By Tanya Plibersek

05 June 2020



SUBJECT: HomeBuilder; Scott Morrison’s Tradie Crisis; Skills Shortages.

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: On the line right now, I believe that I have got the Federal Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek. Good morning.

TANYA PLIBERSEK MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Hi Katie. It's great to talk with you again. And I'm feeling very, very jealous about that 26 degrees. I'm in Sydney and there's beautiful blue skies, but it's freezing. And next week, I have to go to Canberra where those minus two, minus three, minus four degree temperatures are going to be there in the morning when I'm walking to work. I'm feeling chilly just thinking about it.

WOOLF: I tell you what there's no better place to live than the Northern Territory at the moment. Not only due to our weather, but we're lifting further restrictions today at midday as well. So everybody's pretty excited.

PLIBERSEK: Look, I don't think there's many places in the world that have handled the COVID-19 crisis better than the NT. I know you are getting back to sport soon. And, the only the only thing that's missing is my ability to come and visit you.

WOOLF: That's right. I was going to say, usually we get to see you.

PLIBERSEK: Get into that 26 degree temperature!

WOOLF: Usually we see you and lots of other Federal pollies around this time of the year, but unfortunately not the case this year with COVID-19. But let's talk about an announcement earlier this week firstly - just about the HomeBuilder scheme. Now, I know that it's going to allow Australians to access $25,000 grants in a bid to boost the construction industry. To be eligible, of course, individual applicants must earn less than a $125,000 a year or $200,000 for couples. On the face of it, certainly seems like a good announcement. We spoke to Master Builders here in the Northern Territory about this yesterday and it is obviously on top of the scheme that we've got running as well for Home Improvement. But Tanya, what do you think? Do you think that the Government's gone far enough with this one?

PLIBERSEK: Look, Katie, I don't think they've gone far enough. I mean when the Global Financial Crisis hit I was the Housing Minister at the time and we spent about 10 times this amount during the Global Financial Crisis on supporting construction. Because you know, this is an industry that employs more than a million people. We're talking about 450,000 tradies risking losing their jobs in coming months and we really need to make sure that we keep Australians working on the job - building houses, renovating houses. This announcement, look, if you were going to renovate anyway, this might be useful to you because it's $25,000 dollars towards a renovation, but that reno has to cost $150,000 dollars at least and you have to have signed a contract by December. So you know how long it takes to plan a new kitchen or bathroom and choose the tiles and do all the rest of it, if you're going to be doing it anyway then you might make use of it, I don't know that a lot of extra people will make use of it. And also I think there's a lot of people - you have to be earning less than $125,000 as an individual, $200,000 as a couple - there'd be a lot of people even on those relatively higher incomes who are thinking ‘oh god, I don't know if I want to risk it now with the downturn, we're actually in recession, bit worried about my job. Am I really going to spend $150,000 dollars and up on a renovation?’ If you were going to buy your own home or build your own home anyway, it'll come in handy, but I'm not sure it'll encourage a lot of people who weren't going to do it anyway.

WOOLF: So do you reckon that they maybe should have gone a little smaller in terms of the projects that you need to be doing in order to get that money to renovate your house, and maybe made it appeal to more Australians?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think they needed to have a wider appeal to more Australians. I think helping people into a home of their own is a great thing, but we need to look at some of the other areas as well. Like when we were in government, we invested some of this money into affordable rental accommodation - the National Rental Affordability Scheme. We bought 35,000 rental homes for people like nurses, teachers, doctors, police officers, who find it hard to afford the rent in the capital city where they're living, and in those days the rents in Darwin were through the roof. And also people who are homeless. Every night we turn thousands of people away who are mums and kids escaping domestic violence, thousands of veterans sleeping in parks - it's just not right in a country like Australia. So, we could have done something for people who are trying to build a home of their own, something more on the reno side. But also, we should have been looking at those people who really don't have a roof over their heads at the moment as well.

WOOLF: Let's talk more generally about the impact that COVID-19 has had on the workforce and put your hat on obviously as the Shadow Education Minister, and I know that when we talk about apprentices, it's certainly having a big impact. Before the pandemic, there was already a drop of 40 per cent in apprenticeship and traineeship commencements. Now, modelling by the National Australian Apprenticeship Association has found that a restricted economy could result in 100,000 fewer Australians in training by the end of the year. This is a worry. How do we fix something like this?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well for Darwin that means, or for the NT, that means close to a thousand less apprentices this year and this comes on top of the falls that we've already seen. Like, Darwin itself has already had a drop over the last seven years. There's 670 fewer apprentices in Darwin over the last seven years because of the cuts to TAFE and training, and then you put another thousand on top of that for the Northern Territory between now and the end of the year. It's a disaster. People will remember what it's like - as the economy begins to recover and people want to be building, if you can't find a plumber or a bricklayer or an electrician or a carpenter, that's a real problem if you're trying to build up the city again. But it's not just in the building and construction trades - you can't find a pastry chef, you can't find a sheet metal worker, automotive mechanics can find an automotive mechanic. If we want to really grow our way out of the recession that we've found ourselves in we need those skilled Australian workers to be trained right now and ready to go because I can tell you, I can guarantee for sure what will happen as the economy improves again, we hope that sooner rather than later, we'll start looking around for these skilled workers. And if we don't have them in Australia, we will start looking around the world for people who will come here on short-term visas to do that work. And we'll still have Australians sitting on the dole queue while we're looking around the world for the skills shortages that we're trying to fill.

WOOLF: Yeah, we do not want that.

PLIBERSEK: That's not good planning! That is not good planning.

WOOLF: Now, I know that the Prime Minister did announce that there's going to be an overhaul of the skills sector. What do you think needs to happen in this space so that we can try to avoid the situation that you mentioned a moment ago?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well, he's said that he's going to have a look at it and that's a good first step. But the problem has existed now for seven years and the Federal Government's cut $3 billion dollars from TAFE and training during that period. So, the first thing you should do is stop the cuts. Then he should sit down with employers, with unions, with schools, with TAFE, and work out what we need to do to connect Australians with the jobs that need doing. So, one example is businesses suggested that we need to beef up the apprentice wage subsidies in the early years of apprenticeships, that's got to be something worth looking at. The Government has announced this National Skills Commission. It's basically a section of the old Department of Education that's been given a new title. I mean, we need to think bigger than that. We really need to be sitting at the table with employers, with unions, with TAFE and saying how do we train Australians for the jobs that need doing now. We've had some things on the skills shortage list for years. I've been talking to mechanics, for example, who have been desperate to find skilled mechanics to come and work with them. Why aren't we training them right now? We've got a choice between letting people sit on a dole queue, or training them for the jobs that that will exist again when our economy recovers.

WOOLF: How do we tap into that right now so that we do have people out there doing that training? As you've mentioned there's people that are on the dole queue, there's also people that maybe they're still working but their work capacity has reduced. Lots of people out in our community are saying that they've taken less working hours - 20 per cent and 30 per cent pay cuts. Is there a way that maybe, you know, we're able to tap into that and get those people doing some training or get people doing some training so that they are able to maybe even look at a new career if that's what they choose to do?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well, we'd be mad not too. We really would be mad not too right?

WOOLF: Yeah.

PLIBERSEK: The Government announced a while ago that there'd be 20,000 short courses at university that people could do. But they haven't given the universities any money to do that. So again, you sort of get the headline announcement, but you don't get any follow through. What we really need is some good, solid follow through and we need to, instead of cutting the funding that's going into training and apprenticeships, we need to be prepared to pay for those skills to be developed now because our country needs them. Like if you give a young person a great qualification, they can work anywhere, they can support themselves, they can support a family, they can put a roof over their heads. It's great for them, but it's also so necessary for our country. Three quarters of employers said before COVID-19 that they didn't have the skilled staff they needed. Three quarters of employers said that they didn't have the skilled stuff they needed. I had employers all the time stopping me, telling me – ‘I'd love to put on another butcher’, ‘I'd love to put another butcher, I'd love to expand’, ‘I'd love to put on another sheet metal worker’, ‘I'd love to expand my factory’, ‘I'd like to put on another baker’, ‘I want to be doing more commercial baking’ and they couldn't find those people. We need to train them now.

WOOLF: Well, I tell you what Tanya Plibersek, it's certainly a discussion that is well worth having and one which we, I think, we'll continue to have here in the Territory. We really appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so very much for having a chat with us.

PLIBERSEK: Always a pleasure Katie. Thank you.