DAVID PENBERTHY: Well at a time when unemployment stands at the highest level on the mainland here in South Australia – it jumped by 0.7 per cent last month to 7.1 [per cent] – the last thing we want to see in this state is people being laid off unnecessarily. Well the expectations are that that is exactly what is going to happen as a result of state government changes to the matter in which registered training organisations go about their business. Under the state government’s Work Ready scheme, they have taken what is a pretty mystifying decision to guarantee that 46,000 out of an available 51,000 training positions will be automatically handed to TAFE – that’s more than 90 per cent of all places. Yesterday we spoke to a gentleman from a hospitality training business – he told us that he is going to have to lay off 12 people as a result of this decision. And I know that on Monday the opposition leader, Steven Marshall hosted a meeting at State Parliament of these registered training organisations. There were about 60 people there representing more than 40 organisations. They are extremely worried about this. It’s hard to wrap your head around it – I mean, you just take that it’s an oversight and if it is an oversight, then hopefully the state government can correct it. Anyway, it might also be a breach of the training arrangements, which have been agreed to between the Commonwealth and the state government. And to that end, the Federal Assistant Minister for Education and Training, and South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham wrote to the state government yesterday, raising concerns about its decision. Senator Birmingham joins us now – thanks for your time, Simon. Can you understand why the state government has done this?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: David, I am mystified and incredibly concerned by the decision of Jay Weatherill and the state government in this regard. It really does turn around what has been some good progress in South Australia towards giving employers and students more choice in terms of their training provider and making sure that the training market was operating effectively, and we have very high quality training providers in South Australia – of course, the TAFE system, but also a number of good, high quality private providers, especially those with strong industry links. And they really seem to be the ones who are complaining the loudest out of the Master Builders’ Association and the Restaurant and Catering Association and the construction industry and so forth. And it’s a real concern that jobs in those training providers now look like they may be lost, but perhaps even more importantly to me that employers in South Australia and students in South Australia will have the choice of where they go to access their training dramatically limited.

DAVID PENBERTHY: Is it something too that is almost a matter of interest for the consumer watchdog, the ACCC? Because it seems to be quite anti-competitive what the state government’s doing.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think there is an interesting issue there for the ACCC potentially in relation to the competition policy aspects here. You have to understand that back in 2012, when Jay Weatherill voluntarily signed on to a funding agreement with Julia Gillard, the then Prime Minister, to shift towards a more open and competitive training market in South Australia, some 74 per cent of funding in South Australia was contestable. So it was open for private providers, industry groups and so on to bid for those places. Now, we’re facing a situation where 90 per cent of new places will be guaranteed to TAFEs. So think about that – we’ve gone from 74 per cent in 2012 being open to the market to 90 per cent now being guaranteed to the government-owned provider. Little wonder, of course, that you’re seeing private providers and those industry organisations claim they’ll go out of business because it has been a very dramatic turnaround for them and is providing a guaranteed stream of funding there. Now I think that TAFE does a wonderful job in many circumstances and in the end, if it were a contestable environment and they won all of the work because they were the best value for money highest quality provider then I would have no problem at all about this. This is not about TAFE versus the private sector from our perspective; it’s about employers and students being able to access the best training to fit their needs for the future.

DAVID PENBERTHY: One of the concerns that was raised yesterday when we spoke to the director of policy for Business SA is about the sort of specialised training that a lot of these private providers are in a position to give to young people being lost, particularly in the area of agriculture. And it may also mean that kids in regional South Australia can no longer access local training and would be compelled to come to the city to do training because TAFE will now have pretty much a monopoly on it.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There is a real risk of all sorts of flow-on effects, whether it’s to regional areas or particularly in terms of key markets. You’ve seen the Civil Contractors’ Federation, the Master Builders’ Association, the Restaurant and Catering Association, Business SA overall all express concern here and that is because many of those individual bodies provide niche training that most importantly is training that is directly relevant to the job. There is no point having training for training’s sake happening. What we want to do is provide training for people of all ages in South Australia, for young people leaving school, for those of course that are facing readjustment because of the decline in some sectors of manufacturing – provide training that is relevant to actual jobs that exist and these industry bodies do a fabulous job of achieving that, and to close them out of the market through this type of decision is of grave concern. And that’s why I’ve asked Gail Gago and Jay Weatherill and the state government to defend their decision to explain how on earth it is in keeping with the agreement that Jay Weatherill voluntarily signed with Julia Gillard in 2012 to get more federal funding.