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Interview - ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland

Ministers:

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

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MICHAEL ROWLAND:

This week's Budget included measures to boost apprenticeships, with subsidies to create more than 100,000 new places. But will that be enough to reduce youth unemployment and combat what is increasingly an acute skills shortage in this country? The Federal Employment Minister, Stuart Robert, joins us now from the Gold Coast. Minister, good morning to you. 

MINISTER ROBERT:

Good morning, Michael. It’s a beautiful day here in the GC.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Looks pretty good there. Now I want to ask you about the Budget. But firstly, for your reaction to what Anthony Albanese last night announced, including that $10 billion plan to build more social housing. Pretty good, on face value?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I find myself agreeing with your colleague, Laura Tingle, that it was fairly flat, Michael. If you look at what we're doing in social housing, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation – NHFIC – is already doing 10,000 houses at 40 per cent of the cost without any of what Mr Albanese is trying to put in place. So, what he's talking about, we're already doing, hence, I guess, Ms Tingle's concept of fairly flat, really.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

The Labor Party has also committed to criminalising wage theft if it wins power. Should wage theft be illegal?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think it should be. And in fact, our industrial relations bill that got knocked on the head in the Senate actually included provisions to do exactly that. So, Labor's simply catching up, as they are on apprenticeships, Michael. We announced 170,000 apprenticeships with a $7,000 a quarter subsidy, and Labor turns up with only 10,000. It's just all a bit of a nothing, really.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Right. But you withdrew that bill. The other parts of the IR bill were opposed, not wage theft.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Indeed, but wage theft unfortunately was not able to be gotten through the Senate, whereas that was the provision we took through. I think we all agree that it should be illegal for wages not to be paid legitimately and lawfully to Australians. We're on a unity ticket on that.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

You can bring in new legislation just on that alone.

MINISTER ROBERT:

I'm sure there's all sorts of options to do things, but Labor's not particularly constructive about...

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

[Talks over] Well if you're serious about wage theft being criminalised, just bring in a bill focusing just on that. You’ll probably get it through with flying colours.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, we had a bill, Michael, in the Senate. We had a bill in the Senate. We have it right there for Labor to work constructively with us, but they chose not to. And that's the problem with Labor, Michael. They say one thing when they're at the podium, and another thing when it comes to the Senate. Albo wants to have a bet each way, and you can't. He's got to stump up and stand up for something. And last night was just flat.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Okay. Now to the Budget papers, what struck me in them was, despite the jobless rate coming down – and we know the Government is predicting the jobless rate to eventually fall to 4.5 per cent – long-term unemployment, that rate is increasing. Long-term unemployment, sadly people who’ve been out of work for 12 months or more. What are you doing to help those people? Largely those in their 50s and 60s, who simply no matter how good they are, cannot get a foothold in the jobs market?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Yeah, it's a challenge, Michael. There's 350,000 Australians over the age of 50 currently on benefits – JobSeeker – and 170,000 long-term unemployed. So there's 162,000 JobTrainer places to skill across 300 qualifications. And 170,000 new apprenticeship places in place as well, especially to pick up school leavers. Our focus now is to really help those 1.16 million Australians on payment because immigration is not possible for us, and that of course has picked up 50 per cent of the growth of employment in the last five years. So, right now, it's all about focusing on Australians and how we skill them and connect them with the jobs that are available right now.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Youth long-term unemployment rate has gone up 54 per cent – these are 15-to-24-year-olds – 54 per cent in the year to March this year. That is a big problem, and that’s a big hurdle to overcome, isn't it? Getting those people, those kids, jobs?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It is. 122,000 Australians on what we call Youth Allowance other, which means they're not in a job and they're not training. And they need to be in either one of them. So my department is bringing forward an urgent plan on how we connect individually with those 122,000 Australians to either provide them into one of the 170,000-odd new apprenticeships, or 163,000 new traineeships through the JobTrainer program, so that the skilling approach is there, there's enough funding in the Budget to ensure every single one of those young Australians can get a skill, and that's going to be a key focus as we move forward.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

The Budget also forecasts pretty flat wages growth, subdued wages growth for the next four years. That would have been – or that is pretty depressing news for most Australian workers. How are you going to fix that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, wages growth will always come hand in hand with inflation and low unemployment. You'll never get strong wages growth when you've got 1.1 million Australians unemployed. Now thankfully, there's 13.1 million Australians employed now, more than pre-pandemic. The only major advanced economy in the world to do that. So, Australian businesses are doing well. But we need to continue to skill Australians. It's why there is so much money and so much emphasis on skilling, training and apprenticeships. And as we see the unemployment rate come down, that's the impetus for wage growth. And that’s why getting people into jobs is just so important for us.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

When can Australians expect a decent wage increase?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The Reserve Bank and the Budget papers are forecasting unemployment to look at five per cent by the end of the year. The Reserve Bank Governor's talking about a number with a four in front of it into next year. Full employment is somewhere around 4.5 per cent, although Dr Lowe is now talking about a number with perhaps a three in front of it. But it's those sort of levels we've got to get unemployment down to.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Okay. Just before we go, your Queensland Liberal Party college Andrew Laming was back in Parliament this week. He's been accused of all sorts of unsavoury conduct towards women, including trolling women online. Why does the Government still take his vote?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, Andrew Laming's released a statement. He's gone and sought assistance. He's gone and received medication and training. So he's doing everything he possibly can. And I'll leave his statements to stand for what he's doing and what he's up to.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

He took a photo of a young woman as she was bending over to fill a fridge in a Brisbane landscaping store. He described that as an utterly appropriate workplace photo. What do you think of that conduct?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, again, Andrew Laming has dealt with that issue a number of months ago when it arrived. He released a statement about it, and we should leave it at that.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Is Andrew Laming a man of good character, in your view?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, again, Andrew Laming has released a statement about his behaviour. He's talked about the training he's undergoing, the medical attention he's sought, as well as the medication he's sought.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Yes, but you're a colleague of his. Is he a man of good character?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, I'm not one who judges character, Michael. If we all went around judging each other’s character...

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

[Talks over] You've known him for a fair while. You've been in parliament a while and so has he…

MINISTER ROBERT:

[Talks over] there'd be two friends amongst the place...

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

I know, but is he a man of good character?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Andrew Laming is a man who has outlined the challenges he's had. He’s outlined the training and medical assistance he's sought, as well as the medication he's sought. And he’s fulfilling all of those obligations that he's set for himself.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:
And the Government will still take his vote looking forward?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We'll continue to work with Andrew as long as Andrew continues to adhere to all of the standards he's set for himself, which clearly he is.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Okay. Stuart Robert, we'll leave it there. Thank you for joining us this morning.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great to talk to you, Michael.

[ENDS]