After eight long years, the Morrison government is still playing catch-up on apprenticeship numbers. Based on the latest data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, there are 150,000 fewer apprentices in training than there were under the former Labor government. The numbers are unequivocal. In fact, what the latest data shows is a fall in apprenticeship numbers between the most recent quarters, the June and September quarters.
You could be fooled into thinking that when the Treasurer, on budget night, said that the government 'will create more than 170,000 new apprenticeships and traineeships' it would do just that: create additional apprenticeships, above the usual number of around 150,000. At Senate estimates we asked the department for clarity, yet, despite all the chest beating from the government, we were met with doublespeak from officials, who could not tell us just how many new apprenticeships would be created from the Morrison government's apprenticeship funding—whether it would be 170,000 in total commencements, which is not too different from business as usual under the Liberals and actually lower than under Labor. In fact, the budget papers make it clear that apprenticeship funding from the Morrison government in the current budget is lower than in 2020-21 and that in the last budget that funding will fall dramatically from current levels down through to 2024-25. We know that when it comes to apprentices and this government there are big flashy announcements but never any follow-up. We know the government has access to apprenticeship numbers before the rest of us do, but what is unclear is why it finds it so hard to explain what its apprenticeship numbers in the budget actually mean. Supported apprenticeships and apprentices are vital for small and large businesses around Australia, so why isn't the government coming clean on its apprenticeship plans, Minister?
Also this government claims it is the party of small business, but look at the hundreds of thousands of small businesses who lost income, staff and, for many, their entire livelihoods through the COVID crisis. I'm only speaking about the businesses who managed to keep their heads above water as a result of the JobKeeper supplement. We're yet to see the true impact of the recent lockdown in Melbourne that came post-JobKeeper and what the reality for them is. We're happy to see that from the Victorian government there was some support offered for these businesses, though many were left still struggling. There have been reports that small businesses and sole traders were ineligible for those supports because they didn't earn enough.
It is of course good that the Victorian government provided some support for these businesses, but, as we in this place are all very well aware, vertical fiscal imbalance means it really falls on the federal government to pick up the economic and financial requirements during a pandemic like this and to provide that support to small business, as it was eventually dragged kicking and screaming to do through the JobKeeper program. We have seen some payments—welcomed, though clearly inadequate—being made available to individuals, yet there hasn't been any support provided in the same way that was available under JobKeeper to the small businesses being affected by the lockdown in Victoria.
In Victoria in particular, because of the unique nature in which they have experienced spread and lockdown, their businesses have been uniquely vulnerable to further lockdowns as this COVID pandemic has progressed, yet they don't have the opportunity to claim JobKeeper and they don't have the opportunity to be afforded any additional support by the federal government as they go through this further lockdown—a lockdown that has extended for more than seven days. In this lockdown businesses are struggling to pay rent because there are now no rent holidays and mortgage relief. Businesses are finding themselves in one of the most vulnerable periods as they continue to experience lockdown in this regard, so why doesn't the government support small businesses in Australia when they are in their time of greatest need, Minister?