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ABC Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly



Subjects: JobKeeper Payment - Parliament

FRAN KELLY: Christian Porter is the Minister for Industrial Relations. Christian Porter, welcome back to Breakfast.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah thanks, Fran. Good to be here.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, you're still negotiating around the edges of the JobKeeper payment, but will you broaden the definition of casuals eligible for those payments?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean, we've got to refine our definition but it's not going to be changed in its essential principle. And what we said from the outset was that casuals who will be eligible for JobKeeper are those that have been employed on a regular and a systemic basis for about 12 months, for a twelve-month period. Now that's a definition of casual that's meant to show a pattern of employment over a period of time. That's a definition that sits inside the Fair Work Act already, that's known to the industrial law. You have to have some kind of guiding limits on the outer edges, even of a scheme that represents expenditure of this extraordinary amount. So the fundamental principle is not going to change, I mean, how we finally work the drafting of that, we are still working through at the moment. But the fundamental principle is that you get it if you're a casual, if you've had connections to your employer for that period of time. Now that doesn't put any limit on how many hours you worked or whether you had shifts that were different from week to week. So you will find that some people in those categories worked for only a few hours and will find themselves being lifted up very quickly to that $1500 payment.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. But what we're talking about is and what Sally McManus from the ACTU has been talking about, is those casuals who haven't been working with the same employer for that long, but they might have been working on a quote: regular and systemic basis just with various employers for 12 months. The Nine newspapers are reporting today that you're prepared to include those casuals who've worked for a number of employers over a year. Is that correct?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I'm I can't say where they've got that from. I mean, the definition that Sally McManus has been ...

FRAN KELLY: Is it true?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I've answer the question. We will require regular and systemic attachment to an employer for 12 months. That is the standard definition ...

FRAN KELLY: To one employer, a single employer?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: That's correct. That's the standard definition that exists in the Fair Work Act. Now, exactly the wording of that definition, how it's refined is something we're working through at the moment, but the alternative definition that Sally McManus offered was that someone should be able to be in the JobKeeper - the system - if they had any expectation of a shift at any point in time in the future. Now I just don't see that as a workable definition. You've got to keep in mind, Fran that this new JobKeeper system works in parallel, in tandem and in connection with the JobSeeker payment. So that is a doubling of the rate of Newstart up to a thousand dollars. People who found that they were employed casually but because of the terrible crisis that we're in at the moment are not, can still also supplement that by income. So there will be a very close parity between someone who as a casual accesses payment through the JobKeeper side through their employer or who accesses the payment through the welfare system and JobSeeker. There'll be very close parity in those payments. So people are being looked after.

FRAN KELLY: I'm not saying that, I'm really just trying to clarify because there's been mixed reports this morning. I'm just clarifying, you're not broadening…

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I don't do the reporting, Fran. You guys do the reporting.

FRAN KELLY: No, no, I understand. I'm going to the horse's mouth, that's why I'm asking you. So just to be clear, there is no broadening of the definition of those casuals to include those who may have been working casually for twelve months but with different employers. It has to be a bond with one employer for 12 months. Is that correct?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: That is the essential principle, which is a principle in the existing industrial relations system. I would note, however, that the announcement has been made by the Treasurer this morning that there will be a lower threshold of distress, if you like, to allow for charities and not-for-profits to get into the system. So that of course will mean that there's a greater number of workers covered in that respect because the definition is changed for that category of employers to get into the system.

FRAN KELLY: To make this work you need to make some changes to the Industrial Relations agreements that are in place, legislated. You want to change the Fair Work Act; employers say they need flexibility to vary hours and types of duties performed just to keep their businesses going, but do all sectors need that? What about those who are still operating as normal or some even booming at this time? Why change the whole Fair Work Act if the whole workforce isn't compromised by this pandemic?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well we're not. So the changes to the Fair Work Act are only those necessary and only for the employers who are under distress and get into the scheme and they're absolutely necessary to make it work. You cannot - we're not doing it because we want to or because it's desirable - we're doing it because you have to change the Fair Work Act to allow for some people to be paid the $1500, where the alternative would be that they'd have no job, no money, no way to look after their family, no way to pay their mortgage, no wage. You have to change the Fair Work Act, otherwise it doesn't work. The system doesn't work. The $1500 payments can't be received as a base wage by people whose employers access the system, unless you change the Fair Work Act.

FRAN KELLY: Well you could do it through changing relevant awards and enterprise agreements sector by sector. So that you only do it for those…

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well there's 121 awards, Fran. There's 121 awards….

FRAN KELLY: But they're not all affected as you've just conceded.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, no, there's a…well every employer who's had a downturn in their turnover and gets to access the scheme, has to have a change in the law to be able to pay some of their employees $1500 to change their jobs. That is just a legal fact. Now, you could try and achieve that by trying to change 121 awards, some large percentage of the 11,000 enterprise agreements. Then there are about four million Australians covered by individual contracts. But if you don't change the law, then it would be illegal to make that $1500 base wage payment for many of those workers.

Now what Labor and Tony Burke are saying is wait until we've had an opportunity to change 121 awards, an unknown percentage of 11,000 enterprise agreements and an unknown percentage of the individual contracts that apply to four million other Australian workers, before the $1500 payments could flow. That's what they're saying. I have rarely heard a more mad position. What we're doing on Wednesday, in less than 48 hours, is pushing $130 billion worth of lifeboats out to Australian workers, six million of them and Labor's position is to argue about ideology and process and say we should wait what might be weeks to try and do it another way. I think that's mad.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. I'm moving on because I know you've only got a couple of minutes left before your next interview. So, in terms of process, can you just explain this for me for everyone listening, could a worker, under the new changes, could a worker be required to perform their full range of duties and hours, their job as normal, for less than their normal wage, $1500 a fortnight is less than the normal wage. Is there any obligation on the employer to top that up to their normal salary?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well there'll be three situations that might arise. One is where someone earns less than $1500, because they're a casual for instance, they'll go straight up to $1500 Then there will be many employers, whose business is in very serious distress but can still afford - because their business is still viable - to pay some or all of their employees their usual wage and that'll be subsidised with the $1500. Some employers, sadly will face the choice between paying the base rate of $1500 or not having a business and no one having a job. And in those circumstances the reason that you need to change the Fair Work Act is you have to ensure that no one works more hours than equals $1500. So employers won't be able to force people to work hours that would usually earn them $2200 if all they can afford to pay, because their business is no longer viable, is $1,500. That's why you need to change the law.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, so people won't have to work their full hours for less money?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: That's correct.

FRAN KELLY: They won't have to. Okay, I know you really need to be going. But you're Leader of the House too. After Wednesday, Parliament's not due back until August. There's a lot of money being pushed out the door, $240 billion over the next six months. Will the Government reconsider holding more regular sittings before August, which is what Labor is calling for?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the power exists…Parliament's a very flexible organ of government, right? The power exists to recall Parliament any time it's needed, which is exactly what we're doing on Wednesday and we're doing it in a flexible way. But why would we set down a regular sitting schedule over the coming weeks and months, in the most irregular time Australia has ever known? What is the point of that? I mean again, why we are being dragged into these bizarre procedural debate, if people want to sit out there during the greatest economic crisis Australia's experienced and read practice and procedure of the House of Representatives, good luck to them. But we've got better things to do.

FRAN KELLY: Just finally and briefly, you are the nation's First Law Officer. There's a criminal investigation underway now into the Ruby Princess. If it's proven the cruise operator withheld vital information, should the book be thrown at them?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think that the criminal investigation, based on the very preliminary reports of the situation, seems to me to be the right course. And of course, there's a whole range of offences, including civil fraud, that may have been possibly committed and that's what the investigation's about. But if those offences can be substantiated by evidence, then they would be very, very serious indeed.

FRAN KELLY: Christian Porter, thank you very much for joining us.