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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


January 24, 2019

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thank you for coming. I just want to comment on the unemployment figures for December last year that have been released today by the ABS. It’s clear that there’s been a very small reduction in the percentage rates for the unemployed – from 5.1per cent to 5.0 per cent. But the story in these figures shows that part time work has grown but full time work is falling. We’ve seen a fall of 3000 full time jobs in the last month. And the only reason, I think, we’ve seen a slight fall in the percentage terms of unemployment is the participation rate has fallen.

So we’re still in a situation where we have 1.1 million Australians looking for more work and over 700,000 people looking for any work at all. We have 1.8 million Australians looking for some work or any work at all and we need to do better to ensure that we can provide for workers in this country by creating the circumstances where there’s greater consumer and business confidence. But we have unfortunately a divided, dysfunctional and unstable government that’s not focussed on the job at hand but instead focussed on themselves.

We have a government and a Prime Minister who are caught up in internal fights. You only have to look at what’s happened in the seat of Gilmore. Firstly you see the incumbent member being de-selected from that position as a candidate going into the next election. Then you saw the preselected candidate being pushed aside by the Prime Minister undemocratically to install a person who lives a three hour drive from the electorate. And you see the Nationals Party, the Deputy Prime Minister, also indicate that he’s going ensure that the Nationals will contest that seat as well. I think the seat of Gilmore is, quite frankly, a metaphor for this government. You have fighting within the Liberal Party and fighting within the Liberal Party and the Nationals in one seat alone, and that really is the story writ large across Australia. A government divided and fighting with itself and not focussed on the issues.

And I just want to go to a very significant point in the relation to wage growth which arose from the ABS figures looking at the recent two year comparison and it’s really quite stark and quite alarming to see that women in permanent jobs have seen wage growth fall, wages fall in real terms, over the last two years. We’ve seen women in permanent jobs receive on average only 3 per cent growth in wages, that is below the inflation rate, which means that women in permanent employment in Australia over the last two years have seen their wages fall in real terms. What is the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and what is the employment Minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, and what is this government doing to respond to the lowest wage growth we have seen in this country for 25 years?

No wonder people are feeling the cost of living pressures. The fact is that prices are going up, everything is going up except for wages. The government has no wages plan and has no concern for working people struggling to make ends meet and instead the only jobs they are thinking about, of course, are their own. They’re not looking only at their jobs, they’re looking for new jobs and are leaving this government and looking to find new forms of employment outside the government because the government is racked with division, dysfunction and instability. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: The government might be divided but these numbers are surely good news for them. Victoria has had its best figures since numbers were introduced in 1978?

O’CONNOR: If only it were true that these figures – these figures are pretty much steady as you go. We’ve seen full time jobs fall nationally. We always welcome any improvement and there’s been a net improvement in jobs but they’re part time jobs this month. But the fact is there are more people unemployed today than was the case when the Abbott government was elected in 2013. More people are on the unemployment queues today than was the case in 2013. So whilst there’s been of course jobs growth, it’s just kept up with population growth.

The unemployment rate is very similar to that which was the case in 2013 and wage growth is at its lowest in 25 years. Wage growth is at its lowest and women in permanent employment have seen their wages fall over the last two years. The government has no answer. The reason they have no answer is that they have an insensitivity towards working people and have a callous disregard for workers who are struggling to make ends meet. That’s why you have seen wages flat line. Profits go up, wages flat line. Productivity improvements yet no corresponding improvements in wages.

A failure this government has shown to be on wages and that’s because they’re either divided, they’re fighting amongst themselves and they’re not focussed on the challenges that this country confronts. For that reason, of course, they need do a lot better. They need to stop talking about themselves, stop obsessing about themselves, stop fighting with each other, and focus on those issues that matter for our economy and this country.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned Gilmore. What is the reason Warren Mundine never won Labor pre-selection. Tanya Plibersek mentioned that there was a reason. Can you tell us what it is?

O’CONNOR: Well, actually he did win pre-selection. He was the Senate candidate and lost that election and then, of course, he contested a pre-selection and lost. I’m from Victoria, I don’t know exactly what happened in that pre-selection he lost, but what we know of course about Mr Mundine is he’s willing to join any political party that might advance his career. He joined the Labor party to be preselected, he lost the preselection, and then he chose to join another political party, the Liberal Democrats, and now he’s joined another political party so he can now be a candidate in the seat of Gilmore.
Mind you, what has happened there is the incumbent member, who happens to be a Liberal Party member, is a woman and is a female member of parliament. She’s been replaced, if they’re successful, by a man. This is at a time where they have the lowest proportion of women in the Liberal Party room we’ve seen for 30 years, and yet they continue to disregard the fact that so few women are able to find their way to be successfully preselected in the Liberal Party. It’s quite frankly a very sad indictment on Scott Morrison and indeed the entire Liberal Party that they fail to attend to the lowest proportion of women in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party we’ve seen for 30 years.

JOURNALIST: What would a Labor Government do about low wages growth?

O’CONNOR: First thing we would do is restore penalty rates. We have hardworking retail and hospitality workers who are seeing their wages cut in real terms. We saw their wages cut in 2017, we saw their wages cut last year, we’re going to see their wages cut this year, July 1, if we don’t restore penalty rates as they were on the 30th of June 2017. That’s the first thing we’ll do.

We’re going to make sure we look at bargaining. Workplace bargaining has shifted too far away from workers and the rights of workers to actually get a decent outcome. That’s why we’ve announced reforms to bargaining. We’re going to make sure that we ensure that we narrow the definition of casual so that people are not always precariously employed.

We’re going to crack down on sham contracting, that is, people that are working and are told that they are in fact independent contractors, but they are not independent contractors. They have been given an ABN number and been paid less than the minimum wage. That’s another thing that has been reported on recently. We’re seeing people in the gig economy being paid less than the minimum wage and it’s not acceptable in a fair and wealthy country like ours to see people paid less than the minimum wage under some contrived definition of independent contracting. We’re going to crack down on that.
We’re also going to bring in a new policy on labour hire, that if you’re a labour hire worker you cannot be paid any less than a direct employee in the same workplace. If you’re doing the same work and if you’ve got the same skills and experience, you’re standing side by side with a direct employee, you must be paid no less than that employee. Because all of these examples I’m raising push and place downward pressure on wages and they stop people from getting a fair and decent outcome. They stop people from getting wages above the inflation rate that is real growth that we did have for 20 years until the Abbott Government was elected. We now have seen the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government preside over the lowest wage growth in this country for a quarter of a century.

Thanks very much.