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Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Brendan O’Connor, as always, welcome back to the studio. Always good to have you with us.


JENNETT: March jobs figures are still pretty low on the unemployment front, edging up ever so slightly. It suggests, doesn’t it, that there is still heat in the economy? And how does that augur for the fight against inflation?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Look, the unemployment figure’s good. It’s got a three in front of it, that’s important. This government has created 780,000 jobs, more than any government in our history, and that’s a good thing. And today’s figures reinforce the fact that we’ve still got relatively low unemployment, but there is softening in the economy, and I think those figures also illustrate that.

Inflation is moderating and we’re tackling a number of things. We want to maintain low unemployment. We want to make sure that we continue to see inflation fall so that we can ease cost of living pressures. And it’s also at a time, Greg, where we’re seeing wages rise in real terms – so, that’s important too, for people dealing with household budgets.

JENNETT: There are a few contradictory indicators. I suppose the Treasurer would use the word ‘volatility’ in economic outlook at the moment. But just on unemployment, the Budget would have had us at about four and a quarter per cent by June of this year. We’re running well under that. Might it be necessary to revise downwards?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Well, again, it’s good to see, when Treasury makes forecasts, it’s very good when you see that you come in under that when it comes to the unemployment rate. And indeed, we want to make sure we continue as a government to see unemployment low and make sure we continue to see inflation moderate and fall so we ease cost of living pressures. These are challenging things because one decision by government can have a different impact on these statistics, but really, inflation moderating and falling, unemployment – still got a three in front of it. And I think these are good indicators for a government managing the economy well. And as I say, it spoke to the report by the IMF just recently that within three years as a budget manager, we’ve moved from 14 in the G20 rankings to second.

JENNETT: Just on that, since you raised it, we have moved up, but that’s because we had a $22 billion surplus. If these things are important and you’re highlighting them here, so they must be, does that mean it’s imperative to post a surplus again in the 24-25 Budget coming up next month?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Well, we didn’t just have a surplus. We had the first surplus in 15 years. We had a $100 billion turnaround compared with the previous government. That’s an incredible effort by the government, by the Treasurer, Prime Minister and others, and Finance Minister. And of course, we’d like to see another surplus – it’s within our reach. But there’s a lot of decisions to be made to make sure we get the balance right in terms of easing cost of living by initiatives, managing so many important areas of investment, like education and training, that Jason Clare and I are very much involved in, investing in a ‘Future Made in Australia’. We need to do all of those things but be fiscally responsible because we did inherit the largest public debt in Australia’s history.

JENNETT: All right, let’s get to ‘Future Made in Australia’. I’d love, since the Treasurer’s out of the country, for you to disclose whether we’re getting a surplus or not, but somehow, I think you won’t tell us that, Brendan.

‘Future Made in Australia’, the government’s making the case for these subsidies and incentives. Can I just check the guard rails on this before the government sinks money into it? Do you have a jobs target that you’re seeking as a dividend when you go into these investments?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Look, the way we make decisions in relation to investing in our economy is we want to make sure that we have a high-skilled, productive, efficient economy and labour market which will deliver cheaper goods and services. We want to make sure in this very complex, globalised economy that we are a highly skilled workforce so that we can compete with countries in the region and beyond. And we need to make sure, for example, we are more self-reliant as a country.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to a ‘Future Made in Australia’ speaks to a country that is self-reliant, that can make things here, that can stand on its own two feet. And we are very happy to invest and partner with the private sector to get the very best, the best innovation and the best we possibly can from taxpayers’ money. That’s our task and we believe we can do that if we work with industry to achieve those ends.

JENNETT: I ask about the jobs dividend because some expectations seem to be running rampant in this area. You launched a Metalworkers Union report a week ago that predicts up to 60,000 jobs in solar panel manufacturing. That’s one sector alone needed to meet Net Zero. Does that figure align with government estimates, 60,000?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Look, I launched that report happily because it’s a contribution to a debate and indeed, I very much agree with its direction. The Jobs and Skills Australia body that we established said that there will need to be 240,000 jobs by 2030 in the energy sector, 32,000 extra electricians, and most of those jobs, Greg, will be within the regions.

So, our own analysis shows that if we’re going to transition the economy in the energy sector, we’re going to move to renewables, there are plenty of jobs on offer, high skilled, well paid, and most of them in the regions –

JENNETT: You wouldn’t break them down, though, into solar panel manufacturing – have you got a figure on that?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: I don’t have that figure. The JSA is working on exactly that. So, what we’ve done is established a body that will collect public and private data to look at where the trends are in our labour market. I’ve got ten Jobs and Skills Councils also created from different sectors of the economy working with JSA.

So, we are trying to be more precise in anticipating where the areas of the skills demand are, so we know where to invest. These are target figures, but there’s no doubt if we invest in manufacturing, we’ll see dividends. If we invest in skills in the energy sector, to see the transformation of our economy to renewables, we will see job numbers grow.

JENNETT: Because you’re a Labor Government and you’d be investing money, you know, co-investing with private sector, would there be an expectation about union coverage in some of these workplaces? You’d expect the AMWU to say this, but they talk about good, unionised jobs in this sector.

Would that be a quota requirement?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: No. Look, obviously unions have a right to represent workers in workplaces in a democracy, including Australia, and maybe the other major party in this country has an enmity towards people being represented. But it’s democratic for people to join unions and they have a right to be represented and organised.

That’s entirely up to workers and unions to do that. We are a government, obviously, that’s supportive and we believe in tripartite arrangements, employers, employer bodies, unions and workers. We believe, working with workers and businesses, we get better results. But ultimately, no, there’s no prescription around unionisation on the basis of investment by the Albanese Government.

JENNETT: All right. And can I take you to some broad criticisms coming in from economists, particularly those who have had positions of power at the Productivity Commission in the past – Gary Banks – and presently now, Danielle Wood. Gary Banks has spoken about the market, we’re returning to a fool’s errand, particularly where competitive fundamentals are lacking in our economy, he says, are they wrong?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Look, I haven’t seen the detailed critique by either of those two people that you mentioned, and they’ve got every right to express their views. I believe that the best way we deliver to this country is governments working with industry, and working to ensure that we’re strategic about the way we deploy resources.

For example, in my portfolio, it’s investing in skills but working with businesses, so we make sure they get the skills that they need. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a government setting out a strategic plan with industry to deliver a more, for example, efficient economy or more innovation in the manufacturing sector. These are sensible things. And if you look around the world, the strongest economies in the world have governments being strategic and investing with industry in areas of growth for the future.

JENNETT: They certainly do. And the United States is leading that –


JENNETT: – with the Inflation Reduction Act.

MINISTER O’CONNOR: That’s right.

JENNETT: Are there areas that are strictly off-limits? I notice that the Business Council of Australia has said you should not invest in things that will never stand on their own feet commercially, nor should you ever invest in things that would always stand on their feet commercially. Do you kind of accept that as a proposition?

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Well, I’m not sure all members of the BCA don’t want us to be working with them on areas that are commercially successful. I respect again, the BCA’s view, however, there are roles for government to play in working with sectors of the economy that are profitable.

In fact, profitable companies come to me every week and ask me to invest in education and training with taxpayers’ dollars, so they can have skilled workers. So, this notion that there’s this complete artificial separation between government and the private sector is, I think, wrongheaded. I think it’s fairer to say that we have to respect the market. Market is critical to inform the way we behave. But equally, governments have a role to be strategic and intervene in the market, working with industry, when it’s in our national interest. And that’s what the National Reconstruction Fund and the ‘Future Made in Australia’ is all about. And I think the Prime Minister outlined that very well last week.

JENNETT: All right, well we await the specifics – the details in the budget. Brendan O’Connor, we’ll wrap it up there. Thanking you, as always.

MINISTER O’CONNOR: Thanks very much, Greg.

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