6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Subjects: Calombaris underpayment of staff, union integrity, religious freedoms
GARETH PARKER: Is this bloke a dog owner? I don't know. Attorney-General Christian Porter, are you a dog owner?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I am but it's a very small Pomeranian so we try not to mention it too much.
GARETH PARKER: Right. What are you, embarrassed about it?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No. We bought it when we had a very, very small apartment.
GARETH PARKER: And a very different lifestyle.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, completely so…
GARETH PARKER: (Interrupts) A few kids and less travel. Fair enough.
GARETH PARKER: Quite a bit to talk about. We'll get onto the religious freedom debate in a moment and the union's claim that you're infringing on their rights. We'll come to those issues.
Celebrity chef George Calombaris has paid $7.8 million in wages and superannuation. This has been a long-running saga but there's a bit of a tension starting to grow about the fact that as part of this enforceable undertaking of the Fair Work Commission, he's made a $200,000 contrition payment. Is that sufficient punishment in your view?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think, look, it's a very significant outcome. So, $7.8 million is a very large sum and that represented wages for 515 employees, current and former employees. So, in a substantial sense, I think this shows that the system is largely working. Everyone wants to see people paid what they're entitled to be paid under the award or agreement that they're subject to, and this is a decision that's very significant in ensuring that employers know that they have to do that, that there are very serious sanctions for not doing it. Are there ways in which that largely well-functioning system can be improved - some of those ways around having more significant or serious penalties, particularly for people who do this in a repeated basis? I think that's an open question. That's one of the things that I'll be looking at as part of a broader review of the industrial relations system. But I think that there's a reasonable position to put that there should be more serious penalties, particularly for repeat instances of underpayment of wages.
GARETH PARKER: You reckon if you were working for George Calombaris in 2011 and 2012 when this behaviour started and you'd only now just got your payback, you reckon you'd think the system was working?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think you'd be very disappointed at first instance that you're being underpaid, but legal systems should be as quick as they possibly can be and I think there is-
GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] Eight years?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think there's room for significant improvement around the timeliness. But also part of all of this, and a very significant part, is the deterrence effect of very large, complicated matters like this being resolved and being resolved definitively like they have been. And I think the part of the structure and scheme of a best practice system is to ensure that people understand that this isn't behaviour that they should engage in because they've seen behaviour engaged in and people being seriously penalised…
GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Okay.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: …for that behaviour. So, I'm not saying that there's not room for improvement, perhaps even substantial improvement particularly on timeliness, but nevertheless, this is a very significant decision which provides a clear message to people: do not underpay your staff.
GARETH PARKER: You're doing the backbencher roadshow at the moment, travelling around the country, briefing people on what you've got in mind over this religious freedom bill, which we've spoken about in the past and you've talked about how you want to define religious belief as an attribute in the same way that sort of disability or race or gender are defined under existing anti-discrimination laws.
I spoke to the Australian Christian Lobby yesterday. They're not happy with that. They don't think it goes far enough when it comes to protections around what you can and can't say about your belief as it pertains to your employment. Obviously, the Israel Folau issue is the one that's fired them up about that, but also around religious schools. Are you expecting a fight with them here?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, not particularly. We've had great engagement with the ACLs. We've got a meeting coming up with them. But part of doing a series of workshops around Australia with my parliamentary colleagues is to make sure that the draft of the bill is something that sustainably is supported inside our party and potentially through the Parliament, and we'll be going with a sort of more advanced draft in due course to all of the religious stakeholders and other stakeholders who are not religious stakeholders to talk about the draft. But I think that in an issue like one where we've seen a large corporation try and effectively have a broad rule that has the outcome of limiting what people can say in their spare time on religious matters, that is the type of thing that under the bill that we're proposing would be dealt with under what they call an indirect discrimination clause, which effectively says that if a business has a rule that says that all employees can or can't do this thing, and that rule has a very particular disadvantage for certain employees because of their faith, then there is an avenue for them to complain about the reasonableness of that rule.
GARETH PARKER: Okay.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, this is exactly the sort of bill that can deal with those situations that arise from time to time, where an employer seeks to put a rule over everyone which particularly disadvantages one group, in this instance, because of their religion. And ultimately, you want to try and avoid those rules disadvantaging people of religion unless they are absolutely necessary for the large employer in question.
GARETH PARKER: Okay now those laws won't apply in the Folau case will they? I presume there is no retrospective element to them.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, no they won't be retrospective, But it is a real issue because I mean the reality is that large business particularly is getting more and more engaged in the business of trying to limit what their employees do and say in their spare time and not just based around their religion, but a whole range of you know, clauses in contracts that tell people what they should and shouldn't say on social media. Now there might sometimes in some instances be compelling reasons why you'd need to do that but my own sense of it is I think Australians aren't all that kind of enamoured or supportive of large corporations that they might be employed by telling them what they can and can't do in their spare time.
GARETH PARKER: I'm really interested to hear you say that because I'm sort of watching the debate unfold and you know, a lot of people on the right of politics think the government impinge on freedoms too much and I'm probably sympathetic to that view, but what I'm increasingly observing is that the biggest threat to the freedom of ordinary people is big corporations.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well you know, they're also doing a great deal of good because they're creating wealth and prosperity and helping everyone pay their mortgages-
GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Well I get that.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Of course. But look there is a bit of a tendency - and I've seen it in my own profession of the law - where you know, large law firms start to get more and more prescriptive in their contracting with their staff, lawyers and particularly senior lawyers and partners, to the extent that those contracts start to dip into areas that they've never previously dipped into which is what people can and can't do on social media or Facebook, or say or express an opinion or view on in their private time outside work hours. Now the rationale for doing that is that those large organisations are protecting their brand, so there may be circumstances where that is reasonable and proportionate or absolutely necessary to the success of the business but I just detect it is not merely about religion, that there is an extent to which people are sort of a little bit uneasy about the extent to which terms and conditions of contracting and employment are starting to impinge on their ability to freely express themselves in their private time.
GARETH PARKER: The integrity bill that you're bringing before the parliament to insist on standards of behaviour for union leaders and employer groups as well, the union movement say they've commissioned research out of the UK which says that you're basically a monster and you're infringing on their rights. What do you say about that?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I mean I think the research - being generously labelled as research - but in any event, their central point is that it's unfair to require unions to have standards on who they can and can't elect into public office and they the unions are arguing that this is somehow an impingement of their democratic rights but it doesn't matter whether you're a corporation or an employee organisation like the union or an employer organisation like the union, there should be certain basic standards as to who is a fit and proper person to be elected to a position as a public official. And all-
GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Maybe we should apply those standards to MP's as well, people seeking to become MP's.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I mean the constitution requires a whole bunch of standards as we've seen applied to MP's and that's governed by the Commonwealth Constitution. But all we are trying to do here, and the laws that we are seeking to pass through parliament apply equally to employee and employer organisations - so unions and employer organisations - that there should be a reasonable and fair, fit and proper person test and people who have very serious criminal records, people who have repeatedly breached the industrial law itself shouldn't be fit and proper people to hold senior officials in unions. And if you look at this in a very practical, common sense way, as Leader of the Federal Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, is saying that someone like John Setka is not a fit and proper person to be a member of the Labor Party, why is he a fit and paper person, or someone in the same position to be a senior ranking public official in an organisation whose first obligation should be to obey the law. Because registration as union brings with it a whole range of rights which are very important -
GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Okay.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: But it also brings a fundamental obligation to behave lawfully which someone like John Setka hasn't done.
GARETH PARKER: Thank you for you time, we'll talk next week.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Cheers, Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations Minister.