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2GB Breakfast with Ben Fordham



Subject: IR Reform

BEN FORDHAM: Christian Porter has a big job on his hands today. He wants to bring in industrial relations laws into the 21st century. Unions, businesses and governments agree on one thing: the system needs updating. But that's about all they agree on. Today, the Federal Government's long awaited IR reforms are being tabled in Parliament, but it's going to have a real fight on its hands because the last time workplace reform was attempted on this scale, it ended with the defeat of the Howard government over WorkChoices. Now the unions are sharpening their spears. The ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus, is calling these new reforms the worst attack on workers' rights since, you guessed it, WorkChoices.

The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, is live from Parliament House. Attorney-General, good morning to you.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, morning, Ben. Good to be here.

BEN FORDHAM: I think everyone agrees the system needs an upgrade, but that's about all that everyone agrees on.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there's one part of the reforms that Sally McManus and the ACTU have taken particular objection to, but I don't think that that's the whole thing. There's lots of stuff in here that the unions will like, there's some things in here that businesses don't particularly like. But we're trying to produce a balanced response to an extraordinary situation. And all these long-known barriers in the system to creating jobs, we have to remove them, like we can't just leave our economy on autopilot to get through this storm.

So there are some things we have to change and do differently. But all of the things in this package are designed to grow jobs, give people more hours in their employment if that's what they want, keep businesses surviving, let them grow as we get out of the other end of this COVID recession.

But there is one thing that I think everyone agrees on: you can't just do nothing. You can't leave all of these problems and barriers to job growth that have existed in the system for 10 years or more in the system while we're trying to get through this crisis.

BEN FORDHAM: You want to address the problem of underemployment and you're suggesting a new type of employment known as part-time flexi. Now, this will see workers missed out on some overtime pay. It means that your boss can offer you more hours at the usual rates, but with no overtime. And unions are saying that this is a pay cut in disguise.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the workers miss out as things presently stand because the employers don't offer the extra hours. So in some areas, like in the Telecommunications Award, someone can be offered extra hours if they're a part-time worker at their usual rates of pay and that's good for them, it's good for the boss, it allows them to deal with surges in demand. But then in a place - a sector like retail, you don't have the flexibility to do that. So you might have more customers on a Thursday, you might want to give someone four hours extra work, they might want to do that extra work, but you can't afford to do that because of the usual rates applying.

So this is just a common sense change in a really hard hit area, which is retail, to basically say, look, if you're a part-time permanent worker and you usually work, say, a minimum of 16 hours, and there is more work available and you want to do it and your boss wants you to do it, then you can do it, but you just do it at your usual rates of pay. Now everyone wins in that situation. And what we've tried to do is look through the entire system to remove problems to create more win-win situations between employees and employers.

BEN FORDHAM: Your plan would require bosses to offer casuals a permanent role once they hit certain benchmarks, and more than a million casual workers would be eligible for an upgrade if this is passed. But casual employment is kind of the way we're heading, isn't it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, in actual fact, casual employment's been pretty constant at about 25 per cent of all employment for almost 20 years. But we just want people to have choice. And if they want to be able to move from casual to permanent full-time or part-time employment, we want them to be able to make that choice for themselves. And at the moment, there's a massive problem out there for small business that after a recent federal court decision, there is actually no definition of casual that is clear and precise in the Fair Work Act. And so people don't know when they're employing someone, whether they should be employing them as a casual and paying the 25 per cent loading or employing them as a part-time permanent and paying sick leave and then there's these potentials to get double payments, which is confusing business. And there's a huge cost out there that business might be required to pay, which could cripple business at their weakest point.

So we're going to try and define what a casual employee is, but then if someone's been working for 12 months - and in the last six months they've been working a regular pattern of work we say the employer must offer that person the opportunity to go to permanent, whether that's permanent part-time or permanent full-time, because we think that's fair. And that will be the first time that there'll be that consistent, strong requirement to offer someone the opportunity to go permanent after they've been working regular shifts and hours for a six-month period. Now that's - we think that everyone wins out of that situation. It clears up confusion; it gives confidence to hire people and it gives people the choice to move into permanent employment if that's what they want to do.

BEN FORDHAM: It's 16 past seven. We're talking to Attorney-General Christian Porter from Parliament House, Canberra. Two more quick ones, if I can, Attorney-General. There are changes to enterprise bargaining agreements. The better off overall test requires all workers to benefit from an enterprise agreement. But you say businesses do need some leeway coming out of COVID. So businesses would be allowed to ignore the test in some circumstances and strike pay deals.

Would that leave some workers worse off?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: So there's already an exception in the Act, and it's not businesses who get to ignore anything. The independent umpire already can make decisions, in limited and rare circumstances, that if everyone agrees they want to make a change in their enterprise agreement and the independent umpire thinks that's necessary for the business to survive because of a short-term crisis that the business is going through, that already exists. And you know what, we think that COVID-19 and the recession it has caused is a crisis and we want to have the independent umpire able to also grant some limited exemptions to save businesses who are struggling because of COVID. Now, we just think that is 100 per cent common sense.