PM sells skills as red tape targeted

Chris Johnson -Apr 13, 2012

Skills reform will be the major focus of today's Council of Australian Governments meeting, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisting the workforce must be trained to meet the challenges of the new economy.

Ms Gillard said yesterday she wanted state and territory leaders to sign off on a plan to help more people find and keep jobs in Australia's changing workplace.

''We are bringing an important skills reform package to COAG,'' she said.

The government's Skills for all Australians package is the basis of the new Commonwealth-state funding agreement, which would introduce a national training entitlement, HECS payments for skills, and improved quality requirements for training providers.

Business has so far welcomed the initiative, but premiers and chief ministers will today discuss details of the plan with the federal government.

The other big topic for today's meeting will be to map out a plan and set timeframes for what the inaugural meeting of COAG's Business Advisory Forum agreed on yesterday.

A promise to cut red tape for major development approvals was the big win for business from yesterday's gathering - the first time a business advisory forum had met with COAG in the 112 years of Australian federation.

Under the new arrangements major projects will be fast-tracked and state and territory governments will get more say in environmental approvals.

The cumbersome and time-consuming paperwork currently involved in having to meet state and federal environment regulations could be a thing of the past if COAG signs off on what the business advisory forum has decided.

So-called ''green tape'' would be reduced by streamlining federal-state environmental standards. But the Commonwealth would keep prime responsibility for World Heritage areas and what has been described as ''high-risk'' projects.

Ms Gillard said she was confident that state and territory leaders would sign off on the agreement today.

''Australians do want to see good environmental protection and good environmental outcomes, and so when it comes to things like world heritage areas, of course as a federal government we're going to want to see particular care and concern,'' Ms Gillard said.

''Nuisance regulations'' were identified in a ''red tape challenge'' during the forum's discussion.

''Governments can act and clear this undergrowth of regulation that doesn't need to be there,'' the Prime Minister said. ''We are determined to get this done.''

The forum agreed on six priorities, including national environmental reform; major development approvals; rationalisation of climate change litigation programs; further energy market reform; development assessments; and best practice approaches to risk base deregulation.

Business leaders attending the forum applauded the move.

Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd described it as an ''important and historic day''.

''Business large and small is very much on the same page with the reform priorities,'' he said.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson said the forum was good for the business community and the outcome had given it ''cautious optimism''.

But Greens leader Bob Brown said current environmental laws were not jeopardising the viability of major projects, and pointed to the number of coal ports operating on the Great Barrier Reef to make his point.

''We are in a new age of environmental wreckage,'' Senator Brown said.

Queensland's new premier Campbell Newman said he wanted to cut more red tape faster than the forum had agreed.

And he wants the federal government to hand over all its environmental protection powers to the states.

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