Press conference - Wright, Canberra

Skills reform agenda, ABS labour force figures for September and HomeBuilder

SENATOR SESELJA: Look, it's great to be here in Wright, in the southern part of Canberra, with my good friend Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family business, and also with Denita Wawn, from the Master Builders Association. Also, thank you to Michael Hopkins and the local Master Builders’ Graciete Ferreira. It was great to meet one of our wonderful local apprentices in Emily and thank you also to Orlando for hosting us.

We’re supporting apprentices here in Canberra, and it's one of the things I've been really, really keen to see. Over 1,200 apprentices and trainees are being supported, right now, by the Federal Government. That's going to be important for growing jobs in our economy. We are investing right here in Canberra, just as we are around the country. And, of course, we're keen to see jobs in the construction industry continuing to come back with a range of policies. But our budget has been all about jobs. It's been all about getting people back into work, supporting businesses so they can invest and employ more people and support apprentices and trainees and others.

So, with that, it's great to hand over to our outstanding minister, Michaelia Cash.

MINISTER CASH: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, it really is great to be here today out and about in Canberra, on a residential building site with my friend and colleague, Senator Zed Seselja, but also with Denita Wawn, head of the Master Builders Australia. And as Denita will shortly explain to you, this investment in apprentices and trainees is just so important. That is why on Tuesday night, the Government handed down a budget that, as the Prime Minister has said, is focussed on jobs. The first people to go in any recession are apprentices and trainees, and that is why the Government has put in place the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy. And to date, because of COVID-19, it is supporting almost 94,000 apprentices and trainees around Australia. As Zed said, here in Canberra, around 1,200 apprentices and trainees are being supported because of the 50 per cent wage subsidy. They are apprentices and trainees who we need on the job, and that is where, they still are.

Of course, we also need to ensure the pipeline of skills in Australia. And again, that is why on Budget night, we announced a further investment of $1.2 billion to bring on 100,000 new apprentices and trainees. This is a 50 per cent wage subsidy if you sign a new apprentice or trainee up to your business out till the 30th of September 2021. I'm pleased to say that since the announcement on Tuesday night, we have had over 2,000 employers contact the department to sign up, within one week, over 3,000 new apprentices and trainees. That is a very, very pleasing result.

Today we've had the labour force figures released for September. During July and August, we saw jobs growth across Australia. Around 458,000 jobs returned to the economy. The labour force figures today show that the unemployment rate has ticked up from 6.8 per cent to 6.9 per cent. 29,500 jobs have been lost. But we need to put that into perspective. The labour force figures for September, in terms of the reference period, do take into account the entire Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria. And the figures show that, across Australia, there was actually a net increase in employment of 6,000 jobs. But because in Victoria, they lost 35,500 thousand jobs, what it has translated to today is job losses of 29,500. We've seen a slight downturn in the participation rate. But again, when you look at the Victorian downturn, 64 per cent down to 63 per cent, not unexpected because they are in Stage 4 lockdowns. That doesn't count for the downturn in the participation rate. But again, the Government has never been blind to this. And that is why we put in place, at the outset of COVID, that really important support for employers and employees. And on Tuesday night, the Prime Minister clearly set out the way forward, the JobMaker Plan for Australia, and part of that plan is the $1.2 billion further investment in 100,000 new commencements for apprentices and trainees across Australia.

I’ll now ask Denita Wawn from the Master Builders Association to say a few words.

DENITA WAWN: Thank you, Minister. The building and construction industry proudly employ more apprentices than any other industry in this country. They are the lifeline of the long-term sustainability of our industry as we come through this recession. It is therefore critically important that we retain and expand those apprentices, to ensure that not only the industry can survive, but also that we can create jobs and play a significant role of looking after employment in this country, particularly for young people. And it is great, for example, to see Emily here today, who has just completed her apprenticeship in carpentry, and the opportunities that is now afforded her, whether it is going into employment or setting up her own business.

From the building perspective, we need to ensure that there is economic confidence, and that there is a pipeline of work so we can, in fact, create jobs. And in this regard, we would welcome and extend our appreciation to the Government regarding HomeBuilder. It came at the right time before we left jobs significantly in the industry. It is going great guns, and we would like to see it extended because it has been so extraordinarily successful. And it has meant that people in the industry, nearly 90 per cent of our members surveyed, said that they are relying on HomeBuilder at the moment, which has meant that we've kept jobs going and created that economic activity, that we so desperately need. Likewise, our commercial builders, they have been hit hard by the downturn and they are looking forward to seeing what comes out of the economic confidence that has been created as a consequence of the Federal Budget decisions last week.

But equally, we are keen to see what the state and territory governments are doing in terms of their commitments to social infrastructure. As the RBA Governor has said, it is critically important that the state and territory governments also play a role in ensuring we can create economic activity. And as one of the largest multipliers of economic activity in the country, which building and construction, for every dollar spent, $3 is returned to the economy, we can play a significant role in determining the future of this country from an economic confidence perspective. Thank you.

MINISTER CASH: Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just ask a question on HomeBuilder? Only 780 people have been paid out. Why is it taking so long? And how do you stimulate the economy with such a small amount of payments?

MINISTER CASH: Well, let's have a look at the scheme at a whole. If you had said to us earlier this year that you would have the take up that we've seen, we probably wouldn't have believed you. And that is certainly what the relevant Minister Michael Sukkar has said. I think we're now at over 11,000 applications. That is a good thing. The work is well and truly there. What it also shows, is that people have confidence, people have confidence to actually make this financial outlay. We're also monitoring the scheme very, very carefully. You obviously receive money when you meet certain milestones. In terms of the actual uptake for the scheme, it is very, very pleasing. And I know that Michael Sukkar, as the relevant Minister, is monitoring it very, very closely. And I don't know if Zed, given his portfolio, has any further comments he may wish to make.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, but Minister, can I just say, a lot of people want to go to be Beyonce but not everyone can get tickets. A lot of people might want to get this, but not everyone's getting paid out. Can you just clarify, with only 780 people getting paid out, how do you stimulate the economy with such a small amount of payouts? And why is it taking so long? I just want clarification because the Opposition's been very critical about this.

SENATOR SESELJA: The Opposition are wrong. HomeBuilder’s ahead of schedule. So, over 11,700 have actually signed. Those are signed contracts. And we know the contracts will be signed right up until the end of the year, and there is the ability to extend. So, we are ahead of where we anticipated we would be at this point in the cycle. We didn't expect we would have over 11,700 contracts signed until sometime in November. So, we're ahead of schedule. The Labor Party is always seeking to talk this down. If you talk to the HIA, if you talk to the MBA, if you talk to the Property Council, and you look at some of the survey results they are getting, it is absolutely underpinning confidence. And we are seeing the largest number of first home buyers coming back into the market in, in fact, over a decade. So, it's already been a great deal of success. But as those milestones are met and as more contracts are signed, we're going to see those numbers increase.

JOURNALIST: When do you hope to pay out all 11,700 applications?

SENATOR SESELJA: Well, as the milestones go. So, we work with the states and territories, and there are different rules. I mean, in Western Australia, they have more restrictive rules, so they don't count them until you actually see the first slab poured and those sort of things. So, there are different rules in different states and territories, but we are seeing them move rapidly. And in fact, it is well ahead of schedule.

JOURNALIST: Minister, on jobs, the jobless rate, 6.9 per cent less than originally forecast. So that’s positive?

MINISTER CASH: Yes. Oh, look, every job loss though as a result of COVID is absolutely devastating, as you know. But when you look at those figures and the upturn, slight uptick in the unemployment rate, 6.9 per cent, the 29,500 jobs are that have been lost. And when you then look at Victoria, 35,500 jobs lost. I mean, there is a direct correlation between the Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria and the rise in the unemployment rate, 6000 jobs actually created across Australia. But this is why we are just so focussed on job creation. In the last three months – June, July and August – 458,000 jobs returned to the economy. When we went into COVID-19, as you know, we had record labour force participation in Australia. We were putting in place that policy framework, that would enable job creation. COVID then hit. We put in place JobKeeper, which as you know, has been so important in that initial six-month period – 3.5 million Australians, around 1 million employers. But we now look forward to incentivising business to invest in themselves, and to looking at businesses who have that capacity to actually bring in additional Australian on into their workplace. But every job lost as a result of COVID is absolutely devastating. But certainly, when you look at the figures today, and you start to dig into them, the Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria, they are just having devastating impact. Not just in Victoria, but around the rest of Australia, and the uptick in the unemployment rates.

JOURNALIST: Also, our daily figures from seven of Australia’s largest banks, showing that, around 45 per cent of all mortgages and small business loans that were paused for that six months, people have started paying again…

MINISTER CASH: I know, I saw that today as well. I mean, what it’s saying is people actually have confidence in the Government. They have confidence in the policies that we're putting in place. They also know when the Prime Minister says, ‘We've got your back, we've done this before’. As a Government, we have. When we were elected in 2013, we said we'd put in place the economic framework that would allow employers, businesses to create one million jobs within five years. You'd be aware we actually hit that milestone before five years was up. When we went into COVID, we had the budget back in balance for the first time in a very long time. We had that record labour force participation. The economic framework was there. The only reason we were able to put in place the substantial investment in Australia and Australians that we have put in place is because of the strength of the economy, and the strength of the labour market.

And again, Australians are showing that they do have that confidence. But also, what they're saying is- they had to close their doors as businesses through no fault of their own. They closed their doors, because the Government said we need to protect the health of Australians. You ease those COVID restrictions, what you see is businesses do reopen, and people do go back to work. And that is why, you know, as a Federal Government, we're always saying, ‘You know, based on the health advice is why you would implement restrictions. And if the health advice changes, you need to change your decision as a state and territory government’. Ease restrictions live in a COVID safe economy, and you will see jobs return.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask you about the Virgin boss, amid tension with the airline's new owner. Are you concerned about what this means for the future of Virgin and also the thousands of jobs that go with it?

MINISTER CASH: Look, obviously, that is a commercial decision for Virgin Australia. I would say in relation to the airline industry in general, not just here in Australia but globally, they have been hard hit is obviously an understatement. International borders have been closed, which means international flights cannot take place. Domestic borders have been closed, which means many domestic flights can no longer take place. Our position as a Government though is that we need a strong airline industry in Australia and we need competition. Competition is good. But certainly, in terms of the announcement that has been made earlier today, that is a commercial decision for the company.

JOURNALIST: Minister, a bit of a blunder this morning. The PMO’s office sent me out his talking points for the day.

MINISTER CASH: Oh, look, these things happen. And as I say to people, I mean, the good news is you're all now briefed on Government policy. What it shows you is we have a good story to tell when it comes to our investment in Australia and Australians. The Budget is all about jobs, and we want people out there to know about it.

Thanks a lot guys.