Ms Bird (Cunningham) (12:47): Can I indicate at the outset that I support the amendment moved by Labor and also that I don't oppose the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 that is before us today, just as Labor doesn't oppose it.

As has been outlined by many speakers, the bill's intention is to amend the governance structures of ASQA, the Australian Skills and Quality Authority, and also to enhance its information sharing with the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research. These are both commendable intentions in and of themselves. The bill seeks to do this with two key amendments. The first one revises ASQA's governance structures, replacing the chief commissioner, chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder—a CEO. Secondly, the bill establishes the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council, which I'll just refer to as the advisory council, which is intended to provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator.

On that particular aspect, the Labor Party more broadly is very conscious of the value of TAFE and also of union representation. We would argue that those views and voices should be heard when it comes to developments in the VET sector. For this reason, in the Senate we will seek to move amendments to ensure the public provider does have seats at the table. It is always a sensible and a useful option for government to set up forms of advisory councils bringing together key stakeholders in a sector to provide feedback and advice to government. Indeed, for a period of time under the Labor government, when I held both parliamentary secretary and ministerial responsibility for this sector, the thing that struck me was that, particularly in vocational education—maybe more so than in almost any other sector of policymaking that the government deals with at a federal level—there was a profound commitment by stakeholders to the sector and to improvements in the sector.

And there were many bodies, significant numbers of which I think were—in a very short-sighted and foolish manner—dismantled by the first Abbott government when it came to power. They were bodies that brought together industry, government and the trade unions in the sector to sit around the table and develop a range of advice to government. It might have been on areas such as the need for skills advice—what's happening in industry, what's happening in the economy and how our vocational education sector should be adjusting to address emerging demands, such as new levels of skills needed or indeed skills for which there is declining demand because of change in technology and so forth. There may have been advisory bodies around the actual implementation of skills training—the development of the training packages themselves.

I was very critical, when I had shadow responsibility for this area, of the fact that the government re-formed advisory bodies from the industry to talk and provide advice on skills packages and specifically excluded the trade union representatives. At the time I said to government—and I still, in the context of this bill, would say—that that is a short-sighted, stupid decision. There are people across the trade union movement—and I've dealt with many of them over the past 10 years—who have a deep and profound understanding of the vocational education and training sector. They sat, when Labor was in government, on many of these advisory councils and are very well regarded and respected by the industry representatives who sat on those bodies. And I have to say, many of the industry representatives were also profoundly knowledgeable and committed to vocational education and training. It was one of the few places where you would see all the other arguments and disagreements that might be expected between industry and union representatives left at the door and very constructive work done in a cooperative manner, and the government benefited from that. It made a significant difference to the quality and the outcomes that we saw in the vocational education sector.

So, I would say to government that when it looks at this advisory council it should be looking at tapping in to that deep expertise in the union sector about the vocational education sector across the board. In particular I'm thinking about representatives from the more traditional trades, particularly organisations such as the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union and the Australian Workers' Union—a range of those unions that have a long history of working with apprenticeships and with skills training. People in those organisations take significant pride and have significant knowledge about how the system has developed over decades. They're not coming to the table with just a couple of years of experience; they're coming with decades of experience and a commitment to and priority of the outcomes for the students. Their priority is: how do we get a quality worker out of a training system, somebody who is deeply and broadly qualified in the skills that they are being trained in?

I would argue that that has been a national asset for Australia for many decades. People talk about the international standing of this sector. There was a period when we rivalled Germany. Internationally, other countries that are looking at developing their vocational education sectors would look at Australia and Germany. We were seen as the two leading lights internationally. I well remember, on the change of government—when the Abbott government came in—we had people in India at the time, as India looked deeply at replicating our training sector, doing that work for Australia.

Unfortunately, what we've seen in the seven years since is an absolute decline in that situation. While this bill talks about quality in the vocational sector, it is remiss of government not to get its head around the fact that for seven years they have not really, deeply and meaningfully dealt with the vocational education and training sector. What is the evidence for that? Why do I say that? Because we have significantly fewer people engaging in the vocational education and training sector. We have significant—in fact, alarming—drops in the number of people engaging in the apprenticeship system. We've seen lost opportunities to address this issue during the COVID period, when the country has required government to step up with what would not be natural for them—interventionist-type policies.

During the global financial crisis, the government was very conscious that one of the first groups of workers that would be hit were apprentices. When the sectors that employ apprentices are particularly hard hit, one of the first decisions they often take is to lay off their apprentices—and that was one of the first responses. In an unprecedented manner, the way in which that the Labor government tied its investment and stimulus to the employment of apprentices meant that we actually did not see a drop in apprenticeship numbers during the global financial crisis. That was an extraordinary thing. What is really important about it is that it tells this government that they can do it. They can ensure that those connections remain in place through their policy settings.

Instead what we have now seen is a report from peak bodies that we're looking at losing 100,000 apprentices in this year alone as a result of COVID-19. We've already lost over 140,000 over the last seven years of Liberal governments. But this year alone; that's a crisis. That means that we will completely destroy the pipeline of skilled tradespeople, whether in plumbing; carpentry; electricians and electrical goods; hairdressers; chefs; mechanics; bricklayers; or trainees in the IT sector. The breadth of coverage of the pipeline of workers that we're going to need in the future in these industry sectors which will be impacted by that sort of loss is a serious issue that government needs to have a policy response to.

I eagerly watch every press conference and read every media release—and I have done since the Abbott government was first elected—when governments pre-empt the fact they're about to do a big announcement on vocational education and training or apprenticeships. On each and every occasion, I have, unfailingly, been massively disappointed in what they've announced. It's a marketing opportunity only: there'll be tweaks, 'We'll have someone to do a review; we will tweak this particular bit of regulation; we'll wag our finger at the states.'

An opposition member interjecting -

Ms BIRD: Start a culture war, exactly! A whole lot of things are put out there as a massive response; that only they understand the problems in the vocational education sector and they're going to do something about it. There's no detail, definitely no funding and no outcomes that they're ever held to account for in any of those announcements. It was no different when the Prime Minister stood at the National Press Club the other day and said that one of the key things he was going talk about was skills and the vocational education sector. Again: a massive disappointment, 'Let's just move on—we'll move on to the next announcement and no-one will notice that we actually didn't make any difference at all to the number of people being able to access vocational education, or the numbers of people engaged in apprenticeships and traineeships.'

It's simply not good enough. It's not good enough for the young people who need those pathways into good careers across so many industry sectors—in growth areas such as aged care, child care and disability care—and the opportunity to have meaningful traineeships in those sectors and create careers for people. It is not good enough for young people.

It's not good enough for mature-age workers, who could take up apprenticeships and traineeships as an opportunity to re-structure their own careers if they're in industries that are in decline. Labor at the last election and the one before had policies about getting mature workers those opportunities. But we hear nothing but crickets from this government.

It's not good enough for our economy. It's simply lazy to think that you can continue to use temporary migration programs to fill skills gaps that you're doing nothing about addressing in the first place. Those programs are good programs designed to give this nation the time and space it needs to train Australians up for the industry sectors that might be emerging or where we've got shortages. That's a sensible thing to do. It is not sensible—in fact, it's a dereliction of duty by a national government—to use that program simply to keep papering over the problem and never do anything about it. Over $3 billion has been either taken out of or underspent in vocational education and training by the federal government. Let's not exempt state governments. I certainly think many of them could pick up their acts as well. But the federal government has a national responsibility for economic diversification, for economic development, for participation and for productivity.

All of these big issues are underpinned by a vocational education and training sector that delivers for people and for the economy and it has never been treated that way—since the Abbott government. The Turnbull government was no better. The Morrison government, I would argue, is even worse, because it cynically seeks at so many opportunities to do the photo op, to do the marketing spin, to do what looks like a big announcement and then to walk away and actually deliver nothing. It is time they were held to account. This bill is a very minor tweak to the quality system. It is good that it's being done. But, I tell you what, there's a whole lot more they need to be doing.

Watch Sharon’s speech here.