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Doorstop Sydney - Meeting with union and employer representatives re: coronavirus



Subjects: coronavirus – meeting union and employer representatives

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It was a very productive session. The Government is preparing a range of potential responses to real-world conditions that may arise. There are some known knowns and some known unknowns and this was a very important early stage in trying to get the best information from businesses - from employer and employee associations as to what is actually happening on the ground. There's clearly some challenges that we'll all confront over the next several months. The way in which those challenges have to be responded to is by having an absolute priority of outcomes – the first outcome is the health and safety of the Australian community. Those who'll need the most serious services inside the health system, but everyone who turns up to work - their health and safety is absolutely paramount. Allied to that we want to ensure that the businesses in Australia producing the goods and services that we all rely on every day continue to be able to produce those goods and services and are able to weather what will be difficult economic conditions.

So we've heard a lot of information from a range of organisations - employer employee groups. Some people already have the solutions they will say to problems that we don't quite fully understand the scope, scale and dimensions of yet. We listened to everyone's solutions. But today, first and foremost, we were trying to understand the dimensions of the challenges and the problems that are likely to arise.

QUESTION: The union's called more support for casual workers in particular, is that something that the government is looking at adopting?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the challenges that will be faced by casual workers and the challenges that will be faced by businesses that employ casual workers are clearly one of the things that needs to be considered.

But what needs to be understood is what is likely to be the scale and dimensions of those challenges. Different businesses at different points in time are going to find that they're either going to have so much demand and they can't meet up with a workforce who might be isolated or unwell at any given point in time. Other businesses are going to find that the demand for their product, whether that's in tourism or other sectors has just dropped away and they've got a surplus of people that they would usually employ to provide that service. And businesses at different points in time may suffer each of those problems - those problems might differ across the country. So I think we're preferring to see this problem as about how we make sure that businesses keep employing people and provide the goods and services that we rely on during challenging times. Of course there's a sectorial component to that with different parts of the workforce being affected differently. We listened very carefully to what the unions have had to say, obviously, but they certainly weren't the only voice in the room.

QUESTION: How confident are you that workers on the sharp edge of the crisis such as nurse, aged care workers and doctors will remain on duty?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we obviously want to say that as the ultimate outcome. And this is not the first time of course that doctors and nurses have had to work during challenging times, whether that be a flu season or in other problems that we've experienced in terms of Australia's national health. But this will be more acute. We are listening to all of the representatives of health workers and allied health workers from nurses to doctors and everything in between to understand what they think it is that they need to ensure the highest maximum workforce participation. But a lot of this is going to be based on common sense and goodwill between employers, employees, and government. So when we see the need to ensure that services are delivered in aged care or an intensive care unit or in a ward or in one of the respiratory clinics that we will establish - workforce is absolutely critical to that.

QUESTION: You're speaking a lot about the idea of employers and employees coming together. Would you like to see a moratorium on industrial action in kind of critical industries while this crisis occurs?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think this is a very bad time for industrial action. I mean, there will always be a temptation to have industrial action when it has the greatest effect. Industrial action of any type at the moment would have a very, very large and negative effect. The reality is that there are already businesses suffering from disruptions to supply chains - that will mean that it will become harder for them to produce the goods and services that we all rely on every day. No doubt there will be disruptions to the labour force and to the employees that businesses rely on – again that will cause potential disruptions to the goods and services we rely on. So the most important thing is a.) the health and safety of the Australian community - in and out of the work environment and b.) ensuring that businesses - large, medium, small - in all sectors to the best of their ability, are to keep producing the goods and services that we rely on. Industrial action at that sort of time would be a very major additional and significant difficulty that we just really don't need.

QUESTION: Was that discussed with Sally McManus in the meeting?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well in actual fact that wasn't a matter that was raised specifically. I've got to say I would have thought it would be a matter of common sense that in the challenging times that we've got coming ahead that people aren't scheduling large scale industrial action.

QUESTION: While you're calling on that kind of peace to be brokered for the, for the medium term does that mean taking your foot off the gas on ensuring integrity?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the legislative agenda reminds the legislative agenda. That's about ensuring compliance with workplace laws and civil and criminal laws in the construction industry. But I think the reality is that a lot of focus is now going to be placed on responses to an emerging challenge that we will face over the next several months. But that doesn't stop the legislative agenda of government I mean the business of government goes on. The whole point of this is we want to see the business of business go on in Australia notwithstanding that there are going to be all sorts of challenges. Many of a type that we've not experienced before.

QUESTION: Should alternative arrangements be in place if workers do decide, or to refuse to go to their workplace.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well when you talk about workers refusing to go to their workplace that is a very broad statement. Now there will be any number of instances under the existing law in Australia that governs the relationship between employers and employees – where either directions can be given by an employer, because in their best assessment the health and safety of the workplace requires someone to stay at home. There can be directions given by governments - state and federal - to that extent. There will be people complying with directions of immigration and self-isolation. So there's a variety of circumstances over the next coming period of time - the next several months - where people will be absent from work. The reasons for that may be a variety of types - some people will get ill and have to stay home because they're too unwell to go to work. The question is, how do we ensure the most cooperative response from the business and employees - for instance we discussed today that if a direction were needed to be given by an employer to an employee to self-isolate because of a reasonable suspicion that they've come into contact with a virus and health and safety is an issue – the first port of call should be to determine how it is that that person can work from home. But that won't be possible in all businesses - but it might be the first time that some people in some businesses have worked from home because they've been directed to stay home for a period of isolation. So part of this is the common-sense goodwill and adaptability that exists already in Australia between employers and employees and stretching that out as far as we can for as long as we can to make sure that everything keeps ticking over in a way in which we ensure that goods and services are being produced for the Australian people.

QUESTION: When can we expect a decision about assistance for casual and contract workers and what are the next steps in that decision making process?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the first thing that we want to do is understand to the best of our predictive ability what is the likely scale of problem and the dimensions of the problem. And that is yet not quite certain. And that is because it is difficult to determine the epidemiology of the disease. And it's also to determine how and where that will affect different businesses at different points in time. We're aware of the issue that pertains to casuals - just as we're aware of the issue that pertains to small business who might find a fall off in demand or fall off in the number of people who are there able to produce the goods and services to meet the demand. So it's one dimension of a problem. I don't think that that dimension sits in front or behind any other parts of the problem. But we are in the stages now where we're getting a much better picture of the sort of challenges that we will likely to encounter and we would be responding to each of those in turn. And I think that what needs to be understood is responses will be scale-able. This is not the time for people to come in and back pocket-out things that they've always wanted to see and ask for them under the banner of a health response. This is the time to think sensibly – right across all business and industry sectors in Australia - plan for a variety of alternative challenges that we're going to face - have responses ready to go - and scale them up as needs but.

Okay, thank you very much. Thanks.