PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Parliament is back today, the first sitting week for the year. The Government has a long list of legislation it wants passed, including the Referendum Machineries Act, a crucial step ahead of the referendum on a Voice to Parliament.
Tony Burke is the Leader of the House. He joined us a little earlier. Welcome back to Breakfast.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Good morning, good to be back.
KARVELAS: The Voice is dominating the political agenda. The Machineries Act must be passed before we go to the polls. When can we expect to see a vote on it?
BURKE: So, the Machineries Act – there’s two different bits that have to go through the Parliament. The first is updating the referendum laws themselves. That’s been introduced to the Parliament. There’s a committee that’s looking at it now, and so it’s sort of sitting in the House of Representatives, but that committee should report in the next couple of weeks and then that part of it will go through.
Then you deal with the second Bill a bit later in the year – so, in probably the second quarter of the year, and that’s the Bill that has in it the question and the specific word for word changes that would go into the Constitution. That one has to be passed by an absolute majority of each house of the Parliament. And once that’s happened then the deadlines as to when the vote will happen are all locked in.
KARVELAS: Peter Dutton’s opposition claims due process hasn’t been followed for this referendum. He wants public committee hearings. Is the Government considering that?
BURKE: I’ve got to say, I can’t think of any referendum proposal where there has been more process than this. The entire processing, years of it, while Peter Dutton was in government, that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart is an extraordinary level of process and led by the people who should be leading this in terms of the invitation that’s then come to the rest of Australia. The challenge now I guess is whether we can respond with the same level of graciousness as the invitation that’s put in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
KARVELAS: Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, who’s the most vocal proponent of the Voice in the Coalition, he said that the Voice’s interaction with the executive branch of government – not just, you know, the Parliament – is an area that needs basically clarification. He’s concerned about whether this would basically give the High Court reason or a case to be brought to the High Court if the executive didn’t consult or was found not to have consulted enough with this Voice. Do you think it should be providing advice to the executive?
BURKE: Yeah, well, first of all, Senator Bragg’s been a positive contributor in all of this, and so he’s put forward that question. I think probably the best question – the best answer to that question was provided by Robert French, the former Chief Justice of the High Court, where he said we don’t have problems here.
The other thing just to remember is imagine if this were not true. Imagine if we said we’re going to provide a Voice but you’re only allowed to give an opinion on what you might think of what’s happening in the legislation, but if there’s any other opinions that might be helpful to how we govern, you’re not allowed to tell us. The alternative would be extraordinary. So I’m not critical of the question being asked; but when you think of it logically – if you look at it legally, I’m willing to take the advice of Robert French, the former Chief Justice of the High Court. And when you think about it logically, of course the Voice should be allowed to speak. And, you know, that means to both the Parliament and the Executive.
KARVELAS: Peter Dutton also asked 15 questions and yesterday Megan Davies, who’s obviously one of the key architects of the Uluru Statement and now moving towards her advocacy for a yes vote says not all 15 can be answered. How many do you think should be answered?
BURKE: Realistically, if you look at how the Constitution works, the Constitution is where you set down the principles and then the Parliament is where you debate back and forth the detail. The Prime Minister on the weekend gave the example of the defence power. When we were deciding that we wanted the defence power in the Constitution, we didn’t provide the detail of how many ships we would have. We didn’t talk about an air force because, one, there were no planes back then. You have in the Constitution, “this is the thing that the Parliament should be in charge of.”
What we’re asking the Australian people is whether or not there should be a Voice. And a whole lot of the detail that Peter Dutton is wanting to point to – you know, where will it be located, what post office will it answer to – like, there’s detail that would logically go to the Parliament which isn’t –
KARVELAS: Okay, but how many members it might have, for instance, do you think that should be answered?
BURKE: Well, as I say, that will be determined by the Parliament, and Peter Dutton is a member of the Parliament.
KARVELAS: But I suppose he’s saying it should be determined before the vote. This is the difference, isn’t it?
BURKE: Yeah, but the presumption there is whatever number was chosen would be locked in stone forever. That’s not how the Parliaments work. The Parliaments, over time can tailor, can change, can think, “Oh, there’s a slightly better way of us being able to do this.” The big question that happens this year is do we respond to that invitation in the Uluru Statement with the two concepts: recognition and consultation.
KARVELAS: I want to move to some of your portfolio issues, or related, because tomorrow the RBA is almost certainly to lift the cash rate, so interest rates to go up again for people who have been struggling so much. That will put even more pressure on Australians. When you came to government you promised to lift real wages. That was the sort of aim of your industrial relations bill. When will people see their wages moving in a meaningful way, given this cost pressure?
BURKE: In terms of – so you’ve got real wages, you’ve got two issues. You’ve got what’s happening with your wages and what’s happening with your prices. There are some issues in prices government can affect, some issues in prices that government is not in control of. And, you know, your listeners know well the war in Ukraine and the impact that that’s had on global prices.
The areas where we can make a difference, we are. For example, cheaper medicines took effect on 1 January – first cut in the PBS in its 75-year history. Cheaper child care for early childhood education takes effect on the 1st of July. So, where we can affect prices, we are.
Wages are starting to go up. We’re at 3.1 per cent now, which is still perilously low compared to what’s happening with inflation, but the legislation we put through last year means that that will continue to move up, and it also, if you look at the evidence already, companies that had refused to negotiate are back at the bargaining table now, and that will result in wage movement.
Wages will be starting to go up now. Some prices will be coming down. But ultimately some of that’s global impacts. What we want to make sure is that, you know, those lines cross in a reasonable and long-term sustainable way. People have had flatlining wages for way too long, so we’re taking the action on both.
KARVELAS: Before the end of last year you were in a rush to get your IR bill through. Does that mean – and the argument you used for the rush was we need it to start straight away, we need – so does that mean it has? Is there any evidence that multi-employer bargaining has begun? What do you know?
BURKE: Multi-employer bargaining hasn’t begun because it doesn’t actually start until winter. But the impact of it has started.
KARVELAS: Explain to me how.
BURKE: Okay. Some companies said under no circumstances do they want to be involved in multi-employer bargaining. And so what they’re doing right now is they’re back getting single enterprise agreements together even though they hadn’t negotiated for years. For example, Coles supermarkets, it was some years since their last agreement had lapsed. They’re back at the bargaining table now. I was told over the – late last week that ANZ Bank have started the processes again.
There’s a series of big employers that didn’t want to be part of multi-employer bargaining and, therefore, are now negotiating again. Had the legislation not gone through that wouldn’t be happening right now. It is. We said we’d get people back to the table again, and it’s happening.
KARVELAS: You also have said that you will now move to the more controversial stuff – a bill that you say will close loopholes in the workplace relations system. So you’re going to start negotiating on that. Wednesday is your first meeting, I understand. What are you putting on the table?
BURKE: Sure. On Wednesday we’ll go through the – most of these are election commitments, and the reason I described them as controversial is that last year with what was happening a lot of it was new. Some of the loopholes that we’re dealing with, some businesses were very entrenched in using those loopholes, and so they’ll have a strong view about it. But we’ve been quite transparent – things like the gig economy, things like same job, same pay and abuse of labour hire, that we were going to act on it. So the consultation is not about whether –
KARVELAS: Yes, I was about to say, because you say they’re election promises.
BURKE: That’s right.
KARVELAS: Why are you inviting employers, for instance, to sit around the table then?
BURKE: Because the way to implement can make sure you avoid some perverse consequences as well. There are issues on the timing of implementation. There are issues of how do you deal with the different labour hire models without just creating new loopholes.How do you avoid a situation where instead of people going to a labour hire company they outsource to something that’s technically not a labour hire company but really is and you end up with the exact same undercutting of wages and conditions.
So those sorts of issues you work through. And I guess – I give last year as the example. We were determined to get Secure Jobs, Better Pay through. We still negotiated with business interests as well as union interests during that, and there were some changes like the primacy of single enterprise agreements that came as a result of the business consultation, and we ended up with better legislation as a result. That’s what we’re seeing that I referred to before around the tables right now.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke, thanks for joining us.
BURKE: Great to talk.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Arts and the Leader of the House for the government. You’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast.