Release type: Transcript


ABC RN Breakfast with David Lipson


The Hon Tony Burke MP
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
Minister for the Arts

SUBJECTS: Government submission to the Annual Wage Review, religious discrimination.

DAVID LIPSON, HOST: The Federal Government will back a wage rise in line with inflation for low-paid workers, ensuring their pay packets don’t go backwards, when they lodge a submission to the Fair Work Commission later this week. The cost of living crisis is still hitting hard with food, beverages, housing and insurance all rising rapidly.

Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. He joined me earlier. Tony Burke, thanks for being with us.


LIPSON: Inflation is just over 4 per cent at the moment. So is that the rise that you’ll put to the Fair Work Commission?

BURKE: Our principle, and look, it’s no surprise this Government wants people to earn more and keep more of what they earn. The way we’re dealing with the submission is to say that the real wages of low-paid workers shouldn’t be going backwards, that that’s very much where we draw a line that we don’t want crossed. That’s because people on lower wages have the least capacity to be able to deal with rising prices and the different challenges that have been happening with cost of living.

LIPSON: So is it fair to expect that these low-paid workers would get less of a pay rise than they have in the last couple of years when inflation has been running higher?

BURKE: What matters is real wages. That’s the real test. This is where what we’ve been able to do is get wages moving at the same time as inflation has been moderating. The base rate, the dollar rate, of where wages are at now is roughly double the long-term average of what happened under the previous government. That makes a huge difference, but part of it is when those lines cross and inflation is at a lower rate than the pace at which wages are rising. That’s the balance you ultimately want to be able to have.

We’ve had that now for three quarters, three consecutive quarters where you’ve had real wage growth. But after a decade of wage stagnation, that doesn’t mean that the job is immediately done. It doesn’t mean that people are feeling that because we’ve started to turn a corner that they are suddenly getting in front.

The challenge here is to make sure that for the people on low wages that they don’t go backwards and for the Commission to be able to use the best economic advice to be able to set wage rates so that we continue to have the situation where we see those lines crossed and as inflation goes down wages go up and real wage growth becomes something sustainable for people again.

LIPSON: Often these minimum wage rises flow through to workers on other awards and right through the economy really. Is that a concern at all when you look at the rate of inflation? Yes, it’s coming down, but we are being warned it could be high for longer than we’d like, that the last mile, if you like, can be tricky to get down. Do you see any problem there?

BURKE: This is why where I say there are a whole series of issues that the Reserve Bank takes into account. It’s not for me as a minister to be second-guessing them, but it is our job as a Government to make sure that we’ve got the policy settings right to give as much space as possible to the Reserve Bank, and that’s why –

LIPSON: So do you take that into consideration, you know, that sort of proposition, when you’re putting forward these cases?

BURKE: That’s why I referred specifically, David, to the comments that have been made by the Governor with respect to economic and fiscal policy pushing in the right direction.

LIPSON: What about productivity growth? It’s still very weak. Why isn’t it improving?

BURKE: It’s been a problem in Australia for a long time. Investment in skills is going to be one of the critical parts of this. If you’ve got a more skilled workforce then you’ve got better output. The other thing that I’d say which I think –

LIPSON: You’ve had a few years in government, though. Why isn’t it moving already?

BURKE: I don’t think there’s too many skills that you fully train up in 12 months. There’s some, but we’re still approaching the end of our second year. The other challenge to remember with respect to productivity that often gets understated is people are more likely to invest in their workforce and a workforce are more likely to invest in their own skills when they have security at work. For a long time in Australia – in the name of flexibility – we acted as though the decreased rates of people being employed directly and permanently was sort of just a bonus for business without any cost.

The reality is if you give people secure work – and it’s one of the reasons I’m so happy that the increased jobs that have come under the Albanese Labor government, such a high proportion of them have been full-time jobs. When people have security in their employment, they’re more likely to want to invest in their own skills. The employer is more likely to invest in them, and those sorts of skills are a huge part of your pathway to productivity.

LIPSON: I just want to turn to religious discrimination. The Government has given the draft legislation to the Opposition but we can’t see it. Doesn’t the public have a right to know and, I guess, a right to have a say about what’s being considered behind closed doors between the Government and the Opposition?

BURKE: It’s not uncommon when negotiations are being discussed in good faith that it’s kept in a way away from the media spotlight. The view that’s been put publicly by the Prime Minister is Australia does not need a huge divisive debate right now. We’re going through a constructive process with the Opposition to see whether or not there’s a landing place where this can be done in a bipartisan way. That’s a reasonable thing to do. I don’t think there’s too many Australians who are jumping at the chance to start a divisive debate as early as possible. If there’s a way of dealing with this constructively with the Opposition; and calmly, then that’s the better option for the whole of Australia.

LIPSON: The Australian Law Reform Commission recommended repealing the entire section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBTQI+ teachers from being discriminated against. Do you think they should be protected in such a way?

BURKE: The position of the Government's been put forward for a long time, which is that religious schools should be able to have full choice to be able to employ people who share their faith. So, when you’re employing people, that full discretion should be there. Once you have employed somebody, then all the normal rights against discrimination should be held by that worker.

LIPSON: So does that mean you can’t – shouldn’t be able to sack someone for, you know, their sexual identity –

BURKE: That’s right. It goes to the firing issue. That would be an example of discrimination, if it was done for a reason, for one of those protected categories. But the concept of when you are hiring people, to be able to hire people of your own faith, like, you are there to be a religious institution, parents are sending their children to religious schools for that purpose and it’s completely reasonable in the Government’s view that you are able to employ on that basis.

LIPSON: The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher says Australians are increasingly at risk of being sacked for expressing traditional Christian beliefs while their ability to contribute to society is being deliberately diminished. Is he right?

BURKE: There are different examples anecdotally of what he’s described. But the bottom line is we want to be a country where people get along with each other. We want to be a country where people aren’t targeted because they have a particular religious faith or that they have none. We want to be a country where people aren’t targeted because of sex, where people aren’t targeted because of race, for disability, for any of the discriminatory categories, because they are LGBTIQ+ as you described a moment ago. All forms of discrimination, including people being discriminated because of their faith or because they aren’t part of religious faith, those forms of discrimination are something which isn't what we want the country to be.

LIPSON: We are out of time – I just want to ask one more very quickly, which is, you know, the Government has said it will only proceed if there’s bipartisan support. If that doesn’t happen, are you going to be comfortable personally leaving things as they are?

BURKE: I hope that we have bipartisan support. But that’s in the hands of the Opposition and putting public pressure on them or something like that I don’t think is helpful, and I don’t think is constructive for me to do in this interview. The information’s been provided to them. We’re hopeful that there’s bipartisan support. It’s an issue that’s been hanging around a long time and the country is in a better position if we get it done.

LIPSON: Employment Minister Tony Burke, thanks so much for your time.

BURKE: Great to talk to you, David.

LIPSON: Tony Burke is the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister.