BILLS - Australian Workforce & Productivity Agency Repeal Bill 2014

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:33): I rise to speak on the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency Repeal Bill 2014. This bill seeks to abolish the Australian Workplace and Productivity Agency, commonly known as AWPA. In his speech on 4 June 2014, the minister took just two minutes to abolish AWPA—to disband our key national policy and research body on skills—while we have jobs being lost across the country.

The opposition will not be voting against the bill; however, we do feel it is important to move an amendment to recognise the importance of the work done by AWPA and the need to preserve this in the new arrangements. Therefore, I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

'whilst not declining to give the Bill a second reading the House notes that the Government has failed to guarantee that the critical independent research to Government and industry in relation to Australia's current, emerging and future skills and workforce development needs will continue to be carried out and made public.'

To put the government's decision to abolish AWPA into context, it is important to understand the history of AWPA. In government, Labor made a record investment of over $19 billion in skills and training for smarter jobs and a stronger nation. The Rudd Labor government established Skills Australia in 2008 as part of the Labor government's Skilling Australia for the Future policy.

Skills Australia was an independent statutory body set up to provide advice to the then Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research on Australia's current, emerging and future workforce needs and, in line with that, our workforce development needs. Skills Australia's advice covered a broad range of areas including migration, the resources sector, the defence industry, the tertiary education system and the effective use of skills in the workplace. The then Labor government sought to ensure that the government's investment in education and training was focused on providing a highly skilled workforce, increasing participation, increasing access to the workforce by less advantaged groups and producing a workforce that met the needs of industry and increased Australia's productivity.

In 2012, the Labor government expanded the role of Skills Australia and transformed that organisation into AWPA. AWPA was established to provide advice on a broad range of areas that affected the demand, supply and use of skills and was also responsible for providing strategic advice and recommendations for priorities for the Labor government's National Workforce Development Fund—which, I am very sad to say, was abolished in the most recent budget. AWPA liaised directly with industry to provide expert, independent advice to government on current, emerging and future skills and workforce development needs. The AWPA team has been led by its chief executive, Mr Robin Shreeve, and chair, Mr Philip Bullock.

After so much important work, over several years, in the national service it was particularly poor form that the Minister for Industry did not even bother to announce that the government was abolishing AWPA. This was revealed while Mr Robin Shreeve was giving evidence at a Senate inquiry in Sydney on 11 April. A statement by the chair, Mr Bullock, dated 9 April 2014, was subsequently posted on the department's website. The minister also failed to take the opportunity to properly recognise and thank AWPA for the excellent work, good quality analysis and advice, and important strategic direction that it had provided over the past eight years.

Mr Bullock provided significant leadership. He has had more than 25 years of experience working with IBM and he has served on the board of the Australian Information Industry Association; the Business Council of Australia, also chairing their skills and innovation taskforce; the Victorian Schools Innovation Commission; and the advisory committee to the Australian Graduate School of Management. He also provided advice for the Labor government's Education Investment Fund and he serves on the Australia India Education Council. He was appointed as chair of the National VET Equity Advisory Council.

AWPA's Chief Executive Officer, Robin Shreeve, has worked in the skills sector for over 30 years, both here in Australia and in England. He has served as CEO of AWPA, Skills Australia, the North Coast Institute of TAFE and another tertiary institution in Westminster, Central London. He also worked for the Department of Education and Training in New South Wales, finishing there as Deputy Director for Technical, Further and Community Education. Between them, Robin and Philip have almost sixty years experience in industry and the vocational education and skills sector.

AWPA's board was formed by the following members, who should also be publicly thanked for their service: Peter Anderson, the then CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Andrew Dettmer, the National President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union; Dr John Edwards, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute, an adjunct professor with the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University and a member of the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia; Ged Kearney, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions; and Innes Willox, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group. This team harnessed a wealth of experience across academia, education and training, economics, industry and the representation of workers, and drove a massive research and analysis agenda that saw a number of workforce studies in key sectors of the Australian economy completed.

I want to touch on some of these studies to give a sense of the significance of the work that was done by the organisation. The Building Australia's defence supply capabilities: main report for the defence industry workforce strategy was a strategy developed to assist Australia's defence industry to access the skilled workforce it needed to participate in Australian government defence procurement. The Energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings: jobs and skills implications report found that while there were going to be few new skills requirements in energy efficiencies for buildings, there was a need to update current skills and knowledge. The Food and beverage workforce study put forward recommendations to build an adaptive, skilled and innovative agrifood workforce. The ICT workforce study presented a number of workforce development strategies to increase supply of specialist ICT skills, improve skills development in the ICT workforce and promote the effective utilisation of ICT skills. Most recently, the Manufacturing workforce study—very pertinent to the challenges facing many of our regions today—put forward recommendations to build an adaptive, skilled and innovative manufacturing workforce that would be well-placed to manage the transition to more advanced and diverse manufacturing.

In preparing the Resources sector skills needs report, AWPA commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to develop a comprehensive five-year outlook model to estimate trends in employment growth and occupational supply for the resources sector against three economic growth scenarios to develop a series of recommendations to ensure the sector's workforce is ready and able to meet future demand. A final example that demonstrates the widely encompassing nature of their work is the Retail workforce study, which found industry must shift its recruitment profile towards a larger share of recruits who see retail as a career, and that a more highly skilled workforce together with strong industry leadership, was critical to a successful transition for this industry. AWPA has also produced important labour market information including the development of the Specialised Occupations List, the Skilled Occupations List and the Consolidated Sponsored Occupations List.

Skills and workforce productivity has been a major focus for AWPA's research. One of AWPA's key projects was the development of the 2016 National Workforce Development Strategy. I remain keen to hear from the minister as to whether the department is going to continue work on this strategy, which is a follow on from the 2013 National Workforce Development Strategy.

Future focus 2013 looked at positioning Australia as a knowledge economy through investing in skills development, targeting planning, lifting productivity, raising labour force participation, improving language, literacy and numeracy, and ensuring quality in the tertiary sector. AWPA also commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to develop high-level economic modelling of skills demand and supply as part of its scenario approach to future workforce development. AWPA also developed and updated key industry snapshots which provided information and analysis on key industries and assisted stakeholders in planning for the future of their industry or sector.

The National Workforce Development Fund was a partnership between industry and government to help industry address current and future workforce development needs. The fund was facilitated through the Industry Skills Councils network and AWPA provided advice on prioritisation, applications of significance and performance of the fund in meeting skills needs. In 2012, AWPA commissioned the National Institute of Labour Studies to conduct research to identify the under and oversupply of qualifications. The project also aimed to develop a methodology and tool for forming an assessment of current and emerging skills needs in Australia in the case of priority occupations or policy relevance.

AWPA has long advocated for demand-driven funding across the tertiary education sector. In Skills for prosperity, AWPA also recommended governments ensure a level playing field between VET and higher education providers so that there were no perverse incentives for students to choose courses or institutions on the basis of fee structures rather than career choice, interests and aptitudes. AWPA also reported on quality assurance in Foundations for the future.

While the time frame for submissions to the Senate inquiry into this bill was severely limited, many of the submissions have acknowledged the work that AWPA did. I would like to put those on the record. The submission to the Senate inquiry by Professor Gavin Moodie of RMIT and Dr Leesa Wheelahan of the University of Toronto said:

The Agency has been a great source of new ideas stimulating fresh thinking and innovation amongst employers, institutions, sectors and representative groups. Government departments usually don't have the freedom to promote new ideas nor the discretion to advance them provocatively.

The Agency's research on the demand and supply of skills in a transforming economy has been well received and been particularly influential. It is precisely this work which will be needed as Australia's economy further restructures.

The submission by Innovation and Business Skills Australia to the same inquiry said:

IBSA has worked closely with AWPA and has greatly appreciated the initiatives to improve productivity, management, innovation and skills utilisation in Australian workplaces. It is important also to acknowledge the high level of industry expertise on the AWPA board which has made it an authority on the workforce development and skills needed to respond to industry needs. Their experience has greatly contributed to forward thinking beyond the bureaucratic frameworks.

And the submission from the Australian Council of Trade Unions stated:

AWPA, and its predecessor Skills Australia, have been an invaluable source of independent tripartite advice, research and advocacy in relation to the national skills agenda.

At a time when there are considerable skills challenges ahead, a decision to abolish the independent national skills agency is a retrograde step.

In this submission, we also express our disappointment in the way the whole process has been handled by the Government, even putting aside the merits of the decision.

The ACTU wishes to place on record its appreciation of the work done by the Board and staff of the Australian Workplace and Productivity Agency, and its predecessor, Skills Australia.

And, finally, the submission by the Australian Council for Private Education and Training said:

I would like to note my support for the unfunded and additional work taken on by the Chair of AWPA, Mr Philip Bullock, to lead the engagement for Australia with the Indian VET sector. Mr Bullock did an excellent job and leaves an important legacy for the sector beyond the work that AWPA was charged to do.

There were a variety of views about the decision to abolish AWPA amongst the submitters, but there was a consistent view that the work that had been done was important and deserved recognition; and it deserved to be on the public record. Key industry stakeholders have also been critical of the government's decision and grateful for the work and expertise that AWPA has provided in the past. Thus, the amendment I am proposing to this motion recognises the critical, strategic significance of the work performed by AWPA and seeks to ensure that the rigour and independence of this work is not lost when the tasks are taken into the department. For that reason I commend the amendment to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Craig Kelly ): Is there a seconder for the amendment?

Mr Brendan O'Connor: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I second the amendment.