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ABC 24 – Patricia Karvelas



Subjects:  COVID-19 and safe workplaces, minimum wage, COVIDSafe app, George Pell

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter joins me now. Christian Porter, welcome.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good afternoon Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You want to get a million Australians back to work. Part of the overall strategy is these new safe work guidelines for businesses to have information on how to make workplaces COVID-safe. But will you legislate those requirements?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there's already legislation which frames the broad responsibility of employers to provide a safe working environment. So that legislation is all in place. But of course, they are general rules which must have specific application. And the way in which a safe work place would be constructed in an abattoir will be different from a cafe, so what we're doing is rebuilding the Safe Work Australia website to provide as much information and as granular detail as is reasonably possible so that businesses can get a head start in planning and testing their own plans as to how they will reanimate their business in the safest way possible, given all the circumstances.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The ACTU wants a special regulation inserted into health and safety laws governing COVID-19 practices when there's a return to work. Are you prepared to legislate that? You say it's already legislated but they're actually asking for something additional.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, they're asking for regulation. I'll have a look at that. But my initial assessment is that the requirements for having a safe workplace that are borne by employers are all there. Obviously, COVID-19 is something that we haven't experienced before, but what we have to do is to provide the information. The rules and the regulations are there. It's how those rules and regulations apply to these situations that we now know are arising, where you have social distancing rules, which are also clear rules in the state, how would they be applied in a cafe that reopened or a restaurant potentially that reopened, just as they would have to apply as they did today at the National Press Club or in Parliament. So, my concern is not that the rules and regulations don't exist - we have plenty of those - but the concern is, how do we make sure that businesses understand, as clearly and as succinctly as they can, how those rules need to be applied by them in their individual circumstances. And that will be different from business to business.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just for some clarity though, Minister, you say you will look at the ACTU proposal for more regulation?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, the ACTU have put three proposals to me today and I always consider those types of proposals with an open mind, but I think that some of those proposals look stronger than others.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. And which ones look stronger than others?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, they've put a proposal with respect to the way in which employers in different states are either required to notify health authorities or transmit the information about COVID infection being positive in a workplace environment to health authorities. I actually think that the ACTU make a bit of a point there as to the fact that there are differences between the states as to how that information flows. I'm going to have a look at that. I think that's a relatively strong point, but they've made others as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What rights do workers have who want to continue working from home because they don't feel comfortable returning given the Government's essentially told us that there will be outbreaks?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it would depend on the individual contract of employment or the arrangements governing the employment situation between the employer and employee. I mean, where there is an availability to work from home during the pandemic, obviously people have taken that and that has kept a lot of businesses afloat during a very difficult time. Other businesses, it will be either impracticable or outside the terms of their contract to have work-from-home arrangements because of the nature of the work. But at first instance, that of course is something that needs to be sorted through in a common sense way between employers and employees. But if you're talking about specific examples, you know, there are workplaces where it's very important, we think, that people get back to work - schools is one of those, and that kids get back and start getting taught again in the formal classroom environment. And the medical advice is what we always act on in these circumstances.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: In practical terms, do you want workers back in their physical workplaces now, that's why you're making all of these plans on this website with all this detail? What is your modelling telling you? What kind of rate of return to work, given so many people are working from home, would you like to see?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, this is not so much about modelling but it's about decision making through the National Cabinet as to how you would set social distancing rules and how you would consciously reanimate different sectors of the economy, different business types, different businesses in different geographical locations. So the first decision is one that the Prime Minister and premiers will be taking through National Cabinet. What my job is, is to ensure that the information is available in a federated system so that when those businesses do get back into business, whether they're a cafe or a shop that manufactures swimming pools, that they're doing it in the way in which they maximise the safety and mitigate the risks to all of their staff and to their customers.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Obviously, there's different industries working at different paces, but would you like to see, for instance, cafes and restaurants open with these new social distancing requirements in terms of space by, perhaps, June?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think it's a no-brainer to say that all Australians want to see these things reopening. I mean, customers want to see them reopen. People whose livelihoods and work depends on businesses like one you've described want to see them reopening. That's ultimately a decision that is going to be made by the states through National Cabinet, with the input of obviously the Prime Minister and the Federal Government. But what we want to be able to do is to ensure that when those businesses reopen, that they're doing it in a safer way as possible, that they mitigate the risks of COVID-19, and that those businesses understand how the quite fulsome requirements of occupational health and safety actually apply to them. So, what's available now is a tool on the website, the Safe Work Australia website, is 100- 1300, I should say, different data-sets on the website, webpages, that people can navigate through and get specific answers to specific questions. When people talk about cleaning an environment, what does that mean for a different surface? What type of cleaners need to be used? What's the difference between cleaning and disinfectant? When do you use an ammonia product verses an alcohol-based product? So, this sort of practical information is what want to make sure is deliverable to businesses. Now, the decisions about which businesses reopen at what point is going to be taken through National Cabinet and will be monitored and measured very closely, but we want to make sure that there's information available for the businesses to get a head start and start planning for that reanimation of the economy.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, the ACTU also wants paid pandemic leave legislated for all workers through this insertion into the national employment standards of the Fair Work Act. Will you look at that?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, I don't think that's the stronger of their submissions, if I can say so respectfully. They've made that submission also through the Fair Work Commission. It's the case, of course, that a casual employee is, if they are unable to work due to self-isolation, for instance, for a period of two weeks or more, that that person will be able to receive the increased amount of the JobSeeker payment because they wouldn't have an income during that period. So we have made very significant provisions through JobKeeper and JobSeeker for people who've been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, I'm always open minded to reasonable submissions that are put. That submission will run its course through the Fair Work Commission, but that's not the stronger of the three submissions that have been put to me.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And Minister, we've heard from the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy about staggered starts to work. Not the hot desking obviously of the past involves a lot of cleaning now, physical distance between people, all of that will actually cost workplaces significantly, won't it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it will. But I mean, obviously, employers have an obligation under Australia's occupational, health and safety laws. There's model laws that exist in all but two of the states, WA and Victoria. Each of the states are themselves responsible for how they investigate and enforce the laws that operate in those states. And yes, those laws, like any regulation, come at an impost to business but that's an impost that business has long borne because they are responsible for ultimately ensuring a safer workplace as is reasonably practical in all the situations that might exist. So, yes. I mean, there's going to be impost on business, but we don't want to add to those imposts. And yes, businesses are going to have to be creative. And as Nev Power said today, in terms of the work the Commission is doing, businesses who have been forced to close during this period are planning around how they reopen. And that will require them solving business problems, that will require innovation, staggering start-times perhaps is one of those types of innovations that we're going to see. Greater blend of work from home, work from the office. All of these things are going to be planning, but what our job as a government is, is to ensure that information flows to make that planning as low cost and efficient as it can possibly be. But as Nev Power said today, businesses are treating this as another problem to be overcome or challenge to be overcome, in the conduct of their business in a new environment. We want to make sure that they can do that in as low a cost way as possible, because they've been through a very difficult time, evidently.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. And Minister, if there are further break-outs, should we be prepared for a potential second lockdown?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that that would depend on where and how those break-outs occurred. But I think what you could likely anticipate is that if you had a break-out in a particular workplace, that you try and, in effect, close that down for as low a period as possible, to allow for that to be cleaned and to come back online safely. If you have an outbreak in a geographical area, like we saw, for instance in Burnie, that you deal with that on a geographical basis. So I would anticipate that once the decisions through National Cabinet are made to reanimate and reengage the Australian economy across different businesses, across different states, across different sectors, that where there were increased levels of testing positive, that you would investigate that and try and deal and contain that on as discrete a basis as you possibly could without affecting a large number of areas that didn't have that breakout.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, on the COVID-19 abattoir outbreak in Melbourne, you've asked for a report. Do you have any concerns about the work practices there?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that that report may have been sought at a state level. Because again those workplace health and safety issues are conducted at state level. I would await further information about that particular matter before I made any prejudgements about it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The ACTU has also declared a $30 a week minimum wage increase will be the best way to drag our country out of a recession. And they've urged the Fair Work Commission to reject your government's call to prioritise keeping workers in jobs, when deciding the amount that's going to be granted. What's your reaction?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, the national wage case is conducted in the context where Australia has the highest minimum wage in the world, the highest minimum wage in the world. It's also conducted in these extraordinary circumstances of the crashing effect that the COVID-19 pandemic and governments' appropriate responses to it have had on business. I would respectfully say that there is a very high premium on jobs and creating jobs and on employment and preserving employment at the moment. And that you wouldn't want to do things that unnecessarily jeopardised a recovery, which recovery has at its very centre, the creation and preservation and growth of jobs and employment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you think they're jeopardising the recovery by asking for this $30 a week increase?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think it's a matter of basic economics, particularly during periods of very high stress when businesses have suffered massive impact on their turnover and on their profitability, that asking for a not insubstantial increase to what is already the highest minimum wage in the word, would come necessarily at the trade-off of the amount of employment that you could generate during a recovery phase. I think that's just basic economics.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister the CFMEU has filed an application in the Federal Court in Sydney challenging the regulation to require 24 hours of consultation for changes to enterprise agreements instead of the 7 days. It's actually something you and I have talked about on this program before. Labor was going to try to disallow it when the parliament returns. What will you do?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I'm going to have a look at that, as I said, at the 2-month period and possibly even before that. Look, frankly Patricia, I think both sides of this debate have been wrong. The ACTU and the union movement said that decreasing the time period - which is a process issue - but decreasing the time period pursuant to which you'd have to notify people of something that they'd then have to vote on, was going to be widely misused. The business community said it was absolutely urgent and was going to be used effectively, but it was going to be used quite a lot. In actual fact it hasn't been used very much at all and it hasn't been misused, that I can see, at all. So it might be something where both sides of this debate got a little bit ahead of themselves.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now Minister, you've got too many hats so we've got quite a bit to talk about. Stay with me okay?


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let's talk about the COVIDSafe app. Is there any way to rule out agencies using other legislation, like the Assistance and Access Act to get access to the app? What guarantees are in place?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the way that we've drafted the biosecurity determination and the legislation which is out for consultation now, is that it in effect overrides other powers that might exist for law enforcement agencies, both state and federal, to subpoena that information, or, indeed, for it to be given voluntarily to those agents. So if I can put it this way, the privacy protections that we've drafted trump those other powers.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How many of the close to 5 million people who have downloaded this app now, according to latest figures, have given consent for the data to be uploaded?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, the consent forms on the process that each individual engages when they go through, mean that each individual consents to the use of the data and the uploading of the initial data, which is the name, the geography of the person, and so forth. So, if you're asking me how many people have had their data used because they've tested positive, I just don't have that to hand. I think that would be a matter for state health authorities. I'm not even sure that we would have that figure.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You've created all these protections, but Restaurant and Catering Australia wants people to leave a name and number if they haven't got the app in the future, at restaurants, so you write down your name and number…


PATRICIA KARVELAS: …if you don't have the actual app. Is that a kind of loophole? You're still asking people for private information?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, I think that would probably be ill advised. The way in which we've drafted the protections is that you can't make downloading the app a requirement of work. So you can't say: if you want to work here, you've got to download the app. You can't make it a requirement at entries. So you can't say: if you are going to enter my cafe, even to get a takeaway, you've got to download the app. I've read about that proposition this morning in the newspapers without having fully considered all of its legal dimensions. I think that would be skating very close to the ice of being a requirement and I think that would be rather ill advised in all the circumstances.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, the Law Council has put out a statement. It says that the legislation should prescribe the core parameters of the COVIDSafe app with accessible mechanisms for users to opt-out. Will you build that in?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, you can just download the app from your phone. I mean- and you can delete the app from your phone if you want.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But that is still collected at some point? I mean, opting out and actually removing any collection?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, yes, except the data that is collected with respect to an individual can only be used for the explicit purposes and prescribed purposes by state health authorities for contact tracing if someone tests positive, which has to be certified by a medical professional and that information self-deletes every 21 days. So look, I haven't actually read the Law Council's submission. I will do. But it seems to me almost as if after this legislation, the biosecurity direction, having been pored over by every privacy expert in the country, that seems to me to be a fairly boutique criticism of the Law Council of Australia, which isn't actually balanced against what is the massive national interest in having an effective, efficient and protected and safe way to be able to understand who someone would have been proximate to and thereby potentially put in the risk of infection, once they themselves have been diagnosed with the disease. And as the Prime Minister and the Health Minister have said, if we are going to get our economy back up to operating at full speed, which is what we all want and for life to get back to as normal a situation as possible, then this app is completely pivotal in getting Australia to that much improved position.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just before I let you go, you sought final advice about releasing unpublished royal commission findings into the conduct of Cardinal George Pell. What does that advice say and when will the findings be released?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Very soon, a matter of days. The advice is that it is now okay to publish the unredacted version. I guess, Patricia, everyone would assume that I have some advance knowledge of what's in them. They've only just arrived with me now, that that advice has been received. So it's just a matter of process from here and that will be a matter of days.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. When you say a matter of days, you know I like to pin things down, Minister, are we talking by the end of the week we will see this redacted part of the royal commission report?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I don't- you might like to pin things down, but as you say, I'm wearing many hats and more than one thing is going on at once so I'm not going to pin myself…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But what would the holdup be if you've got legal advice saying it's fine?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: because I'd like to satisfy myself of that and read the matters themselves. I haven't read them before, which I will do, but I'm not going to put a precise minute on when that will be completed.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But what I do want, just some clarity on is, it will certainly be released?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, well the advice that I have received, that there is no further impediment to it being released. I will consider that advice, read it from end to end. I will read the material myself, but I don't see any problems with it being released from here, but there's still a matter of a last read-over it to go.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Does that mean some parts - sorry to really labour this point - but some parts could be redacted? So it could be released but some parts are redacted?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I just- I don't know how to answer this any better, Patricia. The advice is that there shouldn't be a problem from here. I don't anticipate a problem. I'm going to have a final read over it. And that's what I'm required to do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sorry. You're a lawyer, I'm a journalist. We sometimes dig a little deeper don't we?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I know that you want a precise time frame, but I've always found that those things are better left, you know, as flexible as possible because who knows what's going to happen tomorrow that might otherwise take up reading time?

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Precise is something that my children also use to describe me during home schooling. Thank you so much for coming on.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Indeed. Good luck with that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Attorney-General Christian Porter joining us there.