How a sensible plan to meet skills shortages became another Labor shambles: Kohler

Yesterday’s shambles around the announcement of the first Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) is a pretty good illustration of the dysfunctional, incompetent state of Australian political policy-making.

The introduction of EMAs was first revealed in last year’s budget speech by Wayne Swan. It was a throwaway line, attached to an announcement of 16,000 skilled migration places for the “regions”.

That pre-empted by two months the final report of the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce, which recommended EMAs, although the idea had been raised in an interim report; it was one of 31 recommendations, mostly to do with training more Australians to work on resources projects.

By the way, the “Industry Reference Group” to this taskforce, included one Paul Howes, national secretary of the AWU, Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the ACTU and Dave Oliver, secretary of the AMWU and now Lawrence’s successor at the ACTU.

A low level debate about EMAs bubbled away throughout last year. Employers welcomed them, smaller mining companies worried that they wouldn’t get access to them, Dave Noonan of the CFMEU said he was against them, Bob Katter said he was against them. Howes, Lawrence and Oliver kept their heads down.

In February this year, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed, when asked at a press conference, that he was assessing an application from Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting for an EMA covering the Roy Hill project. Once again Dave Noonan of the CFMEU was the unions’ chosen man to deplore at.

“All they have to do,” Noonan said at the time, “is get a consultant to produce a report to say there’s a skills shortage. You can get a consultant to say night is day if you pay them enough”.

The general statement about consultants may be true, but the rest of it was not. After dozens of submissions and months of work, the taskforce report last July concluded that the peak demand for construction jobs on new projects in 2012-13 would be 45,000.

It added that employment growth in mining operations would create 65,000 new jobs by 2015. “As a result, the resources sector could be 36,000 tradespeople short by 2015. If these workers are recruited from other sectors there will be skills shortages in those industries.”

Clearly there was a looming problem that required immediate policy action by the government or a lot of projects simply wouldn’t get finance. Obviously workers would have to be brought in, as well as trained locally.

The EMA for Roy Hill announced at the weekend was a precondition for that project to get finance.

The taskforce was chaired by Gary Gray as parliamentary secretary for WA and Queensland (who knew there was such a position?) and comprised bureaucrats from the four departments involved in the problem – Employment, Immigration, Resources and Infrastructure – as well as bureaucrats from WA and Queensland, plus Phil Bullock from Skills Australia and Ken Scott-McKenzie from Macmahon Holdings as an industry representative.

It was a good, comprehensive report and as far as I can tell, the bureaucrats have all done their best. “Outreach officers” from the Immigration Department have even been travelling the country giving dozens of seminars on skilled migration.

Yet the politicians have managed to stuff the whole thing up and the union leaders have once again shown a total lack of leadership. The bureaucrats and business people working on the policy and the projects must be in despair.

Contrast this process with the long, careful partnership between Paul Keating and Bill Kelty that resulted in the introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1991.

The behaviour of Paul Howes, especially, is a disgrace, asking yesterday – “whose side are we on?” – but the government has been hopelessly incompetent as well.

It would seem that Howes, Oliver and Lawrence were merely plonked on the Industry Reference Group to the taskforce in the hope that they would go along with it – no one in the government has apparently worked with them to develop the policy and lock them in behind it. If they have been working behind the scenes then Howes really is treacherous.

As with bringing in enterprise bargaining agreements in the 80s, the leadership needs to come from the top; enterprise migration agreements are too important – and too sensitive – to have been left to Chris Bowen and Martin Ferguson. They didn’t have the authority to negotiate an Accord on the subject with the ACTU.

Paul Keating was not the employment minister but he led the opening up of the workforce with Bill Kelty. It should have been Julia Gillard and/or Wayne Swan, working with Jeff Lawrence and Ged Kearney to produce a sensible application of 457 Visas to the resources sector, to underpin Australia’s resources boom.

Stop laughing. Yes, those four are so consumed by their own petty squabbles and grandstanding that they would have been incapable of anything so visionary, but they didn’t even give it a try. Swan actually made it much harder with his ridiculous attacks on the mining billionaires this year.

So after more than year of reports and debate, of seminars and consultation, about what is clearly one of the most important policy issues facing this country, the announcement of the first EMA yesterday was able to be greeted with faux surprise by the unions and the media and apparently genuine surprise by the ALP Caucus.

As a result there is renewed speculation about Gillard’s leadership and reports that numbers are being counted against her, with two former union leaders, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten, touted as successors.

Hey wait a minute…

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter

This article first appeared on Business Spectator.

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