Release type: Transcript


Press conference, Sydney


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


TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Hi everyone, happy New Year. The figures that have come out of the Australian Bureau of Statistics today confirm that 2023 was a great year for jobs in Australia. 2023, we now have as the year where 381,000 new jobs were created. 2023 stands as the first year in the history of the monthly unemployment series where every single unemployment figure was below 4 per cent. 

The figures that we have today in terms of the monthly figures have seen some correction after very high figures that came forward in October and November. For example, where there is a contraction in the number of jobs in the month of December, when you look at it over that three month period, you still have growth that has been consistent with market expectations of 51,700 jobs. 

Similarly, with the participation rate. While the participation rate has fallen for the December figures, it's off the back of, for example, September having delivered a similar figure. When it delivered the similar figure, at that point it was a record high. 

There is though underlying a slowing of employment growth. That slowing has been consistent with both what was predicted and with what the Treasurer has been referring to for some time. That's reflected in particular in the number of hours worked. 

All of that is off a very strong high. All of that is off a year of unemployment figures which are some of the lowest that Australia has seen for a very long time, and certainly, as I said, the best set of annual figures that Australia has ever had in the history of the monthly series. Happy to open to questions. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, it's Sue Lannin, Sky News. I believe you've met with DP World. What's come out of that meeting? 

BURKE: I met today with both DP World and with the Maritime Union. I've met with both and the meetings took place at my instigation despite some of what was published elsewhere. The meetings took place at my instigation, and at those meetings I have made it very clear that I expect the parties to be at the table, to be negotiating and to be resolving this. 

While there's been some publicity because of a campaign that has happened over recent months. I have made clear to the company as well, if they had invested as much into negotiating as they have into their media campaign, they may already have an agreement. That it is in the interests of everybody, including the company, that they negotiate and they use the Fair Work Commission to help them with that conciliation. 

But the concept of where every other business in Australia is expected to negotiate with their workforce, but this business wants to rely on ministerial intervention is not a view that impresses me, and I expect them to do the same as every other business in Australia. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think DP World is treating its workers fairly? 

BURKE: I think certainly their presumption that they would find a political answer rather than do what every other business in Australia is expected to do was misguided, and I've made that clear to them. 

In terms of their workforce, the Maritime Union went through the differences between pay rates there and pay rates at Patrick, for example. The company would say you could never get a complete parallel because the systems are different, but to reach an agreement everybody needs to give a bit. That's how you get to agreements. I have had a number of times, which haven't been as public as this one, where companies have been very similar placed in terms of their frustration, would they be able to reach agreement or not. They've used the professionalism of the Fair Work Commission, and they've got that. I have no doubt that is possible and available for them now. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, is there a scenario in that negotiation in which you would intervene, given the effect that we're seeing on shipping that this is having, the effect that we're seeing with, you know, I think it's something like 50,000 containers that are caught up at ports and not where they need to be; if this drags on, do you see a scenario where you may have to intervene? 

BURKE: I've made clear to both groups today, that I have no intention of intervening. I've made clear that I have an expectation that they will reach agreement. I will say, I think Australians are sick to death of having highly profitable companies say everything is the fault of them having to pay their workforce the same as their competitors.  

JOURNALIST: Do you agree    

BURKE: Australians have had -  I beg your pardon? 

JOURNALIST: Sorry. I was just going to say, do you agree with DP World's view on what it's costing the Australian economy? 

BURKE: I'll say a few things. First of all, it's Ms Harcourt, is that correct? 


BURKE: Okay. I'll deal with your question first, and then I'll deal with Monday and Tuesday's publications. In terms of the question that you've raised, there is no information that I have had from departmental sources that would match some of what I have seen appear in the press in terms of full market impact. That's not to say that disputes don't involve a level of market impact, they do, and we want all disputes to be resolved as quickly as possible. 

But I have to say I have trouble believing that DP World has the interests of Australian consumers at heart when it is being run by the same person who previously, when he was the CEO of Svitzer, made the announcement that he was effectively going to shut down every single major port in Australia. 

When someone's got that sort of track record, that they're willing to announce that they will shut down every single port in Australia, and then comes round, moves to the next company, new dispute, and says “This is all about trying to make sure we don't have an impact on the Australian economy" it doesn't start with a high level of trust. 

If I can then go to the articles from earlier today, because it goes to today's meeting. The newspaper that the questioner works for, and I don't necessarily blame the journalists, sometimes these things get tied up by sub-editors as well. But it was put to us that I had refused multiple meetings to meet with the company. That surprised my office because I had refused none. 

I had already that morning, prior to the inquiry, come back from my first day of leave, and had made clear to my office, I asked when the office was next meeting with DP World, and I said, "I want to attend that meeting as well, can you advise the company."  The reason there was a meeting with me was entirely at my instigation. 

I put to the company directly, could they nominate a single meeting that I had declined. There are none. There are none. Now that information had been put to the paper. Notwithstanding, something that was untrue was published online on Monday, and in print on Tuesday. 

I don't know how these things happen, that's your world, not mine. The mistrust that happens as a result isn't between you and me, it's between your publication and its readers. But I do want to take this opportunity to correct the record on something that is so demonstrably untrue. 

JOURNALIST: Just on a different issue, the Prime Minister said this morning he wasn't aware of the letter from the Victorian Treasurer about the proposed intractable bargaining legislation. Did you make the Prime Minister aware of the letter, and if not why? 

BURKE: This is one of those letters, you get them from time to time, where you get sent the screenshot send to your phone late in the evening, and they appear media the next day. I'm not sure when it came to my office, but that was when I saw it. The Prime Minister and I, I've brought him up to date and told him on the phone today. But look, it is not unusual for State ministers to have a different view to the Federal Minister, and I have no doubt that Minister Pallas is acting in the interests of his government in writing that. 

I do want to make this point about the amendment that passed the House of Representatives. The concept that if agreement is not reached you would not go backwards on conditions is actually not new. It was prior to the Secure Jobs, Better Pay legislation how it had worked in Australia for years. The difference was you wouldn't go backwards and there would never be an arbitration, but your conditions wouldn't go backwards, and everything would effectively freeze. 

The intention of Secure Jobs, Better Pay was to be able to get wages moving and to be able to get conditions moving. One of the things that happened after the legislation passed was some employer consultants had found a way to effectively game the system, and I'm not referring to the Victorian Government here in any way. But some employers had found a way to effectively game the system, which was to not negotiate in good faith, wait until it was time for intractable bargaining, and then try your luck, and where you previously might have had an enterprise agreement that had really good paying conditions for your workforce, roll the dice and you may well through arbitration be able to get it back down again, and that wasn't what we were intending to do. 

So, that's the reason for the change, and it is also, and it's a point that I haven't had the chance to make until today, completely consistent with how the world in fact worked prior to Secure Jobs, Better Pay. 

JOURNALIST: But Mr Burke, isn't that exactly Mr Pallas's argument that you now hand the same power to the unions, you say to the unions, "You can play this out as long as you like, because when it comes to bargaining, the intractable bargaining process, you can't go backwards on a single clause, not even one trade-off is going to be made". 

BURKE: I'm yet to know of a union negotiation that doesn't also involve wages. If you've had in an enterprise agreement set percentage wage increases, they don't continue under that amendment. Any union that rolls the dice in the way that you say effectively gives away the extent to which they were bargaining on wages. I don't think you'll find many union's doing that.

JOURNALIST: So would it be fair to say then that you don't agree with the Victorian Treasurer's assessment that this will reduce, I suppose, the motivation of the unions to reach an agreement? 

BURKE: No, I don't believe it will, simply because of the impact of wages. It prevents other conditions from going backwards, but wages then become an issue that is still there, and the union effectively has lost, to the extent in the negotiation you have control over what you agree to, you give that away in arbitration. It's a very big thing to give away. 

JOURNALIST: And just quickly, do you have any plans to meet with the Victorian Treasurer about this issue? 

BURKE: We had spoken about it last year, so the conversation has been well ventilated back and forth, very respectfully, but very forcefully as well from the Victorian perspective. No one from the Victorian Government should worry as to whether Minister Pallas is forthright in his views, he certainly is. 

But everything that is in the letter is consistent with conversations we've already had, and I have no doubt conversations will continue. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just take you back to the jobs data for a second. The sharp fall in participation rate that we've seen, what do you put that down to; do you see that as a sign that the economy is starting to slow? 

BURKE: There are a few signs in there of slowing. I'm wary of using the participation rate too much, because the monthly figures do bounce around. The participation rate we have now, while it's come back from where it was, not that long ago, we would have regarded it as a very high participation rate. 

But certainly when you look at the combination of the participation rate, what's happening with the number of hours worked, and also there being some shift from full time to part time in terms of the total numbers. When you look at all that collectively, then it's a reasonable presumption to say that these figures are part of the story. Jobs remains a very strong story for 2023, but also there is some softening in the economy. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, on the ports, aren’t you effectively handing the [indistinct] to the Maritime Union here, because they can now continue a campaign of industrial action that inflicts millions of dollars damage on to DP World, and therefore, on to DP World's customers, and the broader economy, and you will not intervene essentially no matter how bad it gets. 

BURKE: The line that you've put there effectively would say that that's what happens with every single dispute. We have a Fair Work Commission for a reason. The Fair Work Commission --

JOURNALIST: Isn’t the --

BURKE: I won't interrupt you, so you go now, and then you finish, and then I'll respond. 

JOURNALIST: Yeah. So the argument that I understand you're putting is that this could apply to every employer which is a similar line to what the CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith said. But the company's position, as I understand it, is that is because they are a linchpin in the economy, or one of only two, or a hand full and that if they   and their operations are disrupted, that has huge consequences for the whole economy. Doesn't it make them distinct from the others? Apologies for interrupting. 

BURKE: I presume Mr Smith must have said something while I was on leave that I'm not aware of. It's unsurprising that the Minister in my portfolio, being me, defends the laws that we pass and wants them to be used and wants them to be used professionally. That's very much my view. 

In terms of the argument that you put of this section of the economy being different. Well, if the company had that view, why was he, when the same person, as we know, was in charge of Svitzer, the tugboat operator, why was he willing to announce a shutdown of every major port in Australia? 

JOURNALIST: Do you think -- 

BURKE: If I may, please   sorry, you go, I don't want to speak over you. 

JOURNALIST: Well, it was just following on from what you just said. Do you think he's the right person for the job, given you obviously have some track record with him at Svitzer or [indistinct]? 

BURKE: It's for companies to choose who they want as CEOs. Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, I don't tell companies what to do other than to work within the law. 

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned, Minister – staying on DP World about the impact on consumer prices with hearing business groups, ACCI warning that as the dispute drags on, consumer prices will rise. I know you ruled out intervening, but is there a scenario in which you would intervene if consumer prices kept increasing because of supply chain issues? 

BURKE: There is a contested space in terms of the extent to which the number of containers are still being moved, through the combination of some work going to competitors and more people being put on for shifts, because it's the first two hours of the shift where the industrial action is taken. The union and company will have a different view on that, I suspect, but there is a contested space of the extent to which this is happening. 

I will pay credit to both the company and the union that whenever we have been approached by someone who was concerned about medical supplies or particularly sensitive product. They've worked together and made sure that it was moved. That's all happened behind closed doors, it's happened very quietly. But I have respect for the way both parties have been constructive in the way that they've dealt with that. 

But you framed the questions in terms of future impact on consumers, because it is very contestable in terms of the extent to which we have an impact at the moment, very contestable. In terms of future impact, if I put it in these terms. 

We are being told by some of the media lines from the company that they can send as much money overseas as they want, and that's not about Australian consumers. They can charge Australian small businesses as much as they want, and that's not about Australian consumers. But if they have to pay their workers the same as what Patrick pay their workers, that's all about Australian consumers. 

I think people are sick to death of being told that their wages are always the problem. I think people have had enough of some of the most profitable businesses in the world being able to say that anything they do that maximises their profit has nothing about consumers. But if there's something to assist their workforce, then consumers get punished. I think people are sick to death of that argument, and that doesn't mean there doesn't have to be give and take, of course there has to be, and I've made that message clear both privately today in both meetings, and I make publicly now. We expect the parties to go to the table and sort this out. 

I suspect because of the commitment from DP World to the media strategy, thinking that somehow I would intervene and treat them differently to every other business in Australia, that they may not have been participating as enthusiastically in the negotiations as they may otherwise. They have no doubt now. Go to the table, sort this out, every other business in Australia does, we expect them to do the same. Thank you very much. 

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask one quick question about New South Wales housing, apologies    

BURKE: About New South Wales housing? 

JOURNALIST: New South Wales admitting it can't achieve its target for building new homes this year. So where does that leave the national target? 

BURKE: The only thing on housing that I'll say is one of the things I saw in the articles today with respect to housing referred to regulation on silica. That is my portfolio, and I'll refer directly to that. The regulation that is happening on silica, with all the State jurisdictions as well is because too many workers have been losing their lives. I have no doubt we could have a healthy thriving industry and a level of work safety at the same time. 

For the various supply chain issues that are deeply challenging for the housing industry at the moment, and I don't doubt that at all. I really don't think they should be aimed at the list of issues that have been put in place with unanimous consideration of State Ministers, no matter what political party they’re from. That's aimed at making sure we no longer have a situation where workers in their 20s and 30s are contracting an incurable disease simply because they went to work. Thank you.