Vocational Education

MS BIRD (CUNNINGHAM) (18:32): I rise to speak in the cognate debate on this bill, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017 and the related bill. As indicated by the shadow minister, I will indicate up-front that I also support these bills before the House today.

These two bills go to some corrections needed to improve the Australian Skills Quality Authority's ability to effectively do its job in a reliable framework; in particular, in a reliable funding framework. On many occasions over recent years, where the government has brought forward bills to address regulation and the role of ASQA, we on this side of the House have been able to support those bills. In the two bills that are before us today is a recognition that there is a risk at the moment that the charges which are levied by ASQA could be considered taxes under section 55 of the Constitution rather than fees for a service. At the moment, regulatory activity by ASQA is generally covered by a fee-for-service type of structure. But ASQA has developed, and does very important work in intelligence collection and data analysis. As we know from the way the sector has been decimated by appalling conduct by too many providers, there is a need to have a regulator who is also out there proactively gathering intelligence and looking at the sector. These bills go to those issues, and for that reason I would like to commend them. I want to take a bit of time to cover the detail of what is in the bills, and then I want to talk about the context within which these bills sit and the current status of the sector.

The bills before us will amend ASQA's establishing legislation. As I said, the purpose of the bills is to clarify that annual registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purpose of section 55 of the Constitution, and that is to mitigate the constitutional risk and to put the continuation of the current funding arrangements for ASQA beyond doubt, which is obviously something we would all support.

I have to just report to the House that I think that some of ASQA's most significant work has been on the sector-wide reports that they have done on a number of industry sectors over a number of years. Those intelligence-gathering or strategic types of reports have been very important for leading the debate in this country on what needs to be at the heart of any debate on vocational education and training, and that is quality.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians rely on a vocational qualification to get them into the workforce. That is, by and large, the main reason most people study in the sector. They might be young people, or retrenched workers looking to re-enter the workforce, or parents who have been out of the workforce with child-raising responsibilities and are looking to train to re-enter the workforce. We have to ensure that anybody who studies in this sector knows that the piece of paper they will walk away with is valued and recognised in the Australian economy.

In particular, what comes to mind is the work that ASQA did on strategic reports on two important sectors which are actually employment growth sectors: child care and aged care. These are obviously sectors where we are constantly seeing the need for more workers and there are good career opportunities for people. We want to make sure that we are giving Australians the quality training that they need to give them a good start in those sectors.

We have seen reports on this. One that most particularly sticks in my mind was on ABC radio in Victoria. In that report a group of childcare providers indicated that, as some of the childcare training being done in the private sector was so badly done, they had unofficial blacklists of training providers that they would not employ people from. Members in this House might think about what that actually means. Say a young person does childcare training with one of these providers. They are very keen to get a job in the sector. They are doing all the things that we—as their parents or their community or the parliament—ask them to do. Then they get that piece of paper and they go out and apply for jobs, and they constantly miss out. The problem is: they have no idea why they are missing out, but it is because their training provider has been unofficially blacklisted. So they have paid—in many cases, quite exorbitant amounts of money—for that qualification, but it has no standing or value for them in actually getting them a job.

That is why it is so critically important that we put quality and trust back at the centre of the vocational sector. I have to say: much of the work that ASQA was doing in this space was critically important for those reasons.

As I have indicated, the vocational education and training sector is a hugely important education sector in the system. Those opposite often like to criticise Labor for encouraging people to go to university. We had the outrageous target of 40 per cent of Australians having a university qualification! I hardly think it is an encouraging sign that those opposite think that having a target of 40 per cent of the population having university qualifications was overreach. But we never walked away from the fact that the other 60 per cent of the population in a modern economy were going to need post-secondary qualifications as well. What we had in place were a range of national partnership agreements that looked at working with the states and territories to fund the broader vocational education and training sector.

What we are seeing from this last budget, as we approach 1 July, is the end of that national partnership agreement. Nothing has been indicated by this government as to what, if anything, will succeed that funding agreement. That is, in effect, ripping over $630 million out of the vocational education and training sector.

We have seen reports on this. Indeed, in New South Wales, only today, the managing director of TAFE New South Wales talked about the devastating impact on enrolments that the decisions of this federal Liberal government are having on TAFE in New South Wales. So we, on this side of the House, think that that is an absolute abrogation of responsibility to this sector. It is beyond time that those opposite stopped treating the vocational education sector as some sort of poor cousin.

The government announced a $1.5 billion skilling Australia program. Let us have a look at what that actually is. One of the most important things about our skilled migration program is that it is a temporary program. It is there quite rightly and should be quite effective in providing for a short-term skills gap when there are not sufficient trained Australians to do a particular job. Why is it temporary? It is temporary because the expectation in this country is that we will be training up Australians to do those jobs in the longer term.

What sort of Orwellian proposal does the government put forward in vocational education in this budget? They say, 'Well, we've got this program on 457 visas so we're going to charge a levy on them to fund a skills program.' If you put the two together it does not take long to work it out. If you are decreasing the number of skilled migrants coming—which, one would suppose, was the target—you are decreasing the pool of money available to train up Australians to take on those jobs. And you will just have the same problem arising again. Instead of as the national partnership agreements did under the previous Labor government, providing an agreed joint arrangement with the states and territories to fund vocational education and training, this is a pea-and-thimble arrangement. It is perverse in its intentions.

In effect, the government cannot guarantee they will raise $1.5 billion. They have been very vague on where exactly that is to go towards, in terms of apprenticeships. They are talking about 300,000 apprentices but there is no indication whether that is going to be employer incentives or training programs. What exactly is this money going to be spent on? And what is the government going to do if they manage to see the number of 457 visas go down, because they are training up Australians, and the money disappears? What happens to the next round of people looking for employment? This is the problem at the heart of what the government does in this sector. It is all short-term. It is all just to grab the headline. It is all just to give members opposite something to say when they talk about vocational education and training. But it never actually addresses the structural issue at the heart of this critically important sector in Australia.

My colleague the member for Cowan made this point, quite rightly, and I am sure everybody in this House has had this experience. Around the world there are two countries that people look to for vocational training and apprenticeship systems: Germany and Australia. It has been a national advantage to us, our trades training system in this country. Indeed, in our own region, as the emerging economies—in particular, India and China—move away from unregulated trade based work in their economies to requiring people to have qualifications and more regulation of who does that work, they are coming here to see how we are doing that sort of work. We are, at the very same time, dismantling those things. It is very short-sighted.

I am very pleased that as part of his budget reply speech the Leader of the Opposition, in talking about education and jobs, put this right at the centre of what Labor is committed to. I want to remind the House that not only are we committed to returning the over-$630 million that the government has cut out of the sector but that we also committed $100 million to the rebuilding TAFE facility program. We are so conscious of the devastation that has been wreaked in TAFEs across our country. It does not matter where you go—towns, cities or small suburban areas—I will tell you one thing: everybody loves their TAFE. And they love it for a very good reason. It has been there when they need it. They know it is there for their kids, and they can trust it because it provides quality. We need to make sure that we do not lose that, and we need to commit funding to make sure it is able to do that critically important job. An important part of that is the Leader of the Opposition's commitment that, for federal money, two out of every three dollars we invest in this sector will go to the public provider. It is critically important to have that solid backbone to our system that the public system provides and that TAFE has done for many generations of people.

Those opposite have not said a word on TAFE. They never mention it. They have made no commitments to it. They have grabbed the apprenticeship issue because they think that they can get a bit of a bang out of their budget for it. It is a con job. Yet behind our great apprenticeship system has been the quality TAFE system in this country. If you do not do something about ensuring that TAFE continues to have a viable future not just online and in the big cities but also in all the communities, towns and suburbs across the country, we will pay an economic price for that in this country. So I am very pleased that Labor has been clear on our commitment to TAFE and to how we need to rebuild it for the future. I also want to acknowledge that one of the real ways you can create apprenticeships is that, when government puts money into building projects, you actually make sure a percentage of those people on those projects are apprentices.

Those opposite liked to criticise the BER program and the social housing program during the GFC. I went to site after site in my electorate where builders said to me, 'I was about to put off my apprentices before this program came into place.' When government leverages its spending it can create real opportunities for apprenticeships. We actually did not see a decline in the number of apprentices over that period of the GFC, which is unprecedented. This needs to happen now. When government is spending money, as Labor has committed, at least one in 10 will be an apprentice and that will create real jobs and opportunities for those apprentices.

So I say to government members opposite that it is nice to say the motherhood statements and it is nice to say you get the sector, but you need to make sure that you are putting your money where your mouth is, and this budget did not do that. The commitment around the Skilling Australia Fund has no guarantees, and I would encourage members opposite to start pushing for a solid, firm and long-term commitment by their government into TAFE and into apprenticeships in this country. I thank the House.