SUBJECTS - INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Whether or not you believe that Work Choices is dead, buried, and cremated, industrial relations is shaping up to be a major political issue in 2016. With the Trade Unions Royal Commission as its backdrop, the Federal Government will next week reintroduce legislation to revive the construction industry watchdog of the Howard era, known as the ABCC. And now, Government leaks are hinting at an election fight over broader workplace reforms.
Michaelia Cash is the Federal Employment Minister. Minister Happy New Year, and welcome back to RN Drive.
MINISTER CASH: Thank you very much, and happy New Year to you as well Patricia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now the legislation you’ll be introducing next Tuesday has already been rejected by the Senate last year, do you have any new signs of support from the crossbench?
MINISTER CASH: I’m engaging with the crossbenchers, and constructively so, and I would certainly hope to achieve a positive outcome. Regardless of the outcome though, the Government remains committed to the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The evidence I believe, we had already established the need for this, but certainly flowing on now from the outcomes of the Heydon Royal Commission, the Royal Commission has endorsed the Government’s position in relation to the reintroduction of the ABCC. The building and construction within Australia, certain elements have unfortunately shown that they continue to refuse to comply with workplace laws. Patricia you and I, your listeners, we all get to comply with workplace laws on a daily basis. Certain elements of this industry continue to show that they are quite happy to flout the law; they do need a specialist regulator, and again that is why we are committed to the reintroduction of the ABCC.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So Minister you’ve mentioned a few reasons, but they’re really political reasons. What you’re putting to the Senate is that you’re effectively arguing that you have a stronger case to reintroduce the ABCC. But that doesn’t actually change the numbers in the Senate.
MINISTER CASH: As I said, I will continue, I have been talking with the crossbenchers, I will continue to talk with the crossbenchers. The Government was given an overwhelming mandate in the House of Representatives at the 2013 election in relation to our agenda. One of the policies that we had taken to the election was the introduction of the ABCC. I would argue we have already made out the case for the re-introduction of the ABCC, the Heydon Royal …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You may have made the case, but you don’t have the numbers in the Senate. Aren’t you just creating the conditions for a double dissolution trigger?
MINISTER CASH: We already have a double dissolution trigger in relation to the Registered Organisations Bill. So there already is one there. In relation to the ABCC, this is a commitment by the Government to reintroduce the specialist building regulator, flowing on now from the Heydon Royal Commission, we have made certain announcements, and one of those is that we will reintroduce the ABCC. And certainly I’m working with the crossbenchers to do what we can to achieve a positive outcome. But at the end of the day I believe we have made our case, I believe that the public back us in relation to that case. As I said, we did receive an overwhelming mandate at the 2013 election. If Bill Shorten, if Brendan O’Connor, if the Australian Greens, despite everything that has now come out into the public foray in relation to the ABCC and the construction industry, want to continue to support the flouting of workplace laws in that particular industry, well that is for them to justify to the Australian public. I support all industries complying with workplace laws, and this Government supports the reintroduction of a specialist building regulator.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On RN Drive, my guest tonight is Employment Minister Senator Michaelia Cash, talking to me about industrial relations reform, and in a moment a few other issues as well. Our number here 0418226576. What do you make of the ABCC and the legislation around this?
Also today Minister I’d like to raise with you the Financial Review says the Government is giving serious consideration to at least one recommendation by the Productivity Commission, the adoption of enterprise contracts for medium-size businesses – what would they look like?
MINISTER CASH: Well can I just make one clarification, the Government is considering all of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations, and the announcement that I made last year with the Prime Minister, but myself as the relevant Minster, is that we are not going to play rule-in or rule-out games. The report today that the Government has already decided to adopt a particular recommendation of the Productivity Commission is not correct. I do note that I certainly was not the Minister that was named in the report. In terms of timing of any announcement in relation to the Productivity Commission Review, I have made it very clear: I will shortly commence consultations with interested parties over the coming months on the Productivity Commission’s recommendations. We are not yet at that stage of reaching a final view on whether or not to accept or not accept particular recommendations. This process does need to be concluded. So as I said, I’m not playing the rule-in, rule-out game.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so all of the recommendations, you’re telling me, from the Productivity Commission are all on the table. Surely there is- I mean, Cabinet meets tomorrow, there must be some- it must be shaping up into a form now where you are considering some recommendations over others. Are you prepared for a fight around industrial relations at the next election, around these individual contracts potentially in businesses?
MINISTER CASH: What I’m looking for in relation to industrial relations is where we can find consensus - because amazingly sometimes you can find consensus on certain issues. I would like to see, via these round tables, where we can reach consensus on changes that need to be made, and where we can’t why we can’t and is there room to move. But in terms of the Government’s commitment to industrial relations reform, if the ABCC legislation does not get up in this sitting, if our strengthened Registered Organisations Commission Bill does not get up in these sittings, we’ve already said we are prepared to fight an election on those two policies. We will also be taking to the election a comprehensive workplace relations policy, and the prism that the Government is looking at drafting this policy is in relation to our broader agenda.
So what do we need to do to free up businesses in particular so that they are able to grow? Because at the end of the day Patricia, it’s very simple: you need employers to have employees; the more employers we have …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure, we all accept that as a concept, that of course any Government needs to grow employment, that is- I understand that that is at the core. But there are different policy levers that you go to to achieve that. What is the safety net that you will put in any changes you make? You talked about a strong safety net before, what safety net would make sure that workers don’t have to trade in …
MINISTER CASH: Well the safety net that is there today- yeah absolutely, the safety net that is there today, we don’t look to compromise workers’ entitlements. And it’s always so sad Patricia …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But if they’re trading in their penalties?
MINISTER CASH: Hold on, you’re working on the assumption that we’ve accepted the recommendation in relation to enterprise contracts, and I’ve said to you I’m not prepared to play a rule-in, rule-out game. But I would also say, when you read what the Productivity Commission has said itself on enterprise contracts, they have made it very, very clear that if that recommendation was to be accepted it needs to be accepted with all of the protections that the Productivity Commission has put in place to ensure that any future employees – because the recommendation is that it would only apply to future employees – are no worse off. So when you talk about whether or not the Government’s going to accept enterprise contracts, the Productivity Commission itself has already stated in its recommendation that any future employee, if they were to choose to go onto an enterprise contract, must not be worse off. The bigger picture that I paint though is the Government’s currently considering all of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations, and we’re not going to play the rule-in, rule-out game.
There is one recommendation though Patricia, because I’m sure I will now be pulled up on this, out of the 69 recommendations that I took off the table immediately. I did so quite deliberately because I knew that, and I was proven correct, the unions and Brendan O’Connor would indulge in a scaremongering campaign, and that was of course in relation to penalty rates. I made it very, very clear that the Government believed- the position of the Government is that the setting of penalty rates is a role of the Fair Work Commission, and we will not be changing that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So ultimately we’ve seen now a few elections where the Coalition has been unprepared to have an industrial relations debate and fight effectively at the election. Under Malcolm Turnbull, are you saying that you’re prepared to make bold changes, everything’s on the table with that one exception that you just raised?
MINISTER CASH: Well everything is on the table other than obviously the penalty rates recommendation. What I think is sad though is that whenever we mention workplace relations, and a Commonwealth- and a coalition government, the mere fact that you mention those two words, you are automatically subjected to a Labor union campaign based on fear, and a deliberate misunderstanding what is- on what is going on. I think that is unfair …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But that campaign might be there, but are you afraid of it?
MINISTER CASH: Absolutely not. I will fight for good quality …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you must be afraid of it, because why are you bothered by it then? I mean, you’ve …
MINISTER CASH: Well what I- what I’m saying is …
PATRICIA KARVELAS:… they can say anything, can’t they? Doesn’t matter if you’re not afraid of it.
MINISTER CASH: They can, absolutely. But the mere fact that you mention workplace relations means that you suddenly get a scare campaign. What I have said, openly, is we will fight on the ABCC. We will fight on strengthening registered organisations’ regulation, whether than registered organisation be an employer organisation or an employee organisation. And in relation to the Productivity Commission review, we will – I’m not playing rule in, rule out. I’m going to consult, and once I have consulted, we will announce a policy.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay.
MINISTER CASH: And that policy, I can assure you, I am not scared of a fight on industrial relations, but I’m also not going to announce policy on the run. When we do announce our policy, it will be a …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alright, Minister.
MINISTER CASH: … considered policy, and it will be one that ensures that business is able to grow, we remain …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister …
MINISTER CASH: … a high wage, generous social safety net economy that is creating jobs, because that’s what it’s all about.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, I did promise our listeners earlier that I’d ask you a few other questions.
MINISTER CASH: [Laughs].
PATRICIA KARVELAS: If you don’t let me get to them – let’s get to them. Your colleagues Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi say they won’t be bound by the result of a plebiscite on same sex marriage. If they won’t be bound, what is the point of the plebiscite?
MINISTER CASH: Well at the end of the day the Government has committed to taking the issue of same sex marriage to a plebiscite. We have said we would do that by way of policy. My opinion is that once you’ve committed to the plebiscite and taking the question to the people and asking them for their response, the Parliament itself should respect the will of the people. We obviously don’t know yet what the answer to the question is going to be, but Parliament should respect that response. In relation to individual senators though …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so let’s – can you help me define what respecting that result is? Does that mean that they should be bound by that result? I mean, how does respect play out in a way that means something other than platitudes?
MINISTER CASH: Oh, look at the end- and I agree with you, it is a very difficult one to define. When each of us is elected, at the end of the day, in our individual capacity, and we need to answer to our individual consciences.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So does that mean you’re very disappointed that Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi have said this? Do you feel like the whole process was been farcical if they think …
MINISTER CASH: No, not at all, not at all.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: … that it doesn’t matter, I mean why would you spend that much money on a plebiscite if you’re not going to stick to its result?
MINISTER CASH: Because- well hold on, the Government has not made that position. The Government – well, my understanding is we will respect the will of the people. If there are individual senators though that themselves genuinely do not believe that if it goes a particular way they cannot in good conscience, for their own reasons, support the will of the people, then they will need to explain that to the Australian people.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay so in your case, you’re opposed to same sex marriage. If the vote, these plebiscite after the election is a yes vote, for same sex marriage, would you be bound by it?
MINISTER CASH: Ah, I will respect the will of the Australian people. Bearing in mind, the will of the Australian people may well be that they don’t support same sex marriage.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Absolutely, absolutely.
MINISTER CASH: And I think that’s been forgotten in the debate.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Absolutely. And if the vote is a no vote for same sex marriage, would you expect people like Warren Entsch to vote against it?
MINISTER CASH: Then you expect – and this just- so it actually goes both ways. But you know Patricia the one thing that I would say that I’m very proud of in relation to the Liberal Party and the National Party, even if it means that I have these conversations with you and with your listeners, our party does allow for a difference of opinion. There will be plenty of your listeners listening in at the moment saying I don’t support same sex marriage, good on Eric Abetz. There will be others who are saying I do support same sex marriage, I expect the Parliament to respect the will of the Australian people.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: If I could just ask one more question. You say that you will respect the will of the people, and it could go either way, absolutely, that’s the point of a referendum, it certainly can …
MINISTER CASH: Exactly.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: … that is exactly the point. But ultimately can the Government, can Malcolm Turnbull and should Malcolm Turnbull be making that policy more robust, telling MPs that they should be bound by the vote in very direct terms.
MINISTER CASH: Well certainly that already is the position of the Liberal Party. When you do have a policy position the Cabinet is bound by the policies of the Government, but in …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But not Cory Bernardi and not …
MINISTER CASH: No no no, hold on. But in the Liberal Party and the National Party, unlike the Labor Party, we do recognise that the back bench, on every single issue, should they choose, have a free vote. That is one of the fantastic things about the Coalition Party – it is a free vote. And so should Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi ultimately determine themselves to exercise a vote in a particular way, as I said, we are a party that allows a difference of opinion. That should be celebrated.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well then why wouldn’t you have a plebiscite immediately? Why wouldn’t you have a sort of conscience vote immediately then, if people can ultimately vote with their own conscience?
MINISTER CASH: Well a decision has been made by the party, or by the Government that we will take this issue to the people by way of a plebiscite after the next election. That’s already been settled by the party, and that is our position.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: One final question on a different theme. Given you are the Minster for Women, Australian of the Year finalist Cate McGregor, who is a trans woman, says the choice of David Morrison as Australian of the Year is weak and conventional. Does she have a point?
MINISTER CASH: Ah look, I’m going to disagree with Catherine McGregor in relation to that. I was delighted that David Morrison was appointed as Australian of the Year. It was a sensational, a sensational field of candidates. They were all sensational. As you know, it’s an independent national selection panel that ultimately makes that final decision. I respect in any event the fact that it is an independent national selection panel, but in terms of David Morrison – Patricia I’ve worked with David on the issue of domestic violence and gender equality. I was delighted yesterday when he said that he is going to make those issues – amongst others – the issues that he will be looking to promote and to actively campaign on in the public eye whilst he is for the next 12 months the Australian of the Year. So you know, not all Australians are supportive of the decision, I made that mistake today at another TV program saying all Australians are supportive of it. Look, they’re not, but certainly from my perspective it’s an independent national selection panel and I believe it was an outstanding choice.…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister many thanks for your time, thanks for joining us.
MINISTER CASH: Always a pleasure to be with you Patricia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And that’s Employment Minister Senator Michaelia Cash.