SUBJECTS: COVID Pandemic Leave Payment, casual work, COVID recovery.
JAMES GLENDAY, HOST: Well, turning to another major issue this morning, the reintroduction of pandemic payments for casuals as COVID cases balloon across the country. The Employment Minister, Tony Burke, joins me now from Parliament House in Canberra. Tony, good morning.
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Good morning, James.
GLENDAY: During the election, Albanese said he would be the kind of leader to “fess up and front up” when he stuffed up. Did he get it wrong when it came to pandemic isolation payments for casuals?
BURKE: Look, the decision that’s now been made, I’m really glad that it’s been made and in the light of the additional information that is coming through with the new variants, you can see why it’s going to be really important for public health. So, I –
GLENDAY: Did things change that much between Friday and Saturday, though? It sort of seemed to be fairly clear earlier in the week and it looked as though the PM was digging in.
BURKE: Look, you can pick what day or whatever you want, but I’ve got to say: the decision that’s been made I’m really glad of, and I do think it’s particularly important given the new variants. There’s new information emerging about the new variants all the time. ABC Radio this morning has been running stories about what it’s meaning immediately for aged care; and if you just look at aged care as an example, highly casualised industry. The last thing we want as these new variants go through is for people not to be tested because they’re in a situation where they would have no means of – no livelihood. So, what and we want, and this is really important for public health – and I know you’re wanting to go to other aspects of it, but that’s why I really want the message to be clear to people – that you have no reason to not be tested. You will be looked at – if you have sick leave, you can access your sick leave. If you don’t have sick leave, you’ll still be looked after here with the $750 payment.
GLENDAY: This is just a temporary extension though. Do you anticipate that come September 30, start of October, these payments are going to run out again, that we will be looking at dropping mandatory isolation periods; that seven-day period for COVID will go and it will be treated like any other disease?
BURKE: Well, you know, we’ll take the best information as it comes. The situation is better than it would have been because people are vaccinated, but there’s extra boosters available now. Those getting out as quickly going to be important and we’ll take the latest information on new variants as they occur. If you go back to when the pandemic started, every time, everything has been time-limited and there’s a reason for that. This is something that’s changing rapidly.
GLENDAY: This discussion has shone a light on the number of casuals in this country and employee arrangements. Businesses received a lot of taxpayer money during the early stages of the pandemic. Do you believe they’re hiring too many people as casuals?
BURKE: I think that job insecurity is a massive problem in Australia, and it was a problem before the pandemic. You know, when – I remember when I first entered the workforce as a casual, the casuals were largely the students who were doing it for extra money. Now, increasingly casuals are people trying to support a family, people trying to hold multiple jobs and it’s not just, you know, retail where I started or hospitality where casualisation has always been there. You now also find insecurity in the finance industry and the banks which used to be the complete home of secure employment. Increasingly, we’re finding people working in insecure work not just as casuals. It might be they work in the gig economy. It might be that there’s a permanent job there but they’re only ever on a short-term contract or it might be that they’re with a labour-hire firm and the job could disappear at any point. But all these things, what we need to remember is that it might be in the name of flexibility, but your rent’s not flexible; your mortgage isn’t flexible; your household bills aren’t flexible. There will always be a place for insecure casual work. It will always be part of the workforce, but it’s become a much bigger part in Australia than what it should be.
GLENDAY: Maybe one for your jobs summit then. The unemployment rate at the moment, Minister, is stunning, but some analysts out today – analysis from the Australia Institute suggests that corporate profits, not wages, are the major contributor to inflation this year. Does that mean that unions and workers should be asking for even bigger pay rises for the coming months?
BURKE: Well, I’ve got to say I’m sick to death of people blaming workers on modest and low wages for inflation. I can give you very simple proof as to why inflation is not driven by high wage growth: we don’t have high wage growth in Australia. And for a long time, people were told – you know, for 10 years the previous Government said, “Oh, well, you can’t have a pay rise because inflation is low.” Now, some of the lobbyists are saying, “You can’t have a pay rise because inflation is high.” People were told, “When unemployment gets low, then you can have a pay rise.” Unemployment is now the lowest it’s been for nearly 50 years and some people are still arguing against wages moving. People need to be able to keep up and so, you know, you’ll get different wage claims in different industries at different points and obviously the greater the productivity dividend the more the wage claim has a chance of success, but it’s also the case people have gone for a period of time, and the unions as well, not seeking significant wage claims while the pandemic was on at its worst, while the lockdowns were on – I’m not saying the pandemic is over, but the lockdown period, when that was on, there was incredible restraint being shown and it’s as though there’s no respect being returned to workers when people say, “Oh, yeah, well, now we’ll just get a new excuse for keeping wages low.” I think people deserve better than that.
GLENDAY: Interesting. The last hour, Minister, we spoke to the Grattan Institute about political appointments to boards. Will the Albanese Government appoint its mates to diplomatic postings and tribunals or is this something that you’re going to stamp out – selection criteria, things like that?
BURKE: Well, I don’t think anyone’s going to say that, “You know, you’re vetoed forever, if you have been politically involved, from appointments.” But what we saw from the previous Government was just off the charts and completely lacking in merit. I think that report referred to Australia Post where it’s something like half the board, you know. Now, the approach that I’ve taken with my department is, effectively, I’ve got them to put together what’s the skills criteria – this is as Arts Minister where we’ve got a lot of boards, to make sure that we’ve got the different skills matched because you need a skills-based board. I think for the previous government the Liberal Party membership was sort of the only skill they were after. I’ve got a situation the National Museum at the moment, the museum of Australia, the National Museum here in Canberra doesn’t have a single historian on its board. The National Portrait Gallery has no one who’s First Nations on its board. You know, you really need to say: what’s the mixture of people you need on these boards to make sure that you’re filling these gaps appropriately? And then for me every appointment, when you’ve worked out what the skills are, then goes through a further process with the department.
GLENDAY: Okay. Tony Burke thank you so much. We’ll come back to that in a couple of years to see whether Labor has been true to its word. Thanks for your time.
BURKE: Thanks, James.