2016 Group Training National Conference: Skilling For Growth, Adelaide, 8 April 2016

Thank you so much for the invitation to once again join you for your national conference.  So much has happened since I last joined you at this same conference in November 2014, in the early days of the Abbott Government and now you meet again in, we presume, the closing days of the Turnbull Government! As I wrote in your most recent journal – Skills and Apprenticeships must be on the agenda for the forthcoming election and Bill Shorten and I are determined to ensure they are.  The significant issues that have developed across the vocational education and training sector would consume more time than we have today: you would be well aware of the unfolding in late 2014 of the stories of extremely shonky and unethical activities by some significant providers who were exploiting the VET FEE-HELP scheme to rip-off students.  Multiple attempts by four different Ministers over the last eighteen months had failed to rein in this serious problem.  Whilst each Minister has tinkered with the regulatory system the rorting continued apace – then suddenly at the end of last year the then Minister legislated a freeze on access to the scheme at the providers 2015 level whilst a review took place.  This approach has also seen legitimate, ethical providers have their viability put in jeopardy or students denied access to quality courses.  Labor, at the time, proposed again to the Minister a range of interventions but they weren’t accepted.  These included:  A VET sector Ombudsman to provide an avenue for complaint resolution for students apart from legal representation, a cap on course fees to address the fee-gouging that contributes to excessive debts, a lowered cap on VET FEE-HELP loans, a ban or restriction on the use of brokers and ensuring loan applications for students would be handled by the Department of Education and Training rather than a private college or broker.  As if the challenges of the blow-out in this scheme and the significant rorting that was occurring wasn’t enough, the government decided to get active on a federal sector takeover, including for the apprenticeship system. Fairfax media revealed a leaked COAG document that outlined the basis for how such a move would work and it was appalling – it was clearly a completely de-regulated and marketised approach with a significant shift of costs on to students.  It is unclear from the scant references to how this system would work for apprenticeships. While improved and harmonised systems should always be pursued by governments it is also critically important to ensure that quality is sustained and industry needs are well addressed – this ensures the apprentices and their employers feel real and long-lasting value is achieved.  All of this needs far greater consideration than such a short proposition as we saw can deliver.  However, at last Friday’s COAG meeting of Skills Ministers the proposition had mysteriously disappeared and we wait to see what its status is in the future.  However, a significant document was released out of last Friday’s meeting: the final report on the review of the national partnership agreement on skills reform by Acil Allen Consulting.  This report significantly was an endorsement of two major policies already announced by Labor for the upcoming election.  The report stated that:  “There have been significant steps taken by state and territory governments in relation to public provision. While it has been widely acknowledged that public providers have generally improved their efficiency and responsiveness, there is also recognition that more remains to be done, both in defining the expectations on and obligations of the public provider, as well as in the public provider clearly defining the commercial realities of providing a suite of contestable and non-contestable services.  While this tension between the labour market focus of the student entitlement and the broader role of the public provider is acknowledged explicitly in the National Partnership, a number of stakeholders suggested that these different objectives are not always held in balance. Indeed, important community service and educational roles of the public provider were in some instances being eroded in pursuit of the efficiency and responsiveness measures within the National Partnership. Transformation of the public provider role requires a steady, evolutionary process, otherwise there are strong risks of losing the value invested in the current capacity and capability of public provision.  Any future reform in this area requires government expectations for non-market services to be clearly identified and the cost disadvantages of providing these accurately priced and funded. This includes addressing competitive non-neutralities, workforce and IR policies, maintaining public assets, governance and reporting obligations.” (Pxii)  This lead to Recommendation 6:   DEFINED PUBLIC PROVISION The role and expected activities of the public provider, both contestable and non-contestable, should be clearly and transparently articulated, costed, and funded accordingly.   This is almost identical to Labor’s announced TAFE Guarantee Policy.  Last year on National TAFE Day in Canberra we announced that a Labor Government will work with Premiers and Chief Ministers on a comprehensive National Priority Plan that defines the unique role of TAFE and places it squarely as the public provider within the VET sector – as the cornerstone of our economy’s need to train and retrain its workforce and to deliver on improving the participation, productivity, innovation and growth efforts required for the nation.  We will work with the states and territories to rebalance the contestable and non-contestable funding model to ensure it delivers the outcomes that are intended.  Labor believes there is a place for contestable funding but we must get the balance right.  Labor is determined that TAFE must remain an essential part of Australia’s skills and training sector as it plays a vital role in servicing our regions, industries in transition and disadvantaged groups.  As the Australian economy changes, the jobs of the future will change.  Our trades will involve more technology-based skills and workers will need training in these skills to be more effective in the workplace and to remain competitive in the employment market.  New trades and professions will emerge and require quality training programs and upskilling courses.  It is therefore absolutely critical that we invest in supporting our national asset – our public TAFE sector.  There are challenges in the way the vocational educational sector is funded which has led to the decline of the TAFE sector nationally.  Over the last year it has become clear that there has been a failure in the market and we have seen the proliferation of opportunistic and sub-standard training providers costing the taxpayers and students millions of dollars. This needs to stop.   Vocational students need to have access to good quality training but we need a better system in place to ensure TAFE’s viability and strength into the future. The fundamentals of an effective market are clearly missing and no amount of regulation, as important as it is, will change this.  Labor believes the market must find stability through a predominant public provider, complemented by a quality private sector.  Just as importantly the report identifies the need for a new national approach to the sector which leads to Recommendations 1 & 2:  Firstly that the system must be guided by an overarching roadmap:  “Any further reform beyond the current NP should be guided by the development of a strategic roadmap that provides a clear articulation of the role and purpose of VET within the broader education and workforce development systems in Australia, and defines staged goals for achieving the transition.”  And, secondly, that it be underpinned by a national training system architecture:  “The architecture of the national training system should be defined and agreed, determining the elements where consistency across jurisdictions is critical to the achievement of training outcomes, and those where local flexibility is necessary for the achievement of these outcomes.”  It is exactly with a view to achieving these aims that Bill Shorten and I announced in March that a Shorten Labor Government will undertake a comprehensive National Vocational Education and Training Sector Review to build a stronger VET sector and weed out dodgy providers and student rip-offs.   Despite its importance to Australia’s social and economic future, Australia’s VET sector is at a crossroads. Costs are increasing but quality is declining, particularly in private courses and states which have experienced funding reductions.   Labor’s review will ensure the VET sector is properly equipped to train Australians for the jobs of the future, proper standards are enforced and the central role of our public TAFE system is recognised.   Our national skills and training sector used to be the envy of the world – since the election of the Liberal Government it has been significantly damaged by shonks and sharks ripping off vulnerable people.    People’s livelihoods are being destroyed – and their job prospects ruined.  It is a disgrace – and action must be taken.   Having a strong VET sector is an important part of Labor’s plan to support and create jobs, increase participation and tackle inequality.   The vocational education and training sector deserves a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to policy-making to ensure it is fit for the critical task of preparing Australians for the jobs of the future.   While schools and universities have had full reviews into funding with the Gonski and Bradley reviews – the vocational education and training sector has been left behind.  The sector has not undergone a full review since the Kangan Report in 1974.   It is time for a full review of the operation of the sector including quality, funding and access.  As new jobs emerge and existing industries go through extensive restructuring the nation will rely on an effective, quality vocational sector to provide the qualifications to enable people to enter the workforce, upskill or retrain.   This significant policy announcement further demonstrates Labor’s commitment to protecting the reputation of the vocational education and training sector, prioritising the outcomes for students and meeting the national need for a well-trained workforce into the future.   When we met in November 2014 I outlined a significant number of criticisms of government decisions taken in the Budget that year that cut away at support for apprentices across the country.  These included the abolition of the Tools For Your Trade payment, the Apprentice Access Program, the Apprentice Mentoring Program, the Apprentice to Business Owner Program and the rebadging of Australian Apprenticeship Centres as Australian Apprenticeships Support Network with less money and more work.  Between that conference and today we have, as you well know, seen even more cuts.  This includes the decision by previous Minister Macfarlane to take the axe to apprenticeship assistance again by cutting funding to the $12.5 million Joint Group Training Program by 20 per cent that year and axing the program completely in 2015-16.  As I said at the time and as you know all too well:  “As outlined in my speech to the Group Training National Conference this morning, in many areas, particularly in regional Australia, the employers are predominantly small and medium businesses who are simply focused on making ends meet and would find taking on an apprenticeship a challenge.  This is why Group Training Organisations play such a critical role of the training infrastructure.  “It has become more difficult for young people to get their first job and they often don’t have the pathway to connect to employers who may be interested in hiring an apprentice and this is where Group Training Organisations step in – to make connections between employers and prospective apprentices and to help build a strong and successful relationship between the two.” In MYEFO at the end of 2014 the then Abbott Government again took the axe to skills funding by cutting another $200 million - the Budget update cut $66 million in support for Adult Australian Apprentices and slashed over 10,000 training places from the Skills for Education and Employment program.  The Adult Australian Apprentices program was put in place to remove barriers to completing an apprenticeship and to encourage up-skilling for adult workers over the age of 25.   Adult apprentices studying a Certificate III or IV could receive $150 per week (up to $7,800 per year) in the first year and $100 per week (up to $5,200 per year) in the second year of their apprenticeship and, as you know, a significant number of apprentices are now mature age which often means they are trying to live independently and may also have partners and children, so this was a significant blow to them.  The best that could be said about the subsequent 2015/16 Budget was that it didn’t make any further cuts but there was no new funding for apprentices, no new funding for upskilling existing workers, no funding for Group Training, and no support for areas and industries in transition.  Not long after the Budget, in the face of continuing reports of lower apprentice commencements and completions former Minister Birmingham said: “what we’re desperately trying to do now is work on policies and strategies that can rebuild the system” Minister Simon Birmingham, 2GB, 21 May 2015   Well we are still waiting for any apprentice initiatives from this Government, nearly a year later and as another Budget looms.  There are signs that we should be worried about the skills portfolio, even under a new Prime Minister and Treasurer as in December’s MYEFO there were further portfolio cuts - $273.8 million over four years from the Industry Skills Fund and $122.9 million from the Skills for Education and Employment (SEE) Program.  The cumulative effects of cuts and neglect of the apprenticeship program is clear with the most recent figures released by NCVER again demonstrating that the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s cuts continue to cause apprentice numbers to plummet, including a 19.3 per cent cut in commencements and a 6 per cent decrease in completions.    In September 2013 there were 417,700 apprentices in training.  Now, because of the Liberal Government’s savage cuts there are now only 295,300 apprentices (September 2015).   That is 122,400 fewer apprentices in training.   This Government has developed no new incentives to combat this problem much less get ahead of the game by looking for innovation and opportunity in the sector.  In March this year in Wollongong I launched Energy Skills Australia’s “Energy Industry Apprenticeship Progression Management System Report”.  This was a report on an apprenticeship innovation project funded under the previous Labor Government and utilising some of the now abolished programs, including the apprentice mentoring program, the apprenticeships advisers program and the accelerated apprenticeships program. This project achieved a very significant outcome – the apprentice retention rate of 93%.  This is a truly significant achievement as the completion rate for the Certificate III electrician trade qualification had previously remained consistent at around 62%.  This is the type of innovation and investment that is needed to lift commencement and completion rates and retain confidence in the apprenticeship system – we see nothing like this from the current government.  As Labor’s Shadow Minister I have met apprentices, employers and training providers across the country – many of your Group Training members have also provided me with ongoing updates and advice and I want to publicly thank you for that as I have worked on Labor’s VET and apprenticeship policies.  I would just like to finish by also thanking your outgoing CEO, Jim Barron, who holds a wealth of knowledge on the sector and has been a fierce and consistent advocate for group training but also for apprenticeships more broadly and I sincerely wish him well for the future.  Thank you all for your generosity in inviting me to participate today and to many of your forums over the last nearly three years since the previous election.  And so we march on to the next one, determined to put skills, vocational education and training and apprenticeships and traineeships firmly on the agenda for that contest. Continue reading

Energy Skills Australia’s Energy Industry Apprenticeship Progression Management System Report Launch, Wollongong, 22 March 2016

For those of you who are visitors to our area – welcome. The Illawarra is a region still undergoing significant transition as we work to retain our manufacturing base and to broaden the industries that offer employment opportunities for our population. Bernard van den Bergen (Chair of Energy Skills Australia), Sharon Bird (Shadow Minister for Vocational Education), Bill Nagle (Chair of EIAPMS Steering Committee) and Bob Taylor (CEO - Energy Skills Australia) The role of apprenticeships and traineeships is a critical component to this task.  They are a pathway for young people into work and for mature age people to change career directions. Despite the importance of the scheme it has been cut to the bone under both the Abbott and Turnbull governments – there has been nothing agile or innovative about their support for the next generation of tradies.  Across our region, which includes three federal seats – my own of Cunningham as well as the seats of Throsby and Gilmore – we have seen the loss of 1,319 apprentices in training since June 2014. That is a 19.4% loss of opportunities to gain skills and employment for locals. So, this conference and report launch have certainly come at a very interesting part of the election cycle given the extraordinary moves by the Government yesterday. This federal election year certainly got off to a chaotic start in the vocational education and training sector with the publication of a leaked document proposing a federal takeover of the whole sector, including apprenticeships.  However it should be noted that the previous Minister, having at first refused to comment, then tried to downplay it as simply “for discussion”.  The new Minister has now said he has a personal view that it’s not such a great idea, which is at sharp odds with his senior portfolio Minister, Simon Birmingham, who kicked the whole process off with strong statements about the need for a takeover – it will be interesting to see what policy position actually makes it to the election. Given how many crises in the sector that the Government already has on its hands as a result of both a failure to act quickly and appropriately to problems as they have emerged and extensive cuts and dismantling of proven programs and expert advice, I would suggest that their time would be more productively used on these matters. Given the value that communities across the country place on the vocational education sector, including apprenticeships, the Government will need to have a lot more to say about their view of this important education and training sector than they have done in the past.  At the last election they said virtually nothing about the sector and their only announcement was the plan to introduce trade support loans for apprentices.  However, they never told these same apprentices that this would involve axing their Tools for Your Trade payments.  I am sure that everyone concerned about these pathways to employment will be demanding much more transparency in this election campaign. Since the election of the federal Liberal Government we have lost 122,400 apprentices since the last federal election according to the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research report released this month.  There has been a 19.3% drop in commencements and a further 6% drop in completions.  The Federal Government’s record is appalling on apprenticeship promotion and support. It includes $1 billion in cuts to apprenticeship programs such as the mentoring program, the apprentice access program and the Apprentice to Business Owner program in the 2014-15 Budget; apprentice support was replaced with apprentice debt through the abolishing of the Tools for Your Trade Program; Australian Apprenticeship Centres were rebadged with a cut to funding; the Joint Group Training program was abolished; and cuts were made to support for adult apprentices.  It is significant to note that the report you are releasing today utilised these programs, including other Labor initiatives that were abandoned by the Government – specifically the apprentice mentoring program, the apprenticeships advisers program and the accelerated apprenticeships program. This Government has developed no new incentives to address the drop in apprentice numbers much less to get ahead of the game by looking for innovation and opportunity in this sector.  Many of these programs of the former Labor Government were targeted directly at support and extension of the apprenticeship scheme, recognising how important this pathway is to young people into the workforce and for an increasing number of mature workers into new fields of employment.  This project, I would argue, has achieved a very significant outcome – the apprentice retention rate of 93%.  This is a truly significant achievement as the completion rate for the Certificate III electrician trade qualification had previously remained consistent at around 62%. Training the next generation of trades qualified people has to be a critical task for all governments – participation rate improvements rely on training our people for the existing skill shortages and equipping them with the quality of training that allows them to deal with a much more rapidly changing workplace. In August last year we saw reports of the significant impact that emerging and ever-evolving technology will have on how we work and, therefore, how we train the workers of the future.  It is abundantly clear that innovation will be key to how we teach, how students access education and training and how businesses utilise the innovative capacities of their workforce to grow and succeed. Most of you would be aware that the Foundation for Young Australians at that time released their report, The New Work Order: Ensuring young Australians have skills and experience for jobs of the future, not the past”. This report showed that approximately 71% of young Australians currently in VET courses are preparing for occupations where at least two-thirds of the jobs will be automated over coming decades. These developments demand of us all that we ensure all of our education and training enables the next generation to have the underlying knowledge and skills they will need in all employment sectors to, not only manage change, but to grasp it and utilise its benefits. E-Oz’s environmental scan for 2014 describes a significant shift, or “disruption” as the more trendy version is described, in the energy sector. In the section “An Internet of Things” we see a great description of this major shift in the energy grid network from ‘behind the meter’: “Each of the technologies… can become parts of an internet of things which together provide new ways for the various players in the energy market to interact … the combination of smart metering with intelligent consumer appliances and systems will extend the networks to another layer, bringing the local ‘intranet of things’ from behind the meter, into the internet of things.” The report identifies further that: “Via the internet of things consumers will seek optimisation and maximise benefits by being able to (either automatically or by human intervention) take into account how all elements of the consumer’s local ‘intranet of things’ eg a home, business or factory, work together. This will be facilitated by the consideration of historical, actual and predicted costs and usage data to inform consumer choice.” The report rightly concludes: “The deployment of these technologies require that new technical and service skills to be available, within applicable regulatory frameworks, to support the installation, calibration, interconnection and synchronisation of intelligent appliances and systems at various scales, both within and between networks.” This is no small challenge and it points to the importance of dedicated and well-trained professionals driving the VET sector, capable, themselves, of adapting and deploying innovation to meet these challenges. As stated in your environmental scan: “Leading developed nations are now establishing ‘early warning systems’ to quickly detect the onset of trends and building agile vocational training systems capable of responding once issues are identified.” Continue reading

Petition: Domestic and Family Violence

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:42): by leave—I present a petition from the Illawarra branch of the Reclaim the Night campaign on strategies to prevent violence against women. It was a great pleasure for me today to host, with my colleague the member for Throsby, a local community group, the Illawarra branch of the Reclaim the Night campaign. This is a tremendous group of locals, including front-line workers in domestic and family violence, local Indigenous workers, community members and a school student. They had come to present to me and the member for Throsby the petition that they have been collecting since October last year on action they want to see to prevent family and domestic violence. They told very powerful stories of not only their own direct experience but also what they had heard from individuals as they gathered this petition together while standing at their stall in the mall at the Wollongong markets and across various communities. I would also like to put on the record our thanks to the Parliamentarians against Family Violence Friendship Group and its co-convenors, Tim Watts and Ken Wyatt, for meeting with the group. They heard directly from the group the information that they wanted to convey to this parliament about the great importance of us taking action on this scourge that, unfortunately, is present in all of our communities across the country. So I commend the Illawarra Reclaim the Night group and all the work that they have done. I know that they will continue to collect petitions, and I was more than pleased to be asked to present this petition in the parliament today. (Time expired) The DEPUTY SPEAKER: This document will now be referred to the Standing Committee on Petitions for consideration.

Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (17:48): I am pleased to be able to join colleagues from both sides of the House today to support the bill before us, the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016. Firstly, I want to outline what makes me such a passionate follower of this issue of the development of medicinal cannabis and availability to Australians. Like the member for Petrie, it is direct personal experience with a local constituent. I think that is a common experience many of us have had over recent times. Then, for the interest of those who might look at this speech afterwards, I will go through some of the details of the bill so that people are conscious of what it does. On 18 May last year I had a young man and his dad come to visit me. The young man's name is Ben Oakley and his dad is Michael. They came to talk to me at that point in time because Ben suffers a very rare condition. Some other speakers here have mentioned him as well, because he was in parliament with his mum and dad on the day that this bill was introduced, because they have been following the issue so closely, and he did some media. So some other parliamentarians had the opportunity to meet him. I had a short opportunity in the Federation Chamber to put on record my great admiration for his bravery and also the great clarity with which he explains his experiences and why he is campaigning on the medicinal cannabis issue. In May last year Ben and his dad came to see me because they were organising a fundraising walk to help with some of his costs. At the time, he was not using medicinal cannabis. So that was not an issue that was on the radar. It was really just to make me aware of his condition and what he was living with and to see if I could assist with their fundraising efforts, which I was pleased to do. I want to use Ben and his dad's own words in describing their experience, because I think they speak more powerfully than anything I could say. If people want to follow Ben's story, he has a Facebook site called Roll On Ben Oakley. It is a very powerful way to get his story out there. I think it is very encouraging how positive he and his family have remained. Ben's dad, on the Roll On Ben Oakey Facebook site, describes what actually happened to Ben, and these are his words:   On the 21st November 2012 my son, Benjamin Oakley collapsed after a cycling training ride, at the time we all thought that he had pulled a muscle but this was not to be the case. Many months of pain and discomfort were to follow without explanation as to what had happened to my fit and active boy. Ben has Stiff Person Syndrome, a 1 in a Million Neurological Disorder, in Ben's case it effects his mid spine and has left him in constant pain, it appears that Ben is the youngest person in Australia at this time with this horrible process. Ben has gone from a Cyclist and Triathlete to a wheelchair for anything more than a very short distance. Please watch the video attached to this post, it is Ben's story, in his words, it is very hard to watch, it's harder to live with! Ben has acute, full Body Muscle Spasm, even amongst SPS Sufferers this is rare, the Spasm appears similar to an Epileptic Seizure but Ben remains fully alert, aware and in the most intense pain!   Ben has described what happens as imagine taking a Tazer and holding it against your spine! A few weeks back Ben had the worst day anyone could possibly imagine, over the space of 9 hours Ben had 61 of these spasms, the longest continuous spasm lasted for 2 hours. Each Spasm is accompanied by not only intense pain but also huge increases in Ben's Blood Pressure (recorded at 208/190, more than enough to cause a Stroke or Heart Attack!) and his Body temperature goes very high (recorded at 41.5). A spasm can be caused by a sudden scare, a cough, a sneeze, being upset or emotional or sudden intense pain. Any movement can and does cause Ben pain and this obviously could cause him tom have more spasm, Ben has gone from an active person who would rarely sit to not able to move without risking a life threatening Spasm. The only positive thing I can say that has come from this is the fact that Ben is who he is! He always has a smile on his face, he is always up for a challenge and he will always go that extra mile for anyone! He goes on to explain that they were holding a fundraiser to raise charity money. Further on in the report, he made the point: Treatments that exist are very expensive and not always effective. We are trying to make not only Ben's life easier but also others with this Rare Disease. Their charity is called Drop a Dollar for Rare Diseases. At that point, as I said, they were working to raise funds. I have to say, it was a very moving experience to meet a young man who, in his late teens, had been struck down in the way Ben was and yet who had so profoundly determined to wring the most out of every day that was before him to try to get back to some sort of normal life. Continue reading

Closing The Gap Report

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (18:48): It is a pleasure to speak on this very important issue before the House. I suggest that each year, as we annually hear the report on the Closing the Gap progress—or, sadly, lack of progress in too many of the targets—it is an opportunity for each of us to take our responsibility up and to participate in this chamber on those matters. I want to recognise firstly, in my contribution, the original inhabitants and custodians of the land on which we meet today and to pay my respects to their elders past and present, to pay my great respect to the resilience of our first people and to also acknowledge the great contribution that they make to the Closing the gap report and to the consideration of it as we go forward. I want to cover just three areas of this year's Closing the gap report. There are many significant issues for us to confront in it, but I would like to particularly focus, firstly, on education and employment—obviously, with my shadow portfolio of vocational education, it is an issue that I watch closely and take a great interest in—secondly, on the issue of constitutional recognition and, thirdly, on the issue of the justice system and incarceration rates. The Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report 2016 makes it very clear that postsecondary education—in fact all the stages of education, but postsecondary education in particular—is intrinsically linked with Indigenous opportunities for employment. In fact, the report tells us that Indigenous graduates have strong employment outcomes. In 2014, around 77 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates were in full-time employment following completion of their award, compared with 68.1 per cent of all graduates, so there is an even stronger link for Indigenous people between completing a postsecondary qualification and achieving employment. In particular, I want to draw the House's attention to the fact that in 2014, 55 per cent of all higher education students in Australia were female, but among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, 66 per cent were female. This contrasts with the Indigenous participation in vocational education and training, where the majority of Indigenous students were male—that is, 55 per cent. That comes from the NCVER report. If we look at that report in some more detail—if people are interested, it is Equity groups in total VET students and courses 2014, their most recent publication—it tells us that in 2014, there were 146,500 Indigenous students. They made of 3.7 per cent of all students. That has been an improving outcome. It had a slight dip in 2013, but over the years the participation rate of Indigenous students in vocational education and training has sustained. There is a worry in the figures. The success rate, if you like, which is called the 'subject load pass rate', was 83.4 per cent for all students in the sector. However, for Indigenous students it was 74.4 per cent. That in particular indicates, I have to report to the House, the lowest completion rate. Students with a disability were slightly higher at 74.6 per cent. Students from a non-English-speaking background were 80.7, and students from rural and remote localities were 85.6. So whilst we have sustained the participation rates, we really need to focus on improving the success and completion rates for Indigenous students. The reason for that is clear from the 'closing the gap' report itself—that that would directly indicate the success and opportunity for Indigenous Australians to get employment, and we all know that employment is one of the key factors for addressing broader disadvantage, including many other areas such as health. The higher a person's educational attainment, the greater their connection to the workforce, then all the other factors show improvements as well, so it is an area where I think we have to give a great deal of focus and attention. I do want to just mention the factors many of you in this place would know. Sadly, there were quite a number of media reports last year about some of the less-ethical private providers in the vocational sector who were out in Indigenous communities particularly targeting Indigenous people to sign up for diploma-level courses that were inappropriate to their needs and left them with very large debts. They were using really unscrupulous inducements to get people to sign up. I am pleased that significant changes have been made by the government in their requirements for those sorts of courses, and we have been happy to support them. But we have to remain vigilant, because these sorts of sharks find a new way to swim around the new regulations, and they target the most disadvantaged. Continue reading

Rural And Regional Education

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:00): I want to take the opportunity to discuss this motion of private member's business today because, as has been outlined, government speakers here on this motion have pointed to a number of initiatives that the government has put in place that they want to highlight as they have had positive impacts. The member for Durack spoke about the youth allowance changes. The member for O'Connor did as well, and they spoke about things like the Clontarf program. But what they have ignored is that that is so massively outweighed by what has been done in slashing the overall funding bucket not only for schools but also for vocational education and training. I have yet to hear much discussion about that, so I want to have an opportunity today to talk about that directly. First of all, in terms of where we are with schools funding, I note the member of Durack, in her opening address, referred to the $30 billion that was cut from schools as complete fantasy. It would be absolutely true to describe those people's reactions to the last two Abbott government budgets as a complete nightmare. There has been $30 billion cut from schools in this nation; it is in their own budget papers, it is not difficult to find and it is even put into a simple graph so that you can see exactly what those cuts are. You do not have to take our word for it. Go and chat to some of your colleagues, particularly those from the National Party, in some of the states and ask them what they think about those two budgets and the impacts on schools—I will come to that in a moment. Across Australia, what the government's walking away from their commitments means is that there are about 1.5 million country students and they are facing, over the next 10 years, a cut of $12.5 billion in funding for their schools. In my own Illawarra region, that is about $391 million cut from our schools over the next 10 years. The result of that, of course, is that, as previous members have indicated, there is a gap, a disadvantage factor for students from regional, rural and remote Australia compared to their city-based colleagues. We should be focused on closing that by putting in place the sort of needs-based funding that David Gonski and his panel, after extensive investigation, recommended. Indeed, that is what everybody thought they were getting prior to the election. The signs were out all over the place: 'Vote for us. Vote Liberal. Vote National. You'll get exactly the same on Gonski funding as you would with Labor.' Unfortunately, as with so much campaigning by the then Abbott opposition, apparently we had to read the fine print, which said 'only for the first four years'. Of course, the vast bulk of funding rolled in in years 5 and 6. That was not advertised. I still cannot find the fine print on those posters myself, but maybe somebody else can point it out to me. On top of that, of course, there are the across-the-board funding cuts that occurred in the budget. This is actually what the sizeable impact of this government's policies has been on regional and rural schooling. It is a sector of all of our states that can least afford it. As I said, I just want to point out that the now Leader of the National Party, before the election, said, in his own words, 'I believe without a shadow of a doubt we will continue to commit to Gonski past the first term.' You can find that in The Northern Daily Leader from September 2013. His New South Wales colleague Minister Piccoli was very unimpressed with his federal colleagues. In 2014, after the budget he said, in his own words: Not only is this a breach of a commitment to NSW, it is breach of faith with all school students in the State … Schools in regional areas, as well as disadvantaged and Aboriginal students, will be the hardest hit. That is in his own media release of June 2014. Let's go to the vocational education sector. We have seen $2 billion in support cut out of this sector, yet it is in regional and remote Australia that the biggest percentage of students actually go into vocational education training. In regional and remote areas 8.5 per cent of students go into the VET sector. Since 2012-13, we have seen a 13 per cent decline in the number of students from inner and outer regional and remote areas enrolled in vocational training. This is a direct result of the slashing cuts that this government has been making, which ignores TAFE' capacity to deliver for regional and rural students. (Time expired)

NSW ALP State Conference, Sunday 14 February, 2016

BIRD: Thank you. Can I start by thanking the Education Committee members for the fantastic work they have been doing around New South Wales on this Platform and I am happy to endorse it. Thank you also for coming to Cunningham and having a long session with us down there.  Delegates there is a really important issue facing us at the next federal election. Make no mistake about it, this election will determine the survival of TAFE in this country, that is what we face. If you want to see evidence of that, talk to our Victorian colleagues about what a conservative government did to our fantastic TAFE system in that state. They had strangled it to the point of disappearing across regional and rural Victoria and it was only the election of the Labor Government that saved TAFE in Victoria. We have a responsibility to do exactly the same thing at the federal level.  Delegates we saw, only in the last few weeks, a leaked document that the Turnbull Liberal Government was planning to completely privatise and take over the vocational sector. Their view is TAFE is no different to any other training provider it will not survive in that environment, it’s a public provider, its job goes beyond what any other training provider does.  It’s there in our regions and rural areas.   It’s there to determine access for people with a disability.  It’s there to give fair opportunity to our Indigenous Australians.  It’s there to give second chance education for people who have missed out for one reason or another on their schooling.  It’s there to work with our retrenched worker who need to be upskilled and given a new opportunity at work.  It is our public provider, our TAFE, that does that task and if we don’t stand up at the next federal election it will be the end of it.  I am really pleased that at our National TAFE Day last year Bill Shorten, at a forum co-hosted by the Australian Education Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, stood up and said he was going to make this a federal election issue.  He committed to a TAFE funding guarantee and the use of the COAG process to hold every State Government accountable for sustaining and building and long term future of our TAFE system.  Delegates, you know as well as I know, I know this is in your hearts and minds and no matter what community environment you go into and talk to people about, one thing that Linda Burney said is that they suddenly all want to talk to you about their TAFE and apprenticeship opportunities for young people.  This federal government has decimated them - $2 billion cut out.  $1 billion cut out of apprentice support.  100,000 fewer apprentices in training since they were elected and yet they want to bring in people from overseas to do the jobs and they don’t want to train our own people to take up those opportunities.  It’s a great Platform, it’s solid work and the committee should be commended on it and I ask each of us not just to support this Platform but go out and spread the word, the time is urgent that we get this message into our community.  Thank you delegates.  ENDS

Family Law Court - Wollongong

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:38): I am taking the opportunity in the House today to put on the public record some real concerns in my local area about the support and staffing for our Family Court in Wollongong. It is a matter that has been in the public debate in our local area for about a year now, and I have met with local solicitors, in particular, who are very concerned about the pressures being put on their clients. The problem we have, of course, is that the Attorney-General had not replaced some retiring judges. There was a shortage of judges and we were seeing a massive backlog of cases. My understanding is that at the last count there were something like 600 cases in backlog. As members here would know very well, the Family Court is dealing with some of the most stressful and difficult circumstances that people enter into. They are seeking resolution, in particular, to issues around their children and settling arrangements for their long-term future. When you are waiting two or three years for a hearing date, that just exacerbates all the stress within families that goes on as a result of a break-up anyway. We heard one story only recently of a local family who were told that, if they wanted to get the matter resolved any quicker, their only option was to go from Wollongong to a Brisbane court to get a decision. That is just absolutely unacceptable, and so the member for Throsby and I have been working with our local solicitors and our local constituents to try and get this matter addressed with some urgency. The reason that I am seeking to put it on the record of this House today is that, given all of these pressures, it was very frustrating in estimates this week that the Attorney-General indicated to the committee that he had only received one representation on the issue from another senator—senator Fierravanti-Wells. In actual fact, the Attorney-General received a letter from the member for Throsby and I in December last year highlighting to him the problems that we were having and the concerns that we had for our local constituents. Indeed, his Chief of Staff wrote back to us in January this year, not offering any resolution but acknowledging the concerns that we had raised in our letter. The Attorney-General was particularly inaccurate when he said that he had not had representations. As a result of the reply by the Chief of Staff, the member for Throsby and I decided to write again to say that we were very concerned that our local family court had a permanent judge who was there to provide services to our local people, and, if you know the geography of our area, many people accessing that court are coming from quite a long way south—a couple of hours drive south of Wollongong—to access the Wollongong courts, so being sent to Sydney is even more problematic for them. Recognising that, we invited the member for Gilmore to join us in writing to the Attorney-General so that all three members covering the drawing area of the court would have, with one voice, said to the Attorney-General that we want this matter urgently resolved and we want a permanent presence in our local family court. To her great credit, the member for Gilmore co-signed the letter to the Attorney-General. Not only had the Attorney-General had a letter from the two Labor representatives in our area, he had also subsequently received a letter from all three elected federal members in the area, including his own colleague the member for Gilmore. It was particularly frustrating to us, again, that the Attorney-General indicated in estimates that he had not received any representations. So that it cannot be missed and it cannot be misrepresented, I am putting it on the record in the House today. There is a bipartisan view in the Illawarra and South Coast that our families need a full-time family court judge presence in Wollongong. We need this in the best interests of the most vulnerable—the children—but also for the men and women who are caught up in this process. We need to take the pressure off them, get them a resolution and not add to the difficulties that everyone is going through at these sorts of times. Attorney-General, it is on the record. There is no running from it, so get it solved.    

Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2015-2016, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2015-2016

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:13): I am pleased to take the opportunity to speak in this cognate debate on the appropriation bills before the House today to give a brief context to the bills and then go to some specific issues relating to both my shadow portfolio and my local area. The appropriation bills before us seek to appropriate $2.2 billion in the 2015-16 financial year and they of course reflect the changes that were a result of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook that was released by the government at the end of last year, on 15 December. With the release of MYEFO at the end of last year—I know there has been a revolving door of personalities in the various positions, spruiking their economic credentials—it was claimed that we would see significant improvements in the budget and the economy, first under the Abbott government, with the Hockey treasurership, and then under the Turnbull government, with the Morrison treasurership. Yet we have not seen that. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. The 2015-16 MYEFO told us that the deficit is higher. There is a blow-out of $26 billion over the forward estimates and a blow-out of $120 million per day between the 2015-16 budget and the 2015-16 MYEFO statement. Net debt for 2016-17 is nearly $100 billion higher than what was forecast in the 2013 PEFO—the statement of the fiscal situation at the time of the election. Gross debt is headed to $550 billion by the end of the forward estimates, and economic growth has been slashed. Far from there being any good news in the MYEFO, at the end of last year we saw a continuation of the failure of this government to deliver on the things it promised before the election, in terms of both budget responsibility and economic growth. This is on the back of figures that show that the economy has been deteriorating in some very important sectors under this government. Most significantly, living standards, as measured by disposable income per capita, have been falling for six consecutive quarters. The reality for people in each of our electorates across the country, and it is reflected in the sorts of comments you hear when you are out and about at street stalls, door knocking and at community functions, is that they are under financial pressure. This government has only been contributing to that. I should also make the point that capital expenditure is falling, and despite what some might think that is not just in the mining sector. There is a significant issue there, because if capital expenditure slows it affects opportunities for job growth. Consumer and business confidence levels are far lower than they were when this government took office, promising to inject confidence back into the economy. It may well be the most exciting time to be an Australian, but that excitement is obviously based on anxiety and concern—not on optimism and confidence; we are not seeing any of that reflected in data that is coming out on economic performance. We should not be surprised about levels of confidence because confidence has a lot to do with the messages and signals people get from government. When you have the sort of chaos and change and uncertainty that has been going on for just on two years now, of course that contributes to a lack of confidence across the broader community and has an impact on the economy. Now we have a Prime Minister who just floats thought bubbles and has conversations, without providing any sense of leadership direction to people about action he wants to take to improve the economy. It is not enough to say you are all about innovation and excitement. That does not deliver outcomes. It is not surprising that we have seen these sorts of results in confidence levels as well, because people would be very confused not only by who makes up the decision making frontbenchers—we see more turmoil today—but also by what it is they are actually about. What is their jobs plan, what is their economic plan, what is their taxation plan? Conversations do not deliver, so we need to see exactly what the Prime Minister is intending. It is important to allay people's fears, because people are clearly looking at their direct experience of what the government said before the election, the sorts of promises and commitments that they made, and their abject failure to deliver on those. No wonder people are very confused by this government in all its iterations. I turn to the MYEFO statement itself. In my own shadow portfolio, it was concerning to see that we have more budget decisions that go directly to cutting funds for the skills sector. I have yet to see a decision made by this government that is about injecting and boosting support for the skills sector. Over two years they have cut $2 billion out of the skills budget. The previous speaker, the member for Petrie, spoke about the importance of giving young people in his area an opportunity to get training and apprenticeships. Well, it takes more than talk and optimism—you actually have to invest. We have seen exactly the opposite to that. In MYEFO we saw a further cut in this sector of $400 million, taking cuts to nearly $2.5 billion since this government was elected. In particular, there has been a cut of $273.8 million over four years from the Industry Skills Fund. In government Labor had a National Workforce Development Fund that was directly targeted at supporting the upskilling of existing workers so that not only their own skills but also the capacity of the business they worked for could be increased so they could innovate and adapt to the demands of the future. It funded really important programs, in particular combining literacy and numeracy skills with vocationally related skills for the workplace. We have only very recently seen the Australian Industry Group again come out and say there are major issues with the literacy and numeracy skill levels of many workers. This government in their first budget abolished that program, and they claimed that their new version, the Industry Skills Fund, which had significantly less money, would be delivering on upskilling existing workers. We have not seen it well subscribed to, and in the MYEFO at the end of last year we saw a further cut to the program. Continue reading

Sharon Bird – Transcript – ABC Illawarra, THURSDAY, 11 FEBRUARY 2016

SUBJECT/S: Vocational Education Crisis   JOURNALIST:  As you may have heard the changes to TAFE as well as to the way students are able to access FEE-HELP, there is a HECS like fee loan system in the vocational education sector. The government has cracked down upon that after allegations of wide spread rorting of the system and just this morning, less than an hour ago, we were told that one of the biggest private providers of education in Australia has just collapsed.   Now this company, the parent company is called Global Intellectual Holdings, they run the Aspire College of Education, the Designworks College of Design, the RTO Services Group and the Australian Indigenous College have just been placed in voluntary administration. They have about 20 different campuses around Australia, under those names and other names.   They made $83 million in revenue in the year to June 2015 making them one of the largest companies in Australia in this area, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. They made a profit of $18 million and they paid $14 million of that to two directors and they have now gone into voluntary administration leaving some students completely high and dry having paid their fees and they have got nowhere to go, they’ve got no qualifications, they have nowhere to go to get any kind of education. Where does this leave them? Where does this leave the government, State and Federal governments with changes to that kind of education.   Sharon Bird is the Opposition spokesperson for Vocational Education, she is on the line now, good morning.   SHARON BIRD, SHADOW MINISTER FOR VOCATIONAL EDUCATION: Good morning Nick   JOURNALIST:  What have you heard from some of the students around Australia about these colleges?   BIRD: Look this is, as you just indicated in your opening, just recent news. It’s not unprecedented we have had other large colleges over the last 12 months or so experience similar problems and so it’s sadly too common a story that is going on in some of the private sector. It’s one of the reasons that, in opposition, we have been pushing the government to take action on some of these sorts of business models because the problem was, at the end of the day, too many of them are based on recruiting students regardless of their capacity to take the training.   They were loading them up with debts and then students were either finding they couldn’t handle the course and they were failing or dropping out but they still had the debt. We were getting feedback from businesses, some of them get their qualifications but it is such poor quality that businesses were creating, if you like, blacklists of training providers that they wouldn’t employ people from. There has been a huge problem in the sector.   JOURNALIST:Has that kind of allegation been levelled against some of these colleges owned by Global Intellectual Holdings? Are they on a blacklist?   BIRD: I don’t know because, to be honest, employers who talk to us don’t go into the detail because they are concerned about naming particular companies. It’s more a systemic problem that has been there, in terms of the stories that we were hearing, and I think I have talked about them to you before about this, lining up outside the Centrelink offices trying to recruit people, doorknocking in poor suburbs and trying to recruit people, all of that sort of behaviours have been going on.   The national regulator has been following up and the ACCC has been following up with a number of colleges so who was actually looking at this particular one, I don’t know, but the priority surely has to be now the many, many students who have been displaced.  There is a national public insurance scheme that is run by the peak body, the Australian Council of Private Education, but again it depends on whether these particular colleges were members and were covered by that scheme.   JOURNALIST: What would that cover, hypothetically?   BIRD: That is a scheme that is designed to provide a guarantee to get students into the training they were doing with another provider and the federal Department of Education needs to be involved in that as well. I would just suggest to them that their priority today has to be taking some urgent action for those students. I want to also recognise that there is an awful lot of staff who are losing their jobs as well so a terrible disruption to a lot of people by this outcome.   JOURNALIST:   The allegation has been that the college has just enrolling as many students as possible knowing that they were covered for their fees, upfront by the government, and then they will just be left with a debt much like HECS, has that happened with this particular college?   BIRD: Well again the details about this particular one, I’m going to have to have a look into today because, like you, I have only seen it in the last hour. On a general position this has been a thing, and I want to say the government has taken some pretty serious action in terms of clamping down on what was going on. The problem was it just took them too long and, as you indicated, last year big profits were being made and the action to make sure that they were enrolling students appropriately not forcing students into inappropriate courses, not aggressively marketing, not delivering poor quality, all of those things just took too long.   So we saw that explosion over the last two years, I think it was about $700 million in VET FEE-HELP loans in 2013, well by last year it was up to $1.7 billion, and so you just saw an explosion in this sort of activity.   Continue reading