Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (9.31 a.m.)-Before time ran out last night, I was lamenting the fact that a succession of Labor state governments around Australia had abolished the old technical colleges in the 1980s. This reflected the educational fad of the time that everyone should complete year 12 and go to university. The view then was that you were a failure if you had not completed year 12 and gone to university. The coalition wants to see trades restored to their rightful place as an educational option as valid as a university degree.
I mentioned last night that we had the spectacle in this chamber of Senator Carr trying to mount an attack on the technical colleges-and it was an extraordinary sight. But what was Senator Carr’s knockout punch? What was Senator Carr’s killer political point on technical colleges? It was that the government did not consult the states on the establishment of technical colleges, that it was our job to consult on the establishment of tech colleges with those states that had closed the old tech schools and that it was our job to discuss with the states that had totally abrogated their responsibilities how we were going to do their job for them. It was a perverse sort of logic. The truth is that successive state Labor governments turned their backs on technical and further education. They sent young people the message: if you have not completed year 12 and university, you are a failure. They systematically stigmatised the traditional trades.
The establishment of these Australian technical colleges has been remarkable. These colleges are being delivered ahead of schedule. But what do we see from Labor? They are walking both sides of the street again. The member for Melbourne said in November last year, and got it absolutely right:
… we’ve managed to alienate countless young people from learning through an excessive focus on university entrance in schools.
He agrees with us that this country has placed too much emphasis on university degrees as the only worthy pathway of further education. That is why this government is establishing these Australian technical colleges, because we want to affirm the choice that many Australians want to take to study a trade. Lynne Kosky, the former Victorian minister for education, also admitted last year that the previous approach was wrong. She said:
It’s probably true to say that we lost something when technical schools were closed previously … We lost something that was important for young people.
She was dead right.
Labor do not like these technical colleges. It is typical of their approach that they say that they support something but then they oppose every single measure that can help deliver it. They say that they support the trades and that they support skills but they oppose measures like the Australian technical colleges which can do something to help see those skills come to fruition. Likewise, Labor say we need to address our skills shortage, but when the government puts in place a comprehensive set of solutions, including these tech colleges and the $837 million Skills for the Future package, all they do is oppose us. If Australians want to know the truth about Labor, they should look at their record and at what they did in government and have done in opposition. The refrain is as true as ever it was: do not listen to what Labor say; look at what Labor do.
The new shadow education minister, Mr Smith, has made crystal clear what he really thinks about Australian technical colleges. He stated that his intention, if elected to government, would be to fold the Australian technical colleges back into the TAFE system of the states. The Labor Party want to resurrect failed policies. We all know what would happen if these tech colleges were handed to the states. Labor’s position is: the states closed the technical colleges, the coalition stepped in to fill the gap by creating new technical colleges, so let us hand the technical colleges back to the states that closed the tech colleges in the first place. What would the states do if these tech colleges were handed to them? We can only assume that they would close them as they did with their own tech colleges. As any good psychologist will tell you, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. If Labor pass these tech colleges to the states to run, the states will close them, because they have an aversion to this sort of choice and opportunity. These great institutions which we have established would be lost under Labor. We would lose the collaborative approach which now exists in these technical colleges between students and employers, where employers are allowed to influence the curriculum to ensure skills are tailored to meet the needs of the local region.
Labor have had nearly 11 years to come up with a comprehensive technical and further education policy. We know the Labor Party do not actually have policies anymore; they just have directions papers, which are just a series of motherhood statements, bereft of detail. In Mr Rudd’s and Mr Smith’s direction paper called ‘Education revolution’ you might expect to find at least a comprehensive discussion of technical and further education. This document is not policy, but it is something, you would expect. But how much of this 27-page document is dedicated to fixing our skills crisis? Twenty pages? No. Ten pages? No.
Senator FIFIELD-No, Senator McGauran, not even a full page; it is a mere four paragraphs. It is a feeble effort. After 11 years in opposition, there are four paragraphs. In contrast, this government is delivering on its promise to the Australian people. We are establishing 25 Australian technical colleges. The ability to establish these colleges is only made possible because we have a strong and growing economy and because we have managed our finances well. It is only because we have been able to deliver nine budget surpluses. It is only because the coalition has been able to repay every single cent of Labor’s $96 billion debt. We are investing in education now because we have the capacity to do so. We have the economic environment which allows us to do these things for the Australian people. We used to have to find $9 billion per year just to pay the interest on Labor’s debt. That is one of the reasons why we can afford these tech colleges-because we do not have to find $9 billion every year just to pay Labor’s debt.
This is the clear difference between the coalition and Labor. On this side, we support choice and we support flexibility in education. We have a clear desire on this side of the chamber to reinstate the status of trade qualifications to their rightful place alongside university degrees. We want to give choice and opportunity to young Australians, and Australian technical colleges will do just that.