Release type: Transcript


Transcript - Sky News Afternoon Agenda, 15 August


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

15 AUGUST 2023

SUBJECTS: Wage growth, industrial relations legislation, ALP national conference. 

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: As I mentioned a moment ago, in amongst everything else happening today we’ve had this latest wages data. I looked more at these figures and the impact of the government’s IR agenda and spoke a short time ago to the Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. I began by asking for his reaction, first of all, to the news those four Aussie surfers have been found safe and well. 

THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Those reports are just so welcome. I think there’s plenty of Australians who viewed Indonesia as a fantastic place for holidays and fun and have had great times there. And we were all holding out hope for the news that now seems to have come through. 

CLENNELL: Now, let me get on to wages. This is slower than expected growth for wages, isn’t it? Is this a sign of the slowdown we’ve been expecting? 

BURKE: Oh, the quarterly figure that’s just come is at 0.8. That means we’ve now had three quarters in a row of 0.8 in wages growth. You need to actually – in terms of the previous government, you’ve got to go all the way back to before the 2014 budget to find a 0.8 figure. So this is actually part of a strong wage growth story. And this is the moment – when we talk about real wages, we’ve been talking for ages about when would we get to the point that as inflation moderated, that wage growth caught up with the rate of inflation. This is that moment. This is the quarter where wage growth is at 0.8 and inflation is at 0.8. So, we’re finally at the point now where those lines start to cross and hopefully now move in towards the territory of real wages growth again. 

CLENNELL: So does this make it easier or more difficult for you to make the case in terms of your IR reforms and further lifts to wages? 

BURKE: I think what this proves is what we’ve been saying all along – what you can get wages up while you’re getting inflation down. And that’s – you know, for the people who’ve run the hysteria about wage-price spirals and things like that, what we’ve seen is inflation moderating at the same time that wages are growing. That builds the argument as to why we need to close loopholes that undercut wages. 

Ultimately what you want in people’s households is for the money that’s coming into the household to be more than keeping pace with the bills that are going out. And, you know, we’ve now had 11 consecutive quarters – so three years – where wages were not keeping up with prices. This is the first quarter where they’ve met, and looking forward now to the opportunity where wages start to get in front. But that only happens, one, because we changed the laws, two, because we’ve been working with the commission and arguing for wage increases and, three, because of the legislation that I’ll be introducing to close down those loopholes that undercut wage growth. 

CLENNELL: All right. How are discussions with businesses and unions progressing, and when will we see that legislation on casuals, same job, same pay and the other measures? 

BURKE: I’ve always wanted to introduce the closing loopholes legislation as soon as it was ready. I’d hoped it would have been ready when we were in Canberra last – over the last couple of weeks. It wasn’t. And the reason it wasn’t ready was because the consultation has been going well. So the behind-closed-doors consultation has meant that there’s been different drafts of legislation and different concepts and policy frames that have been put forward. And sometimes unions have spot unintended consequences, sometimes the business organisations have found unintended consequences. They’ve fed them in. We’re constantly amending. But I’m very hopeful that when Parliament returns in September that we’ll be ready to go by then with legislation to put into the Parliament. And, you know, hopefully, to get it through by the – hopefully to be able to get it through by the end of the year, but you’re always in the hands of the Senate in being able to do that. 

CLENNELL: Has your department or Treasury given you an indication of how much these reforms might lift wages by? 

BURKE: Look, the legislation that we put through last year was the legislation that was moving wages across the board because of what it was doing with bargaining and how it affected the total operations of the Fair Work Commission. What we’ll see with this year’s leg, the impact across the board in total wages is not as great. But for individual workers who are affected by these loopholes, it’s very significant. 

So, for example, the criminalising of wage theft, if you’re a worker who is experiencing wage theft, us being able to act on that in such a direct way makes a big difference for that worker. Similarly, the job security outcomes for a casual who’s been rostered as a permanent casual and who wants to actually make the transition, for that individual, big change in security. And what you describe as the same job, same pay, what I describe as labour-hire loophole, there’s a very limited number of workplaces that are engaging in that loophole. For those who are, for the individual workers it can be a really significant difference in their pay. 

So, you know, the summary of what you put with what’s the total impact, across the economy the impact of this legislation will be very modest, but the impact for those individual workers who are affected by – detrimentally by these loopholes, it will make a really significant difference for their take-home pay.

CLENNELL: Now, we’ve shown these confidentiality deeds over the last week or two you’ve required business groups to sign to take part in the talks. How do you defend them? 

BURKE: The business said to us at the end of last year after we had the process last time, they said, “Can we have an earlier point of engagement?” They didn’t want to wait until there’s a formal process where those confidentiality agreements have always been part – it’s called COIL – it’s a committee on industrial legislation. Those confidentiality agreements were part of how the previous government operated because it’s in advance of final legislation being presented. 

Business in particular said, look, they wanted to engage earlier than that before the legislation hit the Parliament. So because it’s before you’ve got final decisions, that’s why the confidentiality is there. Because once you make final decisions of government, obviously that’s when you go public. And so it was at the request of business to be able to engage earlier. I thought it was a smart thing to do. Business has already seen various issues change as a result of consultation because, you know, we will end up with better legislation that I introduce to Parliament as a result. 

So how do you defend it? The answer is this: it results in better legislation that’s better for workers, that’s better for business, that’s better for the Australian economy. I reckon that’s not a bad defence. 

CLENNELL: All right. Innes Willox from the Australian Industry Group gave a Press Club speech recently where he said multiple times productivity hasn’t been mentioned in the IR talks. Is productivity irrelevant for you in terms of lifting wages? 

BURKE: The big shift in productivity was to get enterprise agreements moving, and I’m really pleased about the number of companies that returned to the bargaining table after the secure jobs, better pay legislation went through last year. And we’re now seeing some of the agreements come through. I mean, I think the Bunnings one is a classic example where you’ve got an agreement there that completely works for the business, where it’s also meant for the workers involved that they’re now looking at five weeks’ annual leave. Some people are being rostered to a four-day week. You’ve got something that works for the business, works for the employees, will deliver the productivity benefits that happen with those sorts of agreements. 

That was a big productivity benefit. This year’s legislation is about whether productivity value has already been determined. So, an employer has an agreement in place, they determine the productivity value of that task at that classification and then that rate that’s been agreed to is being undercut through a labour-hire firm. What’s happening with these loopholes is where productivity value has been agreed to it’s not actually being paid; it’s being undercut. So that’s why what we’re trying to do here is not – it’s not actually the productivity change; it’s making sure that the worker gets paid their part of a productivity value that had already been determined, that had been agreed by the employer but there was a loophole that was undercutting it. 

CLENNELL: Will you be playing a big role at Labor conference this week on behalf of the PM? I’ve seen you speak passionately at previous conferences. 

BURKE: Look, I’ll certainly be responsible for the workplace relations chapter. But, you know, this is – I’ve been a delegate to each of the conferences since Paul Keating was Prime Minister, actually. This is the first time I’m not going as a delegate; I’m just going as the relevant minister. So, I probably won’t be on the floor as much as I’ve been in previous years, but obviously, I’ve been right in the heart of the negotiations on the areas that I’ve got, you know, policy control of with respect to the cabinet. 

CLENNELL: Have you got any concerns there? 

BURKE: No, the conversations have been good. They’ve been sensible. You know, effectively the delegates to the conference have the same ambition that I’ve got, which is they want people to get better job security, have safer workplaces and to get wages moving. So when you’ve got a whole lot of people who’ve got those same three objectives it comes together in a pretty sensible fashion. You know, that doesn’t mean there might not end up being arguments on the floor on details at the edge. You know, it’s an open conference. We’re the only political party that has an open conference. So, you know, we don’t try to restrict that. 

CLENNELL: Tony Burke, thanks for your time this afternoon. 

BURKE: Always good to talk. Thanks, Andrew.