Release type: Transcript


Interview with Sabra Lane - ABC AM


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

SABRA LANE: Millions of workers will get a pay boost next month thanks to a Fair Work Commission decision to increase the minimum wage by 3 and three quarter per cent. The hourly rate will now be $24.10 from next month. Even so, the Commission explicitly said in its ruling that workers will still earn less in real terms than what they did five years ago before the pandemic.

Tony Burke is the Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and he joins me now. Good morning and welcome.


LANE: The Commission says, in real terms, wages are lower now than what they were in 2019, that productivity is no higher than what it was in 2020. Is this as good as it gets?

BURKE: This is now us turning a corner after a decade of wages being kept deliberately low. We've now got to the point as inflation's been moderating that wages have got in front of inflation. But it takes some years of making sure that these policies are locked in. For people to be able to see that their wages are getting well in front of what's happened with prices over those years.

To turn that around isn't something that happens quickly but we've now had three decisions in a row where the Commission has accepted the Government's proposal that people on low and modest incomes shouldn't be going backwards.

LANE: Small business, though, is worried about the ruling and the impact from the judgment yesterday. Consumers have tightened their discretionary spending. The Commission noted that accommodation and retail sectors are really feeling it. Could this decision send some small operators to the wall? Insolvencies in New South Wales it's been pointed out are up 61 per cent.

BURKE: I've got to say there's a lot of issues out there and to blame low-paid workers, I'm not saying you're doing that, but you're putting the argument to me, to blame low-paid workers as being the critical pressure there I think's really unreasonable.

Let's not forget ‑‑

LANE: But it is ‑ but it is ‑‑

BURKE: Let's not forget those exact same small businesses need their customers to have some money to spend.

LANE: Yeah. And so as I pointed out, there are a number of issues. You know, people have cut back their spending, business costs are going up, people are really feeling it.

BURKE: That's right, and that's why you need to be dealing with the full range of issues, taking the budget decisions we've taken to try to get inflation down. What we've been doing with wages, what we've been doing with prices, particularly with respect to energy relief and cheaper medicines, what we're doing in making sure that we increase the total amount of housing stock.

But there's one other issue that's rarely spoken about, which was in the intro that you just played, which goes to whether or not people have job security. People are much less willing to spend if they don't know whether they're going to get a shift the following week. The concept of job security, of us being less reliant on a casual job being the only job that's available to you, is one of the most significant shifts this Government's made. From Peter Dutton's Budget reply it's one of the shifts that they are determined to roll back if they're given the chance.

People's bills are not casual. People's financial commitments, and if they're going to take on children, people paying for children isn't casual. People want to know they can have a job that is as reliable as the bills that keep coming in.

LANE: Well, the Commission is now going to prioritise fixing pay gaps where women have historically received a lot lower than their male counterparts, specifically looking at psychologists, dental assistants, receptionists, childcare workers. It's already taken 12 months to look at this and it's going to take considerably longer. Is your expectation for a decision before May next year, and in terms of quantum are you expecting a 12 per cent bump or an 8 per cent bump for those people?

BURKE: It's not for me to nominate a figure for the Commission in that way. The Commission have said that by this time next year they believe that work's going to be done.

Can I say this work is only being done because the Albanese Labor Government changed the law. It never used to be the case that the award system had to take account of gender equality. We changed the law as soon as we came into office in a bill that was highly controversial. I think you and I had some chats about the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill at the time.

LANE: Yeah.

BURKE: One of the things we did there was not just make job security and gender equality objectives of the Act, we made them objectives of the award system. That is why the Commission is now going through the process, and yeah, it does take time and we all are impatient for this to happen. I wish it had happened a decade ago when wages were being kept deliberately low. But it's happening now because we changed the law and I'm glad that it's happening.

LANE: It's a bit jarring for people to hear all this talk about pay and we hear that a speech writer for your front bench colleague Bill Shorten has been getting $300,000 a year. Is that good value for taxpayer dollars?

BURKE: That one is something where, you know, obviously not my portfolio but I've seen that the previous speechwriter had retired at the change of government. They'd gone through a process by trying to get somebody in‑house, then by trying labour hire. They ended up doing an external contract. I don't know how much longer that contract's got to run.

LANE: Is that good value for taxpayer dollars?

BURKE: At a time of labour shortage you keep ending up with situations where various professions are getting more money than would otherwise be paid when there's labour shortage. The department's made that decision. The Minister hasn't made that decision, but that's ‑‑

LANE: Yeah, Mr Burke ‑‑

BURKE: ‑‑ the best context that I can provide you with.

LANE: Yep, and a good deflection. Is it good value for taxpayer dollars?

BURKE: I can only keep saying to you that ‑‑

LANE: It's a simple yes or no.

BURKE: ‑‑ we don't make these decisions and Ministers should not be making these decisions.

LANE: And it's a simple yes or no.

BURKE: Ministers should not be deciding on procurement decisions or individual decisions that are made in this way of employing people. You do that, you basically kill a whole lot of the principles of the independence of the public service.

Would that job ordinarily be paid that amount? Absolutely not. For the exact reasons that I've explained that's why it landed in the place that it did.

LANE: Tony Burke, thanks for talking to AM this morning.

BURKE: Great to talk to you, Sabra.