This is a story about two towns 900 kilometres apart – Barcaldine and Brisbane.
There were twenty three school leavers from Barcaldine last year. Three have jobs, one is going to university and the rest have neither. In a town of a little over one thousand people the local Labor Party branch can rattle off each of the kids’ names leaving school without a pathway to work.
In previous years, they told me, far more kids would go to university. This year they’re afraid of the uncertainty of Tony Abbott’s new HECS fees. In their words they’re ‘waiting to see how much it costs’ before they decide to go to uni.
Leigh, a member of the branch, owns the bakery and tries to put on some of the kids part time to give them some work experience but there’s only so much work to go round. Youth unemployment runs as high as twenty per cent in these areas of Western Queensland.
Down in Brisbane, on the same street as the offices that visiting politicians, down along the edge of the River, is a strip of high rise towers.
You could walk past these buildings a hundred times and never know half of what goes on inside them. In some of these buildings Prime Ministers have worked, a smattering of resource companies, property developers and realtors and smaller law firms fill the floor space. The biggest boon at the moment appears to be serviced offices, available for half daily hire to give the impression of a high end operation for visiting clients.
Back in 1994 in that row of towers there used to be an organisation responsible for driving ‘a renaissance of vocational education’.
The National Training Authority was based there in Brisbane, a creation of the confluence of Labor Governments working in Queensland and in Canberra, to pull Australia out of our last recession by getting youth into jobs. These two Labor Governments did remarkable things for education and skills training and they put its headquarters in downtown Brisbane.
When Paul Keating visited Brisbane in 1994 he said the ‘Cinderella status of TAFE’ would to be transformed into a full and equal part of the nation’s education system. It was promised and it was legislated. It formed part of the ‘One Nation’ economic recovery package and the Authority survived until a different period of political confluence – Liberal Party control of both chambers of parliament.
It was there not only to do the practical task of coordinating nationally pooled funding through state based delivery agencies but the meaningful job of giving TAFE social legitimacy. It was there to show that a qualification in a trade and increasingly high end quality vocational skills was as important as any other tertiary study, for the nation and for a young person starting their career.
Writing this about 500 metres of the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party – Barcaldine’s Tree of Knowledge – I’m reminded that Labor has always been the party responsible for standing up for trades people.
That job is undiminished today.
While the National Training Authority these days is probably a series of empty serviced offices, so too over the last two years has the state of skilled training and vocational education been also been left vacant and hollowed out.
Campbell Newman’s state government has cut Skilling for Queenslanders. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s budget horribus piled it on, cutting Youth Connections, Partnership Brokers, the National Job Guide and the My Future website. Plans for new Trades Training Centres in the region have been scrapped.
As I mentioned, talk of $100 000 degrees is red hot out west. No one here cares about the composition of the Senate, of the political tactics of Christopher Pyne or the government’s polling numbers that excite the chattering classes of Canberra. They care about the chance to get an education, of their kids to get ahead. The work Labor is doing to defend that chance is paramount.
In that Brisbane speech in 1994 Keating opened by talking about trades and he finished by talking about the Queensland Labor Party. Keating said of Labor in Queensland that we are “a no-nonsense show that’s always kept in close touch with the community…not middle-classed out of existence.”
It’s a sentiment that I get to see in practice in every branch meeting I attend and every decision I see taken by the Party in Queensland. It’s a sentiment well and truly reflected in our policy of support for skills training and the reinstatement of skills training support, especially at the state government level. It was the sentiment that backed getting young people work opportunities in the early 1990s and it’s what backs our policies today.
For the twenty three school leavers in Barcaldine this isn’t about politics – this is about getting a job. It’s as simple as that.
Photos supplied by author.