Bill's Transcripts

Doorstop, Parliament House

Doorstop, Parliament House
12 March 2013
12:15 PM

SUBJECTS: workplace bullying, superannuation

BILL SHORTEN: Thanks everyone for coming here. Joining me is the Chair of the House of Representatives Committee who's done such ground-breaking recommendations on workplace bullying, Amanda Rishworth, the member for Kingston.

Today, on behalf of the Gillard Labor Government, I can announce that the Federal Government, for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, is making workplace bullying a Federal workplace relations issue. What we're doing is acting in response to the significant report prepared by Amanda Rishworth and her committee which heard some 320 submissions-plus from May of last year into the issues of workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying is a real issue in Australian workplaces. The cost is huge in dollar terms - as Amanda Rishworth's report identified - but the toll is even tougher on individuals. We've worked closely with the Panlock family. And the Panlock family have helped educate me, in my journey on workplace bullying, over the last two to three years - as they've come to explain what happened to their daughter, Brodie Panlock, who was the victim of such sustained, evil bullying in her workplace, that in the end she took her own life.

There are plenty of unwritten stories about workplace bullying in Australia's workplaces. It is a real issue. It is one of the real issues of workplace relations. It deals with jobs that people are currently going through and experiencing. People have a right to go to work safely and to come home safely. People have a right to work in an environment where they are not subjected to repeated, unreasonable behaviour which jeopardises their personal health and safety.

What I fundamentally believe and what the Government believes and what Amanda Rishworth's ground-breaking report identifies, is that whilst we have a system of state safety regulation, which to some extent addresses some of the issues of workplace bullying: it is long overdue. It is time to be able to provide a mechanism which will assist people who are the victims of workplace bullying to get timely, accessible and low cost relief to remedy bullying, and to prevent it reoccurring in workplaces. To ensure there are safe workplaces, to ensure that normal relationships can be resumed in Australian workplaces both large and small.

In addition to giving people the right to be able to have a matter listed within fourteen days of making a complaint in the Fair Work Commission - Australia's independent tribunal for workplace relations matters - we are also supporting a national definition of bullying, which should be capable some 112 years after Federation to have one definition of bullying. I'm indebted to the work of Amanda Rishworth's committee, they've identified a definition, consistent with the code which has been worked on by my own agency Safe Work Australia which is - and the long and the short of it is: that bullying, victimisation or harassment is constituted by repeated, unreasonable behaviour or conduct against a worker, or a group of workers, which affects their health and safety.

As a nation of hardworking employees and skilled employers we're capable of making sure that there is zero tolerance for bullying in Australian workplaces. We hope to bring this amendment to the Fair Work Act to the Parliament within the autumn session. We hope that at least on the question of workplace bullying we can create a non-political space in the workplace relations debate of Australia. We hope the Opposition who haven't stated their views, other than a general principle that they don't like bullying - but we've got a specific plan which will deal with one of the hidden scourges of Australia's workplaces. We believe it is appropriate for the Fair Work Commission, working in conjunction with state regulators, to help let people know that you don't have to go to work and be the subject of repeated unreasonable behaviour.

And before anyone leaps to debates about definitions, or ‘I can't make a joke anymore in the workplace’ and ‘isn't this just more burdensome regulation’. First of all: I think that the golden rule in workplace relations should be, treat people the way you would like to treat someone in your family, if someone in your family was working for that person. And by that test this is not burdensome, this is long overdue change.

I'm indebted to the work in particular of the chairman of that committee, Amanda Rishworth and I might ask her to say a few words before we take questions.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well thank you Bill and I am so pleased that we are here today to actually address the issue of workplace bullying. The workplace bullying report that I chaired was called: We just want it to stop. And that was the message sent by so many of the witnesses we heard. Is all they wanted was the bullying in their workplace to stop. That's why I'm so grateful that the Government has responded to that report with some serious action. And in particular people were telling us that: they wanted an individual recourse, they wanted to be able to get an outcome in a quick and timely manner and they wanted their employer to adhere to it when that outcome was made. So this - the plan that the Government has brought forward in response to the Committee's report really does address and get down to the heart of the matter.

This is an issue that as we found out - and through the committee process - really has touched so many people. But it doesn't just touch those people it touches their families and their loved ones and I really think that this response by the Government will really address some of the concerns that people have.

In terms of the national definition it was so critical. This was supported by employers and employees alike. The fact that we hadn't got there was of real concern to so many people. Now a lot of people will be saying that this may sideline some of the health and safety regulators around the country, but it won't. This really is a process that works side by side with the health and safety regulators to ensure that there is a response for so many people that suffer workplace bullying.

I'd just like to extend my thanks to the Minister who has really, really understood the voices of so many workers out there, who have really listened it. And also the Government who has taken this issue very seriously.

So I look forward to seeing this legislation progress. I know that so many people around the country will be cheering this piece of legislation on, because it really does address the issue of workplace bullying.


JOURNALIST: What sort of safeguards have you got in place to ensure that employers can still counsel their workers to be more productive without being left open to accusations of bullying?

BILL SHORTEN: Reasonable management of performance of people has never been bullying. That has not been the matters which have come to our attention. It wasn't reasonable management of performance which led Brodie Panlock to take her life. The idea that because we're making a stand on workplace bullying you can't get people to do their day jobs is totally unfair to the victims of workplace bullying.

What we will do explicitly both in our guidelines and our consultations and indeed our legislation, is we will again reiterate that the reasonable management of people's performance, reasonably conducted, that's not bullying. So it is important - and I'm grateful to the question actually - let's clear up at least one red herring which some will raise that somehow I can't ever tell my employee to do their job again because they'll just cry bullying. That underestimates what's really happening to victims, and that's not at all an issue with this proposition.

JOURNALIST: If the bullying is done by fellow employees, are there provisions in your reforms that would tackle, that would hold the employees accountable, or would it only hold the employer accountable?

BILL SHORTEN: No. Bullying can be from employee to employee. Obviously if the employer is aware of it and does nothing to stop it well then they become involved. But no, a lot of bullying can happen from employee to employee. You're able to make a complaint about these matters.

This stuff isn't easy. As you all know and as millions of Australians who go to work every day know there can occasionally - there can be situations which arise where you see the repeated, uncomfortable, unnecessary, unreasonable attack by one employee on another - that is covered by this.

JOURNALIST: So what are the outcomes? I mean does it lead to conciliation, counselling, are there penalties involved?

BILL SHORTEN: Yes, yes and yes. Specifically what we're looking at and again we're indebted to the work of Amanda Rishworth and her committee. But you can list a complaint in the Fair Work Commission. We want the Fair Work Commission to at least get the parties together within fourteen days, because one of the biggest complaints we hear is that there's no point in complaining about bullying because nothing ever gets done. So there'll be a fourteen day timeline to at least get the people together. From that it'll all depend then on each fact circumstance. It may well be that the matters are so severe that the Fair Work representative will call in the state regulators. It may well be that it's a matter capable of conciliation and talking through, that it hasn't got to that severe stage of great harm being done.

There'll be provision for civil penalty orders; there will be provision for fines. But I think the main aim of the industrial relations, in the workplace relation system, under Labor in Australia, is that we want to see the prevention of disputes. We want to see the creation of harmony in the workplace. We want to see the maintenance or the resumption of good relationships of productive flexible workplaces.

JOURNALIST: How much will this cost and will those penalties, those fines be more severe than they currently are under state law?

BILL SHORTEN: Listen I'm not aware of all the penalty tables. I don't believe they'll be more severe than the highest fines but, you know, it'll hopefully focus people's attention on the resolution of the matter.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

BILL SHORTEN: And we'll consult - we'll consult - we're looking at fines up to thirty-three-thousand dollars in some events. But again we will consult with employers and stakeholders about these matters.

JOURNALIST: So if the penalties [inaudible] different what does this change for an employee who feels they're being bullied? Does it just change…

BILL SHORTEN: Not that it would ever happen at your great organisation, but if someone in the media generally - and I'm sure you guys work in perfect workplaces - but hypothetically, at the moment, an employee has got to go to New South Wales WorkCover or go to CommCare, they've got to go to Victorian WorkCover. For the first time ever they'll be able to go to the federal workplace relations commission and bring the matter on.

JOURNALIST: So they'd make a call to…

BILL SHORTEN: This is the first time.

JOURNALIST: …the Federal Workplace Relations Commission…


JOURNALIST: …if they feel they're being bullied.


JOURNALIST: And this will mean swifter action than they currently get under state…

BILL SHORTEN: Absolutely. Fourteen days the matter has to be - start to be dealt with.

JOURNALIST: Will there be additional resources for the Fair Work Commission given - assuming there'd be a fairly large number of people who will wanting to go through that process?

BILL SHORTEN: Sorry. I don’t know if you’re a shop steward for the Fair Work Commission. That’s a good question and no doubt, they’ll be asking that and we’ll work on those issues. We haven’t finalised that matter.




BILL SHORTEN: But they might send you a Christmas card for that question.


JOURNALIST: All right, but you are likely to get more funding?


BILL SHORTEN: Well, let’s just talk through the issues that...


JOURNALIST: How prevalent is it [inaudible] question from Amanda.


BILL SHORTEN: I’ll let Amanda answer that. How prevalent is it?


AMANDA RISHWORTH: How prevalent?  Look, what we found is that the Productivity Commission suggest - couldn’t get a true figure on the prevalence.  What we found, without doing a lot of prevalence research, was that it was occurring in many organisations.  That people were being affected in the public sector, as well as the private sector.  So I think they’re really - it’s very hard to actually talk about prevalence, because I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg on this issue.


BILL SHORTEN: I’ve got no doubt it is a real issue. I know that whenever a media outlet covers a bullying story, the journalists tell me they get flooded with other calls.  I know that when Amanda Rishworth led this ground-breaking work with her committee, there were hundreds of submissions, so it is an issue. A lot of it is unreported.  What we want to do is - and there’s always two, three, four sides to every story. We want to provide a safe harbour, where people can talk through the issues before too much damage occurs.  Some conduct may be unintended. There’s always two sides to a story, but what I do know that is at the moment, the process is clunky, the process takes too long and we only ever arrive, like an ambulance, after the issue has sort of gone off the cliff. 


Whereas, what we want to do is to be able to build in more tripwires and safeguards and preventions to help avoid the bigger disasters, which don’t get dealt with.


JOURNALIST: Are the states all on board?


BILL SHORTEN: Well, the states are working with us.  We now have all states with a common work health and safety Act, other than Victoria and Western Australia.  We’ve been consulting widely on our code.  This doesn’t replace anything that the states do.  This will be, I think, for the hard pressed regulators in the states, a valuable additional tool, so we can work together to...


JOURNALIST: But they haven’t said yes, yet?


BILL SHORTEN: Not to the specific clause in the Federal Act, no.


JOURNALIST: The feds will be able to refer back to the states.  Will it be able to go both directions?  Will it be all over the shop?


BILL SHORTEN: Well, I think, like it or not, the workplace relations and bullying is an industrial relations issue.  But the states have certain powers the Commonwealth doesn’t have.  What we can contribute is the most experienced and the largest workplace relations umpire in the nation.  And bullying is a workplace relations issue.


JOURNALIST: You spoke of the cost in dollar terms to, presumably, the economy or the business.  Do you know what that is?


AMANDA RISHWORTH: The Productivity Commission said between six billion dollars and thirty six billion dollars.  Six billion dollars to thirty six billion dollars.  They couldn’t...




AMANDA RISHWORTH: A year, yes, yep.  They could not identify, because it was so hard to actually have people coming forward and because in the way that the regulators sometimes take this injury, they don’t identify it was workplace bullying, so the Productivity Commission actually found it very, very hard to identify, but it was in that range of what is the total cost to the economy.


BILL SHORTEN: The point is, also, workplace bullying is not some sort of boutique safety issue, which has no repercussions. Low morale, low productivity, absenteeism, worker’s comp claims, divided workplaces, lack of teamwork.  This is a workplace relations issue of the modern workplace.  It doesn’t fall for some of the current - fit neatly in some of the old debates about where the regulatory pendulum sits.  This is about making sure that Australians have good jobs in future workplaces.


JOURNALIST: Do you need state approval to get your changes through and when do you actually want your changes to take effect?


BILL SHORTEN: No. We don’t need state approval to amend the Fair Work Act.  In terms of our timetable, we think that this should be dealt with in autumn and the winter sessions this year.  We think the system should be - anyone who unduly delays workplace bullying reforms is silently committing to allowing people to be injured as we go forth.  We know the problem. We have an answer.  It’s now time to act.


JOURNALIST: Why do you think people will be more inclined to come forward under the federal system, rather than now in the state system?


BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I think publicity assists.  That’s why what you’re doing is so important.  I think greater awareness of rights.  We’ll also be - I did say, and we sort of focused on the amendment to the Fair Work Act part of this talk, but there were twenty three recommendations where supporting, actively or in principle, nineteen of them.  We want to look at national advisory services, better education, informing people of their rights.


JOURNALIST: Minister, Kevin Rudd says the mining tax is raising no significant revenue.  Do you think it should be fixed?


BILL SHORTEN: Well, I am not aware of any plans of the Government to change the mining tax. No.


JOURNALIST:  What’s your view? Should it be amended to raise a bit more revenue?


BILL SHORTEN: I’ve also always supported having a mining rent resources tax and I believe that the current system that we have is the one which we’re going to stick to for the foreseeable future.


JOURNALIST: Are you blaming the Treasurer for that kind of system with the revenue it hasn’t raised? Firstly, is that a fair assessment and how come Wayne Swan got to stick around when Kevin Rudd was ousted?


BILL SHORTEN: Well, there’s about six questions there. But I can answer them. I wasn’t in the Cabinet at the time that the taxes were designed.  I wasn’t in the Expenditure Review Committee. My focus is on workplace relations. Making sure that we have safe workplaces. In terms of all of the matters which you are seeking me to rehash about history, I’m not going to.  What I am determined to do, like every member of our government, every member of our ministry, is to make sure that in this, an election year, the Government offers a positive vision of the future, the creation of good jobs, the maintenance of fair workplace relations, making sure that low income earners don’t have a new superannuation tax slapped on them. 


JOURNALIST: You’re comfortable with the amount of revenue that this mining tax is raising.


BILL SHORTEN: I believe, in terms of the mining tax, that we have no plans to change it.  I certainly am supportive of what we’ve done with imposing a mining resources tax. 


JOURNALIST: But are you comfortable with how much it’s raising?


BILL SHORTEN: I also am supportive of the changes which this tax, along with our other measures are allowing us to do for low paid Australians. I’ll tell you for me what the mining tax means. What it means is that over 3.6 million people who earn less than $37,000 a year, under Labor, have had all the tax they pay on superannuation cut. It’s gone. Vamoose.


JOURNALIST: It’s not paying for that, is it? [Inaudible].


BILL SHORTEN: I’m sorry. But this is the debate which is the debate. What the Liberals have said is that, and I think this is absolutely worthy of national debate, and that’s why I’m determined to push the Liberals on this. They’ve said they will reintroduce a new tax of 15 per cent on all the superannuation paid by people who earn less than $37,000.


JOURNALIST: But is the mining tax paying for that?


BILL SHORTEN: It’ll pay for part of it. I’ve also made it very clear that within the 3.6 million Aussies who earn less than $37,000 and those figures are two years old, I should add, two and a half years old. Sixty per cent of them are women. So what we see in Australia is a debate which is about the Liberals saying that no way will they do anything but reintroduce a new tax on working mums who are part time working and other people who earn less than $37,000 a year. That is the choice in Australia. The Liberal Party of Australia will fight to the last drop of blood to protect the conditions of large mining companies, but they will run up the white flag on low paid people and make them pay new taxes in superannuation. Their priorities are all wrong.


JOURNALIST: But it’d be a better argument, wouldn’t it, if the mining tax was actually paying for all of that. It’s not.


BILL SHORTEN: Well, what we are doing is we have a mining tax. Commodity prices go up and down. I know that, because I watch Sky Business, but I watch Dow Jones and the rest of the business outlets, too. But what I also know is that we are the ones who’ve implemented a resources rent tax. Good idea. We’re the ones who are making sure that low paid income earners don’t pay tax on superannuation. Why is it that whenever the Liberal Party see a low paid person, they run screaming the other way in terms of protecting their conditions? 


Only last week, and it was a bit overshadowed by some of the other matters, only last week the Liberal Party unanimously, shoulder to shoulder, like the Spartans of old, they all lined up to oppose giving people on Newstart, single people on Newstart, $210 a year. Then they followed up by making it perfectly clear that they don’t intend to resile from putting a new tax on people who earn less than $37,000 a year. They’re four-and-a-half million Aussies. The Liberal Party of Australia has never seen a low income earner that they haven’t wanted to slug.


JOURNALIST: The Greens’ costings show that increasing Newstart by $50 a week would cost about $7 billion over four years. Does that indicate to you that that’s a big call to make, to actually increase Newstart?


BILL SHORTEN: I think costings are actually slightly higher than that. We know that people are doing it tough on support allowances, such as Newstart. We know that the best solution to get people out of the long term cycle of unemployment is to help them to get a job. That is why Julia Gillard and Labor have spent record amounts on helping people to find work and we’ll keep doing it. That is why we’re spending record amounts on our disability employment services. In the meantime, we’ve also provided an income support bonus, which will see couples get $350 a year in two payments, if they’re both on allowances or an individual person on allowance, $210. That is at least progress to help people and our main aim is to get people out of unemployment, but thanks very much for the questions, everyone.


- ENDS -

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