Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC PM


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

DAVID LIPSON: Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training and he joined me earlier. Brendan O'Connor we have more job vacancies than there are unemployed people right now, it's clear we need more migrant workers here, at least in the short term. What's the holdup in increasing the migration intake now?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Well, there are migrants coming into the country as we speak. As you know, David, the pandemic slowed or suspended people movement around the world, including Australia, and on top of that, the previous government provided no support to employers to continue to employ temporary visa holders so they left the country because there was no JobKeeper or JobSeeker eligibility for thousands and thousands of workers. So not only do we not have the movement in, we had people fleeing the country - starve or leave, really. So our big job is to invest in our existing workforce and those who are unemployed, as you've said, but also accelerate those that are on permanent and temporary skilled migration pathways.
As to the speed by which that can happen, firstly, in some areas of skills, it's a very competitive market. There are other popular destinations and so some areas we are competing with like countries to attract people. We've also got a department of Home Affairs and Clare O'Neil can talk more about this but I know she and Andrew Giles have spoken about this and we've got a depletion of resources in the people and the experts in the department who process applications so we must fix that.
LIPSON: Yeah, there's a big backlog.
O’CONNOR: There's 60,000 as I'm advised and we have to accelerate that. Now remember bringing someone into the country is not some sort of just tick and flick. You have to assess the people that are coming in for a series of reasons, in this case, the skills that are needed, and also of course, their background and so on.
LIPSON: That's right, but there's also calls and actually some unity between employers and unions who broadly agree that an increase of about 40,000 migrant workers to a total of 200,000 a year is about what's needed at a minimum. Is that in the ballpark of what you would like to see coming to Australia?
O’CONNOR: Well, the government will make its decision on the threshold for the permanent skilled migration. So think about-
LIPSON: When will that happen? I mean, my initial question is what's the holdup in in that decision?
O’CONNOR: Firstly, as you just acknowledged there are tens of thousands of applications, if processed, would actually mean people would be on the permanent streams now. Some of those are already in the country because they're temporary visa holders getting onto permanent streams. Some are not in the country. The acceleration of the existing backlog is the first thing we have to do because they've all been getting through the process and we need to hurry that up.
LIPSON: So what, increasing the intake while there's a backlog is, what, counterproductive? Is that part of the problem?
O’CONNOR: No, no. So firstly, you can do more than one thing at once. But firstly accelerating the applications that are already before the department, and I understand that is happening as a priority. Secondly, of course, looking at acute shortages - we're not waiting for legislation or for summits to make these decisions. They are happening as we speak. But there's a broader question, David, about the medium to longer term as well. So we're also dealing with, for example, you talked about common ground, there is a sense of goodwill and common purpose, and putting the national interest first that I hope really will shine in the summit in less than two weeks. And I think there are employer bodies and unions and others, state and territory governments, who understand we need to increase the permanent skilled migration pathway so people have a sense of belonging, a sense of real investment in the country because they know they've got some security of employment and ongoing future here.
LIPSON: Is it something that you support because that is one of the things that would entice migrant workers here in the face of that, as you mentioned, that stiff competition from countries like Canada and the UK that have been working really hard on getting skilled workers into their countries for much longer.
O’CONNOR: Yes. Obviously my focus, National Skills week commences today, my focus has been investing in people out of the workforce and in the workforce. But of course, as a minister of this government, I entirely accept we have acute shortages, many of which were there before the pandemic that need to be attended to and that will include a very significant focus on skilled migration. Some of that will be temporary, because that can work in circumstances, but there needs to be a focus on permanent skilled migration. In fact, the Prime Minister mentioned that at a press conference today that I was in attendance. It is a priority of the government. So we are looking at what is the threshold, but remember, when you make these decisions, we have to consider all of the other implications which go to housing, infrastructure and other things too. We have to make sure it's done in a way that doesn't have unintended consequences. And that's why it has to be done across government.
LIPSON: One of the other things that is a significant deterrent to migrant workers coming to Australia is the $10,000 visa application fee. Would you consider temporarily waiving that fee in order to get things moving, to get some of those crucial worker shortages filled?
O’CONNOR: Well, what we've always had is some focus on existing workers and skilling up the Australian workforce. Remember, some of these skill shortages are as a result of just not skilling up people who are in the labour market What we will not do, and I need to be very clear about this, we're very sensitive to the needs of skilled migration but what we will not do is sacrifice the future opportunities for Australian workers because we're not willing for them to be given skills in areas of demand if it can be done.
LIPSON: That's an important thing, but it seems to be a different answer to the question I asked which was about $10,000 visa application fee.
O’CONNOR: Well, if you're talking about the fund that employers are expected to pay to get an application here, that money has been invested in skills in this country, skills of the existing labour market. That is a long standing policy of the previous government. We believe that money has been put to good use and investing in skills in the existing labour market, it still has allowed, as you know, it still has meant the demand for skilled migration is still there. And yet we get further investment.
LIPSON: One of the other problems facing the government, and everyday Australians really, is wages. We saw a 3.5 percent real wage cut last week due to soaring inflation. What do you think needs to be done to ensure migrant workers don't put more downward pressure on Australian wages?
O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, we need to make sure they're not displacing Australian workers. So the shortages are genuine, and I think there are so many acute shortages. There is a genuine skills shortage in this country. But obviously we need to make sure that we're not increasing the same skills in an area because that can actually place downward pressure. This is for Tony Burke to talk to you about, but obviously, and the Prime Minister mentioned it today, we need a bargaining system that works for employers and workers. And bargaining really has dropped significantly in workplaces across the country. So that is obviously something we need to do. There needs to be decent wage outcomes. If productivity is rising, so too should wages in real terms. So obviously we supported the minimum wage case and we want to do more. We're supporting the aged care wage case before the Fair Work Commission but there's more to be done. And I think there'll be some of those things fleshed out at the summit.
LIPSON: That's Brendan O’Connor the Federal Minister for Skills and Training.