Subjects: COAG, National Disability Insurance Scheme, HSU, BHP mine closure
FRAN KELLY: And, yes, much talk about the tensions around the COAG table today. But the Commonwealth does come bearing gifts. Nine billion dollars will be on the table for a skills reform package today. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has put an offer to the states and territories aimed at turbo-charging skills training and to help more people get the jobs they want.
Under the five year deal, Australians aged over fifteen would be entitled to a training subsidy worth up to seven-thousand-eight-hundred dollars each, while upfront fees would be abolished for TAFE students. That is a major change.
Bill Shorten is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Minister, welcome again to Breakfast.
BILL SHORTEN: G'day. How are you?
FRAN KELLY: Minister, if the states say yes to this revamped skills package, how soon will we see enough people being trained to fill the skills gap in this country, in areas particularly like engineering, mining and construction. What's the goal?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, I think you've just mentioned the goal which is to look at people between the ages of fifteen to sixty-four in the next five years to have the equivalent of a Certificate III in training or a Year twelve equivalent.
The point of the skills proposition is as simple as this, the best way to ensure productivity both during and especially after the mining boom, is to ensure that people have the job skills to move to new jobs when new opportunities are created.
So we see the skills package as being the centrepiece of what the Government's doing in nearly everything - it's nearly all of its actions.
FRAN KELLY: We've heard from some of the premiers already though. They're worried about this package. Yes, there's more money on the table but more money is expected from the states as well. Are you concerned that there won't be -- this won't get signed off?
BILL SHORTEN: Well I think that would be a failure of leadership on the part of the states if they couldn't reach an agreement. I know that the Prime Minister is very committed to working collaboratively with the states on the skills agenda. I don't think, though, that if everyone just gives up and walks away from this that voters will be happy with anyone who gives up on the skills agenda.
FRAN KELLY: And just staying with COAG for a while. You've been instrumental in the early work to establish a National Disability Insurance Scheme. It's - it will be discussed around COAG today. The premiers like it in principle but they don't want to have to pay for it. We've already heard LNP Premier in Queensland, Campbell Newman say, quoting, the NDIS is a fundamental responsibility of the Federal Government. It should be a part of the social security system in this country, just like other welfare payments including pensions. It's not a great start, is it?
BILL SHORTEN: No. And it also doesn't reflect the history of disability funding in Australia. Without boring people to tears, many years ago it was agreed that the Federal Government would have responsibility for some aspects of disability and the states others. And that has been the pattern for many years.
FRAN KELLY: The states are suggesting though that they won't spend - that the money they currently spend on disability they're happy to rearrange into the NDIS but they just don't want to be put into another scheme to raise more money for it.
BILL SHORTEN: We’re trying to put the most constructive response possible to what the states are saying. The first thing is, anyone who thinks that even with the status quo you're not going to end up spending more money on disability over the next six years is being naive.
In other words, let’s assume, for argument's sake, that the state governments are correct and that they say that they don't want to expand the functions beyond what they currently do. What they currently do is growing at seven per cent per year. So this idea that it's a nil sum gain and that the only reason why they'd spend more money on disability is because of the feds isn't right.
What drives the increase in cost in disability at the moment is the increasing needs of people with disability and their carers. What drives the disability increase in costs is the midnight anxiety of thousands, literally thousands of ageing carers and parents who wonder who's going to look after their adult kids.
So this is not a question that the states can sit behind a wall and say ‘it's not our problem’ because it already is a challenge. But beyond that, the Federal Government's never said that it's going to shirk in terms of the debate about trying to find new funding. But the states have to recognise that they're part of the solution, because at the moment they're part of the problem.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Abbott wants to be part of the solution on this too. Are you heartened by the suggestion from Tony Abbott that this should be a bipartisan policy now, and the way forward is the management of it by bipartisan parliamentary committee?
BILL SHORTEN: It would be mealy-mouthed of me not to say that I'm not pleased. I am pleased that he's said that this is a bipartisan proposition. I, as you said in your opening, I've followed this debate since it was a Labor Government in its first term who raised the possibility of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. The Liberals have periodically said they like the idea but then Mr Abbott, more recently at the Press Club I think, made a blunder which I think he's now correcting, where he said ‘oh, it's an aspiration once we're in surplus’. I think he's heard from people living in the real world and he's gone, ‘oops, I'd better just regroup and say I am bipartisan on this’.
So it is good that he's come back to the position which I think some people were at twelve months ago. That is good - that is a good development. But what I'd also then say is that Joe Hockey seems to be sending less enthusiastic signals about it.
My view about - to Mr Hockey and those other Liberal hard heads is that the idea that you can't - that you shouldn't do something about disability because it'll cost more money, to me fails to recognise that earlier point I made to you, which is that it's growing in cost every day anyway. So why not have the best possible system which is more efficient and equitable than just ignoring it and letting it grow willy-nilly anyway.
FRAN KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Workplace Relations and Employment Minister, Bill Shorten.
Bill Shorten, the ACTU has suspended the Health Services Union. Now Unions New South Wales has done the same. It's also dumped Michael Williamson as its Vice President. How is it possible for the union movement at all levels to feel it can dump the Union and Michael Williamson, yet the Government stands by Craig Thomson? How is that tenable?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, we've got an independent process underway. It's frustrating that it's taken this long. That's clear to anyone. But we do have an independent process. We don't have the final reports. They're currently being considered by the General Manager of Fair Work Australia, who's an independent statutory office holder, and by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
We need that process to conclude and we would like that process concluded sooner rather than later. That process will conclude sooner rather than later but we also work on the assumption of - in terms of Mr Thomson - presumption of innocence and it's not always - whilst it's easy sometimes to say that - talk about presumption of innocence, when it's actually in a hard and controversial matter like this we shouldn't immediately junk our view about the presumption of innocence because of the noise in this debate.
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but all seem to agree that this whole process has been unwieldy and inefficient, gone on too long and there's clearly no adequate formal mechanism or process for dealing with corruptions in unions, is there? Do you plan to change that?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, there's about four assumptions and six questions in that. I'll try and unpack them as quickly as time permits.
FRAN KELLY: Well let me ask it more simply. You're the Workplace Relations Minister. Are you inclined to try and intervene or change the processes, either within the unions themselves, or within Fair Work Australia, to make sure that corruption - charges of corruptions in unions are dealt with speedily and effectively?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I don't believe that most - the vast, vast majority of unions are corrupt.
FRAN KELLY: No. I didn't say that.
BILL SHORTEN: No, I know. But I'm just stating what I think. The second thing is, that whilst I won't comment about the specific allegations to do with the parts of the HSU, because there's many parts of the HSU about these - about which these allegations haven't been made - about the specific allegations, I won't comment. But what I - my second point is that these sorts of allegations have no place in trade unions. So, yes, I do think that when - if allegations are proven to be the case - when allegations are proven to be the case that they do need to be dealt with with the full force of the law.
You're then raising the issue of the Fair Work Australia process. I think before you even asked I acknowledged that having had a look at the delays, that's unacceptable. We certainly will consider, once we've got the reports, what are the lessons in terms of the processes.
And in terms of your general point about toughening things up about unions, I don't believe most unions are - and most trade unionists, in fact the vast, vast majority, ninety-nine per cent plus, ever engage in corrupt activities. But we'll certainly - when we get the reports, we'll see what lessons there are for us and what needs to be done depending on the content of these reports.
FRAN KELLY: Are you considering deregistering the HSU if these corruption charges are proven?
BILL SHORTEN: Oh, I think for me to start speculating actively about everything we do on the basis of a report that I haven't yet got would be premature. In terms of a technical answer, there are a range of potential options available. Deregistration is generally being contemplated for industrial poor behaviour. It hasn't traditionally, I think, been viewed in the context of the matters which are currently under investigation.
What I would say is that until I've got final reports, until we know what the DPP recommends and what the General Manager of Fair Work Australia is going to initiate, there are a number of moving parts which would make it premature for me to sort of announce a declared strategy because we just don't have all the information.
FRAN KELLY: And just finally, Minister, on the workplace front. BHP's closure of its coal operations at the Norwich Park coal mine in Central Queensland. Fourteen hundred jobs at risk. What's the Government doing to try and keep that mine open?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all, we've been in touch with BHP. They've made it clear that this decision has been in the offing for several months. They've made it clear to us that it's been made for operational and commercial decisions. We'll be available to assist the workforce and we have programs in place to do that.
Beyond that, we're not in the business of running coal mines. If BHP are saying that, for a whole heap of factors, they've got to close this, that is their decision. We would certainly be available if there's any policy - if there's any matter which BHP want to talk to the Government about, we've indicated our preparedness to meet with them and to talk to them about that. To some extent, if you want to keep a mine open it does depend on what the company actually wants to do and if they're willing to engage with the Government.
FRAN KELLY: Bill Shorten, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
BILL SHORTEN: Thank you.
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