March 17, 2017

SABRA LANE: The Federal Opposition has organised a national jobs and skills summit in Canberra today, to consider new ways to create more jobs and adequately prepare people for work.

To discuss it I was joined a short time ago by Brendan O'Connor, the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations.

Mr O'Connor, welcome to AM.


LANE: What will you have to show at the end of today's summit?

O'CONNOR: Well, let's see what happens. Firstly, we know that vocational training is an area which really is in decline.

We've been failing, I think, not only our young people - and we just heard reports about the increasing problems of young people getting access to skills and training - but we're also failing our economy and businesses, because we're not sufficiently investing in the areas of growing demand in the labour market.

And we're really making it hard for young people. I mean, we've seen 130,000 fewer apprenticeships since this Government federally was elected. And we need to do better.

So the reason we've held this summit is to call together employers, industry, experts, unions to talk about the way forward and we want to come out of today with a blueprint to improve that.

LANE: The recent job figures show that more than 1 million Australians are in work, but they actually want to work more hours. How would your policies help them secure that extra work that they want?

O'CONNOR: I think one of the major problems is: we have an economy in transition. We've got automation and changes that are so rapid that we are failing to anticipate where the growth areas are.

So there needs to be a better connection between the investment by business - well, by business, but also by government - in skills; and making sure that when we're looking to have young people acquire skills and knowledge, they're doing it in areas where there are opportunities.

Too often, people are actually undergoing training for training's sake. They're not acquiring skills in areas of emerging demand. We are not currently being able to ensure that when people go through vocational training they can find a sustainable, good-quality job at the end of it. And that's a failure of the system.

It's been now more than 30 years since we've had a root-and-branch examination of vocational training and we need to do a lot better.

LANE: Is it time to resurrect something like the compulsory Training Guarantee, you know, to force employers to train employees to give them more skills?

O'CONNOR: Well, certainly if you look around the world, employers in other countries invest relatively higher than they do in this country. So that's certainly one part of it. That certainly should be part of the conversation and potentially the action plan.

And I think governments can do better. If you look at the way in which federal and state governments have dealt with vocational training over the last 30 years, we have not done a very good job in many respects. And I think we need to do a lot better.

So you know, we don't call summits too often. (Laughs) But I think this is an area where we really do need a discussion amongst employers, amongst industry and experts and unions to say, "Well, what is it - where are we failing? Where are we failing our young people? Where are we failing to ensure that we have the sufficient skills to deal with the fastest change in the labour market that we've seen in human history?"

And we need to learn from not only - not only enlist the advice of those people in the room, but also look at international comparisons to see what we can do better.

LANE: Why not trial the reduction of penalty rates, to see if it's going to prompt more small businesses to open up on Sunday and provide new jobs that aren't there now?

O'CONNOR: See, we're not really interested in cutting the wages of the lowest-paid in Australia to solve problems. We think it's a spurious argument to suggest -

LANE: Is it? On AM we had young people tell us last week they'd prefer something like this than be on Centrelink?

O'CONNOR: Yeah, of course people don't want to be on unemployment benefits, rather than have a job. People want to have a job.

The idea that the only way we're going to find answers to our problems is to cut the wages of the lowest-paid - and by the way, the notion that cutting penalty rates in retail and hospitality will affect only young people is a misnomer. There are many people, many parents that rely upon penalty rates to make ends meet. And it will be affecting everyone.

And the economic argument that you take money from the lowest-paid to improve the employment prospects of people is, I think, 'trickle-down' economics. It hasn't worked.

I think the better way in a globalised, knowledge-based economy is to invest in your people; invest in skills and education, which will lead to better outcomes.

LANE: Do you support the new ACTU chief, Sally McManus, in her view that breaking the law if it's unjust is OK?

O'CONNOR: No, I don't support that proposition. I'm a parliamentarian. I believe in democracy. I believe that, when you have a bad law, you change it. And the only way to change unjust laws is to change the government.

LANE: All right. Brendan O'Connor, thank you for speaking with AM this morning.

O'CONNOR: Thanks, Sabra.

LANE: The shadow minister for employment, Brendan O'Connor.