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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


May 14, 2019

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks very much for coming. I just wanted to refer to the decision by Federal Labor to write to the Fair Work Commission this week in order to ensure that if the Labor Party is elected on Saturday that we would be replacing the Commonwealth Submission that does not call for a real wage increase for award workers in this country. And instead make sure that the Labor submission that was made from opposition be taken as the submission by the Commonwealth.
At a time when wages are not growing, in fact the lowest wage growth on record, when you see profits grow five times faster than wages, when you see that everything is going up except for wages, it’s important that the Fair Work Commission fully appreciate the difficulty for working people making ends meet. For that reason, in fact for years now, Federal Labor has been calling upon the Fair Work Commission to lift wages.
For 2.3 million Australians it matters that they receive a real wage increases at a time of low wage growth. And indeed it is important not just for those workers, it is important for our economy. What we see now is an anaemic economy, and it’s anaemic for a variety of reasons, including the failure to see real wage growth.
Now, the fact is the Commonwealth submission, which reflects Scott Morrison’s view does not call for real wages increases, and for that reason an incoming Labor government, if elected, could not agree with that proposition. Frankly, it’s not just the inaction by Scott Morrison, and the Liberal Party, it is a deliberate act by Liberal Party. And that was clear when Mathias Cormann the Finance Minister recently let the cat out of the bag that low wages in this country is a “deliberate design feature” of the economic plan of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Government. And so we don’t want to see that submission taken to be the view of the Commonwealth. And for that reason we believe there is still time to make our view known and that’s why we wrote to the President of the Commission yesterday in order to ensure the Fair Work Commission considers our view and allows us if required to make such submissions immediately after the election if we win.
It will be the first act of a Shorten Labor Government to make clear our view is different to that of the Liberal Party and Scott Morrison. In fact Bill Shorten’s made clear that this election is a referendum on wages and for that reason is it incumbent upon the Fair Work Commission to seriously consider the view of Labor if we were to win. The authority of the Commonwealth should be brought to bear on that submission and it should reflect Labor’s view if we prevail not that of Scott Morrison.
Scott Morrison on the other hand, as I say, has presided over the lowest wage growth as a Prime Minister and Treasurer, ever. And indeed has supported cutting penalty rates in the Parliament on eight occasions. This is a Prime Minister and a Liberal Party out of touch with the Australian people. Out of touch and showing just a callous disregard for working people. For that reason of course we want to make sure that workers get a decent wage rise if Labor is successful. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: The Reserve Bank says inflation is now running at 1.3 per cent. Would an increase of say 1.5 be enough?
O’CONNOR: We’re not going to determine the amount. I think certainly the expert panel and the Commission members should be able to determine the quantum. But I think they should have regard to all of the facts, and the fact is we are dealing with an anaemic economy. We are dealing with low consumer confidence which is feeding into low business confidence. We do need to see a real wage increase. We’ll allow the Commission to determine that. The difference will be instead of a Commonwealth submission not calling upon a real wage increase in fact for six years this current Liberal Government has not supported a real wage increase to award employees. Instead you’ll see, of course, a Commonwelth submission reflecting the incoming Labor Government’s view, if we are elected, to say there should be a real wage increase. But as for the quantum that will be determined by the Commission.
JOURNALIST: Will there be any difference between the submission you made in opposition and the submission you would make as government?
O’CONNOR: Look, the tenor of the submission will be very much the same. And in fact we are the only Opposition in history that has made formal submissions to the Fair Work Commission, which we’ve done over the last five years. In fact four submissions, all of which have called on the Fair Work Commission to consider responsible but real wage increases at a time where we are seeing the lowest wage growth on record.
JOURNALIST: The Australian Chamber of Commerce said that this increase will cost employers $8.7 billion a year. What’s your take on that?
O’CONNOR: I think, of course, the Fair Work Commission will listen to all of the submissions, and rightly so. Employers have every right to make submissions about their views, about the concerns of their constituency. And indeed unions will make their claims. Now, Federal Labor has its own view with respect to the submission. What we do believe though, and it is fundamentally different to that of Scott Morrison, and the Liberal Party, is we believe there should be a responsible but real wage increase for 2.3 million Australians on awards. That should also positively flow onto other workers in the labour market.
JOURNALIST: Making a submission on the first day of government isn’t taking the advice of Treasury or Department of Employment?
O’CONNOR: We are very clear on this, this is something we’ve been arguing for some time. And frankly, we’re taking the advice of the Reserve Bank and others. In fact the Governor of the Reserve Bank now for a couple of years has been publicly making clear that anaemic wage growth is causing problems for our economy. So it’s not just Federal Labor saying that. One hundred experts, one hundred economists wrote a public letter as recently as a couple of months ago calling for the need to lift wages in real terms. So it’s not just Labor, it is most economists, it is the Reserve Bank Governor, calling upon an increase in real wages. It is economically sound and it is socially fair.
JOURNALIST: Will it be when you are sworn in when you make this action, or the next day of Government, next Monday?
O’CONNOR: As soon as we possibly can. Clearly we would hope that if we prevail we want to make sure that that is determined. But it will be the first act of the executive government of a Shorten Labor Government if we are elected.
JOURNALIST: So when you are sworn in then.
O’CONNOR: Well, we need to be determined to be a government. It won’t necessarily require the swearing in of all Ministers but it will require the fact that we have prevailed in the election. And I think those statements can be done. You think about the timing of this – we do know submission have been made. We do also know that the federal opposition we have already made a submission.
However, I don’t think we should let stand a submission by the Commonwealth to be considered if indeed there is a change of government that intervenes between the submissions being made and the decision being determined, considered and handed down. For that reason we feel we have sufficient time, provided we do it as a matter of urgency, to make our views known as an incoming government so that the Commonwealth’s view is expressed arising out of the views we’ve held, but most importantly arising out of the people of Australia making a choice between the two major parties and choosing Labor.
If they choose Labor then I think the Fair Work Commission should consider the views of Federal Labor and indeed the view that we need to see wages lifted in this country. Everything is going up in this country except for wages and we believe the Fair Work Commission will consider our views and that should have some bearing on the outcome. We are confident that it will.
JOURNALIST: With the Labor policy to override the Commission’s decision to cut penalty rates, do you think Labor is causing any erosion or any damage to the Commission’s independence?
O’CONNOR: Look I think it’s fair to say that we made an exceptional decision not to support that decision when it was handed down. And our response was immediate to repudiate the proposition that you should be able to cut hard working, low paid hospitality, retail, fast food and pharmacy workers’ wages without any compensation whatsoever. I have a high regard for the Fair Work Commission and I have to say it is a very exceptional thing for Labor to distinguish itself and to disagree and formally reject an outcome of the Commission but we did so on that occasion because we thought it was completely unfair in the circumstances of very low wage growth and the fact there was no compensation for those workers.
So whilst it is true we decided to disagree and therefore seek to legislate in a Private Member’s Bill, I think that was the appropriate action to take. And I make the point too that the current government’s done the same. They actually abolished the remuneration tribunal for truck drivers because they didn’t like the order of the then Commission. And I think it’s also the will of the people. I think it’s fair to say that the parliament should be able to from time to time, make decisions that prevail over decisions of a commission or indeed of a court. However it’s an exceptional thing to do but we did so and I think we were absolutely right to do so.
JOURNALIST: You previously said that the Commission has been stacked with people from employer backgrounds, will Labor look at spilling the Commission if it wins?
O’CONNOR: Well it’s not that I’ve said it, it is just a matter of fact that there has been 20 consecutive appointments to the Fair Work Commission by the Liberal Government that have all come from the employer side of the bargaining table. We have said that has, in part traduced the reputation of the Fair Work Commission both in appearance and in reality. And I have also made clear we are examining what we may be able to do to make sure we improve the integrity and the reputation of the Commission given the tawdry behaviour of my counterparts, all Ministers, from Eric Abetz to Michaelia Cash and indeed to Kelly O’Dwyer, all three of which have appointed 20 Commissioners, some of which are Presidential members, all from one side of the bargaining table. We’ll take advice about that in government but we are concerned about the composition and I’ve made that perfectly clear.
JOURNALIST: Are you going to spell out more details about your industry wide bargaining framework before the election with four days to go?
O’CONNOR: We’ve made it very clear that we support bargaining in this country. We’ve outlined the fact that reliance on Awards has grown by 50 per cent in the last decade, we’ve seen a decline in enterprise bargaining and we’ve seen of course, the failure of the low paid bargaining stream to work that currently exists in the Fair Work Act. Now what we’ve said about that is we believe that multi-employer bargaining can complement and can be part of the mix of bargaining that occurs in the labour market. We’ve said that the emphasis of that multi-employer bargaining will be on those workers who have very little industrial power. But we will also examine of course areas where enterprise bargaining is failing.
We need to make sure that working people in workplaces have a right to bargain and there are fair outcomes. At the moment there are too many ways employers can game the system, either by terminating agreements by making an application to the Commission or having some workers in Perth vote for an agreement that’s imposed on workers in Melbourne or using all sorts of other means to avoid their obligations that should occur when you are bargaining in good faith. So with respect to multi-employer bargaining, as I say we’ve set out some principles, we’re going to have a lot of engagement with the stakeholders about how that should work and how it intersects with enterprise bargaining, the Awards and the National Employment Standards, that’s important for us to do. We want to engage with people. If I was to prescribe that policy announcement I would be attacked for actually not engaging fully. Federal Labor wants to engage with employers, unions, experts to make sure we get that right.
JOURNALIST: So it will be limited in terms of the availability of it?
O’CONNOR: What I’ve said, what I’ve always said our focus and emphasis will be on low paid sectors of the labour market where wages are flat lining or going backwards, but we’ve also said where there are clear signs that enterprise bargaining isn’t working, we’ll examine those sectors too. That’s something we can do.
Now the reality is some of the best economies in the world have a combination of local or enterprise and multi-employer bargaining. In fact of the 11 economies which AAA ratings from the three agencies, 8 of those 11 economies have a combination of multi-employer and local bargaining. It’s not something that people should be concerned about because we will be doing this in genuine consultation with employers, with unions and we will take advice within government but also listen to the experts to get that right.
What we want is to have a system, an industrial relations framework that works for everybody, works for employers, works for workers and indeed works for our economy. We want to see more cooperation in workplaces. That can only happen when people feel they are part of the outcome, where they are sitting at the bargaining table. Under Scott Morrison workers have never sat at the bargaining table. But you can be assured of this, if a Shorten Labor Government is elected you will see employers and unions, representing workers at the bargaining table deciding the big issues that confront the nation, not just one side of the bargaining table but indeed workers and employers.
JOURNALIST: If you consult for a while does that mean these changes will take a year or two to come in?
O’CONNOR: No, no-
JOURNALIST: How long is the consultation?
O’CONNOR: That will depend on the consultation. The fact is it is a priority of Labor to make sure we have an effective bargaining system and we’ll be doing that. But let’s be very clear, we’ve been upfront and honest when it comes to industrial relations policies. By comparison, Scott Morrison has not told us or told the Australian people about his secret plans on industrial relations.
The last time the Liberal Party had so little to say on industrial relations they introduced WorkChoices after the election. What we do need to know now is what Scott Morrison wants to do with respect to the IR laws. What are his secret plans to change the IR law system? We know he has a callous disregard for working people. We know because of Mathias Cormann’s comments that they want to see wages continue to be low. We know they have an enmity towards unions, so they spend all their time using taxpayers’ money and the power of the state to attack unions. What we don’t know is any of the policies that they are considering, any of the changes they are considering because they have not been upfront with the Australian people.
By comparison we have announced an immediate response to restoring penalty rates. We’ve actually announced cracking down on labour hire workers by ensuring they have to be paid no less than direct employees. We’ve also talked about fixing up independent contracting, cracking down on misuse of 457 visas and other visas of a similar nature, also indeed looking at ways in which we can provide better bargaining in the workplace. What we don’t see from the government is any answers to these questions or any plans that they may have.
JOURNALIST: Should workers and unions be able to take protected, legal industrial action in support of multi-employer bargaining?
O’CONNOR: Well that is something we are examining and we will be talking to the stakeholders about.
JOURNALIST: What does that mean?
O’CONNOR: Well it means we will be engaging with them. We need to make sure we get this right, so we will be working with employers, peak employer bodies and indeed unions to make sure we get the framework right. What people should understand with Labor is, we’ll engage and consult and genuinely discuss these matters that affect working people.
What we do know though and the reason why I’m here today is that we have a government that does not want to see an increase in wages in this country. We have a government for the last six years that’s presided over the lowest wage growth in this country on record. What we’ve seen is a Finance Minister saying that that is a deliberate design feature of their economic plan.
By comparison, Labor has been making submissions to see a responsible and real increase in wages in this country. We’ve also set out in detail our plans about restoring penalty rates, about making sure we have a better and fairer system which deals with the unfairness that affects labour hire workers. At the moment, labour hire workers are in workplaces doing the same work and yet standing next to a direct employee and could be paid vastly less than that direct employee. We’re announcing policies and what we have said is that we will continue to engage with the stakeholders to make sure we finalise those matters. But we have been upfront. The difference is the Government has not said a word about their plans. And this is the Liberal Party, if you think they have no plans about the labour market then frankly you know, then I’ve got a bridge in Sydney to sell you because the reality is it’s in their DNA to attack working people. They should be upfront about their plans. To date they have not said a word.
JOURNALIST: Will the CFMEU be able to engage in multi-employer bargaining under you?
O’CONNOR: As I’ve said already, we’ll look at the issues in relation multi-employer bargaining. I make this point and it’s pretty clear right, that if our focus is on low paid sectors of the economy, if it’s about areas where bargaining is not working, I think you can take it from that your questions are pretty much misdirected because our focus will be on people who don’t have sufficient power to get fair outcomes. And that happens to be certainly cleaners, child care workers and other sectors of the economy too if enterprise bargaining is not working.
What you can’t say about the construction sector particularly in CBD areas is that they can’t get outcomes. They have been getting outcomes but one problem in the construction sector is we have a government regulator that seeks to target and attack individual workers if they take any industrial action in a way that no other worker in this country is treated. So we have got some reforms with respect to the construction industry but frankly again when we talk about getting bargaining going again I don’t think anyone’s arguing that construction workers in the CBD of Melbourne or for that matter other parts of the country are unable to get decent outcomes. They are doing so, so our focus of course is elsewhere.
JOURNALIST: So that would be no then?
O’CONNOR: Well, I’ve answered the question.
JOURNALIST: What happens if you win government? You’ve said you’d abolish the ABCC. What happens to all their prosecutions that they’ve got before the Courts?
O’CONNOR: Well that’s something we’ll take advice upon. I mean, there’s been government agencies in the past that have been repealed and as a result of course you take advice from the departments. We’ll get legal advice as to what we should do with respect to any outstanding matters.
JOURNALIST: There’s 47 matters I think before the courts. Would Labor consider a global sentiment to wrap it all up?
O’CONNOR: That’s actually been an approach that has been taken in the past but we’ll take advice before we make any decisions. I think it’s only proper. And of course it’s predicated on us repealing and removing those agencies. Now that you’ve asked questions on that, both of those agencies have been used in a way to attack the political opponents of the government. In fact, the way in which Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott use those agencies was no different from how tin-pot dictatorships operate. They use the power of the state to attack the political opponents of the government. And quite frankly those bodies have been found out.
With respect to the ROC, we saw the misuse of that agency to attack a Union and attack Federal Labor and with respect to the ABCC, it’s been criticised by many a court for its behaviour. It had to sack its own director for his unlawful behaviour. We’ve had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money defending the director, the former director of the ABCC. I mean, these two agencies have been brought into disrepute and for that reason and for other reasons too we’ve obviously announced that we would repeal that legislation and remove those bodies. As for how the rest of it will go, we’ll take advice from the departments. It’s only proper that we do so.
JOURNALIST: What about the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal? Will you bring that back?
O’CONNOR: We are concerned about what happened there. It’s a really important matter, question you’ve asked because with respect to the Road Safety Tribunal, we saw a government at the height of its arrogance, not like a decision of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, so introducing into the parliament, legislation to repeal the decision and to abolish the umpire. I mean, you talk about the decisions we might make in respect to penalty rates, they’ve abolished the umpire now what that has done has led to an increase in fatalities of truck drivers and others on the roads in Australia. That wilful and spiteful act by the Liberal Party has led to an increase of incidents of fatality and deaths on our roads.
So of course we’re concerned about the correlation of worker exploitation in the transport industry and a greater likelihood of seeing deaths on our roads. It’s not just an industrial issue frankly, it’s a public safety issue that truck drivers are not forced to drive for hours and hours on end just to make ends meet. So with respect to your question, we’ll examine the best way to respond to that. We certainly will be filling the void that now exists because of the abolition of the tribunal that we set up when last in Government. But again we’ll be talking to employers and the TWU and others about how that should work. We’re happy to consider that but we will be responding to find the right mechanism to ensure that we don’t see more deaths on our roads. It’s quite frankly a tragedy and frankly the government showed no interest in what it was going to do once it repealed and abolished that tribunal and that has led to greater deaths.
JOURNALIST: .So it could come back or it could be within the Fair Work Commission or what’s the answer?
O’CONNOR: It could either be, well we’re considering that now. What we wanted to have was a policy to respond to that. But it may well be something that can fit within the Commission. But you know what, what I find really interesting in this area is how many employers agree with the union that we need to fix this issue. I don’t think there’s any bigger issue in this country than making sure that people don’t die at work. What make this even a more dramatic issue is that users of the roads die as well. We have truck drivers that are suffering from fatigue, driving too long because of the low wages they’re receiving and that is leading to their deaths and the deaths of other users of our road system. And that’s why we need to make sure we get it right but there’s a lot of good will in the transport sector and I’m really appreciative of the fact that many employers agree with Labor as does the TWU that we need to get it right. All good? Thanks very much.