SOCIAL SECURITY AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (AUSTRALIAN APPRENTICES) BILL 2009
Debate resumed from 17 June, on motion by Senator Carr:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (12.49 pm)-I rise today to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Australian Apprentices) Bill 2009 and indicate that the opposition will be supporting this legislation. This bill seeks to exempt apprenticeship incentives paid to apprentices from treatment as assessable income for taxation, social security and veterans affairs purposes. These amendments ensure that apprentices retain the entire amount of the financial incentives paid to them, and this brings these new payments into line with the taxation treatment afforded to previous incentives, which we support.
The first of these payments is the Skills for Sustainability for Australian Apprentices. This is a pilot program which is welcomed by the opposition. It is aimed at encouraging apprentices to undertake sustainability related training. At the completion of a required level of training, a payment of $1,000 will be granted. As a pilot program touching on an area of training that has been discussed for some time, its introduction is welcomed by the opposition. We are very keen to see how it develops.
The second payment is the Tools for Your Trade incentive. This is not a new incentive as such; it simply combines three existing incentives into one. There may be some merit, indeed, in combining the three incentives. However, these particular payments under this new incentive are not set to be payable until 1 January 2010. What happens to apprentices who commence between 12 May 2009 and 1 January 2010? Will they be eligible for the new Tools for Your Trade incentive? Or will they simply fall through the gaps and miss out?
We have had no clarification from the government; they have indeed failed to provide certainty for apprenticeship incentives over this period of time. We need to be encouraging and supporting apprentices to remain in their apprenticeships, and to be encouraging and supporting employers in that. The opposition has been vocal in its support for small business and apprentices during this time of economic downturn. The opposition leader in his budget-in-reply speech put a proposal to bring forward the incentives for employers for traditional trades into the first two years of the apprenticeship-a move that would help cash flows at a time when employers need that assistance most.
But unfortunately the government has made the situation for businesses and apprentices even more uncertain by abolishing the apprenticeship training vouchers-vouchers worth up to $1,000; vouchers the coalition government introduced in the 2007 federal budget to help apprentices pay for their training. Clearly the Rudd government has broken its 2007 election policy commitment to retain all existing subsidies and payments to apprentices. Whilst the coalition supports this bill and the exemption of these payments from assessable income for taxation purposes, not commencing the Tools for Your Trade incentive until 1 January 2010 is potentially excluding a large group of apprentices. The situation of this group of apprentices is a concern for the coalition. Across the board we have seen this year’s federal budget do little to directly support employers and their apprentices. There is no extra money for apprentices. The merger of current incentives is, we believe, just an attempt to make people believe there is a new incentive. At a time of unemployment uncertainty and economic downturn, the opposition are disappointed that the government has taken $197 million from the pockets of apprentices. The government is giving with one hand and taking back with the other. Although the opposition do have a number of concerns, we will be supporting this legislation.