Considerable static emanates from Canberra when Parliament sits. This makes it difficult to appreciate what is really happening in a policy sense. When Ministers happily polish their performances in the theatre of Question Time, this leaves ample opportunity for media to report only the most tangential aspects of their speeches. In the most recent pseudo-debate over the shortage of skills in the Australian work force then, the man responsible for overseeing educational planning might have been misunderstood.
According to media reports, Minister Nelson is concerned that the sector known as TAFE - for technical and further education - has been turning out too many belly dancers. As a result, the Minister fears, TAFE has had insufficient resources to train brick layers. Of course, the Minister is exaggerating and speaking figuratively. The “belly dancers” stand for all courses that do not result in the acquisition of skills that earn some money. According to those who follow the Coalition ideology, the ability to measure a skill in production terms is the ultimate test of its superiority and desirability. The more a skill is valued in the market place, the better.
Such preoccupation with market value is a gross over simplification. To set belly dancing against brick laying sits nicely with this Government’s reputation. TAFE, apparently, has given too much attention to female pursuits - ones influenced by Middle Eastern cultures, for personal fulfilment and health - rather than the demands of employers. It is bad enough that there could be some racist and sexist undercurrents here. However, the really silly aspect to this alliterative juxtaposition of belly dancing and brick laying, is that it invites bad policy outcomes. The fact is that society needs to provide classes in both belly dance and brick laying.
Perhaps the Minister is too young to remember, but three decades ago in New South Wales, before a Coalition Government began to emaciate it, TAFE ran extensive evening classes in all sorts of interesting fields. In the town where I lived, there were several sewing, dressmaking, needlework and knitting classes. Some people, mainly women, attended them all. The skills they learned and developed remained in the community as the students were able to contribute garments to fetes and street stalls. Courses aimed more at men, such as carpentry and motor maintenance, were held whenever a need was demonstrated.
As a result, TAFE was a real community hub. Topics of conversation at sporting and social events included whose turn it was to drive to TAFE from the outlying areas. Interestingly, these courses were not means tested. That is, they attracted equally women who wore pearls and others who came in their jeans. But the provision of these courses caused no jealousy at all. The wife of the local Coalition candidate was made just as welcome as the person who would qualify today through a pension entitlement. There was a tacit understanding that we all benefited from this arrangement.
There is an old saying that even many free market Liberals believe to contain some truth. It is that what we spend on preschools, we save many times over on prisons. In other words, education and personal development empower people to cope with the stresses of life, and so help them avoid anti-social behaviours. It is false economy to allow educational institutions go to seed, because it then becomes necessary to devote resources to law enforcement and other non-productive services, such as prisons, personal security and burglar alarms. And these “band aid solutions” just cannot remedy the problems.
The same principle should apply to those TAFE courses designated as “leisure” pursuits. As the population ages, great stress will be thrown onto nursing homes, health services and counselling. Anything that helps older people stay healthy longer will reduce the burden on those systems. As far as this lay person can tell, all the available research into geriatric health indicates that those men and women who stay active physically, mentally and emotionally, are much more likely to avoid the early onset of the worst diseases. Therefore, they are not a burden on the community and can even contribute for longer. The Government acknowledges this potential in its emphasis on volunteering. It just seems unable to see how it could use its own resources to encourage and assist the process.
Of course we need bricklayers to work hard and pay taxes to enable government to carry on its work. We need all sorts of skills in the workforce. We need productive and happy workers. But we also need belly dancing classes. Identity does not consist just of being a belly dancer, although in our vocationally oriented world, “brick layer” all too often becomes a shorthand description of someone’s persona. However, there is no reason that someone with marketable skills should not also enrich their lives by engaging in a healthy pursuit such as belly dancing. Only a government addicted to creating wedges through envy to further its policy ends could imagine that the two are incompatible.
Clearly, in this debate we have too few physicians and pedagogues and far too many point scoring politicians.
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