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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker


Subjects: Seasonal labour shortage, MUA industrial action, IR reform

GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, Industrial Relations Minister.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Morning, Gareth, morning to your listeners.

GARETH PARKER: The plan to encourage workers who are currently on JobSeeker out into the regions. Is it a sufficient incentive, the $300 a fortnight threshold?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, there's been a lot done. So we've had working holiday makers can now work for longer than six months, they can stay an additional 12 months in Australia if they work in agriculture. We've done some work around the seasonal worker programme with the Pacific Labour Scheme. As you note we've increased the amount that you can earn to $300 before you lose a dollar of welfare payment. Yesterday it was announced that people who earn good money out of fruit picking, once they reach the cut out for getting welfare we won't take them out of the welfare system, we'll leave them in so they wouldn't need to reapply, obviously, because it's seasonal work. So, we've engaged in a suite of measures. We'll have to keep a very close watching brief on the space to see how those measures are working. I mean it clearly is a real problem, I might say it's a problem that's not going to be solved by putting glossy advertisements on state TV with people like they're in a Cherry Ripe ad - you know, glamorous models picking one cherry down south. I mean, this is- it's a real problem, it's real work, but you can earn decent money from this work. And when we've got very high unemployment in Australia, and we're letting people earn large amounts of money without losing a dollar of their welfare payment, you know, we hope that people will respond to that.

GARETH PARKER: Well, are Australians too lazy to do it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I mean, some people say that, I certainly don't want to buy into that notion of Australians. I mean you know, we've got unemployment, we've got people who need work, we've got farmers, fruit growers who need workers to help them get their crops to market. We've got a blend between the welfare system and work now that we've never had in Australia before. So, you couldn't have, I think, more generous settings to encourage people into the work, and you couldn't have global economic settings more conducive to getting people out of the house and into that sort of work. So, we have to wait and see. But you know, it's a large suite of measures, none of them have ever been tried together like this before. People would be wrong, if they say that Australians are too lazy to do the work.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. 92211882, I'd like to keep that debate going listeners, with you. Yesterday the Prime Minister accused the Maritime Union of holding the country to ransom over work stoppages in relation to industrial negotiations they have over new EBAs, with various stevedoring companies. Christie Kane, from the MUA - I spoke to him off air this morning - the State Secretary of the MUA, who says: look, in Fremantle, yes we had a 24-hour work stoppage until 7am this morning. We are seeking a 2.5 per cent pay rise for a year, rolling over all the other conditions. Is that unreasonable?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think that- I mean it's a matter ultimately for Patricks and for MUA to conclude their enterprise agreement negotiations. But, you know, it would be desirable I think, given all the uncertainty around this that the enterprise agreement not just be rolled over for a year and that we have those same disputes in six months' time or twelve months' time. But, I think it would be desirable to actually conclude the three or four-year agreement and that seems to me to be sensible. But, the Government takes advice on these things. We have, I think, very serious and legitimate concerns about the consequences of the actions that the MUA are taking. And after COVID supply chains were very brittle, stocks of important goods and medical goods in Australia have run down. So, you know, I wake up this morning and I’ve got a letter from Medicines Australia, I got a letter from Private Cancer Physicians Australia. The Private Cancer Physicians they say that resolution of the dispute is important to minimise future impacts to the supply of essential medicines. They say cancer medicines are highly sensitive to high temperatures, they can't be left on docks. They say that there were serious interruptions to supply chains for those medicines during the COVID lockdown - and these are there words, right - not mine. They say for any industrial disputes now to put patient access at risk here, especially during an ongoing health crisis, is quite shocking. Medicines Australia say something very similar - they've got concerns about potential shortages of the crucial medicines. So, I think that to undertake this sort of action, and the original claim for a wage increase Gareth was 6 per cent a year at a time when we've got hundreds of thousands of Australians unemployed, and they're already pretty decent wages that are being earned on the Australian waterfront in these positions - I think this is a terribly misjudged action on the part of the MUA. I think it puts the supply chains of very important goods that Australians rely on in serious jeopardy. We've got no choice but to intervene in the matter and try to bring it to a resolution. But, I don't think that it's a particularly satisfactory resolution just to have a year extension on the existing EA so that all this could happen again in six or 12 months' time. You know, we're going to be suffering…

GARETH PARKER: So, what would be reasonable?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think that both parties have got to try and reach an agreement, but I don't think that a 6 per cent a year pay rise during the greatest economic crisis Australia has ever experienced is a reasonable starting position for negotiations. So that's an absurd starting position for negotiations. And then using that starting position to stop work, like at Fremantle for 24 hours, and have bans on overtimes and all different sorts of work - which is causing clear delays in the port - it's unreasonable.

GARETH PARKER: So, when you say intervention what does that mean? What will you do? What can you do?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we intervene in the proceedings in the Fair Work Commission, and we do that on the basis that we think, and we would put evidence that's been received by us, that the actions that the MUA are taking are causing significant economic harm and risk to Australia's supply of essential goods.

GARETH PARKER: We'll wait and see where that goes. Christie Kane, again for the record, disputes the union is looking for 6 per cent in the dispute with Patrick here in WA, but we'll wait and see. 9 2211882 if you would like to weigh in on that. The roundtable process that we've been discussing, with business leaders, union leaders alike. You flagged that you'll be bringing forward legislation shortly after the budget. What sorts of things are going to be in that legislation? What sorts of reforms do you think this process can be legislated, and get through the Senate most importantly?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. I mean obviously, you're inside the art of the practical and the achievable. But we identified five problems and I think it is incumbent on the government to try and produce legislation which has reasonable prospects of passage through the Parliament that fixes those problems. So, we'll try and address every one of those five problems - greenfields agreements, so that you get life of projects agreements on the big projects like Gorgon and Wheatstone in WA. I mean at the moment, there's no definition of what casual employment is in the Fair Work Act and that's causing enormous uncertainty and small businesses are discouraged from employing people because they don't know whether or not they have to pay from the 25 per cent loading or other entitlements like long service leave and sick leave. The awards are complicated. So, all of these issues we'll try and synthesise all the views that were in 150 hours of meetings. And those meetings finished last week. So the next couple of weeks we'll try and pack all of those views. And make compromises between them, and produce legislation that would fix these known problems that stand in the way of job growth. And obviously that has to find a way to be passed through the Senate. So, this isn't about revolutionary reform; it's about fixing the problems that are preventing and inhibiting job growth when we need job growth the most.

GARETH PARKER: The Chinese Acting Consul-General in Perth's written a lengthy piece in the West Australian this morning. Says that: China will grow strong, but will not bully. China values independent decision making, but will not act arbitrarily. China is firm in safeguarding its interests, but will never seek hegemony. Do you agree?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I mean, it's nice to hear. Absolutely. And I think that's not the first op-ed that's been written by our Consul-General in Perth. And you know, it's good to have those contributions to debate. But I think that the tone in that is conciliatory, as was the tone at the National Press Club recently - which is, I think, good to hear. But obviously, when individual issues arise; whether they're allegations of trade and dumping, we deal with every single issue on its merits, in its own space, and in its own lane. So you know, those comments about the intent of China in a range of areas are welcome, but this is just an issue by issue relationship, a very important relationship, and it's much deeper and stronger, I think, than some people realise. Particularly at the moment with the great work that WA is doing - providing one of the most important resources to China, when other supply chains to China are facing a whole range of continuity problems. I mean, we are a very important place in terms of exports to China.

GARETH PARKER: The piece also has a line about how important it is that China achieve reunification, which I interpreted as saying that they want Taiwan back under Chinese control. Is that acceptable?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I don't know what's in the mind of the Consul-General when he writes that piece. And reunification, I've come to see in a range of Chinese submissions, or speeches, or individual notations, means quite different things. But that's not a debate that is for me to get into - these are matters of trade predominantly that I deal with. But every instance of the relationship we want to act in accordance with international law clearly, dutifully, and in good faith and that's what we always do.

GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, thank you for your time.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks, Gareth. Cheers.