Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC Afternoon Briefing


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training

EO&E Topics: Climate change; Jobs and Skills Australia; Skilled migration; Jobs Summit.
GREG JENNETT: We are still cleaning up the mess from that pandemic, and a lot of that shows up in the labour market, particularly through skills and training, where we know as a matter of statistical record that this country has great shortages across the board. Dealing with that in the Albanese Government is the Skills and Training Minister Brendan O'Connor, and he joins us now in the Senate courtyard. Welcome back, Brendan, congratulations. The novelty never quite wears off coming back into a new Parliament. You have had a few of them.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: I have. Thanks, Greg, for the invitation to be on today to talk to you about the government's agenda. Yes, we are back in government, and we want to hit the ground running. We have got a very significant agenda, whether it is tackling climate change, dealing with aged care or, in my case, assisting the government, leading the government if you like, to identify the shortages in the skills area across the labour market and the economy and working out ways to supply those skills. Of course, there is a combination of ways you can do that.

GREG JENNETT: We are going to talk about that, but let's go through them in the order that you mentioned. Climate, for Chris Bowen, indeed, the entire government, comes up as early as tomorrow morning. Following on from our discussions with Larissa Waters, it is looking awfully like there is common ground for the numbers eventually in the Senate.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I hope so. I think both chambers of the Parliament understand that we have a mandate from the Australian people. We were very clear in terms of our position in relation to reducing greenhouse emissions by 43 per cent at a minimum on 2005 numbers by 2030. That is our position. We want to legislate that.
We think that provides a signal to the business community and other investors that there is certainty in energy market, and we believe that will obviously very much help us grow as a superpower.

GREG JENNETT: Are you prepared to walk away if perchance there is a slip between the cup and the lip and the numbers weren't there, do all of those stated goals stand.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I think we would proceed regardless, but we are very... Our preference is to legislate the minimum, legislate the target that we set, and Chris Bowen has been negotiating with the Greens and other crossbench members and senators.
I know that those negotiations are in good faith, but we are sticking to our election commitment, we made it very clear. And we have the support of environmental groups and businesses and state and territory governments, so we feel we have got a cross-section of the country's support.
And I think what we really need to do is get on with it, provide the certainty which will lead to further investment in renewables, because we have great opportunities both the economy and to employment if we get the investment right.

GREG JENNETT: It does sound like there is some acknowledgement on those principles by the Greens these days, so the numbers probably lining up for you. Let's go to your portfolio. You have Jobs and Skills Australia being created by your first, as Minister, piece of legislation. What lays beyond that? What does it enable you to do that can't presently be done?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: What we have not done as well as we could is precisely identify skill shortages in the labour market and the economy or indeed anticipate the areas of emerging growth or emerging need and we need to have a vehicle to do that.
Jobs and Skills Australia will bring together in a tripartite way industry and others and experts to collect information so that when we’re investing billions of taxpayers’ dollars in skill acquisition and knowledge, we’re doing it in an area that's going to fill the areas that are vacant in the labour market.
What businesses are crying out for is skills, not just in the aged care or care industries but across the spectrum. The traditional trades, engineers, tech, wherever you look, Greg, we're finding there are shortages. Now that was compounded by the fact that immigration stopped during the pandemic and then we had all of the temporary visa applicants, or many of them, flee the country because they had no support under Job Keeper or Job Seeker. So we have a lot of work to do redress those problems.

GREG JENNETT: On visas, because Jobs and Skills Australia has an input to decision-making and then you have to make decisions on how to fill those gaps.
We saw some statistics released by Home Affairs this week through the Financial Review that showed not only a big backlog in these applications, we know about that, but critical shortages in much-needed skill sets, nursing being one of them. How are they going to be expedited and prioritised?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: In relation to that immediate need and really when it comes to fixing immediate needs in the labour market we do need to turn to immigration and fix up those skilled streams. We’ve already made a commitment to unclog those 60,000 visa applications that have been held up under the previous government.


BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, they were held up because they were not acted upon before the election. We are now acting upon them and expediting those applications in areas of acute shortage.

That's really important. The only way you can respond immediately is obviously through those types of temporary and permanent skilled streams.

But to the medium and longer term, Greg, we also need to make sure that our investment in our existing labour market is done in such a way that we are supplying the skills in demand now and into the future.

That can only be done if you're properly identifying the skills, you’re working in the real economy, you’re collecting the data and you’re anticipating the demand and filling that demand.

Not only is that good for businesses and the economy, that's good for individuals. If you want a secure job, you need to have skills that are in demand or you cannot be assured of ongoing, secure employment.

GREG JENNETT: Well, there’s plenty of demand right now, what about the Commonwealth purse? What comes out of that for this reskilling and training process?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: To set up JSA it is small, it’s several tens of millions of dollars, once we set up permanently. That's important as a vehicle. Of course, right now we spend billions over the forward estimates, working with states and territories governments.


BRENDAN O’CONNOR: It’s through TAFEs and private providers. We want to make sure that we fund at the Commonwealth level at least 70 per cent into TAFEs. We want TAFEs to be the centre of technical and vocational training. We do think it's been underdone, under resourced. We don't think that was in our interest or the interest of businesses or workers.

So we want to re-enliven TAFE, bring it back to the centre of vocational training and work with employers and unions and training providers to make sure that we are training the areas of need.

What has happened too often is we haven't been investing in areas where the skills were required and that's not good for workers and is not good for business.

GREG JENNETT: Just finally, will you have latitude to move on big ideas coming out of the full employment summit. I imagine that your portfolio area is front and centre in many of those discussions.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well certainly there will be plenty to be discussed in the areas of skills and we’ll be doing that with businesses and unions and others.

We have an open mind to this. We want to find ways to solve the problems that beset this country in relation to skills.
We know one way to fix the fiscal problems we have, the inherited public debt that we have, is to grow the economy and we understand there is a correlation, Greg, between investing in skills in the right area and watching productivity improvements and economic growth as a result and that will make it easier for the government to pay down debt if your economy is growing. That's why we need to invest in skills and do it properly.

GREG JENNETT: Well, that's the grand plan and that's your task over the life of this parliament. Brendan O'Connor, thank you for joining us.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Thanks very much, Greg.