KIERAN GILBERT: Let's get some more now on the Sri Lankan issues and the fact that the Home Affairs Minister has travelled to Sri Lanka to try and deal with the boats matter. A former Immigration Minister, now Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O'Connor. I caught up with him earlier about those matters in terms of border protection, but began with the issue of skills and a very personal story for him, where he was today with the Prime Minister, a place where he and his family lived when they first came to Australia as migrants.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I mean, this used to be a migrant hostel. It was for migrants who were to fill major shortages in the labour market, coming to Australia, starting a new life, a great adventure, and of course a great opportunity for those families, including mine. My family, my parents worked in factories. I and my siblings lived in a half a Nissen hut back then. And it's an interesting story, because back then they were, of course, places to provide labour to the labour market. And now I'm at this magnificent centre, the Victorian Tunnelling Centre, which is supplying the skills and labour needed to build the infrastructure of this state. So yes, I think there's a there's definitely a personal dimension to my visit today.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, absolutely. When you arrived there as a six-year-old kid, and now you're the Minister for Skills and Training wanting to, or needing to, deal with one of the most severe labour and skill shortages in the developed world. Let's be frank about it, our unemployment rates low, yes. But the skills shortage and the labour shortage is acute, isn't it?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: It is. And I think there's a number of reasons for that. I do think the previous government have- are certainly partly to blame in terms of investment skills, but no doubt the pandemic compounded the problem. I do think the design of JobKeeper and JobSeeker also meant that people left Australia. The people on visa holders were provided no support either under JobKeeper or JobSeeker, and that contributed to a massive loss of skills in certain sectors of the economy. So I think that was an unfortunate design fault of the previous scheme, that we supported in the main, but I think there were some deficiencies. And one of them was many of the visa holders left Australia and left us obviously in need of fixing that. So there's no doubt we have to restore the permanent skilled migration stream when we can. We need to target the real acute areas of skill shortages with visas as well. And in my area, we have to invest more effectively in areas in demand in the labour market to supply the skills needed. And that's a short, medium and long term goal of the Albanese Government.
KIERAN GILBERT: And one of the short term demands that you have is to rework the National Skills Agreement, the $12 billion agreement set to come into a - into force, pretty much as we speak. But you're delaying that.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yeah.
KIERAN GILBERT: What are your reasons for delaying that coming into force? And how soon do you want to deal with that?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, we're actually having to pause that process, because all of the other jurisdictions, that is all the states and territories, rejected the proposal put by the previous Federal Government, and for good reasons. So we need to re-examine that arrangement and seek to get consensus wherever possible. My aim will be to try and get all governments agreeing with our ideas about moving forward under the national agreement. And in the meantime, we have to make sure we maintain funding, because 1 July is very close, and we need to - so therefore need to provide some certainty in the vocational space. But we do need to bring about genuine, significant reform that will be in order to supply the skills we need in the labour market. And we need to get - well, if not unanimity, we need to get a general consensus around the agreement. Right now, Liberal and Labor state and territory governments were all united in their opposition to the Government, the previous government's proposals.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Australian Medical Association is calling for an urgent approach in terms of attracting health care workers. These shortages, we're talking about, it's not just building sites or hospitality. In the health care system, it is also a huge shortfall. Are you looking at skilled migration increases, at least in the short term, to try and plug some of these holes?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I’ll certainly leave the detail to Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles, who work in that space. But of course in the broad, the Federal Government is very well aware of the significant acute shortages in many sectors of our labour market and economy. Many sectors. As you say, not just construction. Healthcare, the care- care generally, aged care, child care, financial services, hospitality, tourism. So many sectors of our economy are in need of particular skills, and so obviously we need to work on that as a matter of priority. And in my area too, I’d like to see some changes to make sure that we’re matching up taxpayer investment in training, whether it be vocational or tertiary training in education, and supplying the labour market what it needs. And right now, that matching up isn't working as effectively as it should. So we need more engagement with industry, and that's why we'll be talking to employers and unions and training providers and state and territory governments about what mix we require to do better in this space.
KIERAN GILBERT: You mentioned Clare O'Neil there, the Minister for Home Affairs. She's - on another matter, she's heading to Sri Lanka as part of an effort to try and provide support in large part to stop boats leaving Sri Lanka in the midst of an economic crisis in that country. You faced a similar challenge when you were the minister when Labor was last in government. What's the key to success there?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, we've got a very good relationship with Sri Lanka and they've gone through some very difficult times recently, as we do know. But it's really important that those bilateral discussions happen between our government and theirs, that we really impress upon them that we don't want to see people placed in very dangerous, perilous situations by getting on unseaworthy vessels on the high seas, based on lies that have been presented to them by people smugglers and others. We understand that people are hurting, but we don't want people to think that there is some way in which they can arrive in Australia, that's not happening. And we’ve embraced the previous Government's policies in that regard. But we want to talk to the Government, I'm sure, about those matters and work through those issues with them. And I think it's a very good idea that Clare has had to engage very quickly with Sri Lanka to deal with this this matter.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you think it would also make sense to step up some financial and military support in that - on that front as well with this this country? As you say, there are good relations there. Is there room for - greater scope for that sort of support?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I'll leave that- I really will leave that to Minister O'Neil to talk to you and others about. She'll be briefed, no doubt by DFAT and her own department and others about the approach that might be taken. These are things that will be really for her to discuss more fully at a later date, I'm sure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Now finally, the United Australia Party has succeeded in getting at least one Senate candidate through, and that's the Senate candidate in Victoria. This - Ralph Babet is his name, elected to the Senate for the UAP. Of all the states and territories, it's the one area, despite the many millions of dollars Palmer spent, where he's been successful, does that reflect the fact that it's - Victoria went through tough lockdowns, one of the more difficult experiences through the pandemic?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I'm not sure that's right. Look, obviously, it seems to me if your name is Mirabella, you tend to lose elections. And I understand Senator Mirabella has lost this election. Now there's a variety of reasons, I haven't looked at the flows of preferences. I think if it was the case that that Senator was elected based on that - for that reason, then I don't think we would have seen the repudiation of the former treasurer in his seat, because he was famous in this state for attacking the state government who were putting in restrictions even when we didn't have a vaccination. And I think, in fact, one of the reasons why we no longer have Josh Frydenberg in the Federal Parliament is because he never stopped attacking the state government in those areas. So I think there's some political outcomes that actually contradicts the theory that the United Australia Party has managed to get the sixth spot up because of that disaffection with decisions made to restrict movement during a time of this state facing that pandemic. So I guess I have a different view to that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Brendan O'Connor, thank you for joining us today, the new Minister for Skills and Training. We'll talk to you soon.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Thanks very much, Kieran.