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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


May 01, 2019

LAURIE ATLAS: Good afternoon to you. How much of the country have you covered?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Quite a lot Laurie. As I was saying to you earlier, it’s a big country. But it’s a great honour to be fighting and arguing the big debates that matter to the country.

ATLAS: There’s some pretty big ones around this election. I think it’s an interesting election.

O’CONNOR: I think there are a number of challenges, well, facing the world, but certainly facing Australia and facing this region. And we need to make sure that in pursuit of good policy we make sure there are no unintended or adverse consequences, and getting that balance. The minor parties can say what they like, they won’t be in government. In the end it’s between the two main parties, I believe. And it’s about setting forward a plan that will work for Australians, whether it’s about lifting wages, making work is more secure. Whether it’s about getting the energy mix right, making sure we ensure that jobs continue to be available – not just jobs, good jobs. Good permanent jobs, because people can’t live on casual work and labour hire all their lives. So there’s a lot of things at stake in my portfolio. Education, health, we’ve made some announcements recently on dental care for pensioners and childcare.

ATLAS: A lot of pensioners have rung up and said we already get that.

O’CONNOR: Well, they don’t. This is a new investment. This is about allowing for pensioners to access $1000 over two years, over a two year period. And we know that not only will it help for pensioners who can’t afford it but also it is a health issue beyond your teeth because we know what happens if we don’t prevent dental issues. If you have dental issues it actually impacts on your health.

ATLAS: Now you’re sounding like my mother, but you’re right.

O’CONNOR: That’s a new investment. To afford to do that we’ve made some hard decisions. And not everyone is happy with some of the decisions we’ve sought to make in relation to closing down what we say are tax loopholes. But we think we should invest in support for pensioners and others.

ATLAS: I’m glad you brought up the minor parties. Now, did Bill Shorten realistically call Clive Palmer a liar on Monday night? Or did you try to deal with the United Australia Party on preferences?

O’CONNOR: You always want to know what people are doing with respect to preferences. We’ve never engaged at all.

ATLAS: He said you have. He categorically said you have.

O’CONNOR: Because Clive Palmer is a choirboy is he? Basically Clive Palmer’s behaviour and conduct in public life is full of contradictions and dishonesty. And frankly-

ATLAS: But he’s spent a lot of money. He’s possibly going to be a player. You might have to deal with him.

O’CONNOR: I believe the Australian people are smarter than that. I think the people in Queensland and around the country don’t want people to go into parliament just because they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars. Now, three years ago, Laurie, I met those QNI workers when they hadn’t had any money received. We were lucky we had the FEG that Labor established to get them some of the money they lost through redundancies. But I thought it was very unfortunate that Mr Palmer couldn’t find a way to make the further payments that are still outstanding. I find it very sceptical to say he’ll pay them after the election.

ATLAS: He was on our Alan Jones replay not so long ago and he really did sound a bit weasely on the whole thing, to be honest. And he was blaming the auditors and the people who came in to try and fix the whole thing. He said they could have kept it open but he spent a lot of money, and the fact of the matter is you might have to deal with him. I don’t know?

O’CONNOR: Well, you make choices as to who you deal with, who you get into bed with. And we don’t believe it’s in the country’s interest and I’ll tell you why – it’s not just about Mr Palmer’s conduct. The last time he was in parliament it was chaos. Firstly he turned up for only eight per cent of the votes, so he was a part-time politician. His Senators under his party ended up splitting and setting up new parties, so we had micro political parties arising out of the minor party, and it was just chaos. So beyond even whether Scott Morrison should have done a tawdry deal or not, it’s what will happen beyond the election if we have that chaos continue. And we think that is a bad thing for Australia’s future to have someone who you can’t rely upon to think about these things without thinking with self-interest, not thinking in the national interest when making big decisions.

ATLAS: Alright, I want to move on because I don’t want to talk about him too long. You are in central Queensland. This is what I might call “Adani country”, if you will the Adani Carmichael mine, can you assure the people of central Queensland that the Adani Carmichael mine, without giving me that standard answer because you’re higher up on the food chain, can you assure us that Adani is not in peril if you are elected?

O’CONNOR: Laurie there is only one answer I can give you, it’s the same answer we have been giving since this matter has arisen and that is - if any project, including Adani stacks up in terms of what’s required under law -

ATLAS: That’s the same answer-

O’CONNOR: Let me just finish, let me answer and then you can say you don’t like the answer but you should allow me to answer it the way I’d like to. If it stacks up environmentally and fulfils the requirements under state and federal law, it will proceed. We’re not going to-

ATLAS: So you are not going to rip up what’s already been ticked?

O’CONNOR: We are not going to create sovereign risk.

ATLAS: Categorically?

O’CONNOR: We’ve made clear there is no review of the decision. We just want to make sure there is proper compliance so if the State and Federal requirements are fulfilled, like any other project, we’re not going to threaten sovereign risk by ripping up a contract, that’s fair. Equally their obligation is to make sure they fulfil those requirements under law.

ATLAS: Bill Shorten as Prime Minister, if he is elected, would have a lot of power to get on the phone to Jackie Trad and to Anastasia Palaszczuk and say, “C’mon, this has been going on for a while now. You’ve had this report on the black-throated finch, on the water, you’ve had all of this for about 6 to 8 months now”, which you know that they have, would he realistically make a call and say “Guys can you move this along a little bit”?

O’CONNOR: If we were convinced that the law has been complied with, of course we would take a position that matters should proceed. But what he would not do or should not do as a Prime Minister or for that matter if a person was a Minister responsible for those conditions, that if you turned a blind eye to a failure to fulfil those requirements then that would be dishonourable and it would be wrong. Equally there should be no hold up if the matters are fulfilled. If the requirements, the conditions under state and federal legislation are fulfilled, there shouldn’t be a hold up. Equally if there are issues still to resolve they should be resolved. That’s a consistent and responsible position to take and not just on Adani Laurie, on any matter, on any project otherwise why would we have laws in place if we’re not going to comply with them?

ATLAS: There has just been the worry around that once Bill Shorten is elected he will untick what Melissa Price has ticked, you will change it all. Lucas Dow has said “Well, that’s a sovereign risk”, and you’ve said that, and I am happy that you’ve looked me in the eye and said to me, no you are not going to untick something that’s already been ticked.

O’CONNOR: Can I just say this on my own behalf. As a Shadow Minister for Employment I want to see jobs in this region.

ATLAS: And they are good jobs.

O’CONNOR: Also we have made clear that coal will be part of the energy mix for the country indefinitely. Yes we should invest in renewables but we need to also rely upon fuels that we have been using for many a year and I think that energy mix is critical. Not just for security of our energy supply, not only because of our exports, but because of the jobs and frankly my portfolio it’s jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s my focus.

ATLAS: Well it is. Brendan O’Connor is here, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. I assume if you get elected you will be Minister, we take “Shadow” away, is that what you are hanging on to?

O’CONNOR: That’s what I believe will occur. Unlike the current spokesperson for the Liberal Party, which is entirely fine, but Kelly O’Dwyer will be leaving after this election and there is no alternative spokesperson yet.

ATLAS: Now your policy to stem casuals is a good one. Senator Matt Canavan who is the LNP Senator for Queensland says the policy is exactly the same as the one that they had six months ago which they still want to put through the Parliament. If he is wrong, what is the difference between the two?

O’CONNOR: Okay, firstly they did not debate the Bill that they have in place, even though the Bill does have deficiencies, and I can explain the Bill that they proposed. So it’s come in the last week of the Parliament, after six years they put a Bill to the Parliament they didn’t bring on. The Government has power to bring on a Bill for debate, it wasn’t debated. Now Senator Canavan hasn’t been particularly honest here because he said it passed the parliament and it’s actually now fixing casuals. It was not even brought on for debate let alone pass the House of Representatives, let alone pass the Senate. So there is no law and it wasn’t brought on by the Government. Now as for that Bill, it’s deficient because it would allow employers to designate people to be casual whereas at the moment, under common law that’s not allowed to be determined by the employer. The difference between our policy Laurie, is yes we agree with conversion, but we believe we need an objective statutory test for casual. In other words, a precise definition, so you can draw a line between what are permanent and what are casual jobs.

ATLAS: Is that a timeline or a-

O’CONNOR: No, no, there’s a conversion after twelve months where people have a right to request and an employer not unreasonably refuse. There are jobs in workplaces around the country, in mining for example where on the face of them, they are clearly permanent jobs. Full-time, regular rosters. You don’t get to employ people for five years as casuals under a labour-hire employer, when they’re working permanently every day. Five days, 38 hour weeks, plus overtime and just turn up every day and do that. That’s not acceptable.

ATLAS: Is there a bit of finger pointing here? Some pointing at the mining companies for wanting that type of work and some are pointing at the labour-hire companies for doing and only offering that type of work?

O’CONNOR: I’m not sure who the culprit is. I think what’s happened over time, over the last several decades, is that casualisation has been on the rise. In Queensland, it’s the highest in Australia. Even the ABS says it’s twenty nine per cent. I think, it’s actually a bit higher than that. So, that’s almost one in three jobs are casual in Queensland. That is really difficult when you’ve got a family; you have a permanent family and a casual job, you need a full-time job, you’ve got a mortgage or you’re paying rent, you’re trying to pay the bills.

ATLAS: Well, you can’t get a loan if you’re casual.

O’CONNOR: Well, that’s the big one. I talked to some plumbers the other day and one of them said, they wait by their mobile to get a text as to whether they work the next day and the other said he wanted a home-land package. He could get the money for the land, the broker said to him we can’t get the bank to give you the money because you’re a labour-hire worker and he said, but I’m getting hours, but they said you’re a labour-hire worker, the bank doesn’t deem you to be permanent and we can’t give you that loan.

ATLAS: And look, no one’s saying the Bank Royal Commission shouldn’t have happened, but the banks have gone, they’ve really pulled the credit in haven’t they, I’m sure that’s affecting them all.

O’CONNOR: We had to open up and stop the corruption of the banks and the criminal behaviour. Frankly - 

ATLAS: This might be the upshot of it.

O’CONNOR: Look, that’s a by-product, but you think about it this way. If we make more of the jobs permanent, if we have a better definition in our statute books about what is permanent, it means people can’t be deemed to be casual. It means they can go to the bank to get, not just car loans, even home loans. It’s even car loans they can’t get. So, I think tightening up the definition is something that’s different between the two major parties. There is no effort by the Liberals to define casual. All they’re saying is a conversion, to that extent we agree but we believe in an objective test.

ATLAS: The costing of the Climate Change policy that you have, I think you’re possibly going to tell me a better analogy. Bill Shorten’s was something like there’s a chubby person who eats ten big macs a day, clearly if he doesn’t eat ten big macs a day, there is a cost to not eating those ten big macs a day. But ultimately the cost of not eating ten big macs a day and the exercise you would do, there would be a benefit at the end it. See, even you’re looking at me going, what, what, what, what? But, that was essentially what he was saying. Have you got a better one?

O’CONNOR: Look, can I just stick to what I think matters is climate change and that it is real and the people that don’t believe it’s real, I mean, I guess I can respect them wanting to believe that-

ATLAS: I’m not a huge fan, I believe the climate changes and I’m not completely convinced that coal is the big enemy.

O’CONNOR: 99.9 per cent of scientists believe-

ATLAS: Climate scientists.

O’CONNOR: Well, scientists, they’re not climate scientists, they study climate change and it is one of the greatest challenges the world faces. And beyond that though, the world is moving, it’s also how we cope. If we actually don’t move with the world, technologically, we’re going to be faced with some problems in terms of the way the world would treat us. So there’s the great-

ATLAS: Well, if Alan Jones turns around and says it’s an economic suicide note, maybe that’s a bit extreme. But there must be a cost; I mean you won’t say what it is.

O’CONNOR: No expert can precisely quantify a cost. What we do know is, the ultimate cost of doing nothing is bad for our economy and certainly bad for our environment and I think that’s the first thing. I don’t believe that the government can cost it. What I think is a disappointment is, we had a lot of work done by - and look Josh Frydenberg and I don’t agree on everything obviously and nor did Malcolm Turnbull and I, but Malcolm Turnbull did come up with I think a position that went through the party room, went through the current government’s party room, the National Energy Guarantee and Labor said we’ll work with you on that. Now that got ripped up and they knifed Malcolm Turnbull and we’re left with nothing. And we can’t afford to do nothing. We believe, as I said to you earlier, we need that energy mix and it involves coal but we do need to invest in renewables. The whole world is doing that, it’s in our interests to do that it creates jobs as well. It’s not either or, it’s both.

And at that same time as you’d know Laurie, technologically things are becoming increasingly advanced. For example, battery storage. Ten years ago when you talked about what you could store through solar energy was nothing like what you could do today and in ten years’ time, it’s going to be more remarkable again. The speed with which technology is allowing the storage of energy whether it’s wind or solar is becoming exponentially more advanced. And I think, why would we want  to be left behind? It would have been almost like saying, we want to be left behind or watch the industrial revolution pass us by.
Now in some ways I think we made a big mistake on broadband. We were one of the last developed nations to move on broadband and that’s why the NBN is not as good as it should be. You go to developing nations and they have better broadband than we do. Well the same with the technology around renewable energies. You cannot, you should not miss the chance of embracing technology. That’s not about turning your back on fuel energy, fossil fuel energy. It’s not turning your back on good jobs in mining. It’s not that at all. It’s about doing both. And I believe we need to do it but not just for the environment but for the economy and for jobs.

ATLAS: One more quick thing. Richard Di Natale went to the National Press Club today and he said I want 100 per cent renewables. Also I’d like to rip up the Australia-US Alliance. there’s a lot of knucklehead’s stuff in what the Greens would want. If you have to deal with them which I don’t think you will, but say though you had, you’ve allowed Russell Robertson to put them fourth, I think on his preferences, so thanks for that. but if you did have to deal with the Greens, can you stare them down and say mate, this knucklehead’s stuff’s not going to work, here’s what you do. or if they have the balance of power maybe you want to get your franking credits put through-

O’CONNOR: No I think it’s a good point. When it comes to the US alliance, we will never trade with any party about the importance of the US alliance. I’ll make the point, we don’t need to, of course because the Liberal Party and Labor Party have the same view on that and the same goes for renewables. The Liberal Party have more numbers in the Senate than any other party and Labor on many matters, Labor and Liberal will agree on those issues but we fundamentally disagree on a bunch of issues but on things like the Alliance or about energy mix for Australia’s future, like the NEG where we sought to make an agreement with the Liberals, we’ll talk to them as well of course. If we can reach agreement with a major party why wouldn’t you seek to do that? But there are big differences but look it is Russell Robertson’s birthday today, I should say, I’m seeing Robbo today. It’s his birthday on May Day and can I just, on your show, wish him a happy birthday.

JOURNALIST: Yes, absolutely you can. Good to see you.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Laurie.

JOURNALIST: Where you off to from here?

O’CONNOR: We’re going to see some workers to talk about casualisation and labour hire at Hastings Deering and we are going off to Gladstone and then we’re going to Grafton.

JOURNALIST: Good spot Gladstone. Make sure you talk to my good mate, Michael Bailey there at 4CC. Oh, you’ve already done that or you going again. Good for you. Enjoy it. I guess there’s a big possibility that next time you come back here you’ll be the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations if you are I look forward to our next chat.

O’CONNOR: And I’ll be happy to come in.

JOURNALIST: Good to see you.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Laurie.