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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


April 18, 2016

SUBJECT/S: QLD Nickel; IR Legislation; Royal Commission Into Banks; Road Safety; Dysfunction in the Liberal Party.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, it seems that Malcolm Turnbull has recalled the Parliament specifically to debate Brendan O'Connor because he's the shadow IR spokesperson for the Labor Party. He joins us now live from Melbourne. And it seems like all the legislation, Brendan O'Connor, is very much in your policy ambit. Let me start, though, by asking you about something that was a bit of a mini-debate during the week. Your comments that they were crocodile tears from Ewan Jones, the local member up in the electorate that includes Townsville and the Queensland Nickel collapse. You would have just heard George Brandis describe it as a cheap wisecrack, your comments. What's your reaction to that?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Well, I was making the point, Peter, that Mr Jones had voted to drastically reduce the entitlements for QNI workers, along with, by the way, Malcolm Turnbull, Minister Cash, and Senator Brandis, in fact, the entire government. I think it would be dishonest for that not to be disclosed. So, there's no point crying for workers in Townsville and voting against them in Canberra.
PAUL KELLY: If we look at the current legal provisions, though, Brendan O'Connor, I think the workers are entitled to about 13 weeks pay, plus a few entitlements on top of that. That presumably means that a number will still fall far short of what would have been their full entitlements otherwise. Can anything be done for those people?
O’CONNOR: Look, firstly, Paul, it's important to know that it's based on what is entitled to them under registered instruments. So, they also can receive four weeks, a maximum of four weeks, per year of service, 13 weeks unpaid annual leave, five weeks notice. So, in combination they still can be paid a significant proportion, a very significant proportion. In fact, in many cases, most cases, perhaps, their entire money owed to them. But, you're right, there'll be a shortfall for some. And that's why we supported the Government not only ensuring access to the guaranteed scheme we established when in government, but also we support the Government pursuing as a creditor, the debtors, in order to ensure the Commonwealth is not left holding this debt. So, we don't disagree with anything Senator Brandis has to say about pursuing as a creditor that debt. But we wanted to make sure that QNI workers, who, I've met on a number of occasions, would be would be able to just find some relief. Some of them have been, of course, not receiving any money for 12 weeks. They're not able to access unemployment benefits and they really are struggling and I'm glad to see that this decision was made.
KELLY: Now, if Labor wins the election and forms government, will Labor pursue all potential legal courses against Clive Palmer given the substantial evidence that Palmer took many millions of dollars out of this company?
O’CONNOR: Well, I'm not going to make decisions as to who is responsible here. On the face of it, it does not look good, but that's for courts and others to determine, who is responsible for this. And whoever is responsible, Paul, we would say that the Commonwealth should pursue the debt owed and pursue the decision-makers if they've broken the law. So, it's not a question of whether it's Clive Palmer, whoever it is, people should not be able to conduct themselves in such a way as to break corporate law. There shouldn't be a different approach just because the person happens to be a politician or not. But that's for courts to determine, not for politicians.  
VAN ONSELEN: Brendan O'Connor there's a lot to get through with the IR bills that are before the Parliament. Let's talk about the Registered Organisation Bill as well as the ABCC that are going before the Senate, effective tomorrow. You would have heard George Brandis clarify that if both don't pass, we go to an early DD election. There's no wiggle room on that. For the life of me, I can't see the Senate passing the Registered Organisation Bill that has been rejected three times previously. Is it your summation that we are definitely going to a July 2 election on that basis?
O’CONNOR: Well, let's see what happens. What we've made clear, Peter, is that we don't want to play games. We don't want the Government to play games. We're willing to have the debate and have the vote on the bills. We believe that the ABCC bill is bad policy. It is not true that, indeed, the ABCC led to improved productivity. Productivity went down during the life of the ABCC, fatalities went up, and the bill itself removes basic rights. There are more rights afforded to alleged drug dealers than there would be for ordinary construction workers and we don't support that bill. We don't support the Registered Organisations Bill but we want the vote. We would want to have the debate and let this matter be resolved by the Senate. We have no concerns about the Government's intentions to go to a double-dissolution election if that is what they choose. But, let's just have no more game-playing.  
VAN ONSELEN: But, isn't it contradictory for Labor to on the one hand say, "ASIC is a tough cop on the beat for the banking sector and the finance sector more generally, but we still need a Royal Commission," yet on the other hand, for Labor to be saying, "Well, not only do we not like this Royal Commission that we say is being politicised on the unions, but we also aren't prepared to look at the ABCC being brought back as a tough cop on the beat?"
O’CONNOR: Well, we do have a regulator. There's a regulator now for the building industry. The only difference between the regulator now and the ABCC is that there is some oversight about the use of coercive powers. What the current proposed bill would ensure is that not only would there be no oversight in the use of such powers, remembering that this is only in the civil jurisdiction, but they would be removing basic rights that we believe are disproportionate and excessive. So, it's not to say that there isn't a regulator. 

That's, I guess, the point. Are we going to an election, Peter, on the difference between the current Fair Work Building Inspectorate and the ABCC? That's the difference? That's what's in the national interest? Well, I don't think that's what most people believe.  My view is that the Prime Minister's using this as a trigger. Let's see what happens in the Senate. But we will be happy to have the debate and happy to have the vote. And if the Prime Minister wants to run off to an election, fair enough. Bring it on.
KELLY: What's your response to critics of Labor saying that its announcement for a Royal Commission into the banking and financial services sector is really just a mechanism to distract attention from Turnbull's campaign in relation to the ABCC?
O’CONNOR: Well, that might have merit if the scandals weren't so rife, Paul. The fact is there's been scandal after scandal in this area, in this sector, and we need to redress that through the Royal Commission. Now, clearly the Government doesn't support our position on that and I understand that the Prime Minister and Treasurer have been discussing this matter with the banks. We'd need to know what they've been discussing, if there's any collusion between the banks and the Government on what alternative there might be to the Royal Commission. But I think most people believe there's been too many scandals, too many people have been ripped off, too many small businesses being treated badly by banks. And I think it's time now to have a full examination and I think the Royal Commission is the best approach. 

Now, what is interesting about that Royal Commission into unions is there is no change to the two bills in the Senate next week that were introduced in 2013 that are now for debate next week, even though we've had a whole Royal Commission, that's happened since then. So, the Royal Commission's recommendations don't even find themselves in the ABCC or the Registered Organisations Bill, which begs the question, what was it for if it hasn't informed policy of government? Because those bills remain the same as they were two years ago.
KELLY: In relation to the banks and financial sector, do you now think, given Labor's commitment for a Royal Commission, that this is likely to be a frontline issue at the election?
 Well, clearly it's a significant matter. It's not something you would do lightly. We were hesitant last year, but the banks then said that they were going to improve their ways, mend their ways, Paul, and we took them at their word. Unfortunately, subsequently, there's been more revelations of misconduct, and I think that's what's caused our decision. It is a significant issue, because they're such important institutions. 

I mean, it was Labor that came to their rescue, you could argue, during the Global Financial Crisis in the national interest, absolutely. But they have a responsibility, too. They have a corporate responsibility. If they are to be pillars of our society, then they have to be ethical and they have to treat their customers well, and I do believe the time is right. And because there are tens of thousands of victims of misconduct, I think the scale of the problem means it may well be a significant part of the election, the debate, throughout the course of the election campaign.
KELLY: Now, in relation to the truckies' legislation and the Government's effort to abolish the tribunal, how does Labor justify its position on this, given that we've had two reports from PWC? Both of those reports have disputed the connection between remuneration and road safety, and, they have stressed very much the economic cost, the economic penalty, involved in the operation of this tribunal. So, what's Labor's justification for its position in the light of those reports?
O’CONNOR: There might be some references that argue about the extent at which there's a correlation, but, the PWC report does say there is some link or correlation between safe rates or rates of pay and safety, and it's not just domestic evidence, the international evidence shows there's a correlation between those matters. Labor's never said that is the sole or even the main reason for fatalities, but we do believe we've had people driving excessively. The heavy vehicle and road transport industry has fatalities 12 times the national average of all industries. And we do believe if we can reduce the likelihood of people dying on roads then we should be pursuing that. That was our view. And we believe that the tribunal can and has done some good work. But what we've said, Paul, is that we're willing to look at the order because there've been concerns about the implementation. We'll do that. But Malcolm Turnbull has dismissed completely out of hand the correlation between safe rates and safety. Malcolm Turnbull, you know, is an expert on everything, according to Malcolm. But we think he should be more considered, and he should examine some of the evidence that we would happily talk to him about.  I've spoken with the Australian Trucking Association and the Livestock and Rural Association and their union. A leader, Paul, would sit down with all affected parties and discuss the order, rather than, because you don't like a decision of the independent umpire, you seek to abolish the umpire. That's, to me, a disproportionate and reckless approach to public policy. 

And, really, if he's willing to abolish the independent umpire because he doesn't like the decision, what would stop the Prime Minister, if elected, you know, interfering or intervening on the national wage case or intervening on a penalty rates case by way of Parliament? It just seems to me a very extraordinary approach to take by the Government, rather than sit down with all affected parties and work through some of these issues.
KELLY: Can I just clarify Labor's position in relation to the second piece of legislation, which seeks to defer the application of the tribunal’s decision until next year. You've said Labor's prepared to look at that, but what exactly does that mean? To what extent might Labor be prepared to accept that bill?
O’CONNOR:  As I understand it, Paul, the parties before the tribunal were also willing to delay the implementation originally before the stakes got elevated, if you like, by the Prime Minister coming out and saying he would abolish the tribunal. Which we think is just an extreme approach. I haven't seen the second bill, I sought a briefing and it's been refused me, but when we look at the bill, we’ll have a closer look. I believe in the circumstances there should be a delay to allow the parties to put their view and see whether we can improve the order. 

I spoke to the Transport Workers Union, but I had good conversations with the Australian Trucking Association and the Livestock and Rural Association and they have convinced me that there are problems with the order, and I have said to them that we would examine those issues with a view to improving the order. Now the matter is before the Parliament I guess we have that opportunity. So, I'm, in principle,  willing to delay the order. We may well consider the legislation proposed by the Minister for Employment, but I'd like to spend some further time talking to the affected parties before we precisely make a decision on the legislation. But we're open to accepting that legislation if it's not going to deprive people of decent rates of pay over the longer term.  
VAN ONSELEN: Brendan O'Connor, we're almost out of time. But just one final question, if I can. There's been a lot of discussion on the Government side about Tony Abbott recontesting the election, whether Malcolm Turnbull should or shouldn't bring him back to the frontbench. I wonder what your thoughts are on the Labor side about the former Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan. He's recontesting the election for the Labor Party. If Bill Shorten wins and becomes Prime Minister, should a talent like that be brought back on to the frontbench?
O’CONNOR: Well, I'm not sure whether Wayne's interested in taking a frontbench spot. He certainly has the capacity. I think he did some remarkable things as Treasurer during the Global Financial Crisis. On the other hand, I heard George Brandis talk about renewal. You've had some very recent departures. The member for Brisbane, the member for Patterson, and the Member for Murray did not leave for renewal, they left because they're dispirited. I think they all believe they may have done better in what is now becoming increasingly a divided government, a government at war with itself, and I think it's really on the other side of politics, Peter, you have to look to see the division, dysfunction, and bitterness, whereas I can assure you we are a coherent and united Labor Party, ready for the election and ready to govern.  
VAN ONSELEN: Alright. Nicely deflected there, Brendan O'Connor. We appreciate you joining us on the Sunday ahead of what will be a busy Parliamentary sitting week for yourself. Thanks for your company.