Interview - Sky News Sunday Agenda with Andrew Clennell
ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Joining me today is the Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke. It seems already you're compromising on the IR Bill with the business community. Can you tell us what concessions you're prepared to give.
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Yeah, there's been over the last week business groups meeting with me every day, some of them up to three times during the course of the week. And we've been working back and forth on different amendments that we might be able to include when the Bill returns to the House of Representatives this week. One of the ones that we've now locked down is a change in how voting will work on multi-employer agreements. So, one of the concerns, which was a reasonable concern, was the concept of you could have in a multi-employer agreement, one employer where there's a heap of staff, another where it's much smaller numbers and effectively the bigger workplace, overwhelming the vote of the smaller one. So, here's what we'll do. It'll be changed so that to be part of an agreement where you're getting a majority of the staff, it's employer by employer where that's counted similarly for industrial action, similarly to agree to an agreement.
CLENNELL: So there has to be a majority with each individual small employer?
BURKE: With each employer, that's right. The smallest businesses themselves get carved out anyway. That protection was already there. But this puts an end to the argument that you'll end up with workplaces that didn't want to be part of an agreement but somehow got roped in anyway, or didn't want to be part of industrial action. If you vote against any of the stages at that business level, then you're not part of it.
CLENNELL: But if you've got a hamburger store with 17 people, this is the one the Opposition keeps using. You could end up with the same wages and conditions as Maccas, couldn't you?
BURKE: Well, realistically, McDonald's already do an agreement through franchising that they already have in place.
CLENNELL: Well, take the example.
BURKE: Yeah, I just want to make clear, wherever an agreement is already in place, you're completely unaffected. So anywhere that there is already an enterprise agreement in place, none of this affects them at all. And I just need to make that point. In terms of where you've got businesses of various sizes, it is possible that you could end up negotiating in the same agreement, but only in situations where either the employer has chosen to or the workforce has chosen to. If you've got a situation where the workforce doesn't want to be part of it and the employer doesn't want to be part of it, you're not part of it.
CLENNELL: But if the workforce wants to be part of it and the employer doesn't, tough luck.
BURKE: Well, that's exactly the same as what can happen now on single employer agreements. Like at the moment you've got a situation - it's pretty rare, can I say, it's pretty rare that if the employer doesn't want to, that you get a vote up in the workforce. But that's already the case on single employer agreements. You wouldn't have a situation where you could do it on a single, but you couldn't do that on a multi.
CLENNELL: All right, well, let me ask you about a couple of other concessions that have been called for. The Business Council wants multi-employer bargaining shut out until firms have 100 workers. Your bill has it at 15. They want mining shut out from multi-employer bargaining. Would you move on either of those.
BURKE: To take the second one, first of all, mining overwhelmingly is a situation where you already have agreements in place, particularly on the east coast. And on the west coast, it's workplaces that have never been able to get a majority of the workforce vote in favour of having agreements on a single enterprise. So, I think the mining example, when you get to real life. As to whether it's going to happen there. I've got to say I hear the objection. But when you look at how this actually works out well-
CLENNELL: Why not carve it out then?
BURKE: The area that I want to carve out is the construction areas where you've seen behaviour on various construction sites where you’d say there's not the maturity there that we want to open this up to a new area. Now, mining doesn't have those same problems in that same way. But that's the area that I'm focused on.
CLENNELL: What about 100 workers instead of 15?
BURKE: Yeah. Can I say Senate crossbench are arguing, have been raising with me this issue of 15, whether you do it as headcount, whether you do it as full time equivalent, things like that. I expect that will be a conversation by the time we get to the Senate. It's not something I'm proposing to move in the House of Representatives. Certainly, my starting point is I want to get wages moving for everybody. Like, I don't want the fact that someone works for a business with a different number of employees means as a worker, somehow, we care about their bills less. If you're serious about cost of living, you need to get wages moving regardless of where people work. And so, I'm reluctant, although I expect that conversation is likely to be one that comes up pretty strongly when we hit the Senate.
CLENNELL: All right. Something else put to me. Business wants employees would have to wait six to twelve months before being able to go for a multi-employer agreement. Some sort of grace period, considering that?
BURKE: Yeah, we are considering that there's some drafts going back and forth at the moment between us and business, not on the twelve-month thing, but on six months. And effectively the concept here is it's often the case, even when there's good faith bargaining happening, that you don't get the next agreement up the moment the old ones expired. So, to have a period where you can continue to negotiate is something where we are getting close on that. It's six months rather than twelve. But all of this goes to a principle which has been a bit lost in some of the coverage, so I'm glad you've raised it, which is what becomes the main method is, are we going to be mainly looking at multi-employer or mainly looking at single employer? And the reality is single employer agreements will remain the main way that negotiations happen. The fact that multi-employer is there will-
CLENNELL: What percentage will be multi-employer, in your opinion?
BURKE: Well, I think we're kidding ourselves if we can invent the numbers. The challenge that we have is, at the moment, single employer has fallen down to around 14 percent of the workforce on a single employer agreement that's in date, and that's a big part of the story. And wages not moving. Whether it's a single employer or a multi-employer agreement, every agreement has the same feature, and that's if you're on an agreement, you're being paid better than you are on the Award. And so, what we did first was the Annual Wage Review. We got Awards moving. You've just seen in the last 24 hours what we've done with respect to backing an increase for aged care. The next stage is for the people to get above award payments. That means agreements.
CLENNELL: This feels a bit rushed, doesn't it? I mean, you're already looking to make concessions over the next few weeks; you will make concessions. Why do you have to get this through this year? We know David Pocock, who you rely upon in the Senate, wants a longer committee process. What's the rush on this?
BURKE: Well, the rush is what's being felt around every table, kitchen table, in the country. The rush is where people are seeing they know there's areas where we can act on prices, and we have. We've acted on prices with cheaper medicines, we've acted on prices with what we're doing with childcare. They're seeing those shifts happen now, but they also need their wages to move.
CLENNELL: Isn't it about avoiding a concerted campaign by the business community over summer as well? The miners, everything?
BURKE: Yeah. I'm glad you raised that campaign from that mining group. Can I say Steve Knott, who's been very vocal in the media and has thought that somehow a $20 million advertising campaign will make this Government not care about people's wages. Can I just say, because I mentioned all the business groups I've been meeting with over the last week. Not one phone call from him or his organisation wanting to meet or have a conversation or do anything about the Bill. There will be some people who want to have a political campaign. That's what they're there for. I don't know if that's what their membership thinks they're paying for, but whether it's BCA, COSBOA, ACCI, Australian Industry Group, all those groups have been engaging, they'll still be upfront about what they oppose in the Bill, but trying to get outcomes for their members. This character, Steve Knott, I don't know what his organisation is about, but apparently it's about advertising.
CLENNELL: Well, do you concede that if you lift wages, inflation will increase?
BURKE: Not automatically, not for a minute and I back what the Reserve Bank Governor said.
CLENNELL: He is worried about a wage price spiral, isn't he, Philip Lowe?
BURKE: He's saying, you've got to be mindful that you don't get there, but we are nowhere near there. We've got inflation running at 7.3 and wages running at 2.6. The reason we know that inflation is not being pushed by higher wage growth is that we don't have high wage growth.
CLENNELL: How much do you want wages to increase by?
BURKE: The thing that I think you need to keep as the marker is what Phil Lowe describes as the anchor point, where he says three and a half is the anchor point. So, it's an anchor – you can go above it, you can go below it, but that's sort of where you hover around and there's a bit of science behind that. Reserve Banks trying to keep inflation between two and three per cent, and the usual rule of thumb is you can go inflation plus productivity without having an impact on wages pushing up inflation. So if you're between two and three on inflation and productivity has been running at roughly one per cent, then that's why you end up with the 3.5 as your anchor point.
CLENNELL: So you'd be happy if wages went up three and a half percent?
BURKE: Well, I want them to go up from 2.6 I'll tell you, I would like-
CLENNELL: Not after four, you're not after five?
BURKE: This is where, look, you've got to fight and change the law to get things moving at all. To get them moving at all. Obviously, I want inflation to come down. What I don't want to see is, as inflation comes down, we end up with a situation where wages start retreating as well and people are forever behind. There will be a period, no matter what we do, like with inflation being projected to run at 8%, we're not going to get wages up, anything like that. Nor should we, because then you would have the problem that you described. But you do want, as inflation comes down, for wages to get to a more normal perspective. And we've had 10 years where they were deliberately kept low, where we were told you couldn't have a pay increase because inflation was low. And now some of the same people are saying you can't have a pay increase because inflation is high.
CLENNELL: All right. Nearly out of time. Just a couple of brief matters. John Setka welcomed your legislation, said it was good to see the ABCC out of the picture. You mentioned before there have been problems on construction sites. You can't be that happy that John Setka has welcomed it, have you?
BURKE: Well, he certainly hasn't welcomed the issue of them not being able to access multi-employer bargaining and no individual person is my benchmark on whether this works. My benchmark on all of this is what does it mean for the households.
CLENNELL: Around Australia aged care workers, the 15 per cent, you must be happy with that. Bit of a shame that half of it is swallowed with inflation, though, isn't it?
BURKE: Yeah, it's a long-term shift, so this is part of it's both a wage justice for those workers. It's also about trying to get people back into working in aged care. And the next stage I really hope we can see is more job security for that workforce. One of the things that became clear during the lockdown period of the pandemic, when we saw the virus spreading, with so many people to make up the hours to make ends meet, having to work across two, three, even more workplaces. And I'm really hopeful that as we move forward for this sector and for others, not just wages, but job security can be something we improve.
CLENNELL: And finally, just on energy, what is being considered in the regulatory space to make sure we don't get these 40 per cent to 50 per cent increases in gas and electricity bills?
BURKE: Yeah, look, I'm not one of the portfolios that's right at the centre of that. Jim Chalmers has flagged very clearly that regulation is something we need to look seriously about. And that's not only because of the household issues that I've referred to today talking to you. It's also what's happening to industry, you've heard Ed Husic’s really concerned about what this means for Australian industry and jobs.
CLENNELL: So price caps, are they possible?
BURKE: Look, as I say, I can't give you more than what I've just given because I'm not right in the centre of those conversations. But the problem is clear, and regulation is going to be one of the pathways forward.
CLENNELL: Tony Burke, thanks for your time.
BURKE: Great to talk.