Subjects: Scott Morrison’s secret Ministerial portfolios; Jobs & Skills Summit; Skilled migration; Labour shortages.
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me in the Canberra studio is Job and Skills Minister Brendan O'Connor. I'll get to the Skills and Jobs Summit in a moment because there's a lot to talk about. We're only a few weeks away from that. But further to the controversy around the former government's approach and the Prime Minister, at the time, Scott Morrison's approach to taking on other ministerial portfolios, where does this end up in your view?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Well, it's really for the former Prime Minister to explain himself. It's fundamentally in breach of the Westminster system and ministerial responsibility. And he has to explain his actions. And of course, the government will be seeking advice on the implications that may arise as a result of the decisions that the former Prime Minister took.
GILBERT: Well, he sought to explain it via a lengthy statement on Facebook, he talked about the devastating impacts of COVID-19, the associated stress the government's overriding objective to save lives and livelihoods. And to achieve that he says we needed continuity, robust arrangements to deal with the unexpected. Basically, the whole response is written in the context of COVID being an unprecedented crisis. What do you say to that?
O'CONNOR: Well, firstly, even if there was a need to do anything, you would have to do it publicly. If you were to make changes to the machinery of government and to cabinet, you have an obligation to tell the Australian people what decisions you are making. So he didn't do that. Not only did he not disclose them to the Australian public, he didn't disclose them to colleagues, some of whom shared the authority of those portfolios with the Prime Minister. So it is a very odd act. A shameful act, frankly, by the former Prime Minister, fundamentally in breach of the Westminster system, as I say, and he really has to account for it. And as for using the pandemic as an excuse? Well, obviously some of these decisions were made subsequent to most of the implications that we were dealing with as a result of the pandemic. So that doesn't explain that anyway.
GILBERT: Well, the gas question, that Pip 11 decision, was done explicitly just for that project, or to overrule his Minister of the day. That was pretty much confirmed by the former Prime Minister in his statement. The former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack when I spoke to him earlier, said that's not relevant, is it to that pandemic scenario?
O'CONNOR: I don't think so. And the current Opposition has to make its position clear, the Opposition Leader has to be clear as to his view of that conduct. We understand that the Shadow Minister, Karen Andrews has called for his resignation. So there's not even one view within the Opposition. But it clearly has shocked many people, including the Government, that this happened under the last Parliamentary term, by the then Prime Minister, and he really has to present himself and explain his actions. I don't think the statement made by the Prime Minister goes in any way to justifying the conduct.
GILBERT: Well, you serve in the Cabinet, could you see a scenario where it might be likely or possible that the Leader, the Prime Minister, would be able to take the roles of one of their counterparts without them knowing?
O'CONNOR: No, I don't believe it's in any way justifiable.
GILBERT: Even if it's dormant as Scott Morrison basically says in that statement?
O'CONNOR: Well, as I say, we'll seek further advice, no doubt, but I don't think it's justifiable that the Australian people and indeed Cabinet colleagues were not aware of these decisions to take the authority of certain Ministerial roles. I think it was entirely a shameful act and contrary to the principles of the Westminster system,
GILBERT: I know you're turning your attention to the Jobs and Skills Summit just a couple of weeks away. What have you been doing in preparation for that in terms of consulting industry, employer and employee groups?
O'CONNOR: Well, we've been very busy, Kieran. Ministerial colleagues and I have been engaging with employers and sectors of the economy and unions and training providers, universities, to really speak to them about dealing with the labour market and our economy. We've inherited a huge public debt. We have acute skill shortages in sectors across the economy, whether you talk about aged care, nurses, doctors, advanced manufacturing, the tech industry, hospitality.
GILBERT: It's everywhere.
O'CONNOR: It really is everywhere.
GILBERT: So we have to boost the skilled migration, surely.
O'CONNOR: We need to do a number of things and I've said this from the beginning. There's no binary choice here. And in fact, in relation to some of the skills there's a very competitive global market for some of the skills. So yes, we do need to obviously look at the proper restoration of the temporary and permanent skill migration pathways to our labour market. But we also have to do a much better job in investing in our own workforce in areas of demand and future demand. And that's why we're creating the Jobs and Skills Australia body to advise Government in a more effective way about where we should be investing to ensure that we have the workforce that will respond to the demands in the economy today and beyond today.
GILBERT: So, what should be the new cap on skilled migration?
O'CONNOR: Look, that will be a decision of Government and we're obviously looking to supply the skills and labour required. The OECD has said that Australia is suffering the second highest labour shortage in the developed world. So, we've got a huge job to attend to this. Now, partly, that was the pandemic, but it was also the failure of the previous Government to support those on temporary visas, without providing any support JobKeeper or JobSeeker support, they left the country. So that compounded the shortages and there's been a lack of matching the investment in skills and the areas of demand. So, there's been years of neglect, we need to do much better and matching the skills investment where there are demands in the economy, to help businesses, to help workers having the skills needed. I mean, if you get the skills in demand, you're going to have a more secure job. And also of course, consumers win because you have a modern economy, it's more productive. That means downward pressure on goods and services.
GILBERT: And should you follow the opposition's proposal as well, in terms of allowing those on the pension and so on to work more?
O'CONNOR: Well, we'll look at that. There is currently, there's an area which doesn't affect the pension, I think it's, reasonably generous, but we should we be looking at whether we need to increase that. I know the Treasurer is looking at that issue, as is Amanda Rishworth, and other colleagues. So, we'll have an open mind to all of these issues, we do want to have a situation where people who've been locked out of the labour market can find their way back into the labour market, we've got low unemployment, that means we have an opportunity for many people who've been locked out. If we can provide the skills and support, they need, they can actually find opportunities in the labour market. So, we should be doing that as well as restoring the skilled migration pathway and investing in TAFE and that sector and universities.
GILBERT: Would you like your new jobs and skills agency to make those connections? Where say there's an area of high youth unemployment that you connect those potential workers into care sector jobs, where there are huge vacancies, as you alluded to earlier?
O'CONNOR: Well, we need to firstly identify more precisely the areas of demand, some are obvious. We of course, we need to attract and retain people in areas where there are shortages. There's an aged care wage case before the Fair Work Commission. That might provide an opportunity because the sector can actually say conditions and wages are improving. That might retain staff and attract new staff, and of course, that would be a very good thing.
GILBERT: Skills Minister Brendan O'Connor, thanks for your time, appreciate it. We'll talk to you in the lead up to that summit first week of September.
O'CONNOR: Yeah, absolutely Kieran, thank you.