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Transcript of doorstop interview: Parliament House [Canberra]: 17 June 2014: Newstart; Cuts to cleaner's pay; SIEV 221.

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SUBJECT/S: Newstart; Cuts to cleaner’s pay; SIEV 221.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: I wanted to comment on the Government’s approach to Newstart and job seekers. This week we’ve noticed the Government make a decision to ensure that job seekers are having to comply with activities to look for work even when they won’t be receiving income for the first six months. We have job seekers under the age of 30 who will be obliged to undertake activities, as far as the government is concerned and yet not receive any income at all. It doesn’t matter if they’re looking for work each day, each week, each month for six months, they’ll receive nothing. The Government is expecting them to comply with undertakings and obligations.

We would say that is tearing up the principle of mutual obligation. Mutual obligation started under the Keating Government with Working Nation, it was embraced by the Howard Government and it continued on with subsequent governments. But this Government is the first in 20 years that has decided to tear up the contract between job seekers having to fulfil their obligations and the government providing a very modest income while they look for work.

Labor believes people must look for work if they’re in receipt of income, they must look for work. If they don’t look for work, that income could be suspended. But the fact this Government is going to force people to take on these obligations yet provide no support at all, is indeed the end of the principle of mutual obligation and

I think the Prime Minister and the Minister responsible need to answer why they want to tear up such an important social policy that has bipartisan support for a long time.

The other matter I want to touch upon today is the rally yesterday of cleaners to recognise International Cleaners’ Day. Cleaners from around the country came to Canberra to ask their Prime Minister not to cut their rates of pay. There was, under the guise of ‘red tape day’, a decision by the Government to take out the Cleanstart rates for cleaners including those who work in this Territory and in Commonwealth buildings, including the Parliament.

The Prime Minister was not truthful yesterday in Parliament when he suggested that rates of pay would not be reduced. Removing the Cleanstart guidelines for cleaners with Commonwealth contracts will mean that when there are contracts that are up for grabs, when there is a tendering process for new contracts, those contractors, new tenders, will be able to cut the hourly rate of cleaners by more than $4 an hour. Now, the Prime Minister was being deceitful in Parliament yesterday, consistent with his lies to the Australian people in relation to the Budget.

The Prime Minister is being mean and tricky when he pretends to suggest that cleaners that are under those contracts won’t be receiving pay cuts. That is the beginning, I suggest, of this Government’s approach to reducing employment conditions in this country. If they can attack cleaners who clean their own offices you can be assured that this government will be looking to cut the minimum rate and penalty rates and cut other conditions of employment.

Again, the Prime Minister should come clean. If he wants to give an undertaking that cleaners under those contracts will not have their wages reduced then he should say so without qualification and say that the guidelines that were in place will continue to be in place so that decent workers in this country get a decent wage.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Where do you stand personally on the matter of offshore detention centres?

O’CONNOR: That’s clear. My position, because I was the Minister for Home Affairs, indeed as a member at the National Conference some years ago I seconded the motion moved by Chris Bowen to ensure that the platform allowed for offshore processing. As a former Immigration Minister and former Home Affairs Minister I believe that offshore processing is a very important element that may need to be used to prevent people, most essentially, dying at sea.

I debated it then, I debated it within the party forums, I’ve debated it in the Parliament and of course, my position has not changed.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] with the Government being sued over Christmas Island [inaudible]… will this bring up memories for those rescuers obviously [inaudible].

O’CONNOR: Well I was only provided very brief information about the possible claim made against the Commonwealth and possibly others in relation to SIEV 221. I was the Minister for Home Affairs at the time and arrived at Christmas Island on the day of that tragedy that evening. I just say this, I don’t know all matters pertaining to that particular claim, I just say this, as the Minister responsible for those vessels at the time the Customs and Navel personal did remarkable things that day to save those that survived. They went into ribs and tenders getting off the larger vessels, went into the sea, which was very, very dangerous and they salvaged bodies and rescued people.

Without their involvement and their bravery I am confident that there would have been very few survivors. In fact only one of the survivors managed to get to the rocks himself, all others had been rescued by Customs and Naval personnel. Now, I’ve not seen the substance of the claims made in this matter but I want to assure people that there were some very brave deeds done that day to save many people. Unfortunately people died but many more would have died without the good work of the Naval and Customs personnel.

JOURNALIST: What’s your message to the left of the party? Are they fighting a losing battle on offshore processing or have they already lost that?

O’CONNOR: It’s entirely proper for those matters to be discussed within caucus.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

O’CONNOR: It’s up to caucus what’s discussed today. I’m saying those matters can be discussed, they can be revisited. There’s no reason why you don’t have discussions about public policy, Labor party policy in the caucus that’s exactly the forum in which it should be debated. And so there’s nothing wrong with that.

JOURNALIST: Have they lost the argument -

O’CONNOR: Well I’ve been asked about my view, Latika, and my view is offshore processing is important. That’s why I actually got up at the national conference some years ago and seconded the motion to ensure that we have offshore processing. But I understand people might have different views. In the end the caucus will make that decision insofar as the federal parliamentary Labor party is concerned. And, of course, the party has already debated that issue. We can have future debates. Decision making forums of the party are important. People have the right to put their view. The majority will prevail and that’s how a democratic party should operate.

JOURNALIST: Back to SIEV 221, you say there were brave deeds that day from those trying to rescue those on board. Lawyers today are arguing that more could have been done and the boat could have been saved earlier and that tragedy could have been avoided. Could more have been done under your watch and your government’s watch to avoid that tragedy?

O’CONNOR: I have made my statement. I have not seen the claim in detail. I’m only telling you as a Minister what I know what happened insofar as that day and indeed of course there was a Government examination of what proceeded. But I’m not going to say any more on that other than as the Minister the response by Customs and Naval personnel to go into the water in such a high seas state to recover bodies and rescue people was remarkable - nothing short of remarkable.

Now, I don’t know all of the matters that might be in this claim, but I’m just making that general statement of support for Customs and Naval personnel who not just in that incident but in many incidences have put themselves in danger to save lives.

Any more questions? Thanks very much.