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E&OE TRANSCRIPT DOORSTOP INTERVIEW MELBOURNE THURSDAY, 21 JANUARY 2021

January 21, 2021

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT:

O'CONNOR: Thanks very much for coming. I just want to respond to the ABS data out today for last month. It's clear that there's been some improvement to employment. Labor welcomes any additional job to the labour market.

It's really important now, at a time when many Australians are finding it very difficult to find work or to find enough work, that we see opportunities in the labour market, and there's been some modest signs of that. But there's still a very long way to go.

We have many, many Australians out of work. There's over 15 per cent of Australians that are either looking for more work, or looking for any work and not being able to find it. And that needs to be therefore the goal of the government to look after those workers who are underemployed, unemployed, and also deal with the persistent low wage growth.

We have the lowest wage growth on record. We have people even when they are employed are finding it difficult to make ends meet, because of the very, very low wage growth - in many sectors of our economy negative wage growth, which is really making it difficult for people. And for that reason, the government needs to do more, to make sure that people are not left behind.

What we've seen from this government is it's very happy to help some, but not help everyone. For example, the JobMaker initiative announced by the government last year was to help people recover after the end of JobKeeper. However, no worker over the age of 35 will be provided any support in looking for work, now or indeed when JobKeeper ends.

Now, for those hundreds of thousands of Australians that are reliant on JobKeeper, for those thousands and thousands of businesses that are reliant on JobKeeper, they have only 10 more weeks before that support ends. And so it's Labor's view and others for that matter, that there may well be many Australians that will find themselves unemployed at the end of JobKeeper, and we advise the government to properly consider extending JobKeeper for those sectors of the economy that have still been very hard hit as a result of this pandemic.

Now, the state premiers and Chief Ministers have done a fine job in responding to this pandemic. In fact, they are primarily responsible for our good fortune. However, the federal government needs to do more. It should have been engaged and led on quarantine, it failed to do that. But it should be doing more in responding to those businesses and workers who are struggling in this pandemic, because there's not dedicated policies to help them as something they should be doing.

The other thing the government should be examining is why is it the case that those people that are accessing job employment services, Jobactive services, has doubled since February from 700,000 Australians, we now have 1.4 million Australians that are looking for work using those services. And yet there's been no proper examination of the effectiveness and efficacy of the Jobactive program. That needs to be attended to and examined by the government.

But what that really says is there are many, many Australians whilst they are employed, they're not employed with sufficient hours so they are still engaged with employment services seeking to find new work, more work, so that they can make ends meet. That is clear from the doubling of the participation in the Jobactive program, compared with February last year.

That's a remarkable increase in accessing employment services, which speaks to the fact that there many, many Australians who are still really struggling to make things work for them, and then look after their families and deal with all of the challenges that people confront in their ordinary lives. These are the things that the government needs to attend to.

Can I also finally say, congratulations to the Biden administration. The inauguration only happened just over eight hours ago. It's a newly minted administration. We wish them well. We think it's a possibility of a reset for United States relationship with many countries including Australia. We expect to see the return of normalcy in international relationships and I think that's a good thing.

We expect therefore, that the Morison government engage with the new administration. Obviously Scott Morrison has not done us any favours in the way in which he failed to criticise the conduct of the outgoing President Donald Trump, when he was involved in inciting a riot of Capitol Hill.

Now, while other world leaders and conservative leaders, Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson, condemned the actions of Donald Trump in inciting the behavior of the attack on Capitol Hill, Scott Morrison remains silent.

He also did not do us any favours involving himself on a campaigning visit with Donald Trump last year. He should have avoided that situation. And he certainly should have come out and spoken more candidly, and with principle, and more robustly on the actions of Donald Trump. But he failed to do so.

So I hope that their can be better efforts by the Morison government to engage with the Biden administration. But what we see, of course, with this incoming US administration is the return of normal relationships, and that's a good thing.

We see the re-signing of the Paris accord as almost one of the first acts of President Biden and Labor welcomes that. And we call upon the federal government to focus on climate change to realise their current policies are completely outside the norm, compared to comparable countries. And therefore, the government needs to reassess its position in relation to tackling climate change, and it should be doing that, as a matter of urgency.

Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: You touched on it earlier, but do you believe enough is being done to help young people struggling to find work?

O'CONNOR: No, I think more should be done. We always know that the unemployment rate of young people is relatively higher compared to the general unemployment rate. There needs to be dedicated programs, that's why we certainly think that maybe through JobMaker there might be some opportunities. But always, when you see a very high unemployment rate, well in excess of 10 per cent for young people, governments need to have policies in place that provide dedicated support to younger workers.

Now, I think the government would contend that with JobMaker they are doing that, but the proof of that will be whether in fact employment growth continues, whether the unemployment rate of young people falls. And it's not just about employment, we need to make sure that they have opportunities to go into meaningful education, whether it be vocational tertiary education.

So young people need to be given opportunities in learning and earning, and we don't believe the government has done enough to date. But again, they shouldn't be leaving people behind whether it's young or old. We'd like to see those people that are needing support from government to get that from this government. And we need the government to be trying harder to do just that.

JOURNALIST: Labor has repeatedly called for JobKeeper support to be extended past March. How long do you think that support should stay in place for?

O'CONNOR: Well, I think that certainly it's a temporary measure. JobKeeper is a temporary measure and should be seen as such, but we need to be making sure that JobKeeper support is there while sectors of the economy are suffering.

Now, we've already seen some sectors of our economy call upon the Morrison government to extend JobKeeper so that those businesses do not fail. The one thing that's very clear is it's not just workers missing out, it's also businesses that will fail and potentially hit the wall if the government does not provide sufficient support.

So, what we would suggest is certainly beyond March the government should reassess that. It probably can reassess that every quarter. And it will obviously be dependent upon whether the economy is sufficiently recovered. Because what we see with this pandemic is some sectors of the economy being harder hit than others. And therefore, JobKeeper should be targeted, targeting those areas most affected, and the government can assess that every quarter. And when things have returned to pre-pandemic conditions for all sectors of the economy, of course that measure should be lifted.

JOURNALIST: So just to clarify, you believe JobKeeper should be extended for at least another quarter?

O'CONNOR: I think it can be assessed every three months. That's a reasonable thing for a government to do. It's not to say it should only last for three months, but we can make that determination every quarter. I think that's a reasonable and responsible thing to do for the Morison government.

JOURNALIST: And what's your reaction with the figures, it's quite interesting to see, women have been fairing slightly better than men in regards to payroll and also wages. What's your reaction?

O'CONNOR: Well, I think overall, that's not necessarily been the case. We know that many sectors of the economy most affected have been in retail, food and accommodation, certainly travel and aviation. So many women have been affected by the pandemic. Quite often women have been on the front line of the pandemic too in health occupations and other occupations, including in large retail stores. So, I think it's fair to say that if there's been any improvement in the wage growth of women, if we've seen a narrowing of the gap in wages between men and women, that's a good thing.

However, I think we need to assess these figures properly. Sometimes the narrowing of the gap between men and women's wages is a result of suppressed wages. When there's low wage growth, you see that gap narrow. What we want to see is all workers’ wages grow reasonably. But we've seen that the Morrison government has presided over the lowest wage growth on record for men and women, and that has to change. Otherwise, it's bad for those workers and ultimately bad for our economy.

JOURNALIST: We've also seen, just to change topic, we've see a number of medevac refugees released from detention in Melbourne this week. Why do you think the government's made that decision now, to do that?

O'CONNOR: Well, you'll have to ask the government that. I mean they have not got a very good record in the way in which they have detained people indefinitely. So, if they can find a way to release people in a safe way, then they should be doing that as a matter of urgency.

We don't want to see people indefinitely detained. Some people have been detained for terribly long periods of time, and therefore the government should be responding and acting in a decent manner and treating people in a humane way. And that's what we expect.

Why the government's chosen to release these refugees this period? I'm not quite sure but the government should be treating people humanely.

JOURNALIST: There are a number of pending court cases in regards to their detention, do you believe that might have helped force the government's hand?

O'CONNOR: Look, that I can't answer the question. I'm not aware of the facts other than to say people should be treated fairly. People should not be detained indefinitely for no good reason. And often, this government has used indefinite detention as a form of punishment. And I don't believe that's consistent with our values, and for that reason, the government should act decently and humanely when it's dealing such people.

Thanks very much.

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