TONY Abbott has proposed banning the dole for people under 30 in a bid to entice the unemployed to head west and fill massive skill shortages in the booming resources sector.
The Opposition Leader made the controversial remarks during a two-hour meeting with about 15 senior resources industry leaders in Perth on Monday night.
Mr Abbott told the roundtable briefing he believed stopping dole payments to able-bodied young people would take pressure off the welfare system and reduce the need to bring in large numbers of skilled migrants to staff mining projects.
His comments were attacked last night by Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes, who described them as “Hansonesque”.
“If he genuinely thinks you are going to solve an economically crippling skills shortage by taking punitive measures against welfare recipients, he has clearly never lived in the real world,” Mr Howes said.
“You can’t just get any old Joe off the street and plonk them into a mine, and think that’s going to mean they can work.”
Six of the attendees confirmed yesterday that Mr Abbott had raised the idea of banning welfare payments for young people to encourage them to fill the thousands of jobs emerging in states such as Western Australia and Queensland.
“He said he was thinking more and more about it, with a view to formulating something on it,” said one of the participants, who asked not to be named. Another recalled: “He definitely said it was something he was considering as a policy.” A third executive said: “It certainly wasn’t a throwaway line. He brought up the issue twice during the meeting.”
Mr Abbott also told the business leaders that safety mechanisms would be needed under such a scheme to protect disabled people or those with mental health problems. And he raised the possibility that employers would need to be given funding to train the unemployed, according to those present.
Some of the business leaders were surprised by the remarks, while others were impressed Mr Abbott was considering new measures to address the labour shortages in Western Australia that threaten to crimp the next resources boom.
“I thought to myself: here is a guy who thinks outside the square,” said one participant.
The Minerals Council of Australia said the number of workers in the resources sector would need to grow by about 86,000 in the next decade to maintain Australia’s share of global minerals markets. It said 31,000 of those workers would need to be skilled tradespeople.
The demand for labour is expected to be most severe in Western Australia, which has about $200 billion in resources projects either under way or in the pipeline. This is led by the $43bn Gorgon liquefied natural gas project on Barrow Island and the planned expansion of Woodside Petroleum’s Pluto gas plant near Karratha.
Among the attendees at Mr Abbott’s roundtable were BHP Billiton iron ore chief executive Ian Ashby, Rio Tinto’s Pilbara managing director Greg Lilleyman, Woodside general counsel Rob Cole, Fortescue Metals Group director Graeme Rowley, Gindalbie Metals chief executive Garret Dixon and Inpex’s Australian head, Seiya Ito.
Mr Abbott’s views echo comments he made as employment services minister in 2000 when he announced that people on the dole in South Australia’s Riverland would be required to seek fruit harvest work before receiving benefits.
Last night a spokeswoman for Mr Abbott confirmed he had made the remarks about the dole to the mining leaders. The spokeswoman said Mr Abbott had posed a question about the dole for the benefit of the argument and the debate at the meeting.
But, she said, Mr Abbott’s comments did not mean the approach was Coalition policy.