Bill's Transcripts

Transcript: Interview with Rafael Epstein, ABC 774, 29 February 2012

Subject: Victorian nurses dispute



RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Well, almost all of your texts in the last hour, hour and a half, have been in support of the state's nurses.  They are on strike again today, defying a court order.  Bill Shorten, the Federal Workplace Relations Minister, reckons he has a solution.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Coming up to twelve minutes past five.  We're joined by Bill Shorten.  He's the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation. Bill Shorten, good afternoon.

BILL SHORTEN:  Good afternoon.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Do you think it's right, Minister, for ministers to disregard a court order and go on strike?

BILL SHORTEN:  No, I don't.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Why not?

BILL SHORTEN:  No, I don't.  We've got the Fair Work Act.  I don't think people should take unlawful industrial action.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The strategy here though is that they want to kick up a stink, but they don't want to kick up so much of a stink that they are forced into arbitration.  That's their fear, isn't it?

BILL SHORTEN:  Well not with the nurses, no.  The nurses - my solution to this dispute, because it's gone on now for what, a hundred-and-ten days, something like that, it's clearly at a stalemate. The Baillieu Government can't seem to convince the nurses of their position.  The nurses want to hang onto certain conditions.  Both sides clearly can't agree.  I think that's proven beyond any doubt. The issue, therefore, is how do you fix the stalemate?  On one hand you've got frustrated nurses, who I have a lot of sympathy for, saying well, you know, we'll accept private arbitration.  If we can't agree with you, then it's not unreasonable to get someone else in to help us break the deadlock. The Baillieu Government and the Hospitals Association won't accept private arbitration at this point.  Now I think any reasonable person would probably say, if you've got forty-thousand nurses offside they can't all be wrong.  I can't believe that the Baillieu Government's a hundred per cent correct. If there's a stalemate, and there clearly is, rather than have patients caught in the middle - and I know lots of nurses.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Sure.

BILL SHORTEN: This is the last thing nurses want to do.  It's time to break the stalemate through arbitration.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But isn't the - Fair Work Australia is the body that's designed to fix this.  The problem is - and The Sunday Age had this last year - if they go to formal arbitration the Government wouldn't have to listen to anything, or the Fair Work Australia isn't able to rule on the issue that bothers the nurses the most, which is the ratios.  So they want to kick up a stink, but they don't actually want to submit to the Fair Work Australia system that your government runs.  I mean...

BILL SHORTEN: No.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: ...it's not fair, is it, for them to not submit to the formal system?

BILL SHORTEN:  No, I don't think that's a fair characterisation of the nurses' position.  I think it's nearly correct.  WhenVictoria- give me thirty seconds.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.

BILL SHORTEN: WhenVictoria- we live in a federation - whenVictoriaceded its abilities to make industrial laws, one area they kept is the ability to determine staff numbers.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah.

BILL SHORTEN:  So in other words - it's a bit more complicated than this, but in other words what happens is that Fair Work Australia, on the legal advice I've got, cannot make a decision on this contentious issue.  That is why I have proposed private arbitration.  In other words, why doesn't the Baillieu Government and the nurses take a chance of letting a third party decide who's right, who's wrong in the remaining tough issues?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  But the government, the state government haven't - they've got a pretty strong argument.  I think the state government and the private hospitals want to force this to get worse because Fair Work Australia will then be forced to arbitrate.  They've got a point though.  I mean you might be right that Fair Work Australia can't decide on the ratios, but can't they say well listen, this is the system we have, let us use that system.  Why should we step outside of that system?

BILL SHORTEN:  Because sometimes life throws up situations which require leadership.  Sometimes in life there aren't easy answers.  Sometimes in life it's possible for two people in an argument to both have a little bit of truth in their position.  Sometimes you need the help of a third party. I know, the Government knows, the Health Association know and the Australia Nurses Federation know that private arbitration mightn't give the nurses everything they want and mightn't give the Baillieu Government everything they want, but what it will give is an end to the stalemate.  It is most likely that it'll come up with propositions which give sufficient flexibility to the Government, but sufficient protection for the nurses to be able to carry out their job in the safest manner as possible.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Can I ask if your review of the federal laws, would it include an option to give Fair Work Australia the ability to decide on the very questions that the nurses would like them to decide on but the state government wouldn't like them to decide on?  Could that change under your review?

BILL SHORTEN: It could, but what I would say to you is we have a dispute now.  I'm a big believer that you don't need to wait around for months and years to change laws.  There's something called commonsense which lurks in the souls of all of us.  I've been involved in lots of arguments.  It is very unusual for one side to be completely right and the other side to be completely wrong, other than if you don't support Collingwood.  But other than that, much more seriously...

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yep.

BILL SHORTEN: ...is if - Victoria's nurses are great and I think they do a great job and I've had to rely upon them, my family's had to rely upon them.  I believe that what the Baillieu Government should do is say all right, we can't convince the nurses and they can't convince us, but it is sensible when you get to a deadlock, a stalemate, a tie, to have a circuit breaker.  Private arbitration provides that circuit breaker.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Can I ask you a question that isn't about this?  It has to do with these reports that the Prime Minister asked theNew South Wales, former New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, about becoming a senator inNew South Walesand then becoming Foreign Minister. The Opposition's got a point though, if your Prime Minister had to look outside of the cabinet for a foreign minister, isn't that a statement on the quality of the cabinet she has?

BILL SHORTEN:  Rafael, if Jack found a bean which grew into a massive beanstalk and climbed up into the clouds then, you know, that may well be true.  It's a fairytale.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  So he was never asked?

BILL SHORTEN: I don't know.  I do know what the Prime Minister said.  I don't know who's spoken to who except one thing; I do not believe that the Prime Minister had any foreknowledge of Senator Arbib's resignation...

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  No, I'm not asking you about that.  I'm just asking you about you…

BILL SHORTEN:   You mean [unclear].

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Yeah, I'm just asking you about the need to step outside the cabinet for a new foreign minister.

BILL SHORTEN:  Yeah, well I don't believe she's ever entertained that prospect.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Okay.

BILL SHORTEN:  I think it's a fairytale, can't be any straighter than that.  You know people complain politicians don't answer questions.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.

BILL SHORTEN:   I'm saying to you it's a fairytale.  What isn't a fairytale though is what's happening in the dispute inVictoria's hospital system.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.

BILL SHORTEN: What isn't a fairytale is that forty-thousand nurses are frustrated about the inability to resolve. I attended a meeting of the ANF.  I made it very clear, do not take unprotected industrial action, but I also made it very clear that they should go with the idea of private arbitration.  Now private arbitration does not guarantee...

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: A solution.

BILL SHORTEN: ...that they'll get what they want.  But what it does guarantee is an end to this terrible argument.  It is not unreasonable if parties are at a stalemate.  I don't believe in the law of the jungle where the strongest person wins and those who are not as strong as the strongest person have to get eaten.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Okay.

BILL SHORTEN:  I don't accept that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Okay, I appreciate you taking the time, Minister.  Thank you.

BILL SHORTEN: Thank you.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Bill Shorten, he's the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.

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