SUBJECTS: Federal election campaign; Labor’s policy announcement for casual workers to become permanent employees; Living Wage; Liberal’s water buy-back controversy; Scott Morrison’s preference deals; Adani.

MICHAEL ROWLAND, PRESENTER: It is day 13 of the Federal election campaign if you're counting, and both parties are focusing their efforts in the Northern Territory and Queensland. We're joined now by the Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek, who is in Darwin. Tanya Plibersek, very good morning to you.
PLIBERSEK: Good morning Michael.
ROWLAND: Now Labor today is announcing moves that will make it much easier for casual workers to become permanent employees. Why do you see that as so important?
PLIBERSEK: Well, it's important for families. It's very difficult to manage the family budget and manage family life if you don't know when you're going to be working. You don't know that you're going to have a job next week or next month. We think if someone has been a casual, a so-called permanent casual for some time, that they should have the right to request a conversion to permanent employment from their employer. The employer, of course, still has a right to refuse, but the employee could actually ask for that to be properly adjudicated rather than just have an arbitrary refusal. We hear more and more people who have been kept on as casuals for years at a time and it is very insecure for them never to know that they have got a sick day or a paid holiday. Not to be able to consider a car loan or a home loan because they're not confident that their work will still be there. And this is one of the things that's contributing to very low wages growth in Australia. It was really telling recently when Mathias Cormann said that keeping wages low was a deliberate strategy of this government. I don't think Scott Morrison has yet answered the question of what his policy is. Should wages be kept low? Should we be seeing higher increase than we have seen in recent times or is it part of the government's strategy to keep wages low, as Mathias Cormann suggests?
ROWLAND: What do you say to concerns already being expressed by some businesses that this move to make it easier for casuals to become permanent will reduce their flexibility as businesses, particularly businesses where demand fluctuates, like the retail sector?
PLIBERSEK: Look, of course, if someone has been casual for a year or for two years, or for longer - I have spoken to people who have had casual contracts rolled over for up to 7 years - they want some certainty in their work. So, if the employer can show that it is not possible in their workplace to do that, that it is against the interests of the business then sure, that's acceptable. But at the moment, a lot of workers are just rolled over on casual contracts and their ability to take a holiday, take sick leave, is compromised, but their ability to negotiate pay increases over time is very much compromised by that as well because they are not certain that they'll be given shifts if they are asking for pay increases. This really is affecting family budgets and of course, it has a broader impact on our economy. The historic low wages growth that we have seen in recent years has really depressed confidence, depressed spending. We can't have a strongly growing economy while we're squeezing people on low wages and even middle income people aren't getting pay increases. The cost of everything is going up, but their wages aren't keeping pace.
ROWLAND: OK when you talk about wages of course the Labor Party is strongly campaigning to put in place a so-called Living Wage. You have been reluctant so far to put a figure around that. Why is that?
PLIBERSEK: Well, because there is a science to it. We really think that the Fair Work Commission would have to consider a number of factors when determining that number. We have in the past put in submissions for increases to the minimum wage. We never say a particular figure. We just talk about the fact that it is important to see increases in the wages of people on low incomes to help them keep up with the cost of childcare, the cost of private health insurance and the cost of energy. All of these things are increasing and if wages don't keep up, we continue to see the decline in living standards that we have seen in recent years.
ROWLAND: OK now let's move to the water buy-back controversy. Is Labor poised now, given that you didn't receive the documents late yesterday to set up a judicial inquiry, if you win government, into water buy-backs?
PLIBERSEK: Well we are very concerned that having asked for clarification from the Department about the circumstances of this buy-back that we haven't received that clarification and it does, I think, mean we will have to move further along the track of investigating this buy-back. I mean, you have got to remember this is a very large amount of taxpayer dollars, $80 million, for very poor quality environmental impact and the fact that the company is based in the Cayman Islands, the relationship with conservative politicians, all of that increases the questions around it, but fundamentally, taxpayers have paid top dollar for floodwaters that only appear every few years. It's very difficult to understand how this decision was made and why it was made. We think focusing specifically on this decision, getting some more information about how and why is very important so that people continue to have faith in the process.
ROWLAND: OK. Will the investigations take the form of a judicial inquiry?
PLIBERSEK: I will let our spokesperson Tony Burke make further comments about this later today.
ROWLAND: And will that judicial inquiry, if it does happen, put in the clear deals the Labor Party has done. Barnaby Joyce, for one, is very exercised about what Penny Wong was doing as Water Minister, ten years ago.
PLIBERSEK: Well, I heard that extraordinary interview with Patricia Karvelas where Barnaby Joyce kept saying "Well Labor's bought water too". Yeah, we had open tender processes. We made sure that taxpayers got value for money. The problem is not buying water to return to environmental flows. The problem is the company approached the government. The government has paid top dollar for poor quality environmental outcomes. Where there is an open tender process and companies are able to bid for it, farmers are able to bid for it, that's a very different matter to what seems to have happened here, which is some quiet arrangement between the government and one company that others weren't able to participate in.
ROWLAND: OK a couple of other issues. Clive Palmer is on the march again. That Newspoll showed his Party is doing very well in key marginal seats. Is the Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek, in preference negotiations with him?
PLIBERSEK: I have no idea what's happening with the preference negotiations. I'll tell you-
ROWLAND: You're the Deputy Leader of the Party.
PLIBERSEK: -who definitely is though, is Scott Morrison is in preference negotiations.
ROWLAND: And we'll ask Scott Morrison about that when he is on. But you're the Deputy Leader of the Party, surely you'd have some idea whether preference negotiations are underway?
PLIBERSEK: Well I'm very certain that Clive Palmer won't be preferencing Labor. He's never voted with us in his life and he's made that very clear. Scott Morrison is prepared to, he is playing off One Nation against Clive Palmer, the guy who has, as you say, he seems to be doing well in some seats. It is a constant surprise given the way that he has treated his workforce that anybody would want to vote for him.
ROWLAND: OK. And do you worry that if the deal is done with the Coalition and Clive Palmer you could see seats like Herbert, very marginal Labor seat in Queensland around Townsville, go to the Coalition?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I would be very surprised because I would think the workforce of Townsville would remember better than most how disappointing Clive Palmer has been. He loves to make big promises and he leaves behind a very, well, a trail of destruction, frankly.
ROWLAND: And staying in Townsville. Why can't the Labor Party be up-front about where it stands on the Adani coal mine?
PLIBERSEK: Well, because we have said all along that we obey the law and we listen to the science. That this project has to stack up environmentally and economically. We are concerned that Melissa Price, the Environment Minister was pushed to sign approvals at the last minute, just a couple of days before the election was called. Her job was threatened by some of her colleagues, it is reported. We think that she should answer questions about why she made the decision and the way that she did it at that very last moment and there are still a number of approvals and contracting arrangements that need to be gone through. The Queensland government continues to look at the details-
ROWLAND: Excuse the interruption, in Queensland your Labor candidates in northern Queensland seats are strongly supportive of it. Candidates in States like Victoria are strongly against it. Can you understand the confusion out there in the electorate about why the Labor Party seems to be shifting from state to state, from position to position on this issue?
PLIBERSEK: No, not at all. Because on the one hand we have got a Coalition government, where you have got a Prime Minister who dragged a lump of coal into the House of Representatives - well, you know what he is going to do. On the other hand you have The Greens who say that we shouldn't have any coal or gas extraction or exports. We don't take an ideological position. We say that this project like every other project has to stack up environmentally and economically. We certainly won't be funding it, as the Coalition are proposing. We wouldn't be putting any taxpayer money into new coal. But unlike The Greens, we can't say we ignore environmental legislation when it suits us to ignore environmental legislation. That would not be a responsible thing to do either. We need to go through the proper approvals processes. This company has missed deadline after deadline. They have overstated the potential jobs more than once. We are looking very closely at what they're proposing, but there is still more information that needs to be obtained about this project and we're not waiting for that information before we do something for central and northern Queensland when it comes to jobs. People, of course, are concerned about jobs and that's why we've got our Northern Australia Development Fund to invest in other types of infrastructure. We have got roads, rail, port, airports, tourism infrastructure, agriculture jobs that will come from projects like the Rookwood Weir. We have to focus on jobs in northern and central Queensland and this is not the only answer to jobs in those regions.
ROWLAND: We're out of time. Tanya Plibersek in Darwin, Deputy Labor Leader, thank you so much for joining us on News Breakfast.
PLIBERSEK: Thank you.