Release type: Transcript


Interview - Sky News Sunday Agenda with Andrew Clennell


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


SUBJECTS: Voice to Parliament referendum, wages, inflation, Closing the labour hire loophole, small business, multi-employer bargaining, Indigenous art, Quad meeting, Albanese government one year in office.

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Joining me now is the Leader of the House and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. Mr. Burke, thanks for your time this Sunday morning. I wanted to start with the Voice. You're the man in charge of the legislative agenda this week. So, can you tell us when will it come before Parliament? Will the PM introduce it? And are there any nerves in the Government about the referendum, given the poll of last week?

THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: The Bill itself was introduced a while ago by Mark Dreyfus, the Attorney-General, and what we'll be doing this week is we'll then be bringing it on for debate. Now, the nature of a referendum, it's a debate that you can't cut short. Anyone who wants to speak, you need to make sure that they can, and the procedures are a bit different with a referendum. You end up -- when you get to the very end of the debate, whether people call for a division or not, every single person gets their name recorded as to which way they vote. That final part of the process, we won't get through ‘til next week, but this week we'll be making sure that everybody who wants to have their say on the referendum proposal gets a chance to do that.

CLENNELL: And so what happens then with the budget legislation, including the legislation lifting the JobKeeper - JobSeeker rate, should I say. Will we see that this week or next week?

BURKE: You’ll certainly see an introduction this week or next week, but there's no urgency to that in terms of in the comments that you just made to Kieran. The start dates are way off, so there's not a rush there on that. The main Budget Bills, though, the debate technically started on those when Peter Dutton gave the Budget reply. And so we'll be dealing with the appropriations this week in the second chamber.

CLENNELL: Your portfolio and the Government's wages push, now, you appointed Adam Hatcher as president of the Fair Work Commission. He warned last week that too high an increase to the minimum wage could lead to inflation and higher interest rates and therefore be counterproductive. In terms of inflation and interest rates are we better off with a 4 per cent increase here rather than 7 per cent?

BURKE: The Government submission is for people on the minimum wage to not go backwards, and the questions that Adam Hatcher made – and it was questioning of people and interrogating the evidence, which is his job as the president of the Fair Work Commission – went to the impact across the whole of the award system. Now one of the things that was shown last year with the Annual Wage Review is the Commission sometimes, as they did last year, will give a higher percentage for the couple of hundred thousand people who are on the minimum wage and then cascade it to a lower percentage as you move all the way up the award system. 

You’ve got to remember, people on the award system, a lot of them are close to the minimum wage, but it also goes all the way up to pilots. So, there's a big range of incomes there, you don't need to have the same percentage for everyone. But the Government's position is if you're on the minimum wage, you're out there working but you're on the lowest rates of pay, where are you meant to cut where inflation is at the moment? Are you meant to skip a meal? What are you meant to do? They're the people who have the least room to move, that's why we've been true to the principles of last year.

CLENNELL: Do you want 7 per cent for them then? I mean, it's kind of strange wording - 

BURKE: Well, we don't know what the - 

CLENNELL: - where you say, you know, "don't want them to go backwards" - 

BURKE: - don't go backwards - 

CLENNELL: - that means 7 per cent doesn't it?

BURKE: There'll be more inflation figures that come through before the final decision is made and so that's why we do it in terms of not go backwards and the Commission gets to take everything into account, including what by then will be the latest of the inflation figures. We need to remember the highest of those inflation figures we had was before we came to office. That was the highest of the individual figures that's come up. What we've had now, we've been slowing it, but of course, as you knock out the way the twelve-monthly figures work, the headline rate is higher.

CLENNELL: There does seem to be a flow-on to the awards. I know what you're saying about not the 100 per cent of it. From the minimum wage decision, though, isn't there a risk that you raise wages and you end up in this spiral where that leads to inflation and interest rate increases? Surely that's a risk.

BURKE: I'm really glad you've raised that because there's been some commentary about that. The Reserve Bank Governor himself has said we've got no signs at the moment, no signs at all of there being a wage-price spiral at all. What we've got right now - and we know that inflation is not driven by high wage growth because we haven't had high wage growth. When you quote the inflation figure of 7 per cent, wages are at 3.7 in the figures that came through in the last week. 

CLENNELL: But going up.

BURKE: So, there's no way in the world that wages - oh, they're going up and we said we'd get wages moving. Could you imagine where cost of living would be at the moment if you still had the determination to keep wages low that the previous government had? The policies that we've put in place to get wages moving are working. What we want is, as inflation starts to come down, we want to get the point where those lines cross, because when those two lines cross and wages start to get in front of inflation again, as inflation comes down, that's when people start to get ahead. And for the life of me, I don't know how people can have an argument about cost of living without knowing that wages, as inflation comes down, need to get in front of inflation.

CLENNELL: I just wonder why you're so confident inflation is going to come down. Because it's pretty stubborn at that 7 per cent, and we're going to see wages go up. So, why are you so confident it's going to come down?

BURKE: Well, wages aren't the only pressure on inflation, we know that. The Government's taken a lot of action that puts downward pressure on prices. We've done it with respect to energy prices, we've done it with medicine, the childcare changes are coming in. Wherever we can have an impact on prices, we're doing that. And you look at the projections that Treasury have put in the Budget. They're the projections that the best advice we can get is where inflation is likely to go, and those projections were done with presumptions of pay rises for the minimum rate of pay.

CLENNELL: Alright, let's talk about the next stage of your proposed IR reform, same job, same pay. This is aimed at stopping firms using labour hire firms to staff their work sites at potentially lower pay than their workforce. Is that fair?

BURKE: Yeah, there's a labour hire loophole at the moment. There's lots of legitimate uses for labour hire, but it shouldn't be used to undercut what's been set as the rate of pay.

CLENNELL: Okay, but if those businesses are used to paying workers at that rate and using that kind of model to stay in business, aren't they at risk of collapse if you introduce same job, same pay across the board?

BURKE: There's a whole lot of consultation happening in terms of transition as to how you phase this, how you do it. We haven't landed on any of those decisions. But the principle that we took to the election is the principle we intend to legislate. Which is at the moment, if you have the employer agree and the workers vote and the Fair Work Commission register that this is what the rate of pay is going to be at a workplace. The employer shouldn't have made the agreement, then be able to say, “well, I'm now going to radically undercut that rate of pay” by technically saying the labour hire firm’s now the employer, and everything we just agreed to is gone. 

I was at a mine site in the Hunter out at Mount Thorley during the week with Dan Repacholi, our member. One of the workers there said to me, "it's ridiculous being in an industry where casuals are actually being paid less than permanent workers per hour." We all think of a casual loading, the casuals there were being paid less than the permanent workers because the labour hire loopholes being used.

CLENNELL: All right, is any of this influenced by the battles between Qantas and the TWU?

BURKE: The principle, actually, when it was first raised - was the first I ever heard of this problem and this principle, when we signed up to it, was very much about what was happening in the mining industry and about trying to get better job security and better rates for people who were being undercut with the labour higher loophole on mines. Certainly since then - so, this is a policy that we adopted even before I took on the Shadow portfolio - certainly since then, there's been increasing people have raised issues around Qantas and that's why they're at the table as well, talking about how this might be transitioned. 

I get that employers will argue against anything that involves an increased wages bill. I get that. But where you have loopholes, you need to close them. If we have tax loopholes, we get out there and close them to protect government revenue. Workers should get the same treatment. If there are loopholes that are undercutting their rates of pay, government needs to act and we will.

CLENNELL: All right, Mr Burke, in the budget papers, I noticed there was a $23.4 million grant over three years for a Small Business Cyber Wardens program to be delivered by the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia. Why are you spending money on this?

BURKE: Look, the individual budget -- Cyber Wardens, you're saying?


BURKE: The individual budget measure here is not - it's not my portfolio, I didn't know this one was coming, so I don't have details there. But I will say there are a lot of examples where, for various business organisations, that government funding goes through them and they become -- effectively using it for consultation with their members and getting messages out and also helping make sure that the government's up to date on where their members are at. You know, that's, that's not uncommon. Previous government did it, we did it. The very particular measure that you've raised, there's a lot of measures in that Budget. I'm not going to know every one of them.

CLENNELL: Okay. I thought you might have been connected with it. Presumably it was the Treasurer or someone else, but COSBOA supported your multi-employer bargaining at the Jobs and Skills Summit. Giving them this sort of money there's no attempt to carry favour with them here? Keep them on side?

BURKE: There's other projects in my portfolio where, for example, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, groups that were pretty vocal against every aspect of the legislation where they've been treated in a similar way. And I should, in fairness to COSBOA, say they didn't agree with all aspects of what we did on multi-employer bargaining. There's a particular cooperative stream that was very much designed in consultation with what their members would want. But I wouldn't want to pretend that COSBOA signed up to the whole package because they didn't.

CLENNELL: All right, nearly out of time. Just wanted to touch on a couple of things briefly. This story in The Australian that's been running on Indigenous art and white hands allegedly interfering with the art. Where is that at and what's your view on it?

BURKE: Okay, so there's two different principles and we've got to work our way through both. The first principle is it is completely reasonable and t has always been the case that artists will sometimes use assistance to do some of the work. And I don't think we can set a different rule for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to what we set for everybody else. But there's a second principle, which is a cultural principle, which is there are some aspects of works of art, some images, where there is strong cultural belief that only people with cultural authority should paint them. Both of those issues are involved in what's happening here at that particular art centre for the APY Lands in South Australia. 

I'm talking regularly now with both South Australian Minister and the Northern Territory Minister. We're going back and forth, still consulting to make sure we get the terms of reference right. It'll be led by South Australia because they're the ones that provide recurrent funding to the art centre. But ultimately, I don't think we should set rules, put restrictions on First Nations artists that we don't put on anyone else. At the same time, it's really important that people aren't being under pressure to vary their artworks in ways that they're not happy with.

CLENNELL: Alright, and I just wanted to ask about the Quad meeting. Disappointing, I guess, that it wasn't in Australia, has the PM got what he wanted there?

BURKE: It's a great outcome, a really great outcome. The issues that are there with respect to climate, with respect to security, with respect to technology, the outcomes there are good for the region, they're good for our security, and they're also really good for jobs. While the location wasn't what we'd hoped, it's certainly the case that the meeting that was chaired by Prime Minister Albanese, the outcomes are really good for Australia and good for our allies.

CLENNELL: And finally, Minister, one year in office, the Albanese Government, how are you reflecting on that year today?

BURKE: We've laid a lot of foundations and I'm pretty excited about those. Not just, you know, obviously, I've got to focus on the ones in my portfolio where we said we get wages moving and that's happening. So, I'm excited about that. But I also look at those foundations and look at the work ahead. There's a hell of a lot to do, but we've got something to build on now.

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

BURKE: Great to talk to you.