Release type: Transcript


Interview with Andrew Clennell - Sky News Sunday Agenda


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

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Well, joining me live is the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. Tony Burke, thanks so much for your time this morning. Let me start with this announcement –


CLENNELL: Sorry – 

BURKE: I was just going to say happy Easter – I was out very late last night with a whole lot of the Greek Orthodox community. But it’s Easter for a lot of Orthodox people out there today, and I just wanted to wish them a happy Easter.

CLENNELL: Yes. And from me, too. And I guess you’ve put your excuse in early if you slip up during this interview, Tony Burke. A very late night for you with Greek Easter.

BURKE: There wasn’t a lot of sleep, I tell you.

CLENNELL: Okay. Well, let’s start with this announcement concerning HECS debt. This is a big reduction in debt, but students are still copping some inflation on their debt, whichever index you use. And I guess in a way it’s not immediate relief because it’s their long-term debt that’s reduced. It’s not like their payments are.

BURKE: You’ve got to remember, interest-free payments, they’re cumulative, particularly for students who haven’t yet met the income threshold where you start paying this down. To be wiping $3 billion worth of debt for 3 million Australians, it’s a big decision and a big call, but it’s based on a really simple principle: students work hard because they want to be able to get ahead. They don’t want to be saddled with unreasonable levels of debt.

What happened as we’ve been getting inflation to moderate from where it was in that final quarter before we came to office, it means that there’s been – particularly in that last year – a really disproportionate increase in what otherwise was going to be added to people’s individual accounts for debt.

For the average student this is $1,200 that gets wiped. But if you’re at the income level at the moment where you’re not paying it back, the ultimate savings end up being significantly more than that.

CLENNELL: Well, the independent Monique Ryan is claiming credit today. She says she got 280,000 to sign a petition and it’s her idea.

BURKE: There’s no doubt that Monique Ryan has pushed really hard on this. I’ve sat there in Question Time, as you have, and heard the questions and heard the issue being raised. So, there’s no doubt that she’s advocated really strongly for that.

The Government is really pleased to be making this decision. It will make a difference for students. It will make a difference for young people. Young people want to be able to get the debt down as quickly as they can so that they can get on with the next phase of their life, and this helps them be able to do that.

CLENNELL: Is this part of a pitch to young people in this budget to attempt to keep them away from voting Greens?

BURKE: There’s no doubt that young people have been raising this issue. There’s no doubt, and there’s also no doubt that the last year was a really unusual situation. Two things had been happening in the economy on quite different trajectories when we came to office: the first is that inflation had suddenly started soaring, and the second is that wages had been flatlining.

What we’ve been doing – and those two lines have finally crossed, so we’re at the beginning, only the beginning, of people starting to feel the difference there. But it means you had a year like last year where as we were still getting wages up and getting inflation down and getting inflation to moderate, where you just had a stark difference between the two figures. That’s an unusual situation what happened last year. But we haven’t just changed the policy forward; we’ve wiped out the impact of what happened last year.

CLENNELL: Just on the wage price index, one of the measures potentially being used here, the latest figures show wage growth in Australia at 4.2 per cent. It was an increase in wages of 0.9 for private sector and 1.3 for public sector workers in the last quarter. Now, interest rates just won’t be cut with that sort of wage growth if it continues, will they?

BURKE: I’d think there’s a problem that some people want to lean in really quickly and always blame workers – I’m not saying this is you, Andrew; I’m glad you put the question to me. But a lot of people want to lean in and always blame workers for inflation and say no, it’s your fault. The reality is just look at what’s been happening, at the same time that wages growth has gone from flatlining to sustainable growth, inflation has been moderating. That’s exactly what has been happening.

Every year when we’ve been saying that the real wages of low-paid workers should not go backwards, there’s been some people who’ve argued that people on low incomes, on modest incomes, need to take a pay cut. They’ve always said that this is the only way we can get inflation down. What the Government’s been doing is seeing inflation moderate by providing responsible cost of living relief in a way that doesn’t add to inflation.

CLENNELL: It is sticky, though, inflation, isn’t it? Inflation is sticky. It’s fair to say you want wages to come down a bit or not to rise as quickly, don’t you? Because you put in a submission for the minimum wage to rise at the same rate as inflation. That would be 3.6 per cent, so under that wages price index.

BURKE: There’s no doubt that when you’re asking for people to not go backwards you can do that with a smaller increase now than you could last year. The mathematics just show that clearly. When we had those inflation spikes that started under the previous government, that did create a demand for us to be able to say to the Commission – the people on the lowest incomes, they’ve got the least capacity to be able to deal with what’s happening with prices.

At the time, let’s not forget what happened when – I think you were there when the PM made the announcement when he gave that answer “absolutely” during the campaign. The response from Scott Morrison at the time was that this would be a disaster, that this would be incredibly dangerous, it would be economy-wrecking. But what we’ve seen is wages start going up while inflation is coming down. You can do both, but you can only do both if you manage the economy responsibly and you manage the budget responsibly.

CLENNELL: All right. Do you – I’ll get to that. But do you accept that any of your industrial relations reforms have contributed to inflation, or can?

BURKE: I think there’s a huge stretch that’s there. The wage price spiral, people have stopped talking about it. There was all this pressure: “if you do anything, that will be the driver of inflation.” There’s been a series of drivers of inflation; some of them international, some supply constraints and issues within Australia, and some a history under the previous government of budget measures that were deliberately and knowingly inflationary.

You compare that to what’s happened since Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher started managing the Budget where effectively when extra revenue comes in, huge proportions of that extra revenue are being put back to pay down debt. We no longer talk about a trajectory to a trillion dollars of debt; the reason for that is the way the budget was being really irresponsibly managed by the previous government is not how we’ve done it this time.

CLENNELL: All right, well, we’re going to see -

BURKE: That means we’ve been paying debt, and that puts downward pressure on inflation.

CLENNELL: We’re going to see some spending on this Made in Australia program, though. What do you think of the criticism that you’re playing favourite here? There’s not proper tender processes around some of these grants and loans et cetera?

BURKE: The favourite that we’re playing is Australia, and we’re making no apology for backing Australia. People, I think, are sick to death of the concept of, “you need to be on a level playing field,” and then you discover you’re the only ones on it. What the Made in Australia policy is about making sure is to say we can build things in this country again. Countries all around the world, when Australia stopped backing Australian industry, they kept backing theirs. We should have enough confidence as a nation, enough pride as a nation to say we can make things here too. It’s not just good economic policy; it’s also about economic sovereignty on a whole a lot of areas. I want to be able to make sure that if you’ve got your solar panels on your roof, you’ve got an option in a serious way of getting them – that China’s not the only place making them available.

CLENNELL: All right, I want to –

BURKE: You need to be making sure – yeah, you go.

CLENNELL: Sorry, I wanted to ask about the scenes at Australian universities involving these Palestinian protesters. The PM told Jewish leaders last week they involve Trots, Trotskyites. Apparently, he’s had some of those protesters who aren’t Palestinian outside his electorate office deterring people from coming in for three months. Do you support these protests, or do you believe the universities and authorities should do more to break them up?

BURKE: My view is really simple: the concept of peaceful protest is part of Australia, part of the country we’re in, and peaceful protest needs to be available. People need to be able to disagree and disagree responsibly. The things that should never be accepted – violent protests should never be accepted; intimidation should never be accepted and hate speech should never be accepted.

When I talk about in my part of Sydney. The people attending protests where I am are not of the nature of some of the people that you just described. There are people who are deeply passionate on the issue with family connections. But nobody – nobody – should feel intimidated by going to uni. Nobody should be in a situation where they’re subjected to hate speech. And I’m really –

CLENNELL: Do you agree –

BURKE: – proud in my part of Sydney we’ve been at the forefront – at the forefront – of campaigns opposing hate speech in this country.

CLENNELL: Do you agree there are Trots involved at the university protests?

BURKE: I’ve got no doubt; it’s hard to find a demo at universities that Trots don’t turn up to.

CLENNELL: All right. I wanted to ask about the Religious Discrimination Bill. The Government has said if the Opposition don’t support it it won’t go ahead. Speaking for your local community, would you like to see it go ahead? And would you like to see an anti-vilification clause included?

BURKE: I really hope we get there. I really hope. I don't want to see an ugly debate, and that’s why you’ve got the importance of bipartisanship. I’m a Catholic; I’m never going to cop in this day and age serious discrimination for my faith. But we’re recording this from Punchbowl. If you go to Punchbowl station and a woman wearing a hijab is abused and receives hate speech because she is of Arabic background, she has protection. But if the hate speech is because she’s a Muslim, at the moment, there is no protection for her. None at all.

Our hate speech laws where they exist, I never agreed with Peter Dutton’s view when we were in Opposition that our hate speech laws should be weakened. What I have an absolute concern is that our hate speech laws deal, at the moment, with some forms of hate speech, like race, but do not deal with religious vilification. People should be free in Australia from hate speech, from vilification because of their faith. Whether they are Christian, Hindu, whether they are Muslim or Buddhist, they need to make sure that they have the same protection that we have in anti-vilification laws on race.

There is, at the moment, legal protection against anti-Semitism. I’m always open to arguments as to whether protections on hate speech need to be stronger. What I will say, though, is at the moment at a national level we have no legal protections on Islamophobia, and both – both – are repugnant and repulsive, and I want to make sure that we’ve got legal protection there. But I don’t want to have an ugly, divisive national debate to get there.

CLENNELL: What effect has the terror arrests, recent arrests, had in your area? How concerned are you about terror cells arising, young people getting into that sort of Islamic radicalism in your area?

BURKE: There’s a couple of things I’d say on that, if I can. First of all, some of the language that’s been used in the media generally, sometimes by government agencies, or it’s been received that way, is actually weaker than the anti-terror messages that are being given by local leaders. Local leaders, if they think someone’s at risk of radicalisation in some way, always say – and I’ve been there when they’ve given speeches – always say, “This has nothing to do with our faith. Absolutely nothing.” Sometimes in media reporting it’s then described as though the terrorism is Islamic. That’s actually a weaker message than what the community leaders are putting out.

I want to make sure that we don’t ever weaken really strong messages that are coming from the leaders of the community saying this has nothing to do with their faith. This is the strongest message that I think can be out there, and I commend them for continuing to do that.

One of the things that sometimes happens is you’ll get very small prayer rooms, sometimes people who I’ve never heard, who turn up on the front page of the papers saying repugnant things. There are two things there – the first is, I’ve always called it out and always condemned it, and always called for hate speech laws to be used against it. But the second thing is, if there’s then a view because of the prominence it’s been given that that is representative of the community, that’s just wrong. Just wrong.

The other thing in the community with respect to the arrests is because of the nature of terror information, there are always limits on what can be shared between the authorities and the community. But that means that the community – and I’m only repeating here what other people say; I’m not advocating it directly because I’ve got a lot of respect for the agencies – but I do want to be clear that the public look at that and say, “Hang on, how come somebody had a fake bomb on their car intimidating them for being pro-Palestinian and that wasn’t considered terrorism and there wasn’t a big fuss about it and then they say other events are considered?”

CLENNELL: Where was the first incident? Where was the first incident you’re referring to?

BURKE: It was in the St George area. It was months ago. It received almost no publicity. There ended up being an arrest about it, but it was someone who was flying a Palestinian flag. They ended up with a fake bomb put – you know, it was clear intimidation. It was horrific, and there ended up being arrests. The bomb carried a message telling them they had to stop their advocacy in favour of Palestinians.

What we want in Australia is there are going to be different views on conflicts overseas, but we want people to be able to live here peacefully. We want people to be able to live here safely, and we don’t want hatred from overseas imported here. So when people who are Jewish tell me about levels of intimidation that they feel and feeling not safe, I believe them, and we want to make sure that they are protected.

In the same way, when people tell me about levels of intimidation in different ways – and most of it doesn’t hit the media with the same level of response – but when they say there are forms of intimidation that they’re facing, I think at face value we believe that too and work on the basis we don’t have to be competitive here, it’s not competitive of who’s worse off. There’s no-one in Australia receiving both forms of intimidation or both form of bigotry. But anyone who’s receiving hate speech, who’s receiving intimidation, we need to be on their side and make sure that we’re doing what we can to have a country here where we are calming these tensions, accept the right to peaceful protest but make sure that people are not being intimidated or subjected to hate speech.

CLENNELL: Just briefly on this – because I want to move on – but there’s a difference between, as much as its an offence, a fake bomb and people planting a real bomb or going around stabbing people, though, isn’t there?

BURKE: This is my point where I say a whole lot of the planning of the events when the arrests were happening, it was straight after Bondi Junction. Because of the particular definition of terrorism, you didn’t get the same investigation in the same way following Bondi, because obviously the person had been killed who was responsible. So, I’m explaining what the concern was in the community because there was a lack of information, and there are reasons why terror authorities and our national security agencies can’t fully share that information.

CLENNELL: All right.

BURKE: You asked me about what concerns have been raised with me in the community, and that’s what I’ve answered.

CLENNELL: All right, you’re a former immigration minister. What’s your reaction to the attack on Ninette Simons, and isn’t there more the Government can do to get some preventative detention order applications on these immigration detainees before we saw more – see more atrocities committed?

BURKE: The attack was horrific and disgusting. There’s no other way to describe it. The Prime Minister has made clear that some of the decisions that were made by different agencies were not what he would have made. I think that message has been sent loud and clear. We have also made absolutely clear. When I was immigration minister you used to be able to just sign off on somebody being taken out of the community on a visa cancellation and it would happen. We’ve got a new precedent in the High Court where laws were subsequently changed and those laws were found to be unlawful. That’s the new situation we’re dealing with. If the other side had been in power, they would have faced the exact same High Court decision that we did – the exact same decision.

CLENNELL: All right, but the –

BURKE: The Prime Minister has made absolutely clear –


BURKE: The Prime Minister has made absolutely clear our determination to make sure we’re keeping people safe.

CLENNELL: All right. But when you went into immigration, you’d had a few portfolios, you’d been around a while. Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles are pretty inexperienced in comparison, aren’t they? Is it time they were moved and a more experienced head to handle what’s becoming a very difficult portfolio for the government?

BURKE: Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles are both smart, they’re both very, very good lawyers. At the moment you want to make sure people know how to navigate the new decisions that have come down. But they’re smart. They’ve got good principles, and the challenge at the moment for the Government – and anyone who is in that job would be facing the same challenge – is the process that we had been using has been found by the High Court to be illegal, to be unlawful. That has forced the Government to have to be able to do things in new ways. You’ve had an independent agency that has made decisions, and the Prime Minister has sent a very loud message – a very loud message – about what he has agreed with and disagreed with. He has also made clear our determination to be able to pass laws that keep people safe.

We had laws that were brought into the Parliament that deal with visa cancellations in another way and deportations in another way that didn’t pass the Parliament before we had the break. I’m hopeful that they pass the Parliament when we return.

CLENNELL: I mentioned earlier the electoral redistribution out in a couple of weeks. It might mean Dai Le might be up against Chris Bowen or Jason Clare. Do you fear that? Do you fear a rise of independents in south west Sydney?

BURKE: I’ve always worked on the basis at every election every candidate starts from zero. Before they start counting the votes, you’ve all got zero against your name and you never take a single one of those votes for granted. When people refer to different seats as safe, I’ve never believed it and I’ve never taken anything for granted. I don’t think there’s any members of the Government – maybe not any members of the Parliament – that actually feel too different to what I’ve just described.

Trying to second-guess a redistribution, though, I’ve been through a few of them; you never necessarily like the concept because you end up with a whole lot of people you’ve been helping who aren’t there to vote for you next time round. That’s the nature of redistributions. But any chance of trying to predict where they might land, every prediction that I’ve ever seen for previous redistributions has turned out to be wrong, so I’m not going to chance my arm and risk it now.

CLENNELL: All right, just finally, how would you go as the manager of government business managing a hung parliament, do you think?

BURKE: We’re working on the basis that we’re trying to make sure that we secure a majority government. That’s what we’re wanting to do. I heard in the intro the different conversations you said that Peter Dutton was having. All the different analysis pieces that are out there at the moment are predicting his pathway may well be through a minority government. That might be what he’s aiming for, but there’s certain seats he is not trying to win back. For us, we’re the Government and the party trying to secure a majority and all the stability that comes with majority government.

CLENNELL: Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, thanks so much for your time this morning.

BURKE: Always good to chat.