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Doorstop Sydney MLC Centre



Subjects: IR roundtable; deputy chair appointment; Indigenous incarceration-US riots

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This was the first meeting of what will be a five-stream working group process aimed at trying to fix known problems in the industrial relations system and the purpose of the process is to try and change what have been long-standing policy settings and problems which we see as inhibiting job growth at a time where Australia needs job growth more than it has ever needed job growth in the modern era. Today was essentially procedural where we agreed on the composition of the Secretariat; how we will frame the composition of the five working groups; how those working groups will draw at their discretion on outside expertise and views to present directly to those working groups. One important matter that was settled, I think, with some enthusiasm from both employer and employee groups is that the Deputy Chair for this process will be Tim Marney, a fellow West Australian - formerly a Treasury Secretary in Western Australia - appointed originally by the Carpenter Labor Government. So, worked under Treasurer, Eric Ripper; worked briefly for me when I was Treasurer – also was the West Australian Mental Health Commissioner and the Deputy Chair of Beyond Blue and still relatively speaking a fairly young man. I put him as a proposed candidate for the Deputy Chair position to both the employer and employee groups because I have previously worked with Tim Marney. He is dynamic, intelligent, energetic, gets along with people, which I think will be a very necessary part of this process and I think that his appointment was greeted with a degree of enthusiasm. The deputy chair will sit on every single one of the working group meetings. And where we anticipate that there will be multiple meetings – 8, 10 or 12 depending on how long the process takes for each working group – it means that Tim Marney as deputy chair will have a very large number of meetings to progress over the next period of time.

There’ll be two sitting weeks and during that time we'll formalise the forward sitting calendars for the groups. The first meetings of the working group will appear in the week immediately after the second sitting week. They'll actually be conducted with myself as chair and Tim Marney as deputy Chair out of Perth but using virtual meeting sites in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. I think I would summarise today, as a very optimistic start to the process. We were dealing with matters, which can often be foundationally contentious; who you have on working groups; how the secretariat is informed; how they relate and feed into each of the working groups; what are the pool of people that the working groups will be able to call on for outside expertise; and agreeing the processes and rules for the meetings and what we seek to achieve as a matter of process. And today's meeting, I think, demonstrated the level of good faith and optimism. I'd say finally I think that it demonstrated one thing; that is a clear understanding both from employer and employee groups of the need for this process. We kicked off today with a direct briefing from Steven Kennedy, the Commonwealth Treasury Secretary. And what it demonstrated is something that is well-known, but was put, I think, very forcefully by Steven is that the problems that are existing are different for different industry sectors, and the longevity of those problems will be different for different industry sectors. And how difficult the challenge will be, to grow employment, will be different for different industry sectors. So, we will be having a sharp focus; particularly on industry sectors that are in the greatest distress, or industry sectors that have the greatest capacity to help us grow out of the challenge that we're in. Again, I think you'll be hearing today from Sally McManus and from Jennifer Westacott, just from both the employer and employee perspectives of how today went and what we're hoping to be achieve going forward. But I would say it was a very positive and optimistic start.

QUESTION: Do you intend to engage with Labor throughout these working group meetings and afterwards? Or will they play no part in the reform process?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Not intending to have them as part of the working group process and the reason for that is that, as soon as it was announced, they informed the public that they should have chills up their spine by virtue of the very fact that our Government is undertaking the process and that, I think, demonstrated an unwillingness to engage constructively in the process. We're only interested in individuals and groups who want to engage constructively in a job growth agenda.

QUESTION: What's the timeframe for these hearings of...(unclear)?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, we'll have a very heavy sitting for the working groups throughout July, and we're going to work on essentially a three and two roster. So, we'll run three meetings one week, two the next, so forth and so on throughout July and into August. And as I say, there's no certitude or guarantees from this process - it's designed to try and reach as high a level agreement around potential solutions to known problems as possible, and we have to wind that up, we would think, in early September.

QUESTION: What are each of the five working groups looking at?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, we're looking at a range of known problems. Problems associated with the definition of casual employment, and about people's rights to convert or rights to request conversion to permanent part-time or permanent full-time and the universality, which does not exist with respect to those rights at the moment. At the other end of the scale, we're looking specifically at the issue of major projects, particularly in mining, oil and gas, known as greenfields projects and the fact that they've not been able, because of the structure of the system at the moment, to secure enterprise agreements for the life of the project. And so with that working group they will have five members from employer associations, five members from employee associations and they will determine a pool of stakeholders, individuals and companies that they will hear from. And no doubt; one of the issues there will be the way in which the limitations on the agreement making system, at the moment, for these greenfield projects is limiting or inhibiting a pipe-line of investment which can grow jobs in very serious numbers, in the tens and hundreds of thousands for Australia over the next decade.

And then we've got working groups that will be dealing with a range of discrete Awards, particularly those in distressed industries and how we might be able to simplify those. So the five working groups have different issues – they’ve been well publicised, but what we did discuss today was that people aren't going to be stopped or dissuaded from raising larger social issues - but we are looking in five working groups at five known, discrete problems where everyone - no matter who they represent – recognises there is a problem and what we are trying to divine is the highest level of agreement that is conceivable on certain options to solve those problems.

QUESTION: Will CEOs be part of the working groups in any way....(unclear)?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: They will be. So, the way that we determined today that the structure could best work by agreement was that the industry associations and the union associations will both be represented by five members apiece on the working groups. And at their first meeting which will be about discussing the problems in their totality, but also at that first meeting they will determine a pool of outside stakeholders and experts that they will, by agreement, draw upon, again by agreement, to basically submit information perspectives and potential solutions. So, with respect to greenfield agreements it will be natural to hear from some of our largest operating oil and gas and mining companies in Australia. With respect to how you might go about Award simplification in a very discreet level of Awards, a number of Awards that apply to distressed industries, I'm sure that those working groups would be looking around significant major employers in the industry and small and medium sized enterprises, and employees directly - as to how the system is not working in a fit for purpose way at the moment. But what we wanted very much is for both the employer and employee associations to agree the personnel and agree on a preliminary list of people that they want to hear from in trying to work out what is the middle ground in solving these problems.

QUESTION: Hundreds of people marched through Sydney last night in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you accept Australia has to confront its own astronomical rates of Indigenous incarceration and police brutality against Aboriginal people?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think that the rates of Indigenous incarceration is something that governments of both political persuasions - state and Commonwealth level - take enormously seriously. They are lamentable. They are a sharp policy focus. It is a very difficult problem to solve. And it is a problem that has to be acknowledged and is acknowledged at all levels of government. But we shouldn't mistake specific problems of grotesque police brutality in America, literally a world away, with our own problems – which is not to detract from the necessity to recognise our own problems and solve our own problems but we shouldn't mistake one problem for another.

QUESTION: What could you do as the nation's chief law officer to drive change?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I have sat, both as a state Attorney-General and the Commonwealth Attorney-General on the body of Attorney-General's that has long looked at these problems. And there are very complicated economic drivers. The greatest thing in my observation that we can do to – over time - decrease the rates of Indigenous incarceration is increase rates of indigenous welfare and employment. The closing the gap agenda has always been the key to this process. The mistake has always been made by looking at rates of incarceration which I absolutely agree are lamentable, but to view that as a criminal justice problem. It is a much broader problem that has to require significant increases in the welfare and employment of Aboriginal Australians.

QUESTION: What do you make of the stoush in this state between the Berejiklian Government and Labor and the unions over the 2.5% pay increase being frozen?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: One thing I'm trying not to do is bring other people's arguments into this room which is solving individual issues which are very important because we see, and I say we, both employers and employees and the Government – we see as inhibiting growth. Now, the minimum wage case before the Fair Work Commission; the way in which state governments go about remunerating public service during this quite extraordinary time is a matter for them - my views are not relevant to that. But what I would say here is that the Government's focus on this process is job growth; preserving jobs which may be in jeopardy because of the pandemic; growing jobs where new opportunities arise because of the pandemic, and; growing jobs back that have been lost during the response to the pandemic.

QUESTION: Has the Government outlined specifically what it wants addressed in the Award stream of this IR reform talks?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think there has to be a level of expectation-management here. We are looking at a discrete small number of Awards in the industries where there has been the greatest damage wrought by COVID-19 and the necessary health responses. So the point that I make is that the Hospitality Award is a very complicated Award. And when you listen to employers and employees who work in the system, they will note the demarcation between tasks – the 61 different pay-points and 14 different permutations creates regulatory barriers to the hiring and preservation of employees. So we are looking at ways that you can potentially simplify Awards in a very narrow range of what are at the moment, very distressed industries and industries that are likely, unfortunately, to suffer real challenges over a long period of time, particularly with the fact that our international borders will be closed which pulls an enormous amount of demand out of those industries for some period of time.

QUESTION: Is retail part of that, construction...?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, not at this stage – the Awards are a narrow set. What we're trying to do is look at the most distressed industries with the most complicated Awards - match those two together and have an open discussion about ways in which you could possibly simplify those things.

QUESTION: As Federal IR Minister, just on NSW again, the Premier is saying that since this pay freeze has been blocked by the upper House, jobs can't be guaranteed in the public service. The unions are now saying that industrial action might be on the cards if they don't get a pay increase. Is this the kind of butting of heads that is unhelpful considering your constructive approach?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I mean a constructive approach doesn't mean that in individual jurisdictions or industries or states and territories there won't be disagreements from time to time. You know we're not sort of singing Kumbaya hoping that everything is going to automatically change. But what I'm trying not to do is get engaged in wider debates outside the Commonwealth's sphere of influence or wider debates which aren’t IR debates or Awards that aren’t part of the process that we're looking at. Where previous processes have failed is that they’ve tried to do too much too quickly - whereas what we are trying to do is look at five areas where there is broad agreement that the present policy settings are preventing job growth. And there'll be different views as to how you might repair those present policy settings but at least in these five areas, there's agreement as to what the problems are which has a very significant start.

QUESTION: Will any agreements that are reached be ongoing or is there expected to be an end by date?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well that's, that's one of the matters that will get raised in these working groups. So there's been enormous cooperation over the last six weeks. We've changed Awards on a temporary basis that affect about 2 million Australians – bars, restaurants, hospitality. And it's, it's, I think no exaggeration to say that process save tens of thousands - possibly hundreds of thousands - of jobs. Because with some of the very strict terms in these Awards, working from home wasn't technically lawful under the Award or re-tasking someone who was previously engaged mostly in food preparation to do other things such as delivery wasn't allowed for in the Award. And a whole range of these businesses were just turned upside down with the massive falling off a cliff of their demand and they had to re-task. So that process worked well in a time-contained way. And it may be that some of the suggestions here are about limitations to changes that might be about time or might be about other things but part of the process is being open to a range of ideas and trying to find middle ground.

QUESTION: On industrial relations - the Ensuring Integrity laws have been scrapped but is there's still any similar laws to deal with the types of behaviours seen in the CFMEU?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the Prime Minister was very clear in his speech to the Press Club - the Ensuring Integrity Bill will not go to a further vote in the Senate. Now that was part of what the Prime Minister described as a laying down of arms and that is a very big step for our Government to take because we are committed as a matter of principle, to not see or permit the type of lawless behaviour that we’ve seen on construction sites around Australia. But, the Ensuring Integrity Bill is not going to a further vote. The Prime Minister also said, however, that as a matter of principle, our Government is committed to making sure that we do not see the type of lawlessness that we've seen on construction sites. And I think that principle is incredibly important for a variety of reasons and one of them now that has emerged is that construction is going to be a major driver of economic growth and a major push-feature to the way in which Australia recovers after the COVID-19 pandemic. So I think the Prime Minister was very clear, Ensuring Integrity Bill is not going for a vote in the Senate.

QUESTION: But do you expect that in these discussions, you might have conversations with union leaders to perhaps effect some of the changes that the Ensuring Integrity Bill sought to ...implement?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: You know what I would hope? I would hope that in a time where Australia is facing the greatest economic challenge outside of a world war that it is ever faced, that people on construction sites who have been behaving in an unlawful way dial it the hell down. Because it's not in their members’ interests; it's not in Australia's interests; it's not in the economy’s interests; and I think that part of the laying down of the arms is that we shouldn't see the sort of behaviour that we did see prior to the pandemic, whilst we're trying to recover from this awful economic consequence of a disease that no one foresaw. Okay. Thank you.