Station: ABC 1
Program Name: Insiders
Presenter: Barrie Cassidy
Date: 20 May 2012
SUBJECT/S: BHP, Fair Work Act, Craig Thomson, Same-Sex Marriage
BARRIE CASSIDY: Bill Shorten. Good morning. Welcome.
BILL SHORTEN: Good morning Barrie
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, Jac Nasser is essentially demanding greater deregulation and more flexibility.
BILL SHORTEN: Well, I share one common point of view with Jac Nasser. It's disappointing that the Liberal Party opposed our reduction in company tax. Mr Nasser said tax was an important issue. The Liberal Party has squandered that opportunity to reduce tax. But in terms of deregulation, I don't accept his basic view of the world, which says that if we could just externalise all our labour relations issues into changing one law in parliament, then we'd have some sort of nirvana in the future of economic performance. That's just not right. These issues have to be solved at the workplace.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You're not talking about a nirvana, but an improvement?
BILL SHORTEN: Yeah. But - let's talk about the specific dispute which is affecting BHP. It's the BMA Coalmines dispute. There are seven pits. There are 3000 people there. They're all long standing workforce. BHP Billiton has been trying to persuade its workforce about the changes it wants to make. It's been rejected again, 80 per cent. If 80 per cent of your employers are saying no, then maybe the problem isn't the Fair Work Act.
Maybe the challenge is for both the company and the workforce to agree what is the necessary change. I don't think coalminers are stupid. I think they understand the global economy. But I do think the company needs to take stock. If your own employees are saying no in a secret ballot, is that the problem of the Fair Work Act?
BARRIE CASSIDY: But is that what that potential strike is all about? Is it really about union power against management prerogative?
BILL SHORTEN: No. I think in industrial relations the nation does itself a favour by not trying to just reduce things to this sort of simple binary that on the left it's all about fairness and on the right it's all about flexibility. I have no doubt that there is a middle ground to be obtained here in improving productivity. What I don't buy is the argument being run - and Mr Nasser himself has got a distinguished record in business. So I don't single him out. But I don't buy the argument in some court quarters that productivity is simply related to the Fair Work Act. The Fair Work Act is two years old, yet the productivity, the low productivity growth in Australia is 10 years old. So I think the challenge here is to become a high wage, high performance, high productivity economy. Not a low wage, high conflict economy.
BARRIE CASSIDY: He's not being partisan about this though in any way. He says that the system actually worked in different forms, under Hawke, Keating, Howard. It's just not working now.
BILL SHORTEN: Well, it mightn't be working for BHP and these coalmines. But the level of industrial disputation, if you want to use that indicator, is a third of what it was under the Howard years. So it's one third on average under the Howard Years. BHP Billiton had a long dispute in the Bowen Basin in 2001. I mean it is important that we shouldn't just be students of business. We should be students of history. Bargaining disputes do periodically happen. I think the challenge here is if there is a problem and BHP can't convince its workforce, then go to Fair Work Australia, utilise the system to try and help you work through those tough issues. But let's not pretend that one piece of legislation in parliament is going to solve all of the issues in Australian business, because it's not. I think lowering company tax would have been a good way to help BHP Billiton's performance. But we couldn't get the Liberals to the starting blocks.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, you're essentially blaming BHP then for this problem that's emerged in Queensland. Are you saying that the workers are then entitled to start seven days of strikes from Thursday?
BILL SHORTEN: No. I think if we replay what I've just said, what I said is I don't blame the Fair Work Act if a company can't convince its workforce on a pattern of change. I know BHP Billiton's a smart company and it's a successful company. I also know many different miners. I haven't visited these individual pits. These are smart people who put themselves on the line every day. They get well remunerated. But not excessively remunerated. If these people, these longstanding workforce, are not convinced about the changes proposed on rosters or on safety, then there will be an outcome to this dispute. I have met with the CEO of BHP Billiton, Mr Kloppers. Mr Kloppers said he's negotiated on practically all continents in the world. They will reach an agreement here. There will be an agreement here and I'm not saying that there's not a legitimate debate in terms of can we improve the Fair Work Act. We've got the review which will conclude at the end of May. Government will respond late June/July, hopefully. But let's not pretend that if a company hits heavy water in bargaining, that all we do is simply externalise all the issues and blame the legislation. That's just - it's, productivity is at the enterprise. It's not determined solely by Canberra.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But when Jac Nasser said there's a need to move to the middle ground, then you say the same thing. You said that in your speech during the week. But you both clearly have different interpretation of where the middle ground sits.
BILL SHORTEN: Well, my interpretation of the middle ground is how do you enhance productivity and I've got two arguments to support how the Government is supporting productivity. One is, we're putting in place the biggest skills package ever. We're rolling out the national broadband networks. We're putting in place structural things which assist productivity. But the second thing is about productivity, it's all about the future of work. The CEO of the Gallop Corporation globally said the future of work is a good job. That's what the future of work is in Australia: a good job
What constitutes a good job is one which you want to turn up to every day. It's one where you don't think you're wasting your time or you're receiving stupid instructions from the person above you in the food chain. It's where you feel that you're empowered. It's where you feel that you're getting skills development. These things are where productivity lies. There are appropriate issues for the union movement to help raise and advance. How do you make things better at work? That - in the future, with our declining labour force, employers want to be an employer of choice. So I think it's how do you get to the high ground, not lurk to the swampy levels of industrial relations.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But under that formula, how soon can you get things moving, because productivity has been pretty much stalled for about a decade or so. It's running at a bit over one per cent, isn't it?
BILL SHORTEN: It has been stalled. You're quite right. Low productivity rates - it's been about 1.4 per cent on average for the last 10 years - has been a haunting public policy. I would note that most of that era was under the Howard Government laws. So clearly WorkChoices wasn't driving productivity increases. No, in the last three quarters we've actually seen a tick up in productivity, about 1.8 per cent. What's required is good leadership at the enterprise level. What's required is a highly skilled workforce, good quality management, repudiating the view that conflict is the only way to fix industrial relations. No-one is winning at the moment in the Bowen Basin. But what I do know is there is enough smart people on both sides of that negotiation. They'll fix that. Of that I have no doubt.
BARRIE CASSIDY: How relevant are the unions, though, anymore when you look at the conference that's just been held? It was weighed down by - well, on the industrial wing - by the performance of the Health Services Union, the political wing, by a party that's almost out on its feet.
BILL SHORTEN: Well, the question presumes there’s no more issues to resolve in Australia. So the labour movement was formed to deal with the issues of the day, to make sure that the economy was creating wealth and fairly sharing the wealth. Those challenges come in new forms every day. Just look at some of the recent challenges which the labour movement and the Labor Party has led on, improving parental leave, the skills development of Australia. Look at how we're making - helping families meet the cost of living through our budget, sharing the mining boom. I don't accept Mr Nasser's proposition that Labor is only interested in the distribution of wealth. We are fundamentally interested in the creation of wealth and we're also interested in the fair distribution of the national income created by people who go to work every day.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But you give the unions credit for parental leave. Tony Abbott's got an even better scheme. He didn't need union advice to come up with that one.
BILL SHORTEN: Oh well, Mr Abbott came a day late on that scheme metaphorically. His scheme is a new tax on the top businesses in Australia of 1.7%. I mean, you've got to love the Libs. They say that they're, you know, for business. They oppose the company tax reduction. They want to put a new 1.7% tax to pay for a scheme which will give people who are very well off special money to - for maternity leave. No, I think that - to go to your question earlier - is Labor's day over? Are there issues for unions and the Labor Party to resolve? There clearly are. The creation of infrastructure. The creation of a better Australia for our kids. That involves it spending money on the schools. It involves the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The economy is always in change in Australia. It's been in change ever since Arthur Phillip landed at Botany Bay. But what Labor, I think its brand strength is, is that we made sure that when the economy changes that people aren't left behind. That's what this budget did. You know, that's what the childcare changes that we've introduced are all about.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, Craig Thomson makes his address to the parliament tomorrow. Presumably he'll pretty much say what he said to Laurie Oakes. That he's essentially innocent of all of this. Do you just simply see this out until the next election and beyond?
BILL SHORTEN: I don't know what Mr Thomson will say tomorrow. What I do know as Minister for industrial Relations, Minister for Workplace Relations, is that there's been a Fair Work Australia investigation into parts of the Health Services Union. I do know that investigation has taken far too long. I also know that the investigation stage is at a conclusion. The findings are in. They're deeply disturbing. I also know that we owe it to the members of that union and indeed to some of the people caught up in the debate and the controversy to allow these findings to be tested in court. The parliament cannot be a judge and jury.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you ever talk to Craig Thomson?
BILL SHORTEN: Not since I've become Minister for Workplace Relations.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, beyond that in - there this is this question of whether matters ought to be referred to the Privileges Committee and what essentially they're talking about there is that he was a bit late in declaring that the ALP was helping fund his legal fees. Is that something that's warranted, a reference to the Privileges Committee on that issue?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, that will be a matter for the parliament to decide. I think it's important in my particular position as Minister for Workplace Relations, that I do what my brief is, which is to see this investigation into one part of one union is finally resolved for good and for all and that's where my focus is really aimed at, making sure that the Fair Work investigation findings are done. They're done. They're done by an independent regulator. The findings are deeply disturbing. But also to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to have these matters tested in court. The Fair Work findings, as deeply disturbing as they are, also haven't had the - hasn't been put under sustained cross-examination. So there are distinct phases and now we're into the court phase, I believe.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, when parliament gets embroiled in these kind of, you know, rather hostile issues, you expect allegations to come out of left field. Now, we have Senator Bill Heffernan's been mentioned in the papers this morning, Geoff Shaw in Victoria. Is this a start of a tit for tat campaign?
BILL SHORTEN: No. I don't know all the facts behind both of those reports. I've seen the press reports today. That's the best of my knowledge on it. What I do know is that for Labor, as difficult as it's been, we've said that there's a process to be gone through. Good process always beats bad process. Now, Mr Abbott has certainly rushed to judgement when it comes to other people, not from his own party. I think the challenge here is: will he rush to judgement again when it's his own party? Or will he say there's got to be a process and will he take the more measured Labor approach of saying that you've got to go through a process. Matters have to be tested. They can't just be accepted without the full process being completed. The challenge for Mr Abbott is, he sort of rushed to judgement when it's people who don't support him. What will be his stand when it's people who do support him and his views?
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, a couple of other things. We're almost out of time. But the super changes that you announced in the Budget, the doubling of the tax on high income earners over $300,000. Will that apply to cabinet ministers?
BILL SHORTEN: Yes. For any cabinet minister who is elected after 2004, they're on defined contribution. They don't get the defined benefit pension of earlier parliaments. So it applies to them and certainly, the Government's made it very clear, it's our intention to treat members of parliament, members of cabinet, equally with all others in the community, the same as everyone else.
BARRIE CASSIDY: The same as everyone on no transferring of the tax bill to the fund, no special arrangements for politicians.
BILL SHORTEN: Listen, there does have to be detail worked out. But I'm being - I don't think I can be any clearer. Our intent is that people receive equal treatment.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay and finally on gay marriage, on that issue, are you with Barack Obama? Or are you with Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard?
BILL SHORTEN: Well, I've been undecided on this question. I can see the argument of people of faith. They say that gay marriage isn't consistent with their religious values. But I also have to say I'm heavily influenced by Michael Kirby and what he's had to say and without - he says it, of course, much more eloquently than I do. But if we accept that being gay is not antisocial, which it's clearly not, then how do you only have some rights? How can you only have some rights in this society and he's also said, which I found - which I find influential and persuasive, that how is it that if a gay couple is married, how does that affect someone else's marriage? What I do think - and these matters are still to be debated and I don’t have a final view. What I do - where I'm completely in agreement with our Prime Minister, is she has pushed for the conscience vote. Tony Abbott will not allow his people to have a conscience vote and someone once said that where an individual has a properly formed conscience, they shouldn't be compelled to vote against it.
Now, to be fair, that's not me who said that. That was Vatican II. So I do think that the Liberal Party would do Australia a favour by allowing a conscience vote on gay marriage.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And it does sound to me though, that given a conscience vote - when the conscience vote rolls around, you might be in favour.
BILL SHORTEN: I can see both sides of this argument. But again, I'd refer you to what I just said about what Justice Kirby said. So I don't have a final view. I do think that in 20 years time people will say what was the fuss all about? But I'm also conscious that there are people of religious faith who don't support it. So these arguments have to be hashed out. What I am really pleased about is that on the Labor side, you have a conscience vote. On the Conservative side, you've got to do as Tony Abbott says, regardless of your conscience.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.
BILL SHORTEN: Thank you.
- ENDS -
Mr Shorten’s Media Contacts: Jessica Lindell 0408 642 804