26 Jul 2016

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

I acknowledge your National Secretary Alan Hicks and the national office bearers, your State office bearers, officers and delegates

This is my first official engagement as Shadow Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships. I have also been appointed Labor’s Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness.

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

I want to acknowledge and thank my predecessor Sharon Bird for her work on VET and Skills policy.

I know Sharon worked closely with ETU in developing the skills policy Labor took to the election earlier in the month.

  • It is an excellent policy which includes:
  • The Tools for Your Trade program to assist apprentices buy their first tool kits;
  • Proper funding of Group Training;


  • Government procurement rules to ensure the employment of apprentices on federally funded projects;
  • 10000 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.

Tanya Plibersek addressed your conference yesterday and covered many aspects of the election campaign and the need to hold The Turnbull government accountable.

The Turnbull government is a weak rabble with no economic or social agenda other than slogans and failed trickle-down economic theory.

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.

I want to join Tanya in congratulating ETU and the union movement on your campaign to expose the anti-union agenda of the Coalition.

I am very pleased Bill has appointed me to portfolios that have both social and economic implications.

Portfolios areas that are important to working and middle class Australians.

Working with Tanya and Kate Ellis in the skills area and Jenny Macklin in housing and homelessness is a great opportunity to make a difference.

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.

Friends, 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 8 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 or 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.

I intend to consult widely to build on the good work done by Sharon Bird.

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 this morning 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.

They are divided into six areas:


  • Rapid advances in automated systems and artificial intelligence means that robotic devices can perform many tasks more quickly, safely and efficiently than humans;
  • Digital technology and the new world of ‘platform economics’ is changing employment markets and organisational structures;
  • People will become more entrepreneurial and create their own jobs;
  • Australia’s population is ageing with growing life expectancies;
  • Increased use of automated systems is raising the complexity of tasks and requiring higher skill levels for entry-level positions;
  • Employment growth in the service industries, in particular education and healthcare, has driven jobs creation in recent times.

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 changing importance of STEM (whilst participation rates are in decline);
  • Aptitudes and mindsets to handle a dynamic labour market;
  • Challenging perceptions and norms about job types
  • Improving workforce participation in vulnerable demographics;
  • New models to forecast job transition requirements;
  • Improved understanding of the peer-to-peer and freelancer economy;

While the report is optimistic about the future of work and the capacity of workers to engage with and complement digital disruption and change, a recent CEDA report is not as optimistic and flags significant challenges facing the Australian economy and the workforce.

Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech as Communications Minister at the launch of the CEDA report in June 2015 and in his characteristically pompous manner quoted Lord Byron’s declaration in 1812 on the state of Greece, two thousand years after the death of Plutarch, a period during which Mr Turnbull claimed Greece’s ‘GDP’ grew by a mere 20 percent.

Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth!

Immortal, though no more! Though fallen, great!


I do think Turnbull should have been referring to the departed worth of business’ contribution to Australia’s training effort over the past two decades.

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

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 here 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.

Returning to the CEDA report, it makes the following observations:

Computer technology and robotics will reshape the labour market in two key ways.

They will:

  • Directly substitute for labour, with a high probability that as much as 40 per cent of the jobs in Australia could be replaced by computers within a decade or two; and
  • Disrupt the way work is conducted, expanding competition and reducing the costs to consumers but also reducing the income of workers.

Technological change over the last two decades has been extremely fast and that is likely to continue. This will mean that a significant proportion of Australian jobs that exist today will no longer exist in 20 years’ time.

In fact, modelling in this report has found that almost 5 million Australian jobs – around 40 per cent of the workforce – face the high probability of being replaced by computers in the next 10 to 15 years

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

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 education and health systems are 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.

The evolution of the trades 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 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.

I look forward to engaging in the process of ongoing policy development and the ETU will play a significant role.

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