26 Sep 2017

ADAM STEER: I have with me the Federal Opposition’s spokesperson for Employment and Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor, with me in the studio. Brendan, a new federal space agency has been formed. Does the Labor Party back its creation?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: I think wherever there’s an opportunity to find employment across this country we’ll examine the proposition.

STEER: I’ll just get you to be in front of the microphone.

O’CONNOR: Sure, sorry about that. My colleague Kim Carr has been discussing the benefits or the potential benefits for this country to be more engaged with the space industry. We’d like to see the business plan and the detail proposed by the Government. But I have to say, if it provides employment opportunities then of course we will examine it, and we’ll be positive about it.

STEER: So yes, you do support it?

O’CONNOR: Look, in principle we do, we just need to see the detail. We don’t want any waste, and I understand the recent caller just then talked about making sure we focus on those other opportunities, other initiatives where we can leverage employment outcomes.
Australia has a history of engaging. The Northern Territory, geographically placed, and with such vast areas of land, could easily make a business case as to why they should be involved.

STEER: We know that a launch pad needs to be near the equator, just because it uses the Earth’s gravitational spin. So the Northern Territory seems like the obvious place we’d put it in Australia. Where would you like to see it?

O’CONNOR: I’d like to hear some advice as to what requirements there are, but in terms of the size of the Territory, with its proximity, as you say, to the equator, it does open up opportunities.
I don’t think we should close our minds to these things. People feel they are a bit far removed, but I think we need examine all opportunities to find employment and skills for this nation. That area of expertise is one that is only growing when you look about the world.

STEER: Mark on the text says, “Adam, there’s an American bloke called Geoff out in Tiwi who’s got a swimming pool that slides back for launching his own rocket.”

O’CONNOR: Thunderbirds. [laughs]

STEER: Maybe he can help? [laughs]
The last State of the States report was sober reading for Territorians. The Territory dropped from sixth to seventh overall. Business investment went down 50 per cent. And while the Territory still ranked first on construction, unemployment, and economic growth; on forward looking indicators like population growth, housing finance and home starts, the Territory lags other economies.
It’s a fairly sober outlook for the Territory. You’ve been meeting with a number of people including the Chamber of Commerce while you’ve been here. What have you been hearing?

O’CONNOR: Well it’s true that you’ve been booming, relatively speaking, for some time. That has provided low unemployment, good wage growth relatively speaking.
However, there is a change in the nature of the labour market and the economy here. There is a wind down, ultimately with peaks there will be a wind down of construction. The 8500 jobs offshore will start to decline, and unless there are opportunities on shore to take up that slack then you are going to feel it – in terms of not only employment numbers, but it will affect the housing market – and for that reason, the Federal Government, and indeed the Territorian Government need to think about where to from here.
There can be projects that can start so we can see a-

STEER: What projects?

O’CONNOR: Well, if you look across the country you can see that there are Federal, State, and Local infrastructure projects that will take place that will allow for better transition from the winding down of the construction phase of mining into public infrastructure. Now, there is, as we know, the Federal Government 18 months ago established, through legislation, the Northern Australian Investment Facility Fund. We have yet to see any of that money unlocked for this area of the country.
It’s called “Northern Australia” and yet the Northern Territory has yet to receive any money. We really do think the government should have moved much quicker to work with business to identify and start to implement the public infrastructure that is required in this area.
Now as to what that should be, that should be something that is determined by the Territory Government, working with the Federal Government. That has not happened to date.

STEER:  $5 billion worth of government loans. Obviously the hoops that you have to jump through to try and get some of that money are going to be quite stringent. So far, we have only heard – I spoke to Terry Mills before the news – so far we have only heard of some of the major projects suggesting being something for Adani for the coal mine, or some type of train line for north-east Queensland, or maybe some type of coal-fired power station, also in Queensland.
Do you think the NAIF fund is just some kind of pork barrel for the Government?

O’CONNOR: Well, it seems to me that they are picking and choosing. That’s why Bill Shorten announced a $1 billion spend in Queensland arising out of that fund in the area of tourism – I think we need to be developing our tourism Industry-

STEER: So both parties will be spending a lot of that money in north-east Queensland, because that’s where the votes are, right?

O’CONNOR: No, no, that’s one announcement we have made. What we have identified through Senate Estimates Adam, is that just over 1 in 10 projects have been identified for Northern Australia. We have said that that is not good enough.
We think that the top end has been ignored by the Government, and for that reason you are going to hear more from Labor about what needs to be done here.
Quite frankly we did expect the Government to lead on this. It was their announcement, their fund that they identified two years ago, they established the fund and yet they have not announced anything for the Territory. That’s not good enough and you will hear more from Labor about what we would like to do here.
The reason we have made some announcements in Queensland is because the money was locked up and not being spent at all and we need to do the same here.

STEER: It’s thirteen past nine on ABC Radio Darwin, Adam Steer with you. You’re also hearing from Brendan O’Connor who’s the Federal Opposition spokesperson for Employment and Workplace Relations.
This morning a number of letters from the Prime Minister to Victoria, New South Wales and NT have been leaked to the media. The PM reportedly asking the jurisdictions to reconsider their ban on onshore fracking.
Given the perilous state of the Northern Territory economy, would you back onshore fracking in the NT as a measure to create jobs?

O’CONNOR: What I back is the scientific examination by the Government here to see what impact that would have on the environment.
It’s good and well to call for fracking, but I think you need to know what the environmental consequences will be, and for that reason, as I understand it, that examination, that scientific review will be complete by the end of this year - after which the Chief Minister and his Government can respond to that review. I think we need to know that before we make any further decisions.
What we do know though, is that the Federal Government is seeking to blame everyone but itself. They’re in their fifth year of office, and yet the Prime Minister wants to rail against the Chief Minister and Premiers. What he should be doing, in our view, to deal with the energy crisis nationally is to pull the trigger, restrict exports to ensure we have sufficient domestic supply of gas, to reduce prices for industry, and for consumers generally.
If he were to do that, Labor will support him immediately. Instead of talking about it, saying he might do it, he should stop talking and act.
He should also establish a clean energy target. Over the medium term, we need to have more certainty for investment, and he’s got to stop attacking renewables that should always be part of the mix.
Yet, I think he is fighting a rear-guard action from Tony Abbott, and he’s distracted as a result, and has chosen not to act when it comes to finding domestic reserves of gas. That’s a tragedy.

STEER: I mean in the Northern Territory, we don’t belong to the national grid so those gas prices have very little to do with us - except for if we can export it.
So to be clear, are you against or for onshore fracking in the Northern Territory, given that your job is the opposition spokesman for employment and fracking would create jobs in the Northern Territory?

O’CONNOR: Well we would need to know what the effects are. I think that is a reasonable thing to say before we invest in initiatives that will lead to employment we need to know what impact there will be. I mean, people are not just workers - if they’re residents here they need to know the environmental consequences. I’d like to see the impact. We’ll only know that once the scientists that are involved in the review that’s been established by the Territory Government is completed.
I’m advised that it’s only in a few months. I think we should wait for that to happen. After which, we would expect the Government to be announcing what it can do, but until that’s completed it is difficult to make a decision one way or the other.

STEER:  Meanwhile the Fair Work Commission ruling that reduced the penalty rates for hospitality workers - the unions have launched a legal action to stop that. Do you support their move?

O’CONNOR: Well they have every right to do so and I fully understand and appreciate why they’re doing that. We support their rights to exhaust all avenues to overturn a decision that was intrinsically unfair.
We think the idea that you take real money out of low paid workers pockets at a time when wage growth is at its lowest in more than twenty years is an anathema to a fair go in this country. Federal Labor has introduced a Private Members Bill that, if supported, would stop the effect of the decision.
We have chosen to do that anyway. Understandably, the Unions are seeking to represent their members to stop the cuts occurring. If that fails I should foreshadow, and if we’re elected at that next Election, we will legislate to stop the decision’s affect.

STEER: But it still sounds like the Labor Party will support the Fair Work Commission’s decisions unless they don’t agree with them, and then in which case you won’t support them.
Which way is it? It’s an independent body.

O’CONNOR: It is, and it’s very rare for us to take such an exceptional stand. The reason we did is we just found it impossible to sustain an argument that you can literally support the cutting of the lowest paid workers in this country.
Now I accept that it’s different from most approaches we take. It’s a rare thing. It won’t happen often. It’s happened on this occasion, but we departed from convention because the decision, in our view, was intrinsically unfair and we make no apology for it.

STEER: Brendan O’Connor, good to talk you today.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Adam.

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