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.

Additionally—this is shocking given how peak bodies like the Australian Industry Group have been talking about the need for literacy and numeracy amongst the adult workforce—the government also cut $122.9 million from the Skills for Education and Employment program, the program that directly provided funding for literacy and numeracy. Again, that was cut in the MYEFO. This has had an enormous impact on the skills sector. We know this because in only the last month reports have come out about some key issues around skills problems and the need for investment from the industry sectors themselves.

But today I particularly want to highlight the $1 billion in cuts that were made to funding programs for apprenticeships. The result, and I have highlighted this to the House before, has been that completions have dropped from 63,000 in June 2013 to just 29,700 in June last year. It is shocking that, directly on this government's watch, the number of apprentices who complete their training has more than halved. There were in fact almost 100,000 fewer apprentices in training. That number had dropped from 407,000 in June 2013 to 308,000 in June 2015.

A significant number of programs that Labor put in place have been abolished. We put those in place because we are committed to trades training for apprentices, remembering that apprentices cover a wide variety of really important skills that are in demand in the economy. There were programs that were specifically designed to increase commencements, such as access programs for young people who might not have quite got their skills up to the point of being able to compete for an apprenticeship. Such programs enabled them to get the support that they needed to get their skills up to that level and then get the opportunity to access an apprenticeship. There were some fantastic programs being run across the country by people such as the Motor Trades Association, who were doing exactly that in very disadvantaged communities. This government just abolished that. There were also programs designed to support apprentices throughout their apprenticeships so that they improved their opportunities and their capacity to succeed and complete their apprenticeship, such as apprentice mentoring. The government abolished those as well.

Very significantly, recognising that apprentices are on training wages and so sometimes it is a real financial struggle for them, we had a payment system called the Tools For Your Trade program which provided progress payments to apprentices both as an encouragement to stick with the apprenticeship and complete it and in recognition of some of the financial pressures on them. I also draw the House's attention to the significant number of mature-age people now doing apprenticeships because they are looking to either upgrade their skills or transfer into a new job. It is tough if you are doing that on an apprentice wage, and so we had that program in place.

This government abolished the Tools For Your Trade program and offered a loan in the form of a HECS type loan, called a trade support loan, to apprentices. That has been massively undersubscribed because the last thing an apprentice worrying about their financial situation wants to do is take out a loan, particularly when, after completing their apprenticeship, many go on to set up their own small business and may look for financial assistance to do that, and so they do not want to start with a loan already on their back at the start of that process. So we saw that cut by the government as well.

Joint group training programs, which were really significant in terms of providing support through group training associations to small employers who otherwise might not be able to carry an apprentice by themselves, were abolished. I am very pleased to see that some of my state colleagues—for example, in Victoria—are reinvesting in that sort of activity, because cutting those programs was very, very short sighted.

In all of this, we have not heard from the government any mention of our fantastic public TAFE system. It is the backbone of our training sector. It provides the benchmark and the ballast for the system. But the vocational education sector has been in crisis and continues to be in crisis. Today, there are media reports about major private training providers collapsing. The only indication from this government that it has any interest in public providers is its decision to put out a discussion paper to the states, proposing a federal takeover of the entire system and complete deregulation of pricing. In effect, it is exactly a privatisation of the public TAFE system. No wonder the minister ran very quickly from that, when that document was exposed by Fairfax media—because regional and rural members in this place would know very well how valued TAFE is by their communities and how important opportunities for training are to all of their people. To see it directly under threat from the proposition being progressed by the federal government would cause enormous concern across the country.

Again we see through MYEFO and the bills before us the continued story of this government's failure to invest in the skill sector, failure to deliver on apprenticeships and failure to take seriously the real challenges of innovation and transformation in our economy and the need to invest in skills, training and education to deliver on that. In closing, I point out to the Prime Minister—and I acknowledge the Minister for Trade, who has entered the chamber—that, if you want innovation, you really have to understand that it is also about our trade and skill sectors and you have to stop cutting them to the bone.