28 Oct 2016



I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and their elders, past and present.

I am delighted to be here celebrating the importance of apprenticeships with representatives from two great Australian institutions – the union movement and TAFE.

When I was 15, starting my working life, I never imagined where my apprenticeship would take me. I have a lot to be thankful for.

My appointment as Shadow Minister for Skills and Apprenticeship gives me a role in shaping the future of skills and training. This is a responsibility I relish and a look forward to working with Kate Ellis who has responsibility for the VET system

I am also the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness. I appreciate that Bill has appointed me to portfolios that have both social and economic implications.

These portfolios are important to working and middle class Australians. There is great need and opportunity to make a difference.

My comments today are based on an overview of key policy issues and my experience with skills and apprenticeships gained through nearly 30 years as an official with the AMWU.

Going into the last election my predecessor in the skills and apprenticeship portfolio, Sharon Bird, worked with unions and educators to create an excellent policy platform.

It includes:

  • The Tools for Your Trade program to assist apprentices buy their first tool kits;
  • Proper funding for Group Training;
  • Government procurement rules to ensure the employment of apprentices on federally funded projects;
  • 10,000 new apprentice ready places;
  • Accelerated apprenticeships for retrenched workers;
  • An Apprentice Connect Portal to provide advice and support; and
  • The appointment of a National Apprentice Advocate whose job would be to promote apprenticeships.

In complete contrast the Abbott-Turnbull governments have cut $1 billion from apprentice support and increased VET student debt by close to $3 billion by 2015.

VET FEE-HELP has been disastrous – for students and for the reputation of the sector.

It has underscored the difference between poorly regulated markets where sub-standard and shonky operators can thrive; and TAFE - publicly accountable organisations - where course fees remain affordable and quality is assured.

When Labor left office there were 415,000 apprentices in training in Australia. The Turnbull- Abbott governments have overseen a free fall in apprentice numbers. After just over two years they managed to lose a third.

Their response has been to fund a series of pilot programs to investigate "alternative delivery of apprenticeships".

Leaving aside the questionable merits of the response - let me briefly describe the process that was used to award millions of dollars of Commonwealth money to fund these pilots.

Representatives from three organisations met with the then VET Minister Hartsuyker.

Minister Hartsuyker referred the three organisations to a handpicked, government appointed advisory group.

This handpicked group commended the three organisations back to the Minister.

And then the Minister awards the three organisations $2,025,320 each

This was done without a tender and in highly questionable circumstances.

Two of the organisations are amongst the most vocal institutional supporters of the Australian Building and Construction Commission – the Master Builders of Australia and the National Electrical Communications Association.

And the third is a Vocational College founded by and a creature of none other than Senator Bob Day.

The very same Senator who is resurrecting his defunct political career from the carnage of Homes Australia.

Like a phoenix he is rising to gift his vote on the ABCC legislation to Prime Minster Turnbull.

This government hates scrutiny, it despises accountability, it never takes responsibility for its failures and it is actively contributing to decline in Australia’s VET system.

They must be held to account and they will find out that Labor is a strong opposition and a real alternative government with a program for economic reform that is fair.

No one knows how long the weak and vacillating leadership of Malcolm Turnbull will hold the Coalition together.

Labor needs to be in a position to fight another election sooner rather than later.


I am the only Shadow Minister from a blue collar background.

I would need to check, but I think I am probably the only shadow minister without a university degree.

My highest qualification is a City and Guilds Certificate in Fitting and Machining.

My post-school education came through the UK TAFE system and the Union movement.

My trade has been a passport to the world.

My trade allowed me to emigrate to Australia with my family in 1973.

My trade helped me into well paid, satisfying jobs.

My trade and my union gave me confidence to stand up for myself and my workmates.

My trade gave me dignity and respect on the job.

My trade gave me the honour of serving the working class for 27 years as union official and 9 years so far as a Senator.

I could not have achieved anything without my apprenticeship, technical training and union education.

I also understand how tough it can be for working class families struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table.

I want more young Australians, who do not have either the desire nor the aptitude to enter tertiary education, to have access to the same opportunities I had as a young man in the 1970's.

It is from this perspective that I will consult with industry, State governments, training organisations and the union movement on the way forward to build the skills this country needs to provide a decent life and a good society for all Australians.

The VET system needs to be properly and comprehensively reviewed.  This hasn’t happened since the Kangan Report in 1974.

Any suggestion that tinkering with the margins of the current market model will halt the decline in apprenticeships and quality training is a furphy.

VET FEE HELP turbo-charged rorts and rip-offs amongst private providers but the rot had already set in.

Dodgy practices and diminishing quality from profit-seeking training operators damaged the reputation of VET; while reputable providers struggled to provide a public good in an unstable regulatory environment. This has been the unfortunate reality for much longer.

I believe TAFE is at the heart of any solution.

TAFE is the bedrock for certainty and accountability in the sector.

It provides the sector with high quality VET educators.

It is an institution apprentices, students, workers and employers can trust.

The place of the public provider needs to be assured with guaranteed and stable funding. A Labor government will work with the States to make that happen.

A study released last month by NCVER reminds us how much we need TAFE.

TAFE can give complex support to early school leavers that private providers, despite their best intentions, cannot fully deliver.

As the authors say, “…. their ability to do so is limited by the commercial realities of running a business in the ever-changing vocational education and training landscape.”

Vocational education cannot be simplified to the status of ‘a business’ – it has an important social and economic purpose - one that should not be relegated to the vagaries of ‘the market’.

Some of you may remember Laurie Carmichael.

Laurie was a former Assistant National Secretary of the AMWU, former ACTU Assistant Secretary, a great mentor to me and a champion of the need for the working class to be provided with the necessary vocational and trade skills to build a good society.

I spoke to Laurie to tell him that I have shadow ministerial responsibility for skills and apprenticeships.

At 92 he is politically astute and engaged.

Laurie drew my attention to a recent report from the CSIRO and others entitled "Tomorrow's Digitally Enabled Workforce".

The report outlines the ‘megatrends’ shaping the future of work, and outlines a range of possible scenarios for employment and Australia’s economy.

It also identifies future needs for a digitally skilled workforce and attempts to analyse the challenges faced.

These “megatrends” each relate to a specific influence on the workforce over the next 20 years as a consequence of technological advances, digital connectivity, globalisation, and changes in demographics and economic structures.

New skills and mindsets are needed for the future.

  • Education and training is becoming ever more important;
  • New capabilities are needed for new jobs of the future;
  • Digital literacy is needed alongside numeracy and literacy;
  • The importance of STEM is changing (whilst participation rates are in decline);

They say we need to be:

  • Instilling aptitudes and mindsets to handle a dynamic labour market;
  • Challenging perceptions and norms about job types
  • Improving workforce participation in vulnerable demographics;
  • Adopting new models to forecast job transition requirements; and
  • Improving our understanding of the peer-to-peer and freelancer economy;

I believe that the traditional trades and apprenticeships must evolve, as they always have, to meet the demands of economic and technological change.

The public provider will be essential in navigating those changes – in partnership with unions.

In my view, business and employers have shirked their responsibilities to play a substantial role in skill formation in this country.

Despite their insistence, employers have not risen to the challenge of leading workforce development. They have been withdrawing from the ‘training bargain’ - and have been shifting the risk onto others.

Why? Because they have been more interested in cost cutting – removing training costs from their balance sheets – than in deepening Australia’s (and their own) skills base.

On its face, this sounds like an unviable strategy.

What has made it viable is the strategy that goes hand-in-hand with it. The development of a system that fills skill gaps in Australia with temporary foreign labour in an ever growing number of trades and occupations.

It is becoming apparent that the prevalence of temporary foreign labour in Australia is no accident or unintended consequence. It is part of a deliberate strategy to put wages into international competition.

I’m sure, in the not too distant future, as we examine the entrails of the rise (again) of Pauline Hanson, Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the United States, attention must be paid to the effect of putting wages into international competition on the prevailing mood of the working class.

There are huge challenges for the labour movement in this rapidly changing world.

The movement must develop policies underpinned by the values of fairness and equal opportunity.

Ensuring we have access to well-resourced and efficient vocational education system is fundamental to meeting the emerging challenges.

Ensuring that there are countervailing forces to the excesses and failures of the market are fundamental.

This includes a strong, independent and democratic trade union movement with secure provision of quality vocational education and apprenticeships.

The evolution of the trades and the emergence of new ones must be achieved within some important principles.

  • Apprentices must have access to broad based skill training including training on new technology and digital skills.

  • Competencies must be portable and nationally recognised.

  • Broad-based, portable skills should be enhanced by and not replaced by enterprise specific skills.

  • Enterprise training must not displace nationally recognised apprenticeships.

  • Apprentices must not finish their apprenticeship with crippling debts for technical training. In a sense, VET-FEE HELP and Trades Support Loans debt can be seen as the transfer of training costs from company balance sheets to workers.

  • Industry and government must recognise that apprenticeships are an investment in economic and social growth.

  • The TAFE system is a source of national competitive advantage and an appropriate balance must be restored between private training providers and TAFE.

A healthy, stable, sustainable, and high quality system of vocational education is synonymous with a fair and progressive society.

If the CSIRO and others are right, we will rely on VET more and more to prepare us for what is coming.

It is greatly encouraging that your unions continue to work together to be part of that.

I want to discuss with you how we build a better skills and apprenticeship system. Not by returning to the past but by learning from failures and successes; and building on what we know works best.

I look forward to engaging in the process of ongoing policy development and I know that TAFE, the AEU and the AMWU will play a vital role – as they always have.

I look forward to having a strong policy agenda for a Shorten Labor government which could be elected sooner than many people think.