Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (12.49 p.m.)-I also rise to speak on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Bill 2005. This bill honours a commitment made by the coalition at the 2004 election to establish 24 Australian technical colleges operating as year 11 and year 12 secondary colleges. The original plan was for 24 colleges in 24 regions, but there were two outstanding bids in Adelaide-your home state, Mr Acting Deputy President Ferguson-so there will now be 25 colleges in 24 regions.
The government makes no bones about the skills shortage. We need more tradesmen and tradeswomen. We need more skilled workers. We need more hairdressers, administrative workers, plumbers, mechanics, bricklayers and carpenters. To some extent, an economy with strong employment is going to have a skills shortage. It is certainly better than the alternative. The alternative was experienced while Kim Beazley was employment minister. We know Labor’s plan for a skills shortage: to kill the economy and to drive up unemployment. In that environment, you have no skills shortage. You have plenty of workers, just not many jobs. That is the Labor plan.
As a community, we also have to accept that we have the university-trades balance wrong. We have put too much emphasis on university degrees. Australian technical colleges will help to restore that balance. They will provide choice and excellence for students who do not want to pursue a conventional, solely academic education. They will provide variety, difference and excellence in their chosen fields. They will be another option for secondary students who want a vocational education, not a university degree. The opposition would prefer to prescribe what is best for school leavers. This government wants to offer them a choice. Make no mistake: ambition is a good thing. We all want Australian children and Australian students to achieve their potential and be the best they can be, but we also want them to do what they love, what they enjoy and what they are good at-and that is not always to become a doctor, a lawyer or a school teacher.
There are generations of tech school graduates prospering in Australia. Senator Heffernan from this chamber is but one of those. Once upon a time, it was the trades that provided the great figures in the Australian Labor Party. Labor could do worse than to engage the trades. They may find a pool of talent that they desperately need. The holder of a trade should be as highly valued as the holder of a degree. As someone who works at a trades hall, having the word ‘trade’ in front of your title does not necessarily do the job; it is actually good to have a trade in some circumstances.
These colleges will complement the TAFE system-they will not duplicate it; they will not replace it-and as many as 300 students will attend each school completing their secondary education and commencing a school based new apprenticeship in a trade. There are currently not enough school based trade apprenticeships to properly address the demands of industry and business. These colleges will target that demand with input from local business. Each college will be overseen by a governing council and chaired by a local industry representative. The colleges will draw on existing secondary school and industry infrastructure, including TAFEs, local businesses and government.
Funding for these colleges will follow the same guidelines as schools funding. Colleges operated by and using the resources of non-government schools will receive funding that reflects this but will be able to charge students fees. Colleges using government school facilities and resources will be entitled to more government funding but will not be able to charge fees. The opposition is already trying to scare potential students by claiming that colleges will be able to charge compulsory fees. We will not let that happen, just as we do not let government schools charge compulsory fees today.
The member for Jagajaga and Senator Wong have promised opposition support for this bill because, in their words: ‘It’s better than nothing.’ Of the nine points in the opposition’s amendments moved in the House, not one contained a positive idea. Ms Macklin, in the other place, has also accused the government of attempting to reinvent the wheel with this legislation. We are not reinventing the wheel with this legislation; we are reintroducing a successful institution that was dismantled by a series of short-sighted state Labor premiers. Joan Kirner in Victoria comes to mind. When she was Premier, she called for reform to state education. She said:
… so that it is part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system.
They are not words from the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s but from a state Labor Premier from a little over 10 years ago. Current Victorian education minister Lynne Kosky still echoes Kirner’s sentiments, declaring that ‘education should be the great leveller’. Education will always be an area where the differences between Labor and the coalition will play out most clearly.
Take the words of Australian Education Union president Pat Byrne, who told the Queensland Teachers Union:
Right wing commentators … rail against us with such vitriol because we have succeeded in influencing curriculum development in schools, education departments and universities.
I have to say that the opposition, Ms Kirner, Ms Kosky and Pat Byrne are simply wrong. Education should be about bringing out the best in each student. Like it or not, each student’s best will be different; not each student’s outcome will be the same. Students need to have an environment where they can achieve their best, achieve what they want to achieve, and it will not be the same for each individual.
The shadow education minister has also denounced Australian technical colleges as nothing more than a vehicle for the government’s workplace relations reforms. She has accused the government of:
… using vocational education and training as a vehicle through which to drive their ideological industrial relations agenda which bears no relation to successful student outcomes.
The facts are that, yes, a technical college governing body will be able to offer teaching staff Australian workplace agreements, but no-one is going to be compelled to accept an Australian workplace agreement. No-one can be compelled to sign anything against their will. All this government is doing is ensuring that there is choice and that Australian workplace agreements are at least offered to staff. No-one is going to be compelled to take them up. No-one is going to be compelled to sign. The only compulsion will be that there is a choice given to the staff, which is as it should be. If the employee does not think that an Australian workplace agreement is right for their situation, then, like every other member of the Australian work force, they will have the right to collectively negotiate and the right to enter some other form of individual contract. There is going to be no compulsion on staff at these institutions to sign something against their will.
AWAs are only one part of the changes that we will make to our outdated and shambolic workplace relations system. Some commentators-some on the other side-point to the prosperous economy and high employment and pose the question: if things are going so well, why do we need to change? It is true we have enjoyed nine years of strong economic growth, low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment. The unemployment rate is steady at five per cent. The government has created 1.7 million jobs since 1996, but we need to lay the foundations of future prosperity today. The good economic conditions we are enjoying today are as a result of good policy pursued in the past. Good policy does matter, and to ensure prosperity in the future we need to pursue good policy today. We need to do whatever we can to get unemployment even lower, whether that is by reforming workplace relations or by establishing tech colleges. We need to do whatever we can.
The money for Australian technical colleges is new money. This year the Commonwealth in total will spend a record $2.5 billion on vocational education and training. In my state of Victoria, technical colleges will be established in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Bendigo, the Bairnsdale-Sale area, Sunshine and Warrnambool. Students in these 24 regions serviced by Australian technical colleges can look forward to graduating with practical and well regarded qualifications.
Reintroducing technical colleges was an idea I advocated in my first speech in this chamber, along with academically selective high schools and secondary centres of excellence. It is something that I hold quite dear. The state Labor governments around Australia should follow the Commonwealth’s lead and reintroduce in their own jurisdictions their own technical colleges, just as they should introduce secondary colleges of excellence and academically selective high schools-with the possible exception of New South Wales, which already has a well established system of academically selective high schools and centres of excellence.
It was interesting, as Senator Wong mentioned earlier, to note Mr Beazley’s belated discovery the other week of selective schools, centres of excellence and trade schools. He will have a battle on his hands. I find it difficult to imagine Mr Beazley fighting and winning against the teachers’ unions, his own caucus and state Labor premiers to introduce not only trade schools but also academically selective high schools and centres of excellence. I would encourage him to talk to his state Labor counterparts, particularly Victorian education minister Lynne Kosky who, after my first speech in this chamber putting forward the idea of selective schools, described my plan as ‘narrow and elitist’. So there is certainly one state Labor Premier at least that he is going to have a battle on his hands with.
Parents and students not only need and want choice between public and private school sectors but also want choice within school sectors. In New South Wales, parents can choose between 17 academically selective high schools and centres of excellence, like Cherrybrook Technology High School, James Ruse Agricultural High School and Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. There should also be technical colleges in New South Wales. We should say goodbye to the monochromatic, comprehensive, one-size-fits-all secondary school model that we see around Australia. Why not have some secondary schools that are coeducational, some that are single sex, some that are academically selective and some that are not, some that are academically selective centres of excellence and some that are just centres of excellence? Why not let every secondary school in Australia have its own character, have its own specialty, have something that marks it as different so that we can provide parents and students with the choices that they want and deserve?
It is the responsibility of state governments to provide this sort of choice within their own education sector, but there is also a duty to provide more choice between the independent school sector and the government school sector. The Commonwealth does its part by strongly supporting independent schools. If we did not, independent schools would not be affordable for many Australians. In particular, under this government we have seen a flourishing of low-fee independent schools. If the Commonwealth withdrew from this area of activity, independent schools would be out of reach for many Australians. But there is more that can be done.
There is an idea whose time has come, which will allow parents to decide where their own taxpayer dollars should go in support of their own child’s education-the idea of education vouchers that parents can present to the public or private school of their choice. The idea of school vouchers is something of a policy taboo. We have had these taboos since the foundation of Australia. ATSIC used to be a policy taboo. The suggestion a few years back that ATSIC would be abolished would have been dismissed out of hand. That policy taboo has now passed. Vouchers is another policy taboo but I think it is one that will not remain in that camp for long. It is an idea whose time has come.
Why should means be a barrier to entry for a parent choosing a school for their child? Why should a lack of means stop someone sending their child to the school that they want to send them to? Let us let good schools, public or private, be rewarded by parents taking their voucher to those schools and let poorly performing schools improve or close. Let us put the power in the hands of the parents to choose what is best for their children. Let us embrace variety, let us embrace choice, let us give students the opportunities they deserve. Australian technical colleges are an important instalment in providing that choice and opportunity to Australian parents. This bill deserves support and I commend it to the Senate.