Bill's Transcripts

Doorstop Parliament House

27 AUGUST 2012

 Howard on WorkChoices, Newstart, Workplace Relations 


BILL SHORTEN: You have former Prime Minister John Howard saying WorkChoices wasn’t so bad and it should be brought back. Now is the time for Mr Abbott to either repudiate his old boss, Mr Howard, or indeed agree with him.

 The Opposition has entered the second half of the electoral cycle from the last election. We’ve now seen the Opposition run out of their negative slogans around the carbon price on pollution, around boat people. Even Mr Abbott’s old boss has in recent times said it’s time for the Opposition to have a workplace relations policy. We’ve got around 30 of Mr Abbott’s past and present colleagues saying it’s time to have a workplace relations policy. We’ve got the conservative Premiers up and down the east coast implementing conservative workplace relations policies – cutting the benefits of injured workers, cutting the skills and training for people in Victoria with cuts to TAFE, cutting jobs in Queensland.

 The only person in Australia who doesn’t want to talk about workplace relations is Tony Abbott. Now it’s time for Mr Abbott to bring it on, to bring on the workplace relations debate we have to have, and for Mr Abbott to 1) to rule out what his former boss has said; and 2) to make it very clear that he won’t touch people’s penalty rates. Two simple questions: do you or don’t you agree with your old boss John Howard, and will you or won’t you attack penalty rates.

 JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, Mr Howard isn’t talking about WorkChoices though, he’s talking about pre-WorkChoices AWAs which had a no disadvantage test. He’s saying his mistake was WorkChoices when it came to individual agreements. So isn’t there a little bit of confusion going on here?

 BILL SHORTEN: I think that Mr Howard is getting frustrated from the sidelines with the policy timidity and negativity of the Opposition.

 How helpful is it for Mr Abbott to have his old boss come and tell him what he should be doing on workplace relations.

Mr Abbott needs to make explicit – does he support what Mr Howard is saying with statutory individual contracts, or doesn’t he?

 JOURNALIST: What is wrong with those contracts if they had the no disadvantage test?

 BILL SHORTEN: Well let’s be very clear. We saw what happened with statutory individual contracts. We saw that it was, as a result of bringing in statutory individual contracts, we saw a reduction in penalty rates, we saw a reduction in people’s shift rates, we saw a reduction in what people were taking home in their pay, we saw many examples of people being exploited.

 If the Abbott Opposition, who say they’re just a heartbeat away from government, think that the statutory individual contracts are so, let’s have the debate.

 But at the moment, we’ve got a Coalition industrial relations policy which is in witness protection. It’s harder to find than the big black panther which the Baillieu Government is stalking in Gippsland in the high country.

 JOURNALIST: What are the aspects that Mr Howard raised that you think hark back to WorkChoices, what are the specific things that he mentioned?

 BILL SHORTEN: Oh, we want a debate on WorkChoices, we want a debate on the Coalition’s alternative workplace relations. There’s no doubt when we hear this debate, put forward by Mr Howard, and many others in the conservative Opposition, what they talk about when they talk about workplace relations is deregulating the labour market.

 What they talk about is creating statutory-based individual contracts. What they won’t talk about is guaranteeing people’s penalty rates. What they talk about is making it easier to dismiss people unfairly without right or redress.

 JOURNALIST: How poorly were AWAs operating in your view until the WorkChoices error? Were they just manifestly a disaster for working people?

 BILL SHORTEN: People who say that there is equality in bargaining in the workplace, perhaps I think fail to grasp what the real-life situations of most people are. If you’re a mum, earning $35,000 a year, working part-time, working a shift roster which allows you to drop your kids off at school, or to pick up your kids from school, you have very little bargaining power. Let’s be very clear, many Australians don’t even earn $55,000 a year.

 There is a myth, peddled by the conservatives, which says that somehow penalty rates are some sort of after-dinner treat for highly paid blue collar workers. They are not. If you look at the retail industry, if you look at the hospitality industry, average wages there are barely $50,000 a year, and that’s for someone working full time. Penalty rates are the difference between someone making ends meet and not making ends meet. Penalty rates for people in this wages category are the difference between being able to pay a mortgage and enter the housing market and not enter the housing market.

 The idea that a 19-year-old or an 18-year-old starting their first job can negotiate equally with their employer doesn’t get the reality of bargaining power in the workplace. That is not to say that the Government thinks that most employers are out to rip off their employees — they’re not. But the basic facts are that you don’t have the same bargaining power—that’s why we believe in a strong and fair safety net.

 People should recognise that the Fair Work Act had been in barely three years and we’ve seen an uptick in productivity. AWAs, statutory individual contracts, did not contribute to some remarkable spurt in productivity and there is no evidence to show that they did. On the contrary what it shows is that most Individual Statutory Agreements were a method to undermine the basic safety net of Australians going to work.

 JOURNALIST: Speaking of not making ends meet, are you concerned that people on the dole are living below the poverty line?

 BILL SHORTEN: There’s no doubt in my mind that $249.00, being the Newstart Allowance, is incredibly low and be very difficult to live on. There are other benefits which are available to people but I for one don’t accept the proposition that life on the unemployment allowance is easy at all. That is why this Government is spending money to make sure that parents who are single mums trying to get back to work can access child care. All the research shows us that access to affordable child care is one of the big barriers towards people re-entering the workforce. In addition I have particular concern about single people on the Newstart Allowance who don’t get the benefit of family tax benefit schemes and also have to pay rent. So the Government certainly does think it’s a difficult situation. That’s why when we introduced the Clean Energy Scheme we provided specific support for people in that category as well as targeting programs to assist people find work.

 JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

 BILL SHORTEN: Well initially our settings are that the Newstart Allowance will stay where it is for the time being, and we have to be very clear that we’re also committed to a range of priorities. We think that the challenges of unemployment start around the ability to get a job. Our commitment by targeting postcodes of disadvantage, our commitment around programs to support people on the sole parents’ payment being able to find work. Our commitment to fund job support agencies which is very significant, and far greater than any of our predecessors. This is all part of the answer, but I’m not going to stand here and say that I think life is easy for people on the Newstart Allowance because I don’t believe it is.

 JOURNALIST: There is a call today for a commission to set the base rate of the Newstart Allowance, to take that out of the Government’s hands...

 BILL SHORTEN: Oh, I haven’t seen that yet. I’d certainly take that on board.

 JOURNALIST: Just back on IR, Abbott said this afternoon that he’s more interested in tweaking the Individual Flexibility Arrangements. Your own review of the Fair Work Act was critical of those, saying they’d provide...not much flexibility at all and they recommended some changes. Are you going to make any changes to the IFA’s in response to the review?

 BILL SHORTEN: Well, there’s question about three parts there...what the report said; what we’re going to do; and what Mr Abbott’s talking about. Mr Abbott has never seen a verb he can’t use. Tweaking? What does tweaking mean?- [interrupted]

 JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

 BILL SHORTEN: [laughs] ...nor has the Sydney Morning Herald. The point about it is that, and your substantive question is that, that the Opposition say that they want to do something with individual contracts. Politics shouldn’t be about Individual Flexibility Agreements. Politics should not be a guessing game, where the Australian people have to guess what the Opposition will do. We all know, watching the Opposition, that unless it’s something negative, they have nothing to say.

 We all know that the Opposition can’t make its promises add up, and they have no strategy to get us into surplus. We all know the Opposition, at least the strategists in the Opposition Leader’s office, think that a workplace relations debate is the equivalent for them to eating a bowl of rat poison, even though we know there are many in the Opposition - the conservative right-wingers, the hardliners, are itching for that debate.

 We would say to Mr Abbott, let the Coalition run free, bring on the industrial relations debate. I’m happy to see how they would tweak IFAs. In terms of the actual report, the report’s recommended a model clause for IFAs, we’re still considering that, but the report was also very clear about the Howard era industrial arrangements. They gave it the thumbs down and they gave the Fair Work Act the thumbs up. Mr Howard is not looking back over his past and thinking that they did anything wrong. Mr Howard was Mr Abbott’s boss. The question for Mr Abbott is does he agree with Mr Howard or does he have a different view and if he has a different view, what is it?

 JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, down in the Grocon dispute, CFMEU are thumbing their nose at the courts. Doesn’t that show that the system is not actually working that well at the moment if you have to intervene all the time?       

BILL SHORTEN: I think you would have read your own paper today and saw my comments in your paper today. There is nothing more I can add to what I’ve already told a number of your journalists in the Fin today and it is this. The Government doesn’t support unlawful industrial action, we don’t support some of the tactics we’ve heard reported. Clearly something has gone very wrong in the relationship between Grocon and the relevant union and we certainly, as well as acknowledging we don’t support any unlawful action, we do urge all parties to come to a speedy resolution. And as we do, we’re trying to help that speedy resolution.

JOURNALIST: But doesn’t that show there are some flaws in the system if you’re having to intervene?

BILL SHORTEN: The laws which would apply to some of the issues that are being reflected here have been the same laws for 80 years actually, the law of tort hasn’t changed and that’s what the allegations circulate around. And the mechanisms which the company are using are the same mechanisms that were available under previous iterations of whoever was in power.

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten you made some comments yesterday about the role of the intervention in the Labor loss in the Northern Territory, do you think the election result will impact on the future of the intervention? What implications are there for it?

BILL SHORTEN: As I said yesterday on Channel 10’s Meet the Press, I said that talking to people in the Northern Territory ALP, that people are clearly disappointed for Paul Henderson, because he’s made a big contribution to the future of the Northern Territory.


We congratulate the new leader of the Northern Territory.


In terms of the feedback, I was getting from people on the ground, it would appear that between two and four seats have swung. Each electorate has roughly 3,500 voters. It’s become clear that whilst the Labor Party’s vote held up reasonably well in Darwin, in the bush in certain seats, there was concern about the reorganisation of local government. What I mean by that is there was a push to merge local councils into larger bodies and that caused some resentment.


There was also, I am told, some lingering resentment about the Federal Government, and to be fair, it was the Howard Government, and we supported it – it is their intervention in the Northern Territory. 


These electorates saw about 3,500/4,000 people vote. There are about four electorates which have changed, with some swings of about 10 per cent. We are talking about 1500 people changing their votes which has seen the change in government. I don’t minimise that, but I am not also about to recommend that the Federal Government down tools on the work we are doing on improving funding to schools, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the creation of jobs, which this Government has presided over.


I also think that workplace relations wasn’t a big issue in the Northern Territory, but as Mr Howard has said, as some 30 of Mr Abbott’s colleagues have said, both serving and past members of the Coalition, as the Government’s seeking, as the electorates want to know- Mr Abbott, we know you can be very negative, but what are you positive about and what are your plans on workplace relations?


JOURNALIST: Minister, your partners in a minority government, the Greens turned 20 as a party last Thursday, what do you think their most significant contribution has been in that time?


BILL SHORTEN: I don’t get invited to their parties so I don’t know what they celebrated. I’d have to take that on notice and I’m certainly happy to come back to you.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, just one more on IR if I can?




JOURNALIST: This list, do you have a copy of this list?


BILL SHORTEN: What I do have is discussion about the Liberals talking about the need to have a workplace relations debate. I’ve got comments from Mr Abbott, Senator Abetz, Joe Hockey. Sure I’m happy to circulate some of those names and their quotes. 


But I think it’s also available on Hansard and I’d encourage you, if you think that I’m exaggerating about the appetite for some of the right wings in the Liberal Party to have a debate, I think you know some of the people who are on the phone to you quite frequently, I couldn’t only guess. But there are plenty of Libs who want to have a debate about workplace relations. We’re saying bring it on.


I think Australians have a right to know who’s got the most positive vision for Australia’s future workplaces.

 JOURNALIST: Just following from Phil’s question, in principal are you accepting that there is room for the Government to improve the operation of individual flexibility arrangements?

 BILL SHORTEN: No, I haven’t given a view on that. Thanks. Go on, alright, last question.

 JOURNALIST: In terms of today’s Nielson poll are you buoyed by the result?

 BILL SHORTEN: Polls go up and polls go down. What matters is the Government’s agenda and what we stand for. Prime Minister Gillard after a very tough and bruising couple of weeks in parliament, she’s demonstrated what she stands for. 

 She stands for better funding for schools, so all kids regardless of what postcodes get a good education. She stands for a well funded National Disability Insurance Scheme, despite the opposition of the States. She certainly stands for skills, that’s why we’ve spent so much unlike what the States are doing. She also wants to see Australia’s workplaces are fair. That is why we will not give up seeking the Abbott opposition to actually debate what they positively want to do rather than just let them off the hook by being negative all the time. 

 Thanks very much