Federation Chamber

I’ve spoken before in this place about my discomfort with these motions, which simply congratulate the government for its work. I worry about the value to Australian democracy. Members of the government stand and offer uncritical self-congratulations; members of the opposition stand and deliver unrelenting criticism. I don’t know who benefits from it, but I hope that, somehow, in doing this we improve public Australian policy.

When I stood for election I promised the people of Indi that I would try to do politics differently. From that perspective, I recognise the good work where it happens and try to offer practical solutions to improve what we are doing. I think that speaks to a question of integrity, and I believe all of us want that and all of our constituents expect it.

So when I consider the motion put forward by the Member for Braddon I look at the good work that’s been done, and I do congratulate the government for that. But there is more work to be done, especially in regional Australia. This motion celebrates the government’s policies on skills and training, but those same policies are in many ways failing to deliver adequately for regional Australia.

Let’s look at a snapshot of education opportunity outside the cities. The government’s own Napthine review found that high school completion rates are 80 per cent in metropolitan areas and around 65 per cent in regional areas. It found that people who grow up in regional Australia are 40 per cent less likely to get at least a cert IV and 50 per cent less likely to gain a bachelor degree or above than their city peers. Even VET enrolments are increasing faster in metropolitan areas than in regional areas. This lack of training opportunities is holding us back. The unemployment rate for people with a cert III or above is 3.9 per cent compared to 7.9 per cent for those without one.

With more skills and training opportunities, we could start to tackle pockets of high unemployment across regional Australia, in places like the north-west of Tasmania, the member for Braddon’s electorate, where youth unemployment sits at 15 per cent. The government’s analysis indicates that if we halve the skills gap between metro and rural people it would increase GDP by 0.6 per cent or $11 billion every year.

There is a massive opportunity in regional skills that could be unlocked with the right policies. The Napthine review found that the most important thing was increasing access to training for regional Australia.

We need to create training opportunities in regional areas for regional areas. The government estimates that the planned expansion of the NDIS will be required to find another 90,000 disability workers—double the size of the current workforce—and much of this will be needed in regional areas. The 2019 national mental health report shows there is a critical shortage of qualified mental health workers in regional areas. For those of us who live here, that is abundantly clear.

As Australia inevitably shifts to being run by renewable power stations across regional Australia, we will need thousands of skilled technicians, electricians and construction workers to drive a multibillion-dollar industry. We need to do more to create training opportunities for these industries, which could underpin our regional economy, by investing smartly in regional people. That is why I am thrilled that my own electorate is showing the way forward on this.

After the ‘black summer’ fires devastated much of the Upper Murray, Wodonga TAFE is proposing a program called ‘Recover, rebuild and sustain’ to support the bushfire recovery through the development of the local skills base, to meet community needs now and into the future. The program would work with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to identify local skills and needs—like chainsaw operation and fence building—and support participants to obtain relevant qualifications through short courses and match them with local businesses needing those skills. Beyond the physical rebuild, the focus will turn to longer term needs, like mental health support, aged care, disability care and small business skills.

The member for Braddon’s motion celebrates the importance of reforming the vocational education and training sector to better meet the demands of the modern Australian economy.

While these are our needs—aged care, disability care, renewables, sustainable agriculture—we need to do more to support training for these industries. If we are to grasp these opportunities, the nation needs to invest, and I’ll be advocating for the Wodonga TAFE Recover, Rebuild and Sustain program to receive funding as part of our region’s bushfire recovery.

I will continue to work with the Minister for Education to give regional Australia the best chance to thrive with the right training and education opportunities for a 21st century regional economy.

[February 24, 2020]

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