The Politics    Friday, June 5, 2020


By Paddy Manning

Image of Minister for Skills Michaelia Cash

Minister for Skills Michaelia Cash. Image © Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The looming training overhaul will need to be watched closely

No government announcement can be taken at face value, but there are some federal ministers whose every word and deed should be approached with an especially high degree of caution – the journalist’s equivalent of personal protective equipment. Think of Angus Taylor, for example. Think of Stuart Robert. And think of Michaelia Cash, who simply should not be entrusted with a portfolio after she misled parliament five times over her office tipping off the media about a raid on the Australian Workers’ Union offices by the federal police. Then there was her prosecution of one of the most execrable scare campaigns ever devised during the last election, when she warned that a Labor policy to encourage electric vehicles was somehow a war on utes, tradies and weekends generally. Unfortunately for tradespeople everywhere, however, Cash remains minister for skills. The prime minister has rightly declared an overhaul of vocational education is needed, saying that training is key to Australia’s recovery. Today, the Productivity Commission has kicked that agenda along with a review declaring that the $6 billion spent by federal, state and territory governments on the sector is inefficient and needs streamlining under a national regulator. Michaelia Cash will need to be watched closely from here on in.

After a decade of botched privatisation-by-stealth manoeuvres under the VET FEE-HELP scheme, and a grinding underfunding of TAFEs, the situation is dire. This week, the National Australian Apprenticeships Association claimed there had already been a 40 per cent drop in apprenticeship and traineeship commencements over the last two months, and it predicted there could be 100,000 fewer Australians in training by the end of the year. At the National Press Club last week, Morrison said that the VET system is “clunky and unresponsive to skills demands”, that there is a lack of clear information about what needs should guide training and funding, and that the funding system is “marred by inconsistencies and incoherence, with little accountability back to any results”. He said the National Skills Commission would provide detailed labour market analysis, including an annual report setting out the skills needs of Australia, replacing existing lists for apprenticeships and skilled migration.

This sounds like something that perhaps should have been done by now, after seven years in government. Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek rather wearily explained on AM this week that the Abbott government had actually abolished the skills forecasting organisation that Labor had established, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency. “So of course we support better information being available for parents who are helping young people decide about a future career. So far, what we’ve seen, though, is this new organisation is the section of the existing Department of Education with a new title. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit worried that it’s just one more slogan.”

Plibersek also pointed out that the state of the VET sector is partly a result of underfunding on the Coalition’s watch. “I think there should be a more nationally unified approach to TAFE and training,” she said. “I think it should be easier [for] people who have trained in one jurisdiction to work in another jurisdiction. There’s obviously reform that we could do to improve the system, but you don’t improve the system by cutting $3 billion, as this government has done over the last seven years.”

The Productivity Commission report opens with the statement that the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development is overdue for replacement, reflecting the consensus in 2012 about how federal, state and territory governments should boost participation in training. The commission’s Jonathan Coppel told the ABC that the VET sector was “underperforming” and “excessively complicated”. As Guardian Australia reported this morning, the PC report backs the government’s calls to improve student choice and rationalise inconsistent subsidies, but found there was “little evidence that incentive payments to employers to train trade apprentices have been effective in increasing enrolments”.

Industry-led short courses are no substitute for proper training through apprenticeships provided by experienced teachers with well-equipped workshops and classrooms. There is a simple solution to the woes of the VET sector and it is staring the national cabinet in the face: fund TAFEs properly again, as states like Victoria have begun to do. TAFE Directors Australia chief executive Craig Robertson wrote [$] in The Australian this week that the PM was attracted to the national hospital agreement as the template for VET. He continued: 

This would see “national efficient pricing” and “activity-based funding” as models for VET. It’s a good starting point but it has its limits. We have seen firsthand in recent months the benefits of strong public hospitals … TAFEs are the public hospitals of vocational education. Australia has experimented far too long with the folly that free markets do an efficient job in allocating government resources for skills and training.”

Hopefully, Michaelia Cash is listening. 

“The risk is great, I don’t deny that. I am an at-risk person. I do appeal to everybody to wear masks and social-distance at the protest. But at the same time, every time an Aboriginal person goes out on the street we are at risk.”

Indigenous academic Marcia Langton explains why she will attend tomorrow’s Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne despite fears about the spread of coronavirus.

“Something’s gone terribly wrong here ... We can’t move back, we can’t keep looking backwards, we want to repair our relationship with traditional owners.”

Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s iron ore group, apologises for the company’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site at Juunku Gorge in the Pilbara region, describing it as a “misunderstanding”.

Tear gas in the Rose Garden
As protests against police violence and inequality continue in the United States, Scott Morrison had a private phone call with Donald Trump. Accounts of the conversation differ, but in subsequent interviews the prime minister refused to engage with Australia’s own record on black deaths in custody.

The expected federal budget deficit for the 2020–21 financial year, according to fresh figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office.

“The reform package includes measures to strengthen the existing framework with: enhanced national security review of sensitive acquisitions; extra powers and resources to ensure foreign investors comply with the terms of their approval; and amendments to streamline investment in non-sensitive areas.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has announced a tightening of the foreign investment review framework, allowing the government to intervene to stop deals with national security implications, such as the 2015 Port of Darwin sale.

The list

“Richard Ford’s latest collection of short stories is as sad and solitary, as grey and weather-beaten, as an old stone chimney in an empty field. Solitariness is, indeed, the book’s dominant motif, because the stories in Sorry for Your Trouble (Bloomsbury) are about divorcees and widowers looking back on life and reconciling themselves to an old age without significant companionship.”

“In the 40 or so years that the blackbirding trade operated, some 15,000 Islanders died in the cane fields – around 30 per cent of those transported. Most of the rest were forcibly deported when Federation and the advent of the White Australia Policy ended the practice. It was the largest mass deportation in Australian history, enacted despite a savvy and hard-fought political campaign to permit them to stay in the country as free citizens. Their journeys back to the islands were funded by the stolen wages of labourers who had died. For those who escaped deportation, and their descendants, decades of segregation, ostracisation and official erasure created a cycle of inherited disadvantage and trauma.”

“I have been walking on the weekends to visit the goddess garden. Sometimes I wish that all life expected of me was one walk each day, to admire the things that grow without our encouragement. I wish that once my walk was over, I could disappear in the bowels of my home, to neither suffer nor experience joy, as I find both to be quite tiring. Instead, I have a job and a family I love, who love me back. I have meals to cook and eat, and a cat with a litter tray in the laundry.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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