Release type: Transcript


Media conference - Canberra Institute of Technology, Reid


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training
Chris Steel MLA
ACT Minister for Skills

Subjects: Additional Fee-Free TAFE places for Canberra, ACT Government funding commitments, light rail

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister   

Really great to be here with Brendan O'Connor, the Minister for Skills and Training in the Australian Government to announce that we're working together on a new long-term partnership to deliver and extend the Fee-Free TAFE program.

This is a program that has already seen over 2,500 places delivered in the ACT, which is removing the financial barrier to training that faces many students and is attracting them to upskill in areas that are in key demand in our economy.

This new agreement will deliver 3,600 places from 2024 to 2026. So around 600 per semester, enrolments will open for 2024 on the 13th of November and the Canberra Institute of Technology, which is our TAFE here in the ACT, will be holding an open day on the 17th of November, where the community can come down and find out the fantastic courses that are on offer, delivered under Fee-Free TAFE and a range of other subsidy programs offered with the Australian and ACT Government under our new National Skills Agreement that we signed just a few weeks ago.

So, this is a really welcome extension of a popular program. We've seen already students take up courses in cyber security, which was the top ranked course with 246 people completing that course, in an area that is a key growing industry here in the ACT and nationally.

Unfortunately, we are seeing more cyber threats occurring every year and we're going to need more skilled professionals in this space. So this program is helping us to do that. And the second top ranked course was early childhood education, which is a key part of both the ACT and Australian Government's agenda, not only to support workforce participation of parents, but to support children's development. And with the roll-out of fee free three-year-old preschool in the ACT from next year, it's going to be critical to have even more skilled early childhood professionals. And I'll hand it over to Brendan now.

Brendan O'Connor, Federal Minister for Skills and Training  

Thanks Chris, it's great to be here at CIT with Chris and with teachers and students that are undergoing training in the areas of cyber security. As Chris mentioned, cyber security is an increasing threat to this country, both in terms of government agencies and departments, but also private sector, we're seeing increased incidences of ransomware and all sorts of other potential threats.

The invasion of people's privacy through the attacks on public and private organisations is such that we need to have people that are able to mitigate those risks, prevent the things happening where possible, and we need to do that. And the only way that can happen is by having people that are experts in cyber security, and that's why we want to see a growing number of people enrol in courses that will equip them with the skills needed to take up important roles in our labour market.

This new announcement around Fee-Free TAFE is built upon the decision taken at the Jobs and Skills Summit in September last year, where we announced 180,000 Fee-Free TAFE places across the country. Well, I'm happy to say we've met and exceeded the number for this year, I’m advised that 215,000 Fee-Free TAFE places have been filled, that is more than 200,000 Australians enrolling in areas of demand.

As Chris said, we're removing cost barriers in courses that will ensure people acquire skills and knowledge that is needed for workers, needed for businesses who are crying out for certain skills, and needed for our economy. Upon election, the Albanese Government didn't just inherit a trillion dollars of public debt we also were bequeathed one of the deepest and widest skill shortages we've seen in five decades.

That's why we had to move very quickly. I'm very happy with the fact that this initiative has been so well received by students and by TAFE and VET providers across the country. That's why we want to ensure a further 300,000 places be allocated from 2024. And that's, of course, as well as the agreement that has been now agreed upon by all governments, state and territory and the Commonwealth.

A five-year agreement providing certainty to the VET sector, providing the strategic investment needed to create Centres of Excellence, which will bring universities and the VET sector closer together, which will ensure we have more higher apprenticeships and higher level technical skilled accreditation, to supply an economy that's going through significant transformation.

Whether it's in cyber security, whether it's the energy sector, or the care economy, wherever you look across our labour market, we need to do better, we need to ensure that the VET sector, whether it's CIT or any other provider, is fit for purpose, supplying the skills that are needed. And it's really good to be here to talk, firstly to students who are acquiring skills that will make sure that they have meaningful employment, talk to the teachers who must get enormous satisfaction in teaching people, which will allow them to access the labour market and have decent career progression and secure work. That's the point of this initiative.

And I'm very happy that we've now announced the second tranche. We do believe there will be a big take-up rate, both in Canberra and across the country. And again, as I say, this is a win, win, win for workers, for businesses and for our economy. And we want to continue to work with the ACT Government and all other state and territory governments to make sure we deliver and arrest the problem we have, deal with the challenges we confront, in terms of having a very deep and wide skill shortage across this country. Happy to take any questions if there are any.

Journalist: Can you tell us, either of you, you've mentioned a couple of the areas where you'll be hoping to get people in; cyber security, early childhood, where are the other I guess, jobs of the future areas that you'd like to get people in?

Brendan O'Connor, Federal Minister for Skills and Training: Well, I’ll touch on some and Chris may want to go directly to Canberra. As I said earlier, the breadth and depth of the skill shortage is almost unprecedented in the last 50 years, so we have to look at many sectors. If it was one or two sectors we had to attend to, we'd have an easier job. But the reality is the occupations shortage list almost doubled in 2021-22, from 153 to 286 occupations in 12 months, which underlines the real challenge we have as a country to supply the skills needed.

Now we’ll do that through education and training, such as initiatives like Fee-Free TAFE, we’ll also have to do that through targeted skilled migration pathways to supplement the people who are coming through to the labour market, arising out of the education they receive in the VET sector and universities. So, just to name a few others that are pretty critical. The care economy has an exponential demand for labour and skills, we need to make sure we are therefore providing courses so people can acquire skills in areas of demand like early childhood education, like disability care, aged care.

We need to see a massive supply of skills to a sector, the energy sector, that’s in significant transformation. This will take a huge effort by industry and government to supply the needs of a very fast changing sector. If we're going to ensure that we get to net zero emissions by 2050 we have to start now, frankly, we're already behind. I mean, when you have a federal government in power that actually has trouble even believing that climate change is real, no wonder it doesn't attend to other policy matters, like supplying the skills needed for a changing energy sector. Well, we haven’t got a moment to waste, we have to focus on supplying those skills in that sector too.

So, whether it's the care economy or energy, or whether it's the construction sector, infrastructure is another critical part of our plans. As a federal government, we've got a lot to do and we're doing it in partnership with state and territory governments, and that's the key. This National Skills Agreement we've now put in place two weeks ago, is the first national skills agreement that brings together state and territory governments with the Commonwealth for the first time in a decade. And so, it's been really important, and I want to thank Chris for his role in providing that, but I might hand over to him too, he might want to talk about the economy of Canberra.

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister:  Well ICT and cyber are clearly a focus for the ACT economy. It's a growing industry here in the ACT and one that we’ll continue to need to invest in in terms of skills, and we're looking forward to also working in partnership with our university sector there, to enhance the opportunities through things like degree apprenticeships to encourage a pathway into more advanced forms of learning in this space. The care economy is clearly a big sector, growing sector here in the ACT with an ageing population. But the experience sector is one that we shouldn't forget about as well.

So, hospitality and tourism are going to continue to be a focus and what Fee-Free TAFE has done in a couple of those sectors is enable people to transition into those new occupations, new skills areas, when they wouldn't have had the opportunity beforehand. That barrier of a fee was a major factor. And when both Brendan and I and the Prime Minister were speaking with a mature aged woman who had come from a completely different sector and taken up a hospitality training, with a Certificate III in Hospitality to become a chef, just because that fee wasn't in there blocking her from doing so. So that's a great outcome.

That's the kind of outcome that we want to see across a wide variety of sectors in the economy. And of course, the other sectors are renewables and construction. We know that there's a massive shift going on in the new economy, particularly with the ACT Government's commitment to phase out gas by 2045. And so there will be a need to upskill existing workers, but also skilling new workers to come into those areas, and so Fee-Free TAFE will play a role in that as well as our continued invest investment in apprenticeships in those trades.

Journalist: Fee free for students, obviously, but not free for the government to do this. How much will this cost? 

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister:  Well, this is an investment by the Australian Government, together with the ACT Government, of $7.36 million from 2024 to 2026. And what's great about this is it's a long-term agreement that gives us certainty about the number of places that we're going to receive over the next few years. And we can really target the investment that's been made into those areas of the economy where there is skills need, but also supporting eligible students, key targeted cohorts, particularly women who are working in non-traditional areas or maybe experiencing financial hardship. The scheme will also support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, young people 17 to 24 and job seekers who are looking to build their skills and have a job at the other end.

Journalist: I've just got a couple of questions on another topic if that's okay, the Liberals are today announcing $100 million for Canberra suburbs, is that enough to deliver any meaningful improvements?

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister:  Well, after three years, this is all that Elizabeth Lee has got. No specific project or specific plan, just a Dutton style headline grab. $500,000 won't even deliver a new toilet for a suburb but the Liberals have also said that they wouldn't invest in more significant upgrades to local shopping centres, parks or roads, they’d cap it at $2 million. The ACT Government, just in the last two budgets, has invested over $140 million into suburban infrastructure and maintenance, with investments in new paths and maintained paths, roads, suburban stormwater and healthy waterways projects, more mowing, more tree maintenance. So, when making those investments, and we will continue to do in the future and in the lead up to the election, we'll be making some further announcements. But make no mistake, this is the first for the Canberra Liberals in terms of a range of different Trojan horse announcements that seek to disguise the cuts that they would make to major infrastructure projects like the Northside Hospital and light rail.

Journalist: They haven't ruled out though committing funding to larger projects. Is this not an okay, I guess, first step for them?

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister: The announcement was that they would cap the funding at $2 million. Our upgrades to the Tuggeranong foreshore cost $5 million, upgrades to Duffy shops costs over $2 million. So, they've actually ruled out a range of different suburban infrastructure projects, our government and Labor will continue to invest in those shopping centres, parks and roads that the Liberals have left out of their policy today.

Journalist: Will the government match the commitment for $100 million for suburban upgrades?

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister: Well, we've just announced $140 million of additional funding for suburban upgrades, and we'll continue to make further investments. But we're not going to rule out projects just because they're over $2 million. We're going to make substantial investments in shopping centres. We're upgrading 11 shopping centres across Canberra at the moment, we're upgrading major parks across Canberra, those are investments that are worth more than $2 million. And they need to be made for the collective benefit of the community. And the Liberals have ruled them out in their policy today.

Journalist: The Liberals say that they're specifically looking at small projects that there is a community desire for. Does the government have plans to respond to those calls for things like street upgrades to like specifically for parks and maintenance and things like that?

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister: Well, we’ve just made a $26 million investment in active travel, including improved path maintenance, in sourcing path maintenance crews in the budget, and we’ll continue to make further investments in that in the future based on our active travel plan, where we consulted with the community about what paths they would like to see upgraded in their community and to connect each of their communities. We've got that plan in place and will continue to make investments based on the actions. That's the sort of evidence-based policy that Labor develops while we're in government. The Liberals simply have a headline, a Dutton-esque headline, with no detail about what specific projects, no community consultation that they've done prior to this announcement. There's nothing in it at all. And after three years, you'd expect better.

Journalist: Minister, a new report by the IMF has indicated like billions of dollars in infrastructure projects could be on the chopping board, basically, amid inflation pressures, will this affect the light rail project in any way? 

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister: We've been working closely with the Australian Government. And we've been investing with them for some time in the major infrastructure projects that are critical to support our growing city, particularly around transport projects. And we're looking forward to continuing to work through them with the outcomes of the review. And we think that will be positive for Canberra. Because for too long under the last decade, under the previous Coalition government, there wasn't the significant investment in infrastructure in the territory. And so, I think we've got a very strong case to make about the need for future investment. And already we've been working with the Australian Government, with Catherine King, Minister King, to announce major investments in projects like light rail, which will support more people being moved efficiently around our city as our population grows, cutting congestion and providing sustainability benefits for the city.

Journalist: The light rail project delivery time has been delayed in the past and construction costs have increased since COVID as well, is the government still in a position to see the project through given current economic pressures?

Chris Steel, ACT Skills Minister: Well, we're committed to light rail. It's already under construction with the enabling project of raising London Circuit and we're looking forward to making further announcements about finalising the procurement for Stage 2A. And of course, we've already announced funding to get on with the work required to get light rail through the Parliamentary Triangle as part of Stage 2B, with design funding of $50 million that we've made in the budget. We know that if we don't make this investment in the future, congestion will be worse. Our population is growing rapidly, more rapidly than any other city across Australia. And so if we don't make these investments now, which are future focused, it's going to be worse for every single person on the road. And we need a mass transit system to move more people, more efficiently. Buses don't cut it, they don't deliver the patronage benefits. And where we have put in light rail in Stage 1, we've seen a 50% increase in patronage in Gungahlin as a result of taking that measure. Making that investment, which was opposed at every stage by the Canberra Liberals.