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ABC Radio National Breakfast with Hamish McDonald



Subjects: IR reform; Malka Leifer

HAMISH MACDONALD: As we've been discussing this morning, the Morrison Government is forging, or attempting to forge, a new compact with unions and the business sector to come up with an overhaul of the industrial relations system. The parties will work together to find ways to reboot productivity and boost employment in a bid to rescue the economy and reverse the 600,000 job losses last month caused by the coronavirus shutdown. Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has been put in charge of this ground-breaking process. He's with us early from Perth this morning.

Good morning to you, Minister.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Morning, Hamish. It's always early over here.

HAMISH MACDONALD: It is indeed. Let me begin though just with a question about this Malka Leifer case. You're also the Attorney-General. The former Melbourne schoolteacher is fit to stand trial for extradition back to Australia where she would face paedophilia charges. I know that you can't comment on the specifics of the case, but given the long running nature of this pursuit of justice, you must welcome this moment.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Very much so. I travelled to Israel last year to communicate directly to my counterpart in the Israeli government of how important this matter was to Australia and how we were frustrated at the length of time it had taken to get to this point. But this is a very important point to get to, and it's a very positive and welcome development.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Alright. Let's move on to this agenda that is in front of you, getting all the stakeholders in a room to work on structural reforms together seems like a good idea. Why did it take this crisis to sort of drop all of the antagonism towards unions and take this more constructive approach?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think it's a move on both sides of what has been this debate previously. As the Prime Minister said, it's a time to lay down arms and we've been very willing to take that first step and be the first party to lay down the arms. I think the honest answer to your question, Hamish, is that we've had 29 years of uninterrupted economic growth – there’ve been very significant spoils and prosperity and wealth which have been available to, essentially argue over. But we're now obviously facing this enormous economic challenge not of anyone's own making, and we have to rebuild that wealth and that prosperity and those spoils. I think both sides of what has previously looked like an argument around the spoils have realised that the job now is to create the jobs, not bicker about them.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Clearly, from what we've read and what we've heard from Sally McManus this morning, there is a good, functional working relationship between the pair of you. At the highest levels of government, there does seem to be some goodwill. But there is a question for the many workers - some of whom will be listening this morning who will be impacted by whatever the outcome is - about whether this reflects the rest of the Government whether the ideology genuinely is being dropped. What would you say to those people concerned?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think, again, it is a process that's going to require concessions and compromises on both sides because of the extraordinary circumstances that we face. But what I would say is that there are these range of known problems, so both our Government and the union movement agree that the enterprise agreement making system is too slow, it's too clunky, it doesn't serve particularly well the purposes engaging in productivity changes. So therefore it's not particularly attuned to growing jobs in particular industry sectors or particular businesses who negotiate enterprise agreements. Both sides of the fence, if you like, agree that that is a problem and that is a great start. It's a great start that everyone's willing to lay down their arms and get in a room and talk about how best to repair that situation.

And then what is the incentive and the reward at the end of that process? Well if you can make enterprise agreements work to enhance productivity then you're creating jobs again. And we've lost obviously hundreds of thousands of jobs after, as I say, 29 years of economic prosperity. The only game in town now is creating jobs, saving jobs, growing our businesses that employ people.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sure. But everyone involved in this seem to acknowledge that it's not just about creating the job, it's about the shape of the job. How central to this whole process is going to be getting an agreement between the unions, between business about what a secure job actually is? Because there is not agreement on it.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, there's not. And you're talking there I guess about working group One which is around casuals and fixed term employees. And there's never been a definition of casual in the Fair Work Act, which was, I think, unfortunate and it's now resulted in an enormous amount of confusion. That uncertainty, again, detracts from the ability to grow jobs in the economy. So yes, we have to work out how we might define casuals in the Fair Work Act and how we might deal with the situation and remuneration of what a long term casuals and people who are employed under the banner of being casual but whose work looks like permanent part-time or permanent full-time. Yeah, that issue has to be dealt with. But when you talk about insecure work, the most insecure work at the moment is for the hundreds of thousands Australians who are wondering whether or not there will actually be a job at the end of the COVID-19 crisis. So for the first time...(presenter interrupts) but it's important, Hamish, because for the first time, there is a coalescence of interests, like the primary interest is to create the job that you're arguing about.

HAMISH MACDONALD: I understand that, but the point that Sally McManus has made this morning is that it's the insecurity of those people's employment leading into this crisis that has left them in that position. And so that if we are to find a way forward, there must be some more certainty, some more safeguards around their employment to ensure that we don't end up with these huge unemployment numbers.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, and that's got to be something we will talk about. But I think that you might be slightly misrepresenting my good friend Sally McManus because what has caused the problem that we're in is something beyond our control. I mean a pandemic swept around the world, was prevented from doing monstrous health harm in Australia and causing what could have been the type of deaths we’ve seen per capita in the UK and Italy and the Government's response to prevent those deaths at a state and federal level was to have to restrain certain sectors of the economy which has caused enormous economic damage to the economy which now has to be repaired. So I think the reason why there is ...

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sure. We're all clear on that but Sally McManus was very clear that she sees the insecurity of work as being a factor in why so many people ended up simply unemployed as opposed to in other ongoing arrangements like the JobKeeper.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well again, I mean we've got a working group that has to look at this issue of the number of casuals in the workforce, how we define them, but you know again, with the casualisation as its so-called termed in the Australian workforce, the number of casuals in the Australian workforce has been constant for about 20 years. Absolutely constant...

HAMISH MACDONALD: Yes. This is a definitional argument, isn't it? About casuals versus secure work and over that 20-year period, there's been a whole range of other types of work which have arrived I suppose in greater numbers in the market, where people are sole traders or they're working in the gig economy.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Contractors...

HAMISH MACDONALD: ... which don't necessarily all fit that casual term.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well all - again, if you have a look at contractors, the percentage of contractors in the Australian economy has been very, very stable over a 20-year period. Now, I mean I think what you're doing, Hamish, is highlighting that there will be disagreements, there will be differences of emphasis and I guess the point I would make is that if we spend all of our time highlighting those issues rather than trying to find the common ground then we'll fall back into the same states that we've been making for 20 years.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sure. Sally McManus did address the question of the better off overall test when it comes to enterprise agreements. How much of it - how important is that to the overall agenda here?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think part of our working group three, which will be about how we go about the enterprise agreement making process will necessarily give rise to people's views on the better off overall test. I think everyone would agree that the way in which it was originally conceived to operate is very different from the way that it now presently operates. And in answer to your question - how important has the change to the better off overall test been to degrading the productivity elements of enterprise agreements, well we want to hear from people about that. Now, I know that a lot of businesses have a very strong view that it's somewhat pointless for them to engage in the enterprise agreement making process because the better off overall test is simply so hard to meet that the process becomes pointless. Now, I think a lot of businesses will make that point and we want to hear unions on that point as well.

But I think one thing is for sure is that the way in which the test originally was conceived to operate and did actually operate for a period of time is very different from how it operates now and it probably makes enterprise agreement making very difficult and doesn't create a high incentive for people to get into that space in the first place.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sally McManus says that she goes into this process with two benchmarks: it must make jobs more secure and working people should get their fair share of the country's wealth. The Prime Minister earlier this morning on AM balked somewhat at being asked whether he could guarantee no workers would be worse off - he didn't see the point of addressing that at the beginning of this process. But do you acknowledge that for the unions, that's going to be a crucial test in order for them to get the support of their members, effectively you're just assuring that no one is worse off.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: But how do you measure worse off, Hamish? I mean if we can't regrow hundreds of thousands of jobs in a relatively short period of time which is probably the most mammoth economic challenge Australia's ever faced, everyone is worse off. There's no point arguing about the terms and conditions of a job that just doesn't exist for the next 40 years. And I think that's why we have this window of opportunity because both the Government, business community, union organisations realise that there is a fundamental precursor to all of the nuances around the BOOT test and what's better off overall and how you define a casual, and that is that if our economy languishes because we've missed an opportunity to drive productivity and job growth, then we're arguing about jobs that don't exist. And that's pointless.

HAMISH MACDONALD: You've described Sally McManus as your good friends during this interview. This process is going to test that, isn't it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sure. But you know, I think that Sally and I, with the help of our Government, my Government, her organisation, I mean we've managed to see through the amendment of key Awards covering two million workers which I think saved tens of thousands, if not more, jobs during the COVID crisis. We've managed to negotiate around changes to the Fair Work Act that allowed the JobKeeper payment to actually work lawfully and properly to save, again, tens, probably hundreds of thousands of jobs. So you know, there's a very significant reason why you would work, compromise, accept that there will always be differences - yeah sure it'll be a testing time for everyone in these working groups but you never - you never make the boundary if you don't swing the bat.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Christian Porter, thank you very much.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you very much. Cheers.