Bill's Transcripts

Press Conference - Melbourne - Fair Work Act Review

Press conference – Melbourne
15 October 2012


 BILL SHORTEN:    Good afternoon, everyone.  It's nice to be here.  I'm accompanied by Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Relations, Senator Jacinta Collins who has been working on all the matters I'm about to talk to you about.  We've just concluded a meeting of the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council where I've reported to employer representatives, union representatives, of our first response to the Fair Work Act review.

 Extensive consultations on the Fair Work Act review have taken place.  There was the actual report and again I thank the independent panellists who did that work.  Since receiving that report in early August I have endeavoured to consult with a whole range of people, representatives of small business, big business, contractors, union representatives and members of the community more generally.

 The review, as people will probably recall, said that the Fair Work Act was working well and that conclusion in my opinion hasn't changed since I received that report.  We are committed to put forward legislation this year on a range of matters, about seventeen of the recommendations in the report of the fifty-three recommendations, so about a third. We are also committed to doing some other matters which have arisen, which are consistent with the thrust of our approach to the Fair Work Review.

 The changes which we are discussing and will be putting into the Parliament go to a range of matters. Without being unduly prescriptive I'm happy just to summarise them for you. There are technical amendments, recommendations fourteen, fifteen, nineteen and twenty.  There's some further amendments clarifying the functioning of the Act, recommendations twenty-one, twenty-three and twenty-six. 

 I think most significantly in this first tranche of response is that we shall be doing some reforms to the way in which unfair dismissal laws operate, which at no stage disadvantage people's rights and legal remedies. But recognising that for small and medium enterprise there are probably some improvements that can be made now that we've seen the Act in operation for two and a half years. 

 I'm very confident with our unfair dismissals protections, they're much better than what was in place before Labor was elected but having said that we are proposing to align the time limits for lodging an unfair dismissal and a general protections claim. In other words, under general protections people have up to sixty days under unfair dismissal.  So if they felt they were aggrieved under those causes they have up to sixty days to file an application.For unfair dismissal, fourteen days. So we decided to put into legislation that it should be twenty-one days for all purposes.  So after twenty-one days everyone knows where they stand. 

 We're also looking at recommendations relating to dismissing applications and ordering costs. Whilst we believe the system is working very well we accept the proposition that we need to provide absolute certainty for small and medium sized enterprise. So the claims which are without merit, if they continued to be pursued, can either be dismissed or alternatively the person making the claim if they keep pursuing them and there really isn't a strong case that they should carry the risk of paying the costs if they're just unduly tying up the system and their former employer.

 We also support the recommendation forty-four which would allow the President of Fair Work Australia to consider requiring applicants for unfair dismissal to provide more information, just to make sure the claim really does stack up against the case. 

 We're also looking at doing some structural amendments to Fair Work Australia, recommended by the Fair Work Act Review panel including changing the name of Fair Work Australia.  In addition we're looking to do a range of other measures which go towards the functioning of the actual Fair Work Australia.

 We also support the Review panel's recommendations to enhance the role of the Fair Work institutions in encouraging more productive workplaces. That was recommendation one.  We also intend to do two additional sets of matters in the first tranche of legislation, that is, creating two additional statutory positions of vice president of the tribunal, a mechanism to deal with complaints against tribunal members and clarifying and streamlining provisions dealing with conflicts of interest of tribunal members.

 We are also going to make amendments in response to the recently released Productivity Commission inquiry into default superannuation funds in modern awards.  We will be busily consulting on the Productivity Commission recommendations in the very near future.  We're going to convene a committee on industrial legislation to consider the amendments prior to introduction.  We've also asked members of this committee to give us their views on recommendations thirty-two (A) to (D) which go towards the smooth conduct of ballots in workplaces on matters. 

 Also I should say that the National Workplace Relations Council discussed other important Government legislation, where I gave them updates on the Fair Entitlements Guarantee which says workers who are caught up in insolvencies with a risk of losing their entitlements through no fault of their own are given a statutory scheme to provide certainty when people are put through the most difficult and unexpected of circumstances where their entitlement is at risk.

We also reported on the transfer of business provisions where we're seeking to make sure that national workplace laws apply in all circumstances where there's transfer of business involving national workplace employers. 

 We, as a Government, are intensely interested in productivity.  That's why we recognise that a debate about the regulation or legislation isn't the only game in town. That's why yesterday I announced the formation of an advisory group of eminent Australians, business leaders and union reps, to help provide advice about the creation of a Centre for Workplace Leadership where we can see a much greater focus on the enterprise level of the relationship between good leaders at all levels of an organisation and productivity, innovation and competition.  So we look forward to the work of that eminent group very soon.

 In summary there are some issues which remain debated or disputed.  These include, and the least of which are greenfields agreements, and access to arbitration, IFAs and other matters. I have formed the view that I'm not going to rule out any of the recommendations of the Fair Work Review, in other words of the fifty-three recommendations.  I think they all are worthy of consideration and discussion. 

 What I've managed to do in a relatively brief period of time is to put together a package of changes which whilst I won't say to you that everyone agreed with everything which I've just gone through in this meeting, certainly I get the impression - and people will be free to speak for themselves - that a good ninety per cent of what we're doing - I mean, it's all subject to seeing what the drafting, the words actually say - that there's more support than not for this first package of reforms which significantly go towards improving the operation of the tribunal and also in particular to unfair dismissal changes which I believe will be well received and employers have already told me, well received.

 Assistance for small and medium enterprise which don't compromise the equity which is afforded to individuals who are caught up in unfair dismissal matters. For the remaining matters I remain committed to relentless consultation.  I can't predict success, that we will get all of the changes through and that I'll get everyone agreeing with everything but one thing is for sure, with a Labor Government you know that we will never turn off the lights and go home until we've got the best possible outcomes that we can get through a process of negotiation and consensus.

 At least with the Labor Government you know what we think about things, you know what we think about the Fair Work Act, you know what we think about the review.  We can spell out our views on most of the recommendations and we remain committed to achieving compromise.  We also know what we think about public holidays, we know what we think about penalty rates. 

 One of the challenges I think arising out of what we've said - is what we're doing in our first tranche of legislation, is what we're doing about superannuation, this is what we're going to do about the operation of the unfair dismissal system on the matters not yet resolved, and important matters, not matters which can be easily put to one side such as greenfields agreements and arbitration.

 You know that we are committed to trying to get an outcome which accommodates concerns of employers and employee representatives.  The Opposition, however, are a bit like a pub with no beer.  They keep making a promise that they can have something of value to people but they won't tell us what they think about the recommendations, they won't tell us what they think about unfair dismissal, they won't tell us what they think about the big issues such as greenfield agreements.

 So I hope that today's decision by the Government, the conclusion of the first chapter about our direction in terms of updating the Fair Work Act, that I just hope now that the Opposition might feel inclined to come out onto the field of debate and policy and explain what they stand for, what they would do if they were in power and that would be, I think, for the great interest of cooperative relationships within the Australian workplace.  I'm happy to take any questions at this stage.

 QUESTION:              Just what you said about changing the name of [unclear] so quickly?

 BILL SHORTEN:      I didn't gloss over it quickly. I didn't actually say.

 QUESTION:              Sorry, you mentioned quickly that there would be change to the name?

 BILL SHORTEN:      Yes, that's right. 

 QUESTION:               To what? 

 BILL SHORTEN:     The most likely name will be Fair Work Commission. 

 QUESTION:              Has that been decided or is that.

 BILL SHORTEN:     That is the most likely outcome, yes.

 QUESTION:              Why are you delaying further IR reform till next year?  Are you trying to make this an election issue?

 BILL SHORTEN:     Industrial relations is always an election issue. What makes it an election issue is the inability of the Opposition to spell out what they think. No, in our case, on important matters such as, but not limited to, greenfields agreements in the resources and construction sector and arbitration - there isn’t agreement.

 There isn’t agreement within the union movement; there isn’t agreement within the ranks of employers. Some employers say that they don't want any arbitration; others say they would like it. When there is not agreement between sectors of the economy, when there is not agreement within the ranks of particular organisations, I still, however, believe that there is the prospect of achieving a deal. For 20 years I've represented workers, but I've always tried to see the employers point of view. I think our change on unfair dismissal reflect the value of driving consensus. Australians go to work and they want to feel they're valued, they want to feel engaged, they want to feel empowered.

 Business wants to be able to make a profit, to innovate, to compete with the rest of the world; they want to do so on terms of certainty and a fair go all round. When it comes to working through the greenfields issues I believe it is an issue that requires further work. I believe it is possible to achieve a compromise, but at this stage I haven’t yet got that and I don't believe in winner take all.

 I don't share this view put out by a lot of the right wing in Australian politics and some elements of the media that the only way to fix up Australian workplaces is by de-regulating the system. I don't share that view. I believe that well thought out, considered compromise is always a better option than winner take all and at this stage, that’s why I don't want to rule things in or out.

 There is pressure on me from both employers and unions to rule certain things in, to rule certain things out, but what was pleasing today is that whilst some would like me to move in one direction more quickly, or some would like me to move in another direction more quickly, everyone accepts this is a government who consulted well. There was no criticism of that and we’ll just keep trying to achieve that most elusive industrial relations creatures: the win-win.

 QUESTION:            When will the first piece of legislation be [unclear]?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Well, we hope to present it to Parliament in the very near future. There’s eight sitting days left, so within the next eight days of Parliamentary sitting.

 QUESTION:            Yeah, but the expectation is what, that it gets passed early next year?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Oh well, we’d like to get it passed as soon as possible. What we're doing is - and if you have the opportunity to talk to people and participants who are in the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council, one pleasing thing they said is, there weren’t a lot of surprises. I actually think that in an ideal world, people aren’t surprised by what’s happening. So what we’re doing is we’ll continue that intensive, relentless consultation.

 A lot of what happens in industrial relations consultation is below the waterline: you can't see it, but believe me, there’s people working on it. So hopefully we’re able to get the laws through Parliament this year, the first tranche, but we’ll just keep working on that.

 QUESTION:            [Unclear]?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Well, hopefully, yes.

 QUESTION:            But isn’t there a requirement that people in the NWRCC can't talk? So [unclear] - I mean is it…

 BILL SHORTEN:    Oh, yeah, no, there’s specifics but listen, they're all big boys and girls there. They're all competent leaders and they’ll put their views very clearly. Both - I think some of them even talked to you, Mark, on the record, so you know, I don't think that - there are no gag orders.

 QUESTION:            No gag orders?


 QUESTION:            Have you had discussions with Eric Abetz about what they will - the Coalition will or won't agree with?

 BILL SHORTEN:    No, I’d love to have a debate with Eric Abetz, but…

 QUESTION:            Not a debate, but you had talks [inaudible] support?

BILL SHORTEN:    We’re always keen to see what the Opposition have to say, I have to say, though, for relentless negativity, the Opposition win the prize. We've written to the States and said the Fair Work Act Review panellists recommended there should be 11 public holidays. We've written to Coalition states and Labor states, said which 11 days do you want?

 The Opposition can't even tell us which public holidays they like. That’s not that hard to work out. Do you like Easter Sunday, do you like Good Friday - these are not trick questions. When we put forward a submission to the penalty rates debates going on in Fair Work Australia, the Opposition sort of accused up of cheating to have a view. It is not unfair and naughty to have an opinion and to state it publicly.

 So we wait with great interest to see what Senator Abetz says on these recommendations. We wait with great interest, we hope that for once they’ll bring the IR policy of the Coalition out of hiding, out of witness protection, and let it have a run because we are most fascinated to see what the Coalition would do if they were in power.

 They don't want to talk about industrial relations; they always use clichés, they hide behind generalities and nothing comments and weasel words. You know, it would be very good if the AFR could help in the mission of pinning down the Liberal party on their industrial relations policy because it is a complete mystery beyond a couple of thought bubbles.

 QUESTION:            What’s the time frame for the second tranche of changes?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Next year; ideally, early next year. Again, it depends on where we’re able to achieve consensus. It may well be that I form the view that consensus is just literally impossible, but I’m an optimist; I haven’t formed that view yet. I’m very interested in the views of employers on family friendly provisions, the right to request leave in certain circumstances.

 I’m interested in seeing what compromises and how we can better improve the competing concerns about right of entry. Unions feel they don't have enough of a case; employers feel that sometimes it can be abused. I’m interested in what we can do there. Greenfields remains one of the key issues but I will not sacrifice a hasty outcome and a winner-take-all attitude in the Parliament if we can achieve a lasting certainty for resource and mining projects.

 I have to also say, though, that there is a huge pipeline of mining investment underway already - it’s already started. So whilst I know that greenfields agreements is an issue, which has been raised by some sectors in business, I also know that there’s a lot going on, which is good news, but of course, good news very rarely sells newspapers.

 QUESTION:            The employers say that you're never going to get agreement on some of these issues. So do the unions, so they say well, why doesn’t the government get on with it, as such?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Well, my answer is again, people would say that sorting out unfair dismissal’s too hard, but I've managed to get people to cut the cloth of their opinion to come up with an arrangement, which people can live and for many Australian businesses, it’s not a resource project, which is their big issue, it’s their concern about unfair dismissal.

 So today we are able to announce changes, which will streamline the unfair dismissal system, which don't compromise the fundamental rights of people, if mistreated, to make a claim, but certainly I think will clean up some of the vexatious behaviour at the margins, which is good news for literally hundreds of thousands of small businesses.

 QUESTION:            But do you accept the unfair dismissal provisions weren’t working, in some instances, in favour of business, or [unclear]?

 BILL SHORTEN:    I believe, when you look at the proportion of unfair dismissal claims made now, that when you look at the expanded number of people that the new laws cover compared to the old laws, that the rate of claims is about that same. I also believe that we’ve got a better conciliation rate. In other words, matters aren’t dragging on to trial in the same way they used to.

 Having said that, you always want to do better than good and if you can do best, well that’s even superior than just doing better. So the process of reform in the best interests of employees and enterprise and productivity and competition and innovation in small and medium enterprise, that is a daily task. So I think that the current system’s good and we’re going to make it better. Thanks everyone.

 QUESTION:            [Unclear] see if any …

 BILL SHORTEN:    Is that your by-line [unclear]?

 QUESTION:            Have you read that story?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Oh, I do read The Age, yes. Was that the question you're asking or was there another one?

 QUESTION:            [Unclear] getting in the way of a productive relationship between employers and unions with their built in code?

 BILL SHORTEN:    Conservative political parties in Australia can't have it both ways. They can't complain when there are disputes and then complain when there are settlements. I’m very wary of interfering with industrial agreements where parties have arrived at a solution. I am pleased when there is industrial harmony in construction. I don't presume to know more than Lend Lease about the Lend Lease business. If Mr Baillieu wants to run a construction company he should, but in the meantime I don't see it’s the role of conservative politicians to interfere with cooperative collective arrangements in the worksite. Thanks very much everyone.


Mr Shorten’s Media Contacts: Jessica Lindell 0408 642 804