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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 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?
Ms BIRD: The member for Jagajaga asked me, 'What did the New South Wales Minister for Skills say?' Well, he was very interesting on this matter. Yesterday, before we found out, courtesy of Fairfax Media, that there was this draft proposal for a takeover wandering around through COAG processes, the Minister for Skills in New South Wales very helpfully came out and told us in the media that he thought his federal colleagues were hopeless at running the VET sector and had made an absolute dog's breakfast of getting the VET FEE-HELP issue under control.
The Prime Minister, who wanted to make much of this in his answer in question time today, just skipped a small period of time—two years. Actually, it is a bit over two years now, where we have seen, under their watch, VET FEE-HELP grow from around $700 million in 2013 to around $1.7 billion. We have had three ministers grappling with this issue over that time and failing to actually rein in the problem. This performance, if you like, across three ministers—and I think the whole government needs to take responsibility for it—is not marked down as a fail by us alone. It has also been marked down as a fail by their state colleagues. I cannot imagine anything clearer or more damning. Not only the Minister for Skills in New South Wales but also Tasmanian government basically said, 'Over our dead body. We are not going to let that lot get hold of our TAFE system.' So the reality for this federal conservative government is that they cannot find a friend anywhere for their own performance, let alone expanding that performance to a complete federal takeover of the sector.
Labor is absolutely determined that TAFE will have a strong future in this country. The Prime Minister, being asked directly by the Leader of the Opposition about TAFE and the implications for TAFE in their proposed takeover, did not mention the word 'TAFE' once. That is the track record of this government. They very rarely talk about TAFE as the public provider in the sector.
It is our view that a balanced VET sector is built on the back of a strong and dominant public provider, through TAFE. To deliver that you need to ensure that they are not treated just like any other training provider, because they are not. They have a far greater responsibility in having a direct capacity to deliver government priorities and directions for ensuring that regional and rural Australia have access to quality, affordable vocational training and education. I think the minister at the table particularly, but also other members opposite, would well understand how important TAFE is in their communities. But they never talk about how they are going to make it sustainable into the future.
In fact, this proposition in this leaked document would be devastating for TAFE. I am not just saying that as an assessment or from an analytical approach. I would invite the minister to look at what happened in Victoria under the conservative government, which completely deregulated the system and took away the base community funding that TAFE used to ensure it could deliver in rural and regional Australia, and TAFE was decimated. The Andrews government is working hard to rebuild it. But I will tell you what: when you destroy it—and you can do that quickly—it takes a hell of a long time to build it up again. (Time expired)