Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (6.43 p.m.)-I rise to speak on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2006. This amendment is necessary given the overwhelming success of the program, with 20 of the 25 colleges signing funding agreements with the Australian government. Twenty-one colleges are scheduled to operate in 2007, servicing the needs of 2,000 students and beginning to tackle areas of skill shortages in our economy. The Australian government is increasing its commitment by $112.6 million to $456.3 million to ensure that industry will have access to a supply of highly qualified workers. In fact, by 2009 these colleges will be home to 7,500 students. Some of the colleges will operate for multiple campuses. The scale of what is being achieved is beyond what was originally envisaged.
This package is another example of the government stepping up where the Labor states have failed. We should never forget that it was a succession of state Labor governments around Australia that abolished tech schools in the 1980s. The view then was that everyone should go to year 12 and university. The result was a bland, undifferentiated, one-size-fits-all education. Labor failed to recognise that a technical education, whether in plumbing, carpentry or any other trade, was and remains an important option for many students.
In my home state of Victoria, the Cain Labor government phased out tech schools in the 1980s, depriving many children of opportunities to pursue a technical trade. The then education minister, Joan Kirner, has since argued: ‘We didn’t end technical colleges; we broadened the curriculum to give young people a greater choice.’ It is funny how you broaden choice by limiting it! The president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union, Mary Bluett, parrots this view, arguing that the answer is to broaden students’ experiences in secondary schools.
The federal government wants to return to a situation where a high-quality technical education is as prized as a good uni degree. This country made an enormous mistake when it abandoned the development of technical skills in colleges. The ability to study a trade and to complete a year 12 qualification concurrently is something that has been welcomed by students across Australia. I would have thought that broadening the range of options for a student was in their interests. How you broaden a student’s educational opportunities by closing down one particular option for education is beyond me.
Last night in this chamber we had the amazing spectacle of Senator Carr trying to mount an attack on the Australian technical colleges. What was Senator Carr’s knockout punch? What was his killer line? What was Senator Carr’s absolutely devastating line? His killer line was that the government did not consult with the states on the establishment of technical colleges. Senator Carr was arguing that it was our job to consult about the establishment of technical colleges with the governments that actually closed the tech schools-that is was our job to discuss with the states, which had totally abrogated their responsibilities in this area, how we were going to do their job for them. It is a perverse sort of logic. The truth is that successive Labor state and federal governments turned their backs on technical and further education. They sent young people the message that if you did not complete year 12 and you did not complete university then you were a failure. They stigmatised the traditional trades systematically and deliberately. We say that that is wrong. We want to turn that back. We want to reinstate the pride in a good technical education.
The establishment of these technical colleges has been a remarkable success, and I pay tribute to the former minister, the member for Moreton, and the new minister, the member for Goldstein. These colleges are being delivered ahead of schedule. Again, we see Labor walking both sides of the street on this issue. On one hand we have the member for Melbourne saying in a speech to the Sydney Institute on 21 November 2006, and he is right:
… we’ve managed to alienate countless young people from learning through an excessive focus on university entrance in schools.
The member for Melbourne, Mr Tanner, is basically saying what we have been saying-that this country has placed far too much emphasis on university degrees as the only worthy pathway for further education. That is why the government has established these technical colleges-to show students who are inclined towards a trade that their choice will be supported and valued, and to herald an end to the days when a trade qualification was seen as second class.
Even the former Victorian minister for education, Lynne Kosky, has admitted that tech colleges were an important element in Australia’s education system. She admitted on 10 August last year:
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.
Another Labor frontbencher has a different view. In an interview on Adelaide’s 5AA radio station on 4 January 2007, the member for Rankin, Dr Emerson, played down the importance of the trades. This is what he had to say: ‘I think we can easily overstate the importance of trades.’ What an extraordinary statement. On one hand we have Mr Tanner and Ms Kosky talking up the government’s approach of improving opportunities for trade qualifications, but on the other hand we have Dr Emerson saying that the importance of trades is overstated.
But what does Dr Emerson really think? If he thinks that the importance of trades is overstated, does he think Australian technical colleges are not needed? He was asked this question in the same interview and responded: ‘Of course we need technical education, vocational education and training.’ The truth is that Dr Emerson is echoing the sentiments of most of his colleagues. They have no plan for vocational and further education. Whilst they mouth rhetoric, the government is getting on with the job of addressing the skills shortage evident in our economy.
Labor do not like these tech colleges one little bit. This is typical of Labor’s approach. They say they want to support the trades; it is just that they oppose every single measure designed to support the trades. They say they support surplus budgets; it is just that they run deficits. They oppose every single measure designed to put the budget back into balance.