Federal Parliament - National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020

June 10, 2020

Dr ALYLabor is not going to oppose this bill, the National Skills Commissioner Bill 2020. We agree with the bill, which would establish a new statutory office of National Skills Commissioner to provide the minister and the secretary of the department with advice on skills demands, the labour market and workforce development; and advice in relation to Australia's current, emerging and future workforce needs; the pricing of vocational education and training courses; public and private return on government investment in vocational education and training qualifications; the performance of Australia's system in VET; and issues affecting the Australian and international labour markets.

It seems a bit of a no-brainer that we would support a bill like this that seeks to improve the quality of the vocational education and training sector. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a reason why we wouldn't want improvements to the vocational education and training sector, and it's good to see that this government has finally come to the party on wanting to ensure quality in vocational education and training.

I want to talk about some of the research I've done in the past on vocational education and training. In 2000, I undertook a study looking at women in particular and at how much they value the VET sector. The findings of that study suggested that vocational education and training was highly valued among women, particularly among women who were seeking to return to the workforce after being a stay-at-home parent for a period of time and also by migrant women who were coming in and looking for ways in which they could contribute to the economy through entering the workforce. Shortly after that, in fact a few years after that, I joined a different research team, and we looked at tradies and training for tradies. One of the findings from that particular study was that we were losing quality training for tradespeople—it was during a construction boom and there was a high demand for tradespeople—and we found that fewer and fewer people were going into the trades. Not long after that, in a different role, I travelled with a delegation to the Gulf nations, where we talked a lot about Australia's world-class training system. Those nations were looking to Australia and to the Australian model of vocational education and training to model their own vocational education and training systems within their own countries. They were looking to Australia as a prime example of a successful training and skills industry.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. Sadly, under this government our vocational education and training system has taken a hammering. They have gutted what was once held up as a world renowned model for vocational education and training. As an educator myself and somebody who comes from the background of being at one point a teacher at TAFE and then later on at university, I always have said and will continue to say that not everybody could, should or needs to go to university. We definitely need to have a strong training sector that is not just there as a second choice for those who can't get into university but is a sector—and an industry and an area—that young people aspire to be a part of to get the skills that they need through vocational education and training, whether it be in trades or other skills.

Labor has always supported a strong vocational education and training sector. In 2008 we established Skills Australia. Skills Australia provided the same kind of advice that the proposed National Skills Commissioner would provide, but it was a more robust body. I think that's a fair enough assessment to make—that Labor's previous iteration of an advisory body was essentially a lot more robust than what is being proposed under this particular bill. In 2011 Skills Australia was rebranded as the Australian Workplace Productivity Agency. The functions continued as before; it was a rebranding. But then in 2014 the Abbott government decided that it didn't need expert advice—the kind of expert advice, mind you, that we have come to rely on through this recent period of pandemic. They decided they didn't need expert advice on vocational education and training, workforce productivity and skills, and they abolished the AWPA. This particular bill, as I've mentioned, is some way from reclaiming some of that former glory that Australia had with a strong and robust vocational education and training system as a mechanism for providing advice.

I'd like to take a minute here, because good, quality training is actually a passion of mine. In particular, training around cybersecurity is something that I'm very interested in and very passionate about. In the last parliament, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement undertook an inquiry into law enforcement capabilities around cybersecurity. One of the recommendations of that inquiry was that there needed to be substantial measures taken to address some skills gaps in our law enforcement capabilities around cybersecurity, particularly because law enforcement attracts people, young people in particular, who have the kinds of skills that are needed. They stay for a little while and then they move on to a better paid position in law enforcement.

One of the ideas that I've looked at is using our vocational education and training system to upskill and train law enforcement officers, sworn officers, in some of the skills they need to move into the cybersecurity roles. But we can't do that if we don't have quality vocational education and training. We can't do that if our TAFEs are closing. We can't do that if TAFE teachers are losing their jobs. We can't do that if TAFE courses are no longer being made available to students, because there's no funding. We cannot build on the skills that we need to move forward as a nation if we don't recognise that we are responsible for ensuring that young people, people who are returning to work and people who need to change their work have access to quality training in order to acquire those skills.

Labor has a plan for this. We're not standing up here just to criticise this bill or criticise the government; we're standing here with an alternative. We're standing here with a solution. We're standing here with a proposal. Unlike the National Skills Commissioner that's proposed in this bill, our Jobs and Skills Australia would operate as an independent statutory authority, with a genuine partnership between business leaders of large and small businesses, state and territory governments, unions and education providers—those at the grassroots level, at the coalface, who understand the regions, the cohorts, the demographics and the needs of all the stakeholders. You cannot design a robust, responsive and effective vocational and educational training system if you do not include all the stakeholders. You can't do it if you don't include industry. You can't do it if you don't know your demographics. You can't do it if you don't include businesses. You can't do it if you don't include state and territory governments. And you can't do it if you don't include education providers.

This is one of the flaws of this proposal before us. It really doesn't provide as comprehensive a mechanism as it could for addressing what I would say is a fairly substantive and urgent issue, particularly given the current situation and particularly as we move into the next few months, with unemployment levels being what they are. There are people who will have no jobs to go back to. We talk about unemployment, but a lot of those jobs that people were in have gone. People won't be going back into those jobs. They're going to need to be reskilled into areas where there is a demand for employment. You cannot be serious about having an effective mechanism for developing a program or an industry if you don't have a mechanism by which all the key stakeholders and all the experts can come together and design a comprehensive way forward.

In government, Labor would enhance this National Skills Commissioner, as it stands before us, and turn it into the vision that we have for Jobs and Skills Australia. It would be a collaborative and comprehensive framework and it would also be an enduring structure that would look at designing not just for the near future but for the middle and far future as well. We're at a time in history—and I hate to use the word 'unprecedented', because I think it's been a little bit overdone, right? But we certainly are at a time in history where—

Mr Tim Wilson: An unprecedented statement!

Dr ALY: Yes, indeed, Member for Goldstein! We have an opportunity to stop and pause. I think it's a good thing to see this as an opportunity to stop and pause—to look at the way in which we think about ourselves, to look at where we're going, to look at where we've been and to look at where we could be better. I would really love, whenever it is that I end up leaving this place—and inevitably I will return to the education sector, which is where I've spent the last two decades—to return to a sector that has been restored to its former glory. I would love for that to happen. For as long as I'm here, I will continue to work towards that. I know that I'm in the right party to do that, because I know that Labor stands for a strong vocational education and training sector and for a sector that is responsive to the needs of industry but also to the needs of the population. This isn't just about filling gaps in industry; this is about giving opportunity. This is about fulfilling aspirations for young people.

I'll end by referring to my electorate of Cowan, where the predominant profession is in the trades. Over the past seven years or so, we've seen an attrition in the number of tradespeople in Cowan, and that is not due to natural forces—that is not natural attrition. I know that because every week I get parents contacting me because they cannot find a traineeship or an apprenticeship for their child who seeks to become skilled in a trade. I know it's not because of natural attrition; I know it is directly as a result of this government's lack of commitment to a strong vocational education and training sector. I hope that we can change that.