Release type: Transcript


Press conference - Newcastle - 26 April


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


SHARON CLAYDON, MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: Good morning, and thank you so much for joining us today. Before I say anything, I want to acknowledge Country, the Awabakal Peoples on whose land we’re gathered today, and acknowledge the millennium of knowledge and wisdom that we all get to benefit from. Of course, we’re all going to be faced with a very important question later on this year. No secret – I will be very actively campaigning for a yes vote in the referendum, and I hope you’ll all be joining me. By all means, ask as many questions you’d like about that on any occasion, too.

But today the focus here is really on skills. I am just stoked to be joined by not only two really good friends and a fellow Novacastrian in our new Minister for New South Wales, but my colleague Brendan O’Connor, who has long worked in this area of skills. You probably couldn’t get a more experienced minister, and somebody who is no stranger to this region, having visited Newcastle on many, many occasions. We’ve had a long period in Opposition, of course, where we had a lot of time to think about how regions like Newcastle and the Hunter were going to be able to, you know, really face up to some of the biggest challenges that we’ve had to really – carbon-intensive regions like ours undergoing dramatic change need really very, very well thought-out plans around skills and new job opportunities.

They are issues that both my federal colleague Brendan O’Connor and my state colleague Tim Crakanthorp are thinking very deeply about. I will hand across to them to talk about some of the detail, but I would like to just say I have been inundated with calls and literally people just bailing me up in the street telling me how they’ve gone back to TAFE this year. And that’s exactly what we want to hear because – and many of those have been women moving into re-training themselves into areas that they think are going to be extremely useful for them about creating more secure jobs, better paid jobs and jobs of the future.

So whilst we’re very focused on many of the male-dominated industries and, you know, we’ve got a lot of men who we need to sort of think about a range of other skills that they might want to acquire over a life, but we’ve got a lot of women who are taking up this opportunity. And why wouldn’t when you are saving $8-10,000 now because of the assistance being provided by the Commonwealth and State Governments now.

So we are delighted to see enrolments, you know, go through the roof. That’s exactly what we want to see. Education is a pathway for change. And it’s a pathway out of poverty, and we know that well-paid jobs are really what everybody wants – secure, well-paid jobs. That’s what a Labor government is very focused on, and I’m going to hand across to my colleague Brendan O’Connor to take you through some of the details of today’s announcement. Thank you very much.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Well, thank you, Sharon. It’s great to be in Newcastle and this fantastic region of Australia. And as Sharon said, there is a real need to invest in skills, not only here but across the nation. And for that reason the Albanese government convened a Jobs and Skills Summit last year bringing together industry, employers and unions, universities and the VET sector, state and territory governments in order for us to respond to those challenges.

And I’m very happy to be with my counterpart the Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education Tim Crakanthorp, not just a member for Newcastle like Sharon, but a minister who shares my concerns and my goals in ensuring that we deliver skills to the economy. And this is an economy that’s, firstly, short of skills across the economy. Wherever you look in the labour market, whether it’s the traditional trades, whether it’s professions, whether it is certain industries, industries in transition like energy, we have a massive task to supply those skills that are in need. 9 out of every 10 jobs created in the future will require either a degree from university or qualification from the VET sector – 9 out of every 10 new jobs. And that’s why it’s absolutely vital that we get this right.

In Newcastle you have a very diversified economy. You are – it’s an example of what can be done to transition an older, more singular economy into a diverse one, and you are an exemplar to other parts of the country I think. But there is still more to be done, and, of course, you confront very significant challenges in the transition of energy, for example.

But it’s not just energy; we have shortages, as I say, across the board, and that’s why in convening the Jobs and Skills Summit the first announcement was to introduce 180,000 fee-free TAFE and VET places for 2023. That's an additional investment, an additional amount of places for this year. And that was absolutely vital. And what we have done is invest in areas of emerging and existing demand so that for students and workers that are being skilled or reskilled or upskilled it means that they can get work that is more secure, better paid and with a better career progression because their skills are in demand. For businesses, industries, alike, it’s for them to have the pipeline of skills that they need for their business or for the industry. And that’s absolutely vital.

And for the country, if we don’t have a skilled and knowledgeable labour market economy, we cannot compete in this world. A globalised, knowledge-based economy competing each and every day, and it really does mean that we need a more skilled and knowledgeable labour market. That also brings about efficiencies and productivity improvements which means downward pressure on prices. It means for a more successful country, one with a better quality of life. It has all of those manifestations. So when you talk about fee-free TAFE, it has some many beneficial effects. And for that reason we want to make sure we get it right.

Now, Karl and Andrew are here, apprentices, local apprentices, working in the energy sector, learning skills that are in demand and will be in demand into the future. Now, we know that there are some workers who, of course, have been working in the energy sector that understand that there are very significant changes. And I’m later today meeting with representatives of workers of the Hunter region to talk to them about those things.

The Albanese government, working with the New South Wales government and others, want to make sure that we manage the transition in this region, in this city as well as we possibly can. And that means partnering with industry, working with TAFE, working with the University of Newcastle, working with industry to ensure that we do this well. Working with the unions that represent those workers and the companies that need some stewardship and partnership with government. We want to be involved in all of those things.

But today I just wanted to finish where we started – and that’s the investment in Fee Free TAFE. As Sharon said, it’s meant for many workers or many students saving thousands of dollars. In fact, many have told me that they would not be enrolling in these areas of demand if it were not for the fact that they are getting support from the government, from the taxpayer effectively. But the return that they provide in acquiring those skills to this community is very significant. And, in fact, I think there’s more significance and more benefit that comes from their acquisition of skills in demand than what’s been provided to them. But they need that support, and I’m happy to say the Albanese Government, along with state and territory governments, has invested in that area for those purposes.

I’d also want to finally say that we are negotiating a National Skills Agreement with the states and territories. I am very happy to see Tim in his role as minister, and I’m happy to see the election of a Labor government in New South Wales, who is a very strong supporter of VET and, in particular, TAFE. And we’ll be working through those negotiations with eight other governments to provide certainty for the sector over the next five years commencing January 1 next year. That’s really important. It’s important for those students to have a VET sector built fit for purpose. It’s important for employers and industry to know that the skills that the people are acquiring in the VET sector are the ones that they need. And it’s critical for those students to acquire skills so they can have good jobs, secure work, career progression and a good quality of life.

So it’s great to be here. It’s wonderful to be in this magnificent city, which has itself a magnificent history of success in dealing with change. And I look forward to working with this community, working with Sharon as the federal member, working with Tim as a minister and also a local member in order to really ensure that we bring about this change in a way that produces success but looks after people along the way. Happy to take any questions after Tim.

TIM CRAKANTHORP, NSW MINISTER FOR SKILLS, TAFE AND TERTIARY EDUCATION: Thank you, Brendan. And it really is wonderful to welcome Minister O’Connor here today, our first press conference with the both of us, both ministers from state and federal. Wonderful to welcome him here to magnificent Awabakal Country and the mighty Tighes Hill TAFE.

A Minns Labor government got elected with having TAFE at the heart of our vocational education system. TAFE was absolutely decimated under the former state government. We saw enrolments plummet. We saw a third of the workforce sacked. We saw TAFE campuses being sold off. That’s why I’m going to work very closely with Minister O’Connor and the elected Albanese Government to put a focus back on to TAFE, to rebuild TAFE.

And the free TAFE courses are a very big part of that. They’ve been very, very successful in New South Wales. We’ve seen a massive take-up. We’ve seen half the allocation go in the first quarter, and I can truly understand that given the need for reskilling in New South Wales but particularly in the Hunter where we have a whole lot of issues that we need to address around transitioning. And we’re seeing that every day here in a wonderful take-up of those courses.

So it’s very exciting to be here. It’s very exciting to be here with Sharon, to be with the minister, to have a very successful program coming through from the federal government and the full support of New South Wales TAFE. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Tim, the 65,000 number, how much has the total enrolment increased? Does that 65,000 mean is that an extra 65,000 on what you would have otherwise got, or is that 65,000, would they have been at TAFE anyway but paying fees?

CRAKANTHORP: Well, they certainly wouldn’t have been at TAFE anyway. As you’ve heard from both Sharon and Brendan, they’ve been approached by people who’ve indicated they wouldn’t be at TAFE unless it was for these free courses in these particular areas. So that take-up I would say is – well, a lot of them are additional people coming into the system absolutely. And if you just look at the breakdown of those particular courses. You’ll see that a lot of them are future industry focused, which for the Hunter, you know, we’d probably have quite a lot of take-up in those particular courses. And as you can see from our apprentices here today, they are future-focused in their training, and that’s what we want here in Newcastle, the Hunter and the whole state.

JOURNALIST: So do you actually have a figure on how much TAFE enrolments have increased this year?

CRAKANTHORP: We can get you more detail on enrolment figures if you’d like them, Michael.

JOURNALIST: And what happens after this year? This is a 12-month agreement? What happens after that?

O’CONNOR: Just to add to the answer by Tim, Tim’s absolutely right – it’s an additional enrolments; 65,000 of the 120,000 additional fee-free places for 2023. That was struck late last year, that we got agreements with all states and territories after the summit in September, and that is – they are additional places. An extra 1 billion – $1.05 billion in extra funding for the VET sector arising out of that agreement first by the national cabinet then with eight separate agreements with states and territories.

In New South Wales there was 120,000 fee-free places, and obviously a huge proportion of those have led to – are now filled, which is fantastic, particularly because they’re in areas of demand.

As for your last – your next question about the future?

JOURNALIST: Yeah, what happens after the first 12 months?

O’CONNOR: Yeah, that’s what I was alluding to. Of course the federal government is very keen to see ongoing investment in TAFE and the VET sector. We have extra allocation of investment to be made. It is subject to agreement with state and territory governments. But I believe there’s a very strong sense of collaboration amongst state and territory governments with the Commonwealth, particularly in relation to investing. And we’re looking at investing in fee-free places beyond the 180,000. These negotiations are going on. They’re important negotiations because we’re talking about improving the VET sector so it can serve the students, serve industry and serve this country. And it has to work efficiently. It has to work in a way that is delivering to those students, to those businesses and to this country.

So those discussions will happen over the course of the next four to five months. Hopefully we’ll have announcement prior to – probably in the last quarter of the year for commencements January 1, 2024. That would set then some certainty for the next five years, so from 2024 onwards. And that’s what also businesses need and students need, and so, too, the RTOs. The TAFEs, the VET providers need a greater level of certainty as to the investment. So that’s what we’re looking towards, and we’re confident we’ll find agreement with all other eight governments, including New South Wales, who have a very strong commitment towards the VET sector and TAFE in particular.

JOURNALIST: What’s your maximum on this program in terms of places that you’ll consider? Will it get to, you know, in a point in a couple of years’ time if this grows in popularity more that there may be people who are getting qualification after qualification for free and the government might say, you know, that’s enough?

O’CONNOR: Yeah, look, so we’re talking about areas of demand, firstly. Our focus has been – look, there’s generic funding to the VET sector that is ongoing by the state and territory governments and by the federal government. But this is additional investment in areas of demand so that people who are acquiring skills have a greater opportunity for employment.

Now the problem is one of the reasons why you see some churn, it’s not a bad thing to learn new skills and also there’s nothing wrong with going to other areas of the labour market, finding a new path to employment. That’s a good thing. I was talking to a nurse who was in a cyber tech course only recently and she wanted to move. And that’s understandable. People have that choice. But we want people to focus on areas which will mean meaningful jobs for them.

And one of the reasons why there’s been a bit of a churn is that the jobs have not been there after the acquisition of skills. And perhaps, too, that some of the courses were not sufficient to make a person particularly employable, like, there was not demand for the areas of the skill areas they've acquired. So I think it’s about ensuring that, yes, people can make their own choices, but we are encouraging people to enter or enrol in courses which – where the skills are in demand so that they are very capable of finding employment. And that’s the focus.

JOURNALIST: Have we waited a bit too late, though, to train people in renewables? You know, we’re talking this week obviously about a coal-fired power station in our region closing down. Are we kind of racing to catch up a bit?

O’CONNOR: I think we are racing to catch up after a decade of delay and denial, at least at the federal level. I think that because – if you have climate change sceptics at best, or deniers, then how can you really passionately fully understand the need to transition your economy to reduce carbon emissions? If you have naysayers in government who don’t lead, then of course you fall behind. So should this investment – some of this investment been done years ago? Yes is the answer to that question. But we can’t delay it any longer. And there’s a sense of urgency that we get this right and move as quickly as possible to catch up with the rest of the world. And that’s what we’re looking to do, and we’re moving very fast. And, you know, there’s no day in government that the federal government is not thinking about how do we continue to work these matters through. And I’m very keen to establish that relationship with Tim as we go forward in this really important area of public policy.

JOURNALIST: Tim, one of these critical sectors that’s been identified is renewable energy, and particularly engineering for that sector. The previous state government announced in ’21-22 a diploma of renewable energy engineering, and it was only offered here in Newcastle and in Ultimo, it wasn’t offered in places like Muswellbrook, which, you know, in the current state of things might make sense to do that. Is there plans to expand these sort of courses to coal mining regions like Muswellbrook, like the central west, to make it a little bit more available?

CRAKANTHORP: Yeah, what we’re going to do is do a full review of TAFE, of the courses offered, where they’re offered, the numbers, so we can best allocate resources to the needs of particular communities. I mean, we saw that on the north coast where, you know, you couldn’t do a bricklaying course between Newcastle and the Queensland border and we’ve had floods and bushfires. We saw it down in Bega where you’ve got a new trade centre and people are still travelling to Goulburn and Wollongong to do trades. Ludicrous resourcing that isn’t meeting the needs.

So, in answer to your question: yes, we’ll be looking very intensely at what courses are offered, where they’re offered. And that will tie in with that manufacturing Centre of Excellence as well that we’re looking to have here in the Hunter. That will be very forward-looking in terms of technologies and future manufacturing as well.

JOURNALIST: Will that centre be more on the Newcastle side of the Hunter or more the Upper Hunter side of the Hunter, because there’s a big gap in the middle?

CRAKANTHORP: Yeah, well, look, I’m Minister for the Hunter, so I’ll be look at the whole Hunter. And I’m sure everyone wants that particular facility in their little patch, but we’ll see where the need meets and the infrastructure best suits that.

JOURNALIST: The Business Council of Australia boss, Jennifer Westacott, was in Newcastle last week. She was talking about the need for what she termed as microcredentials for people who are now working in existing mining and power generation. I don’t know if that’s a TAFE thing or whether that sits separate to that.

O’CONNOR: It’s not just a TAFE thing.

JOURNALIST: Is that something that the government’s thinking about?

O’CONNOR: Look, it’s amazing you ask someone the definition of micro credentials, and everyone has a different answer, right? So, but just in principle, I support the need to find a way to measure people’s skills and accredit them through some other way other than university degrees and VET qualifications. You need to look after people who might enter a business rather than a TAFE or a university, too. You need to look after them in terms of their – measuring their skills and their competencies providing it doesn’t subvert the integrity of degrees or courses or apprenticeships.

So I think – and I’m sure Jennifer’s view is the same – that she wouldn’t want to see a subversion of the maintenance of quality in order to have micro credentials. And I’m a supporter of micro credentials provided those two caveats are met. And I do believe most people have that view, and I’ve wanted to assure people who were concerned that it was an agenda to undermine quality. If that’s the case, well, I won’t be accepting it. We will be entertaining it provided that we maintain that standard.

JOURNALIST: Is that something that can happen within the TAFE framework or –

O’CONNOR: Well, certainly negotiations, the national skills agreement will have a part of that. Jason Clare’s accord is looking at, of course, the university sector, and I know that will be discussed in that forum. And Jason and I speak, our departments talk as well, if you like, because we have to move together on all of these things. And, you know, we’ll be doing that. We’ll be talking with state and territory governments, with universities and the VET sector and, you know, making sure we get it right. But it is important reform.

JOURNALIST: Tim, what’s the timetable for the Centres of Excellence to start? Are we going to see development this year or next year?

CRAKANTHORP: Well, we're going to do our review of all TAFEs, of all the courses required, meeting the needs of the particular communities. We've ascertained that we need that sort of manufacturing Centre of Excellence here in Newcastle on the Hunter. We need one down in Illawarra and Western Sydney as well. So, once we've done a little bit more work, we've only just got into government, we'll see exactly how we're going to do it and where we're going to do it and we'll get started. But we've already started discussions, certainly with the department on that, so kicking it off and getting moving on our election commitments.

CLAYDON: I'll take your question. I do want to just, given that we are joined by the Vice Chancellor and Pro Vice Chancellors from the university, and we will be visiting a project that is the result of a tremendous partnership between TAFE and the University here, to say that those linkages are really critical. And so, when Brendan O'Connor is talking with Jason Clare that's because we do understand the connections between vocational - tertiary education is both TAFE and university. And we're extraordinarily lucky in this region to have a university that's very proactive in reaching out to both industry and to other tertiary education institutions, making sure that those partnerships are well supported and that there's some seamless transitions for people moving in and across is really important. It's very clunky and difficult at the moment and we're trying to address those issues. So, it's great having both the university and TAFE together today for that reason. Sorry.

JOURNALIST: I was just going to ask you about the Voice.

CLAYDON: The Voice, yep.

JOURNALIST: Have you had talks with the Awabakal and Worimi about the Voice and what their views are, what they would like to see?

CLAYDON: Yeah, I have held four public forums in Newcastle already around the Voice and engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our communities, not just those attached to organisations, community based, but to each and everyone. I mean, it's no surprise that there will be some varying opinions around the shape and the work of the Voice, but I am very, very confident that there is absolute unity that we cannot do more of the same.

There is nobody advocating that the kind of relationship that exists now between First Nations people and structures of government are adequate enough to deal with all of the issues. All of the indicators are moving in the wrong direction. The trajectory is going backwards, notwithstanding good intentions, people's efforts, programmes being run. So, it's clear that the status quo is not an option. And what is on the table is a result of very, very lengthy conversations and negotiations spanning more than a decade in Australia. I personally have been involved in some of these discussions for more than 30 years, so I am acutely aware that this is a really important time for the Australian nation. And the question is, are we mature enough to confront, squarely our history, to understand that, and then to do something about establishing a fair and just relationship with First Nations people in Australia? I think we are, and that's what I'll be campaigning on.

JOURNALIST: Yourself and other Hunter and Labor MPs have some neighbours from the National Party, Member for New England, Member for Lyne. Are you prepared as a group to discuss with them the topic of the Voice and see, while it's unlikely that they would split from their party stance, potentially that being an option?

CLAYDON: Well, I also sit on a committee now, looking at the Voice referendum and the question before us and taking evidence all around the country. This Friday, I'll be in Perth taking evidence. I sit on a committee with somebody that used to be a member of the National Party, actually, Andrew Gee, who now sits on the crossbench and is on the Joint Select Committee - Parliamentary Committee, examining this.

So, I am up for conversations with anybody that is thinking and is genuinely coming to this question with good intent. And there are perfectly legitimate questions that people have and happy to be discussing those at any time. I have to say, sometimes there is a feeling that questions and obstacles are just bowled up and each and every time you address them, a new one emerges. That is a little disingenuous, I find. And there are people who have genuine, legitimate questions and there are those who are just determined to maintain a very fixed position that they have and have no intention of moving from.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned about the directions of polling numbers?

CLAYDON: Look, I think that this referendum will be like none other in Australia. I think that this is the - it's been a very long time since we've had a successful referendum. We've never had a referendum in Australia, where platforms like social media have played a role. It's a very unknown quantity. I don't pretend for one moment that this is easy. History would suggest otherwise. But I have every confidence in the Australian people to make the right call on this one. Thank you. Thanks, everyone. We've got to go and do some serious work at TAFE, so thanks for gathering with us this morning.