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ABC TV 7.30 Report




Subjects: wage underpayment – Aged Care Royal Commission

LEIGH SALES: And Attorney-General Christian Porter joins me now from Perth. As Jason Om mentioned in that story, a lot of employers have been caught out in this now - Woolworths, Wesfarmers, this organisation the ABC, 7-Eleven, many restaurants. Shouldn't the Government think about having a royal commission-style inquiry so we can discover the true extent of how much Australian bosses are stealing from employees and across how many companies and industries?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there's been a parliamentary inquiry into wage theft in a certain context. I just think the time is now to act. We all know what the problem is. And I think the word mentioned in your introductory package there, being complacency, is exactly what it is. And it's okay for Woolworths to now say it's their number one priority, but if it was the number one priority in the past, this wouldn't have happened and the same goes for all those other organisations that you've mentioned. I mean, these are large, sophisticated organisations. They've got huge HR teams and tax teams and honestly, if they have the time and resources to constantly advertise to tell us how awesome they are; if they've got the time and resources to get involved in social issues; if they've got the time and resources to sponsor sporting teams and have boxes to the best games in town, then they should have the time and resources to pay their staff properly. And…

LEIGH SALES: How has - sorry, how has this complacency crept in, and on such a widespread scale?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think largely it's about the deterrence in the Act not being high enough. When we came to Government, we changed the deterrence for the most serious instances of underpayment and other offences by a factor of 10. Ten times greater than they were under the previous Labor government. We've now put out a consultation process, which actually closes this Friday, to, first of all, get views from unions and employers about how we would design a criminal penalty for wage theft.

But that paper also deals with how you would better have increased civil penalties, fines, for repetitious breaches that don't meet the criminal standard. And look, Leigh, you know what? I think that these organisations have answered that question for us. I mean, not only has there got to be a criminal penalty for the most serious types of wage theft, but the civil penalties just have to be higher, because these companies aren't getting the message and the deterrence needs to be greater. I don't need a royal commission or an inquiry to tell me that. We know that, and we're acting on it.

LEIGH SALES: I know that it's a hypothetical, but in the case of Woolworths that we've just seen, under your new legislation, would they attract a criminal penalty?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it's such a hypothetical that I can't answer it, because I just don't have the facts of that matter. But what we have committed to is a criminal penalty for the most serious types of underpayment, which you would call wage-theft. So where there is a degree of knowledge, where it is repetitious, where there is a large quantum. Beneath that, there are civil penalties that apply for underpayments. And this paper, which the consultation finishes on Friday - asks the question: if it's not wage theft, if it's not criminal and we've committed to that, should the civil penalties be greater?

And as I say, I think that these companies are answering that question for us. So even if it is not knowing wage-theft, we have to have stronger deterrence. Now in the consumer law, some of those deterrence look like 10 per cent of turnover, or in tax law they look like a percentage of the benefit gained. And clearly, the time has come where the penalties have to reflect a much greater deterrence because these companies aren't self-regulating, like they're not doing what you expect them to do.

LEIGH SALES: [Talks over] But what's- what's going on in this country though that it takes a deterrent to stop people from ripping off their own workers?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it's a great question. I mean- and as you say, this is not limited to Woolworths. Maurice Blackburn, the ABC - Maurice Blackburn runs cases for underpayment and yet it underpaid its employees. My observation on it, Leigh, is this that a lot of companies are not sticking to their knitting, and it's not their number one priority - how staff are being paid. They're engaged in a whole lot of other things, in advertising, in social issues, sporting sponsorships. All of that should be secondary to the very basic operational mechanisms of running a business and paying your staff properly. And if the large organisations can't self-regulate, which it appears they're unable to, then there has to be a response.

Now, we increased penalties at the serious end by a factor of 10. That message wasn't received. We're going to criminalise the most serious types of wage theft, and there clearly has to be even greater penalties and deterrence beneath the criminalisation of wage thefts for these types of underpayments. Full stop.

LEIGH SALES: On another matter, the interim report of the royal commission into aged care has been released this afternoon and its findings are horrifying. You may be involved in it as Attorney-General in drafting some of the reforms for that. Again, I go to the point - what's going on in this country when we have bosses ripping off their own workers and people taking money from the elderly and treating them like dirt instead of caring for them with dignity? What is the mindset and the culture that's going on here?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean all of us you know, and I think people of our generation who are seeing our parents getting older would be utterly horrified at the content of the interim report. The reason why we called it is because we had a very strong suspicion that the practices - and I think what you're talking about - the culture inside the industry was wrong. The way that you change that culture is by shedding light on it, understanding what went wrong. And it's a very difficult question to answer - why human beings would mistreat other human beings, particularly our elderly. It's disgusting. Obviously we've called this royal commission because we've seen the problem and we have a complete and utter commitment to fix it. And again, it is not a very happy thing that you've got to fix problems like this through laws. We would hope that there would be better self-regulatory behaviour in industries, but where they don't do the right thing they can expect the Government to step in and compel them to do it.

LEIGH SALES: Attorney-General, thank you.