Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (09:30): I want to take the opportunity today to talk to the House about one of the most extraordinary and brave young men I know. His name is Ben Oakley, and he was in Canberra at Parliament House yesterday at the invitation of my colleague the member for Throsby, the shadow assistant minister for health, to talk about the serious impacts and the importance of medicinal cannabis and how it has changed his life, in recognition of the government's tabling of changes to the legalisation of the cultivation and production of medicinal cannabis. Ben and his mum and dad, Caroline and Michael, were with him. They wanted to indicate their support and to call for governments at all levels to continue to progress this matter. Ben's dad has established a Facebook page called Roll On Ben Oakley—recommended if anyone is interested in following up on this after the few minutes I have to tell you about it. Ben's dad, Michael, said, 'This is my way of showing support to one of the bravest people I know.' Ben came to see me with his dad last year, in about May, to tell me of the terrible situation they were in. About three years ago Ben was struck down with a very debilitating illness, and I would like to use Ben's dad's own words to tell the House about it. He says: Ben was a very normal, healthy, active young man until 3 years ago today. Out on a training ride (Ben remains a very keen cyclist, even if he can not get on a bike) when he felt a sharp pain in his back. Thinking at the time that it was a pulled muscle he pushed on and made it home, but only just! Ben collapsed when he got back and could not stand. After an uncomfortable evening Ben woke up feeling okay and went to school only to have the pain start again within a few short hours. Ben took himself to sickbay but didn't make it. he had to be half carried by 2 teachers and then was taken to hospital. 7 hours later and a lot of head scratching we took Ben home. He goes on: Slowly over the next few months I watched one of the most active people I have ever known slowly getting worse and we had no idea why! We were trying to find answers, was it a dislocated Rib? a Virus? Cancer?! Sadly and I know full well that a lot of people will not understand this, Cancer would have been easier to deal with, not that I would wish that on anyone or take away from anyone who has battled Cancer but people at least understand it. With Cancer you fight it and if you are lucky you survive. Ben has Stiff Person Syndrome, a 1 in a Million Neurological condition. Doctors can not give us answers … Ben tells the story, and he told it yesterday, that he can barely move. But since he has been taking medicinal cannabis he has had one attack in 10 months and it has transformed his life. He was very brave to join us all yesterday to share his personal story. I want to pay tribute to that and to his mum and dad in their ongoing efforts.
Click here to watch Sharon’s interview SUBJECT/S: Vocational Education and Training PHILLIPS: A document has revealed a federal takeover of TAFE, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, Sharon Bird, says anyone with an interest in ensuring equitable education and options remain available has a responsibility to try and stop the proposal from going ahead. BIRD: It’s going to be devastating in our region and it is going to be devastating, quite honestly, across the whole country. TAFE has been a national asset for decades. This is a direct attack on TAFE. PHILLIPS: Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, raised the issue in Question Time asking why Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is planning what he labelled a TAFE destroying take- over. TURNBULL: We are undertaking substantial reforms, restoring integrity to the vocational training sector. PHILLIPS: Despite the claim not even the State Government is backing the proposal. ENDS
Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:17): It has been a very interesting 24 hours for the vocational education and training sector, and I anticipate a very interesting debate in the chamber today. We have seen in Fairfax media the release of a draft document about the potential for a federal takeover of the vocational education and training sector. This is, I would argue, a critically important question for the future of Australia, directly relevant to issues that all of us in this chamber have on numerous occasions said we were engaged with—that is: jobs; innovation; growing new industries; transforming existing industries to make them sustainable into the future; making sure that Australians, as the world of work changes as it is disrupted by technology, are capable, with the skills and knowledge needed, to take up the opportunities that are offered. These are real, direct, economic and social questions that go to the heart of some of the major debates we are having in this country about what policies will actually deliver for the future. Once again, today we have seen that, while the Prime Minister likes to talk about being innovative, he is certainly very agile in the way that he interprets that. There is absolutely no doubt from worldwide evidence over decades that, if you want to drive innovation, if you want to drive jobs growth and if you want to have sustainable transformation in your industries and your economy, the critical factor underpinning that is the quality and reach of your education sector at all levels. This government has gone out of its way to fail at all levels. We have seen in particular the school sector being gravely disappointed by this government. The Prime Minister got up in question time today, faced with this particularly important question, and gave us another Turnbull lecture on teacher quality. You do not have to tell us how important teacher quality is. In fact, I am an ex-teacher. I know very well what teacher quality is and how significant it is in the classroom. But I can also tell you: cutting to the bone the funding that you provide to our schools is going to have a pretty dramatic and devastating effect as well. And that is what this government has done: made $30 billion in cuts to schools and abandoned the final two years of Gonski funding, despite their promises before the election. My colleagues the members for Adelaide and Kingston, in their portfolio areas, and each and every one of us in this room will continue to make the government face up to the fact that they need to deal with the funding issue in the education sector. I will say that, no matter what they do say, we will probably be pretty sceptical about it, given what they said before the last election and what they have actually delivered. But we will not absolve them from addressing the issue of funding in our schools. What is happening in the post-secondary sector? Is there any good news there? Ms Rishworth:No! Ms BIRD: No, not at all. In the university sector, where we need to ensure that we are engaged with making university education accessible and affordable for Australians who are motivated and able to undertake that study, all we have seen is a program from this government that will push university education out of the reach of many ordinary Australians, the potential for $100,000 degrees and the gutting of funding to the university sector. Has this gone away? Ms Rishworth: No! Ms Macklin: No! Ms BIRD: I think they hope it has. I think they hope that people will stop talking about it. The reality is: it is still squarely on the Prime Minister's agenda. It is another one of those things. As he said to us the other day, it is one hundred and however many days since he became Prime Minister— Ms Macklin: One hundred and forty-two. Mr Hartsuyker: One hundred and forty-two. Ms BIRD: One hundred and forty-two days—thank you to my colleagues on both sides of the House, eager to make sure I know it is 142 days. And what did he say, 'Well, nothing has changed.' Too right nothing has changed. That university agenda is still on the table, and, again, we will pursue them right up to the election on what that means. But there has been something new in the last 24 hours. We have now discovered that they want to take on the vocational sector as well. It does not exactly inspire much confidence on this side of the House. But let us be clear, given our assessment of their appalling track record in schools and universities, you would not be surprised if we were pretty critical of this proposition. I am sure the government minister sitting at the table talks quite regularly with his National Party colleagues in New South Wales. Ms Macklin: What did the New South Wales minister say? Continue reading
SUBJECT/S: Liberal Government’s secret plan for VET takeover. MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: A plan for the Federal Government to take over the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) training system is drawing condemnation from across the political spectrum. The plans contained in a leaked document prepared for an upcoming COAG (Council of Australian Governments) meeting and details a radical overhaul of the system which has for decades been a state responsibility. Political reporter Tom Iggulden has more from Canberra. TOM IGGULDEN: The New South Wales Skills Minister, John Barilaro, is calling out his Liberal colleagues in Canberra over the plan, leaked to the media last night. JOHN BARILARO (NEW SOUTH WALES SKILLS MINISTER): I have little confidence that they could run a national vocational education and training sector that actually meets the needs of students and industries and delivers it in a way that makes sure that it's driven on quality not price. IGGULDEN: The plan would see the Federal Government takeover funding the TAFE system, forcing TAFE colleges to compete more directly with private sector vocational education providers. The Federal Government already regulates the private system. but it's been rife with problems over recent years and the subject of several damaging media reports about students and taxpayers being ripped off by rogue providers. Mr Barilaro is comparing the Federal Government's handling of the system to the worst of Labor's mismanagement. BARILARO: Whenever you put tax dollars on the table, the cowboys rise to the surface. We saw that with pink batt federally and now we're seeing it in the VET (vocational education and training) sector and for me, I'm surprised and I'm not confident to be looking at a national VET sector or skills sector until such time they can clean up the mess. IGGULDEN: Labor's vocational education spokesman, Sharon Bird, says it's important to protect TAFE's traditional role in the community. BIRD: TAFE isn't just another provider; it has a public service responsibility. It's the provider that you know will be present and available for all people - you know, whether you're in rural or regional Australia, whether you're trying to learn and you've got a disability. IGGULDEN: TAFE too has been beset with issues in recent times, with falling enrolments and rising levels of dissatisfaction among trainers and students. SHARON BIRD (SHADOW MINISTER FOR VOCATIONAL EDUCATION): I don't allow John Barilaro to escape his responsibility at all on what's been happening in TAFE. We have seen price increases in TAFE, we've seen massive losses to teacher numbers, we're seeing campuses being shut. IGGULDEN: And that, she says, is giving the Federal Government a door to push its agenda to take over the system. BIRD: At the moment, you only have to take out a loan under the VET fee help for diploma level courses. It looks like they're talking about expanding that right down to much lower level courses and deregulating prices. So that is where my real concern about the potential cost blowouts would occur. IGGULDEN: Federal Vocational Education Minister, Luke Hartsuyker was unavailable for an interview. A spokesman told AM the Government has been upfront about its plans to takeover TAFE and that the leaked document was an early stage discussion paper. BRISSENDEN: Tom Iggulden reporting. ENDS
SUBJECT/S: Vocational Education JOURNALIST: People are already speaking out about it and the Government has not said much apart from the fact that this is simply a draft plan, but joining me now is the Shadow Minister for Vocational Education and Training, Sharon Bird, good morning to you. BIRD: Good morning. JOURNALIST: Look maybe there is something to be said about a national approach to Vocational Education and Training, what is wrong in principle with the Federal Government taking over? BIRD: Well for starters I wouldn’t trust this government with our TAFE system, only yesterday, not long before we heard this news about this draft document for a takeover we saw the NSW Minister in an extraordinary attack on his federal colleagues saying how badly they have managed the Vocational Education and Training sector over the last two years. JOURNALIST: That doesn’t mean that in principle it is a bad idea for a national approach to be taken? BIRD: The problem with this proposal that they have put out is that its funding model makes it very clear that all training providers will be treated exactly the same, the Federal Government would hold the purse strings and then all training providers would be treated exactly the same and bid for training dollars. The problem with that is that TAFE is not just another training provider, it’s our public provider, and it has responsibilities, and we quite rightly have expectations of it, that are far beyond what you would expect from a private training provider. Including ensuring that there is availability in regional and rural Australia, access for students with a disability, programmes that support Indigenous students. All of these sorts of additional responsibilities would be lost and the reality is TAFE would just compete on a race to the bottom with private providers. Now there are some good private providers out there, I meet them regularly, but we have seen massive shonky behaviour in the sector for two years and a Federal Government that has just reacted too slowly, made the wrong calls, seen the rip offs continue. They have no real interest and dedication to the sector, in fact they have been appalling in their management and their cuts to programs. JOURNALIST: I guess the Government’s argument would be that increased competition would lead to lower fees and potentially better quality of courses as various providers compete to offer the best product to students, what is wrong with that argument? BIRD: This Government has evidence before it right now about how their proposed structure and model works and that is where VET FEE Help is being made available for diploma level courses. No one I’m sure could have missed the disasters that have been occurring over two years where prices have not gone down in fact they have blown out. We have people with debts of $20,000, $25,000 sometimes being signed up to two diplomas and having a $30,000 or $40,000 debt, so there has been no evidence of a decrease in price, exactly the opposite has occurred. The quality has been appalling, there has been constant complaints the ACCC taking action, media reports day after day of people being signed up who weren’t able to do the course, had language and literacy problems, getting qualifications that the industry has said are so poor they don’t even recognise them. That is the evidence before this government on what their sort of model actually is already delivering. JOURNALIST: So does the onus for that lie with the government to adequately regulate the private providers, it doesn’t mean that the private provision of Vocational Education in and of itself is a bad thing? BIRD: There is absolutely no doubt they have been far too slow to act on what should have been nipped in the bud in terms of these sort of really shonky, aggressive behaviours but also the model that they are proposing, in this document, makes it quite clear, that government will provide some subsidy and students will carry a part of the cost of training. Now that model will see the VET FEE Help potentially extended to all qualifications, for example if they are doing a Certificate II level course the provider can charge whatever they like and you top up the payment by taking on a debt. This is why Labor is very worried about the proposal in that it could push debt right across the sector and we’ve seen some real problems. They have got enough on their plate at the moment with all the problems they have I would suggest their energies be better directed at resolving those before saying “we have made a mess over two years let’s just take the whole system over”. JOURNALIST: So just finally, Sharon Bird, what’s Labor’s view of the role that private providers can play in the Vocational Education landscape and would Labor continue to allow the States to have responsibility for Vocational Education and Training? BIRD: In the first question you asked, I think I made it clear earlier, there absolutely is a role for private providers and there has been for decades and there are some out there who have been filling particular roles, with particular expertise in some industry sectors for example doing a great job. When I talk to them they are horrified by the really shonky, unethical, low quality activity that is going on as well. JOURNALIST: But would Labor support further deregulation of fees to allow for a more level playing field? BIRD: I think the deregulation of fees is a real problem in the way that it is being proposed in this model. I would say that we have made an announcement already on TAFE about a COAG agreement based on a TAFE funding guarantee because we do believe the public provider is absolutely, critically important and we have to stop the attacks that have occurred from conservative governments at all levels, to be honest. Basically what we have said is we want COAG to reach a national agreement about what the role of TAFE as the public provider is and then how it will be funded to ensure it can deliver on that role and we will remain committed to TAFE, it has delivered very well for communities for many decades and to see it under this sort of threat and potentially lose it, would be to lose a national asset. JOURNALIST: Alright, Sharon Bird, thanks very much for your time this morning. BIRD: Thank you. ENDS
SUBJECT/S: Turnbull Liberal Government’s secret plans to take over vocational education. Click here to watch Sharon’s doorstop BIRD: Overnight we have seen reports in the Fairfax media that this federal government has a secret plan to take over the Vocational Education and Training Sector. Given their track record over the last two years with training and skills this can only be a really disastrous outcome. What we have seen, firstly, is over $2 billion cut from the skills portfolio, over $1 billion of that out of apprenticeships support. We have seen the results which has been a huge decrease in the number of apprentices commencing training. Added to that we have seen the federal government act too slowly, make the wrong calls and fail to understand the importance of the rip off and rorts and shonky behaviours. The aggressive marketing that is occurring, pulling students into very expensive $20,000 and $30,000 training courses of dubious quality often not even finishing their training because they shouldn’t have been in the course in the first place and as a result of that we have seen a disaster in the VET sector under this government. Yesterday, the New South Wales conservative Minister for Skills slammed his federal colleagues for their incompetence in this portfolio. I cannot see, on any day, how them taking over the whole system would be anything other than a disaster. Secondly I want to make the point that there has been a concerted attack by conservative government’s on our public TAFE system. I’ve travelled all around the country and we have seen the devastation that has been done to TAFE, which is not only an important part of the education landscape for people across the country but is also a public provider and that means that it has the task of making sure people in rural and regional Australia get access to training. It’s got the responsibility of ensure that people with a disability have access, our Indigenous Australians get training and skills. This government has no value for public provision and no value for the importance of making sure that everybody has equal and fair and reasonable access to training and yet they want to talk about innovation and jobs, well what a joke. Have they forgotten that the vast majority of the population accesses our vocational training system to get exactly those sorts of qualifications. Their hands on the wheel of that entire system will be a disaster. ENDS
SUBJECT/S: Gonski JOURNALIST: As you have been hearing in our news bulletins the Federal Opposition has promised to put $4.5 billion towards funding the Gonski School Education Agreement for the 2018-19 school years. Of course the Coalition has said that they will not fund those final two years. Instead it is trying to broker a new deal with the States and Territories, with me now on the line is Member for Cunningham, also Opposition spokesperson for Vocational Education and Training, Sharon Bird, good morning BIRD: Good morning JOURNALIST: Look the decision of Labor to promise this $4.5 billion to fully fund the Gonski school reforms, the big question being asked this morning is how does Labor plan to pay for it? BIRD: It’s quite clear that we made a lot of really hard decisions last year that in the end we have to make the savings or increase the revenue to deliver on what we think should be the priorities for the country and that’s fair enough. People I am sure will remember last year that we talked about our multi-national tax reforms indicating that we feel many multi-nationals are paying no tax in Australia and they should actually be paying tax here. We also announced some reforms around high level earners on superannuation, for example, also the cigarettes tax increase. So we did announce a number of things last year that would come to around $70 billion over the next 10 years because we do want to be able to fund and announce priorities that are really important to communities like ours and education is absolutely clearly one of those. JOURNALIST: I guess the criticism that gets levelled at Labor by the Government is you might be diverting funds from one place to another or trying to raise money through various exercises but it doesn’t do much in terms of budget repair in the long term? BIRD: You have got to be able to do a number of things in government but I do think if you are not investing in education then it’s a false economy because we know the jobs of the future, and parents can see this already if you have kids that have left school, that you have to have high level qualifications to get the sorts of jobs that will be there in the future. I know that might be a TAFE qualification, it might be a University degree and if we need our kids to be able to succeed in life they have to have a really solid foundation at school. Education is actually an investment, it’s not just an expenditure, and if we don’t do it we are looking at slowing growth in this country, not having the innovation certainly that the Prime Minister wants to talk about. The issue that has proven as right is when you get the investment in education right and give people those opportunities you actually find it pays off for the nation and so we do prioritise it. We don’t make any apology for that. JOURNALIST: So are you looking at refunding the Gonski reforms that were always destined to run until 2018 and the Government says what it’s trying to do is map out some sort of deal with the States that would take us from 2018 and beyond into the future, what happens after 2018? BIRD: The entire package that Bill and Kate Ellis announced yesterday is $37.3 billion now. $30 billion of that is for reversing the cuts that Tony Abbott made to education, that Malcom Turnbull continued, and those cuts significantly changed the way schools were getting money across the country. In our own area in the Illawarra, which covers my seat and Stephen Jones’, it was about $391 million taken out of local schools over that ten years, so we have not just announced the years five and six for Gonski, which is about $4.5 billion. We’ve also announced a reversal of the cuts that the Government did make over the ten year forward as $30 billion for schools and at the local level that is a really significant injection back into our local schools. It is important to get Gonski right and the Government seems to forget that that was actually a long drawn out process of really intensive policy work to get the Gonski outcome and, I’m a former teacher, for the first time in my life I have seen an education debate that wasn’t divisive between school sectors and everybody was on board and said “yes, this is great, this is the way to go”. So all the work has been done the problem is that they don’t want to bite the bullet and put the money into it. JOURNALIST: So are you saying that you are convinced that any less than Gonski would not lead to better outcomes? The Coalition is saying that they believe that there is some deal that can be brokered that is fiscally responsible and will improve educational outcomes for kids? BIRD: I guess I don’t understand why they would go through that process when we have had somebody as well regarded as the Gonski panel who have spent years doing all that work and then you have extensive negotiations with the states, although there were two states that didn’t come on board, but all of the other states signed up and indeed his own Liberal colleagues in New South Wales continued with the Gonski model and Gonski funding. I just think it’s a sneaky was of saying we don’t really want to put the extra money in and you are going to find some other mechanism and some other way. I don’t believe that, I think that we have had all the research, we have had all the work, we have had all the negotiations and it is quite clear in the time that has gone on, now we are going backwards. I talk to my local schools, I have been to many of them that have raised literacy programs or HSC support programs with that money and they are just saying to me that it is making a huge difference. So when it stops the next kids coming through won’t get access to it and it does make a big difference. We just have to bite the bullet and do it - the work has all been done. JOURNALIST: Well not all the work has been done as there are a couple of the areas, where Labor says it’s going to try to save money, will certainly be a battle for Labor. Even if some of them have popular support you will be up against some powerful lobby groups cracking down on multi-national tax avoidance, $14 billion. I’m sure Labor doesn’t expect that to be easy, reducing super tax concessions as well, again something that many members of the public won’t agree with but again something that will be difficult to get through. You will be facing at least a public relations battle to get those through, what happens if you don’t find those savings if that proves to be too difficult? BIRD: I mean that is the challenge for government at any point in time. I would say the biggest challenge is that we have to win an election first and you know that is why we think these things need to be debated and on the table. It does frustrate me enormously that at the last election, at that time, the Abbott opposition went out and told people that would get exactly the same from them, on the Gonski funding, as they were getting from Labor, and I think that that was a great betrayal of a promise that was made before an election. We have laid out a plan, we’ve shown in government before that we are able to get the funding mechanisms in place, despite the Liberal claims, we did it with the NDIS and I am confident that we can do it here because, to be honest, we have to. People in the community know if we don’t get education right then we are all going to pay a cost in terms of jobs and growth and our economy and so you have to actually make sure that, not only our school education. We have an announced policy to provide guaranteed funding for TAFE and an announced policy for student funding guarantee for Universities so we don’t face $100,000 degrees. It is hard in Government, there are no two ways about that, but I just think that it is too important to everyone’s future for us not to pursue it. JOURNALIST: Alright Sharon Bird, thanks very much for your time this morning. BIRD: Thank you so much. ENDS
Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Reform) Bill 2015 - Consideration of Senate Message
Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (17:09): It is the case that the opposition will be supporting the bill before us. I want to put on the record that we had some frustration about the fact that this original bill was significantly amended at the last moment. The minister did give me a briefing, but it was sadly only 15 minutes before the shadow minister in the other place had to speak on the bill. I am sure that the minister will understand if we retain the right to continue to vigorously raise any issues that arise out of the changes that the government is putting in place. It is the case that I remain disappointed that the government did not accept our amendment to put price caps on courses. One of the great problems within the VET FEE-HELP sector has been the quite unacceptable level of price increases that have occurred for training courses. Given that that will continue for another 12 months, pending a redesign of the VET FEE-HELP system, I do think it would have been good for the government to accept that particular amendment. However, I acknowledge the government did accept other amendments from the opposition. We look forward to working together to progress those—in particular, to establish an ombudsman for the sector. A voice for students must put in place; there must be a place where they can go to raise their concerns and have them mediated. The regulator, ASQA, does the job of enforcing standards and auditing the particular providers that are approved. But it does not fulfil an individual role for students. That is very frustrating for many students who report to ASQA. Their expectation is that that will be resolved for them individually. But it is not the case; it is actually just intelligence for the regulator. I think it is really important recommendation. It has come from a variety of stakeholders calling for an ombudsman to be put into place. I do acknowledge that, in the other place, the government accepted that amendment. We look forward to working together to progress that. Hopefully, over the next 12 months all of these measures will work to drive the shonks and spivs out of the sector. The way they have been exploiting young people has been appalling. We have seen report after report of young people signing up to courses that, firstly, they really did not have the capacity to undertake. Therefore, we have seen very disappointing completion rates. Secondly, they are quite often unaware of the size of the debt that they have been left with. That, of course, creates real issues for them in their longer term studies. Thirdly, as a result of being poorly recruited, very often by brokers who have no educational experience, many of them are unable to complete their courses. So quite often they have ended up with a debt and without a qualification—which is, potentially, the worst outcome. We should also acknowledge that, for some people who have finished courses, the courses have been of such poor quality that the industry has blacklists of providers. Child care is one outstanding example where some employers have gone public. A young person has a qualification and is applying for jobs in good faith, unaware that they are not succeeding because the qualification is poorly regarded in the industry. So it is absolutely critical that we take stern action to make sure that this is weeded out. It is not just young people who are being affected, as the minister, I know, is aware. Providers have been trawling aged-care sector and signing people up, saying, 'Because you're on the pension, you will never have to pay the debt back.' A program that should be there to support people who want a vocational qualification at the diploma level, in the same way that we support university students, ends up being trashed by that sort of behaviour. It is being trashed to the point where not only the funding stream is being discredited but also the whole sector, potentially, is being discredited. So we are a bit frustrated. We are glad to see that, in a moment of panic, the government did some last-minute reform to its own legislation. We will support that. We do appreciate that the government has adopted some of the amendments that we put forward. I think it will pay for all of us to remain very alert and agile—to borrow the government's terminology—to make sure that this behaviour is absolutely stopped in the interim 12 months and that we can work together to establish a better scheme for the longer term.
SUBJECT/S: Vocational Education and Training, VET FEE-HELP, Maldon-Dombarton Rail Link JOURNALIST: We’ve been hearing the stories about private vocational education providers and some of the more shonky ones who have been employing practices such as offering free lap tops to people to entice them to sign up to courses that they actually have no intention of doing and getting VET FEE-HELP student loans from the government to pay for them. Apparently it is costing the government billions of dollars and in this week, the last Parliamentary sitting week of the year, the government has moved about thirteen pages of amendments to its own legislation to do what the Training Minister, Luke Hartsuyker says, was turn off the tap of taxpayer funding. Joining me now is Sharon Bird, of course the Member for Cunningham, but also the opposition spokesperson for Vocational Education, good morning to you… BIRD: Good morning. JOURNALIST: Now look it seems these stories of, pretty much, shonks in the system are becoming more prolific recently, how do we rein this system in and surely this is a sign that the government has decided actually we do need to do something because the system is being rorted? BIRD: This has been a big issue that I’ve been pursuing the government about for at least eighteen months now. Labor has been calling for the regulators to take serious action that includes the national vocational regulator, ASQA, it includes the Department and it includes people like the ACCC. So it’s been welcomed in recent months. In particular for example, the ACCC is taking legal action against a number of these sorts of providers and we will see what the outcome of that is. More importantly we have been saying to the government everything they have done is tinkering around the edges. When you are dealing with sharks who are running a shonky outfit you need to come down like a ton of bricks on them. They are ruining younger people’s hopes of getting a job by selling them dodgy qualifications. They’re exploiting mature and elderly people in the community telling them you can have a free lap top but not fully disclosing that they will end up with sometimes a $25,000 debt. All of this sort of stuff requires much more urgent, much stronger action and so it was no surprise that the government’s latest Bill, which again we argued was not strong enough, finally they accepted that argument and, literally as the Shadow Minister in the Senate was on his feet, they introduced thirteen amendments to try and toughen it up. I have to say Labor still doesn’t think they go far enough. We did put up a proposal that there must be an Ombudsman which the government has now accepted but we also wanted them to put price controls in place and they wouldn’t do that, I think that is a big mistake. JOURNALIST: What can you do when people themselves don’t seem to be concerned about signing up to these courses and they are saying “Yeah sure I will accept this free lap top” and enrol in a course that they envisage will never have to pay back as they will never earn enough to pay it back, or being unaware of their responsibilities or their obligations. How do you stop that behaviour? BIRD: There has been a variety of situations occur under this so basically the training organisations are hiring these people called brokers who are out there treating it purely, if you like, as a door to door sales opportunity, pushing people in high pressure sales tactics to make on the spot decision about things that they really need a lot more advice on. They use that mechanism to sign up thousands and thousands of people, some of those people sort of go “oh well I am getting a free lap top and it won’t matter whether I do the training or not”, but pretty quickly when they discover it’s not a free lap top it’s actually leaving them with a debt that can be in the tens of thousands of dollars they get pretty cranky about it. Other people I have spoken to thought they had just signed up to a training course and they didn’t even know they had signed forms to apply for a loan and if you are on a pension, for example, and you don’t interact with the tax office you might not find out for years that you have this debt. It is a really serious issue for people out there and those sort of high pressure sales tactics should not be the way people get into training courses it should be based on sound advice and a professional assessment of their skill level and what courses are the most appropriate for them and with their best interest at heart not the profit margin of some company. JOURNALIST: One particular private education provider has taken the step of taking out a full page ad in the Sydney Morning Herald today to say a fair go for quality VET providers. You would have to concede that there are some people who are out there doing the right thing, providing quality education, via their own private company, to people. Has the government now gone too far so that some of these people who are actually high quality training providers are being impacted by this and will eventually kill off these programs as well. BIRD: I have always made the point, in fact I spoke at a conference of the peak body of the private training providers, and there are many providers out there in the private sector who have been working, often for decades, doing really good work, usually in their specific expertise area that they train in, and they have been telling me that they want the shonks shut down as well. They don’t just attack our great TAFE institutions and undermine their viability, they also attack the viability of the genuine, ethical private sector providers as well. I think the problem that many have is that the government’s very eleventh hour, knee-jerk panicked reaction, with the introduction of these amendments at the very last minute when the Bill was before the House yesterday, has caused that sort of concern that you see in the example you’ve talked about. Our problem was and we made the point to the government, while we would support their amendments, because we literally have had no time to look at them and we didn’t want to stand in the way of taking action against shonky providers, but putting the cap on in the way that they did basically sort of means that if you have ripped off a hundred million this year you can go off and rip off a hundred million next year. They have just put a cap on how much existing providers can sign up for VET FEE-HELP next year and that is why we thought it was insufficient and we put forward the other amendments, such as capping how much they can charge in the first place to make it unviable to rip students off and have them pay thousands of dollars that go to brokers who are just walking around doing a sales job. Continue reading
Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:36): As we go into the Christmas season, it is going to be quite a tough time for hundreds of people in the Illawarra because of the loss of a significant number of jobs at BlueScope Steel. The reason I want to talk to the House today is that Minister Macfarlane, the minister at the time, came to our region and held a round table, at which many leaders across industry, community and the unions came together to put proposals before the minister about ways in which this government could support our region. Then he was no longer the minister, and a new minister, Minister Pyne, came in. He called us up to Sydney for a round table so we could all sit around and put proposals forward again. We have seen nothing from this government in terms of a program of support for our region, despite the fact that they raised expectations by saying that they had some huge proposal that they were going to announce that would transform our region. Then, on Monday, the minister stood at that dispatch box and not only boasted about an innovation fund rolling out in Geelong, when he has done nothing for the Illawarra, but then quite extraordinarily said that the Port Kembla plant was in the seat of Gilmore! So it should be no surprise that today the Illawarra Mercury has run this front page, asking: Where's Pyney? Does he even know where the Illawarra is? It is about time this government stepped in and gave the support that it promised.