Interview - ABC Afternoon Briefing
MATTHEW DORAN, HOST: Tony Burke, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. It seems like you're in for quite a battle, a negotiating battle with the Senate crossbench to get this IR omnibus bill through Parliament, aren't you?
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: I think the Senate crossbench always put up a tough battle in terms of wanting to make sure that they're persuaded. So, yeah, I welcome that and had very constructive conversations with them. Obviously, they've got a request that things go more slowly. I'm doing everything I can to try to make sure we can ease their concerns with the bill itself and get it done this year. So that's very much my responsibility, to try to persuade them on that. Certainly at my end, people have been waiting for ten years without their wages moving and I don't want to continue that delay. This bill, Secure Jobs, Better Pay, will get wages moving and I don't want to delay that a day longer than I have to.
DORAN: Some of the elements in this bill are contentious, to say the least. Certainly within amongst the business community, the issue of multi-employer bargaining, that seems to be raising a few red flags for the business sector, whereas other elements aren't. Isn't there a merit in splitting them off into separate pieces of legislation to at least get that non-contentious element through Parliament before Christmas?
BURKE: Yeah, but the problem there is the contentious one you referred to in multi-employer bargaining is a measure that precisely will get wages moving. And if you look at the areas of the economy that have been crying out for this the most loudly, it's areas like childcare, areas like cleaning, areas like aged care. We're talking about those feminised sections of the economy, not particularly militant, not areas of the economy that have done well out of bargaining over the last decade. They're the ones that have been crying out for multi-employer bargaining. I really don't want to say no to those workforces.
I really don't want to be in a world where we're saying to childcare workers, to cleaners, to people in aged care that you've waited ten years and you can just keep waiting. I don't want that to be the message. So if I can find a way with the Senate crossbench to be able to ease their concerns and get it through this year, that's what I want to do. We want to get wages moving. There'll always be some business interests that don't. There'll always be some business interests that are outraged and when they can't win the argument about wages, some will simply say, oh, we can't, we just buy some more time –
DORAN: Sorry to cut you off there, but these are contentious measures, but also very complicated measures. David Pocock has come out and said that he would like more time to get across the details to make sure that everything is moving along smoothly. Isn't that a good idea when it's so complicated?
BURKE: They’re contentious measures and getting wages moving is contentious in Australia. That's why for ten years they haven’t. And the impacts of that are real. Let's not pretend we don't have a level of urgency here. If having wages at the moment in Australia running at 2.6 per cent and inflation running at 7.3, if that doesn't give us a sense of urgency, I don't know what will. So for the senators that are quite reasonably saying they want to make sure they can get across the detail, I want to provide whatever assistance we can in helping them get across the detail. But certainly I don't want, for the families and the households that are saying, ‘our wages aren't keeping up’, I don't want to be in a world where we're waiting a day longer than we have to in getting wages moving in Australia.
DORAN: So it seems like a flat no to splitting up parts of this bill.
BURKE: Well, certainly it's not my starting point. My starting point is this bill gets wages moving. Australians need us to get wages moving. And my preference for the Senate crossbench, rather than just buying more time, is to have the constructive conversations which have started. And the Senate crossbench, from everything I've seen, is operating in good faith here to see if we can find a way of satisfying their concerns with the detail itself, rather than say to households around Australia, you're just going to have to keep waiting longer for pay rises.
DORAN: There's some reporting around this morning suggesting that the Prime Minister’s had to be drafted in as part of these negotiations, is that correct?
BURKE: There's reporting that some people have called for that and you know, you’ve said, has that been reported? The answer is, yes, it has. It's also been reported that there’s –
DORAN: But has it actually started to happen?
BURKE: Oh not that I'm aware of. But what has also been reported today is that we're meant to be intimidated by the fact that there's a couple of interests out there that are wanting to spend $20 million on an advertising campaign to try to stop the Government's resolve in getting wages moving.
DORAN: Well, that was my next question, actually. These are the quotes from the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association and their Chief Executive, Steve Knott. I was going to ask whether or not you've actually read those comments, but it seems like you are hot to trot on them. Steve Knott saying that there is white hot anger among mining, oil and gas companies about this legislation and that the Government should be gearing up for a multimillion dollar campaign against them. Do you fear that?
BURKE: Steve Knott doesn't even represent BHP. Far from representing the whole of the mining industry in Australia. A $20 million campaign is not going to stop this Government's resolve in getting wages moving. If they think they can simply buy advertising space and we will suddenly turn a blind eye to the households where wages are not keeping up with the standards of living, then they just don't understand what's happening around every kitchen table in Australia.
DORAN: When we're looking at the wage growth that you're promising as a result of this legislation, in last week's budget, we saw Treasury forecasts saying that wage growth is going to tick along that 3.5 per cent mark and not actually outpace inflation until the middle of 2024. Is that based on this legislation going through, or are you hopeful that it could actually be quicker in an instant when this legislation goes through, that those forecasts would actually be revised upwards?
BURKE: There's been a long history in Australian budgets of wage forecasts saying that wages will improve and then nothing in fact changing. That's what happened for the last ten years. The wages forecasts were always fantastic. It never translated into anyone's pockets. And the simple reason was the previous government had a deliberate strategy of keeping wages low and they were successful. What this legislation is about is about the Government taking active steps to get wages moving. So I wouldn't rely on where the forecasts are in terms of the impact. What people have seen for a decade now is if you have a Government that wants to keep wages low, they stay low and you fall behind. We now have a Government that wants to get wages moving, but to do that we need to change the law. That's why Secure Jobs, Better Pay is legislation we want to see get through the Parliament and we want to see it get through as quickly as it can.
DORAN: So you’re saying that people shouldn't put a whole lot of stock in the wage forecast in the budget because of what's happened in the past, are you arguing the same thing is going to happen again? That they're going to miss the mark again?
BURKE: No, what I'm arguing is right now we have something that Australia hasn't had for nearly a decade and that's a Government that is wanting to fight to improve wages in Australia and to get wages moving. The first way we showed that was with the annual wage review where we delivered the 5.2 per cent for the people on the minimum wage. The next thing we did was the aged care review with the submission that aged care workers need a better deal. And the third thing that we're doing is legislating to be able to close the gender pay gap and to be able to get wages moving, particularly in those feminised sections of the economy that have had low wage growth and wages have been held back by too much for too long.
That's the legislation in front of us now. People could have said, well, you could delay your submission to the annual wage review, you didn't need to make a submission to the aged care review. Every time we've been true to what the Government took to the election, that we will fight to get wages moving. For Australians, this legislation Secure Jobs, Better Pay is the next step in that path.
DORAN: Well Tony Burke, the negotiations will be very interesting to watch. Thank you for joining us on Afternoon Briefing today.