Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (7.20 p.m.)-Labor have always held up year 12 retention rates as something to be proud of and as an indicator, in themselves, of the health of our school system. Last week, Labor ‘middle-bencher’ Craig Emerson advocated going further. He advocated that completion of secondary education-completion of years 11 and 12-should in fact be mandatory; it should be compulsory; you should have to continue years 11 and 12 to completion. This is precisely the mindset that this government has been trying to undo-the view that there is virtue in and of itself in completing year 12 and that year 12 completion is some sort of educational Holy Grail. This mindset is based on three false premises: first, that the longer students stay at school the better; second, that it is more important to do years 11 and 12 than to get a trade and a job; and, third, that as many people as possible should go to university.
This is an approach that has done a lot of damage to a lot of people in Australia by denying them the opportunities that best suit them. Labor’s approach, at both state and federal levels, has led to a stigmatisation of the traditional trades and an elevation of university study over and above all other post-school options. This side of the chamber has been seeking to undo that mindset and to establish an environment where a good trade qualification is as highly regarded as a good university education.
In Dr Emerson’s commentary, he cited the current mining-driven jobs boom as a cause for concern. The fact that you actually have a lot of people getting a lot of good jobs is, for him, a cause for concern. He predicted that, when the resources boom ends, those currently employed in those industries in that sector will find themselves jobless and lacking the skills to seek further work. He must be assuming that Labor will one day win office, kill the economy and kill those industries and that people will be out of work. I guess I can understand his point of view, taking that view as to what a Labor government might do.
Senator Ian Campbell-They’ve got a bit of form!
Senator FIFIELD-They do indeed have form. But Dr Emerson believes that completion of secondary education offers a better solution and ensures a greater degree of employability, that these people who are taking these good jobs in the mining industry would be better off if they stayed at school. The statistics tell us that not all students want to complete secondary schooling and move on to higher education. Seventy per cent of young people do not go directly from school to university, and one-third of those who do do not complete their studies.
Not all students want to finish year 12. Not all students should finish year 12. Not everyone should go to university. We have gone too far down the wrong path. Indeed, we have gone so far down the wrong path that many universities can no longer find the students to fill the places that are funded by the government. Basically we are now at a point where everyone who wants to go to a university can do so, and we need to recognise that simply forcing kids into traditional schooling will not work.
We have been hearing a lot from Labor bemoaning the skills shortage, but we have to recognise that the skills shortage is partly a function of the fact that we have a strong and growing economy and that we are near full employment. The proof of this is that, in a dead economy with high unemployment, you do not have a skills shortage; you have got plenty of skills to go around for available jobs. And further proof: we do not have a shortage of just skilled labour in Australia; we also have a shortage of unskilled labour. We have a labour shortage full stop: a growing economy, close to full employment, a labour shortage is what we have.
But, to the extent there is a lack of particular skills, we need only look to Labor for the reason why. It was the Labor Party at a state level that abolished the old tech schools around Australia in the 1980s. It was the Labor Party that elevated university education above technical and practical education. And it was the Labor Party that converted the good colleges of advanced education into universities and effectively laid waste to a fantastic sector that taught good, practical and needed courses.
So it is ironic to see Mr Beazley spending the last couple of months mapping out his plan for education and his plan to address the skills shortage. Only last week, Mr Beazley alleged the government had not done enough to encourage young people into technical education. Mr Beazley said:
… in our education system if kids aren’t in an academic stream, they need encouragement into a trade.
Sounds reasonable, but hello! Which side of politics abolished the tech schools? Which side of politics abolished the CAEs? Which side of politics stigmatised traditional trades and elevated university education above all else? Which side of politics created the public mindset that, if you have not completed year 12, if you have not gone to university, you are somehow a failure? And who is paying the price now? It is employers and it is those who did not get the education that would have best suited them. Mr Beazley has also declared that he now supports:
Schools which specialise in particular trades. Schools which specialise in particular academic pursuits …
It sounds like he is talking about having choice. That is great, but it was Labor that abolished the tech schools, Labor that abolished the CAEs, and now Labor is complaining about the skills shortage and now Labor has rediscovered practical education and vocational courses.
Unfortunately, while Mr Beazley might sound like he has discovered a correct path, he cannot help himself. He is always attracted to complexity in policy; he is always attracted to prolixity in speech. Remember Knowledge Nation-or, as it was better and more commonly known, ‘noodle nation’, in reference to that fantastic spaghetti diagram which Barry Jones insisted having in the ‘noodle nation’ document. But Mr Beazley has learnt nothing from those ‘noodle nation’ days. Mr Deputy President, listen to this. Mr Beazley wants to establish:
… a network of new innovation centres across the country to connect people in business with the ideas people.
I do not have a clue what that means. What about this other policy initiative from Mr Beazley? He wants to create Australian knowledge transfer partnerships:
… to build … collaboration between experts in science and research, and people in business …
These partnerships will be built between business and a university or TAFE so that a graduate or TAFE diploma holder can become:
… the living link between what business needs and what research can provide.
Again, I do not have a clue what that means; it is all noodles to me.
Mr Beazley, how about this for a policy: Australian technical colleges-$289 million, 24 new tech colleges, tuition for 7,200 kids in years 11 and 12, both academic and vocational training while kids complete their school studies? How is that for a policy? These colleges are going to be critical in addressing the skills problem that we have and also in offering a real alternative to students. It is not the complete answer, but it is part of it. I do not know why, but tonight I have a feeling in my waters that the government is going to do even more to deal with skills shortages in Australia. It is just a funny feeling I have.
But there is also hope in the Victorian opposition, which sees the need for change, for greater variety and choice. The Victorian opposition has proposed the establishment of more academically selective schools and centres of excellence in music, science and language. It is a state party that, when in government, wants to reintroduce state technical colleges. This is great news, but unfortunately the Victorian Labor education minister referred to part of this package as elitist. She was referring to the academically selective schools, but there is nothing elitist about choice; there is nothing elitist about opportunity; there is nothing elitist about giving people the chance to meet their full potential. Victorian opposition leader Ted Baillieu and shadow education minister Martin Dixon should be commended for their policy. They are not offering compulsion along the lines of Dr Emerson; they are offering choice. They are not offering the mind-numbing policy complexity of Mr Beazley but clear and practical options for students.
We should all listen to former ALP President Barry Jones, whose recent autobiography damned Mr Beazley for shunning major reform and for being the most conservative leader in Labor history. The Labor Party does not promote choice. It does not promote excellence. Labor has not learnt its lessons in education and it does not deserve to be back on this side of the chamber.