Thanks Martin [Riordan] for that introduction.
Let me begin with some important acknowledgements:
It is a major privilege for me to be invited to give the 2009 Mick Young Oration.
And I have to 'fess up with a declaration of personal interest – Mick Young was a friend of mine; a very close friend of mine, as his wife and children remain to this day. More than that, he was a much loved mentor to me – as he was to so many others.
Anyone who ever met Mick will know why he generated such affection and loyalty from those who knew him. Mick graced and charmed the world with his presence. He was witty, warm-hearted and generous. A person of real character.
And someone with extraordinary abilities. Despite his humble family circumstances and lack of formal education, he made a notable impact on Australian history.
He left school at 15, started work as a shearer and quickly got involved in the union movement. By the age of 20 he had become a union representative. By the age of 32, Mick was the Federal Secretary of the ALP.
It was in this role that Mick, along with Gough Whitlam, modernised the Labor Party and helped deliver the first modern Federal Labor Government.
Shortly afterwards, he entered federal parliament as the Member for Port Adelaide in 1974 and became a Minister in the Hawke Government before leaving parliament in 1988. I worked for him for some of those years, and helped him write a book about jobs.
His is quite a story of public and private achievement. Because although he left school early, he had a fine mind and impressively wide tastes, in areas like classical music and Chinese culture.
His story demonstrates something important: every person is born with a potential greatness battling to get to the surface. Every person has their own individual talent, and their own capacity to understand complex ideas, appreciate art or create something beautiful with their hands. The promise of education belongs to every person, no matter how young or old, and we should never give up on anybody.
I say this because today we understand the importance of early childhood education and of the early and middle years of school. They're crucial for achieving a person's academic potential.
But they must never be used as an excuse for failing to invest in the later years as well. Everyone deserves a second chance. Vocational, work-based and community-based adult education deserves our investment and attention too.
Mick Young got his second chance – and we are the beneficiaries. For him, education meant self-education and self-help, which are major and important strands of our social-democratic heritage.
Self-education and self-help are wonderful things. Mick knew that for every person like him who managed to break through without a formal post-compulsory education, a hundred others would miss out. So he devoted much of his life to giving others the opportunity to achieve their life's goals. And he knew, as we do, that knowledge and skills are the best way to build prosperity and spread opportunity.
Which is why he established the Port Adelaide ALP Scholarship for people looking for a second chance to get an education or trade. And of course today that scholarship program lives on in far bigger form in the shape of the Mick Young Scholarship Trust.
It's because of my great admiration for Mick, for Mary and his children that I have been deeply honoured to help the Trust carry on Mick's life work, helped by many other fine Australians who also admired him.
These scholarships improve the lives of recipients by opening doors that would otherwise remain locked. From humble beginnings the Trust has become a major provider of scholarships to people in the TAFE sector, making around $225,000 in grants to disadvantaged students every year – with a goal of almost doubling that in the near future.
The great thing about the Trust is that its scholarships are provided on the basis of need – something Mick would have appreciated. The Trust works hard with TAFE institutes to identify students at risk of not being able to complete their qualification through lack of money.
The scholarships may not at first glance seem large. But they are significant. Very significant.
It's easy to forget that for many Australians the lack of just a few hundred dollars to pay for fees or buy software or afford child care can force them to make the fateful decision to end their formal education. The Trust helps those people make the right choices at the crucial moments of their lives.
One of the people the Mick Young Scholarship helped was Bettye Ford. Bettye is here tonight.
Bettye commenced study at the Kempsey Campus TAFE in 2000, completing a Certificate in Adult Foundation Education over two years, and moving on to a Year 10 equivalent qualification in 2002. Having had a taste of study, in 2004 Bettye enrolled in the Year 12 equivalent Tertiary Preparation Certificate, and in that year she applied for and was granted her first Mick Young Scholarship. Over the next few years, Bettye completed several courses in Community Services Welfare and again received a Mick Young Scholarship in 2005 while working towards her Certificate IV.
Bettye credits her continuing study to those two grants. They weren't large sums, but they allowed Bettye to upgrade her computer and purchase a flash drive so that she could complete assignments at home, rather than spending long hours at the Campus Library.
In 2005, Bettye received the North Coast Institute Student of the Year Award, and this inspired her to go on to complete the Diploma in Community Services Welfare, and to enrol in Southern Cross University in 2007 in a Degree Course.
Bettye is now a university graduate with a degree in social sciences and a case worker helping newly released long-term prisoners back into the community to make a go of their lives. It's a job she loves. And an outcome I'm certain Mick would have been thrilled at.
She's gone from leaving school early, to mature age study, to being an award-winning student and university-educated professional. She's rightly proud of her achievement and we are extremely proud of her.
Let's give her and other scholarship recipients, like Deidre Thorne in the audience here tonight, a big hand.
Australia needs more people like them.
We live in a world that every year adds tens of millions of new graduates to the global economy. And we live in a country where every year tens of thousands of people join the ranks of the retired.
To compete with the world, and to provide for our ageing population, we must continue to lift our workforce participation levels and our productivity.
Education is the answer. And it must include everyone. If capable people like Bettye are denied access to education due to their background, we will all be poorer for it.
No one must be left out. But as I wrote in my book Postcode, in recent times our country forgot this.
Over the last decade, widening gaps in educational attainment opened up between wealthier and poorer children. It betrayed both a lack of moral vision and economic commonsense. And the Rudd Government has set out to undo the damage inflicted by this short-sighted policy failure.
Our approach – our Education Revolution – is based on the opposite principle: that access to education should depend on merit, not money, and that every person in every postcode should have the opportunity to achieve their potential and contribute to their economy and community. As my colleague Julia Gillard puts it: disadvantage is not destiny.
Our goal is to halve the proportion of working-age Australians without at least Certificate III level qualifications by 2020.
It of course starts with major improvements to early childhood education and schooling. It involves a revolution in our schools. And it also involves major efforts to increase the enrolment of disadvantaged people in our universities.
And we're making good progress here:
These measures are vital to building the human capital we need to boost productivity and provide the opportunities necessary for all Australians to be part of our recovery.
But any program to give more educational opportunities to working Australians must include a major effort to improve vocational education and training.
There's a huge amount of activity going on to help modernise our TAFE and VET system more generally:
VET has never been more important to Australia than now as we are trying to come through a global economic recession.
The lesson of previous recessions is clear: unemployment takes a lot longer to go down than to go up.
It can leave a path of social devastation in its wake, condemning people and their communities to social and economic exclusion that can last decades and be a major cost to society. It's true to say that parts of Australia are still feeling the social impacts of the recessions of the early '80s and early '90s which restructured our labour markets at a speed public policy failed to match.
We've learned that lesson, and when the global financial crisis occurred we were determined to prevent history repeating. That's why we embarked on the stimulus measures we did.
Those measures not only supported jobs, they also included a series of measures designed to improve the skills of Australians in vulnerable communities, including:
Every Australian needs to make a positive contribution, particularly during this time of economic recovery, and these measures are designed to give every Australian that opportunity.
I believe our investment in training has to date been one of the great overlooked success stories of our fight against the global economic recession – because skills are what provide the means for Australia to prosper once the global recession is over.
When thinking about the huge infrastructure gains that will come out of the Government's stimulus investments – the roads, the ports, the rail extensions, the social housing and the new school, TAFE and university buildings – I'm reminded of that old question: "who built the pyramids?" They were built by ordinary people with high-level skills and an extraordinary capacity for hard work.
If Australia comes through the global economic recession in good shape, it will be in no small part through the efforts of trained engineers, tradespeople, IT workers and service providers. People who have come through our VET system.
Education will continue to be the engine room of prosperity, and training will be the driving force behind the recovery.
That's why one of the things I'm proudest of in relation to the country's response to the global recession is how we have fought the permanent destruction of skills that usually comes with a sharp downturn. We didn't let people swing in the breeze. Over 200,000 Australians kept their jobs.
This is important because nothing is more debilitating to a country and to an economy than prolonged and high unemployment, because it brings with it an accompanying social and economic cost.
Avoiding the destruction of the skills base means we are better placed than any other country to take advantage of the recovery. We still have a long way to go to build the human capital we need for the future, but we don't start as far behind as we could have.
And this challenge will get even harder as our population ages. We must increase our capacity to maintain a higher standard of living, particularly as we face a growing proportion of older Australians.
We can do it through increased population, but there are obvious constraints on how high our population can go. But we can also do it by increasing the workforce participation rate of our existing population and raising their productivity levels.
This can be done in a number of ways, including, for instance: through the elimination of high effective marginal tax rates that discourage people on benefits returning to work or working extra hours; improving parental leave; and providing additional child care. The Henry Review of our tax and transfer system will consider each of these options.
But the evidence suggests that the biggest gains will come from improved education and training provision.
People with a post-school qualification are less likely to be unemployed than their lesser-qualified counterparts. Increasing post-school qualification levels is a more effective and much fairer way to get these people back to work than the alternatives of reducing minimum wages and income support. It makes our workforce more adaptable and resilient in the face of inevitable economic and technological change.
The CSIRO, the Climate Institute and the Dusseldorp Skills Forum have calculated that to meet its sustainability targets and goals, Australia will need to equip or re-equip millions of workers by 2025. They won't just be the people working on solar power stations, clean coal projects and hybrid cars – every single employee will have to become more efficient.
And vocational education and training is the fastest and most efficient way to make these gains. Especially workplace-based training, which ensures the skills we teach are those needed by employers.
This is something our TAFEs and other VET institutions are now doing better and better, and we intend to help them as they continue the job.
Ladies and gentlemen, avoiding the legacy of skills destruction that usually accompanies a sharp recession is something we can all be proud of – because it's something that we've done together.
But we still have a long way to go to build the human capital we need for recovery and our future prosperity.
That is why we need every person to improve their knowledge, their skills and their qualifications. All of them. At kindergarten, at school and at university. But also in the workplace – and for those without a job, in their community.
We have to fashion a new education system that makes them part of the solution too. For their own benefit and for the benefit of the nation.
Let me quote the US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address earlier this year:
It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make [our education] system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training… Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.
This is equally true for Australia.
Staying at school, not dropping out of university, starting and finishing an apprenticeship, improving your workplace skills in minor and major ways – these are responsibilities we must all take up. For our own good and for the good of the country.
Obtaining a post-compulsory education is good for people and a civic duty as well. This makes the Education Revolution not about governments, but about people.
Investing in our skills, training and education has never been more important than now. It will be vital to our recovery and our long-term prosperity.
Now I know there will be many Australians who will ask: have I got what it takes to go back to school, get Year 12, and get through TAFE or university? My answer is – Mick Young proves it's possible. Bettye and her friends here tonight prove it's possible. And the Government is determined to give anybody willing to give it a go the help they need.
The same values that lie at the heart of the Mick Young Scholarship Trust are helping inform a genuine Education Revolution in Australia. Because they're about our values of fairness and opportunity. And because education and training is the engine room for the new generation of prosperity we're building for Australia.