The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP
Deputy Leader of the Opposition
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development
Transcript of ABC 720 Perth radio interview
Drive with John McGlue
2 APRIL 2014
Subjects: Penalty rates
John McGlue: Just three days now until the all-important Senate election re-run here in Western Australia. The major parties are pushing as hard as you’ve ever seen to get your vote in the Senate. All the big guns are over here pushing whatever issue they believe is going to swing your vote on the weekend. My next guest on Drive believes that a potential attack on penalty rates by the Abbott Government is something that should resonate with West Australians. She’s the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, welcome to Drive.
Tanya Plibersek: Thank you, John.
McGlue: The Labor Party’s making a big play of this penalty rate issue, what hard evidence do you have that penalty rates are about to change?
Plibersek: Well, there’s the leaked terms of reference to the Productivity Commission inquiry into industrial relations which certainly include looking at penalty rates. We’ve heard just today from the West Australian Chamber of Commerce and we know that a very prominent business man here in West Australia who’s on the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council has also been in the media saying that penalty rates should be cut. So, the fact that the Government’s actually looking at cutting penalty rates and we’ve got this strong call from businesses in the West, I think would certainly be a call for concern for West Australians who rely on penalty rates to make ends meet.
McGlue: The Chamber of Commerce and Industry has suggested what it calls a sensible loading, one and a half times, what do you make of that? Is that something that you think is sensible?
Plibersek: Well, I think we need to be sensible at all times in industrial relations, of course. I’m not going to speculate about one particular rate, but I would say this: when you’re talking about workers who are relying on penalty rates to make ends meet, they’re not the high paid workers. They’re cleaners, they’re shop assistants, they’re people who work in aged care, they’re prison officers, they’re nurses, they’re paramedics. They’re the people who are, you know, cleaning the schools after kids have gone home until 10 o’clock at night. And a lot of these workers get up to a third of their take-home pay from penalty rates. So you take a cleaner, for example, that cleaner might be earning just over $17 without penalty rates, and say around, just over $22 with penalty rates. So, it’s all very well for people on very high incomes to be talking about the impost of penalty rates, but for many of these people it really is the difference between making the family budget meet at the end of the week.
McGlue: You talk about the difficulties for employees needing penalty rates, needing the income that comes from that to make ends meet. What about employers? By Labor’s own figures, that’s up to 30 per cent of the wage bill, can you understand how they feel, the employers?
Plibersek: Yes, I do and I think that it is really important we have a cooperative relationship between employers and employees. But I’d say again, that the people that we’re talking about are already some of the lowest paid workers in our community. If you’re talking about a cleaner who might be on $17 getting penalty rates taking them to $22, you’re not talking about highflyers. So yes, I have every openness to arguments that employers are making. What I’m saying is that if you’re taking our lowest paid workers, people who look after aging Australians in nursing homes and saying we want to take a third of their take-home pay away then that’s a very difficult thing for that person and that family.
McGlue: Do you know what it’s like to be an employer? Do you know what it feels like to pay wages, to be responsible for somebody’s wellbeing and for their financial situation? To lie awake in bed at night and wonder whether you’re going to make payroll? Have you ever been in that position? Have you ever employed anybody and run a balance sheet?
Plibersek: Yes I do. I have employed people and worked in small businesses before I went into Parliament. But I’m not saying that I’m an expert in this by any means. I think that there are millions of small business owners in Australia who do experience a great deal of stress every day and one of those issues is making ends meet, a lot of other issues around red tape and what it takes to- just in hours worked to run a small business are things that we can discuss and be open to and we’re already having those discussions with small business.
McGlue: But Tanya Plibersek, employing people isn’t a gaol sentence, it’s utterly discretionary. And in recent years in Australia we’ve seen a withdrawal of capital from productive investment. The banks will tell you that credit growth is growing modestly but deposit growth and term deposit growth are growing at considerably higher rates and essentially that’s capital gone on strike and if Labor is so determined to hold onto these high cost elements like penalty rates, how do you convince capital, how do you convince prospective employers to invest in new businesses and to employ the people who you, the Labor Party, professes to represent? How do you do that?
Plibersek: Well, about 3 per cent of Australian businesses employ more than 20 people. So if you’re talking about a drop in business investment and in fact there was a drop off the cliff in business investment at the beginning of this year. I don’t know that you can make a direct link between a worker being paid $22 an hour instead of $17 an hour and a drop in capital investment from businesses.
McGlue: But it’s all around the perception of the capital of businesses around the conditions in which they will operate, and the conditions and the backdrop against which they will invest. If they don’t think that business conditions are decent, they’ll hold back the capital which is what’s happening. That’s why businesses are so concerned about lobbying for changes on penalty rates.
Plibersek: Yeah and do you know what? I think that there is a real problem with business confidence in Australia and part of that is having a government that is telling business and the community all the time that there are big cuts coming in the budget, that our economy is in bad shape, when in fact we’ve had some of the strongest growth of any nation on earth. We’ve had some of the lowest debt and lowest deficits of any nation on earth. When we’ve continued to have 23 years of continuous growth in this country, by any measure our economy internationally is a very strong one and it would be terrific to have a government that wasn’t talking down our economy all the time.
McGlue: Well one of the concerns they’ve got of course is the fact is they’ve inherited such a big mountain of debt and they have also –
Plibersek: That is just nonsense.
McGlue: And they have also inherited a series of a budgetary position, a fiscal position which is at best parlous. And all of that happened under Labor.
Plibersek: That is just nonsense. If you look at Australian debt and Australian deficit compared to nations around the world you will see Australia’s position is better than most. It’s certainly better than the US its better than the UK, it’s better than Europe, it’s better than Japan, it’s better than most economies in the world. And what we’ve seen in the mid-year economic forecast from Joe Hockey is a cooking of the books. He has changed parameters in the budget so that debt looks bigger. He’s made a decision to make the budget look worse than it is. He’s got 68 billion dollars’ worth of parameter changes and that includes also an 8 billion dollar, over 8 billion dollars just given to the Reserve Bank. Money that the Reserve Bank doesn’t need, didn’t ask for, that’s just added to our deficit. Why? Because he wants to make the budget look as bad as possible so he can have the excuse he wants to cut programs, like cut education, cut health and cut all the programs that Australians rely on to live in a civilised community.
McGlue: Thanks for your time today. Thank you for coming in.
Plibersek: Thank you.