6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Subjects: Wage underpayments and Labor election review
GARETH PARKER: The Industrial Relations Minister and Attorney-General is Christian Porter. Christian, good morning.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good morning, Gareth. How are you going?
GARETH PARKER: I'm good. Thank you for your time. So we went through this in some detail last week, but corporate Australia's big problem with paying its workers. What is- you've given some thought to this. You're now talking tough on directors?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we've already put out one consultation paper not that long ago that talked about criminalising certain categories of underpayment, which would be wage theft. And in that paper, we also talked about the civil penalties regime. So there's always going to be a second paper that would discuss and consult on the issues. And I spoke with The Australian yesterday just to foreshadow some of the issues that we are going to include in that second paper. But two of them relate- one of them relates to company directors, and the essential premise to consult on and to consider, and for people to submit on is that in consumer law and in corporation's law, there are certain requirements at law, which, if breached, can form the basis for someone being disqualified for a period of time from being a company director. But that process doesn't extend in the Fair Work Act. And I think it is more than reasonable in all the circumstances for us to consult and consider how you might extend that process. If you are a company director and you, on your watch, have overseen the very large underpayments of staff in your business, then I think there has to be some responsibility taken at the board level. And the other issue that we're also going to consult on is how you would structure potentially something that looks like a small claims division inside the Fair Work Commission, so that individuals who consider they've been underpaid can get quick and simple, and cost effective redress on an individual basis.
GARETH PARKER: Okay, I'll come back to small claims in a moment, because I think that's an interesting idea. But essentially, if you can be- if you steal from the shareholders or if you breach your directors' duties, you can be banned as a director. You say: well, if you steal- if your company underpays the employees, then that ought to disqualify you too?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we're going to consult and discuss that issue. But my essential thinking on this is that there's no particular reason why that principle can’t be extended to provisions in the Fair Work Act. And I think that one thing that has occurred in these very large businesses, and these are the Qantas', and the Woolies, and the Maurice Blackburns, even the ABC, large sophisticated businesses, big payrolls, big HR; they spend an enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources on a whole broad range of things from sporting teams to social issues, to advertising and telling us how great they are all the time. If they had been allocating the appropriate time, effort, and resources to something as basic and important as payroll, these problems wouldn't have arisen. And the suspicion I have, strong suspicion, is that the system of deterrents needs to be broader than what it is at the moment.
GARETH PARKER: Okay, focus a few minds. The small claims tribunal, I think it's really interesting. I think it's probably worth doing. But it's Sally McManus from the ACTU, it's her idea, isn't it?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, my job is not to disagree with everyone all the time. My job is to find points of agreement, work constructively with people. And I don't care where a good idea comes from it's not exclusively, I might say, Sally McManus' idea, it's an idea that's been raised off the books from time to time. But yeah, I've had a discussion her about it, and I actually undertook in the meeting that I had with her that we would include that idea in one of our consultation papers, because I think it's worth getting people's input on. And the essential question really is how you design it and making sure that it is actually a truly low cost option for individuals. Because what appears to be the case is that these underpayments are being uncovered by the Fair Work Ombudsman, who we have much better resourced in recent years. They've started twice as many litigations in the year to date this year than they have last year, which shows that they're doing their job. Unions do a good job in uncovering underpayment, because obviously also self-auditing and self-declaring, we'd prefer the companies didn't get themselves in that position in the first place, but that's another way that these matters become known. But there seems to be a bit of a gap in the market for just individuals who consider that they've been underpaid whatever size of the business, to actually make a quick cost-effective process commence, that they can get their money back.
GARETH PARKER: So you've just said that unions do a good job when it comes to detecting underpayments, and you agree with Sally McManus. What's going on?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, as I say, there's nothing particular notable about the fact that good ideas can come from different places. The unions are a fundamental part of the architecture of the Australian industrial relations scheme, and in many instances they do fantastic work. By the same token, you've got unions like the CFMEU who are out there breaking three to four industrial laws a week, and have been called by the courts the most recidivist corporate offender in Australia's history. And we make no apologies whatsoever for trying to move laws through the Senate that would allow for the disqualification of officials who just continually broke the law.
GARETH PARKER: Okay.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: It's not- it's a space that shouldn't just always be contestable. I mean, the Prime Minister's made it very clear that any reforms in this space have to make fundamental criteria, which are- does it put upward pressure on wages; does it create job growth; and does it make stronger businesses? And, you know, in WA we've seen - particularly in mining resources - some very well structured co-operative workplaces, generating job growth and wages growth. Industrial relations is about trying to find commonality rather than always trying to find issues that you disagree on.
GARETH PARKER: The Labor Party have just released - they're very interesting comments, by the way, I appreciate you making them - the Labor Party have just released their election review. The short version is this: they lost because of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in Liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky, and an unpopular leader. Have they got it right?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, when they say- I think- I mean, policy is the most interesting thing here. When they say - cluttered policy agenda that looked risky - their problem wasn't that they had too many problems, or the problems looked risky- the policies looked risky. Their problem was that the policies were terrible. You know, retirees tax, tax on properties through negative gearing, tax on capital gains, $387 billion worth of taxes. What is really fascinating is that all of those policies, every single dollar of those $387 billion worth of new taxes, is still Labor policy. Right now, today. So you can review away, all you like, and produce your dot points about how you would characterise your standing at the last election, but the fundamental issue was very bad policy that would have been very bad for the economy, very bad for Australian families - particularly in WA. But it's still all Labor policy, every last word of it.
GARETH PARKER: This is not your portfolio, I appreciate that, but these are West Australian families doing it tough. We are having on this program very little success getting ASIC - the corporate regulator - to do anything to communicate to the victims of the Sterling First collapse, five months on after your colleague Michael Sukkar came on this program and said that it was going to be done expeditiously and the investigation was the highest priority. ASIC won't even return calls on this issue, they send text messages from their media department and they certainly don't communicate at all to the people caught up. Can you help us do something about that?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, I'll talk with Michael. He's a very strong minister, I'm just not aware of what correspondence has been sought or sent, but I will get onto it and speak with him in the next couple of days.
GARETH PARKER: I appreciate it. We'll talk next week.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No problem, cheers Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: Attorney-General, Christian Porter.