February 21, 2017

NICK RHEINBERGER: Brendan O’Connor thanks for joining. What are the details for this forum?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR WORKPLACE RELATIONS AND EMPLOYMENT: Well we are holding a jobs forum in the Illawarra regional airport, and we will bring together workers, Chamber of Commerce, Unions, training providers, TAFE college, those sort of people that can really add to a plan that I think needs to be outlaid for all regions across Australia. We’ve got unemployment in the Illawarra higher than the national average, youth unemployment is a real issue and we want to listen to what people have to say and see what we can do to respond regionally because people are struggling. They are struggling to find work or they are struggling to find enough work. Underemployment, Nick, is at its highest in our history.
RHEINBERGER: And it’s interesting that you are putting it on at the Illawarra regional airport, because we are on the verge of signing some new contracts I understand between the council and some operators to fly to Melbourne and possibly also to Brisbane directly from Wollongong. How important is tourism as an industry in the Illawarra?
O’CONNOR: I think it is very important and I have been with Stephen Jones and Sharon Bird who of course know the area more intimately than me, but tourism, higher education, health and aged care, the steel industry is still important and I think you need to find ways to diversify your local economies if you are going to ensure more certainty around employment. So I’ve been listening to industry representatives, including tourism. I think there are great opportunities for tourism in your region and I am looking forward to being there tomorrow and then I head off after that to Nowra later in the afternoon to talk to them as well.
RHEINBERGER: I’ve been reading the debate on the Steel Protection or Steel Procurement Bill in New South Wales Parliament and one of the Government members said that he wishes for the days of Hawke and Keating who deregulated the banks, who floated the dollar, opened up Australia to competition and that is where job growth is, not this movement towards protectionism. Where do you stand as far protectionism versus opening our economy up to the world?
O’CONNOR: I don’t think it is black and white. I think there are countries, comparable countries to ours that on one hand of course support the liberalisation of trade where it benefits the nation, but so too they protect their industries. I think we need to fulfil our obligations under trade rules but also not be naïve to think that we shouldn’t be providing support for local industries. The United States, Canada, you know parts of Europe all provide protection even when they fulfil their obligations under the World Trade Organisation. I think we need to be very careful here in relation to steel for example; we can encourage and support local industry and local steel production without being anti trade or being supposedly overly protectionist. People expect us to stand up for Australian industry and that’s what we’ll do. I think therefore it’s important to listen to what needs to be done not just on a national level but on a regional level or an industry level. Of course we’ve gone through a lot of challenges with the steel industry but I think the idea that we just turn our back on local industries is naïve at best.

RHEINBERGER: So what is the answer? For instance I spoke to Paul O’Malley from BlueScope this morning about their results. He couldn’t or wouldn’t give me a definitive answer about whether he supports the steel procurement Bill, but he does say that the simple price per tonne of steel is not good enough. That we need to look at price per tonne and what buying Australian steel actually does even it’s more expensive than something coming from China or from Spain. Is that the way you’d like to see this debate go?

O’CONNOR: Well that’s right. I think firstly Labor supports the Australian Industry Participation Plan. We believe that there should be an Australian standard. It’s not true that you know -

RHEINBERGER: But we have Australian standards for steel don’t we?

O’CONNOR: Yes, and we need to fulfil them for example when I was last in Government -

RHEINBERGER: When are we not fulfilling Australian standards for steel?

O’CONNOR: What I’m saying is, sometimes we import steel that is not of a sufficient standard or quality that is required. I think therefore we can enforce more rigorously, a standard that is comparable to steel that’s made here. That will provide opportunities for local steel production. We should make sure the anti-dumping laws that we have in this country are as strong as anywhere else in the world to prevent state-owned enterprises in say, for example China, dumping steel in this country.

So there are things we can do that completely comply with our obligations under the WTO. And I think we need to provide greater skills more generally. One of the real problems is we don’t invest sufficiently in skills in areas of emerging demand.
So I’ll be listening to people about what they think your region needs insofar as future growth, where the areas of emerging demand are happening and do we have people of the sufficient skills to match that demand in the Illawarra. Sometimes you’ve got to get down and talk directly to people in the regions. You cannot draw up all your battle plans on employment from Canberra.

RHEINBERGER: Alright. On AM this morning there were quotes from heads of Google in Australia, for instance, saying they can’t find enough engineers and we need to go from a country that consumes technology to a country that produces technology. The steel works over the last decades has shed employment hugely and we’re probably down to the bone now. Where are we going to get those technology jobs? How is your Opposition, how is your party supporting technology jobs in Australia?

O’CONNOR: Firstly we need to make sure we maintain manufacturing in this country. And if you’ve got a manufacturing base you can clearly focus on high-end production. You can ensure that from that base you can springboard into I guess niche markets - high tech production.

And I think from what business is saying to me, Nick, is that they want to make sure that we have sufficient skills. That is we are training people in areas such as the one you’ve just pointed out.

Now, if we don’t have an education and training system that is training our workforce then we’re of course going to have problems with supplying the labour and the skills we need to maintain such industry.

So it is combination of things. That’s why you need to talk business, talk to higher education and vocational training providers and make sure we get it right. And we need to plan a little better. We need to anticipate where we’re going to go and train our workforce in that area of demand. That doesn’t happen sufficiently – doesn’t match up - that’s why there’s been an over use and over reliance on temporary work visas too often across the country. So there’s a lot to be done. I’m looking forward to having the conversation tomorrow morning.

RHEINBERGER: Alright Brendan O’Connor, good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

O’CONNOR: Thanks very much Nick.