Release type: Transcript


Press Conference, Melbourne


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


Subjects: Jobs & Skills Summit; Skilled migration; Labour shortages; Jobs and Skills Australia; Timothy Weeks returns to Afghanistan.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Thanks very much for coming. It's really important that we have a successful Jobs and Skills Summit. We're bringing people together from business and unions, training providers, state and territory governments, civil society, to work out some of the structural problems, the significant challenges we face in dealing with a skills crisis in this country.
We know, because the previous government did not support temporary visa holders with either JobKeeper or JobSeeker, they fled the country. We also know the pandemic suspended global movement, slowed or stopped the movement of people around the world. And we also are aware that there are challenges when it comes to attracting people to Australia with certain skills. So, we need to invest more in Australian workers to have the skills that businesses need.
We also, of course, will rely upon temporary visa and permanent skilled migration paths. But it's never been one or the other. It's not a binary choice. It is an investment in our labour market, our Australian workforce, to develop the skills that are in demand. And that is complemented by of course, temporary and permanent skilled migration.
Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Thank you, Minister, can you confirm is the government considering lifting the annual migration cap up to 200,000?
O'CONNOR: Well, look, we're open to making sure we supply labour and skills in this country. We understand – in fact, according to the OECD, Australia has the second highest labour shortage in the developed world amongst OECD countries. It's for that reason we have to find whatever means possible to supply skills to our labour market, because increasing the skills in our labour market will increase productivity. And a productive workforce means lower goods and services, cheaper goods and services. And that's important for our society.
So when it comes to looking at the immigration threshold, we are examining where are the shortages. We have, of course, been a long believer, the Liberal Party and the Labor Party have had a partisan, sorry I should say have had a bipartisan view when it's come to the permanent skilled migration stream. So, a bipartisan view when it comes to skilled permanent migration. And we'll examine the numbers that we feel we need to have in order to grow the economy and provide opportunities for all Australians.
JOURNALIST: If you were to lift it then, would you also increase the number of departmental staff to process those visa applications? Because otherwise, what's the point if it just creates a backlog and you don't have more people coming in?
O'CONNOR: What people should understand is when we talk about increasing the permanent migration skilled stream, we're talking also about existing temporary visa applicants already in our labour market, but who have no security and no permanency when it comes to their status. They're not permanent residents. They're not citizens. So when we look at providing opportunities for people to be part of the permanent migration skilled stream, we mean two things: one, obviously allowing people to come into the country where there are acute skill shortages, and two, providing temporary visa holders a pathway to permanent residency, that gives them obviously an opportunity.
Now, what's been very clear my ministerial colleagues, Clare O'Neil and Andrew Giles, have made a commitment to unclog the application process. Under the previous government, we had almost a freezing of some applications. The application process was so slow that temporary visa holders could not get a pathway to permanent residency, and employers, as importantly, could not find the skills that they needed for the labour market.
So, I go back to what I said at the beginning, investment in the Australian workforce is our number one priority, but we also have to, obviously look at areas of acute demand and give opportunities for the temporary and permanent skilled migration paths.
JOURNALIST: Minister, Rob here from Channel Seven. There are also reports today that you're considering changing the rules around the level of I guess how you how you recognise someone's qualifications from overseas, perhaps speeding that up so people don't have to spend years training, once they get to Australia. Is that the case? And if it is the case, how can you be assured that Australian standards and the level of professionalism will be maintained?
O'CONNOR: Well, I can say bluntly to you that is not the case. We're not looking at reducing standards, what we are looking at is making sure we measure properly the skills, competencies, of people that come into the country. So, we don't want people to undertake training where they've already got, they've already got a sufficient level, a satisfactory standard of skills or knowledge. But we want to have a better way of assessing that capacity and actually recognising prior learning both in the existing labour market, and amongst those overseas, provided the standards are maintained.
We are not going to, for example, diminish the skills and responsibilities, and the knowledge and skills required in aged care. We will not diminish the standards. But we are very, very conscious of the fact that we have to supply skilled labour. So we will do everything we can to supply the aged care workers needed for that sector. But we need to maintain standards, because in the care sector, we are not going to sacrifice the standards of care, we need to do everything we can to maintain those standards to look after older Australians. And that's what we'll be looking to do.
JOURNALIST: Minister, it's Tom from the ABC, I appreciate there are plenty of conversations to be had around the size and shape of the permanent migration intake. But do you think it's now a certainty that that migration intake will change in the October budget both in size and in shape?
O'CONNOR: Well, I think partly, Tom, we're looking at where the acute shortages are. It's not just quantum, it's where we identify skill shortages and being more effective at supplying, if you like supplying the skills required in areas of demand. So I think it's fairer to say we're open to looking at these issues, but we have made no decision about the threshold questions when it comes to such immigration levels. But we do need to make sure this: that we invest in training and skills to provide the skills our employers, our businesses need, our economy needs.
We're also needing to invest in skills, so the Australian workforce, have the skills that are in demand that gives them a more secure job. And, of course, we are looking at a combination of investment in skills in our existing labour market and making sure we have the right skill set in the migration skilled streams.
As for the threshold that will be subject to I’m sure much conversation and debate and indeed, ultimately a decision by government to consider what is in the best interests of the country. And what is the in the best interests of our workforce, our employers, our economy, and the consumers.
We want to make sure that goods and services, there's downward pressure on goods and services, prices, so people who are struggling with cost of living pressures can live a little easier. So there's a combination of things we're doing and that the Jobs and Skills Summit, this will be subject to debate. And it should be an open conversation, a national discussion about dealing with structural challenges, including investing in skills in our labour market, but also the right mix of skilled migration into this country.
JOURNALIST: Minister Krishani here from SBS? Can I just ask, obviously, to bring more people in he will cost more money. Having spoken to the Treasurer about what sort of allocation you could get within the budget, seeing that it's already, as he says heaving with debt.
O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, that's not exactly how central agencies finance departments see the cost and benefits when it comes to skilled migration.
In fact, when it comes to skilled migration, because of their contribution to the economy, and contribution to our society, generally, it is generally the view that in the skilled pathways that adds economic value and ultimately adds revenue to the Australian economy. So if you like, there are of course costs with immigration, but the net, the net result of an intake of skilled migrants is an economic benefit, not an economic cost.
JOURNALIST: So these figures minister that have been floating around recently that you're considering lifting the migration cap by around 30, or 40,000? Is that in the right ballpark? Is that something you are looking at?
O’CONNOR: Well, as I say, we'll examine what we need to do, let's just step back a bit. Remember that there was a reduction in the permanent skilled stream in recent years, there's, at the moment a very significant skill shortage, which we need to make sure by providing opportunities for Australians to get into those areas that are in demand now. So let's not let's not forget that we have people still seeking work, who can't find work, and we need to provide pathways and the skill set they need to do that.
As for immigration thresholds, there is no decision by government, we are considering our options, we're going to have a very important debate and discussion at the Jobs and Skills summit in a few weeks. And after which, of course, the government will make clear its position - getting the advice of our departments and stakeholders, we'll make that decision.
But ultimately, it will never be a binary choice by this government. We want to invest in the Australian workforce, we want to provide Australians who are looking for work the right skills, so they can enter the labour market and supplement that with the skilled migration stream.
It's a combination of things we need. Under the previous government, we saw a failure to support temporary visas, so they left the country. We saw a failure of investing in areas of skills for the existing workforce, and that's why the shortage is acute. And frankly, they also failed to process the applications of people in the country that wanted to go from temporary to permanent. So there's a lot of things that we need to deal with here. But we're working with business, we're working with unions, we're working with state and territory, governments and others to make sure we get this right.
It is a priority of the Albanese Labor government, that we put this up as the number one priority. The first piece of legislation introduced into the parliament this term was setting up Jobs and Skills Australia to advise government. This is a priority of the government. We're going to work with people, we're going to bring people together and find the solutions collectively. That's the way it should occur. That's the way it will occur. And I'm looking forward to the Jobs and Skills Summit.
JOURNALIST: Just quickly, Minister, experts are saying wouldn't it be better rather than simply lifting the immigration cap Wouldn't it be better to target those professions, nursing teaching that sort of thing overseas, which we are struggling to fill here?
O’CONNOR: Well, I just said to you, we have not made a decision with respect to the threshold intake. I have also said to you, if you listen to the answers of earlier questions, that we would be looking to make sure we supply the skills in areas of acute shortage.
So I agree with your question to this extent, we have to be clever about focusing on areas that are in demand now. And if it can't be dealt with by the existing workforce, of course, we need to have that supply from an immigration skilled pathway.
And you're right, we're going to focus on those areas where there are acute shortages. As for the threshold number that is not a matter that has been determined by the government. We're going to have those conversations with businesses and with unions and training providers and state and territory governments and others, and then the government will make a decision in relation to all of these issues.
JOURNALIST: Minister just a question somewhat outside of your portfolio, apologies. But that's sometimes happens when you stand up on a weekend. Australian Timothy weeks has was freed up after being held captive by the Taliban a few years ago. He's very recently returned to Afghanistan and is sort of welcomes there'll be Taliban role in that country. From the Australian government's perspective, is it is it disappointing to see Mr. Weeks, returned to Afghanistan in such a manner?
O’CONNOR: Well, it's certainly disappointing for an Australian citizen to be supporting a regime that is undemocratic and brutal towards its own citizens. And so that is a very disappointing matter. Yes.
Thanks very much.