Doorstop interview - Parliament House Canberra
Subjects: Industrial relations reforms.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: The House of Representatives has just made a decision for pay equity, a decision for job security, a decision to get wages moving and a decision that there are too many workplaces that have been left behind in bargaining. In particular, feminised industries. And I’m really proud that at the exact moment that the House of Representatives makes its decision I’m standing here with these workers. Early childhood educators: workers who provided the example of how a sector where the enterprise-by-enterprise bargaining had been really hard, and they hadn’t benefitted from that system but were able to work together across a number of workplaces and provide that great Victorian example of wage rates that are now well above the award.
When wages aren’t moving, people are feeling that in every household at the moment. And we hear lots of people in this building talk about cost of living. But cost of living has two sides – it has prices, and it has wages. And you can’t seriously care about cost of living unless you’re doing something about wages.
There’s an amendment that was moved this morning that a lot of people won’t know about. It was moved by Peter Dutton. And it called on the Parliament to go back to the changes to industrial relations that were brought into this place in 2020 when Christian Porter was the minister. They were changes that allowed the full suspension of the better-off overall test for two years through agreements that would remain in date for a further four years. They were about pay cuts that could last six years and more.
So, we had two votes effectively in terms of the major parties. We had a vote brought on by Peter Dutton and the Liberal Party that called for sustained wage cuts. And we had a vote supported in the House by the Government and a number of crossbench members of parliament that said “let’s get wages moving”. And in doing that let’s prioritise those areas that have been left behind in bargaining.
I think the story is best told by one of the workers themselves. So, before we go to questions, I’d just like to invite Laura to say a few words.
LAURA: Hi, my name’s Laura. I’m a centre director based here in Canberra. I’m a mum of three and I’ve been an early educator for 18 years. What this Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill will mean for us is hope. And I really want to thank the Minister and the Albanese Government for giving us this hope.
It’s going to give us the opportunity to see wages moving; wages that have remained on hold for the better part of a decade under the previous government. So, we now have that hope that we can – no longer have to work two jobs to keep our lives running. I talk with educators every day that are really struggling with the cost of living, with our wages. And what this does, it gives all of us that real genuine hope that we can keep the passion for what we do, the passion for early childhood education and care and that we can start to see a real difference in our lives and in the lives of the children we look after. So, I really want to thank you again for the hope that you’ve given us today.
BURKE: So, for questions, I’ve got Phil first and then we’ll just work our way across.
JOURNALIST: One of the business groups, one of their complaints is that the bill is not about the low-paid sectors, in fact, you took the policy to the 2019 election of multi-employer bargaining for sectors such as this. But they’re asking questions why does it need to be extended to sectors such as mining and whatever which have some of the highest wages in the country and a good history of enterprise bargaining, and they don’t want multi-employer bargaining. Why do you feel the need to extend it beyond workers such as these to people who don’t really tick the boxes?
BURKE: Thanks for your question, Phil. I’m glad you raised it. I’ll answer in two ways: one, I’ll say something specifically about mining, but then I want to explain how people even if they start in the lower paid stream how effectively they still need ultimately that single interest stream to be able to move into.
A lot has been made of the mining sector. There’s a difference between the east coast to the west coast with respect to mining. Neither will actually be significantly impacted by this bill. In the east coast, you largely have work sites where people are already on enterprise agreements. If you’re already on an enterprise agreement, then you’re ineligible for multi-employer bargaining. The whole concept of what we’re establishing here is for the people who’ve been left out of bargaining.
Now, the west coast is a different story. But the west coast where people are on very high rates, largely on individual contracts, is a situation where even under the single enterprise stream you haven’t had majority support determinations be able to get over the line. And if they’re not going to be able to get over the line on a single enterprise stream, I really don’t think it’s real world or realistic in any way to think that suddenly will be able to happen in the multi-employer stream.
JOURNALIST: We’ve heard a lot today about the definition of small business, of the 15 workers who said Labor’s preference is for it to remain as such. Why is that? Why not 24 or incrementally increasing. Why aren’t you happy with that?
BURKE: You need to remember, some of the workplaces, like even what we’re talking about where early childhood educators work often don’t have a really large headcount in terms of the number of people there. So, I’m very conscious in terms of what we do here of wanting to make sure that we still have a pathway for wages to move for as many workers as possible. And some of the amendments either inadvertently – or certainly one moved by the Coalition overtly – would have completely carved out almost all the workers that we’re talking about with respect to feminised industries where wages have been held back.
I didn’t do the second half of Phil’s question, so I just want to return to that. I’m sorry, I gave the mining part; I didn’t give the general. The workers that I am standing with today, some were involved in that Victorian case I keep referring to where they had to go through the madness of the red tape of having to then pretend every negotiation had been individual, because that was the way the act was structured. Those workers are now 16 per cent above the award. They would – it would be a real stretch to say that they would still be eligible for the supported stream. So, the success of the supported stream or where you find this working, you don’t want to have a situation where then you basically have to freeze those pay rates until people go off and back to the award again before people are eligible. But it’s also the case –
JOURNALIST: Once not always.
BURKE: I beg your pardon?
JOURNALIST: Once, not always. The multi-employer stream.
BURKE: No, no, look, at the expiration of a multi-employer bargain it becomes possible for single employer to happen in the same way as the expiration of single employer, although, you know, there’s a grace period through the amendments that I’ve moved today. But at the end of a single employer, that’s when the opportunity comes. Once you’ve got an agreement in place you’ve got an agreement in place.
JOURNALIST: Are you prepared for the Senate to make changes, proposed changes, to your definition of small business and then where does that leave us?
BURKE: Look, the nature of every Senate negotiation is that governments work constructively with the crossbench, and you end up with bills that are not in identical form to the Government’s preferred form. That’s the reality in dealing with the Senate. I’m keeping my conversations private with the various crossbench members. They’ll put forward their priorities in different ways and they’ll choose whether to do so publicly.
JOURNALIST: Mr Burke –
BURKE: I have said I’ll go this way.
JOURNALIST: But then you went that way.
BURKE: Andrew, Andrew, I’m not going to – particularly when we’re having conversations like this, I’m not going to give in to the loudest voice.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you’ve just spent some time saying how important this reform is, but in respect to the Senate people are saying it’s been rushed through. If it’s so important, why not give it a bit more time and get people more on board with it, even if it does mean parking it until next year?
BURKE: Okay. First of all, the concept of getting everybody on board for anything about workplace relations is a remote possibility. You can negotiate forever and what happens during that time? We continue with wages being kept low. And what’s happening with low wages right now? The impact is real. Like, 2.6 per cent as what’s happening with wages growth in Australia at the moment with inflation now at 7.3 and projected to go to 8 per cent. You know, you think about the expenses that people have in the coming months, that is a real pressure where people, particularly at the lower income end but not only that, people make financial decisions based on their income. So no matter where you are on the income spectrum, we’re increasingly getting to point where people at a household level are making really difficult choices that we don’t want people to have to make.
The argument is then, “Well, given that wages won’t go up the day after this is proclaimed, doesn’t that mean we can wait longer?” I largely think that adds to the case for urgency. Like, if you were already struggling, watching inflation go up and you’re thinking “Okay, it will be a few more months once it’s been passed before I see a difference in my pay packet,” to have someone in Canberra say, “Well, it’s going to take a few more months, we’ll just add three to that and it won’t matter.” It will matter.
So, I’m realistic. I know that we have to negotiate with the Senate. But I am doing everything I can to get this Bill through with as many protections for workers as I possibly can.
JOURNALIST: While no one would contest that these wonderful women behind you deserve a pay rise, you’ve pushed through the House of Reps a piece of legislation for which you have no mandate and, in fact, actually is in breach of what Jim Chalmers said on Insiders last year. So how do you answer that question about a mandate, and secondly, how do you arrive at 15 as a small business, because pre-Work Choices the Liberal Party decided it was more like 20 –
BURKE: 15 – to deal with that first – 15 is the small business definition, and it’s already in the Fair Work Act so we’ve replicated that. Simple as that. You go back to the Work Choices time, that was when the small business definition was 100, and the Liberal Party today have gone a step further and tried to make it 200. That’s where they’ve gone today.
In terms of the processes to, you know, you use the term mandate, I saw the ABC Online article that David Speers did as well on this. Jim Chalmers interview on Insiders, he went through what our policy was as had been announced at that point. At the ACCI speech, which was also referenced during the election campaign and during that same article, the now Prime Minister put on the table the issue of bargaining at the Jobs and Skills Summit. So, for a long time we’ve talked about the Jobs and Skills Summit. We hadn’t talked about it in terms of bargaining at all at the time of that Jim Chalmers interview. We did during the election campaign. And we put it squarely on the table when we –
JOURNALIST: It was discussed by –
BURKE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BURKE: No, but I’m saying that at that point, the Jobs and Skills Summit had not yet put on the table, which Anthony did during the campaign – now Prime Minister did during the campaign at the ACCI speech and said at the Jobs –
JOURNALIST: Yeah so –
BURKE: No, no, I’m going to finish the sentence. At the Jobs and Skills Summit, he said we will deal with bargaining there. And we did. Prior to the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Government did not have a policy on multi-employer bargaining. As we listened to the different views – and not everybody supported it, I get that. If you wait around for consensus on every single aspect of a policy, you’ll never get anything done. But you listen to the academics there, you listen to the different representatives of workers; you look at the evidence from the people who are beside you now and it is clear that there’s a section of the workforce where part of the story of getting wages moving is to allow multi-employer bargaining. It was at the Jobs and Skills Summit that we took that decision and developed the legislation. As soon as the legislation was ready, we introduced it to parliament --
JOURNALIST: And the mere mention of bargaining is not a mandate?
BURKE: The mere mention of bargaining, saying we will deal with it at the Jobs and Skills Summit means we did deal with it at the Jobs and Skills Summit. It would have been a broken promise had we not dealt with at the Jobs and Skills Summit.
JOURNALIST: Minister, there’s only eight more sitting Senate sitting days in the year. What lengths is the Government prepared to go to to deliver this year, will you consider extending the sitting calendar? And also, you’ve outlined the urgency of passing the measures that relate to these that support lower-income streams. Given that urgency, is there any way you would entertain splitting the bill if it came to delivering that aspect this year and getting that process started?
BURKE: In terms of the last part of that, my principle is very much I want to deliver and get wages moving for as many workers as possible as soon as possible. And that’s the spirit with which we approach the conversations we’re having in the other place.
In terms of the timing of the sittings and things like that, I’ve learnt for a long time ever since I was Manager of the Opposition Business and certainly now as Leader of the House that any member of the House speaking on behalf of the Senate doesn’t help. And so, I’ll let senators talk about their own sitting.
BURKE: Okay, on the preferred time, I’ve made a public commitment during the debate today that the Government will support there being a statutory review. But there were different timelines, different views happening. I think it was smart to say that that’s a decision we’ll take in the Senate rather than in the House of Representatives.
JOURNALIST: And will there be more changes to single interest multi-employer bargaining to set out explicitly who it would apply to?
BURKE: The concern I have – and there was a reference today, for example, which, as a matter of principle, wasn’t unreasonable, talking about productivity where some of these extra words. The thing I’m wary of is a decade ago when the Fair Work Act was put in place, a whole lot of extra rules and conditions and layers were put in to the low-paid stream. We ended up with a stream that no one could get into. And so, I’m very – you know, there’ll be good ideas that come that on the face of it you think, “Oh, that’s a reasonable thing to put in there.” But you can end up with a process that becomes so litigious that you end up not achieving what your original intention was.
So, the starting point is I’m resistant to it. But, obviously, with all of this you’re in a situation where you’re in the Senate, you’re negotiating, you work things through. But I really don’t want – I really want to avoid the danger of – that low paid stream, you think of how many years it’s been there only four attempts. People just gave up; they couldn’t get into it.
JOURNALIST: Minister you’ve referred before to the prospect of multi-employer bargaining actually motivating employers to re-engage in single enterprise bargaining. Is this just a stick approach? And secondly, regarding childcare workers and aged care workers, those sectors are heavily reliant on government funding – is the Government going to have to be a party to multi-employer bargaining?
BURKE: One of the legislative changes that has just gone through the House of Representatives is for the funder to be at the table. So that’s there.
JOURNALIST: And is the Government ready, willing and able to sit down –
BURKE: It’s in the legislation. Are we willing to work with the legislation we’re supporting? The answer to that is yes. The other part of your question?
JOURNALIST: You’ve referred to multi-employer bargaining –
BURKE: Yes, about single interest. Single employer bargaining. There’ll be different categories. So, there’s a whole lot of businesses where single enterprise bargaining already works. That will continue unchanged. There will be some businesses that haven’t engaged and really want to avoid multi-employer bargaining. And they will see now negotiating directly with their staff – you know, it can’t be a fake photocopy of an award agreement; it’s got to be a real [indistinct] – but that will create for them an extra incentive. But there are other businesses, sometimes just for the workforce but often for the employees as well, where multi-employer will be [indistinct]. There are examples where employers want multi-employer, and there are examples where sometimes some employers are resistant to it but the / majority of the workers will say, “We want to be able to engage.” All of those different examples will be real-life examples should we be able to get the legislation through which, as I say, our determination is to say “we want that as soon as possible for as many workers as possible.”
JOURNALIST: There were many different – there was one industry that was exempt under the amendments to the bill. Does that set a dangerous precedent for other whole industries to be exempt once the negotiations go on? And given the government’s trying to prioritise this bill getting through by the end of the year, does that put at risk other key commitments like the national integrity commission also passing by this year, which also has a lot of debate ahead of it as well?
BURKE: Yeah, look, the Senate workflow will be managed by the Senate in those terms. In terms of –
JOURNALIST: The construction industry – exempted.
BURKE: So, my preferred way of dealing with this particular issue is how I originally drafted it, which was to simply have basically a lawlessness clause. And, you know, ultimately that would mean construction, the idea was that we wouldn’t be opening up multi-employer bargaining to that sector. And I preferred to do it through that sort of principle and space rather than deliberately on the face of it saying, “here’s who we’re targeting.”
The argument was raised in particular by businesses, that they felt it could be very easily gamed simply by people operating through proxies if it was done through the lawlessness test. So following consultation we ended up deciding this was better way to go, a more direct way to go. I don’t think there are other sectors with the same case where you can say that the sector at the moment doesn’t have the maturity where for a whole new form of bargaining you would want to open it up in that way.
JOURNALIST: *laughs* He’s gone.
BURKE: Can everyone tell Paul I gave him a question. Normally we run from the pressers.
JOURNALIST: If the economic outlook wasn’t so bleak would the government be rushing to pass this legislation? And if the answer is no, then what do you say to small businesses who feel like they’ve sort of been – you know, they’ve drawn the short end of the straw while Labor tries to fulfil an election promise?
BURKE: We’re always going to be wanting to get wages moving quickly after 10 years of wages being deliberately held low. After 10 years of wages being held deliberately low, this government was always going to deliberately get wages moving. What’s happening now, what is happening with inflation now has simply added to the urgency.
JOURNALIST: In the upper house where the bill is now heading, you’re going to need to secure the vote of independent senator David Pocock. You’ve previously said you’re looking to make him feel comfortable over the coming weeks, obviously, as it heads to that vote. Can you outline some of the things that you might be willing to compromise on in order to get that vote, otherwise what – will you budge or are you expecting him to budge?
BURKE: Look, in fairness to Senator Pocock, one of his principles is that he’s wanted to have a look at the Senate inquiry report. And so, as a general principle, I won’t telegraph arguments on his behalf. But that Senate inquiry report I think will be a critical time when those – the conversations are already happening, but I think they’ll become far more focused after that.
And then I’ll go there and then Phil and then I’ll start getting ready for Question Time.
JOURNALIST: Minister, at the Jobs and Skills Summit you, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer all spoke very positively about the cooperation between business, unions, across the spectrum basically. But already at the very first hurdle – this is one of the most major agreements from the Jobs and Skills Summit – already we’re seeing businesses sort of breaking away from that agreement. Does that suggest the agreements that were forged were much more fragile than maybe you gave across at the time?
BURKE: No, I think what you’ll find with those business groups is that no one expected that the Government would only act if absolutely everybody agreed. And you’ll find many comments from the Prime Minister, from the Treasurer, from myself leading into the Jobs and Skills Summit where we said the test is not whether or not we can get unanimity. So, I think we’ve been pretty clear on that the whole way through.
The thing that I think you will find with most of the business groups is they will say in terms of the engagement that we’ve had and the intensity of that engagement I think it is a significant improvement on what they have experienced for some years in this place.
JOURNALIST: Just to fact-check on your opening statement you had. You said Peter Dutton moved an amendment.
JOURNALIST: That would have brought back the provisions –
BURKE: His second-reading amendment, clause 4 of his second-reading amendment.
JOURNALIST: But that was an emergency provision, was it not, which Scott Morrison and Michaelia Cash officially denounced during the election campaign and was no longer part of their IR bill.
BURKE: Yes, that’s why I was surprised it came back today.
JOURNALIST: Was that what Peter Dutton proposed? The BOOT exemptions?
BURKE: Yes, what he proposed – that’s why I was so surprised, right? I didn’t read it until last night, but when you work through it, he’s worded it quite specifically in terms of the way the bill was introduced in 2020. Now, 2020, it was introduced with not, you know amendments to the better off overall test – the abolition of it for two years. And those agreements would then continue for the full life of the agreements.
So, it was a complete shift from what Michaelia Cash had said they would do if they were in government. Now, they didn’t win government, so it’s not like it’s an election commitment, but they – the shift and the way they voted on that this morning was categorically you read clause 4 of what Mr Dutton moved, I was surprised. It’s not an argument that I’ll be returning to in the same way. But, you know, it’s not like he misspoke. It’s there in writing, moved in the Parliament, voted on in the Parliament. When we talk deliberate design features of keeping wages low, that one would do it.
Okay, thanks, everybody.