Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett


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

Topics: National Accounts, Labor’s tax cuts, Jobs and Skills Australia Draft Core Skills Occupations List.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Well, Cabinet Minister Brendan O'Connor is in a vital economy-related portfolio of Skills and Training. In between rolling divisions in the house, he's able to join us now. Welcome back to the programme, Brendan O'Connor. I know you've done about three laps of the building before you finally were able to –


JENNETT:  Yeah, well done. You made it. GDP growth, I think it's fair to say it's anaemic. According to the March quarterly figures, a hair breadth away from shrinkage, actually, at 0.1 per cent. It's a narrow path for the Reserve Bank, isn't it? Does the government stand ready for a mini budget if it further deteriorates from here?

O'CONNOR: Well, firstly, I think the national accounts show that the budget that we handed down only a few weeks ago was the right one for the country because it's looking to repair the fiscal situation, provide a second surplus, and at the same time look to provide cost of living relief for many Australians who have been struggling.

JENNETT: Did it fully envisage the weakness that has shown through in this quarter?

O'CONNOR: Look, I think most commentators saw it being around the mark, the 0.1 per cent. If you look around the OECD countries, three quarters of the countries of the OECD have negative growth. This is positive growth. But as you say, it speaks to a soft economy. And therefore, I think the fact that we've got wages rising in real terms, we've got tax cuts from the first of July that will provide that relief. But we've done this in a very considered, temperate way in order to make sure we get the balance right. So, you're just talking before Greg, about the Governor and the Treasurer, fiscal and monetary policy working together with a view to, of course, tempering inflation. And I think we've landed that but obviously there's a long way to go.

JENNETT: Well, you mentioned the stage three tax cuts that kick in in a few weeks from now. That is a form of stimulus, obviously you tell us, and in fact, the Reserve Bank Governor told us today, not inflationary, I think was the verdict there. But what does it do for growth or what will it do for growth?

O'CONNOR: Well, obviously it will provide more expenditure for households, it will provide cost of living relief for many, many Australians who've struggled with cost of living pressures. And of course, they were foreshadowed before, but we have rearranged them in a way that all 13.6 million taxpayers get a tax cut and people at the bottom end, who are really struggling to make ends meet, get a tax cut. And we're very proud of the fact that we can provide support for them.

JENNETT: Conventional logic in the face of figures like this would be for government to do even more. But this narrow path fighting inflation means what? Means that won't happen?

O'CONNOR: Firstly, we had commentators forecast pretty much what's happened, but you had quite a lot of commentators, including some in the opposition, saying we should slash and burn. The fact is we have balanced the requirements to hand down a budget that will also have regard to tempering inflation. And at the same time, while repairing the budget, we're also providing cost of living relief. That, I think, is the right approach. I think the Treasurer, the government, has been vindicated.

JENNETT: All right, well, you've got your finger on the pulse of the economy. Let's take you directly, though, to your portfolio. Now, we saw the draft skills list for temporary migrant visas released yesterday, the emphasis being on draft, it generated so much discussion publicly over what was on it and what was not on it. Were you surprised to learn that what many of us would consider vital building trades; roof tiling, brickies and painters, didn't make the cut, while wellness instructors and dog handlers did?

O'CONNOR: Look, I think there's some misunderstanding about the approach that's taken. There is consultation that JSA has with stakeholders to ensure that we are making sure what the scale of demand is, the history of skilled migration in particular sectors of the economy to avoid exploitation that's occurred in the past with skilled migrants. So, there's a combination of reasons why you consult stakeholders. I'm confident that the final report will reflect that we need to focus on areas in demand and ultimately, the government will make decisions on investing in education and training in areas of demand, like the housing and construction sector.


O'CONNOR: And the government will decide skilled migration. But I am confident. I've got great confidence in Jobs and Skills Australia to reflect those concerns well before, or at the point of final draft, but we'll wait and see -

JENNETT: So, are you signalling here. Sorry, to cut you off, Brendan. But are you signalling that you wouldn't hesitate to overrule the recommendations made on the list by Jobs and Skills Australia if you didn't think they matched economic need and reality, particularly in building trades.

O'CONNOR: Firstly, the JSA points to shortages in occupations, but the government will decide where the most important skill gaps are, where we invest taxpayers’ money in education and training, where we place people on skilled migration pathways. But I'm confident JSA will get that right because they're working so closely with industry. Look, you have to understand, Greg, that when Peter Dutton was Home Affairs Minister, naturopaths and amusement operators and all sorts of occupations were on the shortage list. It doesn't mean that they weren't focusing ultimately on what is needed. But you know what's really interesting? In the last twelve months, the skilled migration of tradies has more than doubled that of the last year of the Liberal government. What's really important is not just the lists, it's about supplying the skills. And indeed, the investment in Fee-Free TAFE has been in areas of demand, whether it's the care sector, construction, and you know yourself, the budget invested a further $90 million in the housing and construction sector for a further 20,000 Fee-Free TAFE places. So, we are investing in those areas of demand, like housing, like construction, like energy, like manufacturing and the care sector.

JENNETT: Yes, that is your day job, and thank you for pointing it out. I know you put a lot of time and effort into all of those policies. Brendan O'Connor look, just finally, we're in a fluid afternoon, but I do want to put to you a question we're asking many of your colleagues in Victoria. We asked Mark Dreyfus, there are more MPs than seats after the redistribution in your home state of Victoria. In light of your lengthy, some might say illustrious, service in the parliament through all these years, in the interest of generational change or gender equity, what are your intentions in the seat of Gorton?

O'CONNOR: Look, I mean, obviously I'm really enjoying the work of providing skills to the economy, working with my colleagues like the Minister for Energy, the Minister for Industry, the Minister for Housing and others, working with the Prime Minister to elevate the VET sector. It's a very important job and I'm proud to be part of the government's approach to investing in skills and education. And so, when it comes to my decisions, there have been forecasts before of my potential departure from this place. I've yet to make any decision in relation to that. And of course, I'll ensure that the electorate of Gorton know what my decision is at some point, and the party and the Prime Minister. But I'm really focused right now, Greg, on making sure that we supply the skills to our economy, to businesses, to workers so that we get this right. That's my focus at this point.

JENNETT: Thank you for clearing that up, or at least the consideration that you're giving, naturally, to your future. I think all of us do that from time to time.

O'CONNOR: Indeed.

JENNETT: Brendan O'Connor, really appreciate it.

O'CONNOR: Thanks very much, Greg.