Subjects: Standing up for casual workers, changing the definition of a casual worker, closing workplace relations loopholes, APY Art Centre Collective.
HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: The Federal Government's changes to industrial relations legislation have united business and employer groups across the country in opposition. To date the multi million dollar ad campaign business has been running against the changes has done nothing to deter Labor.
In a speech later today, the Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Burke, will unveil more changes, this time making it easier for close to a million casual workers to become eligible for permanency. Tony Burke is the Minister. He joins me now. Good morning to you.
TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: G'day, Hamish.
MACDONALD: What will the new definition be for casual workers under these arrangements if they go through?
BURKE: It will go back to what it was two years ago, so two years ago there was a change in the Parliament that said effectively whatever the contract says, if the contract says you're a casual, then it doesn't matter how you roster or what's actually going on. We want to go back to the objective definition. Without going through all the legalese of it, effectively it's a "what's really going on" definition.
We've had situations, for example, where someone could be given a full time roster for 12 months, and because the contract said they were a casual, then technically they remain a casual.
MACDONALD: So how long would they need to be doing that sort of work to be eligible to claim this right to become permanent?
BURKE: Realistically you're not going to in the first few months be able to establish any sort of a regular enough pattern. There's already an obligation, and we're keeping the system that's there, that after 12 months, if you are in a situation where, with the different definition, the actual procedure that's already there will still be in place, which is after 12 months, employers make an offer --
MACDONALD: So you're saying that after a couple of months of casual employment, a worker would be able to claim permanency. Wouldn't that turn many employers off?
BURKE: Sorry, I don't think I said that, Hamish.
MACDONALD: Well, I asked you when they'd be eligible.
BURKE: Yeah. I gave
MACDONALD: You said, "After a couple of months".
BURKE: I gave - no, no, no, I said you wouldn't during the first couple of months be able to make that sort of assessment.
MACDONALD: So after the first couple of months you would?
BURKE: You have to be able to get to the point where you're able to make a realistic assessment that a regular pattern has been put in place. So I was giving the example that, certainly, in the first few months you're not in that position.
The right that we're looking at is something in addition to the 12 months rule that's already there where an employer might refuse, where an employee at the moment never gets to raise the issue again, and so they have a situation where every six months an employee who does believe that there is a regular pattern going on, and if the employee wants to be a permanent, then they'd be able to apply and get the conversion.
A whole lot of employees won't. The majority of casuals will be people like students, people who want the flexibility, who want to be able to just say at different points, "I'm going on holidays," you know, "I'm blocking out my hours, I might have exams," all of those reasons that a lot of people want to be casuals.
But increasingly what's happened in the casual workforce is we have people who are trying to support entire households, and I want those people to have a right that they don't have at the moment, to be able to say, regardless of what's in the contract, "I am working a permanent job", and I would prefer to give up the loading and to have the security of knowing those hours are permanent with the annual leave and sick leave entitlements that goes with it.
MACDONALD: But as you acknowledge, a lot of people do rely on casual work and may not want it to become permanent. Wouldn't this make some employers think twice before taking on a casual, because they may not want to commit to them in that way?
BURKE: If an employer has hours that are in fact permanent hours, then there's no loss to the employer in the actual total dollar figure for them. They don't pay the loading; they pay leave instead. There's no actual cost to the economy here. If for the business, for example, it is a job that isn't in fact ongoing, it's a job where the hours are in fact not guaranteed, then in those circumstances, it would never satisfy the test anyway.
MACDONALD: Sure. But I mean employers may also then just vary the way in which casuals are engaged so that they don't then meet this new definition. Might this not make things more uncertain for casuals?
BURKE: I think you'd be really stretching it to get to that sort of conclusion. You've got to start with the principle. You go to the story that was just played on AM where even the business representative there, Andrew McKellar, acknowledged that in their experience it's one to two per cent of casuals that you're talking about that may actually want to take this up.
It may end up being slightly more than that, but the reality is most casuals won't want this. But there are people there who want security, and who are in situations like -- if you're paying the bills, your rent's not casual, paying for the kids, if you've got dependants that isn't casual, paying your energy bills and paying your grocery bills isn't casual. If you're in that situation, as many Australians are, the Government's simply saying it is right and proper that we give those individuals a pathway to permanency.
MACDONALD: On the same job, same pay legislation, you're under a consultation process. It's been reported that actually many of those that you're negotiating with or consulting with had to sign confidentiality agreements as part of that process. Shouldn't we know as the public what's going on here?
BURKE: It's been standard practice in my portfolio for decades, that effectively what you do is you give a really high degree of engagement to business and, you know, sometimes unions have been excluded over the years, business have tended to be there, but unions as well a lot of the time. What then happens is you go into a real level of detail right through to legislation being presented to people before it's actually introduced to the Department.
It's a level of detail that's not provided in most portfolios. It's been there in my portfolio for a long time. The outcome of that is you end up with better legislation and you avoid unintended consequences, and I think the reality is for those clauses, that level of consultation isn't causing anyone to retire from the public debate. You've only got to listen to the radio to know that.
MACDONALD: Sure. But I suppose that's the question I'm getting at, which is that we have this strange public debate where we can't actually know the substance of the consultation, and yet we have business groups joining together, launching advertising campaigns, running pretty strong on what they say they fear will be the result of all of this, and you dismissing much of their concerns saying, "Well, it's just not what's intended." It's very difficult for us, the public, to know what the truth of it is.
BURKE: The legislation will be presented this year and will go through the normal parliamentary debate. Normally for most policy areas, that's when the public debate starts. But for the advertising campaigns, I think for anything that business has put out there as a fear, I've been pretty frank in responding publicly and explaining what's in and what's out.
The advertising campaign, for example, that's out, and ABC listeners might be some of the people who haven't heard the advertising campaign, but effectively it's out there claiming that there's a policy that you would be compelled to pay someone who is brand new the same as you would pay an experienced worker. That's not government policy, it won't be government policy, and regardless of whether you're in the consultations or outside of the consultations, I can categorically rule it out.
MACDONALD: Separately, in your arts portfolio, there's some reporting in the newspapers this morning in relation to the APY Lands arts group. Brenda Croft, the Head of Indigenous Art History at the Australian National University, says that she was removed from a tri-government panel investigating the allegations of white artists painting sections of Indigenous art in the APY Lands. And this is a quote, because she says she's not the right kind of Aboriginal, and she's specifically referred to you in some of her comments saying that This was a decision that's gone all the way to the top, all the way up to Tony Burke. It was always going to get squashed. That's her appointment to this review. Could you respond to that?
BURKE: Yeah, thanks for the chance to respond to that. I've got a lot of respect for Professor Croft, but I have to say the allegations that are there of the reference to me, I have absolutely no idea where that's come from, absolutely no idea.
MACDONALD: She says this has been a stitch up from the get go, the review is toothless, it can only make recommendations. Is she wrong there?
BURKE: Reviews make recommendations. It's not like you can compel witnesses and things like that. The review's been set up by the South Australian Government. The South Australian Government's been responsible for choosing who's on it and who's not on it. There has not been a conversation involving me with respect to Professor Croft. I have no idea why she has formed that view or where that view has come from.
MACDONALD: Will you
BURKE: The newspapers – I notice that it still turned up on the front page of the paper today. That said, I've got a lot of respect for Professor Croft, and her contributions that she makes.
MACDONALD: But to be clear, were you aware that she was being considered for that review?
MACDONALD: And so you had no part in any conversation relating to her not being part of it?
BURKE: Correct. That's why I'm so stunned that – and the paper was told that, it's still on the front page of the paper, but you know, these things, that's not my call.
MACDONALD: In other news, an investigation by Nine Papers says the Department of Home Affairs oversaw the payment of millions of taxpayers' dollars to Pacific Island politicians through a chain of suspect contracts to maintain support for offshore processing of asylum seekers. It says the practice occurred under Coalition and Labor Governments. Should that be referred, do you think, to the National Anti Corruption Commission?
BURKE: Haven't seen the report, you'll understand the issues that I've been across today. From what you've described, it sounds like a deeply serious issue, but I haven't seen the report, I'm sorry, Hamish.
MACDONALD: Tony Burke. Thank you very much.
BURKE: Great to talk to you, see you.
MACDONALD: That's the Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke.