Topics: States and Territories sign new National Skills Agreement, Fee-Free TAFE, the Voice Referendum result.
GREG JENNETT: Rallying States and Territories into national deals to share in Federal funds, for anything really, can be a rowdy and time-consuming process. A history of feuding over health and education stand out as the best examples of that.
Yet last night without much fanfare really the leaders of nine Australian Governments got together in a virtual National Cabinet meeting and they've ticked off a five-year deal to renovate vocational education across the country.
There are many elements to it so to discuss it all, or as much as we can anyway, Skills and Training Minister Brendan O'Connor is with us.
Welcome back, Brendan.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Thanks.
JENNETT: Yeah, the Albanese Government I think the statement says is prepared to invest $12.6 billion in this deal.
JENNETT: But if the States and Territories access all elements of Federal funds it's more than double that, $30 billion. Why wouldn't they access all of it?
O'CONNOR: The 30 billion is a combination of Federal and State investment and as you say it's not easy to get nine governments to agree, and last night the decision of National Cabinet to accept the proposition that was negotiated by Skills Ministers amongst all governments, means that we are now in a position to bring about significant reform to the VET sector, at a time Greg, where we have the most significant skills shortages in five decades.
JENNETT: How much of it is conditional on the States doing things they're not currently doing, to meet benchmarks, to be clear for those who don't understand them, benchmarks in priority areas like clean energy training, the care economy. How much incentive payment is there built into this?
O'CONNOR: Well, you know, the good thing ‑ there are conditions around this agreement but they're conditions that represent the interests of State, Territory and Federal Governments. What I mean by that is of course, for example, all governments understand the challenges we face in trying to transform the energy sector so that we get to Net Zero by 2050, and for that reason they were very much up for creating Centres of Excellence so we can bring the VET sector, including TAFEs, with universities together more collaboratively to deliver the skills that will be needed in this sector of the economy.
JENNETT: Yeah, now fee‑free places, more of them -
JENNETT: Are a feature of this deal and you've mentioned there, and I think we've discussed it before on this program Brendan, this desire of yours to merge vocational education with tertiary education.
JENNETT: Of course in tertiary so much is already full‑fee paying anyway. What's the price cap or limiting mechanism on TAFEs around the country as part of this deal as you bring these two streams together? Isn't there an incentive to increase TAFE fees?
O'CONNOR: Well look, there are costs but what we're trying to do is to remove cost barriers for people to access skills that are in demand. Right now across the economy wherever you look we have skills shortages, in the traditional trades, in the care economy, wherever you look, Greg. For that reason we've actually wanted to remove cost impediments, so people access the skills that our economy needs, that businesses are crying out for, and that students and workers need. So that's been a very successful initiative, as you know. We announced 180,000 Fee‑Free TAFE places, it's got to 215,000 so far, with a further 300,000. The reason we're doing that is if we do not encourage people to enrol in courses to acquire skills in demand we will not be able to deliver the other goals, whether it's attending to the care economy, the manufacturing sector, you know, the transformation of the energy sector -
O'CONNOR: IT, manufacturing and all those areas that are critical to our economy, our society.
JENNETT: But over those five years 300,000, sure it's large number but it's only a portion, isn't it?
O'CONNOR: Yeah, it's a portion.
JENNETT: Of the total TAFE student numbers -
O'CONNOR: It is.
JENNETT: Over five years. Might there be an incentive for the States again to ratchet up those TAFE fees for those who are paying?
O'CONNOR: Well look, you're right, there are TAFE courses and VET courses where there's fees. We've targeted, we've been very careful, we're prudent with taxpayers money, we've focussed on areas of demand to encourage people to move to the areas where they're going to get well paid, good jobs with a good career progression. That makes sense to business, and it makes sense to those students who want to enrol in courses where there's demand.
But yes, when we're looking at how both tertiary sectors work, the VET sector and universities, we do need to accept that there are variations within those sectors and that's why we need to have a very ‑ firstly an agreement across the country -
JENNETT: Yeah, you've got that.
O'CONNOR: This is the first National Skills Agreement in more than a decade. This has got nine governments on board and we're working with industry, and this will actually ‑ this compact is going to drive the reforms of the VET sector, but also bring industry and universities closer to the VET sector.
JENNETT: Alright. And just finally for the cynics who might say, "Where did this come from straight after the Voice referendum failure at the weekend?" Can you assure us ‑‑
O'CONNOR: Twelve months ‑ I can tell you this, this negotiation commenced 12 months ago. It arose out of the Jobs and Skills Summit. I've had seven I think ministerial councils over the 12 months. We had to get this done because it takes effect January next year. So for the conspiracy theorists, this is just good policy work and collaboration amongst governments to deliver for Australia.
JENNETT: Thank you for clearing that up, Brendan. Why don't we go directly to the Voice, your electorate of Gorton, 62 per cent no. You're a veteran campaigner. When did you first get a sense of what was going on there and why it was irrecoverable?
O'CONNOR: Look, I understood it was always going to be very difficult, and frankly, you know, if you look at the history of referenda in Australia, if you don't have both major parties it's very, very difficult indeed, and whether you're Robert Menzies or Bob Hawke, they presided over failed referenda. We knew it was always going to be challenging once the Coalition chose not to support the approach -
O'CONNOR: But, you know, we made a commitment Greg, to do the right thing here. We believe we've done the right thing in presenting the Australian people with a choice. But we also recognise that they've made that decision, and we respect that decision and the process by which the decision was made.
JENNETT: The profile of your electorate is in some ways not dissimilar to say Mike Freelander's in Western Sydney. He's been pretty direct about his criticism on a campaign that focussed on inner city areas to the expense of outer metropolitan. Is there some validity to that in your case?
O'CONNOR: Look, can I say that we had some ‑ what was interesting for my local campaign was how many community volunteers got involved. Normally with a sort of Federal election you have Labor Party voters and fellow travellers, and you have members. But what was interesting in this instance was the amount of people that were in the Yes Campaign locally.
But ultimately the voters of Gorton made their decision as to what they believed, and I think in large part that may have been because they've had a concern with it, they didn't understand it. They did understand it and didn't agree and that's ‑ and in the end I accept their decision.
But what I'll tell you didn't happen on Saturday, there was no ‑ I didn't feel any enmity or hostility. The polling booths were really quite calm.
JENNETT: You mean in a party-political sense?
O'CONNOR: No, I mean in terms of people coming up and talking to me, and even though I imagine they might have voted for me, the way they were speaking with me-
O'CONNOR: But they ‑ and they weren't all voting yes, but they were not showing any enmity or disrespect or concern with me, but they'd obviously not agreed with me on this matter. I respect that and the Prime Minister respects the decision, as you well know. But we made an election commitment to do this. Of course the Coalition has made commitments in the past and never followed through. We followed through but the people have spoken.
JENNETT: Yep, they have. The verdict is in. We'll get to talk about this and other matters I'm sure in our next encounter. Brendan O'Connor, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks again.
O'CONNOR: Thanks Greg.
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