Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC Afternoon Briefing, ABC 24, with Greg Jennett


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

GREG JENNETT: Skills and Training Minister Brendan O'Connor will be a senior and significant contributor, thought leader perhaps, on how this country prepares more job-ready workers, hopefully so it doesn't get back in the situation it now finds itself in. Brendan O'Connor joins us here in the studio. Great to have you back Minister. So, we heard Jim Chalmers foreshadowing there that a set of announcements are anticipated on Friday afternoon. Some of them to take immediate effect with legislation soon. Will training initiatives be among what they call in the trade announceables?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: I think so. I think that if you look across the spectrum that we'll be considering, looking at what needs to be done in dealing with the skill shortages across the labour market and economy, we'll be able to make some announcements that will take immediate effect. But, of course, there are challenges in the economy and labour market, Greg, as you know, that are structural, systemic, and even cultural that we'll have to take more time on. But we can set the course working with employers and unions, working with universities and the VET sector for example in terms of skills. Working with state and territory governments who deliver much of this in a way that we come together to solve these problems. And the weight is on all of us to deliver on these matters.
JENNETT: You mentioned the states who run the TAFEs and the like, how much do they need to be harnessed in to some of these projects of cooperation here at the summit, compared to their day jobs? You were talking to them outside of the summit. How much has to be landed around the summit that wouldn't otherwise have been done?
O'CONNOR: Well as you might imagine, the idea of setting a summit places a discipline on all of us because we have to do the work and we have to do much of that work before the summit even convenes. I'm glad to say I've had some very constructive conversations with all eight other Governments in terms of dealing with the best way to deliver skills in areas of demand. The reality is the way we invest in skills in this country is not sufficient to meet existing demand or even anticipate more precisely future demand. So, I believe that the state and territory Governments understand the same challenges that we do. The issue then is how do we work together to solve some of these real critical issues.
JENNETT: So, when we talk about this area of responsibility you carry, so often we conjure images mentally of the young worker, the apprentice. What though is being looked at for reskilling or re-employing, if you like, older cohorts?

O'CONNOR: Well, it really is across the demographics. Of course, we need to make sure that people entering the labour market have opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge in areas of demand. We need to be better at advising young people about their opportunities, but given the very tight labour market conditions, given the fact the unemployment rate is at 3.4%, we do need to call upon all cohorts. We have had people locked out of the labour market, perhaps not getting the opportunities, not being provided the right support and indeed, acquiring the right skills. We need to do better there. We know for example - and our childcare policy was about this - increasing the participation of women so they could make genuine choices about returning to their work earlier, even though they've had children. So, there's a combination of ways we can assist different groups to participate in the labour market at a time where the labour market is very tight indeed. And of course, on top of that have, we have to be considering skilled migration pathways.
JENNETT: Which we'll get to. But there has been this discussion, and I think the Coalition claims credit for putting it forward, that matters not, about allowing pensioners to do more work without affecting their pension. Is that something that would be looked upon favourably?
O'CONNOR: I think we're open for all ideas, and I think that's been put to us. I understand the Treasurer already indicated we would be up to considering that to see if it can work. We have an open mind to all good ideas, but we need to test them, but it's true to say that there's the argument for pensioners and we may need to look at the thresholds of income without pension being affected. But there are also older people who are at this point not
quite at pensioner age, who are still locked out of the labour market, without receiving any payment. We have to look at age discrimination, other impediments, and barriers to the labour market that too many Australians suffer. People with disabilities who could be remarkably productive and have such a sense of dignity if they were able to find work, so there are so many areas we really need to be considering.
JENNETT: Why hasn't demand for some of those workers already kicked in as a natural feature of the market?
O'CONNOR: Yeah look, I think it's fair to say that the unemployment rate has come down relatively quickly. It's a tight labour market. It's partly due to the slowing down of movement as a result of the pandemic. The previous Government quite rightly had to close borders when we had no vaccinations, but what It meant was the labour market got very tight indeed. We also lost temporary visa holders because we gave them no support. No JobKeeper no JobSeeker. So, we're tight. So, there were other workers perhaps to choose. But this now is an opportunity, Greg, for us to consider people who want to work, who could work, who could be very helpful and be very productive in a workplace if only given the chance. And we need to explore those opportunities too. And I know many employers are up for that. And I think that's a great thing.
Well, let's see what you come forward with on that tomorrow or the next day. Since you mentioned migration, there does seem to be a very strong nod and a wink coming at this will be the subject of consensus between business, Government, and union organisations for that matter. In what volume, what's required?
O'CONNOR: Look, we have to make the decision as to the level of immigration but of course with skilled migration - and Clare O'Neil and Andrew Giles are working very much on this area - we have to make sure that we have the sufficient skills that are needed. It's fair to say there's been a slowing down of immigration. We need to make sure that we look at attracting highly skilled people. We've got acute shortages. It is a competitive global market. We are a very popular country but there are many other countries that are attractive destinations. So, we have to think of what's the best way attract some migrants with particular skills into Australia? 
JENNETT: Is that an admission that you could make an announcement about numbers and skills categories on Friday, but still not see those workers arrive on our shores inside of what, six months, nine months? 
O'CONNOR: I'm not going to put a timeframe on it. But I will say this, we did inherit a department that was depleted of resources so we've had tens of thousands of applications just stuck in the system. We have got for example Greg, many, many temporary visa holders who have been working here for nearly 10 years and they've got English proficiency, they're in a skill shortage area and we haven't actually given them the opportunity to get on to the permanent pathway to citizenship.
JENNETT: So that becomes a priority?
O'CONNOR: Well, I think that's the immediate priority because there's people here contributing to society. They've made their home here but they don't feel secure because they're not given a permanent residency or the pathway to citizenship. And yet, in many other countries, they're providing those opportunities earlier. We have to examine that, and we have to do right by people, so they have a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership and a sense that the countries wants them to stay, and I think that's important too.
JENNET: There does sound like a logic to that. Just finally Brendan O'Connor, we'll hear it later on in the program, criticism from your political opponents about the mix, the make-up of union representation on the list of 143 invitees. Is it out of whack with the current make-up of union membership in this country?
O'CONNOR: No, I don't think so. Firstly, we're unabashedly proud of our association and direct links with the union movement. The Labor Party came out of the union movement, and we're partners and work together on issues. I think that's important. I also it's about time we saw workers represented in dealing with these structural challenges because, really to deal with some of these issues, it's not just that people have access to things like summits, it's about also being as responsible as other parts of society. In other words, it's up to all of us to put the national interest first. Whether your employers or unions and have a common purpose about dealing with these issues. You can only do that if you bring into the tent constituent parts of our society and our economy. And I think it's really quite unfortunate that Peter Dutton has chosen to stay outside that process and throw rocks. That's not constructive. It won't provide any level of support about the changes needed in this country, to lift wages, to make employment more secure, to make businesses more profitable and to have a skilled innovative workforce.

JENNETT: Yep, it’s his call and I know the business community is well represented as well.

O'CONNOR: Indeed.

JENNETT: Good luck in the conversations that follow. You framed it for us today. Brendan O'Connor, thanks for joining us. 
O'CONNOR: Thanks very much.