Interview - ABC Darwin Mornings
RICK HIND: The federal minister for skills and training is in Darwin to discuss the territory's worker shortage. Minister Brendan O'Connor, good morning.
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Good morning, Rick.
HIND: Minister, who are you meeting while you're in Darwin?
O’CONNOR: I’ve been meeting a whole host of people. I was at a roundtable yesterday, Sunday, which brought together people representing most industries including hospitality, agriculture, agribusiness, across the spectrum and whoever I spoke to, people had the same message. They've got issues about skill shortages, labour shortages. And that is, of course, a huge issue not just in the territory, across the country.
HIND: The worker shortage is hitting territory businesses now. What's your message to businesses who can't operate at capacity because they just don't have enough staff?
O'CONNOR: Well, we are working on this. What happened when we were elected in May, we received the incoming brief, which is what the public service use to tell you what's going on, and found that there were over 900,000 visa applications stuck in the system that weren't being processed. Now we don't complain and we don't criticize the previous government for closing borders at the time when there were no vaccinations, but they should have been making sure that the temporary visa holders that were in Darwin, the territory and across the country were encouraged to stay here. Instead, we didn't provide them any support and hundreds of thousands left Australia at a time when nobody was coming in.
On top of that, there was no conversion, we didn't move temporary visa holders onto permanent pathways. So the combination of no one coming in during the time when the borders were closed and people fleeing because they never got JobKeeper or JobSeeker, meant we've got this massive skill shortage across all sectors of the economy. Not just hospitality - I heard the person who spoke just earlier - but really across the economy.
So what we're looking to do is this, we're adding 500 new staff to process the applications that have been completely congested and locked in the department of Home Affairs. Clare O'Neil and Andrew Giles, as ministers are doing that. We're investing more in skills in our local workforce so people can actually get into work where there are skill shortages. That's my responsibility to work with state and territory governments to do that. I met the Chief Minister, along with Luke Gosling yesterday discussing those issues. We need to also provide opportunities for people who've been locked out of the labour market, you know, people with disabilities, First Nations people and so on. So it's not one or the other, it is a combination of things that we must do and we're doing it as a matter of urgency. It was the subject matter of the Jobs and Skills Summit that was held recently. And we are now moving on that as quickly as we possibly can.
HIND: And Brendan O’Connor, can we see any results from their skills Summit? That was in September? What's come of that?
O'CONNOR: Yes, so firstly, there was the announcement that we've agreed upon 180,000 fee-free VET places and obviously the territory gets its allocation and that's delivered by CDU and the Batchelor Institute. So providing more courses for people in areas of skills shortage. So we don't have just an issue in hospitality, as I said, traditional trades we've got shortages. You heard the gentleman talk about shortages with too few chefs. We've got problems with -
HIND: Is that going to be on a per capita basis or on a needs basis? The worker shortage in the top end and Northern Australia is particularly intense.
O'CONNOR : Well look, we are looking to fill the shortages where they exist. I understand from time to time you get shortages here and it's unique to the territory. We have shortages across all sectors of the economy and all parts of Australia. And you've got some challenges that are particular to the territory in terms of being further away from large urban centres, but we are wanting to restore skilled migration pathways so that people can get those workers that they need and we need to invest in our own workforce in skill areas where there is a shortage, whether that's aged care, whether that's nursing, you know, wherever you look, whether it's advanced manufacturing in some parts of Australia. So, we are looking to invest in areas where there are shortages and also attract skilled migration, where there are shortages.
Yesterday at the roundtable, we spoke about the visas that are needed to help the territory and help Darwin and I’ll be passing that information on to the Minister for Immigration and the department and the Minister for Home Affairs who are really working through that. So we're seeing the 950,000 visas come down - the ones that have been stuck in the system and I think we've got through over 100,000 and we're moving on that. We just have to keep investing in the skills area, restoring skilled migration to provide and supply the skills and labour that Darwin and the NT needs.
HIND: You're listening to ABC Radio Darwin. Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training. Alex Bruce from Hospitality NT has called for Northern Australia approach to migration. He also mentioned how expensive it is to get a visa. Is the federal government do any anything on that front to make it cheaper for people like shifts who aren't going to be earning a huge amount of money to get into the country quicker?
O'CONNOR: Well there are costs associated with people that come through and that’s been there for many years. That's really to ensure and encourage employers to invest in local people as the first option. But we know that the shortages are so great, we have to make sure that the skilled migration pathways are open. So that’s sometimes about people moving from parts of Australia to the territory, and it's also about people coming in from overseas.
We've had a real big problem, Rick. When the overseas students left Australia, that was a very significant supply of labour. And so too, with holidaymakers, backpackers. So what you're seeing is there are signs of recovery as the world returns to normalcy after the pandemic. There's no doubt that the slowing down and stopping of people movement around the world had huge impacts on parts of Australia. And of course, Darwin suffered significantly because the backpackers have been a very important supply of labour as have students in other parts of Australia too. So when you see the restoration of that sector of the economy, you'll also see the supply of labour that will come with it. So it's a combination as I say before - investing in skills, restoring skilled migration, seeing the restoration of overseas students, and holiday makers, which will be that supply of labour that Darwin and the top end has got used to over years. I think you'll see that come good over time, but it does take time. People are reticent about leaving their place since the pandemic. People are reticent about traveling as much as they once did. And we need to build confidence and say Australia's a safe place, an attractive place to be. That will also help supply the labour and skills that are required for the labour market.
HIND: Brendan O’Connor, we've had a text in from Leo, how can it be that we have economy wide worker shortages at the same time that real wages are going backwards across all sectors? That is except for CEO salaries, of course a wage bargaining system is broken. Isn't that a fair point?
O'CONNOR: It’s is an absolutely fair point. I mean, that's why we are restoring bargaining at workplaces. Tony Burke, my ministerial colleague, last week in the parliament in Canberra, introduced legislation to restore bargaining so that wages rise and workers get their fair share of the dividend, the economic dividend. I mean, there are now areas where wages are increasing because of the shortages. They can almost pick and choose their job. But it's true to say across the board, wages have not kept up with inflation and for that reason, they're falling in real terms. And for the last decade, it’s the lowest wage growth in the last decade, in many decades. So we've introduced legislation, we're going to ensure that there is bargaining that will be encouraged and the reforms we're putting in place will provide more security of employment, provide more bargaining capacity for working people, so that we get that fair balance between employers getting what they need and workers getting a fair share of the economic dividend that comes from work.
HIND: And Brendan O’Connor, just finally, $1.5 billion dollars for the Middle Arm Precinct in the federal budget. Budget papers say this will be rolled out over the next seven years. We've now got a broad timeline, not a huge amount of detail as to what will actually happen there. But how many jobs will the precinct create?
O'CONNOR: We haven't got a precise number of jobs. It's a very important investment of course, and I know and I encourage you to talk to my colleague tomorrow. Catherine King is coming to Darwin I'm advised so certainly talk to her, she's responsible. But on the investment I mean, projects such as the Middle Arm precinct are an important way of setting up our economy for a sustainable future. So that instead of finding any particular companies or industries, we're actually investing in common use enabling infrastructure. What that means is, we do that across industrial precincts across the country to give all potential users in the market an opportunity to grow and thrive. Now we believe this investment will be able to process and export green hydrogen energy transition components made locally. It's a great opportunity for the local economy and there will be plenty of jobs that come with it. But perhaps I know Catherine is working on this with the NT government and with business, and it's just a great opportunity and it will see of course, many, many jobs. Because of the nature of the industries we're talking about you'll see some very good, high skilled, high paid secure work, and that's a great thing for the top end too.
HIND: Brendan O'Connor had to leave it there. Thank you.