FRIDAY, 14 JULY 2017
SUBJECTS: Esso workers' strike, clean energy target, national security.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon everybody. I'm attending a rally of 200 maintenance contractors in Sale today. These are maintenance contractors who work for Esso, both onshore and offshore, in the Bass Strait oil and gas fields. They're the people who repair the scaffolding, the rigging, the cranage, the people who make sure that the gas supplies can reliably flow to Victoria and South Eastern Australia. But unfortunately, these 200 maintenance contractors have just been the victim of legal trickery, of weaknesses in the current workplace laws, and as a result, they're getting their wages and conditions slashed by 30 per cent.
But they haven't been asked or negotiated with. Using loopholes in the current legal system, the company has managed to implement a 30 per cent cut, and these maintenance contractors are saying hey, this is not right. They are men and women who live in country and rural Victoria, there's not a lot of jobs that pay the sort of money they're getting, and as a result, a 30 per cent cut in their wages is a financial disaster for their livelihoods.
And what's particularly frustrating for these maintenance contractors, who are highly skilled tradesmen, is that they're getting a 30 per cent pay cut at a time when gas prices in Australia are absolutely astronomical in terms of increases. So that workers who maintain the gas supplies in Victoria are getting a 30 per cent pay cut at a time when Australians are paying 15 and 20 per cent gas price increases. It isn't fair, and I'm showing my support and standing up with hard working country Australian workers.
I'd now like to invite Ged Kearney from the ACTU to make some further comments about their perspective on this dispute.
GED KEARNEY, PRESIDENT OF THE ACTU: Thanks Bill. Good morning everybody. It really beggars belief that we are here again with another story of workers who are being ill-treated, who have lost their jobs, who are losing pay and conditions if they want their jobs back, or will lose pay and conditions if they go back to work, simply because the laws are broken.
We saw a very similar situation with CUB. The workers at Carlton United Brewery stood out, they waited, they fought really hard to get their jobs back. And the entire trade union movement is going to stand behind these workers down here in Gippsland, and the workers, who as Bill said, are highly skilled, highly loyal, have made a very significant contribution to the massive profits that Esso makes. We are going to make sure these workers get their jobs back or that the laws are changed, the laws that allowed them to lose their jobs in the first place. Thank you.
SHORTEN: We're happy to take questions on this dispute, and then perhaps I might take questions on any other matters.
JOURNALIST: The peak body representing the mining sector is saying that this is a legally negotiated workplace agreement, everything's above board, and what's your response?
SHORTEN: It might be legal, but it's not ethical. How on earth have we got a situation in 2017 in Australia, where the current laws encourage companies to go and pay their lawyers more so that they can pay their workers less. There is nothing fair about tradespeople getting a 30 per cent pay cut between a Friday and the following Monday. The law is not working to provide a proper safety net for people's terms and conditions.
Esso is one of the largest and richest companies in the world. They take the natural resources of Australia, the gas supplies in Bass Strait, and they sell it in Australia and they sell it globally. The company is making a great deal of money, yet somehow, even though they're making a great deal of money and gas prices are astronomical in Australia, workers are having their pay cut by 30 per cent.
This is part of a bigger problem in Turnbull's Australia. If you're very rich in this country, you're doing very well. But if you're middle class or working Australians, you're going backwards. Wages growth is flat lining, we are seeing greater pressure on people's standard of living, we're seeing energy prices out of control, we're seeing the dream of buying your first home evaporating for many Australians, the price of going to university is going up for many working class kids, and we see wages being cut.
Inequality is on the rise in Australia, and the safety net of protecting your wages and conditions needs to be repaired, and that's why I'm here today - to hear further stories of real Australians who work hard every day and how they're getting done over by unfair laws under this current Government.
JOURNALIST: But just to come back to the question of negotiating on workplace agreements, what would you do if you were in Government to change the way workplace agreements are being negotiated to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again, and workers don't feel represented?
SHORTEN: We're getting legal advice and we're listening carefully to the expert advice from unions and others. But it isn't fair if a company can negotiate an agreement with a small group of workers in one part of Australia, then use that agreement to reduce the conditions of hundreds of workers in another part of Australia. It's a rort. It's a legal loophole. It isn't fair if you go to work on a Friday at an offshore oil rig or at the gas plant onshore at Longford, and then on Monday you're told that the name of the company has changed and your conditions and pay are going to be reduced by 30 per cent, even though it's exactly the same job. This isn't fair, and we are determined to set things right.
We would ask Esso and the contractors in this dispute to sit down and negotiate with their workforce, who have been locked out of discussions and suffered a 30 per cent pay cut. But my principal interest is to help restore the fair go all round at work, to help tackle rising inequality. We've seen 700,000 shop assistants, pharmacy workers, fast food and hospitality workers have their penalty rates unilaterally cut in their awards. All across Australia, people on modest incomes are feeling the brunt of unfair law, and we're seeing wages growth at all time lows, whilst profit as a share of the national economy is increasing. And what that means is that it affects the confidence in the Australian economy. People are closing their wallets and their purses, they're going backwards, they're dipping into their savings, and we see rampant wage cuts. This isn't fair, and Labor is certainly not going to stand for it.
JOURNALIST: These contracts roll around I believe once every five years. Is this not just part of the risk that you run as a contractor on a fixed contract with a company?
SHORTEN: One way or the other I've been standing up for contract workers for the last 25 years, and previously I've been involved in contract negotiations. This is the worst that I've seen in 20 years down here. People shouldn't be getting 30 per cent pay cuts. To create good workplace relations, you've got to have employees and employers working together. But the current law is incentivising employers ambushing their employees. An employer should try and convince their employees that what they're offering them is fair. No one thinks that the employer of these contractors has actually done anything to convince the employees that this is a good deal. This is take it or leave it. This is what happens in Turnbull's Australia - the workers have to give up conditions if they just want to keep their jobs and the very well off, well they just get more well off.
JOURNALIST: I've got some questions on encrypted messages. Do you support the Government's plan to force giant tech companies to help unlock encrypted messages?
SHORTEN: Yes, I've been talking about the need to tackle all forms of terrorism, and so I'm pleased that the Government is thinking along the same lines as I've been talking about. Terrorism in the 21st Century fights online as well as in the streets of parts of the world. So with terrorism being a 21st Century conflict, we need 21st Century weapons to deal with it.
The big tech giants have a position of privilege in our society. So it is appropriate that they contribute to the safety and wellbeing of Australian society. I have no doubt - I mean there is a lot of detail to work through and it is technologically not easy to do all of the things which I think the Government want to - but when it comes to fighting terrorism, we are in this together. We do think that big internet companies have a position of privilege in our society and therefore they should be required to contribute back to the wellbeing of our society.
JOURNALIST: What other options are there to try to get access to those messages?
SHORTEN: Well tech giants don't just have the power to manage these systems, they have a responsibility to keep these systems safe. In many ways the big tech giants are like big media companies, but they don't seem to have the same obligations as other media companies. Now we've got to get the balance right between the security and privacy of individual citizens, but to me when it comes to tackling terrorism, it's not enough for the big tech companies simply to say, well come to us, the Government and the regulators should go to the big tech companies and ask for help, I think the big tech companies need to take the initiative.
They can see what's happening on their systems and they've already made some steps forward to making it more transparent. The internet should not be a place where terrorists can hide, and we've got to do everything we can to keep our fellow citizens safe. And this should be a process of co-operation, not conflict, between the big internet companies of the world and governments. They should work with us to keep people safe.
JOURNALIST: George Brandis is saying the laws won't be forcing companies to build back doors to access these messages, do you think overall this is going to work?
SHORTEN: Well I always get a bit nervous when I see George Brandis talking meta-data or technology, but leave that to one side. I think we will have to examine how it can be done, but I don't accept the proposition that it's too hard for internet companies to cooperate with security officials to try and keep Australians safe.
But as for the detail, this is something we need to work through in a considered fashion. We will offer our co-operation to the Government, but we will also be making sure that they don't get the implementation wrong as they have in the past with other security measures.
JOURNALIST: What do you want to see come out of COAG, the COAG meeting in Brisbane today?
SHORTEN: Well I think that the Government's got to adopt a clean energy target. The Prime Minister commissioned the Chief Scientist to give him a report on what to do, the Chief Scientist has now given the Government a report on what to do - it's called a clean energy target. We think the clean energy target is not the ideal solution but we think it's reasonable, we are taking it very seriously, we are considering the detail of it.
Malcolm Turnbull needs to stare down the right wing bullies in his party and actually provide long term policy certainty in terms of energy policy and climate change in this country. The number one cause of rising energy prices in Australia is the lack of policy certainty. Because where you have a lack of policy certainty, then people won't make long term investment decisions to invest in energy creation and generation and distribution. So the solution is to have a clean energy target. What we would say to the Government though is that it's got to be fair dinkum, it can't just be business as usual and put the badge 'clean energy target' on the front. That won't cut the mustard, but I do think there is a source of potential cooperation between us and the Government, so long as there is a fair dinkum Clean Energy Target.
JOURNALIST: State ministers are threatening to go it alone and set their own clean energy target. Would that run the risk of increasing prices and reducing stability in the market?
SHORTEN: Well I think state governments are really frustrated that the Liberals in Canberra just can't seem to answer the question on what they want to do on climate change. It's an open secret that half of Mr Turnbull's Government don't believe in climate change, or want to take any serious action on it. Turnbull needs to face down the division and disunity in his ranks and do something for the national interest, not just his own interests.
I understand the frustrations of state governments. They just want to have policy certainty. Australians just want policy certainty so we can see new investment in energy, so we can take real action on climate change, and of course once we've got investment and policy certainty, we'll create more jobs. And I want to see more jobs, not just in the cities, but in regional Australia and in regions like Gippsland.
JOURNALIST: But would you support the states going it alone on a clean energy target?
SHORTEN: I hope it doesn't get to that, but if Mr Turnbull doesn't do anything, I don't see what choice the states have. What we cannot afford is business as usual. We can't afford the nation’s energy prices going up and up, the lack of policy hostage to the fact that we have a weak Prime Minister who's more scared of his critics in the Liberal Party than he is about high energy prices. His priorities are all wrong, he needs to stand up and do something for Australia, and not give in to the bullies on his backbench.
JOURNALIST: What more can the Government do to drive down prices, and should the states remove their moratoriums on gas exploration, where do you stand on that?
SHORTEN: First thing's first, we need a clean energy target, and it's got to be a clean energy target which is fair dinkum, which creates the incentive to invest in new forms of energy. In terms of state governments' policies on gas, I don't think there will be any change imminent between Liberal or Labor state governments in terms of fracking, in terms of natural gas exploration, I think that's a serious matter for states to consider.
JOURNALIST: In terms of regional jobs here in Gippsland, is Federal Labor able to do anything about the Heyfield Mill in terms of the possum's possibly endangered species status?
SHORTEN: Well I know that the State Government has taken pretty strong steps to try and support the Heyfield Mill. I do think it's important that whilst we preserve the environment for these possums, that we're not sacrificing timber worker jobs, but I think that issue seems to be moving forward, certainly the actions of the Andrews Government seem quite decisive in terms of supporting the Mill.
I think something which the Federal Government can do is to make sure that we have a buy-Australia policy in terms of procurement from local providers. I think it is a silly situation where around Australia in government offices, and the photocopying machines, we're not buying more Australian paper. I think there are practical things. I think the other thing we can do to help jobs in Gippsland is back in more apprentices, back in more local procurement and make sure that we're getting proper infrastructure builds, not just in the cities.
JOURNALIST: Do you support the State Government buying the Mill or making the memorandum of understanding -
SHORTEN: I think that is a step in the right direction, it's not something you do every day but I do think it is important that we protect as many of those Heyfield jobs as we can.
Thanks everybody, nice to see you all.