Release type: Transcript


Transcript — ABC Radio Perth


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


SUBJECTS: WA Skills Agreement; Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill.

O'CONNOR: Good morning, Nadia

MITSOPOULOS: Now you've announced a 12-month skills agreement with WA, what does that involve?
O'CONNOR: Well look, it's a further investment. It means additional Fee-Free TAFE and VET places for Western Australia. I want to thank the Premier Mark McGowan and Minister Sue Ellery for reaching agreement with the Commonwealth. It means that there's certainty, an allocation in places that are really in demand in Western Australia. WA like many parts of Australia are struggling with an acute skills crisis in many sectors of its economy. And these places will provide opportunities in areas where there are shortages, whether that's the care sector, technology and digital, agriculture, construction, hospitality and other areas. There are so many areas which we need to supply skilled workers and these places will provide those opportunities to improve the situation we find ourselves in. 
MITSOPOULOS: So, all up 18,800 free places. How did you decide what courses?
O'CONNOR: It really is largely up to the States. They understand their economy very well and they then identify the places. Now, their thinking and our thinking is similar in that if you look at the places that are allocated for Western Australia, for example, 8,500 Fee-Free places will be in the care sector, an area really under the pump. Not having the sufficient supply of labour or skills to the sector at a time when we know that the aged care sector has been in crisis. Nearly two and a half thousand for technology and digital because that is a growth area in the, if you like, new economy and so on. So, the State Governments have a large bearing, we do negotiate with them, but we do also understand they have an intimate knowledge of their labour market and economy. And this is really an important investment for WA providing people opportunities to access the skills that are in demand. So, if you get the skills that are in demand, you have secure work, and of course employers are crying out for these skills and that's why we need to invest and invest wisely.
MITSOPOULOS: Is it free for the duration of the course or just one year?
O'CONNOR: It will depend on the way it operates, and I say it's Fee-Free. The fees are free. There'll be some incidental administrative costs, but it really does allow choices for students or existing workers to enter courses at a time when inflation is making it very difficult. Cost of living pressures are such, across the country, that the Commonwealth wanted to make sure we could provide opportunities for people across the country to access skill acquisition, access courses so they can enter the labour market in areas of demand. It is a cost-of-living measure as well as an investment in our economy, in our labour market. I think the Prime Minister has said many times that if we are going to invest at a time of high inflation, we don't want to cause or agitate or compound the inflationary problem. And one of the ways to do that is invest in productivity enhancing investment like infrastructure but so too skills and that's what we've done. 
MITSOPOULOS: So just to be clear, though, say I'm doing a two or a three-year course. Will I only get the free part for the first year?
O'CONNOR: The fees will be for the life of the course. The states will regulate that through TAFE and other VET providers. It is not, we're not imposing a fee on those courses short or long term. There may be other costs, administrative costs and so on. But this will really reduce the burden on students and existing workers at a time as you know, very high inflation.
MITSOPOULOS: This won't replace the need now though, for immediate skilled workers in WA and right across the country. That is still a pressing issue and there are delays and cumbersome visa processes which employers say has been a real barrier for them to get workers in. How do you address that problem?
O'CONNOR: Well, we need to immediately accelerate the skilled migration pathways into Western Australia and other parts of the country. In fact, we talk about the public debt, the $1 trillion debt that we inherited upon election, but what really wasn't fully appreciated was the scale and depth of the skill shortage, and one of the reasons for that is we did not process, the previous Government did not process 950,000 applications that were in the system. That's quite extraordinary that almost a million applications were still in the system. So, what we've done is dedicated resources to the Department to accelerate, expedite the process. There are many people Nadia, in Western Australia right now who are on temporary skilled visas or thinking that they have to leave the country because their visa time is running out. And they put in applications for permanent residency, and they have not heard back from the Department in some cases for months, some cases for years. So, we are making sure as a priority, those applications are being processed so people get onto permanent residency pathways and of course, we've increased the skilled migration intake for this year, so that we can have more people supplying with skills into the labour market in WA and across the country.
MITSOPOULOS: On ABC radio Perth in WA. I'm speaking to Brendan O'Connor, the Minister for Skills and Training. Minister if we could move on to industrial relations. For support of Independent David Pocock, will now allow your government to be able to pass your workplace laws. Which of course allows multi-employer bargaining. Now the business communities today saying this will take us back to a 1970s Industrial climate with more strikes and fewer jobs. How do you respond to that?
O'CONNOR: Well, I think that's hyperbole. I don't believe for a moment that some of the commentary around the legislation that the Government's proposing will have that impact. We think it's about time we got wages moving again, we've seen a decade of relatively low wages, people effectively went backwards over a 10-year period in many sectors of the economy. That's not acceptable. Not in a country where we want to see real wage increases and of course, productivity increases too. And we know through the vehicle of multi-employer bargaining or bargaining generally, we'll see better outcomes for employers and workers alike. But there needs to be a fair share. Working people deserve a fair share of the dividend. If profits are running high, and wages are falling, something's wrong. We do need to make sure everyone's a winner in the bargaining system. So, we're very, very happy that we've settled and reconciled differences with the crossbench so that we can pass this very important legislation. Given the stagnant wages that we've inherited, at a time I might add of very high inflation. 
MITSOPOULOS: Is there a risk that an employer could be dragged into a bargaining arrangement based on a notion of common interests, which critics say is vague?
O'CONNOR: Well, I think firstly, the Commission will play a very important role in dealing with the fair and equitable arrangements that are in place. I think it's fair to say that we want to see a vehicle like multi-employer bargaining, but not one that's unfair to any party. But what's happened, Nadia, over the last 10 or more years is we've seen bargaining in this country more than halve, to the point where there is no bargaining happening in workplaces. People's wages are going backwards. And the thesis was that okay, now that the labour markets so tight, wages will start rising. Guess what, they haven't. That's because the system is broken. So, we do need to see a fair, balanced arrangement that does see outcomes for employers and workers alike, and we believe this will provide that opportunity. The former Government said that their policies, were a deliberate design feature in their policies to keep wages low. Well, our deliberate design feature is to make sure that wages grow in real terms. 
MITSOPOULOS: The Chamber of Commerce and Industry also says that this will cost businesses more money because they'll have to bargain with their employees. Is there a cost impost here?
O'CONNOR: Well, I think firstly, any decent employer would be bargaining and making sure that there were mutually good outcomes through a bargain so that happens anyway. There are of course costs in not bargaining. When you don't bargain, you don't find productivity improvements, you don't get benefits through proper engagement with your workforce. So, I think again, I don't accept the critique of the employer body that suggests there are not benefits from bargaining. What we also know that not only were wages low over the last decade, productivity increases were relatively very low. And again, that's in part because there was a failure to negotiate changes in workplaces that were mutually beneficial. So, we want to see wages moving again and we want to see productivity improving, and we want to see our economy grow so everyone benefits and one of the ways to do that is to have a bargaining system. If you think about the top 10 economies in the world with triple A ratings, from the three agencies, the majority of them have multi-employer bargaining. So, the idea that somehow, it's going to lead to rack and ruin for the economy, it's just not borne out by the facts. 
MITSOPOULOS: And minister there will now be an annual review of welfare payments like JobSeeker, could that potentially see increases in those payments?
O'CONNOR: Well Senator Pocock proposed an idea as I understand it to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Workplace Relations, which I think is a reasonable proposition and it has been accepted by the Government. We of course, want to make sure that people are looked after, no one's left behind. And therefore, we're very happy to look at the payment systems to make sure that we are treating people fairly, obviously fiscally, responsibly, but also fairly so that people can survive and live well. I mean, the fact is, we want to see people being able to be employable and access the labour market and being in poverty doesn't lend itself to doing that, we need to get the right balance. And I'm sure this proposal put by the Senator, accepted by the Government, is something that can actually assist in our analysis and assessment of people on the margins. So that we can do better for them.
MITSOPOULOS: Good to talk to you, Minister. Appreciate your time
O'CONNOR: Thanks very much.