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Transcript of joint press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 28 August 2007: Labor's Industrial Relations Policy Implementation Plan; 457 Visas.
FEDERAL LABOR LEADER KEVIN RUDD MP
TRANSCRIPT OF JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH JULIA GILLARD, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA, 28 AUGUST 2007
E & O E - PROOF ONLY
Subjects: Labor’s Industrial Relations Policy Implementation Plan; 457 Visas
RUDD: When Australians vote for the federal government at the upcoming election they will have a clear choice about Australia’s future. And today I announce that if Labor forms the next government of Australia, we’ll be drawing a clear line in the sand because Mr Howard’s Work Choices laws have just gone too far.
We’ll replace Mr Howard’s Work Choices laws and his AWAs with an industrial relations system that gets the balance right between fairness and flexibility. And we’ll do that also through a sensible set of transition arrangements that provide certainty and stability for businesses, for employers and for employees.
Labor’s Implementation Plan for its industrial relations law has four elements to it. We emphasise fairness, and we have specific provisions there to enhance fairness for working families right across the country, the core of which is the abolition of Mr Howard’s AWAs.
Second, we emphasise flexibility and the importance to providing appropriate flexibility for businesses across Australia to keep our economy strong.
Third, we also emphasise the importance of sensible transition arrangements. Mr Howard’s industrial relations system has been in force for some time and would, therefore, mean that we have to have sensible, practical transition arrangements for businesses currently operating under his laws, transitioning into a new industrial relations system under us, should we form the next government of Australia.
And the fourth part of our arrangements is to ensure that we have proper protections for business against unlawful industrial action.
Over the last several months, Julia and I have been travelling around Australia and talking to working families. And the conclusion that we’ve had put to us by working families is very clear cut. They tell us that Mr Howard’s unfair industrial relations laws must go. The reason they say that is because his laws have just
gone too far. They’ve put too much power in the hands of employers. They’ve cut penalty rates, overtime payments and other basic working conditions, and they’ve also undermined job security. They’ve also left young workers particularly vulnerable out there in the workplace.
Mr Howard doesn’t seem to understand the importance of cost of living pressures on working families. He’s shown he hasn’t really understood the impact of mortgage interest rate rises, of rent increases, of the cost of groceries, the cost of food, the cost of petrol, the cost of childcare, but on top of all that, the impact of
his Work Choices legislation on the overall family budget.
Mr Howard’s response has been to say that working families have never been better off.
Well, what working families say to us across the country is that Mr Howard has lost touch, and lost touch badly.
Australian working families don’t expect a free ride but they do want a fair go and that’s what Labor’s policy intends to provide them. They want a system which gets the balance right between flexibility and fairness. They want a government that does protect working families, they know that a government that doesn’t protect working families is a government that’s lost touch with Australia’s working people.
Overall, and most importantly, what Australians want is balance. They want us to get the balance right between fairness and flexibility and they know Mr Howard has got that balance all wrong.
Finally, I emphasise again the importance of transitioning from the current system to a replacement industrial relations system. We can’t fix every problem overnight. We’ve got to be mindful of the fact that Mr Howard’s industrial relations laws have been in for some time and we need to be mindful of the fact, therefore, that businesses operating in good faith under those laws are going to need time to adjust. And we put forward practical policies today on the way in which that can best be done.
Therefore, we’re confident that this policy, based on extensive consultations which Julia and I have been having with the business community and with others over the last several months, gets all that right in its policy implementation detail.
And we’re confident this provides a platform for us to present to the Australian people in the upcoming election.
I now invite Julia to comment on the individual elements of the package, on its fairness provisions, its flexibility provisions, the provisions concerning transitional arrangements, as well as those which pertain to protection of businesses from unlawful industrial action.
GILLARD: Thanks, Kevin. I would just reiterate we have travelled the country. I’ve travelled the country, I’ve met with working families, I’ve met with
businesses big and small. Labor’s policy is a policy that gets the balance right between fairness and flexibility.
What are the fairness elements? Well, Mr Howard’s unfair Work Choices laws will go and so will his Australian Workplace Agreements that have stripped pay and conditions for Australian working families.
We will have 10 national employment standards, standards that every employee in the workplace can rely on.
We will have a modern, simple award safety net that provides special protections for those who most need those protections.
And we will ensure that employees can take an unfair dismissal claim if they’ve been unfairly dismissed. At the moment, a good worker can be dismissed without any reason and without (inaudible) any remedy. That’s not fair and it’s not balanced.
We will have a flexible system. The award system, after Labor’s system comes into full operation, will not apply to people who earn more than $100,000. People who are making their arrangements in Labor’s new system and who earn more than $100,000 will need to abide by Labor’s national employment standards, but they will be able to make very flexible arrangements which suit them, flexible common law contracts that meet their needs and meet the needs of their employer.
We will ensure that every award has in it a flexibility clause to give award employees the flexibility upwards that we’ve always talked about, to make sure that they can get the flexibility that they need to help work and family life fit together.
And we will make sure that every collective bargain has a flexibility clause as well so people on collective agreements can still take advantage of family friendly, and other, flexibilities.
We will make sure that the transition is sensible and measured. On the 1st of January 2010, Australians will see Labor’s modern award simplified safety net. Australians will get the benefit of Labor’s national employment standards. Operations will commence for Labor’s new industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia. We will make sure that these things happen through a transition time and happen in a measured way, but that they will be there to benefit Australians. So, two years to modernise and simplify awards. Two years for the national employment standards to come into operation. Two years to build Fair Work Australia.
And of course, we will make sure that people are protected from disruption at work. We will ensure that there are tough sanctions against industrial action which is unprotected. There will only be very limited circumstances in which action is protected. Apart from that, people taking industrial action will feel the full force of the law. We will make sure that the current laws for secondary
boycotts stay so an employer hurt by a secondary boycott can go straight to court and get it (inaudible).
We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions. We will allow unions to get about their proper work but without disruption to businesses.
And we will make sure that pattern bargaining, with the taking of industrial action, is (inaudible) of a pattern bargain is dealt with under our law. Such industrial action will not be lawful under Labor.
These things mean we do have the balance right - fairness, flexibility, a sensible and measured transition and tough laws against those things which could disrupt our workplaces.
This is Labor’s policy for the next election, with the details spelt out, and of course I would remind, that’s more than Mr Howard ever chose to do for the Australian people before the last election, and more than he’s doing before this election. We know, of course, that they are contemplating more in the industrial relations area. We’ve seen the secret documents. We’ve heard Nick Minchin, the Government Leader in the Senate, speculate and talk about it. We are being upfront with the Australian people about our plans.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, is this your Tony Blair moment?
RUDD: We’ve been working for many months, Julia and I, on the transitional arrangements of our industrial relations policy and on the finetuning which we referred to following the release of Forward with Fairness at the National Conference. We believe that our responsibility is to get the balance right between fairness and flexibility. Mr Howard got that balance all wrong.
We’re confident that this platform will rectify that and provide the country with a way forward. Still enabling businesses to be flexible and productive and to grow and to grow the economy but providing fairness for all those working families
who’ve had basic conditions stripped away from them as a consequence of Mr Howard’s unfair industrial relations laws.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, will this add to the cost of doing business, for employers?
RUDD: We don’t believe so, because we believe we’ve got a series of flexibility provisions within the law. Julia has just referred to three of them. One: the flexibility provisions which now pertain to those on individual common law agreements, who are earning in excess of $100 000. Two: the flexibility clause which will be included within collective agreements or enterprise
agreements and third a model flexibility clause to be included also within the arrangements for the award reform process which Labor has initiated. These provide three sets of flexibility arrangements for employers to work with. We think
that’s a good basis for businesses to be able to get on with running their business, whilst still providing working families with key protections on penalty rates, overtimes and the things which help to make the family budget balance.
JOURNALIST: Has this final policy been run past the ACTU? And secondly in Government, how much of an open mind would you have to fresh representations from businesses?
RUDD: We’ve been discussing our transitional arrangements and our implementation arrangements and fine tuning with businesses, unions and with everybody else basically, for many, many months now. The decision however, that we have taken, has been ours alone and in reference to a hook up we had yesterday, with relevant members of the Shadow Ministry who are specifically tasked with this function. We think the balance is right.
The second part of your question Michelle, goes to taking further representations from business. The document which Julia’s released today indicates that we’re always open to discussion with business on elements of detail. You have the framework. You have the implementation policy and therefore, that’s our basis for Government should we be elected.
JOURNALIST: Would you undertake…?
RUDD: Just one sec mate. Yeah?
JOURNALIST: Who do you think will be hurt most by this? Unions or business?
RUDD: Well, that establishes a classic zero sum game, which we’re not in the business of. You know something? The great thing about this country is we’re at our best when we pull together and I think one of the things that Mr Howard has done worst is try to actually create artificial divisions in this country.
I believe and Julia believes, that by virtue of the flexibility arrangements that we have inserted into our proposed law, together with the fairness provisions, which we are absolutely emphatic about, that we get the balance right and we think that a spirit of cooperation can be a way forward for Australia in the future, generating good economic growth but generating fairness for Australian working families as
JOURNALIST: Whatever happens, the Coalition will have the numbers in the Senate, at least til July next year. Won’t that stymie your timetable?
RUDD: On that, I’ll turn to Julia, in terms of legislative arrangements.
GILLARD: On legislative arrangements, what this policy makes clear is if a Rudd Labor Government is elected on election day, we will be coming to the Parliament as quickly as we can after that, with a transition bill. I would be saying to Senators who are contesting on election day and those who are continuing to
hold office that if a Rudd Labor Government is elected, it will be elected on this policy and platform. You couldn’t have a clearer example of mandate and we would not expect Senators from other political parties to stand in the way of Labor delivering on its commitment and most particularly stand in the way of a transition bill being dealt with to enable employers and employees to proceed
with certainty. So, who would they be hurting in that process? They wouldn’t be hurting the Labor Party. They would be hurting the employers and employees who need certainty in industrial relations.
JOURNALIST: If they do block the legislation, is this an issue Mr Rudd, that you’d be prepared to take, to call a double dissolution on?
RUDD: I’m confident that sweet reason will prevail. As Julia has just indicated, a core part of the upcoming election campaign will be about industrial relations. That’s why we have put such detailed documents before you. We’re competent on our case and if we are elected to form the next Government of Australia, our mandate will be clear cut. I would think it would be irresponsible in the extreme on the part of, of Coalition Senators to stand in the way of the implementation of such legislation.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, you mentioned that you put these detailed documents forward, how difficult do you think the communications task is, explaining this now new policy mix to the electorate?
RUDD: Well, Forward with framework, Forward with Fairness is our industrial relations framework. It’s been out there for many months now. What we put forward now, as we promised back then is implementation arrangements, transitional arrangements and some fine tuning. We’re confident that we can communicate that clearly to the Australian public. The core principle remains the same. We are going to get rid of Mr Howard’s unfair industrial relations laws. We’re going to get rid of Work Choices. We’re going to get rid of his AWAs and we’re going to replace it with a system which balances fairness and flexibility and
the detail of that is contained here for you in the four sections which Julia has outlined. I’m confident we can communicate that clearly.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd (inaudible) about the weak, young and vulnerable. It appears under this if a person signed up under McDonalds, that they’ve still got another five years to run. Perhaps if they sign a contract between now and Christmas, they’re signing up for another five years. What’s your message to them? Is it just bad luck and maybe (inaudible) if people are thinking of signing up to an AWA now?
RUDD: It’s difficult to fix the problems of Mr Howard’s industrial relations system over night. Mr Howard became I think drunk with power after the last election when he got control of the Senate and rammed this legislation through without any mandate. As a consequence many people have suffered from it. However, Australian businesses have been operating within the framework of the laws which have been enacted by this Parliament and therefore they’ve been operating within those laws in good faith. We’ve therefore got to be
mindful of honouring contracts which have been entered into. We’ve got to be mindful of certainty of business planning and therefore we’ve got to make sure that those businesses which have engaged employers in their spaces have that certainty into the future. Bear in mind, five per cent, between four and five per cent of the workforce of this country are currently engaged with AWAs. We of course, will end that system soon. There is a finite point we’ve outlined to you today the replacement elements of the system we would have for the industrial
relations system of this country.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, do you envisage there’ll be a rush of businesses trying to lodge AWAs before your laws possibly take effect and if so would that be a bad thing?
RUDD: I believe that businesses will take time to work their way through the detail of what we’ve proposed here. They will see the new flexibility arrangements which we’ve put forward for awards, for enterprise agreements, for individual common law agreements. I believe businesses in the main will see that there is plenty of options for flexibility for them in the future. Also, I think militating against the sort of activity which you just described is the fact that we have a cut off point for this system. An absolute cut off point and a new industrial relations system which Julia described in some detail before will be fully operational as of 1 January 2010.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, would you guarantee that if you are elected this is the policy that you will, this is the legislation that you will put in place and that you won’t make any further concessions to trade unions after you are elected?
JOURNALIST: What do you say to employers who might be tempted now to get really tough on employees in what they see as a small window of opportunity before you may be elected?
RUDD: Well, they have to be mindful of the fact that there is a cut off point. That’s the first thing. And my dealings with business and Julia’s dealings with business and we’ve been dealing with many businesses in recent months is that they are in the main planning for the long term and therefore they want to know what instruments we have which suit their workforce requirements into the future. Therefore, that sort of short termism I think would be less likely. Can I say
however, that we will be exceptionally confident about the flexibility arrangements which we put forward to businesses for them to use in the future as well in the other instruments we have on offer.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, do you feel that businesses will now be appeased by your policy and do you worry about a union backlash?
RUDD: On the first question, that’s a question you should put to various elements of the business community. Can I just say up until now in a whole spectrum of business opinion, in terms of Forward with Fairness. But a
number of business folk we have coming to see us are saying they’re pretty relaxed about this and relaxed about that. Then you have other people, publicly saying other things, well it’s a democracy, people have got different views and we respect that. How business reacts to our implementation arrangements, our transitional arrangements is a question you should put to them.
In terms of the unions, which is the second part of your question, obviously a number of unions may be disappointed with elements of what we put forward, particularly in relation to right of entry provisions and secondary boycotts, I understand that. Our job, however, is to govern in the national interest. It’s not to govern in the interest of big business and it’s not to govern in the interest of
any individual trade union.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the existence of Work Choices has, in fact, enabled you to be tougher on, in negotiating with unions than you would otherwise have been able to?
RUDD: That’s sort of a hypothesis on a hypothesis. We just deal with the realities that we are confronted with and Work Choices are out there, AWAs are out there. Mr Howard didn’t tell anyone about them before he went to the last election. They are just part of the industrial firmament now. That’s what
we’re dealing with.
But I think in our negotiations, and I speak on behalf of Julia as well, we have constantly said that our task is to get the balance right. And getting the balance right between fairness and flexibility is tough, we fully accept that. There’s no particular magic to this.
But Australian working families concluded a long time ago that the balance was got all wrong by Mr Howard. They are looking at us to provide leadership, but leadership that also provides for adequate flexibility for businesses to be able to prosper and survive.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, how was your thinking on the $100,000 Commonwealth contract issue affected by your visit to the Pilbara a few weeks ago and your meetings with heads of the big mining companies over there?
RUDD: Julia and I have been tossing this around with one another for a long, long time, and it certainly predated our visit to that particularly attractive part of the fair State of Western Australia. And can I say that part of
our thinking there is that we do believe that once you are into a six-figure salary, it becomes increasingly possible for people to look after themselves. Of course, this is still underpinned by the national employment standards which are the foundation stone of Labor’s industrial relations system.
But we want to make sure there are protections for people through awards, protection for people through collective agreements, those protections concerning basic things like penalty rates and overtime. When you start to get into six-figure arrangements then it becomes possible for people increasingly to
look after themselves and that is ultimately the logic which underpinned our decision on that matter.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that low income earners who were pushed below an award under Mr Howard’s original Work Choices laws will feel any comfort and feel betrayed by your decision to observe sovereign risk over actually rescuing them from their wage arrangements?
RUDD: Look, this is difficult, and we’ve spent a lot of time on this, a lot of time. And we know acutely now through the representations we have received over time how ugly this has been on the ground for many working families. And we don’t seek to trivialise that at all. That’s here. That’s a reality.
And over here is the other reality which is an entire business community operating in good faith within the industrial relations system of the day and how, therefore, do you actually bring these two things together. And the best conclusion we could come up with was to honour the integrity of the existing contracts, mindful of the continued difficulty this may impose on working families.
But I add this. There is an end to this system. AWAs are going. We will not have them as part of our industrial relations system. And through the national employment standards and the 10 basic award conditions which Julia referred to before, underpinning reform of the award system, the provisions that will pertain to collective bargaining and collective agreements, we believe that we will create a fair system for such families into the future.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, presumably the Government will say what it has been saying, which is that this sort of system will put pressure on wages and, therefore, on inflation and risk higher unemployment. What do you say to those specific arguments about inflation, wages and unemployment?
RUDD: I thought recently we’d seen evidence of inflationary pressures on the economy on the basis of an industrial relations system designed by somebody else. That’s the first point I’d make. I don’t think we had a lot to do with designing the current system, did we Julia? So, I think there’s a
little problem of logic there.
The second point is this. The reason we have been so attentive to the flexibility requirements, which relate to awards and enterprise agreements and to individual common law arrangements as described before, is we want flexibility in the workforce in order to ensure that inflationary pressures are managed to an effective extent, because ultimately our common objective when it comes macro-economic management, is to ensure that the task of the Reserve Bank is made as simple and as straightforward as possible by ensuring that we keep inflationary pressures in the economy under control.
JOURNALIST: Are you intending to scrap 457 visas, given the revelations today of just how abused they are?
RUDD: That report is a very disturbing report and we are going to spend a fair bit of time getting to the bottom of what’s actually happened there in those cases. The reports, if accurate, are revolting, absolutely revolting. There is a place in this country for 457s, we talked about that before. We’ve got to now look very carefully at the effective implementation and monitoring of the 457 system, and I’ll be speaking with Tony Burke, the Shadow Minister, this afternoon to charge him with that responsibility.
JOURNALIST: So, with those sorts of words, are you hinting that Labor’s really open to sort of toughening up the requirements of the employers who bring in people on 457 visas?
RUDD: Look, 457s are a part of the way in which this country has been managing its labour force needs, in part because there’s been no effective skills strategy in this country for more than a decade. And this is a part of the overall economic equation at present including resulting in certain inflationary pressures in the economy because there has been inadequate investment in skills, but more broadly, an inadequate and virtually non-existent national skills strategy. We’re paying the price for that today.
And Mr Costello runs around and beats his chest the whole time about what a fine fellow he is, for goodness sake, where’s your skills strategy been for the last decade? What have you been doing? And we’re paying the price for that. The chickens have come home to roost.
Can I say, therefore, that given the current reality, 457s still have a role to play but we are deeply concerned about abuses. We have already indicated that there should be adequate labour market testing for 457s in locations prior to applications being made.
But on the implementation of them and on the treatment of workers when they arrive under a 457, Tony Burke has a job of work ahead of him in the weeks and months ahead. Can I take one more and then we might zip.
JOURNALIST: On the unfair dismissal laws. You don’t seem to have taken any action there. The argument has been obviously that there’s been large job creation as a result of the introduction of the removal of unfair dismissal laws. Why did you not take any action there?
RUDD: Well, Mr Howard’s industrial relations laws have brought in Work Choices, they’ve brought in AWAs, which strip away people’s penalty rates, overtime and basic conditions, and he’s destroyed job security for working families.
We’ve looked very carefully at that job security equation and we believe that we’ve got the balance right in the statement that I made at the National Press Club here in Canberra some months ago. And it’s this: that if you are a small business, and we’re very mindful of the particular needs of small business, that for 12 months if you’re a business with less than 15 employees, that any
employee that you have will not be able to exercise the rights of unfair dismissal procedures. We think that gets the balance and it passes the reasonable man, reasonable woman test.
In a 12 month period, if you are a small business, we think that you can form a judgement about whether this person suits your business or whether they don’t. Now, I can understand in six months, that may not be as easy, but in 12 months most people have made that sort of judgement and that’s why we made that specific change and we think we’ve got it right. We’ve road-tested it around the country.
Obviously, there are different views but I’m concerned about working families, young people in the workplace who find themselves perhaps exploited and they need basic protections and this is one of them.