ABC CANBERRA DRIVE WITH ANNA VIDOT
MONDAY, 25 SEPTEMBER 2023
SUBJECTS: Employment White Paper, National Skills Passport, Employment for Older Australians, King’s effigy on coins.
ANNA VIDOT (HOST): I'm joined by the Member for Fenner here in the ACT, also the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities, Treasury and Employment, Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for your time.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR EMPLOYER, CHARITIES, COMPETITION AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Pleasure, Anna. Great to be with you and your listeners.
VIDOT: Why was an Employment White Paper something that was needed, in your view, at this time?
LEIGH: Well, we were really inspired by the work that John Curtin did during World War II where, while the fighting was still raging, he set HC ("Nugget") Coombs and other Canberra economists to the task of producing a Full Employment White Paper, and that White Paper which came down in 1945 really set the stage for a post‑war decade of full employment, and for shared prosperity.
We often forget that the 1920s and 1930s were a period of double‑digit unemployment for a lot of the time, and unemployment was brought massively down after the war.
The full Employment White Paper that we've brought down today is about taking the same opportunities in a different context to maintain full employment for everyone into the future, so that we have secure, fairly‑paid jobs for everyone who wants one, and a qualified worker for every employer who needs one. That's about skills, it's about immigration, it's also about making sure our income support system's right.
VIDOT: These are very different times than they were, right, post‑World War II. It's a really tight labour market. We keep hearing about there not being enough skills in the economy, people not being able to fill jobs, shortages in one industry after another. How do we face those challenges, do you think, because it doesn't look like we can really borrow on just the sheer number of people in a we might have post‑war.
LEIGH: That's right. We've certainly got technologies, like artificial intelligence, we've got a very different‑looking immigration program. On the other hand, we do have the similarity that Curtin's White Paper came out at a time when unemployment was relatively low after a period of elevated unemployment. We see a similar situation today. I frankly never thought as a labour economist that there would be a time in my life where unemployment had a 3 in front of it, and yet we've had that for a sustained period now.
Maintaining that's not just important in terms of ensuring that everyone gets a job, but it also has equity benefits. It means that people with disabilities, First Nations job seekers, people who are neurodiverse, are able to break into a labour market that just wouldn't give them a look if unemployment was in the double digits.
So it's really important to maintain full employment, and that's about ensuring that our skills are right, the fee‑free TAFE places, the additional university places, it's about making sure we've got incentives for older workers to participate, what we're doing with enhancing the work bonus for pensioners, and it's about ensuring that we address labour market data gaps and that evaluation. And so, we're bringing the very best information to bear as we build new programs.
VIDOT: When you talk about maintaining full employment, this White Paper talks about changing the definition of what full employment actually is. Can you explain what the change would mean?
LEIGH: Well, full employment to us means simply a secure, well‑paid job for everyone who wants it, without having to spend too much time looking for it. There is, of course, a technical definition, the Non‑Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment, which according to Treasury estimates has come down by about half a percentage point from 4 and three‑quarters, to 4 and a quarter per cent over the course of the last couple of years.
But really what we're about is ensuring that people are matched to jobs, and that's got a lot to do with our training system, ensuring not only that people get a great education at the start of life, but also that ongoing training can be fit for purpose, and so the Skills Passport's part of that.
VIDOT: But I guess, how does the changing the definition of full employment actually mean people are better off? I mean what is the policy change or the focus in government that would change with a changed definition?
LEIGH: Well, the policy changes are in areas around TAFE Centres of Excellence, a higher take‑up of apprentices, smoothing the transition for work for income support recipients. Full employment sits at the back of that. It's a sort of overarching goal, but the goal of making sure we've got work for all is one that people will readily understand and embrace. People understand, whether you're a job seeker or not, that you want to live in an Australia where we don't have all that wasted potential of having, at times in our history, up to a million people out of work.
VIDOT: Will it be a problem if the government and the RBA have different definitions of what full employment is?
LEIGH: Well, the Reserve Bank's got a mandate of keeping inflation within the target band, but also maintaining full employment. They'll be looking to whether the government is able to do a better job of matching people to work.
I mentioned before that Non‑Accelerating Inflation Rate of Employment, the NAIRU has come down a bit. One of the reasons that's come down is that government policy has done a better job of ensuring that people are better trained. We don't have the sort of skills mismatch which can lead you to a higher rate of unemployment.
We also need to look at hours too though. So one of the points that the White Paper makes is that we need to make sure that not only that unemployment is low, but that underutilisation is low, that we don't have a whole host of people who've got a part‑time job, but really want a full‑time one.
VIDOT: You're listening to Andrew Leigh, Member for Fenner, Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities, Treasury and Employment on ABC Radio Canberra. On that, I guess, utilisation front, the White Paper does also look at ways to address ageism in the workplace and the barriers that throws up for Australians aged over 50 and continuing in the workforce, if that is indeed something they want to do into their lives. What do you, what does the White Paper see as the role for Government in combatting ageism in the workplace?
LEIGH: The White Paper is very keen to make sure that for older Australians who want to work -- and that will be some, but not all older Australians -- that the incentives are there in place to do it.
So there's a thing called the "Work Bonus" for pensioners, and for eligible veterans. That's going to be permanently increased, and the employment income nil rate period is going to be doubled. Both of those change the incentives in a positive way to encourage older Australians to take up work, or maybe to increase their participation in paid employment.
VIDOT: Is there a cultural change that's going to be needed, do you think, among employers to look at and change the way they look at older employees?
LEIGH: Age discrimination is a real thing, and certainly that's an issue that has been flagged by a number of investigations, a number of expert bodies, and we need to recognise the value that wisdom and experience brings in the labour market, and also ensure that older Australians are given the opportunity to continue upskilling.
We don't want a situation in which technological changes in the workplace suddenly render a whole lot of people unemployable. Instead, there should be a chance for people to learn the skills, to understand, for example, how to work well with ChatGPT in the workplace, and having those appropriate skills training programs, and the Digital Skills Passport will give us a more equitable economy.
VIDOT: You mentioned the Digital Skills Passport. Can you tell us, Andrew Leigh, what does that offer that people don't already have access to, whether it's through your LinkedIns, your CVs, you just telling people; what does this offer to make people more attractive or end up in a good job? How do you think that's going to help?
LEIGH: Well, the National Skills Passport, I called it the Digital Skills Passport before, but I meant to say National Skills Passport, will be a nationally recognised way of porting of qualifications across. It will allow you to go to an employer and confidently say, "Here are my qualifications and you can check them", much as someone might walk in with a university degree.
But it provides the sort of micro‑credentials, so you might have done short‑term training courses, and increasingly, we're becoming life-long learners, and so that your education won't just be the degree that you got when you were in your 20s, but also a range of courses that you've taken since then. We'll do that in consultation with employers, unions, the tertiary education sector.
It also is part of encouraging a little bit more portability across sectors. Right now, we've got a half a dozen universities that span both TAFE and university, and we need to remove that hard dichotomy between vocational training and universities.
VIDOT: Bernadette actually asked ‑ called with an interesting question on this, the passport. She asks, "Will people with prior skills from volunteering be recognised for those skills? Will they be able to put that in their skills passport?"
LEIGH: That's certainly something we're looking at, and I know that a lot of valuable skills come from volunteering. As the Assistant Minister for Charities, I'm really keen to see more Australians volunteering. We know that there's been a bit of a drop‑off in volunteer numbers since COVID, and if this can encourage more people to volunteer, then that would be good for the volunteers, and of course great for the community organisations that are right now crying out for volunteers.
As I always do when I mention this, I’d encourage anyone who's interested in volunteering to jump online to the Volunteering ACT website, they've got great opportunities online, so there's lots of terrific organisations wanting your help, if you've got a few hours to give.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, just before I let you go, any update on when the Mint is likely to start producing coins with King Charles on it? Any update on that?
LEIGH: We don't have a particular date for the first coins carrying the King's face, but it will be before the end of this year. There's a range of things we need to get right; the Mint's dies need to be appropriately tested, each of the dies need to sustain some 200,000 to 300,000 coin printings, so all of that testing process is in place. You can be confident that it will take place before the end of the year, and we'll have a big announcement on that.
I'm keen to make sure we get a lot of those new coins out, because I know for the vast majority of Australians, this will be the first time they hold a coin in their hand which has a King rather than a Queen on it. So it could be a big moment.
VIDOT: How much does that whole process of changing the Monarch's image, how much does that cost?
LEIGH: Well, the Mint is regularly updating its dies, so it actually doesn't have a major cost. They'll run their dies with the Queen's effigies on them to the end of their natural life, and then they'll just substitute in dies with the King's effigy, and so they're familiar with doing this.
We have actually had half a dozen different effigies of Queen Elizabeth II during the course of her reign, so to change an effigy isn't as big a thing as you might imagine. But of course, you know, it's seismic when suddenly you've got a different Monarch on the coin facing the opposite direction.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, appreciate your time. Thank you very much.
LEIGH: Pleasure, Anna, thank you.