In the News – National skills agreement signed

By: The Sydney Morning Herald – 13/04/2012

All states and territories have signed on to the federal government’s skills  package in a deal which is worth $1.75 billion to them in incentive  payments. As well the commonwealth is putting up $7.2 billion over five years to pay  for a training entitlement.

It will lead to 375,000 extra people getting skilled qualifications over the  next five years, with all working-age Australians guaranteed a government-funded  training place.

<SPAN style=”color: rgb(0, 0, 0);”><iframe id=”dcAd-1-3″ src=”http://ad-apac.doubleclick.net/adi/onl.smh.news/national;cat=national;ctype=article;pos=3;sz=300×250;tile=3;ord=3595122.0?&#8221; width=’300′ height=’250′ scrolling=”no” marginheight=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ allowtransparency=”true” frameborder=”0″> < /iframe></SPAN>Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the agreement proved wrong scepticism about  the Council of Australian Governments system. “I think we’ve proved today that we can still get things done,” Ms Gillard  said in Canberra after the meeting today. “I want to thank my colleagues, the premiers and chief ministers, for the  cooperative spirit that they brought to the COAG table today.”

The skills package also will introduce income-contingent loans, similar to  HECS, for students doing government-subsidised diploma and advanced diploma  courses.

Ms Gillard said COAG leaders also worked together on the priorities put  forward at yesterday’s business forum. “As a nation we need to focus on productivity, on getting more productive,  and consequently becoming wealthier in future,” Ms Gillard said. “Red tape can strangle that productivity.”

In particular, the meeting agreed on a new system to guarantee the best  possible environmental protection while cutting “double handling” and time  delays that can prevent important projects getting off the ground.

Ms Gillard said the COAG meeting also supported the proposed national  disability insurance scheme (NDIS) and the next steps in what would be a  nation-changing reform.

“We have all acknowledged our commitment to it,” she said. “We have also acknowledged that this is a big reform and a big change, and we  need to work on it together. “We will be working on it together in coming months, including addressing  things that could deliver real benefits even as the NDIS is built.”

The COAG communique said it was recognised that the most needy and vulnerable  Australians needed support but change could only be achieved step by step over a  number of years. Some 70 per cent of disability care and support services are funded by state  and territory governments. “To develop a national scheme it was recognised that the level and share of  commonwealth funding will need to increase,” it said.

The communique said broad principles had been agreed on, which now required  more detail and tangible progress with “a careful and cautious approach”. COAG has asked its select council on disability reform to work on funding,  governance and the scope of eligibility and support as a priority so these  matters can be considered at the next COAG meeting. COAG reaffirmed a commitment to high environmental standards but pledge to  reduce duplication and double-handling of environmental assessments.

Existing rules giving the commonwealth the final say on projects that affect  world heritage sites or commonwealth waters, as well as nuclear actions and  defence development will remain. But COAG will also consider improving approval processes for those  categories. West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said he looked forward to seeing the  review into the way GST revenue is carved up because present arrangements were  “dysfunctional”.

The review will be given to the states and territories before the May 8  federal budget, the COAG meeting was told. “There needs to be fundamental reform, the system is broken,” Mr Barnett  said. “I’m not asking for an equal share, I’m simply asking for a fair share for  Western Australia.” If the current system remained in place, it would not only hold back the  development of WA but also hold back Australian growth. “Australian growth is dominated by export income and investment income, and  most of that is in Western Australia,” Mr Barnett said.

Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings disagreed, saying the GST distribution system  was not broken even though it was very complex. “For Tasmania we have just seen a drop in our GST because of that formula,”  she said. “I am not complaining, because it was the right thing to do.” Ms Giddings said it was an “absolutely critical” issue which was not as  simplistic as Mr Barnett would make others believe.”

Ms Gillard said she had always found COAG functioned well when everyone came  to meetings with a degree of goodwill and a preparedness to get things done. “People have been sceptical about whether or not COAG could continue to work  because of the election of Premier Newman in Queensland,” she said. “This meeting today proves that as leaders we can come together and get  things done.”

South Australian Premier Jay Wetherill said projects would no longer be  unnecessarily delayed because of a doubling-up of environmental assessments. Before a project to duplicate the Sturt Highway in his state, for example, a  state environmental assessment was needed before a commonwealth assessment was  carried out. The process delayed the project by nine months and added “many millions of  dollars of expenses”. “It was completely unnecessary for there to be two separate systems of  assessment,” he said.

Ms Gillard, the premiers and chief ministers have asked their Treasury  departments to examine the Business Council of Australia’s proposal that  Australia’s development assessment process for major projects should be compared  with “international best practice”. This should happen “within a month”, the COAG communique states.

The states and territories also will look at reforms to improve their  approval processes for major projects. “All levels of government will work toward a range of additional approaches,  including the creation of task forces for major projects, so that approvals are  administered by a single state agency and unnecessary duplication in  commonwealth and state processes is removed,” the communique states. COAG also wants to quickly finalise a review of “unnecessary carbon reduction  and energy efficiency schemes”.

A new taskforce will advise how this can best be achieved so that programs  that don’t complement federal Labor’s carbon tax, due to start on July 1, can be  “rationalised”, along with any ineffective or inefficient  schemes.

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