I also rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Bill 2010 [2011] and the two associated bills that deal with transitional provisions and consequential matters arising from the main bill. The main bill, as we know, will form a new statutory authority, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator, or NVR, with responsibilities and powers for the registration and audit of registered training organisations that operate in multiple jurisdictions, train international students or operate in the territories or one of the referring states in the accreditation of courses in the VET sector.

In speaking today I am somewhat amazed that those on the other side are not supporting this bill. Recently the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee undertook quite a lengthy inquiry into the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator bills. The first recommendation in the committee’s report is that the bills be passed in their current form. So I am somewhat perplexed by the attitude of those on the other side—but we do know that they oppose just about everything for opposition’s sake. Having listened to some of the arguments from the other side today, I think their arguments are particularly weak. We all know the importance of training. We all know how important it is to the community. We all know how important it is to students. We also know how exceptionally important the strong links are between vocational education and training in the move between compulsory education and work. I will speak more about the committee later and deal with the bills first.

The Commonwealth draws its power to establish the new authority from a referral of powers from most states and through its constitutional powers to operate in the territories and non-referring states. The bill empowers the National VET Regulator to register and audit training providers and to accredit courses. The bill gives the NVR the power to audit VET providers to ensure that they meet standards approved by the ministerial council. It also provides the NVR with an extensive set of regulatory options, which include administrative sanctions and civil and criminal penalties to ensure compliance with VET standards. This is of particular importance.

The transitional bill establishes the conditions to allow a smooth transfer of operations and staff from current state and territory regulators to the new national body. These include administrative actions by the state regulators such as the registration and suspension of providers and their courses, which will continue under the NVR. Unfortunately, there is always going to be some people who do not do the right thing in regard to training. Records in possession of the state regulators are to be transferred to the NVR upon commencement. In addition to that, any legal actions to which a state RTO, or registered training organisation, finds itself a party will, on the commencement of the NVR, become the NVR’s to pursue.

The consequential amendments bill contains the final set of amendments needed to ensure that the new regulatory framework interacts properly with other regulatory frameworks and funding programs. The bill will amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. The ESOS Act amendments are primarily targeted at making the NVR the designated authority under the ESOS Act for providers which are registered with the NVR for the purposes of delivery of VET courses to overseas students. The act will also strengthen the regulation of the international students sector by allowing the minister to make standards for ELICOS and foundation programs.

With around 37 per cent of international students studying in the VET sector, the establishment of the national regulator is a very important measure to ensure quality of, and sustainability in, the international education area. One of the other inquiries that the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee was involved in and, as a member, I participated in was the international students inquiry that looked at issues concerning international students. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration has looked at these issues as well. So these issues are very important and it is high time we had a national regulator to help sort out any issues that arise in this area.

The changes to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 will also reflect the introduction of the new National VET Regulator. The amendments allow for the sharing of information between the minister and the relevant VET regulator for limited purposes such as deciding whether to approve a body as a VET provider. The changes to the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act will ensure that its definitions reflect the introduction of the National VET Regulator and delete other outdated material.

The three bills together implement the decision made by COAG in December 2009 to create a national VET regulator as a Commonwealth statutory body. Back in 2009 COAG made the decision that we should have a national VET regulator. As I said, I am unsure why those on the other side of the chamber are opposing this legislation. I think it is just part of their general attitude of ‘let’s oppose everything for opposition’s sake’. As I said earlier, their arguments have been fairly weak and insubstantial. They might do better to support this legislation and get it through so that we can start work.

New South Wales will be the lead referring state and will pass referral legislation this year or has already passed it. Other referring states are expected to follow over the next year. Non-referring states—Victoria and Western Australia—have committed to the introduction of mirror legislation. If the reason that the opposition is opposing this is that Victoria and Western Australia do not want to join, the fact that they are introducing mirror legislation should send a pretty firm message to those on the other side that they need to support this.

The National VET Regulator will use constitutional powers to regulate providers who have international students or who also operate in a referring state or territory in line with the COAG decision. The NVR will ensure that training providers comply with standards for NVR-registered training organisations. These standards will reflect the Australian Quality Training Framework standards approved by the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment. This provides a mechanism by which the states, in consultation with the Commonwealth, can continue to provide input on what represents the minimum standards for providers in the VET sector.

Funding for the NVR was included in the 2010-11 budget as a part of the Skills for Sustainable Growth package. The Labor government has committed $55 million over four years to create the National VET Regulator. The regulator will have appropriations of $94.9 million made available to it between commencement in 2011 and June 2014. The NVR will be able to cost-recover through a number of specific services that it will provide. It is expected that its cost-recovery activities will return $39.9 million to the budget over four years.

I would like to reflect on some comments made about these bills in the final report of the inquiry into the bills conducted by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee, of which I am a member. Before I go into that, I will mention some of the facts to do with the inquiry. On 10 February 2010, the Senate referred the bills to the Senate committee for inquiry and report by 21 March 2011. The committee wrote to 87 organisations and individuals inviting submissions, which were due by 1 March. They received submissions from 22 individuals and organisations. I thank all those organisations and individuals who made submissions to the inquiry and all those who gave evidence at the public hearings.

The reason that we had this Senate inquiry was that in December 2008 the review of higher education led by Professor Bradley AC recommended the creation of a national regulatory framework. DEEWR provided some advice to the committee at a hearing on these bills that was similar to the advice that they provided on the corporations bill. I mentioned before that the committee recommended that the bills be passed in their current form. That was the first recommendation from this committee. It still surprises me that after this inquiry, which members of the opposition were involved in—Senator Back, who is here now, was involved in it; Senator Cash was—they do not want to take much notice of the outcome. For some reason that is yet to be determined they oppose these bills.

What happened back in 2008 was that Professor Bradley recommended the creation of a national regulatory body responsible for the accreditation and quality standards of all providers of higher education in Australia. The review also recommended that the Australian government explore with the states and territories the option of expanding the regulator’s role to include accreditation and quality standards for vocational education and training. I do not think that there is one person in this room or in this Senate that would dispute the importance of quality vocational education and training.

On 20 November 2009, the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment reached a majority agreement for referral of powers to the Commonwealth for the establishment of an independent national regulator for the vocational education and training sector. Victoria and Western Australia did not support the proposal and instead recommended the consideration of other models to achieve national regulation and the retention of the principles of state accountability. Following that, on around 7 December 2009, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to establish a national regulator for the VET sector to drive better quality standards and regulation and to strengthen Australia’s international education sector. It was envisaged in the agreement that the regulator would be established under Commonwealth legislation and that it would be responsible for registration and audit of registered training organisations and the accreditation of courses. That is some of the background to why we had the inquiry and why the inquiry recommended that the bills proceed.

In the last few minutes, I will speak about the importance of this. The report concluded that Australia will benefit from a single national approach to vocational education and training. This was the message clearly sent by major stakeholders in the field.

I have a background in vocational education and training. I spent a couple of years working within the job skills sector until the Howard government chopped those programs. It was of great importance. The initial pilot program was related to employing 20 long-term unemployed mature-aged women in the childcare industry—and of course we all know how important it is to make sure we have quality, accredited and trained childcare workers; and back in the nineties, at entry level, there was no such course for long-term unemployed people. So it was wonderful to be able to set up this pilot, run out of Tasmania, my home state, and to see the benefits that that ensured. To this day, over 10 years later, there are still women that I am in contact with who were in that program and tell me not only that it changed their lives but it gave them the confidence to move on, because they actually had some training, even though they had been out of the workforce for over five years—in fact, many had been out of the workforce for 15 or 20 years. So that was a major achievement for the childcare industry, and it was a shame that Mr Howard saw fit to cut the Job Skills program as a whole.

After that pilot we were also involved in placing over 360 people into employment programs through local government within Tasmania. Many local governments participated in that program, to employ mainly blue-collar workers—but not all; there was a range of projects there, and a number of white-collar workers. That was a particularly beneficial program not only to the long-term unemployed but also to the employers, who had the chance of getting people in and giving them some on-the-job and off-the-job training. At the end of that time a number of those people were either retained in their local councils or found it easier to find work, because they had that experience behind them in local government in Tasmania.

So the importance of having the VET Regulator cannot be underestimated. I think that those on the other side who are proffering delays need to become a bit accountable about why they are not supporting this. As I said earlier, I have not really heard any deeply fulfilling arguments from those on the other side. If they have severe opposition to it, they need to voice that—because as yet I have not heard it.

But I have digressed. I was talking about the report from the Senate committee. The report concluded that Australia would benefit from a single national approach to vocational education and training. As I said, this was the message that was clearly sent by major stakeholders in the field. The benefits of a national approach include reducing complexity for businesses and having a key quality assurance mechanism, which improves confidence in Australia’s VET system. It can only improve confidence in the workplace, it can only improve confidence for employers and it can only lead to improvements in the Australian workforce and productivity in general. The Australian Council of Trade Unions supported the change. They said it was something that had been needed for some time. The Australian Council for Private Education and Training said:

… the proposed legislation significantly strengthens the ability of the regulator to take action against seriously non-compliant providers [and] will therefore serve to improve the quality of vocational education and training being delivered in Australia.

The Minerals Council of Australia also welcomed the ‘reduction in the complexity of the regulatory framework’. The Master Builders Association said a national regulator would deliver ‘consistent robust national regulation of training providers and courses.’ And ACCI, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that the establishment of the NVR would help to rectify problems with poor-quality providers and their lack of compliance with state and territory quality requirements. It is clear from the comments of these stakeholders that the creation of the NVR will improve the quality of Australia’s VET system and reduce red tape for business. It will deliver these outcomes for more than 1.2 million students and thousands of Australian businesses committed to the sector. As the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, has said:

The new regulator will ensure that students are better equipped to take advantage of the growing economy, and give employers greater confidence in the skills of Australia’s VET graduates …

As I said, I do not understand what the opposition is. I have yet to hear a clear and concise argument about why those on the other side are opposing this. Once again, I think it is them playing games maybe with regard to states that just happen to be in opposition hands at the moment, and wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing by those states. I think that is an inappropriate activity to undertake in regard to something as significant and important as vocational education and training in Australia and the future of our workforce, and a large number of students and employees who also undertake some VET education