6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Subject: Industrial relations reform, national accounts, Centrelink class action, border closures
GARETH PARKER: ...it involves getting everyone around the table – business, government and the unions. Now, will this process stick? I think that remains to be seen, but the process begins today.
The Industrial Relations Minister and the Attorney-General is Christian Porter. Christian, good morning.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, morning Gareth. So I'm in Sydney and we'll sort of be having video links in from Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. But yeah, the first meeting’s with the ACTU and a variety of other unions, business groups ACCI, Business Council of Australia and other groups, so important day. But today we'll be setting the scene and agreeing on process. I always find it's very important that everyone understands what the process is before we even have the first conversation about the substantive issues, but an important day.
GARETH PARKER: Do you think there is genuine goodwill here? It is one thing to get everyone together under the tent, but do you think there is going to be productive discussions?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, I think there is goodwill but the most important thing is that both the business and the union groups recognize this fact; that in a whole range of industry sectors demand has disappeared, or been destroyed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And so the arguments that we were having for 20 years or so, which were about how we divided up the wealth in an industry sector between employers and employees aren’t as relevant as they are, as they were, because the relevant argument now is how do we regrow the jobs in that sector. And you know in a way the old arguments have been put on hold because there's no point arguing about whether someone is being paid X or Y for a job that doesn't exist. It's just a completely fruitless argument, and retail, hospitality, tourism, there are issues in construction, a range of other industry sectors; universities, of course, which had very large demand, which, you know, has been diminished literally overnight by necessary health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. And in some instances where we have international border closures, in industries like tourism and the retail and hospitality that feeds off of it, they are going to have to look at recalibrating their business for months, maybe years to come.
GARETH PARKER: What does success look like from this process?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think success looks like compromise changes, so in the award streams. I would say that success in the Greenfields agreement looks like having longer agreements that cover something closer to the full term of a big construction project like the ones we see in WA in Gorgon and Wheatstone.
GARETH PARKER: So basically you are not having a strike in the middle of it. You are not having a strike half way through a six year project, at the three year mark you’re not having industrial disruption. You just have a six year agreement that covers the whole project?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, and obviously part of this negotiation is how you would formulate those types of agreements and allow them to cover the life of a project which might be six or eight years or something that we've got to agree on. But what all the larger construction and mining and oil and gas businesses, which generate, you know, tens of thousands of jobs, over, over the longer sweep even more than that in Australia. What they say is that the investment pipeline is very negatively impacted by the fact that this is a really high cost jurisdiction to construct major projects and whether it's RIO, or BHP, or other large companies like Chevron, I mean they look at a whole range of investment opportunities around the world and they look at many things, including foremost the cost of construction of the projects, and if you can't provide reasonable costs of construction you lose out on billions of dollars’ worth of investment and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of jobs over the long run. So that's a really important part of growing our way out of the economic challenges that have been put upon us by COVID.
GARETH PARKER: Ok, what about industries where demand has evaporated, particularly at the small and medium business level?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, so if you have a look at retail, tourism, hospitality, one of the things that we did with the union movement during the peak of the crisis was that we got together employer and employee groups and negotiated temporary changes to awards and some of those changes allowed for people to be directed to do slightly different duties. So if you have a look at, say for instance the hospitality award, or the restaurants award, it is extremely prescriptive about who can take dishes and plates out to a table, who can collect them and bring them back, whether that person is paid $26.4 or $27.8, and that type of thing creates complication, employers say it's difficult to navigate, they say it very often detracts from their willingness to employ people. During the COVID crisis of course, people had to entirely pivot their business, so people who were cooking all of a sudden had to be able and flexible enough to deliver because a business went to take away or to blend their cooking with deliveries, and those types of flexibilities actually saved businesses during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been unlawful had it not been for the fact that unions and businesses cooperated to amend the awards on a temporary basis. Now a lot of those businesses are going to be in high stress for months, maybe years to come and they're going to need some form of flexibility. So, what is it about the cooperative changes that we have already made that we might preserve into the future to allow these businesses to pivot, grow, refocus, change the pattern of the business to changing demand patterns? And then there's going to be a whole bunch of problems we haven't even foreseen.
GARETH PARKER: So when I ask you about what success looks like, a lot of people hear flexibility and wonder if that just means cutting wages and more casual shifts. The union movement have defined success as more secure work that is well paid, which is not a bad goal. Is it possible?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think the first type of job security is to have a job. And so, you know, part of that measure of job security is, is how you grow jobs and the government's focus is slightly different but I think that there's a considerable overlap between the two approaches. And our first and foremost focus is, what types of changes can we make that will allow jobs that are teetering to be preserved, jobs that have lost to be regrown, and for new jobs in industries that we might see blossom out of the changes that have occurred around the COVID-19 pandemic actually blossom and grow and provide new avenues of employment. You know, potentially in some areas of manufacturing where Australia hasn't had a strong foothold before so there's going to be disagreement, there's going to be different viewpoints different angles different perceptions, but I think that for the first time in a long time there's a big overlap because whilst the union movements focus will be on what they would describe as job security and our focus will be on job creation, job security and job creation have a very considerable overlap when you've seen unemployment rise from record low levels and welfare dependence rise from record low levels to things that we haven't seen outside of wartime are a great depression.
GARETH PARKER: Ok, so I understand that there is going to be a prominent West Australian helping to lead these discussions as well.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes, well you're the first person to ask, so Gareth you get the scoop. But there'll be a deputy chair, and I'll chair as many meetings as I can, particularly, all of the early meetings where we set all the parameters and the goals and potential outcomes and structure the debate. But there'll be a deputy chair who will be in every single meeting of all five working groups, which could be 50 or 60 meetings. But good West Australian in Tim Marney who people will remember was the Treasury Secretary, or the Under Treasurer as we call it in WA, appointed originally I think by Eric Ripper, but worked for Labor and Liberal governments, so he's had experience working in sort of both sides of the political divide. He was also WA’s Mental Health Commissioner. I must admit I haven't spoken to him for years, other than yesterday when I put this to him and he has agreed, but I found when I worked with him he was incredibly intelligent, energetic, dynamic, got along with people, which is kind of an important task when you're dealing with what are often quite diverse and disparate sides of what has been a long ranging industrial relations divide. Yeah, so Tim Marney will be a West Australian and obviously deputy chair and I’m sure it sure it'll be a name that not many people on the East Coast have heard but they'll get to hear about him over the next couple months.
GARETH PARKER: And it think they will learn a lot about him and learn what a good operator he is. I applaud that appointment, I think it is terrific. National accounts coming out today. There seems to be a bit of commentary including from the Reserve Bank that the economic damage thankfully may not be quite as severe as we first feared?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, I mean I think that's right but I think also the Reserve Bank always looks for international comparisons. So, you know, if you look at the March quarter growth, the United States is down 1.3 per cent, Germany down 2.2 France down 5.3, Italy down to 5.3, China down 9.8 per cent. So, the effect of COVID has been enormous around the world. Our health responses have been as good as anywhere which will, I think, help those economic figures, but nevertheless, I mean they are going to be very different from the sort of economic figures that we were expecting had we not had COVID. And I think one thing to keep in mind is that in the March quarter, obviously we were among some of the first countries to close our borders to anyone who'd been a foreigner traveling in mainland China. And, you know, those sort of early border controls had a very positive health impact but they will show up in our national accounts because we were taking those measures prior to most places around the world. So there's an effect there that you'll see. But you can look at this on a comparative basis, but I think what it will demonstrate is that we're not going to work our way out of this economic challenge and we're not going to chart a path back to the sort of prosperity we want to see for all Australian families and not going to chart our way back to job growth, without being willing to do things differently, without government being willing to try and catalyse changes, without looking specifically at industries like construction and hospitality and retail and tourism and try - this won't happen by magic. There is an enormous challenge and enormous amount of hard work to grow ourselves out of what we've just experienced.
GARETH PARKER: With the Robodebt affair, is it fair to say that you’d like to apologise but you can’t because you’re worried that it could affect the ongoing legal case?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, look, I mean I, I'm in a difficult position because as first law officer, I conduct the litigation, and we tend not to comment in great detail about individual litigation matters, so I'm not the responsible minister, other than for the purposes of litigation. But equally with the litigation I mean there's a range of plaintiffs and they are essentially representative of a class of larger plaintiffs and you can go to the relevant Gordon Legal website and have a look at the government's defence, but I think it's fair to say by way of summary that simply because the method which had been used to calculate a debt was held to be legally insufficient doesn't mean that there were not debts in existence. And that applies to, we argue, this class of plaintiffs at large. And if you have a look at the individual plaintiffs in this matter on the Gordon Legal website, you know it's been reported in The Guardian as well, many people did actually owe debts. So, there's...
GARETH PARKER: Right, so some people did owe debts, or many people did owe debts, or they owed much smaller debts than were raised?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, that's potentially correct, likely correct, but that is a different argument from the argument about the legally sufficient basis for raising the debts. And of course in the litigation we will necessarily make the point when it comes to things like an argument about negligence and damages that notwithstanding an insufficient legal basis for the raising of the debt, there may be many, many instances where debts were actually owed.
GARETH PARKER: Right but if you get a letter from the government saying you owe us money it is pretty distressing and if you don’t owe that money and owe less than they say and are already in a vulnerable position by definition because you are a welfare recipient. It is a pretty tough nut to swallow isn’t it.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I'm not disputing that but again...
GARETH PARKER: But that was the point of the program wasn’t it?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the point of the program, was that for many, many years in Australia there had been enormous amounts of money overpaid to people, and the government utilized the methodology that had been utilized by governments prior to us, including Labor governments to try and recoup that debt. As it, as it turned out that methodology was flawed and wasn't a legally sufficient basis but there are still debts and that's why we have to, notwithstanding this litigation and its ultimate conclusion, go back to the drawing board and work out ways to, in legally sufficient way calculate and recoup that debt because it can't just be let going on as it is and has done for decades.
GARETH PARKER: Just a last one, when do you think the West Australian hard border should come down?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I would say, as soon as reasonably practicable but that determination as to what is reasonably practicable is a matter for the, for the Premier. But again if I circle round to original points about the enormous challenges facing the retail, hospitality and tourism sector part of that challenge is about the fact that we are very likely to have hard border closures internationally for some considerable period of time. And that pulls very large amounts of the pre-enjoyed demand for retail, hospitality and tourism in the form of foreign tourists, backpackers, it just takes that away from that, that business. If you then, in a state like WA, also take away the demand that we have enjoyed or could now enjoy from interstate visitors to our retail, tourism, hospitality, that is going to be a ultimately very very challenging set of circumstances for anyone in WA who owns a restaurant, or a café, or somewhere beautiful that you can go down Margaret River. And obviously the Premier launched a visit inside WA campaign, and that's wonderful and everyone would encourage West Australians to go out and visit inside their own state and holiday and become tourism, tourists in the beautiful state of WA, but ultimately, there's a market out there of Queenslanders and South Australians and Northern Territorians and Victorians that we want to get into because we've just lost the rest of the world as a market for the foreseeable future and I don't want to see our industries in WA damaged impractically or unnecessarily.
GARETH PARKER: Christian, thank you for your time.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Okay, cheers, thanks for that.