TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Thanks very much for coming together. I respect absolutely more people have come than you would normally get for a road transport announcement, and I get the exact context of that. What I would simply ask is we do the road transport announcement first and then whatever questions there are about road transport – then for a whole lot of the people who are just here for the road transport industry, it will give them the chance to go to one side while we go to questions on other topics, just out of respect for a whole lot of the stakeholders who are here.
If I start with – back when the Road Transport Safety Remuneration Tribunal was abolished, effectively the previous government had an approach which was to push people in their corners and the only option was you either have everything that’s there at the moment, or you get nothing at all. This Government has had a different approach. At the Jobs and Skills Summit we had a roundtable where we brought different people together and said if there were to be some sort of minimum standards within the road transport industry, how might you do that? How might you do that with the safeguards to make sure that we have a viable, sustainable and safe industry for the years to come?
A whole lot of people who had previously been in different corners of those arguments, all those years ago, came together and worked through what the principles would need to be, what the guardrails would need to be, and that is all reflected in the legislation that I introduced yesterday in that Closing Loopholes Bill.
There are guardrails, for example, that are there now about minimum standards orders from the Fair Work Commission being made with plenty of notice so that before an order comes in if it looks like it’s going to have adverse consequences that hadn’t been thought through, the parties have a chance to be able to deal with that. An appeals mechanism and a final ministerial intervention mechanism to ask the Fair Work Commission to be able to look at something again. Guardrails there that don’t allow overtime rates or rostering rates, for example on independent contractors, guardrails that make sure we’re not duplicating something that’s already comprehensively covered by an existing regulator.
All of this means we have avoided the problems of the RSRT. It means we’ve avoided the problems of the past and it means that we now have, before the Parliament, a structure with the broad support that would have been thought impossible in the years of the previous government when everyone was being pushed into their corners.
I want to thank everybody who’s involved. Around me are people representing the union – the TWU. We’ve got people here representing major employers in transport. We’ve got people representing independent contractors, owner-drivers. That full range of people have come together to deliver legislation, which is now before the Parliament, which will make a real difference to sustainability and the future of road transport.
I might ask Michael Kaine from the TWU to go next and to introduce some of the stakeholders we have here.
MICHAEL KAINE: Thanks very much, Minister. Michael Kaine, National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union. The bill that was introduced into Parliament yesterday is the Government’s response to a united industry call for urgent action. Behind me I have a unified industry, a road transport industry, that’s come together to say enough is enough. The Bill that was introduced yesterday will be a beacon of hope – a beacon of hope for transport workers and for transport companies who will, when this is legislated, have now the confidence that they will return home – return home alive, and that their businesses will be viable and will operate within a sustainable, viable industry.
This is an industry in crisis, and it’s not just an industry crisis, it’s a community crisis. 108 transport workers have lost their lives on our road performing their work in the last two years. That’s more than one a week. That is catastrophic. 347 companies last year folded because of the pressures of the industry. One of them was a very major operator, Scott’s Refrigerated Transport. The biggest refrigerated transport company in the middle of lucrative retail contract chains should have been shooting the lights out. And instead, it folded, leaving 1,500 workers by the wayside.
This is an industry that’s under pressure from contractual commercial pressures that are cannibalistic, and it’s under pressure from the emergence of the gig economy, which is finding its way into the heart of freight, pushing workers outside of the standards that have been built up for years and getting a massive competitive advantage against the good employers that are behind me that need change to support viability.
But it’s not just the promise of change that’s a beacon of hope. It’s the way that change is articulated in the Bill. If we have learnt in this Bill as a country from the mistakes of the past, we know that we need to have broad consultation to make sure that we get the standards right. We know we have to test those standards before they become enforceable. These are all elements of the Bill. This is a welcome moment, a moment of relief – absolute and utter relief – for those families that have lost loved ones, not just in the industry, but the 1,300 Australians and their families that have lost their lives since the abolition of the RSRT.
The Coalition government put nothing in its place. This Government has acted on unified industry calls for reform. That reform was put before the Parliament yesterday. We’re here to urge the entire Parliament to pass that reform as quickly as possible so we can save lives and make this industry more sustainable.
I want to call now on Peter Anderson, who heads up the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation, which is the peak employer body for road transport companies in Australia.
PETER ANDERSON: Thanks, Michael. Thank you, Tony. Peter Anderson; I’m the National Secretary of the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation. Minimum standards isn’t just about truck drivers. It isn’t just about an industry in crisis. It's about the Australian economy, it’s about the standard of living that we all enjoy, it’s about ensuring that our future, our future systems that support the way that we live are sustainable, are safe for those people that have to work in it and actually add to the prosperity of the Australian economy.
Minimum standards is something that the industry has been looking for now for over 30 years. And at last, we have an opportunity with a government that wants to drive reform, drive improvement, drive productivity improvement into our economy to ensure that we – that our future generations, to ensure that our people coming up after us have a better life than what we have had at the moment.
This industry has suffered for a long period of time. There’s been gaps in the way that we’ve gone about our business. We’ve been poorly treated. We’re not respected very well in the community. We’re misunderstood. All those vagaries that are attracted to our industry are something we seem to have picked up on. This will actually start to hone the actual value that our industry contributes to the economy of Australia to what it can do for people’s lives – a strong industry, a professional industry providing a lifestyle for people that people want to come into.
It's hard for us to attract drivers into our industry because of the nature of the work and the way that we go about it at the moment. And this reform is the first step to ensure that our industry is viable into the future, is stronger and is an industry that people want to be part of. Thanks, Michael.
KAINE: Thanks very much, Peter. Gordon Mackinlay is from the National Road Freighters Association. He has a powerful story to tell about how he felt during the RSRT and how he feels now about this reform.
GORDON MACKINLAY: Thanks Michael. In 2016 I led a fight against the RSRT and was one of the main forces behind having the former RSRT legislation repealed. And, which at the time was – I still believe was the right thing to do at the time. The Coalition government that worked alongside us to achieve that then, you know, just left us hanging. We were offered no alternative, no recompense.
So over that time I still felt that I wanted to do the best thing for the industry and coincidentally the – I got in touch with Senator Glenn Sterle originally and then through Senator Glenn Sterle with Michael Kaine at the TWU, and we found out that by having good, mature conversations that we actually had a lot more in common than we had apart.
In that time I had sold my trucks and – because it just wasn’t viable and I went back to my trade as a mechanic, but have continued to work with the TWU and Senator Sterle and the Labor Party, because they’re the ones that are out here to help us. And it’s been a big turnaround for me and one that I’ve copped a bit of flak over. But if I could just say to the people that are questioning why I’ve done what I’ve done, and what the National Road Freighters Association have helped me do, I would just ask you that if you believed in what I was seeing and doing in 2016, I haven’t stopped on this issue and I believe that this is exactly what we need right now. For the first time we’re actually being asked our opinion. The people in government and higher up authorities are actually coming to us as the grassroots people in the transport industry and asking, you know, what it is you need to make it a success. And I think that is the very thing that will make this legislation successful.
I’d just probably ask one more thing of any of the Coalition, particularly ministers, I feel maybe there’ll be pressure that you won’t vote for this legislation because of your place in the Parliament. But at the very least I think if you could be – look at the decency, you know, the humanity of what we’re asking for, and at the very least, don’t vote against it. Thanks.
KAINE: Thanks, Gordon. And Frank Black is an owner-driver in the industry.
FRANK BLACK: Yeah, I’m Frank Black, I’ve been a driver for 35 years. The tabling of this Bill is of huge significance, especially for owner-drivers. It’s been a long time coming and we hold great hope that it will improve our conditions and rates in the industry because poor rates and poor conditions in the industry obviously leads to bad safety outcomes, not only for ourselves but the general public as well. So I think the government of the day needs to be applauded for introducing this Bill.
BURKE: Okay, so we might kick off first of all on any questions about the road transport issue itself. Paul.
JOURNALIST: Could I ask Gordon, please, has this been approved by the NRFA board? And you mentioned that you copped a bit of flak over your change of heart. What is the state of support for this policy amongst owner-drivers? Have you been getting backlash for now supporting Labor’s policy?
MACKINLAY: Okay, so, first of all, very much so the National Road Freighters Association is supporting what we’re doing here and there’s four of us here today at present. And we’ve been – we can’t always get there every time there’s something on, but as a board we share the load, and there’s pretty much always good representation from the board. So first of all, yes, we do have their support and do know what we’re doing.
And what was the second part, sorry?
JOURNALIST: Who have you copped flak from? Are the owner-drivers upset about this stance?
MACKINLAY: People that were probably like me in 2016, vehemently against the RSRT and, you know, we saw the TWU and the Labor Party as our enemies. And I understand that. And it’s been – you know, it wasn’t just a switch that flicked and one day all of a sudden I woke up one morning and I said, “Oh, well, let’s start talking to these guys.” We both reached – both sides reached out and probably one of the first things that really made a difference was Glenn Sterle organised Michael Kaine and myself when we were here at Parliament House for another meeting years ago – four or five years ago – that we should get together. Because Glenn said, “I think you’ve got more in common than either of you think, you know.”
So Michael and I actually sat down and I believe I was the still President of the National Road Freighters at the time, so he obviously wanted to speak to me in that role. And the more we spoke the more we realised that we had a lot more in common. So that was the foundations for what we’ve built over the last five or six years to get to where we are today.
JOURNALIST: Minister, if I can ask you on – you’ve been accused by ACCI of sneaking in a provision that gives you broad regulatory-making powers in regard to road transport supply chain issues. Why have you given yourself that power?
BURKE: I cannot think of a conversation I’ve had with any of the people behind me where they haven’t made the same point, and it’s this: to be able to have minimum standards that work, you need to have a power that can look at the full contractual change within the transport industry. There is a complexity of one contract after another after another before you actually get to the driver in this industry. In order to be able to set certain minimum standards that would be able to work, the Fair Work Commission would need to be able to have some power that would deal with those contractual changes.
Now, the nature of that is complex and, therefore, you need to be making sure you’re constantly testing and to be making sure that you’ve got every detail right. That’s why it’s better suited to a regulatory power. I made clear in the second reading speech, I think, I said – and I’ve said it on a number of meetings here – that the consultation that’s gone into the existing sections is something that would go into any regulation there as well. But there is a really strong view that has been put to me repeatedly, that to make change meaningful in this sector and to make sure you were, in fact, delivering for a viable industry, you need to give the Fair Work Commission some power to deal with those contractual changes.
JOURNALIST: What scenario do you anticipate you’ll be stepping into to adding regulation?
BURKE: There would be a regulation that would give the Fair Work Commission power to deal with contractual change. It’s not that I’d be putting in the rules; it would be that in terms of providing the jurisdiction for the Fair Work Commission on contractual change. What you’ve got at the moment in the Bill I’ve introduced is the power to deal with that. So, you’ve effectively got the window to be able to deal with that. But the ultimate power of any decision-making would still be vested in the Fair Work Commission.
JOURNALIST: Minister, part of the problem with setting pay and conditions for owner truck drivers previously has been undercutting by other sections. Isn’t that going to happen again? How can you prevent it?
BURKE: Some of the minimum standards that have been put to me by people here and from people outside of the ones who are here as well, are a minimum standard in terms of being payment times. That is something that is really important. One of the impacts of contractual change, if you get contract after contract with a time period and the driver at the end, everyone pays on the last day. You get this really delayed payment before it gets to the driver at the end. So, payment times, for example, is one of the issues that I expect will be early on in terms of application.
Last time with the RSRT it went straight to a rates decision. It went to a rates decision that for many parts of the industry simply didn’t work. We had a system where the moment a decision was made, that was the end of it. There weren’t processes of appeal. You didn’t get the long-term intention to regulate which is contained within the legislation that I introduced yesterday.
So, there's a whole lot there that has a very different approach, but it would be a mistake to look at minimum standards in road transport solely through the lens of rates.
JOURNALIST: You’ve got Amazon Flex effectively participating in the road transport industry, even though you’ve classified them as a gig company. Where do they fall under in the legislation?
BURKE: If you look at the way the Bill is structured and, should it be passed by both houses, the way the Fair Work Act will be constructed. There’s a good deal of interaction between what we’re doing in the gig economy and what we’re doing on road transport. They’re within the same part of the Bill. Some of the clauses interact quite directly. For example, when I was referring before to some of the things that you couldn’t do, some of those are from the gig list, which is directly incorporated in the road transport list and then the road transport list adds existing regulators and some other principles there.
Effectively there is an objective for employee like in the gig economy, and there is a road transport objective. So, where you have a gig economy decision that is in road transport, they would have to be mindful – the Commission would have to be mindful of both objectives in delivering that. A key part of the road transport objective – and this is possibly one of the biggest shifts from where we were back in 2016 – is a decision in road transport can’t favour one form of engagement over another.
If you look at that ramp that I’ve sometimes referred to in terms of the number of rights. At the top you’ve got employee, about halfway down you’ve got gig, and down the bottom with a fewest right under the Fair Work Act you’ve got people who are independent contractors. The road transport section of the Fair Work Commission looks at the entire ramp and makes sure that any individual decision doesn’t favour one form of engagement over the other.
JOURNALIST: Mr Kaine, if I might, you’ve been quite forthright previously about the job that Alan Joyce has done. What’s your response to him leaving two months early?
BURKE: Can we ask the road transport people to go, if we’re going on this? Any more road transport questions? No? Okay.
KAINE: Well, we welcome the decision of Alan Joyce going early. It seems to us that the board has put pressure on Joyce to go early. It might be the first decision of the board that we agree with in a very long period of time.
There are questions now about Qantas and what approach it will take. Alan Joyce has decimated jobs at Qantas. In the last two weeks since the Senate inquiry the Australian community has caught up with the approach that Alan Joyce has taken. He’s decimated jobs since 2008. He’s done that deliberately by exploiting loopholes in the industrial legislation, loopholes that will be fixed if the Bill in parliament yesterday is passed. He has put service standards through the floor and airfares through the roof. There are allegations that there has been constraint of supply so that air fares can be higher.
And this is a CEO that has quite literally destroyed the reputation of our national carrier. Is it redeemable? Of course, we all hope so. But now is the time for us to take stock, and to rejoice in the fact that we have a moment to figure out how we rebuild Qantas. Many will have a view about that. We think that renewal is needed, renewal in the board is needed. And we’re calling on Vanessa Hudson to take a completely different approach to the one Alan Joyce has taken.
JOURNALIST: Do you think she will?
KAINE: We hope she does. Of course the Australian community will rightly have concerns that because Vanessa Hudson has been side by side with Alan Joyce for 20 years, and has been part of the decisions including grounding the fleet in response to modest industrial action, including pushing 9,400 workers – too many – out the door, including 1,700 illegally during the pandemic, she’s been part of those decisions, so of course we’re concerned she’s cut from the same managerial cloth. But everyone deserves a go.
We’ve said publicly already that the door is open to Vanessa Hudson. We hope she turns a new leaf. We hope she goes in the opposite direction of Alan Joyce. But this now becomes a question about what does the Australian community think about the board. Certainly the board has not covered itself in glory and there are serious questions about it needing renewal.
JOURNALIST: Minister –
BURKE: Can I just come in quickly. Those of you who attend other briefings later in the day rely on me getting to caucus on time, and I’ve got a caucus meeting about to occur. So if I can just make a comment, because I’m sure there’s a few people wanting me to say something with respect to the Alan Joyce announcement.
What I’ll say is this: certainly today’s announcement has been flagged for some time. As Employment Minister, as Workplace Relations Minister, I’ve been very conscious that when we talk about the labour hire loophole, most companies don’t use it. But Qantas is a company that has been using the labour hire loophole in a pretty extraordinary way. My objective is to make sure that people at Qantas are paid fairly.
I look forward to working with the new CEO Vanessa Hudson. I also look forward to the legislation being passed because all I want is this: when enterprise agreements rates are agreed to by Qantas, I want them to reflect what’s paid at the workplace.
And if I go any longer than that I will miss the meeting, and later today you’ll be having a go at me for not knowing what happened.
JOURNALIST: Can you talk about the 9 billion –
BURKE: Sorry, the 9 billion figure?
JOURNALIST: Yes, is that accurate in your view?
BURKE: About the 9 billion figure, a couple of things: first of all, you’ll look at that and you say that is an extraordinary amount of money for people to have been underpaid. The second thing I’ll say about it – you look at it in the context of the total wages budget of Australia, because there was an allegation that somehow this meant massive costs to consumers – that figure, when you look at it as a percentage of Australia’s wages budget, is one-tenth of one per cent of what wages are in Australia.
So let’s get all of this in context. What that figure says is two things: one, most businesses don’t use the loopholes, but some of them have competitors who do. And for those who do use the loopholes, their workers are a lot worse off. Those figures clarify exactly what I’ve always said. You know, there’s no significant impact here to the economy because the money is not taken out of the economy. The money goes to workers who are currently being underpaid. That is a good thing. It’s a small proportion, a tiny proportion, of the total wages budget in Australia, but for those people who are being underpaid, whether it’s because of wage theft, the labour hire loophole, or because they’re in the gig economy with no standards, these changes will be life-changing for them. When you look at what’s behind that figure, it’s a headline that is completely in the interests of working people and poses no threat to the Australian economy.