THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Good morning. There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about whether or not the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill should go more slowly. I’ve got to say, Australians have already been waiting 10 years for wages to get moving. Australians have already been waiting for years to get flexibility at their workplace. People have been waiting generations for there to be serious action in closing the gender pay gap. It’s reasonable that Australians have waited long enough. While they’ve been waiting, they’ve all been doing their job and turning up for work. As a Parliament, we need to do our job and legislate for secure jobs and better pay.
JOURNALIST: You’ve mentioned yesterday in your speech and again this morning that there are elements of this Bill you’re willing to have discussions with the business community around, around some of their concerns and particularly around sort of workers being compelled to agreements they haven’t agreed with and don’t want to be a part of. Can you talk us through what areas of dialogue are still open here?
BURKE: Look, I flagged in the second-reading speech that I gave in the Parliament yesterday that there’s a series of issues where we’re working very constructively with some of the business groups and with the ACTU as well in seeing where further areas of consensus can be found. And some of its not entirely consensus; some of its very important to one group but the other side are saying, yeah, they’re willing to put up with and things like that. But they’re constructive conversations.
And what I’ve said the whole way through is we’re about bringing people together. Wherever we can find new areas where we can broker that sort of compromise, we’re willing to do that. The thing that I won’t compromise on, though, is the need to get wages moving. I won’t compromise on the concept that we need more job security in Australia. And I certainly won’t compromise on the need to close the gender pay gap and to make sure that we provide better protections for people who need flexible workplaces. Those core principles, they’re a lock.
But in terms of some of the various processes and some of the issues that are being raised, some of them are a misreading of the Bill, I think it’s fair to say, for example, some of the talk about strike action. But a lot of it is – some of the issues as well are issues where we can find constructive ways forward.
JOURNALIST: Just on strike action, the Bill does seem to leave the door open to not necessarily – I don’t know how you would describe it – but to more significant industrial action, you know, covering more than one employer. If we’re going to do multi-employer bargaining, you’ve opened the door there there’s a door open to multi-employer industrial action, too, isn’t there? Isn’t that the core feature of the Bill?
BURKE: One of the – the main area that employers are complaining about when they’re giving these speeches about strike action, they’re referring to the single interest stream. That stream already has industrial action. It’s been there in the Bill since the Bill was made law back in 2009. So the section they’re complaining about is a form of industrial action that’s already been there.
In terms of what we’re changing about industrial action, it’s, in fact, to stop disputes that don’t need to happen and long protracted disputes. So the key changes we’re making in strike action, first of all, when a ballot is taking place as to whether or not strike action happens there’s compulsory conciliation. The parties have to be brought together to see if we can reach agreement, to see if there’s a way of brokering a compromise so the industrial action never needs to occur.
And, finally, if the industrial action is going on too long and it’s becoming intractable, the Fair Work Commission will be able to arbitrate. Now, a lot of people don’t know this, but we talk about the industrial umpire. At the moment it’s an umpire who’s only allowed to make a ruling if both teams on the field go and say, “Could you please make a ruling?” What we’re changing is to allow the umpire to blow the whistle.
I think if there’s one thing Australians get frustrated about with industrial action it’s where for whatever reason, whichever side of the argument might be being intractable, the disputes go on and on and on. It means the workforce doesn’t get a pay rise. It means the employer doesn’t get the productivity benefits from an agreement, and it means the public’s inconvenienced. Allowing the umpire to blow the whistle is the major change that we’re making with industrial action. And I absolutely stand by it.
JOURNALIST: Just quickly on the timing, is it not a fair criticism that this is quite a significant piece of legislation and getting it legislated by the end of the year is unrealistic and would somewhat rush the process?
BURKE: This is legislation, some of it came through as an election commitment and the remaining parts of it came from the Jobs and Skills Summit, where the decision of the Jobs and Skills Summit was to move this year. My view is for Australians waiting for pay rises – can we really say to people with the cost of living challenges that they’re looking at around the kitchen tables all the way around Australia that we’re willing to just keep waiting? We’re willing to just keep waiting while the pressure on those households keeps building? I think anyone who’s asking for delay just needs to be real about the extent of the pressures on households right now. And if there is a way of doing it this year, we should.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just get your thoughts on Peter Dutton’s Budget reply speech last night?
BURKE: Look, I sat there listening politely. Most of the speech was about himself. One of the things that I thought was interesting in terms of the level of hysteria that some people have tried to wind up about the legislation I introduced yesterday, he had half an hour on TV and devoted about two sentences to it. So yeah, there wasn’t a lot in it. But, you know, we sat there politely. It’s important for those speeches to be given.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that his, you know, focus on trying to loop women into the super housing scheme goes to show that the Coalition’s finally realised it has a problem with women?
BURKE: I think the real test for Peter Dutton on his party’s attitude towards women is whether or not they’re willing to vote for women to close the gender pay gap. Like, you know, it’s one thing to say, “Oh, you know, they don’t have issues with gender.” They’ve got legislation before the Parliament right now that delivers flexible work, that closes the gender pay gap, that provides clear, equal pay principles in the legislation, and at the moment they’re committing to vote against it because they’re so determined to have a fight about construction. They’re actually deciding their views and their culture war about construction is more important than closing the gender pay gap or doing anything on flexibility of work. I think that says it all.