SABRA LANE, HOST: The Jobs and Skills Summit is on today and the Federal Government is starting it with a win, securing agreement from big business group and unions on some major policy changes. The ACTU and the Business Council of Australia have reached common ground on a couple of issues, including ending the cap on permanent migration. Crucially, they’re agreeing the enterprise bargaining system needs to be revamped, saying a key part of it, a so called better off overall test, or BOOT, which ensures no workers go backwards, needs to be kept but simplified. The Employment and Workplace Relations Minister is Tony Burke. Good morning; welcome. This agreement, what does that mean for the summit?
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Well, it starts the day with a fair bit of momentum. We’ve now seen the ACTU form agreements both with small business and with big business, and the reference you made to the better off overall test is a really important development, because what they’ve said is “maintained but simplified”. That makes sure that we don’t have a situation where wages would go backwards but at the same time to try to find a way through to make the whole system less legalistic and more practical for everybody involved.
LANE: Before the summit you’d been pretty reluctant to touch that better off overall test. Given that there’s agreement now, by the end of tomorrow, do you think a deal will be in place for fixing that and overhauling the enterprise bargaining system?
BURKE: We’ll let the session run its course at the summit and that’s this morning, the section that I’ll chair, where this will come up. But, as I say, there’s momentum there now, and from my perspective, this doesn’t hit the concerns that I previously had. When the previous Government wanted to touch the better off overall test, it was always just to suspend it, which always created a situation where every penalty rate or shift allowance could in fact be cut. That’s not being put forward in this agreement. It’s a proposal where workers would not go backwards, but we could potentially simplify.
One of the things that’s happened in the system over the last few years is it’s become much, much more legalistic and complex and difficult to navigate, and if we can address those issues that are raised in the agreement, that I suspect will get a fair bit of support in the summit today, then we’ll be well on the way to getting agreement making moving and if you’ve got agreements moving, you’ve got wages moving.
LANE: Business and unions have also agreed that paid parental leave should be extended to 26 weeks and super paid on top of that; so, will the Government now adopt that?
BURKE: There’ll be lots of good ideas that’ll come out. A lot of them won’t hit my portfolio, but what you can work on the basis of is two things: good ideas always have their place in planning, but everything that hits the Budget bottom line, there’ll be things that we want to do that we can’t afford to do. That’s one of the things that is a reality when you’re dealing with more than a trillion dollars of Liberal debt.
LANE: There’s already agreement about the need to lift skilled migration and an immediate review of the skills on the list. When will the Government release the details on the size of the increase in migrants and what jobs are going to be on that skills list now?
BURKE: Yeah, once again, on the specifics of that, you’re in Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles areas, but the normal time that the information with respect to total immigration numbers is released is normally as part of the Budget process. There may well be further indications that are given depending on how those sessions go during the course of the summit.
LANE: All right. What consideration will go into how those workers will be accommodated? Potentially, we’re talking 40,000 more workers additional each year. Given that Australians are struggling right now to find affordable rentals and health services, what’s the Government thinking about that?
BURKE: Can I raise two issues with respect to this, Sabra. First of all, we did come to office with a very significant housing program, both in terms of trying to help people to get into the housing market, but also increasing the total supply of housing, particularly social housing and affordable housing, so those policies are critical here. The other thing with the conversation about immigration, and there’s a conversation about people who’ve retired, we also need to remember the people of what’s normally regarded as working age, who want to be in the workforce and are having trouble getting in. That goes specifically to people with disability and, also, there’s a round table that I convened a couple of days ago on older works. There’s a very large number of people, still, in their 40s, their 50s and their 60s who may have been retrenched and have found it very difficult to find their way back into the workforce. It’s particularly difficult if you look at the stats for women. It particularly goes to people who might not have had further education. But it’s across the board and what I’d encourage all businesses to consider is for the different levers that might be available for additional workers to come to Australia, don’t forget the people who are already here and are wanting to work that often get overlooked.
LANE: You say that, but businesses are reluctant to take on older people. How do you break down that barrier?
BURKE: At the round table there were a few issues that were specifically put on this. Some of this is just sitting down directly with business organisations and saying, “what are the particular skills that you have a problem with here that you want to us skill up?” and then for me to use my capacity as Employment Minister and Brendan O’Connor’s role as responsibility for skills and training, to see how we can help there. It’s just – we’re in the conversation about people who are not in Australia, or not viewed as being ordinarily of working age, which is where most of the focus has gone. I just want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of these individuals.
LANE: Employment and Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke, thanks for talking to AM.
BURKE: Great to talk to you.