Subjects: Newstart; industrial reforms
GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations Minister is Christian Porter, he's in Canberra. Attorney-General good morning.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, good morning Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: Plenty on your plate on IR, we'll come to that in a moment. But has the PM banned your team from debating Newstart?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No. Not at all. I mean, we've been debating Newstart for a long period of time. I mean, probably this debate kicked off in the last Parliament when the Greens moved a motion in the Senate to increase Newstart by, I think it was $50, which motion was voted against by us and by the Labor Party I might add. And before the last election there was no commitment from the Labor Party to increase Newstart.
Newstart is a difficult payment to live off when it's just Newstart and it's for an extended period of time, there's no doubt about that. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of people who receive Newstart also receive at least one other payment. You can work and earn hundreds of dollars without losing a cent of the Newstart payment. So talking about the bare rate of Newstart is actually very misleading.
But as a Government what we are focused on is getting people off Newstart. So we have had enormous success, we have moved 150,000 people out of the welfare system into work. Under the previous Labor government, they moved 250,000 people from work into the welfare system. So look, it is a debate that's going on, but our position on it is pretty clear.
GARETH PARKER: There's about four or five as many unemployed people as there are jobs available at the moment and I guess the other aspect of Newstart is people perhaps think about young people, dole bludgers, but in fact the statistics show that it's mainly older people who can't wait to qualify for the aged pension so they can get off Newstart.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look there's no doubt that one of the most challenging groups inside the Newstart system is the sort of older Australians who want to work, who are looking for work, and who find it difficult for a range of reasons - there's no doubt about that. But even in that group we've paid particular attention and we've seen some pretty significant improvements.
But the average time on Newstart is actually very low and the system is a system that's designed as a safety net for people to move into work - and generally speaking that system works very well. There are difficult groups inside Newstart that's obvious, but our job as a government is to focus on those groups, retrain, spend resources and effort to make sure that we can get people back into the workforce.
GARETH PARKER: Is there a view from you and your ministerial colleagues that Newstart should be low because if you make it too high then people won't want to work?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the structure of the system is that it's meant to be a temporary payment And when you look at the percentage of people who stay on Newstart for long periods it's very, very low. So the design of the system is obviously that it's meant to be a temporary payment. But again…
GARETH PARKER: But is it so low that it punishes people do you reckon?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No. Well it's, certainly - that is not a part of the design of Newstart, but again, what I'd note is that Newstart is one of a large swathe of payments. So Newstart is very, very often accompanied by Family Tax Benefits or Commonwealth Rent Assistance and a variety of other payments which increase the overall rate of welfare…
GARETH PARKER: Yeah. But it might only increase it by another $14 or $20 a week or something. I mean-
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, something like family tax benefits for instance are pretty significant amounts. But the other point is that you can earn hundreds of dollars whilst you're on Newstart through casual or other work and not lose a dollar of Newstart.
GARETH PARKER: Well yeah, but that's no good if you can't find a job, isn't it?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well that's true except the whole point is that allowing that amount to be earned while you're on Newstart without losing any of the Newstart is creating that incentive and structure to the system which puts people into the job from which they will get a better job and we have had enormous success.
GARETH PARKER: Right.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I mean one-hundred-and-fifty thousand people - and job growth - is at record levels. So last year we created 100,000 jobs for young Australians between 18 to 24 - that is a record in our economic history. So the main game is always to get people into employment.
GARETH PARKER: The point though it seems is that it doesn't matter if the Greens called for it, if - even I mean, Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council she's saying it needs to go up, Senator Dean Smith, your WA colleague, he says it needs to go up, others say it need to go up, doesn't sound like it's going to go up.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well there is a multi-billion-dollar cost for putting up Newstart even a very modest amount and obviously every government has to question how their priorities sit with that type of cost.
GARETH PARKER: And this isn't one?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Again, our priority is getting people out of the welfare system.
GARETH PARKER: Priorities in your other - industrial relations portfolio - you're dealing with a couple of Bills at the moment. Are they through the Parliament yet? But particularly the Ensuring Integrity Bill.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah. They're due for debate in the Parliament today and that'll likely go on into next week. One of the Bills, as you've noted, Ensuring Integrity is about simple things like making sure that a court has the ability to declare someone is not a fit and proper person to hold public official status in a union, or an employer organisation I might add - it applies equally to both employee and employer organisations. And the other Bill is about putting a proper transparent regulatory structure around these things known as workers' benefit funds.
There is $2 billion under management in these funds which is put aside and meant to provide for the rainy day future situation where severance payments need to paid or long-service leave.
CHRISTIAN PORTER:And as I noted in Parliament yesterday, what's going with these funds is nothing short scandalous. So before the last election, the workers' entitlement fund known as Protect, which holds money meant to pay for future severance payments transferred, wait for it, $32 million to the Electrical Trades Union just before the last election.
GARETH PARKER: And how do they justify that?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there is no justification. It's described in the Electrical Trades Union's financial statements as having been transferred to them because they, the ETU, are a sponsor of Protect. I mean, as I noted in Parliament yesterday, Cristiano Ronaldo…
GARETH PARKER: But I mean-
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …was the highest sponsorship deal in soccer's history. That was like $31 million. So it's good work if you can get it. But this is workers’ money.
GARETH PARKER: They can't just spend that money on anything they want though, can they? I mean, is it still held in some sort of trust situation for the benefit of workers?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, what's most remarkable about this is millions of it is held in trust as a loan facility so that if the Workers' Entitlement Fund ran out of money to pay the severance benefits of its members, it could then go ask the Electrical Trades Union to loan it back some of the money that it originally gave away. I mean, it's just extraordinary…
GARETH PARKER: That's bizarre.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …but this is $32 million of workers' money that's meant to sit in the account, meant to be safe and sound and protected to pay for future severance, if that should occur, and it's just being shot back in a kickback to a union it’s outrageous.
GARETH PARKER: Have they done anything illegal as the law stands now?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it's difficult to see that that's the case…
GARETH PARKER: Right.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …that is that this may not be unlawful. It is outrageous…
GARETH PARKER: Yeah.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …it is a theft of the workers' money, in my observation, just like wage theft is. But the reality is that what you have to do is make that transparent. There has to be proper regulation and reporting so that all of this is known to the people who are meant to benefit from these funds. The only thing that you will do to stop this is to pour sunlight on it and make sure everyone knows that it's going on.
GARETH PARKER: Okay.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Which is what this bill is about.
GARETH PARKER: Alright. You had a bit of a rethink on George Calombaris because last week you said the system was working and then you gave an interview to The Australia when you said - well, perhaps, we need to do more.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think - I mean, I've said I think that it is bit light and I think I indicated that that is a fair observation when I was on your show last week. But equally, this is a large amount of money that's been paid back to workers. It was self-reported so it does indicate some of the strengths of the system. But talking with the Prime Minister, it's clear to me that you do need to have more serious penalties reserved for the most serious types of this offending. I'm not saying necessarily that this is in that category. But where people repeat offend with underpayment, they do so knowingly and in very large amounts - obviously, to the extraordinary disadvantage of their workers, that should have a system where you have the reserved ability to have criminal offences, and it's not just shockingly unfair for the people who work hard to earn a fair wage, but you've got one group of businesses competing against another group of businesses where…
GARETH PARKER: Well quite right, absolutely.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: … it's not a level playing field because one group…
GARETH PARKER: Yep.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …has to pay people properly and the others undercut their workers, and it's just not a fair level playing field.
GARETH PARKER: Okay. Thank you for your time.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Cheers. Thanks, Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, the Attorney-General.