SUBJECTS: ABCC abolition, paid family and domestic violence leave, Fair Work Ombudsman.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The new Federal Government has an ambitious agenda in its first sitting fortnight with no fewer than 18 pieces of legislation it’s seeking to pass through the House of Representatives. And it’s already showing signs of being prepared to negotiate, even on key pieces of legislation. There are reports this morning that Labor is prepared to agree to some of the conditions set by the Greens to pass its signature bill to reduce carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and the Arts and the Leader of the Government in the House. Tony Burke, Minister, welcome to the program.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Great to be here.
KARVELAS: Are you prepared to change the emissions reduction legislation to allow the target mechanism to be ramped up in the future?
BURKE: Look, Chris Bowen’s leading those negotiations and he is conducting them in good faith. So, we’re not going to depart from what our election commitment was. The discussions with the crossbench and the different parties have been happening in good faith. I understand Chris is going to be standing up in a couple of hours to be able to give an update on where all that’s at. But, yeah, those two principles, where something’s within our election commitments where it doesn’t involve a departure of the expectations, we gave to the community then we’re having those discussions.
KARVELAS: And is it fair to say that you are – you have changed your view or are prepared to make those changes to get the Greens’ support?
BURKE: Well, any discussions in good faith lead to tweaks in legislation. But exactly where that’s up to is information that I don’t have. I’ve seen what’s in the papers today, but I know Chris will be giving a complete update later today.
KARVELAS: Now there is reports that this could take ages, actually. You might not get it through the Senate until September, is that correct?
BURKE: I have never pretended to understand what happens once it gets to the Senate. It is my intention, though, to get it through the House of Reps during this fortnight.
KARVELAS: And then will it go to a committee in the Senate? Like, what can you tell us about – for those saying let’s end the climate wars, those who want that to happen, when will the climate wars be over according to this piece of legislation?
BURKE: Well, that – it’s in the hands of the Senate. They don’t have to wait for the bill before they start a committee inquiry. So, I don’t know if they’ll start one as soon as it’s introduced. Sometimes they do. But if they do something like that, that would certainly expedite it. We don’t have that many weeks of Senate sittings because we need to remember because there’s another budget, that then results in Senate mountains happening as well, so we get sometimes when the House is sitting but the Senate is conducting estimates. So, anything that can be done that lets the Senate deal with it more quickly is good.
But obviously, as we said during the election, we’ll be able to implement our commitments whether or not this legislation is passed. Our preference is that it be passed, and we’re hoping that we can bring people together to do that.
KARVELAS: Independent Senator David Pocock says what’s important is what comes after the Australian Building and Construction Commission. I’m asking you now very much to put your hat on as the Minister for Workplace Relations. What happens after its replaced? Have you discussed his concerns with him?
BURKE: We’ve been in touch via text. There’s a conversation that we haven’t had because this announcement obviously was only made on Sunday. But what comes next effectively is where it was – where there were legitimate problems effectively that refer to any workplace, they get transferred to the Fair Work Ombudsman. And that’s already happened. So, the Fair Work Ombudsman has the capacity to deal with a series of right of entry and other disputes.
But where there was something that used to be unlawful that was at the more ridiculous end of things, like flags, like stickers or like, for example, the fact that you couldn’t have on construction in an enterprise agreement a clause that encouraged people to get permanent jobs or that had apprenticeships attached to it, those principles are now gone. So, no-one takes over the ridiculous stuff – that’s gone. But safety issues go to the normal safety regulators and the rest go to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
KARVELAS: Industry body the Australian Construction Association is concerned the ombudsman won’t be inclined to prosecute breaches in the construction industry as much as the ABCC would, and that they’re under resourced, they can’t do this work. Are you going to increase their resourcing?
BURKE: That will be worked through in the budget process. Now, you wouldn’t give the full resources that were there for the ABCC because you don’t need prosecution for whether or not someone has a union sticker on their helmet. There’s a whole lot of the more absurd activities that the ABCC was charged to deal with. That’s gone, but the budget process will deal with what resources are required for the Fair Work Ombudsman.
KARVELAS: So, there will be an increase in resources?
BURKE: Those discussions have already started with the Fair Work Ombudsman in advance of the announcement I made on the weekend.
KARVELAS: Why is the head of the ABCC being allowed to keep his $450,000 a year salary while the organisation remained in limbo?
BURKE: Well, it’s a statutory appointment and so that continues until the legislation is repealed and –
KARVELAS: Can you see how Australians would think $450,000 and not much to do?
BURKE: I would have loved to abolish the organisation yesterday. But, you know, in terms of legislative program, that legislation will come probably in a couple of months’ time. My first priority on legislation was family and domestic violence leave, and so that’s where I’ve started things.
KARVELAS: Will you simply defund the ABCC if efforts to abolish it in parliament fail?
BURKE: Their funding on the pre-election costings that we released dries up anyway to – you know, there’s an extent that there’s minimum fees, you have to pay for board members and things like that. That’s not unknown. The previous government, for example, did something like that with the National Water Commission where we were opposing it being abolished and then over time, they stopped funding the organisation.
KARVELAS: So, you’re saying the money expires but even if you haven’t abolished it just expires, so what happens? The body exists with no funding and no way to run it?
BURKE: Yeah, and that’s not unheard of. That’s not unheard of. We’re not going to fund something –
KARVELAS: It’s a bid-odd, isn’t it?
BURKE: It is. It is. And I hope the legislation passes. But we’re not going to fund something that we think is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
KARVELAS: In Melbourne right now there are claims that the CFMEU led by John Setka is targeting companies and trying to force them to sack workers who are members of the Australian Workers Union. This is, you know, union-on-union issues. Are you comfortable with that sort of conduct?
BURKE: Well, certainly if it is as has been reported, then absolutely not. And that’s the sort of thing that the Fair Work Ombudsman is charged to deal with in every other industry, and they’ll now be dealing with it in construction as well.
KARVELAS: Will the Fair Work Ombudsman need more powers as well? Rather than just the resourcing question I asked, powers as well?
BURKE: Look, that’s something that you review over time. But if there’s – whenever we have a decision about additional powers for the Fair Work Ombudsman, you’d look at them on a needs basis, not targeting a specific industry. We ended up with some ridiculous anomalies by targeting a specific industry where you had –
KARVELAS: But we targeted the industry because the industry was having some very complex issues in this particular area. It wasn’t sort of made up, right?
BURKE: Well, some of the targeting, for example, was alleged safety rules where construction sites are incredibly dangerous places. I get that, but so are mine sites. You know, you’ve got incredible issues in terms of safety in the hospital system as well. There’s lots of – and you should deal with these issues on a risk basis, not a good – you know, there’s a war they want to have with a particular union, they want to do particular branding that the previous government wanted to do. ABCC was a sensible – was a convenient crisis for them to be pointing to.
And can I say, by their own admission, they went to the last election, the previous government, doubling the penalties on the basis that it hadn’t worked. Well, maybe part of it not having worked is that it was doing a whole lot of things that were absurd. When they talk about the number of prosecutions, I don’t think prosecuting somebody because they had a union sticker on their helmet is a sensible use of taxpayers’ money. And I don’t think you say, “Yay, the organisation did well,” because they got a prosecution up on it.
KARVELAS: If you’re just tuning in, you’re listening to Radio National Breakfast. My guest is the Manager of Government Business now, Tony Burke – I don’t get that wrong anymore. It’s been a couple of months. He’s also the Minister for Employment. You’re introducing paid domestic violence leave, which you’ve mentioned, for all workers including casuals, business. Who’s going to bear the cost? Is it business, and are you confident they can afford it given all the other costs that are arising too?
BURKE: Yeah, some businesses already have family and domestic violence leave. And a lot of large businesses, so, for example, Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank, have had this for some time. What they’ve found is we haven’t had a count – we haven’t had instances of the entitlement being abused. There are some costs. The costs are minimal. But when you think of what the alternative costs, the alternative cost is somebody has to choose between their wages and their safety.
So, the estimates are that not many people will access it. It’s something in the order of fewer than 40,000 women and fewer than 4,000 men is what’s anticipated. But the principle here is different to any other leave entitlement. Like, with any other leave entitlement the – you’ve got a whole lot of rules that, for example, casuals get a loading instead. Here the principle is if someone’s wanting to get out, we don’t want you to lose your job or are you going to lose money to be on the list of difficulties that that individual is already facing. And, you know, the reality is that disproportionately people in casual work are in these situations. If you’re facing family and domestic violence, you are more likely to be in insecure work.
KARVELAS: Why give all workers domestic violence leave but not a similar entitlement to sick leave, though, which the Greens are pushing for?
BURKE: Yeah, I hear that. This one –
KARVELAS: Because it’s logical, right?
BURKE: Well, there is – there is a level – look, you can always expand every principle one step further. But I really want to make sure that we acknowledge that this one is different to any other entitlement. This is something where the gravity of whether or not someone gets out of these situations – principally women but not exclusively women – there are already so many things stacked against them making it hard – worried about other family members, worried about children, worried about what happens to a whole social network. I just don’t want losing your job or being poor to be added to that list. So, I hear what you say about the other principles that are otherwise wrapped up in casual loading. But the general principle –
KARVELAS: Are you hope to that in the future, then?
BURKE: Look, my starting point is I want to get more people into secure work. So, the way I want to deal with those principles as much as possible – there were different principles during the pandemic, obviously – but as much as possible I want to get people into secure jobs where they want them. But with family and domestic violence leave I just start with this core principle – you shouldn’t have to choose between your safety and your wages. And that means logically we have to apply it to casuals well.
KARVELAS: A couple of quick ones. This is a big day, the first day the new parliament under the Albanese Government. What will question time look like? Will it be radically different to what people are used to?
BURKE: Well, radically different today – because we don’t have one.
KARVELAS: I don’t like using the word radically different – but this week.
BURKE: Yeah, so we won’t have it today. Today is the ceremonies. And since 2008 the first ceremony is the Welcome To Country. That was actually quite controversial at the time.
KARVELAS: I remember.
BURKE: And now everyone just accepts that’s the way we – that’s the way we start. So, it will be all ceremonial today. We’ll have two question times – Wednesday and Thursday. The big standing orders change effectively will be the role of the crossbench – where they used to only have one question, they will now have three.
The demeanour of ministers, you know, the thing that I’ve said is there’s still going to be debate in the parliament. You’re still going to have the back and forth. And I think that’s healthy to have that. What you are less likely to find, though, is where 95 per cent of an answer is about the other side of politics and just a sledge. There’ll be – you’re not going to have no references –
KARVELAS: So, what percentage of that answer will you be sledging the Coalition, Tony Burke?
BURKE: I’ll – there’ll be some things that need to be said, so I’m not going to –
KARVELAS: Is it 50 per cent sledge?
BURKE: I think I can probably manage less than that.
BURKE: But at the same time, you can’t pretend that the last nine years haven’t happened, and you can’t answer a question about what needs to be done without acknowledging the starting point – a trillion dollars debt – without acknowledging – you’re stopping me?
KARVELAS: I am, because –
BURKE: Okay, I’ll do it in question time.
KARVELAS: – it’s a list of what the Coalition did wrong, and I don’t want to spend time on that right now. Final question: Scott Morrison’s not here for the sitting week. There are reports that he might be taking a speaking gig, although that has been revealed. Is that appropriate?
BURKE: Look, the Opposition have not requested a pair for him. We’re not expecting a pair to be requested. I don’t know the full details of why he’s not here.
KARVELAS: But if he is being paid do something else – if – should that be revealed immediately, and is that appropriate when he’s also getting paid as a member of Parliament?
BURKE: Really simply the answer to your question is, you know, it should be revealed. He should make clear – like, sometimes people have deeply personal reasons that they can’t come because of sickness or a loved one, and those quiet conversations happen within the – between the whips. And so, there are occasions where it’s appropriate and that happens. If someone’s being paid to do another job, then I’m not sure how they get away with the taxpayers’ paying them to do this one.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke, many thanks for your time.
BURKE: Great to be here.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and the Arts and the Leader of the Government in the House. You’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast, Patricia Karvelas with you.