Release type: Transcript


Transcript - 360 with Katie Woolf, Mix 104.9


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


Topics: Literacy and Numeracy Rates, Rangers Program, Charles Darwin University Roundtable.
KATIE WOOLF: The Federal Government is set to inject $436 million across the nation into improving education and employment outcomes for Australians. Now, while in Darwin, the Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O'Connor, announced a specific indigenous stream to the government’s Skills for Education and Employment – the Foundation Skills program – to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Well, for First Nations Aussies, but we also know that this is actually a concern that's right across the board. The Minister joins me in the studio right now. Good morning to you.


WOOLF: Great to have you back in Darwin.

O’CONNOR: Cheers. Good to be here.

WOOLF: Always good to be here. Now, tell me a little bit more about why this $436 million is needed.

O’CONNOR: Well, I was surprised, to tell you the truth, when I was briefed on the extent to which we have problems with literacy, numeracy and digital literacy. Across the country one in five Australian adults have difficulties reading and writing and adding up to be as blunt as that – by varying degrees. What we need to do is lift that level of capacity, because it’s not just for work; it’s for living. You can’t really get through life without having the most basic of skills. And given the economy is changing so rapidly and jobs are changing too, if you don’t have those skills, you can’t learn extra skills. So, we are investing more money.

But again just to your point in your introduction, when it comes to First Nations Australians, you see a doubling of that. So, rather than one in five, it’s two in five. In remote areas it can be up to three or more in five people have these issues. So, we are looking to, firstly, invest more, remove the eligibility restrictions so that people who are looking to access those programs can do so. In the case of First Nations Indigenous communities, we want them to be more involved because what we found is – we’ve got a pilot in Tennant Creek. I was there in October last year. What we found is if you involve the local community, particularly if they’re participants and teachers, you see much better outcomes of the participants of those programs. And success begets success. Once you see people coming out with these skills, it’s amazing how others wanted to actually enter into those programs.

WOOLF: Yeah, well, you can’t be what you can’t see, right? You’ve got to be able to see those different people being able to do different things and gain those skills.

O’CONNOR: Exactly.

WOOLF: Tell me, firstly, so with the $436 million, is that across the board or is that just in Indigenous communities?

O’CONNOR: That’s across the board. But there’s one other thing I should mention. I was with Malarndirri McCarthy and Luke Gosling yesterday, but also Paul Kirby. He’s the Territory Minister here, and he and other State and Territory Ministers are negotiating with me a National Skills Agreement for the next five years. That will also involve an extra investment in foundation skills and an extra investment in Indigenous skills, because what we know is, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, when it comes to jobs, when it comes to skills, is too large. It shouldn’t be. There shouldn’t be that gap.

WOOLF: And also I guess what we see sometimes is that there might be different programs and there might be different educational courses that people can take, but then there’s not opportunities for people who want to live on community, so is there some work in that way as well?

O’CONNOR: There is and look, you know, we were talking. One of the participants of the roundtable we had at Charles Darwin University yesterday talked to us about the Rangers program, and that’s been a very successful program across the country and in the Territory, a good example of what can work where you can be both in country and you can actually live in those two worlds and be really productive and critical for the environment, for security and so many other things. But one of the problems is that there’s no pre-programs for foundation skills for people to enter the Rangers program and so they find themselves with really enthusiastic participants but sometimes some of them have those deficiencies. One of the problems with Government, I think, is if it doesn’t link up its programs, they don’t connect; therefore, they don’t ultimately lead to good outcomes.

WOOLF: That is right.

O’CONNOR: So, I was talking to the Rangers program participant about how we can be looking at pre-programs so that people can equip themselves with literacy and numeracy so when they then enter the Rangers program, they can learn the rest of it. And it’s that joining up of commitment, whether it’s industry or Government, it’s joining things up so they work. It’s the same about acquiring skills. If people can see the opportunity of a job, their attitude to learning changes dramatically. If they love something and they see they need to get these skills to get to that point – 

WOOLF: To get there.

O’CONNOR: – once they have that line of sight of what they want and they know what they need to do to get there, it changes their attitude to learning. And I think we need to be much more strategic and much more planned about the way we connect programs and work with employers.

WOOLF: Now, who’s going to be sort of overseeing the way in which this money is delivered and the way in which these streams are delivered?

O’CONNOR: We’re realising through the pilot program at Tennant Creek and other places around Australia, that if we involve local communities right from the beginning and they are also participants and teachers in the program, then we’re going to get better outcomes. What we’re seeking from communities is for, in the case of the Indigenous programs, we’re looking at them joining up with RTOs, registered training organisations, like TAFE, and putting in a bid for investments. So, what we want to see is a plan as to how they would go about creating the program, who would be their partners in that. And the department, my department, would be involved in providing support on the basis of how well planned that bid is. There will be grants. We will be issuing soon information about how those grants can be applied for. We’d expect collaboration with the community organisation, an RTO and others, so that you really understand that there’s expertise involved.

But again, I can’t emphasise how important it is, Katie, for the local community to be involved, rather than just a complete top-down thing, which doesn’t work unless there’s engagement and genuine consultation.

WOOLF: Yep. Will there be some KPIs that do need to be met?

O’CONNOR: Absolutely.

WOOLF: Because, like, at different times we hear of huge amounts of Federal money coming into the Northern Territory and sometimes it seems like the money comes in and there isn’t the outcomes that people expect to see.

O’CONNOR: Ultimately, the KPIs have to be outcomes in employment. The whole point of acquiring skills is for people to improve their employment prospects, not just to get a job, but keep a job and, hopefully, have some capacity to progress through their working life into better jobs. I mean, that is the transformative power of education and training and many of us have experienced it personally, that if you get the skills, if you’re educated, if you’re provided the right training, the opportunities are limitless. And many of the Federal Cabinet Ministers, many of us are first – we were in the tertiary sector for the first time. Not all our families went to university, right?

WOOLF: That’s right.

O’CONNOR: So the Prime Minister and other Ministers, including myself, we’re first generation going into post-secondary education. So, we personally understand the transformative power of education. The KPI has to be: What are the employment prospects? How many people have got jobs? Is it working? Is the connection between the program and industry sufficient that people are getting jobs? Because without jobs those training programs really amount to very little. And, in fact, it can have an adverse effect. The people feel they put their effort in but realise no employment, and that is devastating.

WOOLF: Yeah, spot on.

O’CONNOR: So, we need to be working on both parts to that.

WOOLF: Tell me what else has been on the agenda while you’re here. I understand there was a roundtable at Charles Darwin University.

O’CONNOR: I would like to thank CDU for hosting a really important roundtable. We brought together people who have been working on employment programs and training and skills for a very long time but they feel that we haven’t always been that strategic about the way we invest. So, yesterday was really as much as anything a capacity for me and my Federal colleagues and Paul Kirby to listen to the people who are on the ground who tell us what they think works and what doesn’t work. So, out of that again, like, the idea about having a pre-program on foundation skills for the Rangers program was being proposed. I’m taking that back and looking and talking to my department and other departments about: How can that work? How can we make a very good program, the Rangers program, a better program by making sure that these people are ready to enter that form of training?

So there were some very good ideas that came out of that roundtable and a lot of experienced people who really were able to contribute. I think Canberra can strategically invest and has got some really strong points, but, ultimately, if you’re not here listening to what works in Darwin in the Territory, you really don’t get it. And you can’t get it from Canberra. You have to consult. And I think yesterday’s roundtable was a great example of getting good ideas about what will work here – and every part of Australia is a bit different. There’s some common threads, but there’s also some differences, and that will inform the decision making for me and others as we develop the grants program for Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians.

WOOLF: Yes. Spot on. Got to be here to learn what is going on in the Territory. We’re a unique place, there is no doubt about it.

O’CONNOR: Absolutely. Magnificent place.

WOOLF: Well, Brendan O’Connor, the Federal Minister for Skills and Training, always good to catch up with you. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

O’CONNOR: Thanks, Katie.

WOOLF: Thank you.