Tangible action needed ... now

03/09/2009 - 00:00


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The state government has won plaudits for many of its reform plans but the hard decisions lie ahead.

The state government has won plaudits for many of its reform plans but the hard decisions lie ahead.

WHAT sounds better?

Creating a new department of education and workforce development with its own chief executive, charged with delivering training services that meet the needs of local industry, or establishing a national resource sector employment taskforce headed by a major project employment coordinator?

The state and federal governments each had a turn making major announcements this week, both focused on laying the groundwork for a surge in resources and infrastructure projects.

"We are now ensuring we have people with the relevant skills needed to capitalise on the thousands of job opportunities resource and development projects will create," Premier Colin Barnett said.

The federal government rhetoric was remarkably similar, stating that up to 70,000 construction jobs and 16,000 ongoing jobs might be generated on big resources projects by 2020.

"To maximise participation in these projects and to avoid the skills shortages of the past, the taskforce will work with the resources industry, state and territory governments and education and training providers to develop a workforce plan that delivers skilled labour to meet project construction timetables," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said.

It's hard to fault these statements. Indeed, they struck a chord with many business groups, which have been fulsome in their praise.

However, they are simply statements of positive intent and need to be followed up with tangible action.

Mr Rudd has become a master of the bold gesture, making grand statements that are not always followed up. His 2020 summit was the defining example and, based on past experience, there is a danger his employment taskforce will also be unproductive.

Mr Barnett has always styled himself as a can-do leader and he now has an opportunity to substantiate that.

Not just in regard to training, but across a range of critical policy areas, from government spending to project approvals, land development, transport planning and energy security.

In all these areas, the state government has established major reviews that have been given a wide brief to formulate breakthrough reform proposals.

The economic audit committee, commissioned to review the operational and financial performance of the public sector, completed its discussion paper in July.

In the meantime, the government is wearing political flak for a series of small spending cuts but has not yet taken the big policy decisions that would generate large and ongoing savings.

The Oates review of energy policy has been handed to the government and has produced one welcome outcome.

Energy Minister Peter Collier announced last week that energy retailer Synergy and energy generator Verve would not be merged, even though Mr Barnett had previously advocated such a change.

With every business group and energy expert in the state counselling against a re-merger, that decision should have been a no-brainer.

The tough decisions lie ahead, when the government has to decide on electricity market rules, the phase-out of power-purchase contracts, and caps on Verve's generating capacity, among other matters.

In the education and training space, Mr Barnett believes the current structure left training in the shadow of the larger education portfolio.

He said the new structure would lead to "an uncluttered commitment and drive by singular departments".

However, a new department on its own will achieve very little unless the government follows through with decisive policy commitments.

Opposition leader Eric Ripper responded to the news of the training department by saying it will be the fifth new department created in the past year.

"A new department is not a plan, it is simply the shuffling of bureaucratic deck chairs," he claimed.

This is where Mr Barnett has an opportunity to prove his opponent wrong.

He has already signalled changes to free up Tafe colleges and focus trades training onto the needs of industry rather than so-called recreational courses.

The ball is in Mr Barnett's court. And, I should add, his ministers, who need to develop expertise in their policy areas and be given the autonomy to deliver policy outcomes.



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