Release type: Transcript

Date:

Doorstop - Darwin, Northern Territory

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business

E&OE------------------------

SENATOR SAM McMAHON:  

Well, it gives me great pleasure here in Darwin this morning to welcome Minister Stuart Robert, the Minister for Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business. And he is going to have an exciting announcement here, something we know that we’re all desperately needing here in the Territory is workforce. And there's a lot of businesses out there across a range of different industries, including hospitality, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, that are all impeded at the moment because of a lack of access to skilled workers. So, Minister Robert is here this morning to make an announcement that will help us here in the Territory to grow our workforce.

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

Yeah, thanks, Sam. It's great to be here with Senator McMahon. We spent this morning with the heads of tourism, the heads of hospitality, local small business owners, local hospitality owners as well and enjoying the great service from Cafe Twenty One behind us. The Top End is a superb part of Australia, but it's a part of Australia that desperately needs staff, Sam. The unemployment rate here reflects the national average at 5.6 per cent. But the NT has a participation rate for the number of Australians actively engaged at a staggering 72.7 per cent, almost five or six percentage points above the national average. A lot younger demographic here and looking for work. But everywhere I go, I'm talking to small businesses here that need staff, even Cafe Twenty One behind us, closing at 2pm because they can't get enough workers. And the Government, of course, has got a relocation allowance which allows Australians on welfare, on benefits through the JobActive program to relocate to find work. 

And of course, today in the agricultural space, we'll be widening that with Ag Move so that halving the amount of time that workers have to spend in increasing the amounts that they can recover in terms of payments so they can move into new environments, new cities, new locations to work. 

The key thing as we come out for our comeback from COVID, it's about getting Australians into jobs. 1.2 million Australians are on JobSeeker payment or Youth Allowance, almost 400,000 higher than before COVID. Our job now is, as a Government, Sam, the Morrison Government is to get Australians into work, to get long term unemployed into jobs and to get as many Australians working as possible.

JOURNALIST:       

So what about retirees? Are you looking to change regulations so retirees can work more [indistinct]…?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

Treasurers don't generally like us to talk about the budget before the Treasurer's announcement. So, we'll leave a number of these issues for the Treasurer to speak about next week. But right now, as the discussion this morning was, we're looking at everything we can possibly do to attract and get Australians into work, knowing full well that immigration, which has been a great source of staff and workers here in the Top End, really won't be available for up to the next 12 months.

JOURNALIST:       

So what about international students who aren’t Australians, who have come in, and can only work 20 hours? Is there any luck that you might increase the amount of hours they can work?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:       

Again, without raining on the Treasurer's parade, they’re issues we’ll discuss at length in the following weeks. The key thing for today is how do we get Australians into work? The last five years, 50 per cent of all employment and growth in jobs has been by immigration and foreign students. The challenge for us is to get Australians into work. And sure, looking at visa holders and immigration and backpackers and all of these things are really important. But we must redouble our efforts to get Australians, right now 1.2 million, into work.

JOURNALIST:       

It’s been suggested by Senator McMahon, by Labor, by hospitality industry, by others, that we could use a facility like Bladin Point to quarantine workers coming here, so that we’ve got enough people, particularly coming up to the harvest season, but even in the hospitality season. Is that something the Government, Federal Government thinks we should consider?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

Well the states and territories are the authorities that control the current quarantine arrangements into Australia. The Prime Minister is currently looking at a very detailed proposal from Victoria to look at ‘are there other ways and other areas?’ At the same time at Howard Springs, we’re increasing capacity from 800 to 2,000. But they are predominantly issues for the states and territories as they’re the ones who are managing quarantine.

JOURNALIST:       

Something you’d support in principle, though?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:       

There was a request in Queensland to use a facility out of Toowoomba, and we asked for extensive details from the Queensland Government, those details weren't forthcoming. But I think our willingness to engage on this is shown by the Prime Minister in National Cabinet every week and the Prime Minister actively looking now at a submission, a very detailed submission from Victoria.

JOURNALIST:       

So what do you want to do to address the issues of worker shortages up here? What's kind of your idea of- you've spoken to people now, where are we at in terms of some kind of solutions or initiatives?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

We now need to be very proactive in skilling, in training, identifying which Australians don't have the skills and getting them to them. The Budget, again, will have a range of initiatives in employment, jobs and skilling. 

You've seen, previously during COVID, we put in place the billion-dollar JobTrainer to provide 300,000 subsidised- partially subsidised training courses to ensure that Australians can get the skills they need to enter the workforce. 

We’re actively looking now over 122,000 Australians on Youth Allowance, 16 to 22 who aren’t working and training, how do we proactively connect with them in their regions and connect them to skills and training? And we need to have a conversation about is it acceptable, as Senator McMahon was saying, for a watermelon grower to need tens and tens of staff, and within two or three kilometres, over 100 Australians receiving benefits because they're unemployed? And is it acceptable for them to say, no, I don't want to do that agricultural job, even though it's only two kilometres away and continue to receive benefits? And that is a worthwhile conversation for our nation to have. 

And that's why we have a mutual obligations construct and program. And that, of course, is now 15, or applying for 15 jobs a month, moving to 20 in the short term.

JOURNALIST:       

Okay. So just to clarify, so you’re here really to get a sense of what is happening here in the Territory; can we expect some kind of announcement into the future and do you have a timeframe on it?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

Well, we’ll wait and see what the Budget’s got. There’s enormous amount of the Budget in terms of workforce, jobs and skilling. 

Today we’re talking about Ag Move, about how we encourage specifically, Australians, to move into the agricultural workforce. The last thing we want to see is more and more fruit and veggies being ploughed back into the ground.  

Yesterday and today, I’ve been meeting with the Government, with Chief Minister Gunner, with my state and territory colleagues and, of course, with local businesses, to get a real feel for what’s going to move the dial here in the Top End.

JOURNALIST:       

Can I just ask you a couple of other questions? Are you comfortable with Australian citizens being left stranded in India under the travel ban?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:       

When COVID started, of course, the Federal Government moved quickly to shut our borders to China. We’ve done the same thing under medical advice and health advice, to Papua New Guinea, and again, on the very strong health advice, the Prime Minister, in concert with state and territory premiers and chief ministers, made this temporary decision through ‘til the middle of May. And it was made because over 57 per cent of all people in quarantine across the country who are COVID positive, have come from India. In Howard Springs, here in the north, the Top End, it's almost 100 per cent. So, there are extraordinary circumstances that have warranted this very temporary measure.

JOURNALIST:       

There’s been a lot of, you know, back around, a lot of criticism. Do you think community sentiment is with this decision?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

These are difficult decisions; they’re made on health advice and they’re made to protect the Australian economy. Months ago, the number of Australians and others in quarantine from India who were testing COVID-positive was around 10 per cent; today at 57 per cent. The numbers are very large, hence why this decision was taken.

JOURNALIST:       

Do you share the Senator's concerns about the change of management at Howard Springs, taking it out of control of AUSMAT and into control of the Northern Territory Government, and the potential implications for things to go wrong? 

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

Not an issue I'm well briefed on, so I can't comment. I’ll leave to leave that to the Senator. 

JOURNALIST:       

Can we ask the Senator about that?

SENATOR SAM McMAHON:      

Yes, look, it's a great concern that I have. It is an extremely well managed and functioning facility under AUSMAT. And I am concerned about transferring it to the Northern Territory Government. 

But I have received assurances from the Northern Territory Government and also from Federal Minister Greg Hunt that AUSMAT will remain involved as long as they’re needed to be involved, until they are happy and satisfied that the facility can function without them. So I have received those assurances. And as long as that is followed through on, then I believe we can continue.

QUESTION:       

Do you also have concerns, Senator, about the staffing issue there? We were told that there were  400 staff in place, the Northern Territory Government would hire those staff by the beginning of May. And yet as of last Friday, I think the number was 160, and you’re talking about ramping up Howard Springs so that it can receive 2,000 people per fortnight. It seems things are falling well short there.

SENATOR SAM McMAHON:      

Yeah, I mean, that absolutely can't be ramped up to the 2,000 people at the moment because of the staffing issues. Northern Territory Government is saying that they have 160 of the 400 required. Obviously, that's well short and it would be foolish to try and ramp up the facility to 2,000 unless the required staff are there. So they are going to have that as an issue. The NT Government itself needs to do more to attract staff to function that facility in the way it needs to.

JOURNALIST:       

Can I just confirm, [indistinct]… sorry, I actually have [indistinct]. Can I just confirm, so are you saying that AUSMAT will have the final say on whether or not the centre is ready for them to withdraw? Who’s the decision rest with at the end of the day - is it the Territory Government or is it Federal?

SENATOR SAM McMAHON:      

Look, it's with the Territory Government. It is the Territory Government that will have the final say, but they have given assurances that AUSMAT will stay involved as long as it's needed to be. 

JOURNALIST:       

That must be of some concern to you, though. I mean, there's money involved, there’s other things involved. The Territory Government can click its fingers tomorrow and say, AUSMAT, you're out of there. Is that effectively what you’re saying?

SENATOR SAM McMAHON:      

Look, it could. I would sincerely hope that they do not do that. And I'll take them on face value and say they're not going to do that. If they did, I think we'd be looking at some potentially serious consequences of the management of the facility.

QUESTION:       

Can I just ask the Minister a couple more questions? Is that alright? [Indistinct] talking about quarantine facilities, Michael McCormack says the new quarantine facility in Victoria could allow migrants to be arriving in Australia to fill critical shortages. What do you make of that idea? 

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:       

I think it's got merit. This is one of the reasons the Morrison Government is working with the state and territory leaders every week in National Cabinet to work through all of this. 

The priority, of course, always remains for Australians to come home. But we need to start moving towards Australians who are vaccinated coming in and out of Australia to get back to normal business and family life. And moving, so we can get an immigration program that's been a hallmark of our country for so long, up and running. So, all of these things have merit.

JOURNALIST:       

Yes. So how urgent do you think it is to restart migration, to address the workforce struggles? 

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

We're still facing a pandemic that is raging across the world. And the Indian situation is testimony to that. The Government will not rush to failure. We'll work with our state and territory colleagues to ensure the vaccination program continues to roll out, that we continue, as a first step, to allow vaccinated Australians, as the Prime Minister has said, to move in and out of Australia sensibly. But there are still unknown health questions to be answered. 

Now we'll continue to respond and act on health advice, we’ll continue to be sensible on this, we’ll continue to take steps in concert with the state and territory leaders. But we're not going to rush.

JOURNALIST:       

And just in terms of the ban on India, do you expect that ban will end on 15 May?

MINISTER STUART ROBERT:

We'll wait and see where the situation lies and how it's responding. The initial decision, as a temporary pause, was taken on health advice. So, again, National Cabinet will be fully responding to health advice on the matter. 

ENDS