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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


October 19, 2015

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Brendan O’Connor, thank you for joining us on Viewpoint.  


KENEALLY: I want to start with the employment figures released this week. 230,000 jobs created in the last 12 months created under the Coalition Government and the Employment Minster Michaelia Cash welcomed those figures but she says the unemployment rates at 6.2 per cent is still too high. I’m sure you agree with her on that point, but when you look at these figures, what do they tell you about the state of the economy and particularly the policy steps needed to drive unemployment down?

O’CONNOR: I think they’re an indication that the economy is sluggish. There has been very little consumer or business confidence over the last two years. If I could perhaps refer to some figures myself. There are 90,000 more Australians unemployed today than there were at the last election, so that’s not a good figure. There are 112,000 jobs that have not been created that would have had to have happened for this government to fulfil its promise to create a million jobs in five years. The participation rate fell and that’s not good and unemployment is consistently high – 6 per cent or more for 16 consecutive months. I do think it does mean there is a lack of confidence. The economic data shows an economy in transition and sluggish and the Government needs to respond more effectively to realise at least its modest goal of 1 million jobs in 5 years.

KENEALLY: The Government, particularly Minister Cash would say that if you’re fair dinkum about creating jobs and lowering the unemployment rate you would support the passage of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement through the Parliament. Given that we have declining terms of trade and that is affecting employment figures, doesn’t she make a valid point?

O’CONNOR: Well we want to support a trade agreement that benefits Australia. That’s why we’re engaged very cooperatively with the Government to ensure that not only do we get the benefits of that clear but we safeguard against any potential downside to the agreement namely allowing for an increase to the visa use of overseas workers, in this case Chinese workers, without proper safeguards, and that is without looking locally first. It’s only reasonable we do that, we are the Labor Party, we want to represent Labor people and represent people seeking work. So I think we can do both things here – we can engage with the Government and we can finalise an arrangement and we proposed very sensible amendments to domestic legislation to do that.

KENEALLY: The trade Minister Andrew Robb made the point that much of what Labor is asking for, particularly in terms of labour market testing, was already part of guidelines. What was your reaction to the manner in which the Trade Minister received the recommendations, do you have any hope that we may get an agreement here?

O’CONNOR: I think Andrew Robb’s language has toned down significantly. He had the audacity to accuse Labor of being racist and I found that very troubling, but I’m glad to see he’s being more cooperative and open to this discussion. That may well be because of the change of Prime Minister – who knows?  

I think it’s always been possible for us to sit down sensibly and safeguard Australian jobs. I think it’s what the Australian people would expect of us and let’s hope there can be some genuine resolution to these outstanding matters.  

I don’t think it’s fair to say that without this agreement between the two major parties the safeguards are sufficient. Remember the Liberal Party have a long history of opposing any reforms to the 457 and indeed voted against the legislation I proposed in 2013 even though it did pass the Parliament, they’re now relying upon it, but at the time they were totally opposed to it and said so and voted against it.

KENEALLY: Let’s look ahead though. I’m going to put a hypothetical to you and I suspect I know what your answer may be – that you won’t deal in the hypothetical. But let me just ask, should the Government say we don’t think we need to legislate for labour market testing? How far is Labor willing to go to make the point that these safeguards that are in guidelines are simply not sufficient?

O’CONNOR: We take this very seriously and I hope the Government doesn’t seek to play chicken with the Opposition, I hope the Government is serious about improving the terms of the agreement by way of ensuring we can change enabling legislation – that is change domestic legislation to improve the safety.

We do not apologise that we stand up for Australian jobs, we want the Government to join us. So we’re serious and we’ll have the conversation if there are some genuine concerns that they might raise. We’re open to that as well but we want to genuinely deal with this matter and we are focused on those points of difference so we can reconcile them. As you say it is hypothetical to ask what we might do after that, let’s just focus on these points of difference, see whether the Government is genuine in its efforts to finalise this arrangement.

I don’t know why it’s ever been an absurd proposition that the Government that has negotiated a free trade agreement in secret might have to sit down with the Parliament and talk about the benefits and see whether we can improve upon it – seems to me a reasonable thing to do.

KENEALLY: One last question on CHAFTA, do you have any concern that the Chinese might be looking at this discussion between the Government and the Opposition and feeling a bit spooked or concerned about the agreement going forward?

O’CONNOR: Not in the least. I think that has always been an overblown statement by some Government Ministers.  I think it’s fair to say the Government has overblown a number of things. They exaggerated some of the job numbers and had to correct the record there. They’ve talked about China being concerned about the discussions, I think that is not at all the case. As a Minister I visited China. Labor has a long standing relationship with China, the first Party in this country to recognise it. Gough Whitlam of course was the first Prime Minister to visit. I think our long history and record with this very significant trading partner in our region is such that it can withstand these conversations and it would be foolish for people to think that somehow China would walk away when most of our other trading partners in the region have agreements with us. I think that’s always been an overstated concern and I don’t think you’ll hear much from the Government about that again, I would hope not.

KENEALLY: Can I take you to something more domestically focused and that is the Fair Work Building Commission report into the CFMEU says there has been 1000 breaches of law on Australian construction sites. They’ve cited alarming reports of what they call lawlessness. When you look at the figures, it’s tempting to accept that characterisation. Given this report, it seems like the CFMEU is at risk of making the case for the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Does a report of this nature make it difficult for Labor to continue to oppose the ABCC?

O’CONNOR: We will examine the report. I mean, this was a report that was leaked possibly by the agency itself to get a sort of spin up. Remember this is dealing with civil breaches, no one is suggesting any criminal laws have been broken. In many cases they will be the equivalent of industrial jaywalking. I think we should look at it closely. But I think the 1000 figure – I’m not sure where that has come from. There has been a lot of investigations. There was $33 million of tax payer’s money spent last financial year to fund this organisation, but only 12 successful contraventions were determined last financial year. There is an overblown statement that was reported on the front page of The Australian newspaper last Thursday. We will examine this, there is Senate estimates this week. We will have the chance to talk to Mr Hadgkiss, the director and indeed the Minister Michaelia Cash about these matters and see if we can get to the bottom of it. I think a lot of it has been used in a very politically partisan way in order to substantiate the arguments by Government, but I think it may be overstated and we’ll obviously examine it in Senate Estimates.

KENEALLY: Brendan O’Connor I want to go now to the Fairfax Ipsos poll which has just come in for October. It’s found that the Coalition has surged ahead of Labor 53-47 according to the flow of second preferences as allocated at the 2013 election. This of course comes on the back of Newspoll last week, showing Labor and the Coalition at 50-50. Polling numbers – is this the start of a trend that is going to concern Labor?

O’CONNOR: We expected that there would be an increase in support for the Government with the change in Prime Minister. Our job is to focus on the points of difference – who’s got a plan to create jobs,  who’s got a plan to support pensioners, who has better childcare policies, who’s got the better response to climate change and reducing carbon emissions. I think they’re the sort of conversations and the contest that needs to be had. We’re not at all surprised that there has been an increase in Government support that would have come after pretty much anyone replaced Tony Abbott after what has two years of real problems for the government. It just means that Labor has to put its arguments and ensure it keeps announcing policies that underline that we have a plan for the future of the country.

KENEALLY: This morning Ed Husic said on Australian Agenda that it was better for the country that Malcolm Turnbull had replaced Tony Abbott, although it seems like it’s more concerning for the Labor Party at the moment. Looking forward you’ve talked about announcing policy, focusing on the messages. Let me take you to the infrastructure investment policy that Labor announced a couple of weeks ago . Why haven’t we heard more about that in Question Time? Is Labor going to continue to push these innovative policy ideas or is there a risk of them sinking without a trace?

O’CONNOR: Well you’d know as a former politician Kristina, that Governments tend to have more resonance within the Parliament about announcing policies. We get to ask questions, not answer them. We don’t get to make Ministerial Statements. But we have been out there announcing policies, whether it’s support for start-ups, whether it’s engaging with entrepreneurs and ensuring we don’t have a brain drain from this country. Whether it’s investing in productive infrastructure and the announcements made recently with Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese ensuring we’ve got infrastructure right. I think you’ll see more and more announcements made by Labor because in the end it should be a contest of ideas. We’ll do what we can to make sure these ideas resonate amongst the Australian community to ensure they understand not only that we are focused on the future, but we want to bring people with us.

I think it’s fair to say that Malcolm Turnbull may have a better idea about the future than Tony Abbott, I’m just not sure that he has a sense that he needs to bring everybody with us – whether he sees labour as a commodity rather than as people aspiring to find jobs and have decent lives.

I think Labor has an opportunity here to show that not only do we embrace the future but we also want to bring people with us in what is of course one of the fastest changes in the economy, in our labour market in our history. So you want to have a major party, you want to have a Government that is going to ensure that it looks after people and brings people along through this period of change. And is able to navigate the challenges confronting this nation. As the weeks and months go on we will continue to announce policies consistent with that approach.

KENEALLY: Brendan O’Connor, thank you for joining me on Viewpoint tonight.

O’CONNOR: Thanks very much.