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Question and answer session, AMWU Conference, Sydney: transcript: ALP policy, unions, asylum seekers, employee share ownership, free trade, Paul Keating, tax\ncredits.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

TRANSCRIPT OF QUESTION & ANSWER SESSION, AMWU CONFERENCE, SYDNEY, 24 JULY 2002

E & OE - PROOF ONLY

Subjects: ALP Policy, Unions, Asylum Seekers, Employee Share Ownership, Free Trade, Paul Keating, Tax Credits.

QUESTION: How is the ALP going to address the situation where most workers in most workplaces believe there is very little difference between the ALP and the Liberal Party?

CREAN: Well, we’ll address it by pointing to the fact that there is a big difference between us and them, but it’s a message that clearly we have to communicate more effectively. I used the opportunity today to go through some key issues for which we have identified the policy differences. Now, bear in mind that I have indicated that we have got a policy review and we need to let that review develop, take submissions and hold consultations with the constituent members of the Party. But there are key decisions that we have already taken: The protection of worker entitlements; the commitment to looking at the tax system to reward working families; the commitment to paid maternity leave; the commitment in terms of superannuation benefits - the cut in superannuation contributions going to everyone.

Look, we are only at 9% contribution rate in terms of superannuation because of the program Labor put in place. The Government promised to keep what was their co-contribution back in 1996 - which would have taken them eventually to 15%, would have addressed adequacy of superannuation. They scrapped that. They replaced it in the first year by a retirement bonus or savings bonus, which lasted 6 weeks, just 6 weeks. That’s their commitment to retirement income and savings. The only reason you have got 9% is because we legislated it, put it in place the 9%. Our mistake I think back in 96, if you look at it was that we didn’t legislate the co-payment , didn’t legislate it in a way that would have prevented the Government getting it out because it wouldn’t have been able to.

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So I think we have to understand the importance of legislation to underpin these sorts of reform. That is why I have got a Private Members Bill up there in terms of the protection of worker entitlements. I am also committed to ensuring that we get back to a fair Industrial Relations Act. One that recognises the right to organise, one that recognises the right to collective bargaining, one that recognises the genuine role of the independent umpire, not one in which you skew the balance to the other side. I believe that Government genuinely has to hold the ring in industrial relations, not punch in one corner. We’ve got a minister at the moment who is always punching from one corner.

Now we have to develop together and I think this is an important challenge. Two key areas, one is the industry policy and the way it relates to our trading opportunities. No point arguing for openness in trade unless we have got the ability to get products that we can make competitive in the market. The automotive industry is a classic example where we can compete with the rest of the world best practice but we can’t get into certain markets, particularly those that are close to us.

And that is why these whole issues of the FTA with the US - we want to know what is involved in that, we want to know what’s going to benefit us. We ……… opportunities. Remember ….…. in terms of it restricting and then putting on restrictions in what would be taken as far as the automotive componentry industry. So it’s not just lamb -it’s just not the rural products that we have got to be concerned about here, it’s improving access to those markets where we know we have got a competitive advantage. How we get the competitive advantage we have got to continue to support those industries where we have national strength in and build new opportunities.

We had when we were the Labor Government huge reinvestment in Australian made vessels when there were a series of policies that supported shipping in Australia, not just construction but plying the trade. I was part of those agendas. I know what can be done by way of a sensible industry policy. Not propping up huge shipping industries, but knowing we can compete with the best of them if you give them a chance. That is why we support it in relation to the shipping bounty, the continuation of it because its end, tis demise, would have had great implications for shipbuilding in this country. That’s why we argue in terms of the steel industry and got an agreement with BHP to keep the steel works. The Howard Government effectively let BHP off the hook. I believe had we still been in the Government back after the 96 election we wouldn’t have seen the outcome in Newcastle that we did.

Now it’s true that you can’t continue the industry on in the way in which it was. They knew that they had to reinvest in a new blast furnace down there. But we had a strategic approach for dealing with it. S I suppose it’s not just the policies that I ask you to look at, I ask you to look at the way in which we approach Government, the way in which we face up to the hard decisions.

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Simply asking ……. is not going to make those hard decisions go away but it’s the question as to how you work them through, how you have respect for the people involved and the people that are elected. That’s the big difference between us and them and it cuts across a range of issues.

QUESTION: We had Peter Reith and Tony Abbott. When Peter Reith was in he was very unapologetic about supporting business. You’ve got Tony Abbott supporting a bunch of Neanderthals. When is the Labor Party going to come out and openly support the trade union movement and workers. ……… The ALP came from the trade union movement, it’s a part of the trade union movement. When are you going to come and openly support us and stand up and support us, because we are sick of listening to Tony Abbott out there saying ‘individual contracts’, let’s bastardise unions. When is the ALP going to stand up and say openly we are a part of the trade union movement, we support the trade union movement and the workers.

CREAN: If you’re looking at it, there is a simple solution and that is vote him out. But we need the support base to vote him out. I have made a very solid commitment here today about our relationship with the trade union movement and I believe it because I worked with it over many years. But the simple truth is that having a strong relationship with the trade union movement was not sufficient to get us elected last time or the time before. We have to lift our primary vote and whilst that doesn’t mean we diminish our relationship with the trade union movement it means we have to be reaching out and be more inclusive of other groupings in the community too. We can be both, we can do both, we shall represent other constituencies and that is the challenge for the Labor Party. You see my point is, I want a strong relationship and I want a relationship that commits us to the future, that works for us for the future. I think it is in the best interest of this nation if we have got a progressive trade union movement and a progressive Labor Party. Don’t tell me that isn’t the natural Government of this country, but it has to be appealing on a broader front.

And that is why I argue for equal representation. It’s not about diminishing the, if you like the role of the trade union movement, it’s saying if we are going to draw people in we have to draw them in on an equal partnership, not a minority partnership. And so I am prepared to stand up for people and for values and issues. That is what I am prepared to stand up for but the extent to which we develop that commitment with the trade union movement, I will stand side by side with you. That’s why I was on the picket line, picket lines all round the country in terms of the waterfront dispute because that was an attack on our values and our system. If they can do by stealth of legislation at midnight, pass legislation at midnight to effectively sack a workforce because the company used a clever corporate structure, that had to change. And by the way we have introduced legislation to ensure that that can’t happen again. We get it on the books, correcting legislation for it.

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So I am prepared to work and fight for those agendas that we collectively develop. That’s why I talked about a partnership but it’s a partnership that we have go reach out and not be …….. we have got to be proud of who we represent and the fact that we can represent a grouping of people out there in the community much wider than our membership base because the people that we stand for, the people that we believe in, that we are prepared to fight for and deliver for as well. That’s the relationship that I want but you won’t get that from the other side.

So my invitation is to join the partnership - to stay and develop it, be involved in the process. My commitment is to work with you to deliver it.

QUESTION: The question I would like to ask you is dealing with treatment of refugees. ……… I would just note that the NSW ALP State Conference and the Qld ALP State Labor Conference recently had overwhelming support for abolishing the cruel policy of mandatory detention and my question is are you planning to ignore the wishes of these conferences, or listen to them

CREAN: Of course we listen to them. The point I would make is this, and I said this from day one that we need to get the policies right that secures our borders but is compassionate at the same time. It’s that second part of the equation that the Government has never sought to address properly, in my view, and the first part of the equation they haven’t done properly.

Take the first part of the equation. I argued very much for an international framework because the refugee issue is an international problem. And just as we had to deal with the Vietnamese boat people back in the 70’s and those from southern China in the 90’s, the two big waves of boat people that came to this country, how did we do it? Both under the Fraser Government and under Keating’s Government we did it through an international framework. And that is why we have been having, not just consultations here, but with the international agencies.

We need to get to a position in which asylum seekers are processed in the country of first arrival and that they are treated consistently, that they don’t think there is a better chance in one country versus the other so that they country hop. Also we have got to get some order into the queue. At the moment there is no point in talking about queue jumping in circumstances in which there ain’t a queue. The second thing that I would argue very strongly for is a coastguard, a cop on the beat to patrol on a regular basis with enforcement capacity, to protect our borders. The Navy doesn’t have that. The Navy has a defence role and I argue very strongly for a coastguard.

And I also argue for very strong legislation to crack down on the people smugglers, the people who exploit this trade, this circumstance, the people who trade in human misery. I don’t understand why we can’t get legislation

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with Indonesia. If we know there are boats coming from there, people smugglers, I don’t know why we can’t have that impound them and imprison them.

So far as dealing with the circumstances of the NSW resolution, the NSW resolution acknowledges that people arrived here without any papers, without any security check, without any health check, need to be detained in some form. That is what the NSW Conference resolution says. Now I, no it does say that, I urge you to read it. I do not make anyone who argues that people who arrive here should be just turned out into the community if you don’t know their security, you don’t know their health, you don’t know their papers. We have got to have a process by which we determine their status as well as whether or not they are genuinely asylum seekers. My argument is we should be doing that quicker and we should be reviewing the circumstances in which people are held.

I might remind you that as far back as Australia Day, I called for the kids to be released from behind the razor wire. I also, when the Caucus met for the first time this year, embraced polices that said we would close Woomera, turn the running of the detention facilities back to government so there was accountability and we would open them up to more public scrutiny.

Now we are putting together a comprehensive response that goes to what is very complex solution and we will announce that response at the appropriate time. But I’m saying to you that not only will we listen, we will produce a policy that gets the balance right. Protecting our borders but in a humane and compassionate way.

I might say that the latest episode by the Howard Government in terms of excising the islands we’ve opposed and I can’t for the life of me understand how you say you’re protecting the country when you’re surrendering parts of it. You know I thought John Howard had his passion and allegiance and his idolisation from Bob Menzies. I ‘ve never seen, thought I’d see the Brisbane Line reintroduced. Well he started it, it’s started across the Torres Strait. But what’s next? Tasmania, Rottenest Island Phillip Island? You name them. The point I’m making is you don’t protect yourself by surrendering yourself. You protect yourself and you protect your borders by an international framework and by the coastguard. But dealing with people more compassionately, speeding up the timeframe, determining their status, that’s what we will develop and announce at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: Simon the ALP has recently developed some policy proposals on employee share ownership and they’re promoting share ownership amongst low income families. Given the uncertainty of the share market and some of the incredibly huge corporate scandals that have surrounded once high flying corporations, why is it that the ALP would promote share ownership for low income families?

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CREAN: Well I think that it’s important to read that document in full. It proposes a number of initiatives that obviously in terms low income families would have more resonance. Things like matched savings accounts and the nest egg accounts to get people started in the home buying market in particularly around Sydney and Melbourne with, well every capital city, house prices. I just do not understand how we expect young kids to buy a home, how they can afford it. So I think we need to look creatively at mechanisms that can assist them. But on the question of share ownership, the reason and I guess one area that we do need to promote in a sensible way is not so much the mechanism by which you know anyone can just get into the share market, that’s a judgment for them as to whether they want to get in or not, but employee share ownerships, whether you like it or not are being offered all around the country. There would be many members that you represent in this audience that would be part of an employee share ownership scheme. And I don’t argue it as a replacement for the wages and conditions or the sort of enterprise bargain, but I do think it makes sense when what we’re trying to get is the enterprise focus and the commitment to, you know, the productivity, the success and all of those things but if success is achieved in that, there’d be some sort of return, some sort of share. Interestingly the Party Conference last time we met did change its platform to encourage support for employee share ownership type schemes. Again it’s a recognition of what’s happening in the workplace and it’s more a question of trying to embrace it and develop on our terms not just have it imposed on members on the employer terms. I think it has to be said, part of the shared commitment, that’s really the context in which I think we’ve got to look at that issue.

QUESTION: The former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, recently floated a proposal to introduce death duties and a wealth tax. You immediately rejected that. What is wrong with widening the tax base to ensure that the likes of Packer, Fairfax’s and the overpaid executives, pay their fair share to the tax system?

CREAN: I don’t have any problem with requiring people to pay their fair share of taxes and I think that is a valid point, I’ll come to it in a minute. Can I just say I saw that speech that Paul Keating made because - I think it was at the launch of the Don Watson book - I was slightly amused, bemused because I can remember being at the tax summit in 1985,which he and Hawke were presiding over and I - Cliff Dolan was still the ACTU President - but I was part of the ACTU delegation. I can remember Bill Mansfield, on behalf of the ACTU, arguing very strongly for death duties and the Government, including Paul Keating, saying no. I think it’s the circumstances where confronted with the reality, different decisions are taken. But you might be aware that as part of the business tax reform - you know we opposed the GST last time - one of the commitments in terms of business tax reform where we offered bipartisan support to the Government in terms of the changes on business taxation was to address the tax avoidance base. To crack down on independent contractors, a whole range of schemes to do what you said, to broaden the tax base. That was a

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commitment that we had. A commitment that the Government has since reneged on. So that’s where we’ve got to build, a broad base of support to get those changes in. It’s what we were prepared to do in the last term.

QUESTION: Simon, when will the ALP recognise that there is no such thing as free trade and why does the ALP refuse to recognise that the US and Europe are determined to protect their communities and those jobs in those communities? Would you tell us when the ALP will develop policy to protect real jobs in the manufacturing industry in Australia?

CREAN: The big difference between us and the US is that we have 20 million people and they have 300 million. They’re also the powerhouse economy and short of us having a strategic approach for a bigger population, which, by the way, I support, but that’s something that has to be developed over time, a nation like us that has always exported for its wealth has got to look to overseas markets for its products. Now just think of it, we are not in the bargaining position whereby we can restrict imports because of the retaliation that that invites from countries that take our exports as their imports. If the trade balance were different you’d have, and could have a different strategic position. It’s why Labor always saw the need to promote openness in trade. It’s why we formed the Cairns Group successfully and got an outcome from the Uruguay Round back in the early 90’s, that laid the basis for openness. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something upon which we could’ve built and we did. Under both Hawke and Keating, they then used APEC to get mirror agreements called the Bogor Declaration, which would’ve seen developing countries opening up their markets within a particular time frame.

Where I think the current Government has dropped the ball is it hasn’t used that framework to argue in a bilateral sense, strategically for better access to those things that we’re good at exporting.

So far as the free trade agreement with he US is concerned, I say this about it, we want to know the details but we want to know it’s consistent with openness not just special arrangements for the United States. It has to be in our interests.

So what I’m saying to you, I suppose is this that strategically if you look at things, openness in trade if we can get it, is in our best interests. Where I think we’ve got to concentrate better at is us becoming a more productive nation. We’re competitive, the exchange rate and all sorts of things have seen to the competitiveness, but what we haven’t been is productive enough, nor that we had the strategic approach that gets products that are both competitive or that are competitive because you know we’ve had the production base, we can’t get into the States. We can’t get ships into the United Sates because they’ve got a Jones Act on the book from way back that says that all vessels have to be built in that country. That’s what we’ve got to break down. Because there is a market for our Incats, there is a market for

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our Austals, there is a market for those if you can get into them. It’s not that we’re incapable of producing these things at world class prices our problem is that we need to open access. My point is that once we start arguing closure of access we let them off the hook.

I know it’s a difficult and long transition process and we’ve got to keep making the adjustments but strategically, industry policy, building off our strengths, modernising those, making the old new again, the application of technologies, plus aggressive approaches in terms of opening up market access that’s what I want to see and that’s what I’ll fight for because I’ve had the experience in terms of both industry policy and trade policy. I know where the opportunities are and what you need is a Government prepared to champion Australia’s interests, not be the lapdog of the US. Not roll over and have the tummy tickled - some have expressed it a bit more crudely then that.

Can I just say, that’s what worries me about the current Government’s direction in terms of the FTA. I’ll be fighting for Australian industry and Australian access and if we can get that through an FTA I’ll be in there. But if it’s about closing us off and if it’s not about driving the momentum, the dynamic for greater openness in other countries in the region then I’m against it.

It’s the other reason why the first trip that I did when I took over the Leadership was to go to China and essentially argue, with their membership of the WTO now, Australia and China have a great opportunity to argue for and drive more opportunities, more market opportunities, more access opportunities in the Asian region. This is terribly important. You think about it. The Government’s dropped the ball on APEC, we’ve seen a whole lot of regional groupings occur but Australia’s not in them. You’ve had ASEAN plus three. Why can’t it be ASEAN plus four? Why can’t Australia be in there using the strength of it’s consistently argued position, using the weight of its membership with the Cairns Group? Using the credentials it’s built up to drive bilateral access, country to country access as apart of the broader agenda. That’s what I’m for, that’s what I’ll fight for because that will deliver a stronger more sustained economy and a commitment in particular to our manufacturing base.

QUESTION: The ALP has proposed Tax Credits as an initiative to help lower paid workers. It seems … more likely to reduce award wages and provide subsidies to employers. Why should we support this proposal and when will it be explained to working families?

CREAN: Well the reason we should consider supporting this proposal and, as I say, I start from the proposition that there are a lot of choices that we have make about the tax mix between now and when we win the next election, bring down the first Budget, there’s going to be something like $6 billion annually in bracket creep, extra taxation of revenue, simply as a

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result of the tax rates not changing. So one way or the other we’re going to have to address taxation. I prefer for us to be looking at options now by which working families, who do need the support, who are under financial pressure, to get there slice of that action. Not like the last lot of tax cuts out of the GST that gave the biggest benefits, I think 50% of benefits went to the top 20% of income earners. It’s just not fair. Not fair. So that’s why I’ve opened up the debate.

Now tax credits it’s true can sound terribly complicated. In it’s simplest form it’s really a negative income tax. Instead of paying tax, you get a payment back depending on your circumstances. You can target it at people who are low income, you can target it at people for example who are raising families. You can target it … (tape break)… and basically it’s no more then a tax cut for working families. Now I agree with you, I think we got to change the terminology, tax credits, you know, no one knows that we put it out there in 98 and they were none the wiser and this is why I am for developing our policies earlier and getting them out. But think of it in terms of a tax cut for working families. A tax cut is not a subsidy to an employer. You don’t think of any other tax cut as a subsidy to an employer in other circumstances. Think of it in terms of the fairer distribution from a stronger economy. I said a couple of things when I took over the Leadership. I want to modernise, I wanted us to be strong economy for a fair society so there’s a purpose in all of this, it’s distribution back and I want to be known as Leader of the Opposition for what we propose not what we oppose. So that’s why these ideas, that’s why these issues are out there. Now in the context of your forum, if you’ve got a better solution, a better suggestion in terms of the taxation issue let’s here it. But don’t be frightened off by it because you think it’s complex or we can’t understand it. Let’s organise the discussion by which we can explain, develop the proposals, take people through it. It’s not there for anything other then the benefit, and to benefit people who I believe deserve the greatest benefit. That’s what I’m committed to and again it’s what I’ll fight for.

ends