Release type: Transcript


Interview — Sky News Live Afternoon Agenda with Kieran Gilbert


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


Topics: June labour force figures; mental health

KIERAN GILBERT: Let's bring in the Employment Minister, Stuart Robert, who joins me. Minister, thanks very much for your time.

We're waiting for the Prime Minister to speak at Kirribilli, but let's talk quickly about this, well, one glimmer of hope, one bit of good news that's popped out today amid all the outbreaks and so on. The unemployment rate down below five per cent.

MINISTER ROBERT: It's superb news, 4.9 per cent. What was really good news, Kieran, is we've seen youth unemployment down to 10.2 per cent and 18,000 young Australians get a job. That's the takeaway point from this. Really good to see.

KIERAN GILBERT: The challenge, the parallel challenge of this tight labour market is the shortages. As you well know, you've been dealing with the hospitality sector, thousands of vacancies for chefs and other similar jobs.

MINISTER ROBERT: Hundreds of thousands, Kieran. If you look at the latest Internet Vacancy Index, the IVI, well over 250,000 vacancies. And I think we're starting to see skills crunches right across the economy. Because by this stage, if there was no pandemic, we’d have almost 400,000 skilled migrants in, and of course, that number is a fraction of that. So, we're starting to see the economy really feeling that skills crunch.

KIERAN GILBERT: My colleague Tom Connell yesterday reporting on some Cabinet discussions around getting skilled workers back into Australia, potentially via Howard Springs at some point down the track. How important is it for us to start plugging those gaps, not just in hospitality, but in some high-end engineering and defence sectors as well?

MINISTER ROBERT: Fundamentally important, Kieran. The first priority remains to get Australians skilled and into work. It's why you saw $2.7 billion in Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements, and another billion dollars in JobTrainer. So, we want Australians to have opportunities, but of course, we need to import skills like we've been doing for literally hundreds of years.

Now, we'll have a lot more to say about that in the coming weeks. There's no surprise I’m the first Minister for Workforce, because that's a real priority for this government on how we manage the workforce needs of our economy.

Because we're in this great position whereby we're growing more Australians in jobs now than pre-COVID, the only industrialised nation to have that benefit. But we want to keep that going. So, there's a lot more to do, and we'll have a lot more to say.

KIERAN GILBERT: This Delta variant is proving quite a difficult foe to manage. We're seeing lockdowns in Sydney, sadly, another one looming in Victoria, its fifth, and we're awaiting now the Prime Minister to detail the additional assistance. How important is it to keep people connected to their employers as part of any response?

MINISTER ROBERT: One of the reasons we came out of COVID so strongly, now 13,154,000 Australians employed, 29,000 more than last month, even with two weeks of Victoria's lockdown previously. One of the reasons as a nation we've achieved that together with business is we kept that business and employee connected together. It was fundamental.

It was a very Australian unique solution to a problem. And it's one of the real success stories out of COVID. It's one of the reasons why we've been able to have more Australians in work and why our unemployment rate is coming down so sharply. But we've got a lot more to do, and we can't sit back and go, ‘that was successful’. We've got to work on the next policy challenge, and the next one, and the next one.

Our priority now is keeping Australians safe, obviously, but getting Australians skilled and into work and looking at how we then bring in those super skilled migrants that really add value to our economy and then setting us up for a post-COVID future.

KIERAN GILBERT: We've seen the response. The quick, short, sharp lockdowns seem to have worked when states move quickly. Did Premier Berejiklian, in this case with this more infectious strain, did she wait too long?

MINISTER ROBERT: We'll leave that to the health professionals to talk about, Kieran. I'm here to talk about workforce and jobs, so I can't really comment. It's not my area of expertise. But it's certainly shown effective in the past. The Delta variant, of course, is throwing a spanner in the works. But what this does show is things are changing every day.

If someone thinks they've got a playbook for COVID, they're kidding themselves. We're having to deal with this every day, make changes every day, make decisions every day, and there are curveballs every single day.

But how good are the Australian population, Kieran? They keep responding to government’s request. They keep partnering with government in that great social contract we have with the Australian population. And we just need to encourage them to keep doing it. With 166,000 people vaccinated yesterday, almost 9.5 million Australians vaccinated, we are getting there at a good rate of knots now.

KIERAN GILBERT: Are you worried about the shadow pandemic, as Pat McGorry, the great Australian of the Year, psychiatrist, adolescent psychiatrist, set up Headspace – he talks about the shadow pandemic and the impact on those younger Australians, particularly. A fifth lockdown in Melbourne. Hard to understand the difficulties so many kids are dealing with right now as they're growing up. They should be at school. They should be engaging with other kids. But it's been – it hasn't been the case for the last 18 months.

MINISTER ROBERT: Yeah, it's pretty hard, and hundreds of thousands of Melburnians live in units. It's the largest collection of Australians in unit-living in a city of any city in the nation, I believe. And that's got to have its toll if you're in less than 100 square metres especially.

It's one of the reasons in the Budget, Kieran, we put so much money into what we're calling Head to Health centres. So how do we have youth mental health for those at a younger age as well as those post-24 in Head to Health? Because mental health is important, and I think Australians have found it very, very difficult. And we've got to continue to lean into it. And there's a further $17 million in mental health support for New South Wales as they're going through it.

And it's a great reminder to us all to look after our neighbour. There's someone left and right of us wherever we live, on a street or in a unit. And it's never too late to ask people if they're okay, never too late to reach out a helping hand to Australians. And if we all do that one to another, I think we’re going to lessen the burden on us all.

KIERAN GILBERT: Stuart Robert, I appreciate your time. We’ll talk to you soon.