KIERAN GILBERT: I’m joined live in the studio by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke. Thanks for your time. This Council of Small Business–union deal, not a lot of detail yet. Does it amount to much?
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: I’m really excited about it. When the ACTU announced this to take to the summit last week, straightaway where my mind went to was the potential impact on small business. At the moment, we’ve got two categories of workers in Australia. We’ve got workers who have genuine access to bargaining and everybody elsewhere where bargaining is just not working for them. That’s not just a problem for those employees; it’s a problem for their businesses. Every conversation that you have with small businesses about where we can remove complexity and make the system easier, there’s nothing simpler than to have one document that’s for your workplace that has all the rules for employing people in it. But you only get that if you have an enterprise agreement, and it’s been too difficult for small business.
I grew up in a small business family; I’ve run my own small business, but you don’t have to have done that to know that small business doesn’t have its own HR department. Unless you can open up for negotiation to happen with more than one employer at once, small business will be forever locked out of this system.
GILBERT: Is there a potential for it to evolve into pattern bargaining, though? What’s the difference between that and reverting to, as the Australian Industry Group calls it, reverting to the 1960s?
BURKE: It’s about bringing the system up to date with the needs of the modern economy. If you look at the last 10 years, two things are clear: small business has lost any access to bargaining as the system has become more legalistic; and, secondly, we’ve had flatlining wages. Now, there will be some people who think flatlining wages are great. The last Government, it was a deliberate design feature of what they did. But if you want to get wages moving and you want to create simplicity for small business, something like this is the only pathway. Where does it go? It’s up to the rules that are set.
GILBERT: What do you say to the employer groups, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry I had on the program earlier, very much concerned about this proposal? In fact, they argue they represent small business as well. There seems like there is a split in terms of those representative bodies, but they’re holding out any sort of support for multi employer bargaining. What do you say to them, to the industry group and others?
BURKE: Look, I say to everybody with the jobs summit, leave the ideology and the old battles at the door. There are probably few issues over the last few years that I’ve spoken here on Sky News more about than how I resisted changes from the previous Government about the better off overall test. I was very worried that changes to that would result in pay cuts. Even I’ve said, “Look, if we can come up with something that varies that, it’s not my starting point, but let’s see where the discussion takes us”, because I can’t be asking other people to be making compromises unless I’m willing to bring them to the table myself as well.
GILBERT: Do you see the argument, though, that that better off overall test is too rigid, that even when you’ve got examples where the employers, the workers want the deal, they can’t get it done?
BURKE: I think it’s fair to say the whole system has become too legalistic, the whole system has become incredibly rigid. Now, I’m watching very carefully, because my starting point on the jobs summit is I want to get wages moving, so anything that would see protections for wages – if it meant wages were going backwards, then obviously I’m not there. So, I’m not arriving with a specific change that I want to it, but the genuine concept of how legalistic it’s become. Workplace relations was always meant to be a very practical sphere and if you look at the conversation that’s happened today between COSBOA and the ACTU, it’s about very practical outcomes.
GILBERT: But it has been put to me that just to get back to that legalistic frame, that it’s way too onerous when you’ve got a union who would back a deal, the employer backing the deal, but it doesn’t get approved because of the better off overall test. There might be one area where the worker is not better off, but they’re going to get more money so they want the deal. That’s surely not sustainable?
BURKE: Yes, and I’m open to those sorts of agreements that we might get to later in the week. I know those conversations are happening, but I’m not wanting to get ahead of that conversation. I really want the parties to reach across the aisle so to speak and see where they can reach compromises. But also remember, when round tables were held two years ago from the previous Government, the only thing that the previous Government brought to the table was the table. That was all they provided. We are coming to the table with changes to childcare policy. We’re coming to the table with changes in skills policy. We’re coming to the table with benefits for business and I don’t think anyone should approach it on the basis that they just pocket them without making further concessions.
GILBERT: Sure, and what do you say to the argument that it’s been driven by union agenda, the summit, as opposed business concerns?
BURKE: I think everybody’s been making compromises throughout. What the unions have been saying with respect to immigration is a very big step for the unions to make. I think everybody has been just seeing where they can bend a bit to be able to reach a compromise, because, ultimately, we’ve got two very real problems in Australia: we have a skills shortage that’s extraordinary, but we also have a cost of living crisis where getting wages moving is a big part of fixing that. So, if you can act on the skills, if you can give the flexibility or some of the simplicity that business is looking for, and get wages moving, you’ve got a formula that’s pretty good for the nation.
GILBERT: It is a big week for you, I know. Before you go, the former Prime Minister, my understanding is that he will cooperate with that inquiry –
BURKE: Oh, good.
GILBERT: – announced by the Prime Minister. You welcome that?
BURKE: Absolutely. Absolutely.
GILBERT: He hasn’t been given the terms of reference, apparently, by the Prime Minister’s department. Should that be extended to him?
BURKE: Has he complained about that? Has he?
GILBERT: Well, not publicly. That’s not the statement being made; it’s my understanding from those around him, though.
BURKE: I reckon Karen Andrews would have liked to have been provided with the information on who held her portfolio, so, I think if Scott Morrison’s complaining about lack of information, he is a bit late to the game.
GILBERT: Tony Burke, appreciate your time.
BURKE: Always good to be here.
GILBERT: Talk to you soon.