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Interview – 5AA with Leon Byner



Subject: Government's industrial relations reform Bill

LEON BYNER: There are many things we talk about every day, and in increasing incidences they're contentious. None so is the industrial relations Bill. Now, we've had the union movement on about this. And as you know, when we talk about an issue, we want to give you all perspectives. And sometimes, there's more than just two. I caught up with Christian Porter earlier this morning, he's the Federal Industrial Relations Minister. And I asked him to explain, to the people of SA, the IR Bill and why is it so good?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it's designed to grow jobs and put upward pressure on wages, so it does different things for different people. But for instance, if you're a casual worker and you've been working a regular pattern of work and you want to move from casual to permanent work, for the first time ever, this Bill would provide a strong, consistent pathway where an employer has to offer you your position as a permanent - subject to that being reasonable in all the circumstances - and you would have this pathway into permanent employment as a casual. The Bill also, for the first time in the Fair Work Act, defines what a casual employee is. At the moment, the failure to have a definition is causing enormous confusion and playing into small business decisions to employ or not employ, and not giving them the confidence that they want to employ. The Bill also has very, very strong penalties for underpayment and creates a new penalty of wage theft. So, people who have found that they've been on the end of underpayment or activity which is so bad that it would constitute a criminal activity are going to get protected by the very strong new measures in this Bill. People who are on enterprise agreements get paid significantly more than people who are on awards, but enterprise agreements have been in decline because they're too hard or too time consuming to get done. And this tries to make enterprise agreements easier to conclude, which again provides pathway through to higher wages. So, every Australian knows it's been a terribly difficult year, terribly difficult year for business and for many small businesses - some are bouncing back, others have got a long way to go. Everything in this Bill is designed to try and make it better for business and for workers, put upward pressure on wages, but jobs is at the very centre of this Bill.

LEON BYNER: If that's everything you're saying, why then are Labor and the unions critical? Do they have a point?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, Labor, for instance, have just said they will not engage, they will not discuss the Bill with us, they will just oppose everything. Right. Now, why would they do that? Well, I would suggest that's a tactical or strategic move, probably designed to try and shore up Anthony Albanese's leadership. But if you think about whether or not that's in the best interests of Australians, if you're a casual worker who wants a clear, consistent, strong pathway to permanent employment if you're working regular shifts, the Labor Party is voting against that. If you're a worker who's been underpaid or been the subject to behaviour that's so bad that it would constitute wage theft, the Labor Party is going to vote against a criminal penalty of wage theft.

LEON BYNER: Alright. Now, you would be aware that in a Senate inquiry on this, Per Capita put in a submission that was pointing out quite a few disadvantages of this very Bill that you're telling us would make things better. Are you saying they're wrong?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, I am. I mean, there's a lot of politics in IR …

LEON BYNER: … Of course there are.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: … it would not have escaped your notice over the years. But our job as a government is to do everything we can to fix known problems in the system, and by doing that, make it easier for businesses, particularly small businesses, to employ Australians and pay them well and pay them properly. And that principle has never been more important than it is now. Now, there are a lot of vested interests in the industrial relations community and sector, and there'll be different views and people will hold different views. But this Bill fixes problems that have lingered in this sector for many, many years. Another example is the fact that you can only have enterprise agreements up to four years on mega-projects of the type that we see regularly in South Australia and Western Australia. And even before the last election, Bill Shorten said that that should be extended for longer periods of time to attract the billions of dollars of investment and the job growth that follows. And that's what this Bill does. And yet, the Labor Party are opposing all of it, including the part that would attract billions of dollars' worth of investment for large mining and resources projects that employ lots of South Australians and lots of West Australians, and indeed, lots of people right across the country. So-

LEON BYNER: If you're right, why do you think Per Capita allege that, not only wouldn't it solve the problems it claims to address, but actually entrench job insecurity and lower wages?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I just think that's patently wrong. And that's an assessment that, in my view, just doesn't bear out. I mean, their submission, I think, is weak, I don't think that it's based in evidence or the factual nature of what is occurring in this Bill. I mean, look, some of the criticism of this Bill when it was released is that it was too modest and it didn't do enough. But of course, this is a very contested space and you have to find pathways through the Parliament and through the Senate. So what we have done is we have looked at areas where there are clear known problems. The fact that there's never been a definition of what a casual employee is in the Fair Work Act, when it was designed by Labor, has been an enduring problem, which has become very acute because of court decisions.

LEON BYNER: Will this make to Senate? Because the Senate's going to have to approve this - will they?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, I think there's a pathway for this bill through the Senate. I can't, obviously, predict that that pathway won't mean some changes. Likely there will have to be some changes, because we'll be negotiating with One Nation and Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff and others.

LEON BYNER: So what we're saying is, whatever you're putting up now, it could look very different by the time it actually gets up?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'm sure that there will be some changes, but the core features of the Bill are things that we're absolutely committed to. There's no point in actually engaging in industrial relations reform unless you do something to make enterprise agreements, under which people get paid significantly more than awards, easier to conclude.

LEON BYNER: That's Christian Porter, the Industrial Relations Minister. See, this is the thing that I note with very strong interest, and that is that whatever the bill is seeking to do, there will be a lot of amendments. So, the likely situation will be that half of what is being suggested will change. That's the feedback I'm getting.