National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (10:46): I stand to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019 and the amendment moved by the shadow assistant minister. Labor is not opposing the bill. We support it. There are some sensible changes in this bill. It largely implements the recommendations from the independent Joyce and Braithwaite reviews into the sector. It does address some of the frustrations felt by the RTOs with the existing system, and it adds to an information and education approach to compliance. There are sensible changes, and we support them.

But we have some concerns, as usual, with this government. The devil is in the detail. Firstly, the bill moves to a full cost recovery model for auditing. This goes directly against the recommendations of those independent reviews. They have had independent reviews and taken them on board, but when it comes to costs, no, they won't follow that; instead they'll pass those costs on to the training organisations, against the recommendations of the independent reviews. Of course, what will the training organisations do? How will they recover those costs? They'll pass them on to students and families. Labor is very concerned that this full cost recovery model will push providers into passing costs on to students and that will increase the price of training. Just as we want more students, more young Australians getting into training and taking on these courses, this government is going to make it even harder by making it more expensive to get training.

The government, if it's going to say that that won't happen, needs to make sure that it doesn't happen. It needs to monitor the situation and ensure that these organisations don't do it. But given the track record of this government, I doubt that that monitoring will happen. I think what we will see is that full cost recovery will occur, training organisations will pass those costs on to students, and that will be the end of the matter. I do hope that we don't see students dropping off the perch as a result when it comes to taking on training, but I fear that could be a consequence.

We need to ensure that the reforms to the skills quality assurance system don't allow any drop in quality. In the past, we've seen this government being very slow to act on quality issues when it comes to training. That has done serious reputational damage to the sector. Over the last few years we've seen what a mess has been made of the training sector. Labor has a longstanding commitment to make national TAFE the central pillar of training in this country. TAFE has the runs on the board when it comes to providing proper training and qualifications for students. Of course it has to be funded properly, and I'll come to that. But we see what a mess has been made of training in recent years, with a number of basically sham contractors and sham organisations going belly up and leaving students in the lurch. We need to make sure that quality is looked after. We will not oppose measures that enhance student protections or address provider concerns.

At it's heart—and this is why I do support the assistant shadow minister's amendment—this bill does not come even close to fixing the real mess that this government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system. That is at the heart of this. As useful as these reforms which are before us today in this bill are, they don't really go to the heart of Australia's training system. At the heart of the training system in Australia is the lack of funding under this government.

Our country sits on the doorstep of a continent to our north that is going through one of history's greatest economic transformations. South-East Asia, Asia and India are going through massive economic transformation and we are in the box seat in this country, to take advantage. Our young people can take advantage of those opportunities that are on our doorstep not just overseas but also here in Australia. They are perfectly placed to benefit from the extraordinary growth that's going on around us, and yet under this government we have seen 150,000 fewer apprentices go through the books than previously. What an absolutely wasted opportunity under this government to provide proper training and proper apprenticeships for young people. At a time of extraordinary growth and opportunity, this government has been asleep at the wheel.

We need to be training young Australians in the skills and the qualifications that are required to meet the opportunities to our north, such as in the engineering, construction and maritime industries. There are almost too many to mention, but, unfortunately, this government has just not grasped those opportunities. It has spent the last seven years not just neglecting but destroying our TAFE and training system. If it was just a case of wilfully letting it go, that would be one thing, but it has actually have cut funding over seven years to TAFE and training in this country. The numbers involved are absolutely shocking.

As we learnt last year from the federal government's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. That means the government budgeted nearly $1 billion for TAFE and training and they didn't spend it. They had it in the bucket to invest in TAFE and training, but thought, 'No, we don't need to spend that.' They claim it's because there has not been enough demand from students and families to take up those places. What absolute rubbish! I can tell you that in my electorate there are heaps of kids who want to take up TAFE and training opportunities, but, for all sorts of reasons, whether it's cost, availability or accessibility, they've been unable to take up those opportunities. Instead of assisting kids into these training opportunities, which will put them on the pathway of a better life, this government pocketed that money to go towards its budget numbers. It's all sitting there. It's all sitting in the government's bank account, supposedly earmarked for TAFE and training, doing nothing. And that's on top of the $3 billion that has already been ripped out of the system. We have TAFE campuses falling apart across the country because of rampant capital underinvestment by this government. We've got state governments closing campuses and ending courses all while this nearly $1 billion—$919 million—remains unspent, because there has been 'less demand than forecast'. What an absolute joke. What an absolute abrogation of the responsibility of a national government. This is neglect, pure and simple.

It's not just the decaying infrastructure or the shrinking course options. What this government has caused is a loss of faith in Australia's TAFE and training systems. I remember maybe 40 years ago, when I was a young fella, that TAFE and training was something to aspire to. People had faith in TAFE. They had faith in the technical colleges. They knew that, if you didn't want to go on the pathway to university, you got on the pathway to an apprenticeship or a trade, and TAFE was the way to get there. You could be sure that the qualifications you got would help you get a good job. You would be provided with the skills you needed to get a good job. This government, through its wilful neglect of the sector, has absolutely destroyed that reputation. We have, by the defence industry—just as the defence budget is increasing—a submission from Australian shipbuilding to say the quality of certificate III apprentices currently being produced was 'totally unacceptable and not of the required standards for the defence industry'. What an absolute indictment of the current training standards under this government that the defence and shipbuilding industry feels that the current levels of training are not up to standard to work on Australian manufacturing. That is an absolute disgrace.

This hasn't happened by accident. This government's $1 billion underspend has been on incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help finish their apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need. That's what they've underspent on. They've underspent on programs that are meant to help get kids in these schemes. They've underspent the money. I don't understand their methodology at all.

I come to my own state. All signs show that the TAFE and training system in Tasmania is not working. As I've said, on a national level we have 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees. In Tasmania between 2013 and 2018—that's a period covered entirely by Liberal governments, both here in Canberra and in Tasmania—we had a decrease of 12.52 per cent in apprentices. There have been 12.52 per cent fewer apprentices over those five years than previously. That is 1,200 fewer apprentices being trained in the skills that our state needs to continue to grow.

What happens when you don't train young people in plumbing, carpentry, electrical engineering and all the skills you need for construction and road building and to keep the economy moving? What happens when you don't have the skills being trained locally? You bring the labour in from overseas. If employers can't get young people trained in these jobs, they put their hand up and say to the government, 'We need temporary visas to bring people in from overseas.' And that's an absolute indictment when we have the current levels of youth unemployment. We see workers coming in from overseas on temporary visas taking up jobs that young Australians should be getting qualifications in. It's an absolute failure of policy.

We have a mass shortage of critical trades—carpenters, plumbers and mechanics—and unacceptable unemployment and underemployment rates in my state. In September last year Tasmania's jobless rate was 6.7 per cent and our underemployment rate—as we know, they are people who may be employed for one, two or five hours a week and desperately want more work—was 10.6 per cent. That is the worst in Australia. I remind you that this is the worst in Australia at a time when the Liberal government in Tasmania is telling Tasmanians that we're in a golden age. We're in a golden age in Tasmania, yet underemployment in my state is 10.6 per cent!

Our workforce participation rate is 60.3 per cent. That means that a lot of people are looking for work and more work. It's worse if you're a woman. In the 12 months before September 2019 more than 5,000 full-time jobs were lost in my state. At a time when we have a $919 million underspend in TAFE and training, 150,000 fewer apprentices and a record number of people coming in on temporary work visas, we have seen 5,000 full-time jobs lost in my state. It doesn't take a genius to work out that if we train more local young people in the skills for local jobs then we won't need to bring as many people in from overseas.

We have seen interstate and overseas plasterers, plumbers and electricians brought in to work on the Royal Hobart Hospital upgrades. We have seen the Cattle Hill Wind Farm in my electorate and a lot of other major projects bring in workers from interstate and overseas because they can't source locally skilled labour. That locally skilled labour should be provided by local TAFEs and training organisations. What a wasted opportunity by both the state and federal Liberal governments.

Because of our failing TAFE system and the poor quality of our VET courses too many people are unable to explore the pathways that will provide them with the foundation on which they can build their skills and find new jobs in an economy that is changing and resulting in the disappearance of low-skilled jobs. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed the local supermarket's push to get people to use the self-serve check-outs. You might think it is a small thing, but for every person who goes through a self-serve check-out that's a person not being served by someone with a job. If you don't go to a cashier and you do it yourself, that's one less job. I'm not the only one—I make a point of never using a self-serve check-out. No matter how inconvenient it is, I make sure I stand at a check-out with a cashier. And when the supervisors come up to me and say, 'Sir, would you like to use our self-serve check-out?' I say: 'No, thanks. I'm protecting jobs. I'll stay here.' Hopefully, if more people do that, that will force those supermarkets to put on more cashiers and stop this rampant use of auto check-outs, because I know what's happened on the mainland. In Sydney, where my brother lives, they used to have self-serve check-outs and they'd have enough people to manage it. Of course, what they have done now is cut all the staff. All the staff have gone. All the cashiers on the check-outs have gone. Now they've got long queues on the self-serve check-outs, so it's no quicker than it used to be. People have been trained to use a self-serve check-out; meanwhile the supermarkets are saving millions of dollars in lost jobs.

The point here is that these low-skilled jobs that employed people—good jobs for people with low skills—are going. They're being automated out. Automation is taking over, and they're going. So, in conclusion, I would just like to say we support this bill before the House, but I do support the assistant shadow minister. It's a very good amendment. This government needs to be held to account for its dismal failure towards Australia's TAFE and training system.