SUBJECTS: Sally McManus’ speech at the National Press Club; minimum wage case before the Fair Work Commission
DAVID SPEERS: We were mentioning earlier the speech at the National Press Club today from the ACTU secretary Sally McManus. She’s, look, taken aim at a whole lot of things. She says the Fair Work Commission is stacked against them, she says right of entry rules make it very hard for working people to have a fair say about the workplace situation they’re in. But she’s also specifically targeted what she argues is casualisation of the workforce. Have a look.
SALLY MCMANUS: Casual work has increased, sham contracting continues unchecked, labour hire is growing, contracting out continues, and the so-called gig economy is expanding. Workers at ESSO in Longford have been fighting for their jobs and their rights for 273 days today against a multinational giant who pays no tax and uses the contracting-out model to wipe out job security and cut wages. Insecure work is spreading because our current laws allow it.
[End of excerpt]
DAVID SPEERS: Well, Craig Laundy is the Minister for Small and Family Business, Workplace and Deregulation. Thanks very much for your time this afternoon, Minister. Just picking up on those comments there from Sally McManus, she focused on the Longford dispute – the gas plant in Gippsland – there’s been a nine-month long dispute there now and the ACTU clearly worried about the increasing use of contract workers. From what I understand, these workers were offered a pay deal from the ESSO contractor UGL. It slashed pay by 30 per cent, reduced annual leave, other conditions. Do you have any sympathy for those workers in this very long-running dispute?
MINISTER LAUNDY: David, look, it’s my role as the Minister responsible for the whole system. It’s not my place to be intervening in cases that are currently before the Commission, and both parties are abiding and taking action that is within their rights to do so. What I will say is this: the overarching system, the independence of the Fair Work Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman, was basically today – in an unprecedented attack by a senior figure in the industrial relations landscape of this country – it had its integrity, its independence and its competence called into question in one swoop. And I think that’s an extremely irresponsible thing to do, and the irony, David, is that it was indeed set up – the Fair Work Commission and the Fair Work Act – by the Labor Party and their union mates. And, you know, the weird part that I find myself in, the irony that I find myself in, is I’m standing up for those individual justices, I’m standing up for the system that I’ve inherited. However, it’s the responsible thing for me to do. Not tear the joint down, which is what the speech today has said, because at the tail end of that, you’d end up with economic bloodshed.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, one of the union’s concerns is that these disputes can run as long as they do – nine months in this case. We know the Glencore dispute with the Oaky North workers- similar, very long-running dispute. Should there be some sort of mechanism in the law to bring things to a conclusion, to bring extended periods like this of dispute to an end?
MINISTER LAUNDY: David, again, in an individual case that’s currently ongoing. But I will say this, provisions inside the Fair Work Act – an act which we’ve inherited and administer – allow both employers and employees their rights and provide different steps along the way that they can take. Without drawing specific inference – and you know, it’s very easy to do that – however, I keep getting told that the nuclear option if you like, or the tearing up of EBAs, is a massive drama and that’s another reason the system is broken. Whereas in the last 12 months, 97 per cent of the EBAs that have been struck out have not been contested. This is the problem today with Sally’s intervention, David: it’s based on half-truths and mis-truths and they’re bundled up into a package, but then, at the tail end of it, you get slurs against the independent umpire and the Fair Work Ombudsman. And that’s- I think Brendan O’Connor and Bill Shorten – who were around when these things were set up, they were a part of the government that actually set them up – should be calling on Sally McManus to act more responsibly than she has demonstrated today.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, okay, what about her point on casualisation? Sally McManus saying that if you’ve been somewhere for six months, you should at least have the option to become a permanent employee. I know, for many, they do have that option, but not all. Would you agree that all should be given that option to become a permanent employee?
MINISTER LAUNDY: David, firstly, let’s go back to the premise of the problem. In today’s speech – and I’ve heard her say it many times – the fact that we have increasing casualisation in the work force, that’s not true. The rate of casualisation today, or casual employment, sits at 25 per cent – the same rate as it did 20 years ago. Independent contractors and hire - you know, I’ve heard her say they’re on the increase as well. You’re sitting at - labour hire companies, sorry, you’re sitting at 9 per cent and 2 per cent - the same rate as they were at the commencement of the Fair Work Act, which is the system they established. The premise of the problem is not true.
DAVID SPEERS: Nonetheless, just get me back to that question: after six months working somewhere, should you be able to have the option of going permanent?
MINISTER LAUNDY: [Talks over] No, but David, you’ve also- David, you leave- and the Fair Work Commission, it is their role to decide that. At the end of last year, they took 85 modern awards out of 122 and they put casualisation clauses in there. As- you know, that’s their right to do. But at the same time, they decided - not me, not Government, not Sally McManus and not the Labor Party - the independent umpire, to give the employer rights as well. You know, this is fact-based, they deal with presentations from all parties-
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But there are things you can do as Government, this is one of them. Another is whether you are going to make a submission on the minimum wage case. Are you going to do that?
MINISTER LAUNDY: It’s already done. It was lodged on 13 March.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay. So what did you submit? What was your argument on the minimum wage?
MINISTER LAUNDY: My argument was that the independent umpire should do what it’s always done and consider a raft of both socio-economic and economic measures and, independent and arms-length from Government, come up with the decision …
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But what I’m asking is: did you suggest what should happen to the minimum wage - should it go up?
MINISTER LAUNDY: No, David, and it’s not my role. This is the part that’s misunderstood. For over 100 years in Australian politics, the wage settings have been determined arms-length and independent of Government. That also now is being threatened by the Labor Party and the unions. Why? Why has it been separate? Because, if you’ve got a populist lunatic that wanted to say as an election platform, I’ll increase your wage, with no economic modelling and no confines of either socio-economic outcomes or economic outcomes across the board, you could get the system turned on its head and ripped up. But it’s not …
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Alright. But you want to get wages up; I know the Government does want to see wage rises generally, and it’s one way the Government could actually do something about it.
MINISTER LAUNDY: David, no. I’m sorry, it’s not. The minimum wage is set by the independent umpire. And last year, to give you an idea …
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But you could make a submission saying: we believe it should go up.
MINISTER LAUNDY: David, it’s not my role or the Government’s role. We call on the independent umpire to consider all socio-economic and economic implications and to make their decision wisely. Now, to give you some idea, last year’s minimum wage increase - which is flushing through the system as we speak, in predominantly the modern awards system, which employs- you know, over 2.1 million workers are covered by it - was a 3.3 per cent wage increase. That is happening right now. I don’t know what they will come up with in their decision, however I respect the fact that they make it independent of influence of either side of politics. Whereas that principle - has historically been bipartisan, by the way - has been tossed out the window for populist reasons.
DAVID SPEERS: Final one: you want to put a public interest test in place before unions can merge - that hasn’t gone to a vote in the Senate, though, yet. Do you think you’re going to be able to stop the CFMEU/MUA merger?
MINISTER LAUNDY: David, it’s not just- it’s important to know this. It’s not just unions. It’s any registered organisation, be them employer or employee or otherwise. So, you know, this is often viewed through the prism of only applying to unions. That firstly is factually, yet again, incorrect; however that’s just the latest in a long litany of factually incorrect statements we’ve heard today. But the other- look, I’ve been consistent in my position. I am working actively with the cross benchers to try and get support. If I do, I will put the legislation in. However, I don’t anticipate that occurring before the cut off date, which is I think next Tuesday. And as I’ve said repeatedly in the past couple of weeks, I fear these hopes are forlorn, but I call on all those in the MUA and the CFMEU, you know, if this does occur, this merger, to do a 180 on the way they’ve behaved historically - 77 currently in front of courts, $12.5, $13 million worth of fines in the last two years, you know, this is a lot bigger entity now and the risk we run is that they control whole supply chains and could be a- cause massive disruptions to the economy and jobs moving forward.
DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thanks very much for your time this afternoon - appreciate it.
MINISTER LAUNDY: Thanks, David.