience in a sector that should see growing job opportunities in the future. I refer members to the May 2011 report of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, AWPA, on emerging and future skills needs in the green and energy efficiency sector. In its report, the agency identified a call for jobs and skills in a range of sectors and courses. It is of course likely that many of the emerging industries and jobs that were discussed in the report have been very negatively impacted by the decisions of the Abbott government to walk away from responsible environmental action in this country. I take this opportunity to put on the record my personal appreciation of the excellent work that has been done by AWPA and to express my great regret at the decision by this government to disband this agency. AWPA was established in 2012 by the former Labor government, replacing Skills Australia, to provide expert, independent advice to government on current, emerging and future skills and workforce development needs. It brings together—it has not quite been disbanded yet but soon will be—the peak national bodies, such as ACCI, the Australian Industry Group and the ACTU, to achieve industry leadership on these matters. Disbanding the key national policy and research body on skills while we have jobs being lost across the country is nonsensical. Clearly there is a real opportunity to provide, and a sound basis for providing, work based and training opportunities in this industry sector. However, the bill before us does not lay out the detail that is required for a full analysis and discussion of its efficacy. The questions raised in the shadow minister's amendment must be addressed. I acknowledge that some of these issues have been the subject of an inquiry in the other place and that, since this bill was introduced, further information on how the Green Army will operate has been released, although this information has only slowly emerged piece by piece—and only as it has been requested. Continue reading


Only one year ago I had the opportunity to address your national council in Melbourne as the relatively recently appointed Minister for Higher Education and Skills and I am very pleased to be with you again this year, although now in the role of Shadow Minister.  The Federal Labor Leader, Bill Shorten, has asked me to take on the role of Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, and I am very pleased that he has entrusted me with such an important area of public policy and an issue that has been a passion of mine my whole working life.  I started out as a high school teacher and then spent many years teaching at TAFE and I know I share a conviction about the power of education and the critical importance of a strong public education sector, with all of you in this room. Last year I took the opportunity to make a commitment to you that I would continue to be a champion for TAFE and I am very happy to be with you again and to re-affirm that commitment to you. I would like to share just one story with you of why such a commitment remains as important as it ever was – and it is a story I know each and every one of you could match many times over every year in your work. Like many members of parliament I put out a local newsletter across my electorate to update people on issues affecting our local area and national policies of importance to them individually. Only this week my latest newsletter was distributed and I included an item letting locals know about the two inquiries currently being conducted by both Houses of Parliament about our public TAFE.  I knew that TAFE as an institution is well-loved and valued by locals throughout the Illawarra and many of them might want to make a submission or follow the hearings. On Tuesday I received an email in reply and I would like to share it with you- at the request of my constituent I have removed her name but she is very happy to have the details shared publicly: “Dear Sharon I would like to thank you for your informative newsletter.  I read about the TAFE inquiry, and posted a submission… But I want you to know that I really value the opportunity to have a say in this Inquiry, as TAFE has been an important factor in our family.  I fear the loss of such a flexible public service that provides quality training and LEARNING opportunities in even quite small towns throughout NSW.  During the last few years of my working life I had the pleasure of working with people in social housing in the southern areas of NSW.  Access to TAFE was a critical factor in enabling many of these people to improve their family circumstances, gain employment and life skills.  All these things are critical to building resilient communities.  I feel reluctant to include these issues in my submission as they are other people’s stories.  But these are very important issues for rural communities and older people whose jobs are disappearing.” The attached submission, instead, goes through this lady’s own life experiences and how important TAFE was to her when she became a single parent of four children.  TAFE helped her retrain sufficiently to gain employment to support her family and then to articulate that qualification into a university degree which she did whilst working full-time and raising her family, or, as she puts it herself, “supporting 4 ravenous teenagers.” Importantly, her example meant that her children had a great role model of the value of study.  Two of the children completed apprenticeships through TAFE and another did a vocational certificate IV.  Her eldest son went on to gain an honours degree from university. TAFE has been there throughout life for them – she reports on how one son returned to TAFE following a workplace injury and was able to develop a completely new career.  Her daughter returned to TAFE after having two children and upgraded her Cert IV to a Diploma and “is now the sole breadwinner in her small but resilient single parent household.” She concludes her submission by stating: “TAFE has opened the door to new skills, given us scope to change careers, and helped us build a resilient extended family that values education and training.  My small grandsons all understand the importance of learning, becoming skilled, and seeking employment.  TAFE has provided the base for this ethos.  Please do not dismantle this wonderful system that opens pathways, teaches practical skills and is located in even the smallest towns throughout NSW.” No words by any politician or policy maker can ever capture so powerfully the importance of our public TAFE system as the testimonials of the students whose lives are enriched and, very often transformed, by the energy, skills and professionalism of the teaching that takes place in them every day, every semester, every year.  It builds on the experience and culture of decades of delivering the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that are of worth and value to students and to the employers they go on to work with.   Continue reading

Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014, Consideration in Detail

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (16:08): I am very pleased to support the amendments proposed by the shadow minister for infrastructure and transport to the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014 and I endorse the comments made by my colleague, the member for Perth, who has just spoken. I speak on this issue from two bases. Firstly, there is a strong awareness of the issues in my own electorate, given that the road connections to the port of Kembla—shared between my electorate and the electorate of the member for Throsby—are so heavily utilised by trucks servicing the port. Secondly, I am well aware that, if you live in a rural or regional community, the roads are critically important—they are a part of the lifeblood of Australia. I am sure the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport is also aware that in regional and rural communities roads are essential for community members to be able to participate in life. Families use roads to take kids to school, people drive to visit others, and drivers, whether they are small carriers or driving for large trucking companies, earn their living by travelling on roads. As I say, roads are a critically important part of the lifeblood of rural and regional Australia and keeping people safe on these roads has to be one of the most significant things that we undertake when legislating in this space. The proposed amendment, to have the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program specifically identified under a separate funding stream in the act, is both reasonable and sensible. In March 2013, under the previous government's Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, joint funding of just over $8 million was provided—approximately $4 million from Commonwealth and $4 million from the New South Wales state government—to upgrade the existing truck stop on Mount Ousley Road. Mount Ousley Road is the key feeder road into and out of Port Kembla and it has, as you could well imagine, a lot of trucks travelling on it. I am very pleased that my state colleagues, in government, expanded the use of the port by the addition of the movement of cars, but that has, of course, resulted in a lot more usage of the road. The announcement of the $8 million investment in the truck stop upgrade along with the announcement of a $1.4 million trial of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems Initiative along the Hume Highway to Port Kembla, where again $700,000 was contributed by the state government, were very important for the wellbeing and safety of road users. These are some very good initiatives in the promotion of the wellbeing and safety of road users. I support this particular amendment from a background of having worked with the shadow minister when he was Minister for Transport and Infrastructure. I also acted as deputy chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Infrastructure under, as the shadow minister indicated in his earlier speech, Mr Paul Neville, the then chair and member for Hinkler. It was my very first experience of committee work and I have to say that he taught me very well about the good work a committee could do. The committee presented a report titled Thegreat freight task: is Australia's transport network up to the challenge?which indicated that a significant increase in the movement of freight around our nation would require serious infrastructure investment into the future. The report noted that we also needed to put the related regulations and protections in place. The committee travelled around the country to look at ports, roads and rail networks to determine what tasks needed to be undertaken. I was very pleased eventually, on our coming to government, to become the chair of the committee. Following a reference from the shadow minister, we had an inquiry into the need for a Safe Rates Remuneration Tribunal. We received, as the shadow minister indicated, very moving evidence not only from truck drivers and from the union representing them, the TWU, but also from families that had suffered grief and loss as a result of tragic road accidents involving heavy vehicles. The committee recommended to the minister that establishing the Safe Rates Remuneration Tribunal would be the most appropriate action to take, given of course that there was cross-portfolio coverage. The view of the infrastructure and transport committee was that it was the appropriate body to put in place and, as the shadow minister said, it should now be given the opportunity to prove its value and prove what it can contribute to all of us in the community. Finally, as the Minister for Road safety, I had the opportunity to see, firsthand, how important these sorts of initiatives are. I think the amendment is very reasonable. It is a sensible amendment and it embeds something that I think we should all be proud to support.

Education Funding Matters of Public Importance

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:34): I would like to give points for effort, but I am not going to. One of the most significant issues facing the restructuring of our economy is the matching of skills to the emerging demands and the transformations of the economy. We have two senior ministers who are supposed to have direct responsibility for skills and education. Neither of them can even be bothered to be here. That is the reality of the significance that this government gives to the skills development that is needed in this nation to face the challenges that so many of our communities across the country, but in particular in Western Australia, face. Previously as a member of some of the standing committees of this parliament when those opposite were last in government, the former Treasurer, Mr Costello, asked the committee to travel around the country and look at the pressures that would be on the economy post the mining boom. One of those that came out loud and clear from all of the visits that we did to Western Australian towns and into Perth itself was the lack of match between skills and emerging demands for training and where the new economy would create opportunities. It is a critically important factor. The former speaker, the minister, made the point that it is important to have industry on board. Throughout the Labor government, industry—ACCI, the AiG—consistently stood side by side with the government to give priority to skills development in this nation. We put in place the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency; we put in place the Australian skills quality assurance framework to make sure that training was not available but was also quality and that it matched the needs of industry. We put in place a program, as the shadow minister outlined, through our school system. We were building trades training centres in schools and we were linking that to the pathways through things like the— Mr Nikolic: Small numbers. Ms Collins: It is a 10-year program! Ms BIRD: It is not small numbers! I challenge members opposite. I cannot believe that the minister had actually ever visited a trades training centre. Look at them across electorates. They were being built. Schools were keen to have them. They were great success stories and local businesses were working with them. And if those opposite are seriously complaining that there were not enough of them, take it up with your own minister because you have just cut a billion dollars out of the program. Every school that was waiting to get on to that program has now— Mr Nikolic: They have been waiting six years. Ms BIRD: You claim that under us they have been waiting six years? They are never getting them under you. They are not getting them at all. So for all of the talk, all of the concern and all of the crocodile tears about youth unemployment and creating pathways for young people, you are cutting the program that provided those opportunities for schools across the entire region. The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! The member for Cunningham might resist using the word 'you' because I will not have any authority on the subject. Ms BIRD: I understand. I would never cast that aspersion on you. The reality is, for those on the other side, there actually is a real skills challenge facing this nation. When we look at what those in government said in their policy papers leading up to the election about skills, it is deafening in its silence. You took one policy to the election: to provide some income loan support to apprentices. That was it; that was your whole skills plan. So it would not surprise you that we are extraordinarily anxious about what cuts to this sector are hiding in those 900 pages of the Commission of Audit. I know some of the junior ministers have not seen it, and I am only presuming that the ministers in the cabinet who are directly relevant for this area have seen it. I would say go and grab them and have a quick talk to them. In government we put in place programs—working in co-investment models with business—like the National Workforce Development Fund and the Workplace English Language and Literacy Program to raise the skills of existing workers, to match the needs of emerging industries and to make sure that we lifted the productivity of our population. Those programs had better not be on the table for cuts. Those skills that industries need in areas where we are seeing the transformation of industry—for example, in the mining industry in WA—and those skills in affected industries moving to a production model and relying on a new set of skills for workers along the supply chain had better not be on the cutting board under the Commission of Audit. (Time expired)  

BILLS, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, Second Reading

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (11:28): I rise to speak to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, which seeks to change the operation of TEQSA, Australia's national higher education regulator. I move: That all the words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that the: (1) Government has failed to offer an adequate response to the Review of Higher Education Regulation; (2) bill does not adequately demonstrate how the international reputation of the tertiary education sector will be protected; and (3) Government has failed to provide appropriate time for consultation and consideration of the bill. The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Broadbent ): Is there a seconder to the amendment? Ms Kate Ellis: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak. Ms BIRD: Australia needs TEQSA. We need a genuine national regulator for our higher education sector. We need to preserve our international reputation as a higher education provider and we need to provide reassurance for all students. This is especially so since the government has indicated that it wishes to deregulate and expand private provision. We need a regulator who is independent yet accountable. The public has a right to be assured that public moneys are well spent on universities, including through appropriate probity guarantees. Genuine quality assurance by universities, particularly given that they are self-accrediting institutions, needs to be verified through a regulator. We recognise that there are different approaches in research and in teaching, just as we recognise the importance of institutional autonomy. It is important that we have a clear quality assurance framework in place that allows us to work in partnership with the higher education sector. The TEQSA Act should be part of that framework, but it is not in itself the answer. I will firstly put the establishment and operation of TEQSA in its historical context. The last time those opposite were in office, a number of new entrants sought to operate in the higher education sector in Australia. The coalition sought to expand the sector but gave too little thought to protecting quality. Unsurprisingly, unscrupulous operators sought to make money without any concern or care for providing genuine, high-quality education. What followed were a series of scandals which were quite damaging to the sector. One example is the case of Greenwich University, which operated on Norfolk Island and marketed itself as an Australian university. Another was St Clements University which, it was later discovered, was run out of the same premises as a whisky wholesaler. There were clearly real and emerging problems in the sector. Operators were misusing the names of reputable international institutions to establish degree factories and exploit immigration loopholes. Such institutions damaged the reputation of our sector as a whole. When Labor formed government, we determined that this was not only unacceptable but that strong action had to be taken. As a result, we established the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority to provide a robust regulatory framework. When, after a period of operation, concerns of administrative overreach were raised, we responded by appointing two very capable and respected professors, Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite, to conduct a review of higher education regulation. When we were provided with the review last year, we welcomed it immediately. It was a considered and comprehensive piece of work. It reflected broad consultation and a deep understanding of the sector and the forces at play in the regulation of the sector. The report recommended changes to administrative practice and legislative interpretation. Some of those recommended changes are reflected in this bill. The emphasis, however, was on a change in culture. Quality had to be understood as a mutual goal—partnership was the key. This was the defining principle of the university compacts process Labor introduced and the review recognised it as the key to success. The review emphasised—indeed it emphasised it again and again throughout the report—the importance of building relationships in the sector. It emphasised the importance of data sharing and the importance of reducing duplication and aligning work, especially between TEQSA and ASQA. These are just some of the areas where the government has fallen short with this bill. Two key questions remain: does the current bill genuinely respond to the findings of the review of higher education regulation and, just as importantly, how do we ensure the accountability of the new agency? There are red flags here from the start. This bill was rushed into parliament without any consultation with the reviewers, universities, other providers or students. As far as we can tell, the bill has been given very little consideration. It was also presented without an exposure draft and without any sensible policy responses to the review. It stands in isolation. This very concern was raised in the review. It said: It is easy to recommend apparently straightforward amendments to legislation which appear agreed by everyone. But this is worryingly simplistic, patching individual pieces of legislation can fix functional irritations, but will not necessarily change the way in which the legislation is being applied and why. It is a shame that in response to such a considered piece of work, we have what appears to be a hasty piece of work, an impression heightened by the fact that the minister apparently did not foresee it just one month ago. Why do I say that? Just one month ago, the minister appointed a new commissioner to TEQSA. I acknowledge that the minister gave directions to the chief commissioner late last year, but again these do not form a full policy response. Information passed between the commissioner and the minister does not form a public policy position that is open to scrutiny and to the input of the sector. Without time to consider, without consultation and without knowing what other actions are proposed in relation to this issue, it is very difficult to know the full ramifications of the changes proposed in this bill. For example, the review recommended that the government put in place a mechanism for TEQSA to consult with the sector and suggested an advisory committee. But where is that proposed advisory committee? The review also strongly recommended the government work to identify duplication both of activity and of legislation, particularly with respect to the Higher Education Support Act, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act, the Education Services for Overseas Students Act and the TEQSA Act. There is no evidence to suggest that the government has given this any consideration and the concern is that, perhaps ironically, we will see a patchwork of amendments and regulation down the track to address this omission. Continue reading