Bill's Transcripts

Doorstop - Ecotech



17 APRIL 2013

SUBJECT/S: Ecotech; Opposition workplace relations policy; BHP submission

BILL SHORTEN: It’s great to be here today at Ecotech with my colleague Senator David Feeney and Labor’s Candidate for Aston, Rupert Evans. Ecotech is an example of what Australian ingenuity and cooperative workplace relations can accomplish. Much of the product made here is sold in China to help – and India – to help measure pollution levels, haze levels, smog levels in these rapidly urbanising societies.

We’re at a business in Aston in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne which is already making the best opportunities using Australian ingenuity, a high performance workplace, to accomplish and achieve goals for Australia and Australians in the Asian Century. Also it’s clear here, when there’s such a longstanding workforce with a highly skilled workforce, highly qualified, that they’re getting things right. And good workplace relations is clearly a priority of this company. It’s very impressive to see.

But in fact it’s the importance of good workplace relations which shows why it is important that a political party seeking to govern Australia must be upfront with the people of Australia about what are their plans. In Australia’s modern workplaces, we need to make sure that we have flexible arrangements, which Labor is supporting with its propositions in the Parliament at the moment.

We need to also make sure though that it’s not a race to the bottom; that we attract and retain good staff, that people when they’re having a baby they’ve got flexible conditions, that there’s a recognition that cooperative workplaces, high performing workplaces, well-remunerated workplaces are in fact the good jobs of the future in Australia.

That is why it’s important that some seventy-eight days after the Prime Minister set the date for the election, the Opposition have still failed to come clean with the Australian people about what their workplace relations policy is. Last year they said well, we won’t tell our policies until we know the date of the election. Now we’ve known the date of the election – in fact, we’ve known the date of the election for seventy-eight days – Mr Abbott’s been forced to recently say he’ll reveal his policies this month.

Yet today the Shadow Treasurer Mr Hockey said well, we’ll produce something soon but he was very vague as to when they’d do it. It is important when people go to work that they know that the workplace rules governing their terms and conditions, that they know what the rules are, they know what the attitude of the two major parties is. It is important that Mr Abbott, the Party of Work Choices, come clean with their policies because otherwise people will have to ask, why are they hiding them?

It is important that Mr Abbott makes it clear that he will rule out changing certain fundamental conditions. Mr Abbott should rule out – if he is truly interested in the interests of Australia’s working people - he should rule out that he will cut shift rates. He should rule out that he’ll attack roster protections. He should rule out that he’ll attack penalty rates. He should rule out that he’ll make it easier for people to be unfairly dismissed.

Only when we have a clear debate about the competing policies can the Australian people see and look through the secret workplace plans of the Abbott Opposition. If the Abbott Opposition doesn’t trust the Australian people to know what the Liberal workplace relations policies are, how can the Australian people trust the Opposition not to rip them off as they did when they were last in power?

Happy to take questions.

REPORTER: Were [unclear] dump these IR reforms? I mean, business is certainly not happy about them.

BILL SHORTEN: Which – are you referring to any particular business or generic business?

REPORTER: Well, are you angered by BHP’s intervention in the IR debate given that you actually intervened to help them end their two year dispute at that Queensland coal mine last year?

BILL SHORTEN: I am grateful that you point out that I was able to assist BHP Billiton to get its employee relations on track. Labor governments exist help create cooperative not conflict within workplaces. In terms of BHP’s submissions, everyone in Australia’s got freedom of speech. Big companies, giant mining companies, are allowed to put their view just like ordinary citizens.

But just because a giant mining company says that we shouldn’t tackle the scourge of workplace bullying doesn’t mean that the government is going to immediately give up protecting victims of workplace bullying. On some of the submissions that BHP made, well they’re traditional positions which BHP Billiton has held for a very long time and there’s no surprises there.

But I would submit that in the court of public opinion, workplace bullying can and does occur in Australia’s workplaces. I would submit that for companies who have got good existing policies on workplace bullying, as BHP may well do, they have nothing to fear. But anyone who tells Australians that workplace bullying – that the status quo of workplace bullying and the current protections are working, just talk to one of the many hundreds of victims that the House of Representatives inquiry heard from last year.

The truth is that in Australian workplaces, workplace bullying is a toxic problem. So when BHP Billiton says that we shouldn’t do anything on workplace bullying, my view is I’ll listen to BHP Billiton’s view like I listen to everyone else’s but I want to also stand up as Labor does for the victims of workplace bullying. The current status quo is not protecting Australian workers in poor performing workplaces. Workplace bullying has been estimated by the Productivity Commission to cost somewhere between six billion dollars and thirty-six billion dollars.

If you have a look at workers comp claims, if you have a look at the stress, the harm, the personal loss. For large companies to say that this Labor Government -founded on the principles of fairness and productivity and prosperous workplaces - that anyone saying that Labor should turn a blind eye to tackling the scourge of workplace bullying just hasn’t met one of the many hundreds of victims of workplace bullying that exist.  And we will stand up for the people who don’t have a voice in our society, and in this case it’s the victims of workplace bullying.

I’m a little bemused also that a big Australian company has said that us putting in protections allowing women who are pregnant with less than twelve months service to be treated the same as women workers who are pregnant with more than twelve months service, that somehow this is a bar on flexibility. But we will work those issues through.

REPORTER: I mean last year you did say that BHP was to blame for the industrial dispute and that they needed to make a submission if they wanted industrial relations laws changed. They are now saying they want them changed. I mean, will you consider them and will you act on them? They’re not alone, there are a number of businesses in Australia who are concerned with the current state in industrial relations and the reforms that you’re proposing.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all, what I said last year is that when ninety per cent of your workforce out of three thousand coal miners, many of whom have got longer service in the pits than some of the seniors managers have in their positions, when they – when ninety per cent of your workforce, or eighty-five percent of your workforce in two ballots over six months - are saying no to the company, it’s not simply good enough for the company to blame the rules of the ballot.

If you put your hands over your ears and you don’t want to hear what your employees are telling you, well that’s one style of management, but I don’t think it’s the right style of management. I don’t think it serves shareholders, I don’t think it serves cooperative workplaces.

What I also know since then is I engaged with the very highest levels of the company, I personally went and visited the coal mines, I personally spoke to their employees, the Fair Work Commission helped, Bill Kelty helped. We came to a successful conclusion which I know that BHP Mitsubishi alliance found to be a mutually beneficial process in the outcome.

But what I did say then is if your workers are saying no to you, it is not sufficient to change the goalposts so you don’t have to hear your workers. In terms of BHP making submissions, it’s entirely appropriate that they do so. It’s not unknown for mining companies to try and exert their point of view, but I will also say is they’re arguing against some of our changes.

Some of their positions are longstanding and consistent but in the modern era we’re a bit smarter than we were decades ago and we do know that workplace bullying is a real problem. And if we don’t tackle the scourge of workplace bullying, doesn’t that make us complicit? I for one cannot walk past situations where we see it and we’ve got a policy answer.

And I don’t want to meet parents of some other child – young person, as I have already done, who took their own life because of workplace bullying and say well, we thought the current system was okay so I’m really sorry.

If we know there’s a problem, and we do; if we know objectively there’s a cost to business to well as employees, and we do; if we know that when it comes to workplace bullying it has terrible consequences, when is there sufficient obligation on us to try and work cooperatively to fix the problem? And anyone who thinks that the status quo is working, just talk to someone who has experienced workplace bullying and you’ll realise it won’t.

REPORTER: Not just workplace bullying, but a whole range of IR reforms that you are proposing, a lot of businesses, small and large, in Australia have said that this is restrictive and it is making it difficult to do business in Australia. What do you say about that?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all, the changes we’re proposing aren’t law. So the argument that it’s already restricting people when it’s not law I don’t buy, because it’s not in. What I do know is that simply grouping our propositions: We are proposing that when it comes to intractable disputes there should be some circuit breakers. I for one don’t want to see any Qantas style lockouts and stranding of hundreds of thousands of passengers.

When it comes to family flexible arrangements, we’ve got a bit smarter these days. We understand that women have a right to work. We understand that when you have a child that’s a great thing. We understand it’s not easy to automatically return to work. We understand that it’s appropriate to encourage people to have dialogue between employee and employer. The idea that the right to request leave because you’re the victim of domestic violence – if you think that is an attack on Australian industry, well then we live on different planets.  And I'm not saying you do, I'm just saying ‑ that's the debate.

I tell you also, workplace bullying is an issue, and I'm prepared to stand up against the Goliaths in Australian society on behalf of the Davids, and in this case the Davids are in fact victims of workplace bullying.

REPORTER: So how are these consultations progressing at the moment? Where are we up to? When can we expect…

BILL SHORTEN: We've got Parliamentary hearings, there's draft legislation in the House. It's a dynamic and active process. I speak to business every day and I speak to workers every day. I periodically read our newspapers too to see what they're telling me to do.

But what I also know is that workplace bullying, time to act. Right to request family flexible conditions, that's not unreasonable. The idea that we want to be circuit breaker mechanisms to stop intractable disputes, well that's sensible. These are sensible propositions. They're from the middle ground of Australian society and life.

I don't blame business for in some cases saying they don't want to change anything, but you know, we've got to get with the times. Workplace bullying is a real issue, family flexibility, that's sensible, so we've got lots of good ideas. And we'll keep working through with business.

What I do know is that we don't know anything about the Opposition policies, we don't know if they will guarantee things like shift rate, shift rosters, penalty rates. We don't know what they're ruling out and what they're ruling in. The Opposition are treating the Australian population as mugs because they're not willing to tell them the truth about their policies, what are their secret plans?

I mean, it is important in this debate that we actually recognise there's two competing parties for government and that both parties have an obligation to be upfront with the Australian people before the election, not after.

REPORTER: So how did yesterday's conversations and talks go with the unions? Were we any closer or?

BILL SHORTEN: It's a state of active dialogue, as I do with the employers, with the unions, but again, everyone knows what Labor stands for, fair and balanced workplaces. We want productive, prosperous workplaces, but we want to make sure that fairness doesn't get thrown out at the same time. People know where we stand. Not everyone likes it, but people know where we stand.

No one knows where the Opposition stands. All they've said is that they failed to rule out a big attack on working people's conditions. You know, the Opposition should realise job security is not a dirty word, or dirty words.

REPORTER: So how are you going to convince businesses that long‑running disputes should be arbitrated by the Fair Work Commission? I mean, they're not in favour of that.

BILL SHORTEN: Your question answers itself. Why would you want to have long‑running disputes? No one wins out of that. We already have some mechanisms when the whole economy's affected. So it's not a totally alien notion.

Industrial disputation has been lower for the whole life of this government on average than the Howard years. Australians are not all having big arguments but where there is an intractable dispute, aren't we capable of giving leadership in this country? Aren't we capable of extending a hand of help to say to parties when they really just can't work things out? It's funny, companies are against us having it in the system but that doesn't stop them ringing me to say, can you help us with this intractable dispute?

REPORTER: So you don't think that these industrial relations reforms will come at the expense of investment in Australia?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh my goodness, no. Australian investment is a ‑ the pipelines of investments are massive, at massive levels. I had the privilege to be with the Prime Minister in China and then more recently talking to fund managers in Canada. People think overseas Australia's a success story. It's about time perhaps we started looking at ourselves and realising, we're doing pretty well compared to the rest of the world.

Nearly nine hundred thousand new jobs created since the global financial crisis, economic growth greater than thirteen per cent, ten interest rate cuts in a row, two per cent inflation [unclear] two per cent. This is a good nation and when I come to Ecotech, there is more to be positive about in Australia than we sometimes give ourselves credit. Thanks very much.