The Politics    Friday, June 5, 2020

Cash-strapped

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. 

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers


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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 has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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