Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (12.26 p.m.)-I rise to speak on the Skilling Australia’s Workforce Bill 2005 and the associated Skilling Australia’s Workforce (Repeal and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2005. These bills embody the government’s commitment to the national training sector. The government is taking steps to ensure the continuation of a healthy and vibrant skills sector, with flexibility for teachers, apprentices and employers.
These bills will, as we have heard, abolish the Australian National Training Authority and transfer $4.4 billion to state governments to fund vocational education programs administered by DEST. Including the $577 million already allocated to the states in 2005, the total appropriation from July 2005 to December 2008 will be $4.9 billion. Of this funding, $175 million is over and above the previous ANTA agreement. Each state will match this additional commitment. In total, federal funding will represent an average real increase of 3.2 per cent from 2004. The abolition of ANTA will also save the government over $3 million annually from 2006-07 by eliminating management and support service duplications and rationalising administrative costs.
The bills also establish a federal framework for skills education that ties funding to benchmarked training outcomes, which is as it should be. Requirements for funding will include: workplace reforms in the TAFE sector to provide greater incentives for staff and to reward staff, removing impediments inherent to state awards to accelerate and encourage apprentices who show initiative and commitment, and increasing the choice of employers to employ the apprentice most suitable to their needs.
These bills enshrine flexibility throughout the training sector. This is a significant change in approach from that of past Labor governments. The Opposition has taken to rewriting history in its defence of the training package it introduced in 1992. Mr Beazley, when he was minister for employment, education and training, introduced the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992. The current shadow minister for education and training waxes lyrical about the success of that act, which established ANTA. The government agrees that, to an extent, she is justified. ANTA was a landmark policy in bringing the training sector under a national umbrella. However, senators opposite need to recall the context in which ANTA was established in 1992. Unemployment was at 10 per cent. Today it is at five per cent.
Senator Ian Campbell-One million people!
Senator FIFIELD-We well remember that front page headline saying, ‘One million people unemployed,’ as Senator Campbell reminds us. We no longer have job shortages across the board. Apprentices, job seekers, employers and industry today need flexibility to maintain the current vigour of the work force. The challenge today is so different to 13 years ago, thank goodness.
There is an increased demand now for skilled workers in Australia. We need to shift our focus to addressing the new challenges that are posed by a strong and growing economy. We know what the approach of those senators opposite is to addressing the skills shortage-it is to get into government and kill the economy. If you kill the economy, unemployment goes up. There will certainly be no skills shortage in that case. That is about their only policy for addressing the skills shortage. We need to look at different ways to deliver education and training.
With these bills the government is responding to the current economic environment-the strong environment brought about by nine years of reform, strong management and good policy. The opposition, as we have heard, would happily leave the old legislation in place if their amendments are not agreed to. For what reason? They like the status quo. They insist that the world does not change and that what was in place and had some merit 10 years ago is appropriate for today. It is not. Times change. Legislation and policy settings need to change to address the current environment.
The opposition wants to use the argument that ANTA was good policy in 1992. So does Senator Nettle. It does not bode well for a particularly creative policy approach from those opposite, who are clinging to the past again. Unlike the opposition, the government are not scared of reform. We are not scared of looking at new policy and better ways of doing things. To that end, the government are also seeking to allow TAFE institutions the flexibility of offering teaching staff Australian workplace agreements or similar performance pay contracts. TAFEs will be able to attract and keep the best teachers for their apprentices and offer appropriate rewards for their work. Sadly, senators opposite continue to scaremonger on AWAs. It is important for the Senate to note that there will be absolutely no compulsion for TAFE teachers to agree to AWAs or any other sort of agreement. They can choose to work under a collective agreement. It is entirely misleading to say that we are not offering choice.
Senator Wong likened this legislation to the proposed voluntary student unionism legislation or drew a parallel with it, saying that, on one hand, we are arguing for choice and, on the other hand, we are seeking to limit choice through this legislation. This legislation does not seek to limit choice. This legislation seeks to guarantee choice. The staff at these institutions will have the opportunity to choose an Australian workplace agreement if they want to. All this legislation does is ensure that a choice is offered. Choice is what employees are entitled to have, and they will have it. TAFE directors too will be able to take advantage of this greater freedom in hiring staff. They will be able to take advantage of greater autonomy over the operation of the institutions for which they have responsibility. They will have the power to attract and retain quality teachers and manage underperformance with their employees as well.
Another hollow argument put forward by the shadow minister is that the states have in some way been railroaded into accepting a national outlook on skills training. She has claimed in the other place that the state and territory governments have not been consulted about the reforms in these bills. I know my government colleagues in that place have already brought her error to her attention, so now I will bring it to the attention of senators here. Eleven days before these bills were tabled in the House of Representatives, a Council of Australian Governments meeting agreed that a whole-of-government approach to the training sector was required. It established a joint Commonwealth-state working group. I would have thought that that was a relatively thorough form of consultation.
Further, COAG agreed that a more flexible, responsive and genuinely national apprenticeship, vocational education and training system is vital to meeting current and future skills needs. We have to remember that COAG is not some creature of the Commonwealth. COAG has eight state and territory Labor governments, and they are no patsies for this government. That meeting even specifically examined the Commonwealth-state funding agreement for these bills. This was only two weeks before the shadow minister declared that the government had not consulted the states on this issue.
There are distinct benefits to a wholly national training sector. The Labor states agree. Skills recognition as a result of these changes will more easily traverse state borders. Apprentices will have a broader range of jobs suitable to them and employers will have a larger pool from which to select the right apprentices for the jobs. Conditional funding will hold training providers to a national benchmark appropriate for the national job market, which is as it should be.
Unlike Labor, we believe in choice. We want to maximise choice. We do not think everyone should go to university. It is not appropriate for everyone. Some people’s skills are better suited to university and some people’s skills are better suited to training or an apprenticeship. We want to facilitate and support that choice. It is one of the reasons that the Commonwealth is also introducing 26 Australian technical colleges. We want to affirm an apprenticeship and a trade as being as valuable, good and productive as a university degree. A good trade is as good as a good university degree and people should be proud of the choices that they make. We should seek to support the choices they make. These bills will ensure the reforms necessary to maintaining a vibrant skills sector. The bills will make a significant contribution to making sure that we have a skilled work force and that we are in a strong position to meet the skills needs of Australian industry. I commend the bills to the Senate.