Bill's Transcripts


9 MAY 2013



TONY JONES: Our top story is the Coalition's industrial relations policy. Joining us to discuss the Opposition's scheme and the employment figures, we're joined now from our Melbourne studio by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten.

Thanks for being there.

BILL SHORTEN: Good evening, Tony.

TONY JONES: Now Tony Abbott says workers have nothing to fear. Has his policy robbed you of a scare campaign for the election?

BILL SHORTEN: No. The fact of the matter is that everybody knows that when it comes to workplace relations, Tony Abbott and the Liberals can't be trusted to do the right thing by people working in Australia's workplaces. You just have to look at what they did when they were last in power, you have to look at how they're voting in Parliament against improvements to help a fair go all round and today's policies certainly create more concerns than they do allay suspicions.

TONY JONES: Do you agree with Ged Kearney that individual flexibility agreements are AWAs by another name?

BILL SHORTEN: Well what's disappointing is that if you actually look at the so-called Liberal small target policy, they're desperately trying to disguise their intentions. The worst-kept secret in Australian politics is that the Liberals don't want to talk about workplace relations because no-one trusts them. What they did today is release a policy. There's a disturbing lack of detail about a lot. In fact for a party who's been in Opposition for five years, what they're trying to tell people is that they'll have an inquiry once they get into power.

TONY JONES: OK, I'm going to ...

BILL SHORTEN: They did, they did, they did - sorry ...

TONY JONES: I'm gonna pause you there if you don't mind ...

BILL SHORTEN: Of course.

TONY JONES: ... because the question was: do you agree with Ged Kearney that individual flexibility agreements are AWAs by another name?

BILL SHORTEN: Yes. What the Liberals have said though is even amongst all their forest of trees which have died to print the paper to disguise their policies on, they have let the cat out of the bag in one area which I wasn't expecting them to do so blatantly. What they want to do is extend individual flexibility agreements and they've said a couple of things which disturbed me greatly on behalf of what's happening in Australian workplaces. The first thing they've said is they want these flexibility agreements to be about anything, anything at all, including matters not even in the enterprise agreement of workplaces. So they are giving the green light for anything goes.

Also, in the fine print on page 36, I think it is, Tony, they have this Recommendation Nine - anyway, you'd need a Google search engine to find it. But what they've said there is that under their individual flexibility agreements under the Liberal view of the world, they're saying that you can be paid for work you do with "non-monetary benefits". This reminds me of all the stories that we saw on WorkChoices where if you're delivering pizzas, unscrupulous operators would pay the people with food, not money. It's right there in black and white. So they're saying that they want to bring back individual contracts right into the centre of matters. They want it to be about all and everything. And they're also even agreeing to a measure which we've ruled out which is saying that you don't even have to pay people monetary benefits. This is an example, a factual example of their sloppy thinking.

TONY JONES: OK. Your government created individual flexibility arrangements. In the Fair Work Ombudsman's Best Practice Guide it says this: "The Fair Work Act of 2009 seeks to promote workplace flexibility through the use of individual flexibility arrangements." Now, these are what we're talking about, aren't we?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, but, Tony, you should read the whole part of what the Fair Work Ombudsman says.

TONY JONES: Well, I have read it and we can go through that in a little more detail.

BILL SHORTEN: Well I will.

TONY JONES: But these are things that you invented. Ged Kearney's now saying they're no different to AWAs.

BILL SHORTEN: No, Tony. What we've said is that there are guidelines for what happens in workplaces. What the Liberals are saying is that they want to drive a Mack truck through the guidelines. What they're saying, for instance, as I've just pointed out to you before, is that you can pay people with non-monetary benefits now. What they're also saying is that these individual flexibility agreements will be changed so fundamentally that they can cover all and every matter in the workplace. Tony, back in WorkChoices, individual contracts were used as the centrepiece of the Liberal regime to undermine people's job security and conditions. What the Liberals are doing now is ...

TONY JONES: OK. Let me go back to the main wording of the Coalition policy. They say ...

BILL SHORTEN: It's coming back.

TONY JONES: Well, you say so. They say they will remove the ability to restrict the use of Labor's individual flexibility arrangements - Labor's IFAs, they're talking about - in enterprise agreements to ensure that workers can ask for these arrangements when they want them. What's wrong with that? Why shouldn't workers have a choice of having this fundamental thing which you invented as part of their contracts?

BILL SHORTEN: First of all, when you say that we're inventing individual contracts, we haven't and we didn't and we won't.

TONY JONES: No, I didn't say that. I said individual flexibility arrangements. They're part of your 2009 policy. They're fundamental to it.

BILL SHORTEN: Tony, it's in black and white. The other team who want to form a government have made it clear that they want to take existing laws and make them so wide that people can put anything into an individual flexibility agreement. That's not the Labor way. We believe in strong safety nets. Secondly, I've pointed to an illustration in what is otherwise a disturbingly scanty, detail-free smokescreen that they've said you can be paid in non-monetary benefits. I didn't write the Liberal document, but I'm blowing the whistle on it. What Australians want in their workplaces is they want certainty. They don't want to go back to a system where all of a sudden you can engage in a race to the bottom.

TONY JONES: But I've gotta ask you this: having invented a system called individual flexibility arrangements, ...


TONY JONES: ... why did Labor not make them available, as the Act suggests they should be, to everybody? Why did you agree with the unions to restrict them in certain cases?

BILL SHORTEN: Ohhh, Tony, you can put the case that somehow what the Liberals are saying is exactly what Labor is saying. That isn't true.

TONY JONES: No, no, I'm actually putting - I'm putting your own policy to you. I mean, the Act says these arrangements should be available to all workers. They were restricted from being available to all workers. I'm simply asking why that is.

BILL SHORTEN: Tony, you and I both understand that the Liberal Party are desperate not to have workplace relations as an issue. They're desperate not to have it as an issue because in fact they want to skate into office as a small target and then do as they've always done when they get into power, do whatever they want. We've seen it happen at state government levels ...

TONY JONES: But you realise that's a very different argument. On one hand you're saying they've come out and they've belled the cat and they've got this terrible series of facts about the individual agreements.

BILL SHORTEN: That's right.

TONY JONES: On the other hand you're saying they're trying to hide their intentions.

BILL SHORTEN: Yes. What their document does - and in fact first 10 pages is just repeated in the next 20 pages, they just repeat the same points again, doubling or tripling the length of their so-called document. They are desperate not to have policy on workplace relations, but they can't help themselves.
On this issue ...

TONY JONES: OK. Can I ... ?

BILL SHORTEN: Sorry, Tony, you've asked me the proposition: are they hiding stuff or are they flagging stuff? What I'm saying is: by and large, there is a disturbing lack of detail. But what we've certainly seen is that when it comes to opening up the door to expand individual flexibility agreements into an anything goes system of individual contracts, they've put their foot on the sticky paper and that's where they're going.

TONY JONES: OK. Can I just get you to answer the question that I asked you just a moment ago, which is since the Act suggests that these kind of individual agreements should be accessible to all workers, why did you restrict that? Why did you agree with the unions to restrict the number of people who can have them?

BILL SHORTEN: Not at all. We have - the Act is functioning very well. If in particular workplaces employees and employers strike agreements where they only want to deal with a certain number of matters or they don't want to deal with IFAs, that's up to workplaces to decide. See, the funny thing here is ...

TONY JONES: It's up to unions to decide, isn't it? Individual unions don't appear to like - this is the Coalition argument - don't appear to like the fact that these IFAs are written into the Act so individual unions stop them being used. What Tony Abbott is saying he's doing is allowing anyone to access these things which you invented which are in your act.

BILL SHORTEN: No, Tony. What you're saying the Liberals are complaining about is that when employees, if they're represented by a union, negotiate a productivity arrangements negotiate agreements which employers sign off, which employees choose to do, but somehow the Liberal Party thinks that after two sides of a negotiation have done a deal, the Liberal Party's ideology, it's extreme ideology says, "We want to come in and tell parties what they can and can't bargain about." That's not our way to go.

TONY JONES: Yeah. But I'm talking here - I said this to you earlier; I'll repeat it. The Fair Work Act of 2009, this is a quote from the Ombudsman, your ombudsman, the Fair Work Ombudsman: "The Fair Work Act 2009 seeks to promote workplace flexibility through its use of individual flexibility arrangements." Why can't all workers have them?

BILL SHORTEN: People can have the choices that they have - that they make. I get that and that's our system. But what I'm saying is that the Liberal Party want to take it further than that. If the people at a particular work site vote to have an enterprise agreement - they choose to, they choose to have an enterprise agreement, the employer signs off on it.

The Liberal Party want to open the door to allow matters which have been debated and decided to be negotiated away. What I'm driving at, and what I think is important to understand here, is that the Liberal Party do not want you and I or anyone else talking about workplace relations and by and large they're trying to hide their intent.

We know what they did before the 2004 election where they didn't talk about Work Choices and then they brought it in. We know what they've done at the state government level where they don't talk about sacking employees, where they don't talk about fighting with their nurses and their teachers and all the employees of Liberal governments. And yet again, in the Parliament, the Liberal Party, whenever they've had a chance to stand up and support people's entitlements, to support textile workers, to support childcare workers, to support safe rates, the Liberal Party every time doesn't back in working people. Instead, they're trying to say there's some crisis in workplace relations. What is so fraudulent about the current presentation that we've seen from the Liberal Party is that for two and a half years they've said that industrial relations is a basketcase. And now they're saying, "No, no, we won't do anything." Tony Abbott is selling ...

TONY JONES: But that is the point, isn't it?: they're not actually doing anything, or not very much.


TONY JONES: Now you've pointed at some fine print, but let me just go back to this. No, let me go back to this ...

BILL SHORTEN: Sorry, did you just say the fine print? It's what they've put and what I'm doing is drawing attention ...

TONY JONES: No, what you described as fine print. Let me go back to what the Fair Work ...


TONY JONES: Sure, OK. I'm sure everyone will check that. The Fair Work Ombudsman has a whole series of principles for how IFAs work. They can vary working hours, overtime rates, penalty rates, allowances and leave loading - all of this is in your Act. All of these can be varied under your own rules by agreement with individuals, provided that the employee is better off. That's how the system works. And the Coalition policy said it is adopting the better-off principle as a core part of their policy; in other words, they're not changing anything except they're making these IFAs available to more people, which the Act seems to say should happen anyway.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, again, what I'd say to you back is: first of all, they aren't proposing just to have the status quo and just extend it to more people. What they're proposing is all and every matter unrestricted can be in a Liberal individual contract. They're also proposing to go have a recommendation that you can receive non-monetary benefits rather than even be paid for the work you do. These are the first steps and distinct departures from the status quo.

But to go back to what is the real case here today. The Liberal Party - and let's just not forget what they've been saying for the last two and a half years. I mean, in Battlelines, Tony Abbott's book that he'd like people to buy, he says that WorkChoices was good. He says that it was good. So he wants you to buy a book in which he says it's good, but today he wants us to forget that he's ever had anything to do with it.

TONY JONES: Well, that's right and he has in very ...

BILL SHORTEN: Well will the real Tony Abbott stand up?

TONY JONES: ... very frequent occasions said it's dead and buried, WorkChoices. But, let me go to a ...

BILL SHORTEN: Well, then why has he reprinted the same book?

TONY JONES: Alright.

BILL SHORTEN: Tony, why is it that just because Tony Abbott says for the purposes of gaining power, "I've changed everything I've ever thought and done," why is it - and I'm not going to - why is that some people want to let him off the hook and say, "Oh, this is the new Tony Abbott, this is the new caring, sharing, pro-working Tony Abbott"?

TONY JONES: Because he's written a policy, they've released a policy and they've guaranteed certain things.


TONY JONES: For example, ...

BILL SHORTEN: They've done that before, Tony, and they've broken their word.

TONY JONES: OK. Well, fair enough; you don't trust them. But Eric Abetz ...

BILL SHORTEN: No, no, that's the record speaking.

TONY JONES: ... today answered four of the questions you set up in March when Tony Abbott - you said Tony Abbott had to answer these four questions on his IR policy on unfair dismissal, protections, on the right to request family-friendly agreements, on penalty rates, rest breaks and long service leave. Each of these Eric Abetz said guaranteed, they've agreed, they've gone to your questions, all of those are guaranteed not to change under their policy, at least not in the first term. So are you happy that he's agreed to all of these things?

BILL SHORTEN: So what you're saying is that we've asked some questions and the student's marked his own exam paper and Eric Abetz is giving himself a pass? No, I'm not, because the fact of the matter is, as recently as the last couple of weeks, Mr Abbott, when he was addressing a community cabinet in SA said, "Oh, we won't change penalty rates, but we'll help other people who want to make an argument to do so." Well, you know, for me it's the destination you arrive at and he is willing to support, as he always has been, tackling workers' conditions and reducing them.

Now, it's convenient sometimes to forget about history, but they had Work Choices. Whenever they've had a chance in the Federal Parliament to vote to improve the conditions and the productive, cooperative relationships in workplaces, they've voted against it. And indeed as recently as today they haven't come clean on what they're proposing to do on a whole range of issues. So I do think they need to be categorical in what they're ruling out. And it really isn't good enough if you want to be the alternative government of Australia to simply say, "Well, we probably will or may do something later on. We'd like you to vote for us so we're not going to scare you by revealing what we're really doing." And we are belling the cat. They do want to extend and rollout individual contracts.

TONY JONES: Well can I just make the point that one of the fundamental promises he made is to stick with this policy that you've now seen for the first term of an Abbott government to have a Productivity Commission report and not change anything until they get that and take it with a mandate to another election. Isn't that a reasonable thing to do?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all they are proposing to change things now. Their proposals around right-of-entry are more draconian than even WorkChoices. Their proposals on greenfield agreements is that the employers just look in the mirror and negotiate with themselves and decide what should happen. These are not cooperative, consensus-building measures in legislation. And I don't buy the bill of goods that he's trying to sell which says that somehow making it really easy to do individual arrangements is not a recipe, is not a recipe for reducing people's conditions.

And how can any of this - I mean, what is the whole case for any of their changes? Unemployment fell today. We've seen 960,000 new jobs created. Industrial disputation for the life of the Labor government is lower than it was for the life of the Liberal government, and that even goes into construction. So there's no outbreak of industrial relation unrest equivalent to the lost time that was occurring in the Howard years. Employment is going up in the teeth of the Global Financial Crisis and the aftershocks. This country is doing - and productivity has increased seven times in a row, seven quarters in a row labour productivity has gone up, not down. So what is the case for the Liberal Party to tinker with the system and to start trying to create uncertainty and division?

TONY JONES: Well, Bill Shorten, we've started the debate.


TONY JONES: I'm sure it'll go for quite a while, all the way to the election, I'm sure. And we'll speak to you again about this some other time, but we're out of time for tonight. Thank you very much.

BILL SHORTEN: Thanks, Tony. Good evening.