March 16, 2017

LEON COMPTON: Brendan O’Connor good to talk to you this morning.


COMPTON: Is this a story that you’re hearing nationally, the strange situation of high youth unemployment and yet an inability to fill the apprenticeships that we have on offer in this or other states?

O’CONNOR: Yes, in part. We’ve have very high youth unemployment, around 13 per cent. In some parts of the country it’s north of 20 per cent. One in five young people in some places not being able to find work. And yes, there’s been over the last few years a very significant cut in apprenticeships - 130,000 fewer apprenticeships on offer.

And one of the main failings insofar as what you are talking about, Leon, is the failure to anticipate the areas of growth, the areas of demand and make sure that we’re investing in the skills that our people need to get into those areas of demand, like tourism, like other areas like health and aged care where there’s growth in employment.

We need to be a lot better in understanding the trends in the labour market, the transition of the economy, and making sure that our investment in skills are targeted to areas where there is demand, where there is growth.

COMPTON: So, we have a short term problem in Tasmania now - youth unemployment a toxic issue - and we’ve got businesses that are desperately looking for workers. If you’re elected what would you do about it?

O’CONNOR: Well, we’d start by – as I say the Abbott/Turnbull Government over the four years has cut 130,000 places from apprenticeships. That is a disaster. We’d put TAFE back and the centre of vocational training. There’s been too many problems with shonky private providers, even though there’s some reputable ones. We need to, I think, reinvigorate TAFE as the provider of skills.

And we need to work better with business. Industry understands where the growth is. They know where the trends are, they know what they’ll need over the longer term and the medium term, and we need to do that.

And we need to rely less on what is now one million temporary workers in this country. Of course there will always be areas to fill demand but we rely too often on quick fixes by bringing in temporary workers instead of employing young people, and for that matter other people that reside here.

COMPTON: In Tasmania we have the oldest and the fastest aging population in Australia. We’re going to need as many as 5000 workers in the aged care sector in the next decade. It seems that if we want to find those people, as a starting point, we’re going to want to start paying them more. What would you do about that, if elected?

O’CONNOR: Well look, to some extent, and that goes to the question of a decent wage for people. Labor’s about that. We were the first Opposition in history to make a submission to raise the minimum wage. We agree, and I agree personally, that certainly people that work in the care industry have been historically underpaid. I think that we need to have a national debate about what people are worth, in terms of what they contribute to society. And I think we start by saying child carers and people that work in aged care, given the responsibility and the skills, are not given sufficient support.

And that’s why when last in Government we supported, for an example, and increase to people that worked in social welfare. We looked over the longer term to help fund it because the commonwealth quite often in the funding agency. But we did it over time so we could afford it. You can’t do these things overnight. You can’t find more aged care places and increase wages in a very significant way at once, it has to be done over time.

And I think it should be done, because the community expectation is that we pay people decent wage to look after our families.

COMPTON: So what’s a reasonable ambition for sectors that are traditionally women’s work, like aged care and like child care in terms of pay increases over the next decade? Particularly aged care where we need to attract thousands more people into it.

O’CONNOR: Well, firstly I think we need to try and remove the notion that it is women’s work. And I think that’s breaking down slowly. For example in the nursing profession you’re seeing increasingly more men are taking up that role. I think that’s a very healthy sign. I think it is better that industries have a mix of people and not be gender specific. So I think that because you’ll see, I believe, more men going into these areas, these professions, these industries, that’s going to I think that’s going to be a good sign.

As far as what happens with wages, look, we believe in a system where unions on behalf of their workers are able to make submissions about their work value. That’s the system that we have in place. And the Commission can make decisions about incrementally increasing wages over time to match the value of their work. That system has worked quite well in many instances, but we need to examine whether we’ve got it right entirely.

But it is an area of opportunity. People have to understand there are some areas that are shrinking. What I think we fail to do is tell our young people when they’re in secondary school or even tertiary education, what jobs are on offer when they finish. Too often people are qualified with degrees at university and finding they are fighting for one job against 20 or 30 other competitors. Whereas in some areas of the economy there are jobs on offer and yet there is not a supply of labour.

We need to match that far better. We need to provide better advice to people as to what their options are when they finish getting degrees or getting an apprenticeship.

COMPTON: Do think part of the answer then becomes Richard Di Natale’s four day week, if a sector really embraced that as its model going forward, do you think they’d find that suddenly the next generation of young workers who want to do a lot of things in the course of their seven days might want to spend only four of them at work? Is he onto something?

O’CONNOR: Look, I’d look closely at those types of arrangements. I think that at the moment we have over one million people looking for more work and not being able to find it, we have over 700, 000 looking for any work. So 1.8 million Australians are looking for more work or some work and not being able to find it. That’s an issue as to how the economy is going, it’s quite anaemic at the moment.

I’d examine the role of work, and the definition of work in society given what’s happening. We are going through the most radical technological disruption to our labour market in human history, with automation and robotics, and we do need to work out how we are going to handle that over the next 5, 10, 15 years. There’s going to be radical changes, there’s going to be jobs that disappear – not just blue collar jobs – routinized white collar jobs will disappear as a result of automatization. I think we need to have a broader national debate.

But at this point, Labor’s concern is that we need to find more work for people who are struggling on part time work and needing more work, and we need to get as many of the 700, 000 plus Australians who are unemployed into work.

COMPTON: Well, that’s a motherhood statement, we couldn’t find a single person if we spoke to everyone in Tasmania who didn’t state that that was a noble ambition. The question is: How do you do it? One of the ways we determine how people get paid is through the Fair Work Commission. Can you explain your position to Tasmanians? On the one hand you created the Fair Work Commission to arbitrate on wages, on the other hand when you get a decision you don’t like, you fight it.

O’CONNOR: It’s a misnomer to say that we created the Fair Work Commission. The Fair Work Commission is an iteration of an institution that has been there since 1904. It’s true to say that Labor has probably been the only guardian of the independent umpire for that period.

COMPTON: On the 24th of February you got a decision you didn’t like and now you are going to do what? Either disband it, or turn around the decision, or-

O’CONNOR: No, Malcolm Turnbull disbands umpires; in fact the Government has already set a precedent under the reign of Malcolm Turnbull by not only terminating the order of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal which was increasing wages for truck drivers. He abolished the order, and abolished the independent umpire. He can hardly hide behind-

COMPTON: So what are you going to do with the Fair Work Commission?

O’CONNOR: So he can hardly hide behind the fig leaf that he can’t intervene on an independent umpire’s decision when he actually abolished one by legislation.

We took the stand that the decision was untenable, Leon. It is unusual for us to disagree with the umpire, but we looked at the decision. There is not compensation for these low paid workers, many of which will lose $50, $70 a week who cannot afford that. There is no compensation in that decision for those workers, up to 700,000 workers, at a time that we have the lowest wage growth in this country since at least 1998.

It was untenable for Labor not to stand up for those workers. We actually expect to convince Malcolm Turnbull to do the same. I believe he has an obligation to look after people who are struggling to make ends meet by saying-

COMPTON: But what about pushing the Fair Work Commission-

O’CONNOR: -by saying that he has already twice intervened on decisions of independent umpires since he has been Prime Minister.

COMPTON: How reasonable do you think the expectation is that maybe the Fair Work Commission has made this decision, but when the next decision comes down for these sectors on base rates of pay, they might argue for a lift that would see wage workers effectively gain-

O’CONNOR: Well, prices don’t usually go down, and nor should wages. We have made submissions to the Commission about increasing the minimum wage, we have made submissions to oppose entirely – our position was pretty clear – we oppose cuts to the lowest paid in this country.

This is the minimum award, remember, we are talking about people on the minimum award. But also, in our view it actually makes it more likely that other workers – nurses and others – will be under pressure to cut their penalty rates. Because the arguments used by the employer bodies were generic, they were not specific to the retail and hospitality, and there’s no reason they would not cut penalty rates as a result.

COMPTON: Brendan O’Connor is our guest on Mornings Around Tasmania. Interesting times in Tassie, I feel like we have Ministers or Shadow Ministers rather, all over the place at the moment. It’s going to be a busy few days it seems like lots of the Labor Shadow Ministry has come down to visit Tasmania. It’s been good to have you in.

O’CONNOR: Thanks very much Leon.