Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency Repeal Bill 2014

17 June 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (13:25):  I also rise today to speak on the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency Repeal Bill 2014 and the amendment moved by my fantastic colleague the member for Cunningham. It is disappointing to see that this bill abolishes a key national policy and research body on skills and workforce development, and seeks to fold its duties into the Department of Industry. We want to see the sort of advice and analysis provided by this body continue, and that is what our amendment is all about.

By abolishing this stand-alone body, the government is once again proving its inability to anticipate the jobs and the workforce of the future with foresight and intelligence. I have spoken in this place before about the challenges that lie ahead of us in developing a workforce ready for the industries of tomorrow—challenges like rapid technological advance, the globalisation of the workforce, and the rise of intergenerational disadvantage, which are the sorts of things we need to be thinking about now when it comes to our approach to human capital in the workforce.

These challenges are having real effects on the face of the Australian jobs market. The job numbers have bounced around a bit and there have been some patchy outcomes. For a good discussion of the labour market I commend to the House the speech yesterday by Chris Kent of the Reserve Bank. We get some very good, clear-eyed analysis out of our central bank, and I encourage people to check it out.

Members will recall that over the first several months after the election of this government, the prevailing theme was announcement after announcement of job losses. Across thirty of Australia's largest employers, over 28,000 job losses were announced: 5,000 at Qantas, more than 6,000 in automotive manufacturing, and many more at manufacturers around the nation. The sad reality is that a great deal of the jobs lost or announced to be lost are likely gone forever, at least in their most recent form. And while aggregate job creation figures have been stronger over the last couple of months, many of the job losses that have been announced are yet to take effect, and they are concentrated in the outer suburbs of our major cities, places already shouldering most of the burden of this government's budget decisions. The result is a labour market characterised by volatility and uncertainty, even if the headline rate does not reflect this.

For thousands of Australians there is not only the uncertainty of whether their job will be secure into the future but there is also the uncertainty of whether they have the skills required to move into a new job. For young people contemplating their future careers, there is uncertainty about whether the types of jobs their parents and grandparents went into will even exist in Australia in the years ahead. So there are real challenges associated with the rapidly changing labour market in Australia.

But there are even greater opportunities for us, and it is our role as policymakers and decision makers to identify these opportunities and to equip people with the requisite skills to take advantage of them. Since 2012, this has been the function of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, and prior to that it was the task set for Skills Australia.

The great advantage of the AWPA is that it was an independent advice body for the government on current, emerging and future skill needs. It brought together peak national bodies such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the ACTU, to achieve genuine cross-sectoral industry leadership.

Over the last twelve months, the AWPA has conducted studies into the state of manufacturing, retail, resources, food and beverages, and the ICT workforce in Australia—all sectors that are key to the future of our country and our economy. Their reports have included recommendations for government, for industry and for the education sector to improve Australia's skills and productivity base in these sectors.

And with the labour market in Australia in a state of volatility, uncertainty and transition, these recommendations have never been more important. This is particularly true for the higher and vocational education sectors, which are charged with preparing our young people for the jobs of the future. That is why some key figures in the higher education sector have come out in opposition to scrapping the AWPA. Leesa Wheelahan, associate professor at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management at the University of Melbourne, said:

There is now no source of independent advice—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott):  Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, and the member will have leave to continue his remarks at that time.

(debate suspended)

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (16:42 ):  As I was saying before, there have been some key figures in the higher education sector who have come out in opposition to the scrapping of the AWPA, as proposed in the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency Repeal Bill 2014. Leesa Wheelahan, who is associate professor at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management at the University of Melbourne, said:

There is now no source of independent advice to government, no way of questioning policy and no research on what Australia needs in the future.

There are others as well who have come out against the abolition of this key body. The current chairman of the AWPA, Philip Bullock, said while confirming the agency's 'disestablishment'—his words:

There are few times in our working lives where we contribute in an area which has the potential to positively impact so many people and for this opportunity we remain grateful.

I think Mr Bullock is right that real people have brighter career prospects as a result of the work that the AWPA has done, and this makes it all the more disappointing that the agency is to be abolished. We are moving these amendments to see that the advice and the analysis is still provided.

Today the opposition is calling on the government to guarantee that independent advice on workforce and productivity issues will continue to be provided and continue to be made publicly available. This advice is much needed. It is crucial to assist government, industry and the education sector to develop the human capital required to create the jobs of the future, in the economy of the future. We are seeking this assurance from the government because the signs so far about workforce issues from this government have not been encouraging, whether it is this abolition of the AWPA; whether it is the abandonment of the Asian Century White Paper, which has been abolished not only from the departmental website but also from the approach and strategy of the government when it comes to the sorts of jobs that we want to be creating in the Asian Century; whether it is the deregulation of university fees, which will make it all the more difficult for young people to undertake meaningful training; whether it is the government's harsh cuts to welfare for young people, their attacks on Medicare, their defunding of future trades training centres, their $30 billion cut to schools, their cuts to Youth Connections, their broken promise on Gonski funding—all of these sorts of things. The cumulative effect of all of these unwise and unfair cuts will be a less skilled, less productive and less dynamic workforce in the future.

It will, unfortunately, risk us missing out on the huge opportunities that are just around the corner for Australia as part of the Asian century. We are witnessing an unprecedented transition in our region and our engagement with Asia has never been more important. The rise of the middle class in Asia will be the most important economic phenomenon of our time. Asia will soon become not only the world's largest producer of goods and services; it will also be the world's largest consumer of them. Australia is perfectly placed to take advantage of the monumental changes underway in our region, but only if we get our workforce right—only if we sort out our human capital and we give our people the best chance to succeed. We need to invest in the tools of success necessary for our young people to succeed right through their working lives. As the authors of the Asian century white paper put it, the tyranny of distance to Europe is being replaced this century by the power of proximity to Asia. We have a lot to offer Asia—our workers have a lot to offer—not only by way of our resources but also in terms of our strong, world-leading institutions and our open and resilient economy. But, as I said, to fully take advantage of these kinds of opportunities, we need to have a highly skilled and dynamic workforce. We need to find ways for our workers to be part of the elaborate global value chains that now characterise world trade.

As the McKinsey Global Institute report Global flows in a digital age has found, by far the greatest growth in global flows lies in knowledge-intensive goods and services. In fact, knowledge-intensive goods flows are growing at 1.3 times the rate of labour-intensive goods. While the developed world is leading the way in exports and imports, China's knowledge-intensive flows are the world's second largest already. So, to be a competitive part of the interconnected economy of the Asia-Pacific, Australia must continue to be a leader in knowledge exports. We need to be innovative and creative, and this all depends on a well-educated, well-trained, modern workforce here in Australia.

The Labor Party, while in government, anticipated these opportunities that lie ahead for Australia and sought to position our country to benefit from the regional economic transition underway. That is why we invested $19 billion in skills and training for smarter jobs and a stronger nation. It is why we developed a needs based funding model for schools, to give every child in Australia—every child, including kids from the poorer areas in my electorate—the chance to get ahead. We introduced the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, the agency we are talking about now, to identify the challenges and strategically determine solutions to strengthen our workforce.

As I said before, the Labor opposition do not want to see the coalition dismantle our plan for future prosperity in Australia based on human capital and the tools of success in our workforce. That is why we are seeking to amend the bill today. I commend my very good colleague the member for Cunningham for her amendments, which call on the government to guarantee that the independent advice and analysis on workforce and productivity issues will continue to be provided and publicly available, even if and when this particular agency is abolished. This advice is vital for government, industry and the education sector to respond to the challenges that lie ahead for our economy. With the demise of this body we need to find an alternative way to get that advice.

The last thing I will say is: we need to do all we can to take advantage of the Asian century before us, and that is why this side will be doing its best to make sure Australia moves forwards in this regard, and not backwards.