As the Australian Bureau of Statistics makes clear, this Liberal-National coalition is presiding over the worst wages growth on record, with wages growing at one-fifth the rate of profits. Its economic policies have doubled the national debt and lifted household debt to record levels…
Mr Wilson (6:50pm) — I’m glad to speak about the importance of vocational training in Australia and about TAFE in particular. I have to say that the motion itself seems at odds with what’s actually going on in Australia. It seeks to superimpose a cheery picture over what in reality is a fairly bleak set of circumstances. When it refers to how the government wants to ‘reform the vocational sector to meet the demands of the modern Australian economy’, we can only decode that as meaning the government thinks that squeezing our TAFE system and drastically reducing the number of apprentices is just what this economy needs. That would seem bizarre, but this is the same government that reckons the way to respond to stagnant real wages, falling living standards and weak consumption is to cut penalty rates, cap public sector wages, cut public sector jobs and wage a constant war against the union movement. So, if that’s your assessment of what the economy needs, then the attack on TAFE and apprenticeships starts to make perfect sense.
As the Australian Bureau of Statistics makes clear, this Liberal-National coalition is presiding over the worst wages growth on record, with wages growing at one-fifth the rate of profits. Its economic policies have doubled the national debt and lifted household debt to record levels, and there are nearly two million Australians looking for work or for more work even though in some areas there are significant skills shortages. A properly supported vocational framework would connect those two areas of need—businesses who want skilled workers and Australians who would love to be trained in the skills that would enable them to take on those jobs. What this motion doesn’t acknowledge, in talking about the government’s new-found enthusiasm for vocational sector reform, is that for seven years the government has actively run down the sector itself. Reform in this case is code for, ‘How the hell do we glue the system back together after we have already smashed it into several pieces?’
Consider that under Labor there were never fewer than 400,000 apprentices and trainees under Labor. Today there are maybe 170,000. After seven years of so-called stable and certain government, the number of apprentices and trainees in Australia has been chopped in half. At a time of high youth unemployment, and with a government that constantly says the best support it can provide is a job, we find ourselves in a situation where Australia has a shortage of plumbers, carpenters, hairdressers and motor mechanics—and air-conditioning mechanics, apparently. It’s no great mystery as to why. The biggest reason we have shortages in such basic and critical skill areas is that the government has cut $3 billion out of the TAFE system—three thousand million dollars out of our TAFE system. You can’t take that much money out of TAFE and then blame young people for not being adequately trained.
I want to acknowledge the vital role that TAFE plays across the nation, including those who serve my electorate of Fremantle like the WA Maritime Centre and the Murdoch TAFE campus. At the end of last year I visited the WA Maritime Centre with Labor’s deputy leader, the shadow minister for defence. Thanks to TAFE, WA is home to world-class training facilities for people seeking careers as seafarers or in the defence industry or in shipbuilding and sophisticated manufacturing. Last February I was proud to sign the pledge calling for guaranteed funding for TAFE, and I want to pay tribute to the Stop TAFE Cuts campaign and to the State Schools Teachers Union of WA for their important work in this area.
While the Morrison government has turned its back on TAFE, I want to acknowledge the supportive work of state governments in this area. The Victorian, Queensland and Western Australian governments have all realised that there’s a crisis, and they’ve taken steps to address it. As the member for Perth pointed out, the McGowan Labor government put a freeze on all TAFE fees in 2017. This year they’ve cut TAFE fees in half for 34 priority courses. That’s having an impact, with a 20 per cent increase in TAFE enrolments across those courses. In some areas, like cybersecurity, enrolments have increased by 85 per cent. That’s what good governments do; they identify problems and they take practical action.
After seven years of this Liberal-National government, our vocational education system has taken an absolute hammering. It’s sad but understandable that some Australians have lost confidence in the system or are finding themselves locked out through higher fees, course closures and even the closure of some TAFE campuses. That’s what billions of dollars in cuts does, and that’s why we’ve got a skills crisis that makes life hard for businesses and leads businesses to call for more access to temporary foreign workers. And yet, with almost two million people out of work or looking for more work, it shouldn’t come to that. The truth is that TAFE can and should be an engine for opportunity and productivity in this country. Well-structured, properly resourced and high-quality vocational education helps to create jobs, boost wages and grow small business, and lets Australians of all ages, but particularly young people, to get on the path for a productive and fulfilling work life.