Release type: Transcript


Interview — ABC Insiders with David Speers


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

SUBJECTS: Secure Job, Better Pay Bill, Scott Morrison


DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Tony Burke, welcome to the program.


SPEERS: Before we get to where you're at with the negotiations with the Senate crossbench, just on that point from the Reserve Bank Governor we heard during the week, he says "we've got to avoid the idea that wages have to go up to compensate for inflation." Is he right?

BURKE: The system is not capable of chasing headline inflation. And if you even look at the words of the Reserve Bank Governor he's made clear that at the moment, the wage prices - the wage inflation that we have, the wage increases that we have, are having no impact on the current inflation rate. I'm sorry, I'm hearing an echo.

SPEERS: We'll get that addressed. Apologies, we'll get that fixed up. Well, let's turn then to where you're up to in negotiations with the Senate crossbench. I understand you've had some progress over the last 24 hours or so.

BURKE: Yeah, lots happened since I first agreed to the interview as late as 8:30 last night. There's a reason why I'm in Canberra. Senator David Pocock and I were still meeting and I can say now that we are confident that the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill will pass the Parliament this year with the support of Senator David Pocock.

SPEERS: So it will pass with his support. He's given you that confirmation? 

BURKE: That's right, that's right.

SPEERS: And what have you had to give to secure that commitment?

BURKE: Yeah, look, it hasn't been an easy negotiation and Senator Pocock's been very clear on a series of the principles that he wanted to look at. As you know, he would have preferred that everything was dealt with next year when we said we wanted to make decisions this year. It's involved a very intense process, a lot of meetings, a lot of detail. There's effectively three sorts of issues that have come to the fore. One is with respect to small business, the other is low paid workers and finally, a concern that he has that's outside of my portfolio but is part of the agreement that goes to structural issues that we can put in place to deal with people who are within the payment system. So, if I go through each other very quickly for you.

In terms of small business, we'll be adopting all the recommendations of the Senate inquiry, including the shift to the small business head count going to 20, to be excluded from that single interest stream. But we've also put in an extra marker where, effectively, for small businesses that have fewer than 50 employees, it becomes easier for them to argue to the commission that they don't believe that it's reasonable that they're not reasonably comparative to the - reasonably comparable to the other businesses within a multi-employer bargain and to be able to get out. So there's an easier process for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. 

In terms of workers, to make sure that we don't run into the same problem that happened with the previous low-paid stream where you had a section of a bill - of an act that looked fantastic but nobody could get into it. A capacity to make sure that specific occupations can be deemed to be part of that supported stream for low paid workers.

And finally, they'll be outside of my portfolio, so I can just give you the high points of it. There'll be a new statutory advisory committee made up of experts that in the lead up to every budget will provide independent advice as to the structural challenges on economic inclusion, as well as going all the way through to looking at the different rules and the levels of payments to provide independent advice to the government as those budgets are put together. And at least two weeks before each budget, they would make information public that would then make clear the different challenges. And this is very much to take account of what Senator David Pocock's been saying with respect to some of the poorest people in the country, wanting to make sure there's a structural presence.

SPEERS: So you're talking about Jobseeker payments, parenting payments, those sorts of payments, each budget getting independent expert advice that's made public that says they're either inadequate or not.

BURKE: That's right. That's exactly right. And there's a lot of interaction between different payments and different allowances so it will have the capacity to do all that.

SPEERS: Let me come back to the areas that are within your portfolio that you mentioned there. So the headcount on small business as to which businesses are exempt from multi employer bargaining, it will now be 20. Is that part time and full time casuals inclusive?

BURKE: It's a head count using the head count principles that are already there. I mean, you won't be able to game it with sudden upping or downing of casuals who are just on the books and aren't getting shifts and things like that. There's principles within the Act already that hold to that.

SPEERS: Okay. And if a child care centre has more than 20 staff they would still be able to be involved in multi employer bargaining through the low paid stream, is that right?

BURKE: That's right. And to avoid the risk that going to 20 might mean that some early childhood educators, in fact, if they had a pay rise through the first round of bargaining that then pushed them out of that lower paid stream, that Deeming provision that I referred to would create a situation where we could keep them in that stream which has the added advantage of keeping the thunder at the table, which, for a series of those feminised industries, is essential.

SPEERS: And those businesses with a headcount up to 50, you mentioned they will have a stronger ability to argue it's unreasonable for them to be included in multi employer bargaining, or that they're not comparable to other employers. Just explain that to me.

BURKE: Okay, so there's a new test within the common interest test that's being added. It's being added for everybody as to whether the businesses are reasonably comparable. So that's the new test that's there. So, for example, if a business says, look, we've actually got nothing to do, not enough to do with these other businesses that are in the multi employer stream, if you're fewer than 50, effectively, the case has to be made that you should be included. And that makes it much easier for small businesses, not like there's an onus on it.

SPEERS: So the onus would be on the union, for example, to make the case that these two businesses are similar enough.

BURKE: That's right, for under 50 it'll be the other way for more than 50. 

SPEERS: All right, can I ask you, though, there's still concern amongst bigger businesses, mining and aviation and others, about what multi employer bargaining will mean for them. Will it, for example, mean that airline crews at Qantas and Jetstar and Virgin all have to be paid, or could be paid the same rate?

BURKE: Look, the reasonable comparable test will apply to everybody. It's just the owner shifts above and below 50. So that's something that larger businesses have been asking to have that taken into account and that'll be available. These judgement call decisions are made by the Commission. But I've got to say, where you have situations like what you just described, the public interest test would come into play there as well. And it's where the Opposition have constantly wanted to characterise this as industry wide or sector wide bargaining. It's not that.

SPEERS: Could it be, though? Could it be?

BURKE: I'm not going to get in front of making judgments on behalf of the Fair Work Commission and no Minister would.

SPEERS: But they could apply an industry wide aviation deal like that?

BURKE: Well, the concept of the act is multi employer, not industry wide. So you never get to say, because you're in the industry, everybody's in. That's not how this legislation is drafted. That principle doesn't happen. What happens is employers either opt in or their workforce votes to opt in. And then before the Fair Work Commission, they have to work out whether there's a common interest, whether it's reasonably comparable, and also whether or not it's in the public interest. And where you go sector wide for sectors that are critical to the national economy. At that point, it's pretty hard to see things passing the public interest test.

SPEERS: Will Parliament still have to sit on, or at least the House have to sit on Saturday, as has been the plan, as I understand it?

BURKE: That's right. I was astonished yesterday to see the Opposition complaining that they might have to turn up on a Saturday. I think there's plenty of Australian workers, knowing what's at stake with wages that haven't been moving for a decade, that would just be shaking their heads about that particular objection. So, what will happen on the Thursday afternoon, we will suspend rather than adjourn the House, and then on Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, we'll come back. No matter what happens, and no matter how quickly the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill gets through, there'll still be other legislation going through the Senate, there'll still be amendments that will need to be considered by the House and we'll be here on Saturday to be able to deal with that.

SPEERS: And then that's it? You won't need any more than that?

BURKE: Well, if the Senate has finished, then we simply deal with what the Senate said. But they've been quite clear that they believe they can manage everything by the Friday. And I know as a member of the House, you never comment on Senate procedures. You leave that to Katy Gallagher and Penny Wong.

SPEERS: Probably wise. Look, finally, on another matter, we've been talking about, the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. I know Cabinet will look at this tomorrow. What's your view as leader of the House? Should Parliament have an opportunity to make its views clear, whether they're a censure or some other type of reprimand of what happened with those secret ministries?

BURKE: I'll leave the decision, obviously, to the Cabinet deliberations that are tomorrow. But one of the things that's really interesting in the bill report is Justice Bell has specifically quoted the comments from the Solicitor General that the principles of responsible government were fundamentally undermined. The Parliament is where you have responsible government. If you're not allowed to know who the Ministers are when you're directing questions, the whole concept collapses. And what happened with what Scott Morrison did wasn't simply a decision of him on this particular matter, it had been enabled by behaviour for years and people are sort of surprised that he did this to them as Ministers are the same people who sat in the Chamber voting that no one else would get to speak on legislation, the same people who were quite happy with their being a cabinet committee with only one member of it. They were all involved in this.

SPEERS: It's got to be irresistible, right, to move a censure motion and put the Liberals in a rather awkward position.

BURKE: I'm not going to get ahead of the Cabinet deliberations, nor should I.

SPEERS: Tony Burke, appreciate you joining us this morning. Thank you.

BURKE: Good to talk.