Subjects: Australia’s unemployment data; Automotive jobs; reskilling the workforce.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I’m joined by Senator Simon Birmingham, he is the Assistant Minister for Education and Training, welcome to RN Drive.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon Patricia and good afternoon to your listeners.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now I’ll talk about jobs and training in a moment, but I want to get to politics first. Philip Ruddock was dumped on Friday, very late on Friday from his role as the whip. He said today that he did warn the Prime Minister about backbench disquiet about his performance. Is your understanding that Philip Ruddock did make the views known of the backbench pretty clearly to the Prime Minister?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Patricia I have no idea of the private conversations that occurred between the Prime Minister and individual colleagues. That’s a matter between the PM and Philip. What I know is Philip has long been a valued member of our parliamentary team and no doubt will continue to be in to the future; but the position of Chief Government Whip is a gift of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister chose to reshape the whips at the end of last week just as late last year he chose to reshape the ministry to some extent, and that’s a normal course of events in the flow of government and I’ve got no doubt the new team led by Scott Buchholz will do a fabulous job.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Over the weekend, it was reported that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin had pushed for the six months off the dole policy, against the advice of ministers at the time. That is a policy that is now off the table. Were you concerned about that policy?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think this comes to the broader question of how we manage to structure our welfare system to try to encourage people and provide the maximum incentive for people to get in to employment and pursue job opportunities. Now we need to make sure there’s not an easy pathway for people from the schooling system simply in to unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits should be the last resort, they’re an important safety net, they’re there to ensure people don’t fall in times of hardship in to ultimate despair; but equally we need to get the balance right there. Now this policy met some strong resistance in opposition, so Scott Morrison is taking it back to the drawing books and having a look at the right mechanisms to put in between leaving the education system…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: ...do you think. Simon Birmingham do you think there’s ever a time where it is ok to deprive people of unemployment benefits in a waiting period? Do you think that you should revisit a time where they wait?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think you want to make sure that people are putting a serious effort in to finding employment if they’re not part of the formal education or training system, and that is an obligation that falls upon all Australians. We need people to take their responsibilities seriously and it does concern me when I go in to some parts of the community and talk to some youth services providers and the like who tell me that when they go and talk to school children in certain areas, the debate isn’t one of what job they might seek or aspire to when they finish school but it’s a debate about whether or not they want a job when they finish school. Now that’s just unacceptable and we have to find better ways through the education system and the support we’re providing to help people see a world in which everybody who is able to work seeks work and of course the safety net is there to help people when they’re unable to find that work.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On RN Drive I’m joined by Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham. I’m wondering do you think a Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, should be dictating policy. Were you concerned with reports that ministers had said that the policy was unfair and yet it became official policy in the budget?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia, look firstly I want to say that I think that Peta Credlin is an exceptional political operator, a talented adviser, a very intelligent woman; and I think that much of the criticism that has been levelled at her over recent months has been quite unfair and it particularly distresses me to see unnamed or unsourced reports in that regard.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But those ministers that were named, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz, have not disputed that they said that this policy was unfair.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Beyond that Patricia, let me also say that when I hire my staff, I expect them to have opinions, I expect them to share those opinions with me, I expect them to feel empowered to argue a case. Now ultimately, I’m the Minister so I’ll settle on the final course of action just as other ministers will settle on the final course of action across their portfolios.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So does that mean you’re saying that ministers had the opportunity in the cabinet process to raise concerns; and ultimately it’s unfair to depict the story in a way that the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister overrode them?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I’m not a member of the cabinet. I’m not going to guess as to what’s gone on in the cabinet process. But, I would fully expect that ministers feel empowered to have their say around the cabinet table. That’s what they’re there for.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let’s move on to Australia’s unemployment rate because it’s pretty high, you wouldn’t dispute that. Does the Coalition have a long term plan to address unemployment?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We do Patricia and we’ve been working on this for quite some time, well before perhaps some of the more recent lifts in unemployment, that have been particularly distressing, have come about. That really goes back to the agenda we took to the last election about making Australia more competitive. When we had debates about getting rid of the carbon tax or the mining tax; that was about trying to lower the cost space for Australian business to compete with our international competitors. The same in terms of our agenda to reduce red tape is about ensuring Australian businesses can be as competitive as possible.
Nailing three major free trade agreements, opening up market access for Australian business, so there is a real trend there in terms of a number of the accomplishments we delivered during our first year or so in Government. But we also recognise that we need to foster entrepreneurship and innovation especially in growth sectors so we’ve established a number of funds such as the industry skills fund that directs training dollars, more than $400 million in training dollars in to industries with real and demonstrated growth with potential to create more jobs in the future. We know that we need to have the skilled workforce in those sectors.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Certainly that’s the case, but at the end if the jobs just aren’t available; you’re affectively churning people through course after course, are you not? And there’s no real jobs at the end. That’s the ultimate crisis that we’re facing.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Patricia that’s why we’ve taken a very strong stand against having training just for trainings sake and where we are directing government funding it is about sectors that are of identified growth potential for the Australian economy. Be that in terms of agricultural sectors where we still have enormous opportunities, areas of advanced manufacturing where in higher technology spaces there’s still great opportunity to create and grow new jobs. Of course we’re seeing some tougher times right now in the resources sector due to events well beyond anybody in Australia’s control with the collapse in certain commodities prices. But that just goes to show why we have to continue to focus on policies that reduce wherever possible the cost space of doing business in Australia, keep us as competitive as possible and skill our workforce in sectors where we do believe there is strong growth potential.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On RN Drive I’m speaking with Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham. This is your area; you’re from South Australia which is facing a manufacturing and jobs crisis. How do you plan to work to solve this? In two years’ time, a lot of these jobs are going to be gone. What type of reskilling will be offered to these people? What kind of growth industries are you prepared to assist people with in South Australia? Given the South Australian economy is in the doldrums.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well there is a number of things that we’re pursuing there in terms of working to reskill workers. There is a package that Ian Macfarlane has developed with both South Australian and Victorian governments and with the automotive manufacturers that goes directly to those workers in the automotive sector about helping to reskill them and provide training opportunities for them. There is a broader industry skills fund training package of $400 plus million that I mentioned before targeted to potential growth sectors of the economy. We’re also filing a couple of pilot programs particularly looking at young people and how we might deliver incentives for training in different ways that help young people in to their first job and perhaps break cycles of intergenerational unemployment by providing the right incentives to employers to be able to guide the training necessary to make a young person job ready. Now all of that’s about, of course, the individual and giving them skills for the job. The other aspect, which you rightly identified, is knowing the economy and whether or not the jobs are there; and that of course comes back very much to those fundamentals of creating new market access, lowering the cost of doing business in Australia, and in some of the higher value agricultural sectors in particular there is enormous opportunities for a state like South Australia where we already have huge agricultural exports and the opportunity to lift that in terms of higher value agricultural goods through increased market access in to China and Japan and South Korea is absolutely something that I hope the state government will work with us in pursuing in the future.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Coming up on the program we are having a discussion about students now being on interview panels for teachers in Victoria. Do you think things like that are a good idea? I mean, within your capacity as Assistant Minister for Education and Training, are they the sort of innovative ideas that might help us improve teaching?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’ve pursued an agenda of delivering independent public schools around Australia where government schools are empowered through the local community to have greater autonomy in how they’re run and therefore how staff are selected, how principals are selected and the type of subject offerings that the school might provide. Now within that framework of providing greater autonomy and greater independence, I think innovative ideas like allowing students a say in terms of the staff selection process is welcome if it has the support of the broader school community. If it brings parents, families and teachers and local businesses all together in trying to make their schools as responsive locally to the needs of employers and to the needs of local industries and to the future job opportunities for their students then I think it’s wonderful to trial new and different things.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Simon, thank you so much for joining us on RN drive.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Anytime Patricia, a pleasure.