Dr HAINES (Indi) (13:15): I rise to speak in support of the Jobs and Skills Australia Amendment Bill 2023, which establishes the permanent governance and functions of Jobs and Skills Australia, the JSA. COVID-19 and the complete absence of structured workforce planning over decades have led to missed opportunities in our country. By establishing a permanent agency I’m hopeful we can start turning this around. This bill will rename the JSA director as the JSA commissioner and provide for deputy commissioners. It will provide for the minister to establish a ministerial advisory board to advise in relation to the performance and functions of JSA. It will also establish in full the functions of JSA, setting it up as a body that will provide independent advice on the labour market and the skills and training needs of workers and employers. I’m pleased to see that the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee has considered this bill and recommended that it be passed.

In supporting this bill, I will keep speaking out for the unique needs of the workforce in regional, rural and remote Australia. We want to attract the very best candidates, offer the best jobs and provide our people with the skills and training for the jobs of the future. The Labor Party has, historically, had a blind spot when it comes to regional Australia; now is the perfect time to correct this. In last night’s budget, I was disappointed by the lack of new funding measures for regional development and by the minimal investment in regional roads. Roads are essential for our workforce, and they need significant investment—most particularly after the recent and devastating floods. There is some funding in the budget, but it’s clear it won’t be enough to repair the issues we are facing.

I am pleased the government has taken on board feedback that JSA needs to appreciate the unique differences between regional areas in its work, and to use granular data to inform workforce planning and policy and funding decisions at the regional level. No two regions are the same; we face different geographical and socioeconomic conditions, and have emerging or growing industries depending on where we are. To be blind to the differences will result in poorly tailored policy and missed opportunities which set us even further back.

In my electorate of Indi we have an older-than-average demographic, which will need more health care and aged-care services as they age. And COVID, while it brought a welcome influx of tree changers and young families alike to our towns, has placed greater pressure on our schools and our early childhood educators. We have a rapidly growing and maturing tourism and accommodation market with the High Country, cycle tourism, the country’s best snowfields, the beautiful River Murray, and the Hume Dam and Eildon Weir as major watersport attractions.

We also have a strong industrial backbone operating from Wangaratta, Wodonga and Benalla. And we have an enormous trades and construction sector. Our agricultural workforce is diverse, from seasonal cropping and commercial-scale viticulture through to boutique horticultural produce. And we are uniquely located between Melbourne and Sydney on the major transportation routes of the Hume Highway and the Inland Rail, with exceptional freight and logistics capacity. We have a large Defence Force community and a cohort of defence spouses who could be contributing so much more to our regional economy if they were supported to do so. Ovens Murray is a Victorian renewable energy zone, opening up enormous workforce opportunities for the renewable energy sector from tradies and techies, right through to the most highly qualified engineers.

My electorate is facing strong demand for employees, yet there are major skills shortages. Job vacancies skyrocketed a whopping 327 per cent between May 2020 and March 2023, yet our labour market is tight, with unemployment at 3.2 per cent in December 2022. We have real challenges in the agricultural workforce and the rural health workforce and in hospitality, teaching, child care, aged care. And overarching all of this is our housing shortfall. Even if we could employ enough people to fill all of these vacancies, there’s barely anywhere affordable or available for them to live or to buy.

The budget measures to tackle the regional housing crisis were disappointing, with no funding for the enabling infrastructure needed to open up housing development in the regions. We need this enabling infrastructure—such as sewerage, power, pavements—to unlock the land. It is a structural impediment to getting new houses, particularly medium-density social and affordable housing, on the ground. The number one issue people talk to me about in Indi, along with the job vacancies, is housing. There’s so much more this government could do to kickstart housing development in regional Australia to ensure we all have a safe, affordable roof over our heads and those people seeking employment can take up those jobs, because there is somewhere to live.

Indi is facing a major skills shortage in our health care and social assistance industries. According to the Victorian Skills Authority, the Hume region, which covers virtually all the footprint of Indi, needs another 1,300 full-time equivalents in the coming years to meet demand. Job vacancies for medical practitioners and nurses have skyrocketed, with a 376 per cent increase in job vacancy ads between June 2020 and March 2023, and it’s the same for carers and aides, increasing 412 per cent over the same time period. I’ve spoken many times in this place about the desperate need to support and to grow our health and aged-care workforce, and this must be a central focus for this government.

We have a critical workforce shortage of veterinarians. This is especially acute in regional communities. This is causing treatment delays, and we’ve been hearing heartbreaking stories of horses and dogs facing agonising pain, waiting to be seen by an overstretched regional vet. Not only is this stressful for the owners and the vets; it’s stressful for the entire family. And it is really, really dreadful for the animals.

I recently met Dr Andrew Jacotine, Dr Callie Burnett and their staff at ACE Vet Hospital in Euroa, and I received a tour of their incredibly impressive facilities. They are working so hard and under intense pressure to provide high-quality animal care, but they’re facing many challenges. They told me that in the current job market regional employers are competing with urban counterparts and losing to much higher salaries found in large metro centres. Trying to get the kinds of vets we need out into the regions to do larger animal work is incredibly challenging. And the restrictions on the number of paraveterinary staff make it harder to set up a viable business structure. Andrew told me he’s trying to achieve a sustainable industry which serves the needs of the public. I’ve written to the Treasurer and the minister of agriculture asking for their advice. I want to work with government on this. I was glad also to raise this issue with the state member for Euroa, Annabelle Cleeland, who shares my concerns. We have to work together on this big challenge.

Construction is a major employer in my electorate. According to the statistics provided by the Master Builders Association of Australia, in Indi we have 7,319 people employed in building and construction. That’s 10.4 per cent of my constituents. And according to the Victorian Skills Authority, construction is our third-highest area for additional workforce, requiring an extra 1,100 full-time equivalent people over the coming years. But the question is: how will we get there? I want to see more work done to plan and grow our local construction workforce.

I’m very proud to have made a substantial contribution to this bill, the previous one and, in fact, to the government’s formation of policy surrounding the JSA to make sure that the interests of rural, regional and remote Australians are not sidelined. I travelled to Canberra to attend the Jobs and Skills Summit in September and represent rural and regional voices, to ensure we are considered in workplace workforce development strategies. I was pleased to get this government to agree to add an additional function to Jobs and Skills Australia, to provide advice to the minister and secretary in relation to skills, training and workforce needs in regional, rural and remote Australia. I’d like to acknowledge the member for Kennedy for his support in that work.

I’m also pleased to have secured the government’s commitment that JSA must, in performing its functions, consult with other persons and bodies, which may include persons from regional, rural or remote Australia in its work. This is so important, and I thank the minister for his work with me on this. I advised the minister’s office to consult with certain regional organisations on the permanent model for the JSA, and I note that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations undertook six months of consultation with more than 200 individual stakeholders. Many of these include those who are nominated, such as the Regional Universities Network and the Grain Growers Association. This agency will be stronger for consulting with these regional peak body representatives and listening carefully to the needs of rural, regional and remote Australia.

I note that this bill modifies my previous amendment so that now JSA have a function to analyse skills and workforce needs—including in regional, rural and remote Australia—and I’ve received assurances from the minister’s office that this alteration ensures regional and rural consideration across all of JSA’s functions. It also means that JSA’s analysis will now be publicly available—very important. I’m pleased to have secured further amendments to this bill and to the permanent operations of JSA, which will enshrine consideration of rural, regional and remote Australia in its remit. These amendments will be moved by the minister. This bill ensures that a person is not eligible for appointment to the ministerial advisory board unless the minister is satisfied that the person has substantial knowledge of an identified field, and these amendments will now include regional, rural and remote Australia as an identified field. This ensures that people with lived experience are front of mind when the minister is considering potential appointees.

These amendments are preferable to the amendments moved by the member for Farrer, which I will not be supporting, though we share the common goal of making the board as representative of the interests of stakeholders as possible, including rural, regional and remote Australia. That’s why I have worked closely with the minister to deliver the amendment just outlined, to ensure and to bring regional, rural and remote and small-business representation expertise to the board.

I want to thank the minister and his office for engaging with me to improve this bill. I look forward to continuing working together to address the particular workforce needs in regional, rural and remote Australia in health, in construction, in renewable energy, in hospitality and in so many more areas. It’s in working together that we can get things done, and I will always work together with any government for the benefit of rural, regional and remote Australians.

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