Shorten commits $440m to Tafe and vocational education in Labor budget reply

Opposition leader’s speech also includes $330m for 150,000 apprenticeship subsidies in areas of skill shortage

Opposition leader Bill Shorten before his budget reply speech on Thursday night.
 Opposition leader Bill Shorten before his budget reply speech on Thursday night. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Bill Shorten will commit Labor to spend $200m on Tafe campuses and promise to almost double the number of new apprenticeship offered by the Coalition in Tuesday’s budget.

The commitments in Shorten’s budget reply on Thursday amount to $440m of new spending, including $330m to deliver 150,000 apprenticeship subsidies in areas with skills shortages.

The package builds on Shorten’s promise last year to waive fees for 100,000 Tafe students and doubles the investment in campuses from $100m to $200m.

Scott Morrison is expected to call the federal election shortly after Shorten’s reply and education is likely to be one of Labor’s strong suits because it is an area where it can offer higher social spending as a dividend for tax reform.

Labor has already promised an additional $14bn over 10 years to public schools, universal preschool access for three and four year olds, at the cost of $1.7bn, and to reverse the freeze on commonwealth grants to universities.

In Tuesday’s budget the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, promised a $525m skills package that contained $55m of new money and redirected $463m of unspent money from the Skilling Australians Fund.

The centrepiece of the Coalition’s package is $200m to create 80,000 apprenticeships by doubling incentive payments to employers to $8,000 per placement and giving $2,000 payments to new apprentices. Labor’s policy matches the amount of those subsidies but extends them to 150,000 places.

Labor’s $200m building Tafe for the future fund will be spent to re-establish Tafe facilities in regional communities that have lost campuses or courses, build new facilities in growing areas, provide new equipment and expand course offerings.

Shorten said the budget was a “cynical pea and thimble trick” which had cut Tafe, skills and apprenticeship programs despite the fact Australia has 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than when Labor left government in 2013.

“The 300,000 projected apprentices and trainees the government promised in 2017 has proven to be an illusion,” he said. “The target in this budget has now been revised down to just 80,000.”

Earlier on Thursday Tafe Directors Australia chief executive Craig Robertson took aim at the Coalition’s handling of the Skilling Australians Fund, a $1.5bn fund it created in the 2017 budget from fees on skilled visas.

In a statement, Robertson said the “ill-fated fund” had been reduced by around $890m. The scheme relies on states matching federal contributions, and Victoria and Queensland have refused to sign up.

“The budget shows that the latest commitment to the SAF is just over $570m,” Robertson said. He said it “beggars belief” the commonwealth would ask states and territories to sign up to reforms in review conducted by former New Zealand skills minister Steve Joyce “after having pulled the rug from what was promised and funded under the SAF”.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, James Pearson, said the budget showed the government had “heard our calls for greater investment” in skills but if the shortfall in SAF is not made up it “will take some of the gloss off”.

The Australian Industry Group CEO, Innes Willox, said it was “very pleasing” the government had boosted the apprenticeship program to “help address a number of skill shortages and help provide stimulating career paths for many young Australians”.

Labor’s total $1bn commitment to vocational education includes funding for policies it has already announced:

  • 10,000 young Australians to do a pre-apprentice program
  • 20,000 older workers to retrain through an advanced adult apprenticeship
  • One in 10 jobs on all major infrastructure and defence projects to be filled by an apprentice or trainee; and
  • A guarantee that at least two out of three dollars of public funding goes to public Tafe
  • An apprenticeship advocate to support skills development

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