Interview – Sky News AM Agenda with Laura Jayes
LAURA JAYES, HOST: Industrial relations has been at the forefront for quite some time, but you may have noticed there’s been a bit more of a focus as consultations get underway – BHP, Master Builders, two entities that were pretty exercised this week. So let’s get the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister to answer some of these questions. He’s right here.
Tony Burke, great to see you. Does, first of all, Master Builders have a point about perhaps there being collateral damage in what you’re trying to do here?
TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Look, what they’ve described at the moment — I’m not quite clear, I’ve got to say, on the case that Master Builders are making. It looks like what they’re doing is they’re taking the employee-like principle, which is our way of trying to make sure we get some minimum standards in the gig economy, and then they’re just applying it everywhere and saying, “Well, if you do all of this, that will be really bad.”
That policy is about the gig economy; it’s about people who – and, you know, we’ve spoken about it on this program for years – about where you’ve got situations where people aren’t even earning the minimum wage, and we don’t want to be a country where you’re relying on tips to be able to make ends meet.
So, that’s the policy that Master Builders appear to be complaining about. They’ve been – they also complain about consultation, but we’ve had more than 60 meetings; they’ve been attending meetings –
JAYES: Well, if you say “appear to be complaining about” and they’re saying no consultation, I mean, have you relayed that to them? Because obviously, they’re not getting that message, so maybe consultation isn’t good enough.
BURKE: Well, Master Builders walked out on the consultation process with the previous government as well. Master Builders will normally – if they don’t like where a policy is heading, even on ideological grounds, they’ll say they do not like the consultation.
BURKE: But Master Builders are really constructive with the Government on a whole lot of areas – housing policy, thing like that. On industrial relations, they’ve got a particularly ideological approach, and that’s fine, but –
JAYES: But is this ideological? Because they’re worried about, you know, there being unintended consequences for their industry when you look at the gig industry. So will the legislation make clear that it will not affect them when it comes to contractors and tradies and things like that?
BURKE: Yeah, it’s – the legislation will make clear that it’s about the gig economy. That’s what employee-like is about. And, you know, no-one uses Uber Electrician. It’s not something –
JAYES: You never know. Things happen pretty quickly. Well, BHP –
BURKE: Yeah, but we’ve got the people and – The concept of running a small business, which, you know, tradies are running small business, a whole lot of people in construction are running small businesses, the person riding a bicycle delivering a pizza with no say over how much they’re paid, they’re not running their own business.
JAYES: Okay. Same job, same pay. BHP are saying it could cost them a billion dollars a year. I’m not sure whether you have sympathy for that, do you?
BURKE: For a start, the total figure they’ve said, they won’t let out what presumptions they’ve put in place, so I’m – and we haven’t settled the legislation. So I’m not quite sure how they arrived at the number. It will cost some mining companies more. If you’re using a loophole and we take away the loophole, then there’s additional cost. But effectively it’s no more than what those companies have already decided that job should be paid. So this is where an agreement is put in place and they’ve decided, “Okay, for these different tasks, this is how much that job’s worth.” You shouldn’t then be able to say, “Okay, we’ve made that agreement. We’ve registered it. But we’ll go through a labour-hire company so it’s technically a different employer, bring them on to site, have them doing the exact same work, same uniform, same shifts, but undercut the rate we just agreed to.”
JAYES: Yeah, right, okay. So let’s talk about Qantas, because this is something that I think exercised a few people yesterday. A $2.5 billion profit, TWU at the top of that list of being quite exercised. They’re saying Qantas should pay back the taxpayer funds that they got to the tune of about – what – $2 billion, $2.7 billion because they also used the cover of COVID to sack a thousand workers and they’re resisting on giving pay rises to their staff. Do you agree or disagree with any of that?
BURKE: It’s community frustration that I hear everywhere, particularly when the Government money was about keeping people in jobs. So I hear that. We’re not going to be – we’re not in the process of chasing down –
JAYES: Why not?
BURKE: You can’t –
JAYES: On taxpayers’ behalf, why not?
BURKE: No, I know. We can’t undo every decision that was made by the Morrison government.
BURKE: Like, it’s just not practical. The thing that it does show, though, is that some companies are saying they can’t possibly pay their workers the correct rate under the policies that we just discussed –
JAYES: Do you not have any power under monopoly status? Because that’s what Qantas is.
BURKE: Well, as I say, we’re not going to relitigate every decision that was made under the Morrison government.
BURKE: We’re just not.
JAYES: All right. Something I was also really interested in: CBA, some of the big banks as well, are now telling their staff, “Get back in the office. Enough is enough.” Do you support that?
BURKE: I don’t want, as the Minister, to get involved in every decision where these things can properly be brokered between workers and their employer. The thing that we did last year, though, we did give workers more rights where they’ve got genuine arguments about flexibility. It’s reasonable for an employer to say we want more people turning up and having that collegiate thing of working together. There may well be some workers where there are particular reasons where they need the flexibility, and they’ve now got rights to be able to pursue that, and I’m really glad that we put that in last year.
JAYES: But we hear from the Productivity Commission and every economist, productivity is our one big issue in this country. By not going back to work, into the office, into the CBDs, that’s creating a problem, isn’t it?
BURKE: Well, it depends.
JAYES: It’s a big part of it.
BURKE: Some people are actually saying you’re getting better productivity in other working situations, particularly you take out the travel time, you know, you take – some people can’t focus at home at all; some people are really able to. I think you get different answers in different situations.
JAYES: Yeah, sure. Just quickly on the Victorian budget, this has been handed down. I don’t expect you to have gone through all the detail, but they’re talking about a COVID debt levy. No other state has done this, not even the Federal Government has. They’re talking about an $8.6 billion tax-raising exercise, mostly on big business and property owners. Do you have a problem with that?
BURKE: As I say, I haven’t gone through it, but certainly –
JAYES: Philosophically, though?
BURKE: Well, the principle –
JAYES: They haven’t really cut back on spending; they’ve just raised taxes.
BURKE: Every taxpayer needs governments to make decisions about trying to deal with debt that they’re now saddled with. We’ve been challenged by this with the trillion dollars of Liberal debt that was there when we came to office.
JAYES: You didn’t go down the path, though, of a COVID levy. Are you leaving that open?
BURKE: No, no.
BURKE: No, no, no, no. But the –
JAYES: You heard it here – no COVID levy from the Federal Government.
BURKE: I’m the Employment Minister, but the thing that’s important to remember with all of this is, you know, budgets involve decisions. It’s always you’ve got to make your mix between how you bring money in, where you need to spend, where you need to focus. I’m not going to second-guess state budgets.
JAYES: Okay. Just finally, you’re on stage with Jimmy Barnes tonight?
BURKE: This is pretty exciting. It’s pretty exciting.
JAYES: Is that true?
BURKE: Yeah, yeah. So we’ve got a pub rock band here in Parliament.
JAYES: Of course you do.
BURKE: We’ve called it – it’s the greatest pub rock band in the Federal Parliament.
JAYES: Okay. How many are there?
JAYES: Good. Thought so.
BURKE: But, yeah, we’ve got – there’s an event for the Australian Friends – Parliamentary Friends of Children’s Storytelling, and so Dan Sultan is going to be there, The Wiggles are going to be there, and Jimmy Barnes will be there. And we’ll be in the shadows hiding our mistakes with some pretty heavy distortion.
JAYES: Okay. You’re not going to be the lead singer are you?
BURKE: Oh no, no, no.
JAYES: You’ll leave that to Jimmy Barnes?
BURKE: I’ll be on rhythm guitar.
JAYES: Okay. There you go. All right. Look forward to seeing some pictures of that. Tony Burke, good to see you.
BURKE: Great to talk.