February 24, 2017

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Brendan O’Connor welcome back to RN Drive.

KARVELAS: When Bill Shorten was Workplace Relations Minister in 2013, he amended the Fair Work Act to require the Fair Work Commission to review penalty rates. They’ve reviewed them and this is the result. Why criticise the conclusion of something you are responsible for actually putting in place?

O’CONNOR: Well the decision by the previous Labor Government was to look at the Awards and see whether they are modern. There was no sense that we would see a material cut to low paid workers, that was never envisaged by us. Therefore our view is the rules are written in a way that need to be changed. We don’t support the decision, it’s too harsh on tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people and we need to see Malcolm Turnbull join with us and do something about it.

KARVELAS: So what, you constructed a review with a predetermined outcome? You didn’t anticipate that this could happen because of course this could happen.

O’CONNOR: No, no, well that’s what you say now and hindsight’s a wonderful thing. We wanted to make sure the Awards were modern, but we did not want to see the material or real income cuts to minimum Award employees, and that’s the effect of this decision without any compensation whatsoever. The idea that at a time when wage growth is the lowest in 20 years, we’ve got inequality at a 75 year high that we would attack the lowest paid in our society, it’s just not acceptable to Labor.

KARVELAS: In April 2016 Bill Shorten said and I quote, “The way minimum wages get set in this country is through evidence, it’s through the submissions of workers, their representatives and employers”. He also said he’d accept the independent tribunal. What happened to that?

O’CONNOR: We’ve always accepted the decision, it’s a very rare thing for us to do. It’s an exceptional decision for us to take but this is an exceptional decision. This is going to cut in real terms wages for retail and hospitality workers and others and it’s going to make it very difficult for people to make ends meet at a time as I say when wages are falling in some sectors of our labour market. So having looked at the decision it’s not possible. What we would hope though is that Malcolm Turnbull for once in his life would stand up for workers and join Labor to do something about it.

KARVELAS: You’ve attacked the Prime Minister and the Government on this saying they are out of touch, but it’s not their decision, a Fair Work Commission is an independent body. Why don’t you respect the independence all of a sudden?

O’CONNOR: As I’ve said to you, we’ve always been the guardians of the commission, it’s something we see as an important institution, but this decision is both one we did not foresee and is exceptional. Now the Prime Minister was quite happy not only to revoke an order of the independent umpire when it came to increasing the rates of pay for truck drivers, but also abolish the independent umpire. So can hardly argue now that he can never change a decision of the independent umpire when he did exactly that with respect to the trucking industry.

KARVELAS: Okay. With the benefit of hindsight, did the way that this was constructed, the review was constructed by Bill Shorten, were there mistakes made?

O’CONNOR: Look as I say we have examined that and we will indeed Patricia, examine the 450 page decision to see what else we can do.  But there’s no doubt that the Government and sixty of its Federal MP’s, have been campaigning for the abolition or the cutting of penalty rates for the last three and half years. I think that has weighed heavily on the Commission. I think that -

KARVELAS: Are you saying the Commission? Wait a minute. Just to pick you up on that. The Commission hasn’t acted independently, that they have been pressured by the Government? Is that what you’re suggesting?

O’CONNOR: I think there’s no doubt. There’s no Liberal MP that talks about penalty rates without saying cuts to penalty rates and I’m saying that creates an atmosphere where I think that does have an impact on deliberations from time to time -

KARVELAS: So you are suggesting -

O’CONNOR: Can I finish? I mean the fact is that we had a Road Safety Tribunal that decided to make an Order, probably knowing the Government wasn’t going to support it. What happened to that Safety Tribunal? It was abolished by the Malcolm Turnbull Government and they abolished the Order. So you’re saying that my idea that I think the Government on occasions can intimidate a Commission having seen it abolish an independent umpire only within the last 12 months is exceptional thing to say, I don’t think so.

KARVELAS: You’re saying that the independent Commission has been influenced by the Government? That’s what you’re saying?

O’CONNOR: I’ve said to you that we’ve seen an independent umpire make a decision and that decision was revoked by the Parliament and the independent umpire was actually abolished by the Malcolm Turnbull Government. Now Malcolm Turnbull has an opportunity here for once, for once in his life to stand up for workers, low paid workers, join Labor, and find a Parliamentary remedy to stop the adverse effects of this decision, because it’s going to be very, very difficult for people to pay the bills and look after themselves and their families if this decision goes ahead as is.

KARVELAS: A worker called Trent spoke at your press conference today. Here he is: [Trent speaking at press conference].

TRENT HUNTER: For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Trent Hunter and I’m a retail worker. I work in my local area of Penrith, and I’ve been in the retail industry for nearly 8 years. I am gutted. It is such a disgrace and I do not accept the decision as a retail worker. I can tell you this that I rely on Sunday penalty rates. I am rostered on every single Sunday and I will now lose $109 a week. And look, I urge all workers today to stand up and fight back because what this Government doesn’t understand is that penalty rates aren’t a luxury, they are a working right. It’s a pay cut no-one deserves.

KARVELAS: He also said he’d be worse off under these changes. Now Coles have since contacted the ABC to say that Trent works for the company, they say he won’t be worse off because he’s under an Enterprise Agreement. So he’s not worse off?

O’CONNOR: No well, the fact is the 2011 Agreement, there’s an application to terminate the agreement currently before the Commission. I think Trent did get a little carried away. He’s shocked by the decision but you know that’s neither here nor there. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of workers that will be directly affected -

KARVELAS: But that’s not the point is it? He won’t be affected? Will he? Will Trent be affected?

O’CONNOR: The point is that there are thousands and thousands of workers affected. You can score all your points about someone making a comment, not aware of the fact that his Agreement is still in place and if you want to attack a worker fine.

KARVELAS: I’m not attacking any worker. I’m asking if he’s going to be affected.

O’CONNOR: Many workers on the Retail Award and on the Hospitality Award are going to lose wages in real terms. That is the issue and that’s the issue that Malcolm Turnbull needs to deal with. But of course Malcolm Turnbull today is hiding. You cannot get a comment from Malcolm Turnbull. He’s very pleased with the decision, he’s got to re-think his decision and for once in his life, just once, stand up for workers.

KARVELAS: But you can see that this guy you used in your press conference isn’t affected?

O’CONNOR: There were five workers at that press conference -

KARVELAS: He was one of two that spoke.

O’CONNOR: And as I understand it the majority of them will be directly affected. If his Agreement, the Coles Agreement, that’s currently before the Commission to be terminated, actually is terminated, he will be immediately affected after that.

KARVELAS: Okay, so what are you going to be do now? What’s Labor going to do now? How are you going to try and stop this?

O’CONNOR: Well, we’re going to read the decision. I’m spending my time talking to the media, understandably to express our more broad concern but we’re going to consider Parliamentary and other remedies and we’re going to demand Malcolm Turnbull reconsider his position. We know he’s a strong supporter of cutting wages. He’s supported WorkChoices. He stood up and said the best thing to do, whether it’s loaves of bread or wages, is to find the lowest price. That’s been his position in the past. I think now as Prime Minister, leader of this nation, he should take a different view and consider how affected these families will be. So our first port of call will be calling on Malcolm Turnbull to re-think his position and support Labor to find a Parliamentary remedy.

Now of course the Commission itself is inviting parties including the Commonwealth to make submissions about this decision. Of course the Commonwealth can consider what it does there to, but we’re not happy with this decision. It’s very rare for us to take a stand against a decision of the Commission, very rare indeed. But by the way, Malcolm Turnbull’s done it before. He did it by stopping rates of pay in the truck industry going up. He can do it this time by protecting penalty rates for the lowest paid in Australia.

KARVELAS: Brendan O’Connor , thanks for joining us.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Patricia.