Interview - ABC Insiders with David Speers
DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Tony Burke, welcome to the program.
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: G'day David. It was either Splendour in the Grass or Insiders this weekend so great to be with you.
SPEERS: A lot less mud here at least, I hope. Thank you for making that sacrifice. The Treasurer says inflation will start moderating next year and return to something more normal after that. What about wages, when will we see real wage growth?
BURKE: Well we need to get wages moving and you can't turn that around on a dime. There’s effectively three bodies of work. The first in getting wages moving was to use the annual wage review, and we've done that. The second is to get rid of the loopholes that are actually causing wages to go backwards. And the third is what we do with bargaining which we've put to the Jobs Summit. You know when I talk in that second area of examples where we currently have policies that allow wages to go backwards, you know, just think of these three.
The fact that in the gig economy at the moment you're not even guaranteed the minimum wage. The fact that labour-hire is not only being used as a surge capacity or specialised workforce, which is completely legitimate, but it's also now being used to undercut the rate of pay at some work sites. And, thirdly, and I'm watching this one really closely, increasingly I'm seeing reports where negotiations on bargaining aren't simply about whether or not there should be a pay rise but some employers threatening just to unilaterally cancel agreements so that workers at this point in time could be facing an immediate real wage cut, like a dollar wage cut. So, we need to make sure that we're not just getting wages moving but at the moment we've got a system that allows them to go backwards in a whole lot of ways.
SPEERS: Well there's a bit in that answer that I want to come back to on the detail, but just returning to this broader issue about real wage growth. I mean, you know, this is something of course that Labor campaigned very strongly on before the election. Are you able to at least say in this Parliamentary term, before the next election, we will see some real wage growth?
BURKE: We're fighting for real wage growth from day one and this is where there's been some commentary, including on Insiders a couple of weeks ago about, you know, alleged wage price spirals and links between wages and inflation. Let's remember at the moment inflation is not driven in any way by high wage growth because we don't have high wage growth. [Indistinct] at the moment is ‑‑
SPEERS: But my question is are we going to see in this term real wage growth?
BURKE: In this term you'll see wages moving. I can't tell you what the inflation rate's going to be and you're asking a question about the relationship between the two. Certainly on the wage price index on wages themselves we intend to get them moving. We want people to be getting ahead. There are some things we can do to put downward pressure on inflation. So, for example, part of the – a lot of the story of inflation is overseas. Some of it's domestic as well. When you don't have an energy policy for a decade, that's inflationary. When you have a skills crisis and refuse to invest in skills, that's inflationary.
So in establishing, you know, the first bill we'll be dealing with in the Parliament will be jobs and skills Australia. We've already had Chris Bowen taking action in terms of making sure that we're dealing with the energy crisis. But none of this turns around straight away. Where we can put downward pressure on inflation we will and where we can put upward pressure on wages we will.
SPEERS: So you've noted the most effective way to get wages moving is through fixing enterprise bargaining, and I know this will be addressed in the Jobs and Skills Summit in September and you've been given the task of focusing on this area in particular. I'm keen to hear your starting point on this, I guess. When you talk about fixing enterprise agreements how open are you to reforming the current system?
BURKE: Look, everything's on the table is the starting point. Everything's on the table. Obviously, there are some areas that I've been sceptical about. So I've been sceptical about some of the conversation about the better-off overall test, in that the conversation so far has been, "Oh, can we suspend it all together?" or "Can we allow situations where some workers go backwards?". I'm interested in workers going forwards. I'll tell you upfront I'd take a lot of convincing on the better-off overall test. But it's still on the table.
SPEERS: Just on that, what about the deal with the ACTU and the Business Council provisionally reached last year, some other industry groups didn't like it, but they wanted an arrangement where union-approved deals would be fast‑tracked even if there was one hypothetical worker left worse off under the agreement?
BURKE: If I can find agreements where there's consensus, and I don't know whether the consensus of that agreement of a couple of years ago will still exist in an identical form, but if a consensus like that turns up at the Jobs Summit you can work on the basis that I'll be inclined to grab it.
BURKE: Because that did have safeguards around it to prevent workers from in fact going backwards.
SPEERS: All right. And then secure work, you've talked about making job security an objective of the Fair Work Act. Now that sounds, you know, reasonable enough but I guess it depends on what your definition of job security is. Can you give us an idea where you say secure job, what are you talking about?
BURKE: Okay. Well at the moment if you go through the objectives of the Fair Work Act flexibility is there, security isn't. I think security needs to be there as well. Examples of security, obviously full‑time and part‑time work where your hours are guaranteed, where you have leave entitlements, they're examples of secure work. But the alternative, you know, when I first entered the workforce when you talked about insecure work you were talking about casuals as the only real example of it. Now we have the gig economy. Now we increasingly have like some labour hire being used for purposes that I don't regard as legitimate. Increasingly now as well, including in the public service at State and Federal level, we've had an increased practice of people where the job has continuity but for the worker, you're on a short‑term contract and then another short‑term and another short‑term. You can end up qualifying that you should be ready to take long service leave before you've even effectively passed your probationary period.
SPEERS: So should all casuals be entitled to sick leave?
BURKE: I've seen the reports of calling for that. I've got to say I'm worried that if you go down that path you're effectively giving up. There is a place for casual work but I'm worried if we try to solve this by simply legislating everything rather than finding pathways for casuals to have security where they want it and to actually shift to part‑time and full‑time secure work. So I must say I'm much more interested in how we can promote secure work and get more people into secure jobs than just redefining everything about casual employment. There are some aspects of the casual worker definition that do need to be brought up to date and there can occasionally be some leave entitlements that are appropriate. But I don't want to just legislate everybody as though they're – yeah.
SPEERS: You mentioned gig economy workers and the minimum wage in your first answer. Should all gig economy workers get the minimum wage?
BURKE: They should all have minimum standards. Now, for example, for some gig work it's actually effectively on five-minute shifts rather than three- or four-hour minimum shifts. So how you calculate what a reasonable minimum is when you're on a much shorter shift may in fact be an amount higher than the minimum wage. But in a situation where nothing is guaranteed at the moment and where the hardest question that was asked in those debates was when now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese asked should every worker be at least guaranteed the minimum wage, the response was, "Oh no, but we're talking about small business people here". Now I grew up in small business family. I've run my own small business. I know what a small business looks like. Somebody delivering a pizza on the back of a bicycle where they have no control over how much they're paid, that person is not a small business person, and they need minimum standards.
SPEERS: So minimum hours basically?
BURKE: Well they need ‑ I don't want to undo, I don't want to destroy the technology, okay. Part of the technology involves flexibility and a lot of the workers in the gig economy, for example, do want the sort of flexibility that's there. What they don't want is a situation where the rates of pay are so appallingly low that we become a country where you have to rely on tips to be able to make ends meet.
SPEERS: So for that pizza delivery driver, what changes? What will they get? What can you do for them?
BURKE: Well for them they should be able to get a minimum rate of pay. There's a chance, if you wanted to give them leave entitlements, and these would be matters for the Commission, but if you wanted to give them leave entitlements you need to do it in a way that can spread across multiple apps, because most of those riders, they might be on Deliveroo, Door Dash, Uber Eats, Menulog. They'll be on a series of apps at the same time.
BURKE: So it might be one of the examples where portable leave entitlements becomes something that is looked at. But the starting point at the moment is, if you're classed as an employee you get a whole lot of rights. If you fail on that test all your rights fall off a cliff. And what we need to do is turn that cliff into a ramp so there's a sliding scale that the Fair Work Commission can look at to work out what entitlements are appropriate for those workers.
SPEERS: Now let's go to the news you're announcing today. You plan to scrap the Building and Construction Commission we know, the building industry watch dog. That's going to require legislation later this year. But you're taking action today to amend the Building Code. Tell us what difference this will make.
BURKE: As of Tuesday the ABCC in its powers will be pulled back to the bare legal minimum. So a lot of what it's been doing can appropriately be done by another regulator. So some of it goes to health and safety regulators, some of it goes to the Fair Work Ombudsman, and some of the things that the ABCC's been doing, which I just think have been ridiculous rules, are gone all together. So we will no longer be spending taxpayers’ money determining what sticker someone's allowed to put on their helmet, whether or not a safety sign has to be pulled down because it's got a union logo in the bottom corner, or what flag might be flying at a building site. Those sorts of issues should never have been something for an official government regulator to be wasting taxpayers' money. As of Tuesday those offences are gone all together.
SPEERS: So you'll be able to fly a CFMEU flag without fear of punishment. But what about things like drug and alcohol testing on building sites, will that continue or go?
BURKE: That goes back to health and safety regulators. Those rules have been really weird rules, I've got to say. So the threshold for when they apply and when they don't isn't based on a safety concern. It's based on, one, whether you're in construction and, two, a formula of the extent of Commonwealth contribution relative to the value of the project as though somehow that's a safety principle. You know, these sorts of rules to make sure that people are fit and ready for work are just as important on a mining site as they are on a construction site and regardless of the level of Commonwealth contribution. Health and safety regulators can make common sense decisions here and that's how it should be done.
SPEERS: Let me turn to the 47th Parliament which sits from Tuesday, your role as manager of government business. You've said the House of Representatives has become a farce in the last Parliament. How will you fix that?
BURKE: There are two things that you change. One, you change the standing orders, and the second thing you change is the demeanour of the Government. There will always be a way and options for ministers as to how they answer questions they're asked. But we got to the point in the last Parliament, and it wasn't there say when Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister, even Tony Abbott before that, but we got to the point where 15 seconds into a question ministers had had enough talking about their own policy and were just sledging for the rest of the question. Ministers and governments determine the respect they're willing to show for the Parliament. We ended up getting to the point where ministers in the previous government were delivering speeches on the wrong bill because they weren't even responsible for their own legislation. I'm making sure ministers are responsible for introducing, winding up, having responsibility for the carriage of their own legislation in the Parliament.
SPEERS: Okay. But here's a radical idea: could you get rid of Dorothy Dixers in question time and have some genuine questions at least from your own side?
BURKE: The questions from our own side, I mean you'll judge what they're like when you're watching them, and I expect what will happen is people will think it is not what some would regard as the ideal. Some will think well, it's going to certainly be a hell of a lot better than where we were. We're not going to create a situation where the Government agenda isn't part of question time. Of course it will be. We're not going to create a situation where the opposition and the crossbench are the only people to determine what the issues of the day are.
SPEERS: So we'll still get Dorothy Dixers, all right. How many questions will the crossbench get?
SPEERS: Three each sitting day.
BURKE: It will be three each sitting day. And effectively if you give them two it's below the percentage quota, they are on the opposition benches, on the non‑Government benches. Three is a little bit above. So the way we're balancing it out is they'll be a little bit above their technical quota in terms of number of questions, a little bit below in some of the other speaking opportunities that happen during Parliament.
SPEERS: Okay. The crossbenchers have been quite upset at the Government cutting their staff allocation from four advisors to one. I understand some of them are meeting with the Prime Minister tomorrow. Is the Government willing to budge on this?
BURKE: Well, the Prime Minister will conduct those meetings and as you've seen there have been areas where particular cases have been made and particular compromises have been made. One thing that's happened in this debate though that I do want to point out is there's been a view that somehow it's outrageous to use your electorate staff in Parliamentary work and that's an unreasonable imposition. The whole time I was in opposition as a Shadow Minister I had someone on my electorate staff helping with the Parliamentary work and doing that. Every backbencher does the same. And the view that backbenchers don't need to be across legislation is just not true. There's a whole committee system and caucus system where caucus members are engaged in each piece of legislation, have a view on it and sometimes change the view for what frontbenchers are brought forward.
SPEERS: Okay. Crossbenchers argue they've got, you know, particularly added workload given they're not part of a big party machine. But just let me ask you one thing on this. The Prime Minister indicated when he announced this there'd be more support for the Parliamentary Library, it would be increased. Has that happened?
BURKE: I don't know the answer yet, I haven't been flagged, I'm not responsible. I'd be confident though that those resources, whether the people have been employed or not, the resources would have been put to work.
BURKE: But you then have to employ the people. So exactly where that's at I don't have the answer to, David.
SPEERS: Final one. Just give us an update if you can on negotiations over the climate target legislation? We know, we heard from the Greens leader on the program last week, the various demands they're making. I know there have been some conversations during the week about this ratchet mechanism to allow the target of 43 per cent to be increased. Is that something the Government will give ground on?
BURKE: What I can give you are the three principles that Chris Bowen's using in the negotiations. The first is that we'll be implementing our promises. The second is that negotiations are happening in good faith. And the third thing to remember, particularly with the announcement that's being made today, is under the safeguards mechanism all the large polluters are now on a trajectory towards net‑zero by 2050 and those three principles are framing all the conversations we'll be having, including on what's been raised today.
SPEERS: Sorry, you mentioned the safeguards mechanism announcement today, what's that about?
BURKE: No, no, we took to the election the safeguards mechanism. I'm referring ‑ the announcement from the Greens that you asked about today, needs to be seen in the light that the safeguards mechanism has all the large polluters on a trajectory to net‑zero by 2050.
SPEERS: I was looking for another scoop there, Tony Burke, but you've given us plenty of news this morning. I appreciate you joining us, thank you.
BURKE: Great to talk to you.