SUBJECTS: Industrial relations reform, energy prices.
ALLISON LANGDON, HOST: Well, Labor’s contention industrial relations bill is set to pass Parliament before Christmas with Independent Senator David Pocock finally pledging his support.
Let’s bring in Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, who’s in Canberra. Minister, good morning.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Good morning. And congrats on the new gig, too.
LANGDON: Thank you. Nice of you to say that. Look, you kind of had to sell your soul a little here to get this across the line. Was it cheaper or more expensive than you were expecting?
BURKE: Look, you – I always knew we’d have to negotiate in the Senate. And realistically, David Pocock he – like, it was all on the issues. We were working things through constructively. But, yeah, there – he was very insistent that there were some changes in particular for small business that he wanted to be able to make. And so, we’ve ended up with something where there are more – there are additional protections for small business there, but we can still be really confident that this legislation is going to get wages moving. It will help close the gender pay gap and there’ll be a better pathway for secure jobs than there used to be for people in Australia. So, I’m still pretty excited we’ve got to this point.
LANGDON: How soon will wages actually move?
BURKE: It will depend on where you work. So, there’ll be some businesses, for example, which have refused to bargain with their staff where they used to, and the better off overall test just became too complex. The getting rid of some of the red tape that we’ve got there will actually bring some of those businesses back to table straight away. And also, any businesses that are concerned, like, that actually don’t want to be involved in multi-employer bargaining, the simple fix for them is for them to negotiate with their staff now and to do it over the next six months. So that opportunity will happen.
And so, you will see some workers where the movement happens very quickly. There’ll be others where it’s a longer process. But importantly, the framework will finally be there. You know, it’s been 10 years now where wages were deliberately kept low. And, you know, people’s real wages today are lower than they were a decade ago. And that needed to come to an end.
LANGDON: Look, we had John Kehoe who’s the economics editor for the AFR. He said he’s not sure how far this legislation will go to get wages moving, and he had some concerns. For instance, like, what incentive is there for a small business to grow when at the moment they’re also copping it from every angle – you’ve got energy prices, supply issues. This is going to make it even tougher for them.
BURKE: Look, there’s a big benefit for small businesses here that because it hasn’t been controversial it hasn’t hit the media in the same way. But there’s a stream called the cooperative stream. And look, I remember way back when I first arrived here and I was shadow minister for small business, the small business organisations were saying, “can’t we have a simpler award? Just a simple document that only has the clauses that are relevant to us?” And what’s going to be possible –
LANGDON: But this seems to make it more complex. That has been sort of the general analysis that certainly I’ve been reading this morning. And you’ve got business groups fearing it will actually lead to more strikes, job losses, less flexibility and productivity. I mean, they’re not insignificant concerns.
BURKE: But they’re all untrue. What you’ve just said is untrue.
LANGDON: So, you’re then saying you’ve got –
BURKE: And I hear business saying it. No, but can I explain why?
LANGDON: Is it a lie?
BURKE: No, what they’re explaining, if you go through the bill in detail, multi-employer bargaining exists already in the act. No-one’s been able to access it because the system is so complex. So, anything that’s about opening it up does, in fact, make the system simpler than it already is.
In terms of industrial action and strikes, every limit on industrial action that is already in the legislation in terms of making sure that there has to be a vote of the workforce, you can only do it in a bargaining period, all of those limits are there in the exact same form. So –
LANGDON: Are you saying that this legislation doesn’t give unions greater power?
BURKE: It gives workers generally more avenues to be able to get wages moving. And that’s the right thing to do. And so, of course, if you’re represented by a union then that flows through. But – and if you’re not, you’ve got more bargaining power as well. You know, wages will get moving as a result of this. But in terms of industrial action, the protections that are already in the legislation haven't changed at all.
LANGDON: Okay, so IR – tick. Let’s talk energy bills. When are they going to come down? Before Christmas?
BURKE: Look, there’s a lot of work happening. I’m not one of the ministers in that particular group, but a lot of work is being led by people like Jim Chalmers, Madeleine King, Chris Bowen. There’s a group of ministers working really hard on trying to work through what’s the best answer on this. And they’ve said that they want that work to be completed before Christmas. You know, people are feeling it at both ends. And so, we need to get income moving by getting wages moving, but we also need to be able to take action where we can for responsible action on bringing prices down. We’ve already done that with childcare and we need to be able to find a way to do that with energy as well.
LANGDON: Well, I tell you what, Minister, well done in getting this one through. It’s been a huge six months. You’ll all be able to put your feet up over Christmas I reckon.
BURKE: If only.
LANGDON: Thanks for your time.
BURKE: Thank you.