Interview – Sky News Afternoon Agenda with Andrew Clennell
ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Well, let’s talk the government’s industrial relations changes. We already have a Fair Work Act, it’s 1200 pages long and the Opposition’s claimed that Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke’s IR changes just makes life even more complicated for business and small business, in particular. It appears backed up by the fact that we have this new Bill here which is 284 pages long and an explanatory memorandum attached to the Bill; which is a whopping 521 pages long.
Now, the Coalition party room decided today, as I understand it, to blanket oppose the bill, not even seek to amend it. They’re going to swap the Bill outright or attempt to in the Senate. So, the Greens and crossbenchers will have to pass this legislation if it’s to get through. I spoke a short time ago to the Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke.
Tony Burke, thanks so much for your time.
TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Great to be able to have a talk.
CLENNELL: Here’s your Bill, it’s pretty heavy. That’s a — you know, we’ve already got 1,200 pages of a Fair Work Act, this is 280 or something pages and the explanatory memorandum’s 500 pages. So, isn’t this a lawyers’ picnic that you are creating here.
BURKE: If you don’t want to give anyone any rights you’d just keep a blank page. If you are going to give people rights then you got to put words on the page and the thing that this Bill does, is it looks at people who have had no rights at all. Like a lot of people if you think “Who do we have an award system for? Who are the sorts of people that we should have minimum standards for?” The people that you see out doing food delivery would probably be at the start of the list – low-paid workers, what are their minimum standards? Answer at the moment, none. So, yeah, you do have to add a lot of words to the page where you’re giving rights to people where they currently don’t have them and that’s what it means when you close loopholes.
CLENNELL: It’s a pretty long, explanatory memorandum, though. Doesn’t it show, you know, just how much small business employers are going to have to deal with when it comes to the Fair Work Commission and whether they’re caught by this thing or not?
BURKE: A lot of what’s in there – when you have the consultation there’s a number of areas where we’ve been asked in consultation, sometimes by unions, probably most of the time by business, to add different sections to the explanatory memorandum in order to clarify issues that they wanted clarified. There’s actually two documents in the explanatory memorandum; the other is a Regulatory Impact Statement which goes through all the various – you know, they’re broad estimates, but the estimates of compliance and things like that.
CLENNELL: But this shows how complex it is, doesn’t it? There’s a real complexity to the system that you’re adding.
BURKE: It shows how much we’re adding to the system. At the moment to give someone no rights is really simple. A gig worker at the moment, the question is: are you an employee? The answer is no, all their rights fall off a cliff. For them the Fair Work Act is a blank page. To establish minimum standards for them means you do have to add a whole lot of principles, but this is the decision you make as a country when you decide whether or not you want to be a country where low-paid workers have to rely on tips to make ends meet. And if you think you need to have minimum standards, then you end up with legislation.
CLENNELL: Alright. Well, speaking of the Regulatory Impact Statement, there’s kind of a $9 billion cost to business in there. Do you see that as conservative given that just relates to two areas of your reforms?
BURKE: First of all, you’ve given a figure that’s over 10 years —
BURKE: — and you compare that to the wages budget in Australia, this is less than one-tenth of one per cent of the wages budget. In terms of cost, what that number actually says is it’s exactly as I’ve been telling people it would be. Most businesses don’t use the loopholes. Most businesses, this legislation won’t make a difference for them. But for the small number —
CLENNELL: You concede it’s larger than $9 billion over 10 years, though?
BURKE: I don’t accept that.
BURKE: But for the small number of businesses that do use the loopholes, there are workers being underpaid by a lot. By a lot. That figure simply – we’re not introducing, you know, rates of pay beyond what has been a community standard. We’re simply bringing people up to what has been a community standard. Every dollar that’s represented there is a dollar that at the moment a worker is underpaid. None of this is a cost to the economy; it’s just where currently there are certain employers – a small minority, but certain employers – who are doing what in any other circumstance would be underpaying workers, we’re bringing them up to the mark.
CLENNELL: But some of these reforms will drive up prices, won’t they?
BURKE: The only one where there’d be a modest pass through, I have to say, would be the issue of something like food delivery because, yeah, underpaying people is cheaper. But have a look at how much there. There was a Victorian inquiry into the on demand economy, that compared delivery drivers versus if you’re employed under the Award. And they said it was in the order – depending on which Award you matched them up with – between 3 and 4 dollars an hour. Now, for riders doing between four and six deliveries an hour, you’re not talking about a significant impost on the consumer.
So, yeah, it is something, but underpayment is the cheapest method. If we think we’re a nation where there should be some minimum standards, we can’t say we’ll have minimum standards for everyone except the most vulnerable people.
CLENNELL: Right, sure. The 67,000 workers figure for how many will be affected by the labour hire changes, how did you come up with that?
BURKE: The department comes up with that – it’s independent from the Minister, as it should be. What that they did that was they would have looked through business consultation as to what were the principal industries that were engaging in the labour hire loophole, and it’s principally mining and aviation. Most businesses don’t have enterprise agreements. Those that do don’t tend to use this loophole. Sometimes it’s because the agreement is not a lot above the Award. A lot of times it’s just because the employer has made a decision, “We’ve agreed to those rates of pay and we’re going to keep our word; we’re not going to undercut them.”
CLENNELL: Why are you throwing out the High Court definition of casuals and independent contractors?
BURKE: We’re keeping the concept of there being a firm advance commitment. A whole lot of part timers no longer work completely rigid hours. So we couldn’t end up, I don’t think logically, with a situation where you had stricter rules on casuals than you have these days for part timers. So we’ve turned it into a test. It’s effectively looking at what’s really going on. And if these hours and you’ve got the firm advance commitment and these hours can be credibly and easily transferred across to a secure job, then it’s something the employer can clearly do. And if the worker wants it, it’s life-changing. Try getting a mortgage if you’ve got a casual job.
CLENNELL: I understand. The Minerals Council boss Tania Constable called these laws extreme last night. She says the figure of 67,000 barely scratches the surface and she says these laws will apply to thousands of other service contractors and other workers. Do you deny that?
BURKE: Completely. Completely. Service contractors have been deliberately excluded. Deliberately excluded Now, the only service contract —
CLENNELL: So she hasn’t read the Bill properly or she hasn’t got proper advice or what? You say she’s wrong.
BURKE: Look, they ran an ad campaign that they knew was wrong. I don’t know if misinformation is part of their strategy. I don’t know. But this is wrong on the face of it. Her organisation have had access to the draft Bill. They complained that they got access early and said they wanted it to be public. It’s now public. They’re still providing information that’s not accurate. Only she could answer why she’s doing that. But the fact is service contractors are carved out unless – and we needed to have this unless – unless the service you’re providing is effectively labour hire.
CLENNELL: Right. How much of a role has the TWU had in this change around the road transport industry?
BURKE: They —
CLENNELL: Did they ask for it or —
BURKE: They were the group that brought people together. So I’ve got to say, initially when it was put to me about revisiting the road transport issues, there was a reluctance.
CLENNELL: Yes, right.
BURKE: You can understand the history as to why we weren’t sure that this could be done.
CLENNELL: But you went there?
BURKE: We went there. I was surprised during the Jobs and Skills Summit, I held a roundtable and there’s people around the table who had railed in 2016 against the old RSRT – the old transport tribunal – saying it had to be abolished, and they were saying; “if you put the right safeguards in, then there was something that they wanted”. They said “if you go too far, then we’re out”.
CLENNELL: Who said that?
BURKE: I don’t have the names of everyone. Some were at the media conference with me today.
CLENNELL: This is what the ACCI said about this: “Owner drivers will again lose the flexibility to set their rates and conditions and this will hurt remote and regional communities”. They accuse you of handing over the control of our supply chains to the Fair Work Commission. What do you say to that?
BURKE: We’re putting in – well, I disagree obviously.
BURKE: We’re putting in the Fair Work Commission here, something that we don’t do for any other industry, which is to effectively have a tripartite body that works as an advisory body. So, you’ve got a group there that works with the President as the Fair Work Commission is considering what’s an area where we might put down a minimum standard. Minimum standards don’t just start tripping off day after day under here. There is a huge process with direct industry involvement to be able to say here’s one where you might be going down a path; we don’t want you to go there.
CLENNELL: How will Qantas and BHP have to change their practices and labour arrangements because of this?
BURKE: They can keep the exact arrangements they’ve got in terms of how they employ people. But it won’t be cheaper to use a labour hire arrangement.
CLENNELL: So they’ll have to lift people’s wages who they hire under labour hire conditions?
BURKE: That’s right. That’s right. So you’d still —
CLENNELL: Does that include people – is it grandfathered? Does that include, you know, stewards and hostesses that they’re employing now under labour hire?
BURKE: That’s right.
CLENNELL: They’ll have to lift their wages immediately?
BURKE: Well, it doesn’t take —
CLENNELL: Well, it’s grandfathered?
BURKE: That part of the Act doesn’t start until the 1st of November, but it would apply to existing workers as well.
CLENNELL: Has Alan Joyce lobbied you over this?
BURKE: All the different businesses lobbied over this, didn’t want it to happen. It will cost them money.
CLENNELL: And what did you say to Alan Joyce?
BURKE: We made an election commitment for good reason.
CLENNELL: What’s your reaction to his resignation?
BURKE: It had been flagged well in advance that this was coming. I made some comments straight away. My priority is very much with the workforce. I just want to be doing what we do right now to make sure that the workforce are properly paid.
CLENNELL: What’s your view on the way he’s run the company, in particular, with labour hire particularly in mind?
BURKE: I wouldn’t be closing down labour hire loopholes if I approved of them. Qantas is one of the companies that’s used labour hire loopholes. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
CLENNELL: Have they been a big inspiration in these laws, their practices?
BURKE: They’re one of the companies that’s used it. The inspiration is simply a concept of fairness. If you agree to a rate of pay, you don’t turn around the next day and undercut it.
CLENNELL: On the Voice, a Newspoll this week for those who are for the Yes campaign can only be described as disastrous. Does it mean you’re going to lose?
BURKE: It means most Australians still haven’t engaged. As the PM was saying earlier today in a conversation, he was going through – you know, people say, “Historically we’ve never got there without bipartisan support.” And that’s true. But, you know, earlier this year people were saying no government had ever won a seat from the Opposition at a by-election, and Mary Doyle is there sitting in the caucus meeting today.
CLENNELL: Your two-party preferred wasn’t at 38 any time in that contest.
BURKE: It’s hard to win any referendum.
CLENNELL: Finally, Peter Dutton’s call for a second referendum. What do you make of that?
BURKE: It’s weird. It’s one of the weirdest calls I’ve seen. He says in one breath, “We’re spending too much time on this issue,” and then in the next breath said, “But let’s keep spending more time on it for at least the next three years and if you vote no, you’re all going to have to vote again.” He rejected The Apology on the basis that it was symbolic and now says he’ll only support it if it’s only symbolic, he doesn’t want anything practical. There’s only one common mantra that we’re getting there from Peter Dutton, which is to say no, no matter which angle something comes at him.
I think he has underestimated a whole lot of the goodwill and generosity that will come from Liberal voters in this referendum. There’s a good number of Liberals who are out there handing out Yes pamphlets, out there campaigning with us. This goes a long way beyond politics.
CLENNELL: Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, thanks so much for your time.
BURKE: Great to talk.