Television interview with Natalie Barr - Sunrise - Friday 1 July 2022

SUBJECTS: Staff shortages; skilled migration; Pfizer vaccine for children under five years

NATALIE BARR: Well, Australia is facing a worsening shortage crisis. New data has revealed there are almost half a million jobs vacant, and those available positions are now equal to the number of unemployed. Industry groups are calling for more action from the government to make it easier to bring in foreign workers, with businesses at breaking point.

For their take, we’re joined by Education Minister Jason Clare and Deputy Liberal Leader Sussan Ley. Good morning to both of you. Jason, let’s start with you. We’ve got small businesses across this country begging for staff across all industries, yet there are enough available jobs to clear those dole queues. What’s gone wrong here?

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Well, I think we’ve got a skills mismatch. You’ve got Aussies out there that want the jobs but don’t always have the skills they need to get the jobs.We’ve got fewer Aussies in apprenticeships and traineeships today than we had 10 years ago. If we can fix that by doing things like providing free TAFE courses for Aussies in areas where we’ve got skills shortages, that will make a big difference.

But we’ve also got to look at things like skilled migration. The fact is the borders were shut for two years. That means there weren’t skilled migrants coming in to do some of these jobs. It’s one of the things that we’re going to have to look at at the Jobs Summit in couple of months’ time.

BARR: Yeah, Jason, it’s not just that. The hotel industry, the hospitality industry, has got over 100,000 workers. They say, “We don’t care what you do. We don’t care where you’ve come from. We don’t care what your skills are. Just come on in.” They can’t get people.

CLARE: Or restaurants or shops. It’s not just in the big cities; it’s in the smaller regional areas as well. Sussan would be able to talk to that as well. We’ve got a skills shortage in lots of different areas. And it’s incumbent on all of us to look at what are the ways that we can skill up Aussies to do those jobs. Skilled migration should always be a short-term answer to this, not a long-term solution.

BARR: Yes, Sussan, industry groups begging for urgent help here. Some businesses can’t even open at certain times of the day because they can’t get staff. How do we make it easier to bring in foreign workers? Is there a hold-up there?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, Nat, Jason’s done a really good job of diagnosing the problem. We all know what the problem is – businesses are struggling, owners of small businesses are working impossible hours and asking their workers to do the same. This is an early test for the Albanese government. We got the unemployment figures exactly where they need to be. Now, this needs to be turned around.

And I’m just interested in how many industries, businesses, small-medium enterprises, mum and dad family businesses Labor has met with compared to how many unions they may have met with. It’s really important to bring the businesses to the heart of this problem and help fix it. And, by the way, a jobs summit in a couple of months – well, that’s putting things on had back burner. It sounds to me like another review.

BARR: Sussan, this didn’t happen in six weeks. This didn’t happen when the Labor government just got in. I don’t think you can sort of, you know, put blame all – blame this whole thing on the new government, can you? What do you guys think? You guys left the mess, didn’t you?

LEY: Look, Nat, it’s not about blame, and, no, we didn’t leave a mess. We left a really, really good set of numbers. And everybody could see the way the economy was heading. And everyone knew the borders were opening and new workers – or businesses would need a workforce. So, it’s about this government being in the chair, having to fix it, not turning themselves into a small target which they got very good at, but actually fixing the problem.

So, look, it’s not pointing the finger – we’re happy to work constructively. But there are serious issues facing Australian businesses, and they don’t need to be told what all the problems are – they need to be told what the government is going to do for them.

BARR: Jason Clare, hasn’t she got a good point – a jobs summit in a couple of months? People have been crying out for this for many months.

CLARE: They’ve been screaming about it for years. And I’m not going to go trailing into the past about the mistakes that the former government made.

BARR: Yeah, so solutions. Let’s talk solutions.

CLARE: One of the things Bob Hawke did when he became Prime Minister was bring business and unions together working with government to fix some of the big economic challenges in the economy back then. This is what we’re going to do this time around. And it’s not just unions – it’s business as well. It’s not telling them what we think should happen; it’s listening to them and working with them.

One of the reasons that unemployment is as low as it is is because the borders were shut, skilled migrants didn’t come in, businesses had to employ Aussies and skill them up. But there’s still more work to do to make sure that Aussies have got the skills that they need. And that will be a big part of the discussion at the jobs summit.

BARR: Okay. The Therapeutic Goods Administration has given Pfizer the green light to apply for approval to use its vaccine on kids from six months. Jason, are you confident this uptake for kids under 5 will be as quick as it needs to be?

CLARE: Well, there’s a process that needs to take place for the Covid vaccine for little ones. I think Mark was talking about that with Michael just before 7 o’clock. It’s got to go through that TGA and ATAGI process. Let that process take its course. I think kids in the United States just in the last week or so are starting to get vaccinated there. But in the meantime, in the middle of winter when flu is running wild, it’s important that little kids from six months and up get the flu vax. So if there’s a message there for parents around the country it’s make sure that kids get a flu vaccination this winter.

BARR: And, Sussan, the Health Minister has ordered a review into our Covid vaccine supply. Are you worried about what they might find?

LEY: Well, Australians want their government to hit the ground running, not reviewing. 70 per cent of Australians have had their third booster and only a third of those who have to have a fourth booster have, indeed, had that. So it’s really important. I’ll be out there today urging people to get vaccinated where they haven’t been and to remind them that the vaccines are safe, they’re efficient, they work and that you must get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family. And that’s the most important thing for this government to focus on – protecting the population.

CLARE: I agree with that, I think that’s absolutely right that we encourage people to get vaccinated. But, remember, Nat, it’s a year ago this week that Sydney went into lockdown. We were in lockdown for 4 months. We were in lockdown too long because we didn’t order enough vaccines. Scott Morrison’s government didn’t order the vaccines we needed. That’s why we were in lockdown for that long.

BARR: Jason, will the review –

CLARE: This review is about making sure –

BARR: Jason, will the review –

LEY: Australians don’t need to know where we came from– they need to know where we’re going.

BARR: Jason, will the review look into that?

CLARE: This review is about making sure that we’ve got the vaccines we need as this virus mutates over the course of the next few years.

BARR: Jason, just quickly, will the review look into that? Whether the vaccine program went wrong?

CLARE: No. As Mark mentioned to Michael a moment ago, it’s not looking backwards, but it’s making sure that, one, the contracts that we’ve got at the moment are right, that we’ve got the stockpiles that we need, but also knowing, as we’ve seen in the US, that the virus is mutating and that there are variants and subvariants of the Omicron virus, that we’ve got the vaccines that we need not just now but in the years ahead.

BARR: Okay. Thank you both. I appreciate your time.

LEY: Well, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed the government doesn’t –

BARR: We’ve got to go. We’ve got to go. I’m sorry.

LEY: – actually talk to its own Health Department, Nat.

BARR: We’ve got to go. Thank you very much for your views. We appreciate your time.