Interview with Waleed Aly, Radio National Breakfast 5/1/12

05 January 2012

Please read my interview with Waleed Aly from Radio National.

Subject/s: IR, lock outs, productivity

WALEED ALY: You don’t need me to tell you that it’s all happening in the field of IR at the moment. The latest development is that Melbourne’s ports look set to shut down for two days next week, thanks to further industrial disputation between the Maritime Union and the stevedoring company, DP World.

This follows a similar dispute between the same parties and similar consequences in Adelaide this week. Lock outs of employees at another stevedoring company, POAGS, recently, and lock outs at Schweppes and, of course, the infamous Qantas dispute, where the company grounded the entire fleet, triggering a Fair Work Australia hearing.

In that context, Bill Shorten probably has the second or third most important job in politics this year. He’s the newly appointed Workplace Relations Minister and he joins me now. Good morning.

BILL SHORTEN: Good morning, Waleed.

WALEED ALY: Let’s begin with the current dispute between the Maritime Union and DP World.  You’re following it closely.  They’re meeting tomorrow, I understand.  Will the strike and subsequent lock out be averted?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, it depends if they resolve all their issues tomorrow. I think what’s important to understand is that people do have the right to negotiate, be it employer or employees represented by unions. And periodically, they’re not going to always agree in the first instance or, indeed, after a range of talks, so…

WALEED ALY: Yes, but this is happening a lot more now.  It seems to be happening quite a bit.

BILL SHORTEN: Industrial disputation is far lower than it was a decade ago.  So certainly, you’re right.  I listened to the matters that you mentioned.  The Qantas issue was quite extraordinary and I don’t think we’ll see the – I don’t think Qantas will be repeating that experiment [inaudible].

WALEED ALY: Well, they’re similar to lock outs, though.  We’ve spoken to some people on both sides of the industrial disputes over the last little while.  I’m just going to play you just a basic distillation of the view – their views of the current industrial relations landscape and why these sorts of actions keep happening.

WARREN SMITH: It seems that employers are generally not in the position now to want to settle. They want to leave things hanging out there and have long negotiations without reaching agreement around claims that are not unreasonable.

VINCENT TREMAINE: Well, I don’t think employers have got much in the way of options.  Our industrial relations system is pretty extreme, you have to say.

WALEED ALY: In what way?

VINCENT TREMAINE: And – well, what option is there for an employer?

WALEED ALY: That was Warren Smith from the MUA and Vincent Tremaine from Flinders Ports. Bill Shorten, can you wade through that for us?

BILL SHORTEN: Yeah. Well, it’s not unusual in some cases where people start the negotiations from different views. I very rarely have seen a negotiation where a union asks for something and then the employer says, you didn’t ask for enough.

WALEED ALY: But that’s not what this is about.

BILL SHORTEN: [Inaudible]

WALEED ALY: They’re talking about – you’ve got now the union saying this is an employer campaign.  They’re politically just running to extreme measures, and you’ve got employers saying, we’ve got no option. The unions are just being difficult and there’s no – the system doesn’t allows us to do anything, except go for a lock out or grounding of fleet or something like that.

BILL SHORTEN: The function of the Government is not to take sides.  I’m not surprised if parties in a negotiation or people in the negotiation promote their own case and disagree with the other side’s argument. That’s not unusual, either. I don’t accept, though, the proposition that somehow the system is more extreme than the one we replaced.

There was a meatworks dispute, G & K O’Connor, which went for nine months where people were locked out. The sort of very long disputes which were a feature of the past haven’t been a feature of this system. Industrial disputation is low. But what I also recognise is that people have to bargain.  It’s the day job of the union and the management to work through these issues.

WALEED ALY: But this is not about bargaining. This is about the fact that you have two completely contradictory views about what the problem is and what is going on. Now, you say that we haven’t seen long range disputes and that’s probably fair enough, but part of the reason for that is that employers are quickly reaching for what you’ve been calling extreme measures like grounding of fleet or like going to a lock out, and isn’t there something wrong with the system, when that is the best way to resolve it?

BILL SHORTEN: No, I don’t – I don’t accept – again, I don’t accept the assumption of what you’re saying, that there is some massive crisis.  It’s – the facts don’t bear it out in terms of the numbers.

WALEED ALY: That’s what the unions are saying, though.

BILL SHORTEN: Okay, but a union is pursuing a claim for its members. It’s hardly likely to throw a bunch of rose petals down at the feet of the employer and thank them. Like, I – nothing I’ve heard surprises me, but I just don’t draw the same conclusion that you do that the system is in peril.

WALEED ALY: I come quickly to the Fair Work…

BILL SHORTEN: But to be fair, that doesn’t mean this is an easy negotiation.  You know, Australia’s waterfront is a duopoly. There is talk about a third entrant. There’s global competitive price pressures, therefore, on the employer, but the union also has a position where it says that people at DP World ports are – Dubai ports are paid less than their colleagues at the other stevedoring company.  Now, it’s not up to the Government to micromanage the validity of all the claims, but again, I would say that this is not unusual for people trying to pursue their case to put their case and say it’s – the other side is wrong.

WALEED ALY: We’ve only got about a minute or so left so I wanted to get to this quickly.  You're commencing a review of the Fair Work Act.  Everyone is going to think productivity is a problem and something that we need to look at. It’s not explicitly in your terms of reference that you will look at productivity.  It is in, implicitly you say, because it’s mentioned in the objects of the Act and you’re going to review the object of the Act, but here’s my question.

The object of the Act that refers to productivity says it that the object is to achieve productivity in fairness, through an emphasis on enterprise level bargaining.  That’s not the same thing as a broad inquiry into whether or not the workplace relations system looks or is good for productivity generally.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, you said we’ve got a minute-and-a-half and your question about productivity is a much longer question than the thirty seconds to answer.


BILL SHORTEN: Productivity is where you – for the same level of input, you get more outputs or if you can decrease input, you still get the same output. I’ve been surprised at some of the pedantic debate about saying if a word’s not in the explicit terms of reference somehow you can’t talk about it. Of course, you can.

So yes, productivity is a feature of the workplace relations system, but there are more factors, which go into productivity than just workplace relations. So yes, it would be a feature of the review, but if we look at productivity, there’s many more features which go into than simply an argument about penalty rates or…

WALEED ALY: Sure. Okay. We’ll watch the review with interest. Bill Shorten, thanks for your time. We’re running into the news. I appreciate you speaking to us.



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