Transcript: Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing - Jobs and Skills Summit

01 September 2022

Interview with Greg Jennett on ABC Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT: All right, time now for our political panel and joining us Labor frontbencher, Assistant Education Minister, Anthony Chisholm, is in Brisbane, and Nationals Senator Matt Canavan is in Yeppoon. And we offer the usual footnote to Senator Canavan. He’s in his own office, using his own broadcast equipment and his messages are also his own.

So, both of you are remote – Anthony, Matt – to the Jobs and Skills Summit. I’ll get some assessments from afar, though. Starting with you, Anthony. If you had to put your finger on a specific result that’s going to stand out from what has been announced and discussed so far today, what would it be, enterprise bargaining being revitalised, migration or more women back into the workforce?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: I’d probably start with the skills announcement, Greg. I think that is significant because I think it touches on all those other issues that you mentioned and it’s a key part of getting the labour market in good order. It also answers part of that migration challenge as well, and I think it can lead to a boost in wages for female workers at the same time. So, that’s probably the one that I was excited about today.

The last couple of weeks the Treasurer and I, Jim Chalmers, we spent time on the Sunshine Coast. We spent time in Rockhampton. Earlier this week, I was in Roma. I was at the Business Council of Australia dinner last night. So, I’ve seen the different sections of the community and how they’ve responded to this Jobs and Skills Summit, and I think there’s an enormous amount of goodwill for it to achieve good things and I think it’s pleasing that we’re seeing the first signs of that on the first day.

GREG JENNETT: Well, they certainly are responding, Matt Canavan, because I can report at the moment we started this conversation, you had BHP’s boss addressing the summit downstairs in the Great Hall. Rio is here. Fortescue Metals are here. There’s great buy-in from corporate Australia and resources Australia. Do you think you sold this down the river too soon as a concept?

MATT CANAVAN: No, I think all of those businesses, I pity them a little bit. They really are conscripts, not volunteers. They can’t exactly decline the new Government’s invitation to these kinds of events. I hardly think they were looking forward to it because really this so-called summit is not really a conversation, it’s just a platform for the Labor Party to announce policies that it has obviously already prepared and would have announced anyway, and most of those policies, I don’t think, are overly objectionable. I’ve got some questions over the removal of enterprise bargaining and moving away from that to industry-wide bargaining. But I think the main issue here is that the whole frame of the conference seems to miss the mark. The biggest problem facing Australians right now is inflation, the cost of living and the consequent reduction in living standards. The other week we saw the biggest reduction in real wages on record, and so the policies being pushed here aren’t really designed to deal and tackle with that issue.

GREG JENNETT: Sorry, to interrupt, Matt, wouldn’t they argue that embedded in the objectives here is exactly that, to get productivity going so that the wages may follow?

MATT CANAVAN: Yeah, I just don’t think any of the things we’ve heard – as I say, they are relatively not objectionable – but I don’t think any of them are going to shift the dial. I mean, the former Government was putting a lot of money into training and previous Labor governments have done that. Too often we see training for training’s sake, though. In terms of actually lifting our productivity and dealing with the fact that over the past decade we’ve had the lowest productivity growth for 60 years, none of this stuff really seems to – is going to fix that. When you look into that productivity performance, the biggest laggards have been our provision of electricity and water and gas services. That’s been highjacked by climate and green policies that’s made it more costly to deliver those services and hence a lower productivity outcome and subdued real wages for Australians.

GREG JENNETT: All right. To Matt’s point, Anthony Chisholm, if enterprise bargaining of itself doesn’t deliver pay rises, you have to get productivity kick-started before you get there and then you embed it in those agreements. How likely is it that that is what we’ll see?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Well, I think what we saw is that there’s agreement from all sides that the current enterprise bargaining system isn’t working. It’s not working for employees. It’s not working for employers. So, I think that’s the first step. I think in terms of productivity – and everyone in the country wants to see productivity because that’s the way you’re actually going to see sustainable wages growth into the future. And again, that comes back to the skills and how can we get people doing the appropriate skills that we need that are going to boost productivity and lead to wage increases. It’s also got that link to migration because I think some of the temporary migration, we’ve seen has been to plug those skills shortages, but that has been used to drive down wages and conditions at the same time. That’s why I think there’s a strong link between the two and it’s important that we’re having those conversations over two days. I think that’s what Matt misses the mark on, is that this is the start of a conversation about fixing these problems. It’s going to make some short-term gains, but the task for the Labor Government is to fix these long-term problems and today’s the start of that conversation.

GREG JENNETT: So, on migration, Matt, we heard from Natasha Fyles the Northern Territory Chief Minister. She has particular needs that she’s arguing for – you know, localised migration schemes perhaps out of Timor‑Leste. You’re from a regional part of Queensland, what are you looking for? It is not just a lift in the overall cap, is it; it’s got to be directed in some way to with are those jobs are needed?

MATT CANAVAN: Look, I have had some concerns with some of the conversation about this issue. There was one major employer saying that the Pacific Islander labour scheme should be opened up to capital cities, to metropolitan areas. Currently, that’s restricted to, generally speaking, regional areas of the country, and that’s to meet those demands in those areas where it’s been often difficult and hard to get Australians to move to fill worker shortages. So, I hope that is not taken up by the government and I didn’t see Natasha Fyles’ contribution; but, definitely, I think the designated area migration agreements which have been in place for some years can be built on – are a good and useful way of filling specific vacancies in specific regions of the country. So, these DAMAs, as they are called, just cover a particular region. They can then cover particular industries and sectors and target, like Natasha was saying, particular countries to get those vacancies from. So, that worked well, and we could possibly roll out those more. But overall, I don’t want to return – I hope we don’t return to the large-scale migration we had before COVID. I think there’s room here for Australian’s wages to go up, and we want to see that happen before we would open the floodgates to all and sundry.

GREG JENNETT: I do want to cover some other topics, Anthony, but just to wrap up that point on migration. Should we be building in some sort of triggers here around local domestic wages before we would press go on a really large-scale enlargement of the migration program?

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: I think there’s many dimensions to this, Greg. As I’ve talked about consistently, I think that’s skills part for Australian workers is an important part of it. I also think there’s been some interesting comments from Minister Clare around foreign students coming back and the pathway they have for migration. I think for me once we do settle on a figure, it’s also having that capability for people to move to permanent residency rather than it just all being temporary. So, they’re important parts that I think need to be considered as we start to conversation tomorrow.

GREG JENNETT: Why don’t we move to stage 3 tax cuts because they’re not really, or strictly, a part of this Jobs and Skills Summit at all; and, yet certain participants are arguing for them to be revisited. Matt Canavan, I’ll start with you. How wedded to these are you now, or do you share a position with Russell Broadbent who says times have simply changed?

MATT CANAVAN: Look, I always respect Russell’s view. He always makes unique and considered contributions to our party room. But I do disagree with him on this. It goes to the conversation that I was talking about earlier that I really do think we need to lift our productivity and one way of doing that is lowering taxes and encouraging incentives for people to invest, to take risks and build returns not just for themselves but for the broader public.

We are out of step with the rest of the world. Our top tax rate of effectively 49 per cent after the Medicare levy kicks in at $180,000 a year, whereas in New Zealand, their top tax rate is just 39 per cent. In the US, it’s 37 per cent and in the UK, they’ve got 45 per cent, similar to ours but theirs doesn’t kick in until over $AU260,000. So, if we want to compete, for people to make investments, as I say, to open up businesses, I think we’ve got to become more in‑step there with the rest of the world and this is a productivity measure which would be good for the entire Australian economy.

GREG JENNETT: All right. So, how much comfort does it give you, Anthony, to be in lockstep with Matt Canavan on this one? I get the impression that if we could just scratch a Labor Senator or a Labor MP a little more deeply, we’d find someone who said, “Yeah, the coffers could really do with retaining that 20 or $30 billion each year.”

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Well, I don’t like to agree with Matt on many things and I always look for differences, but this is something that we supported in the legislation. It is two years away from being implemented, so it’s not something that is front of mind. I support the tax cuts. I think that they are in place. I think that there’s an element of keeping faith with voters as well. Obviously, people elected us to Government only months ago and we were supportive of these tax cuts. I think in terms of our Budget priorities, obviously, we’ve got our first Budget coming down in October and there’s a real focus on that from the Treasurer and the Finance Minister – identifying the waste and rorts. If you had a dollar for every time, you’ve heard the Treasurer talk about the billion dollars that were – the trillion dollars that we’re heaving in debt, I think you get a sense of what our priorities are over the short term; and then, also, there’s the international tax reform to ensure that multinational companies are paying their fair share. There’s been important work that the previous Government did on that, and we’ll obviously pick up on that and hope to implement those changes as soon as possible.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, you aren’t the first to join us this week and kind of provide little wriggle room to get out of this one, so we’ll take it as a lock that it is in fact in place until July 2024 unless we learn otherwise.

On that note, we’re going to thank both of you, Anthony Chisholm and Matt Canavan, for joining us once again, a little further away from the Jobs and Skills Summit action but really appreciate your insights today.

ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Thanks, Greg. Thanks, Matt.