Bill's Transcripts

ABC Lateline

ABC Lateline
21 November 2012

SUBJECT/S: Industrial Relations

TONY JONES: I was joined earlier this evening by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and former AWU leader, Bill Shorten.

Bill Shorten, thanks for joining us.

BILL SHORTEN: Good evening, Tony.

TONY JONES: Now the main reason we asked you to speak tonight was about industrial relations and we will do that. In the meantime, the former AWU official Ralph Blewitt has reappeared in Melbourne. First of all, you have spoken to him, have you met him?

BILL SHORTEN: Listen, to the best of my recollection, I don't think I've ever met this person.

TONY JONES: He's apparently seeking an audience with you as we speak. I guess I was asking: have spoken to him today? Clearly not.


TONY JONES: As you know, Blewitt is a self-confessed fraudster, he's a one-time union bagman and he's vowed to tell everything he knows to the Victorian police if they agree to grant him immunity. Would it concern you if they did?

BILL SHORTEN: That's a matter for the Victorian police. I'm not going to second guess them about what they do.

TONY JONES: Are you worried there could be political considerations involved?

BILL SHORTEN: I don't think the Victorian police will be swayed by political considerations in the slightest.

TONY JONES: Now, there are questions for you specifically arising out of what Blewitt is saying, bearing in mind that we're talking about the union that you once led. Did you ever find out that bad things had been buried under the carpet before you took over?

BILL SHORTEN: At the time that some of these allegations were triggered, '92, '93, I wasn't even working for the union. To the best of my knowledge, when I became national secretary and indeed Victorian secretary, the - my predecessors in the union had detected wrong activities, activities which aren't in the best traditions of the AWU or indeed trade unionism. They had detected it, my predecessors, and they had reported it to police and they'd taken steps to get these bad characters out of the union altogether.

TONY JONES: Blewitt says that one of the reasons he's prepared to speak out now is that he's recently learnt that the former AWU Victorian president Bob Kernohan got a "bloody belting by union thugs", is how he puts it, when he tried to make information about this fraud to the union public. Now I understand Bob Kernohan's friend of yours. Did he ever speak to you about this?

BILL SHORTEN: Well back in the early '90s, Bob Kernohan and plenty of other people were unhappy with Bruce Wilson and Ralph Blewitt. They campaigned against these people. I hadn't heard that Mr Kernohan had been assaulted in the basis - I just hadn't heard he'd been assault on the basis of matters to do with Blewitt and some of his cronies. So, no, I don't know. But in terms of Mr Kernohan himself, yeah, we were friends.

TONY JONES: So he never told you that he received a bullet or bullets in the mail, that he identified those or he believed those were coming from people in the union who were trying to shut him up?


TONY JONES: He says he did speak to you at one point about these issues. Do you recall that?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, sorry, you're going to be have to be a little more specific, Tony. In terms of working with them, when I was a junior official at the other part of the AWU, the ironworkers’ part, I certainly supported the then leadership who were determined to chase out these people who were doing the wrong thing in the AWU and my predecessors did do that.

TONY JONES: Bob Kernohan said in an interview that he did speak to you about this fraud issue. And you told him, "Bob, think about the future, think about your career." Is that true?

BILL SHORTEN: No, that's not my recollection at all.

When you actually took over at the AWU, did you actually look into all of this? If you knew that wrong things had happened or the allegations had been made, did you look into it personally to find out what had happened?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, I know that my predecessors in the position had done everything they thought they could to chase out these people. They reported it to the police. These are matters of record. In my time at the union, all of the accounts we rendered, everything we did was accepted by the registrar and I know that we helped rebuild the AWU industrially by improving wages and conditions for people. All of this is a matter of record.

TONY JONES: The Prime Minister says she's dealt with this at the ask-until-you-drop press conference, all of the allegations. If new allegations arise from Blewitt's statements, will she have to answer new questions?

Well there's at least two hypotheticals in that. What I do know is that the Prime Minister has dealt with these allegations in a very extensive fashion. I know that they've been raised before and she's dealt with them and then she's dealt with the matters most recently in August of this year. At no stage, to my knowledge, has she ever been - had to deal with any specific allegations of wrongdoing and that still remains the case.

But if the principle in holding the first press conference is to clear the air, if the air becomes muddied again, if the air becomes unclear, will she have to answer further questions?

BILL SHORTEN: Well again, you're asking me hypotheticals. What I know to be the case is that the Prime Minister has dealt with all of these matters and she has done so when they periodically percolated up. And across 20 years, across 20 years periodically she's had to deal with this issue of who she went out with and what happened then and she has answered those matters and I believe her.

TONY JONES: So you're not at all concerned about the re-emergence in Australia of this fellow Ralph Blewitt and his promise to tell all to the Victorian police?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, well, you know, everyone can say what they want, but it's what - the truth is what really matters here. And if he wants to confess to any wrongdoings, he's - you described him as a self-confessed fraudster. If he feels that he's got things to tell the police, that's what he should do.

TONY JONES: Now, let's just quickly go through a few things. What is a union slush fund exactly?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, well, I'm not going to go fishing on general questions.

TONY JONES: That's a very specific question, actually. That is ...

BILL SHORTEN: Well, sorry, but let's - Tony ...

TONY JONES: We know that as a lawyer Julia Gillard admitted she helped Bruce Wilson set one up, so I'm asking: what is it? What is one?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, well, that account was unauthorised by the union and it was an inappropriate account, that account, as far as I can tell. So that was out of bounds.

What I'd also say is under this Government we've created the strongest laws possible in terms of good governance. I'd also say this, Tony, that I know that you and others are keen to talk about matters which are between 21 and 17 years old, and that's your call, but what I also know is that there's 1.8, 1.9 million trade unionists in Australia today. I know thousands of their representatives do their job diligently and honestly. I do know that we've seen some events in parts of the Health Services Union and see saw some events between 17 and 20 years ago in parts of the AWU.

But what I also know to be the case is I don't consider that to be the standard practice or indeed the - what most - what nearly all union representatives do. What I also know is that we've created the strongest laws that have ever existed in the history of Australia to make sure there is good governance of employer associations and unions.

TONY JONES: OK. But just a quick question arising out what you just said. Was it inappropriate for Julia Gillard as a young lawyer to set up what you believe was an inappropriate fund?

BILL SHORTEN: Well when that account came to light, what I do know is that the union took action. I know that the union leadership of the day reported this to the police. In terms of the Prime Minister's explanations, I'm satisfied with them.

TONY JONES: Mark Latham recently wrote that it was legal to set up re-election slush funds in this matter. Is he right and would it be legal today for a union to do that?

BILL SHORTEN: You've got to give me all the circumstances. What I do know is that periodically unions will have re-election funds to support the leadership of the union. But what I also know is that there's very clear rules.

You cannot use members' money for purposes other than what the members have paid their union dues for. What we also know is that you can't have related party transactions. The Government, this government, myself, have put in the strongest rules possible. There is no condoning of illegal behaviour.

And I also have to say again: I have great confidence in the Australian trade union movement and Australian trade unionists. That doesn't mean that something wrong hasn't happened periodically. But what I know is that I think that the Australian trade union movement and their members work hard to improve the conditions for ordinary people every day.


BILL SHORTEN: Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be of interest to the same extent and there is a lot of important debates happening in workplace relations right now. I know at the time the union reported the problem, back in 1995, 1996, I know that the union then acted. I know that since then it got on with a better job of representing its members.

But I also know today there are important workplace issues which do deserve to be debated. We can't get the Liberal Party to ever talk industrial relations ever. They are so scared of talking about workplace relations it's become a national disgrace.

TONY JONES: OK. We are about to and I just want to ask you one last question. If the AWU were to set up a slush fund, effectively a re-election fund today which called itself a fund for training and workplace safety, would that be legal?

BILL SHORTEN: Well you can't use members' money to engage in the re-election of officials. That would not be appropriate. In terms of people donating some of their wages for a re-election fund, that's understandable. But you cannot ever use members' money for purposes other than the advancement of the industrial interests of the members.

TONY JONES: OK. Let's move on to industrial relations. The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Monday night there should be a new Accord between unions and industry to set the stage for a joint effort to lift productivity. Do you agree?

BILL SHORTEN: I think that we do need greater cooperation. Whether or not you call it an accord is another matter. Back in 1983, when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and Bill Kelty, the unions worked through an accord, we had centralised wage fixation. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since 1983.

What I think is that the time is right for a lot of mini accords in workplaces. Productivity is driven at the enterprise level. Better wages, better performing workplaces, are driven at the workplace level. I don't think it'll be possible to reconstruct the 1983-style Accord, but the idea of better cooperation, focusing on not just cutting wages or working longer, but rather how you create value, how you create engaged, empowered employees, that idea is absolutely relevant and that's why I continue to meet with employer groups and unions to talk about just those very propositions.

TONY JONES: Why couldn't you have a national accord? Is that completely impossible? And is it because the unions don't want to cede the power that they currently have as they did back then?

BILL SHORTEN: Well there's two questions there. I don't agree with the assumption of your second question, but I'll deal with that in a moment. Just going to your first point: why couldn't we have a national accord?

What I think I said in my earlier answer to you is that we're not going to see a 1983-style accord because back then there was centralised wage fixation. Back in 1983 what would happen is there would be a national wage case and that the wage rise determined by the independent umpire would be what applied to literally millions of Australians without regard to the enterprise or the sector or the industry or the particular circumstances of the business.

There is no way we can go back to the past. We cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

But, the principle of unions and employers coming together to work nationally on issues of mutual interest and the betterment of the economy and society, well that's a relevant principle. Modern Labor stands for consensus. We would seek wherever possible to try and find the things that we agree on across industry from workers to employers. Some of those things include, for instance, better infrastructure: tick, we've been doing that; a National Broadband Network: tick, we're doing that; more money spent on skills and training: tick, we're doing that; enterprise bargaining: we now have 2.2 million Australians covered by over 16,000 agreements under the current Fair Work Act.

So there's a lot of good things in place. But again, it's - good news doesn't tend to sell newspapers like bad news. Productivity's now up over the last 12 months. Low productivity's haunted Australia for the last 10 years. But despite some of the conservative critics who say that the Fair Work Act is impeding productivity, in fact productivity's lifted in the last 12 months.

TONY JONES: The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, is no anti-union firebrand, but he now says the Fair Work Act has increased union power, in 120 areas the Government has failed to give business a fair go and the inevitable result is that more Australian businesses will close and more Australian jobs will go offshore. Is he right?

BILL SHORTEN: No. Just as Mr Willox is not an extremist, and I don't think he is, my whole history's been trying to find where employers and employees can reach agreement. I would have personally been involved in 1,000 agreements, trying to improve productivity and lift wages. I'd have visited 10,000 workplaces.

Workplace relations is about getting the best out of people. An argument which says that the only way we can compete with other nations in the world is engaging in a race to the bottom in terms of pay rates, penalty rates, protections on rosters, getting rid of family friendly provisions, that is not Australia's future.

We need to be a well-paid, high-performing economy. The best opportunities we have in workplace relations is to get rid of that sort of simple linear "You're either a leftie or right- winger" on workplace relations and instead try and find the value in the middle, create value and that is through the proper engagement.

In Australia, Australian workers, and I'm sure it even goes at the ABC, people hate wastage, they hate inefficiency, they hate having their time wasted, they don't like dealing with control freaks above them, they want to have some degree of power over the tasks they do each day. They want to have a regular set of hours and be paid reasonably well. This is not black magic.

The people who say the pendulum's swung too far and talk about union rights, they're simply not getting what really is happening in Australian enterprise. Australians in the future want a life outside of work. They know they're living longer, so they want to smooth their prosperity. They know they need to be healthy, they know they need to be highly skilled and they know they want to have a reasonably good job that they like going to every day.

TONY JONES: OK. Well, you probably heard Malcolm Turnbull call for a national debate or a new national debate on industrial relations and the Fair Work Act and two areas he singled out, unfair dismissal laws and individual contracts. I mean, is there room for flexibility at all in the system so that you could actually moderate the effect of these things on business?

BILL SHORTEN: First of all, I forgot to come to the second part of your last question which is do the unions - they've got so much power now. You can't have it both ways. Back at the time of the Accord, 40 per cent of people belonged to trade unions. Now it'd be less than 20 per cent. I still think unions are relevant, but I don't buy the argument that they're running Australia in the way that some of the far right like to paint it.

In terms of what Mr Turnbull said about having a national debate, what a great idea. The only problem is, whenever Labor turn up to have a debate on workplace relations, the other team don't turn up on the field. It is hard to have a game, have a debate, have an argument when the others won't turn up. So I'm glad that Malcolm Turnbull has broken ranks with Mr Abbott who is so afraid to talk about workplace relations. So, yes, we should have a debate.

In terms of the issues that he's raised, I don't believe that statutory individual contracts overriding minimum safety net conditions, collective agreements, enhance people. We saw statutory individual contracts, which Mr Turnbull likes, at work under Work Choices. They cut penalty rates, they cut shift roster protections, they cut the right to consult, they weren't good for people.

In terms of unfair dismissals, Mr Turnbull mightn't be aware, but in the last week of Parliament that's just passed, we passed through the House of Representatives changes which will assist small business deal with unfair dismissal. We've said that in our changes, which are currently in the Senate, that if the person who first hears the dispute between the unhappy ex-employee and the employer, if the person hearing the matter thinks that it's without strong grounds, then the person pursuing the claim who's determined not have strong grounds will have to pay the costs of the legal action.

We think that'll discourage vexatious claims. We've streamlined the time in which you've got for someone to put in for an appeal if they think they've been unfairly untreated from 60 days back to 21. Now we think 21 days is enough to work out if you've got a claim or not.

So we've done small business changes which whilst Mr Turnbull didn't acknowledge have been welcomed by the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia. Yet again though, that's the sort of good news which Labor can't always get through in the media, so thanks for letting me tell you about it.

TONY JONES: Bill Shorten, we're out of time, I'm afraid. We'll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to come in and talk to us tonight.

BILL SHORTEN: Thank you.