Release type: Transcript


Transcript - Press conference, Darwin


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training
Senator the Hon Malarndirri McCarthy MP
Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians, Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health
Luke Gosling OAM, MLA
Member for Solomon
The Hon Paul Kirby MLA
Northern Territory Minister for Business, Jobs and Training


ASSISTANT MINISTER MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Thank you for joining us this morning. It's wonderful to be able to have our Federal Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O'Connor, here with us on Larrakia Country. And I'd like to acknowledge also that we had the Northern Territory Government Minister here, Paul Kirby, and the member for Solomon Luke Gosling. Today, I'd like to acknowledge that it is NAIDOC Week. A beautiful week in the Australian calendar but also a time to acknowledge our elders. It is about our elders and I'm really excited about what we're announcing today for First Nations people but also with all Australians.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Well, it's wonderful to be here. Certainly much warmer than Melbourne. But it's really important to be here especially on NAIDOC Week because it's an investment in not just people that are struggling with foundation skills generally, but also an investment in First Nations people who also have challenges. There's no doubt that we need to do better in investing in skills and investing in numeracy, literacy and digital skills. Without those skills, people will have difficulty accessing the labour market or being able to acquire new skills in a fast-changing economy and fast changing world. That's true of all Australians and it's true of First Nations people.

For that reason, today we're convening a meeting at Charles Darwin University with stakeholders to talk about how we are able to better effect the investment we make in foundation skills. Now this announcement of $436 million is for across the country on foundation skills. A large part of that will go to Indigenous communities. What we believe and we’ve realised through the pilot programs that exist across the country is we need to make sure that these programs are community led. And the important thing about this announcement to note is the investment we'll be making First Nations communities, amongst First Nations people whether it's in cities or regions, or remote communities, is that they are advised by and informed by the communities themselves.

What we know is through the pilot programs like the one I visited in Tennant Creek late last year is if you allow the ownership and the advice to come from the community, you have better outcomes and that's already becoming apparent through these pilot programs and that's why this announcement will ensure that where there is investment, we're going to provide grants to community organisations, Indigenous community organisations in the case where they are applicable, in order to allow that local engagement and local decision making and local ownership, because that is the best way to ensure that people have the skills they need to have a decent life.

Without foundation skills, people struggle. They struggle finding work and they struggle with all matter of things in their life, whether it's getting a loan or getting a bank account or dealing with technology. That's why we need to ensure if we're going to be fair dinkum about closing the gap on education, closing the gap on employment outcomes, we need to invest in areas that will allow Indigenous people, First Nations people, to acquire the skills that they need to do so.

This announcement is about closing the gap in the skills area and as a result of that, if successful, it will help close the gap in the employment attainment area and that's absolutely vital. This is a decision that will ultimately improve the economic capability of people. It is one that can cover people that are struggling with foundation skills across the country. But there is this very significant part of this announcement which is focused on First Nations people, and what better time to make this announcement and for this to take effect than in NAIDOC Week, in Darwin.

I'm here to talk to stakeholders and I'll be meeting with people later today. I want to listen to what people have to say so we can help fashion this agreement, of how we better deliver the investment in communities. That's really important to do that. We're also, of course, negotiating a National Skills Agreement with all state and territory governments. So I'm here not only with Luke and Malarndirri, but also with the Minister, Paul Kirby. He and I and ministers of other governments met only recently to negotiate a National Skills Agreement, which will take effect from January 1 next year. That's a $3.7 billion investment in skills across the country. And within that agreement, there will also be more investment in foundation skills and more focus on closing the gap for indigenous people when it comes to the need to acquire skills in areas of demand and labour markets.

Finally, I wanted to add, that's on top of the investment in Fee-Free TAFE. We've seen a very significant uptake of the 180,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places we decided upon after the jobs and skills summit. Over 150,000 of those places have been filled across the country. That includes, of course, Indigenous people who have been enrolling and these are in areas of demand in the labour market. So if they finish these courses they are much more likely to gain employment because they are in areas of demand. That's true of the territory as any other part of the country, and we're going to continue to negotiate for a further 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places for the country over the course of this year to take effect from January 1. It's a five-year agreement from January 1, 2024.

So, the combination of these investments will provide the resources needed for us to do better than we've done to date in relation to the challenges we have in ensuring people have the skills that they need to have good employment prospects, secure employment with career progression, capacity to stay attached to the labour market where too often today that is not the case. I’m happy to hand over to Paul and take questions afterwards.

PAUL KIRBY, NT MINISTER: I really want to thank Brendan for coming back to the Northern Territory only a month or two after he has been here recently in one of those skills ministers' meetings that he has just spoken about.

In that meeting, we had the opportunity to bring together CDU, Batchelor and a range of other providers that do work really closely with Northern Territory traders and really closely with Northern Territory Indigenous people to try and upskill them. They have got some firsthand information about the difficulties the trainers face and how hard it can be and how complex it is, and I'm really, really happy to continue that body of work. Not just with Brendan, but with all of our federal counterparts, obviously for North Queensland and north-western Australia, it is a very specific problem with the amount of remote communities that we have.

I think today's announcement really does highlight the understanding of the Federal Government and the commitment that it's almost a needs-based funding for Indigenous people. That foundation skills is a big problem through the nation, but it is a much bigger problem through our remote communities and if we genuinely in NAIDOC Week want to make sure that we're giving those Indigenous people a much better chance at getting into pre-employment programs and then having opportunities for employment beyond that, then foundation skills is a massive part of what we have to do. It does take a lot of wraparound services to assist with that in remote communities.

We're really happy to continue working with Brendan and the Federal Government on that. There's a host of things that we are working on and a national skills agreements, bilateral agreements outside of that, continuing to invest in all our Fee-Free TAFE positions CDU is setting up as a TAFE on its own. So there is a wonderful amount of work, something that we're really proud of as the Northern Territory Government continue to work on, specifically through NAIDOC Week.

LUKE GOSLING MP, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Good morning, everyone. Thanks very much for coming down, its a beautiful dry season day and on NAIDOC Week in particular, we recognise here in my electorate the Larrakia people and their ongoing guardianship and custodianship of this land. It has been a great boost for youth training for our Labor government to come in federally.

Fee-Free TAFE, but also this extra commitment to funding foundational skills, numeracy, literacy and the skills to live and survive and thrive in a digital world. It's so important not only for our kids but for our elders as well. That's the theme of NAIDOC Week is "for our elders". We recognise them. All that they've given in terms of the incredible cultural connection to this country. It is really important, I think, when we think about the upcoming referendum on the voice that we know acknowledge that relationship for millennia. It is something that we need to be serious about honouring, but it's also something that's not scary. All it is, is recognising there has been for millennia on this country, an ongoing relationship with this land, and also recognising that we'll get better outcomes, better practical outcomes. Whether it be health and education and importantly, jobs, if we listen to the advice of First Nations people. And that's what we're committed to do as a government and that's what Linda Burney will be talking about at the National Press Club today.

We're very proud as a Federal Government that the Parliament as a whole has approved the legislation so that in a few months time there will be that chance for Australians to recognise the First Nations people of this nation in our Constitution and in our foundation document and importantly, get that advice that will give us better outcomes. No one can put their hand on their heart in this nation today and say that we've got the outcomes that we want, whether it be in jobs or whether it be the shameful fact that a young Aboriginal person in this country has got a better chance of going to prison than finishing high school. That's something that needs to change and something that will be able to change when we've got the very best advice that we can get from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.

That's what the voice is about. It's not a veto. It's just about listening. So, we're very thankful that on NAIDOC Week we continue to get the advice from First Nations people to make our policies better. And I think today is an example. It's an example of where we've come to in skills. Preparing young people in particular for the skills of the future, but preparing everyone in the workforce. It doesn't matter whether they are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, for the jobs in a quickly evolving job landscape. You need to be able to have good numeracy, good literacy and you need to be able to operate in a digital world. And that's why the funding that the minister has announced today in cooperation with the NT Government will see a lift in those foundation skills. That'll mean better employment opportunities for all Territorians into the future.

JOURNALIST: How much of that $400 million will be spent in the NT?

O'CONNOR: Firstly, the $436 million to which you refer is for the country. It's on top of what we're negotiating for a National Skills Agreement. So, there's additional money there. And it's obviously on top of the money we'll be announcing soon on Fee-Free TAFE for the Territory.

Because we're negotiating this, the set figure has not been made, because what we made clear is we want to make sure that Indigenous organisations can apply for grants, particularly for remote and regional areas. So, a large part of the money that will be Invested for indigenous communities will have to go to the Territory and will be going to the Territory. As Malarndirri and Paul and Luke have said, the challenge we have in the Territory to provide opportunities for First Nations people in the area of foundation skills, particularly in the regions and in remote communities, is very, very challenging.

When I talk about one in five people having foundation skill deficiencies across the country, that's Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Unfortunately, that's double for Indigenous people in this land and it's higher again when you get out to the regions in remote communities. So, the investment we make in remote communities, not just in the Territory but of course in other parts of Australia, will be significant because that's where the challenge is.

JOURNALIST: In real terms, what kinds of things will this money be spent on? What kinds of programs are you talking about?

O'CONNOR: The key to ensuring people are equipped with foundation skills is to make sure quite frankly, that people can read and write and count. As Luke just said, so people can actually equip themselves with the digital capacity to live in a digital world. So that effectively means learning how to read or learning how to read better.

When I talk about deficiencies in foundation skills, we're talking about people who are either unable to read well or not able to read at all. There are many people in this country that have gone through life with these challenges and often are stuck in jobs. It doesn't mean they're unemployed. Often they find their jobs because they want to work and they do work. But the problem is they get stuck in a job they can't move from. Because they don't have these extra skills. So, when we talk about providing these skills, we're talking about learning to read, learning to count better, learning to deal with the digital skills you need to live in this 21st century world.

JOURNALIST: So we're talking about Indigenous organisations providing, more or less, tutoring services?

O'CONNOR: Effectively teaching people. So, at Tennant Creek, the current pilot operating there - We have non-Indigenous and Indigenous teachers teaching Indigenous students, participants of the program, improving their literacy and numeracy. The reason why it's working more effectively, is because in some cases the teacher speaks their language as well as English and also is connected. And not only that, often teachers who have actually gone through similar programs are the embodiment of what could be the future for the participants if they acquire these skills.

They've seen first-hand people get more opportunities in the labour market because they've acquired these skills. So, we're very confident that if we ensure that they are led by local communities, informed by the communities and the communities are participating in the programs, we're going to see higher attraction to the programs, higher retention so that they complete the programs and more engagement and participation. That's what we've witnessed at Tennant Creek when I was there in October last year and we want to replicate that. But we are listening to the communities, they will be putting in bids for investment based on those foundations. And we're confident that if we do this properly, you're going to see much better outcomes than we've seen in the past, and that's because we're involved in the community.

JOURNALIST: If so many people don't have the foundation skills is that concerning the NT as a jurisdiction is failing to provide people with these skills during their education and training?

O'CONNOR: I do think this is a national problem. One in five adults, Indigenous and non-Indigenous have foundation skill deficiencies. One in five, 20 per cent of Australian adults have this difficulty and that is not acceptable, frankly.

On top of that, as I say, Indigenous people have a higher proportion that have those challenges and we need to attend to that. So, we have a challenge just dealing with the adult population that needs to have better opportunities, particularly in a world where they need these skills not just to get good work but to survive. And we need to invest more in Indigenous communities because the challenge is greater and the gap is greater.

We haven't done enough as a country to close the gap and we want to do better. As Malarndirri has said many times and of course, Linda will be saying today at the Press Club, we need to do better, we have to listen to people. And of course, the best manifestation of that is ensuring that we have a Voice to Parliament so that we recognise First Nations people in our constitution. And we allow them a voice to provide advice to us about how best to deal with the challenges we've been seeking to deal with for years and decades and failing to improve upon. And so, I do hope that Australians understand how critical that is and realise that if we recognise the First Nations people in our constitution and we listen, we will get better results.

JOURNALIST: What age group will these programs be targeting?

O'CONNOR: The demographics are across the adult population because what we find is there are kids who have dropped out of school or are not attending school and need to be provided support.

It was once the case that you just had to be in on income support like Newstart to get access to the programs and we find that's not good enough because there are people who need those skills to look after their families and themselves who may not be getting any income, and we want to make sure it's open to them as well.

Just so we're clear it's Indigenous and non-Indigenous. So young people, people in the middle of their working life, and older Australians too. We're not prescribing this to exclude people. We believe this country is a lot better off if all Australians have the foundation skills we all need to have to have a decent life.

JOURNALIST: Minister, will there be programs such as improvement and financial support for programs such as the successful Ranger programs, Indigenous tourism, and now in communities like the employment, fishing and running tours and all those sorts of things. So, will they be supported?

O'CONNOR: Those are those existing programs that run concurrently, as you said. The Rangers program, is a very successful investment and has had great outcomes over many years. And in what you've seen from the Albanese Government is further investment.

These announcements are on top of Fee-Free TAFE. This is also on top of other Indigenous employment announcements that have been made within the remit of Minister Burney's portfolio and that of Assistant Minister McCarthy. So, there's other investments going on all the time and of course at the state and territory level, there's also investment.

What we need to make sure as we join that up, we coordinate it. We work as governments, we worked across government and amongst governments to ensure that we're delivering investment. So, there should be a recognition of those programs so they work in sync with each other. Too often, we see sometimes governments investing without having regard to other forms of investment. So, I think that's a very good question and I assure you we'll be looking at working across government so that these things work in tandem.

JOURNALIST: Senator McCarthy today, the Government's outlining its priorities of the things it wants to get advice on from the Indigenous voice to Parliament. But wasn't the idea of the voice, is that the voice is meant to set the priorities. It's not going to be top down from the government setting priorities.

MCCARTHY: I don't think you're going to hear anything that you haven’t heard already in terms of Minister Burney's address to the Press Club today. Clearly we've outlined as a broad section, closing the gap, that is health, education, housing and employment. So, I think what you will find in the delivery today that it will be more around closing the gap and what it means to actually do that if we are successful in this referendum.

JOURNALIST: Shouldn’t the Government be waiting for the Voice to be formed if it gets up to set those priorities of things that it wants to have addressed by the government?

MCCARTHY: Well, Closing the Gap is already out there and has been for quite some time with all the targets that we've spoken about. We had the Closing the Gap peaks just last month to deliberate on that, so that's not new. I think what this is about is for the Minister to give an opportunity to talk more on it but also for journalists to ask questions today.

JOURNALIST: What else can be done to improve outcomes in those areas?

MCCARTHY: We have to empower First Nations people, its really as simple as that. First Nations people at every level whether it is remote, regional or in our urban areas need to have that feeling of being empowered to improve their lives. Poverty is a real issue right across our country as well as disadvantage and distance and that is what I think of what the Voice can deal with in the future should we be successful in the referendum.

JOURNALIST: How will you encourage First Nations people to engage in the programs you are announcing today?

MCCARTHY: We're going to CDU soon and we'll be engaging in terms of the federal and territory governments with ideas from First Nations organisations. But I would say to communities, local government, shires and aboriginal organisations, this is an opportunity for you to grab a hold of this, whether you are working with rangers across northern Australia who want to be able to read better, to have the ability to know their numeracy better in terms of dealing with finance and financial capability. Get to your CDU, it will be important. But also, reach out to both the territory and federal government in terms of these programs, because they're actually out there for you.

JOURNALIST: Minister Burney is saying in her speech that she feels that people that don't vote for the Voice will be unpatriotic. Do you agree with that sentiment?

MCCARTHY: I spent 10 hours on my feet in the Senate with this legislation to ensure that it passed so that we could get to a referendum. And one of the clear messages I said in my deliberations in the Senate and to the media more broadly to all Australians, is that we must be respectful in this debate. I have no doubt that lots of people are saying lots of things but I would continue to urge all Australians to be respectful in terms of the commentary, but also to know that this is an incredible opportunity for our country. And in my final statement I said, once this bill passes in the Senate, let's now hand it over to the Australian people and let the Australian people decide and determine what our country's future will look like.

JOURNALIST: Support for the Voice in the polls has been falling. Do you think that is because the government and the Yes campaign have failed to make the case of what it can possibly do in communities like where you are from in Borroloola?

MCCARTHY: I was so relieved to get the legislation out of the Senate and into the hands of the Australian people. I do believe as parliamentarians, sometimes we like to make a real mess of things and sometimes we say things that perhaps we shouldn’t be saying. There's a lot of things that were said in the Senate and lower house. I believe, and I firmly am optimistic, and I do believe in the good will of our country that once the Australian people have had their conversation on this, it will take a turn for the better. And I hope an outcome of 'Yes' which will be quite resounding for our nation.

JOURNALIST: Just before you go, for our Indigenous broadcasters. It's a very important week this week. Could you give us a NAIDOC Message we can broadcast?

MCCARTHY: I just want to say to all our elders right across Australia. This is your week, we celebrate you. We value you and we thank you, enjoy NAIDOC Week. Yo, Bauji Barra.