SUBJECTS: Cuts to penalty rates; DV leave; 18C

FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, welcome back to Breakfast. 


KELLY: I'm well thank you. So Bill Shorten - he's changed his mind on the need to protect the independence of the Fair Work Commission. Is this political opportunism? Unionism? Union pressure? What is it?

PLIBERSEK: Well nobody ever expected that the Fair Work Commission could actually bring down a decision that reduces the take-home pay of some of the lowest paid workers in the country. We are very surprised that this is the decision that the Fair Work Commission has come to, and in other cases where we've had court decisions that have the wrong impact on the community the Parliament has actually legislated. In fact, we've got legislation in the Parliament from the Government at the moment to fix up the unintended consequences of the McGlade case in the Federal Court which invalidated Indigenous land use agreements. So the court has come to a decision that would have bad consequences for Indigenous people, Indigenous land use agreements and introduce uncertainty for mining companies and so on, so the Parliament is legislating. In fact, you'll recall in the last Parliamentary sitting week, the Attorney General said this legislation must be rushed through the Parliament. You've also got, of course, when Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott don't like a decision like paying long distance truck drivers a decent wage - they just got rid of the whole Safe Rates Commission, they just got rid of the whole tribunal. So I think it's a little rich for them to be - 

KELLY: Sure, sure. But Bill Shorten couldn't have been clearer there: he said, you know, when Parliament starts to intervene - the Fair Work Commission shouldn't undermine its independence. He couldn't have been clearer. 

PLIBERSEK: And the Fair Work Commission can only make decisions based on the parameters that it's given to make decisions and if those - 

KELLY: And what were the parameters? To review penalty rates, wasn't it?

PLIBERSEK: If those parameters are wrong, if they result in a reduction in the take-home pay of some of the lowest paid workers in the country then that's a problem. 

KELLY: Now wasn't this the direction given to by your government?

PLIBERSEK: Fran, this is not just a problem for the individual workers affected - so we've got about 700,000 people who will lose up to $77 a week. We know that we're in a time where company profits are at record highs but actually in the last quarter wages went down by half a per cent. We've got inequality at 75 year highs. We've got historic levels of underemployment. We've got 56,000 people who lost their job in the last year. This is a time of great uncertainty, and people finding it very difficult to make ends meet while company profits are very strong, and you've got a Government that wants to give big business tax cuts and turn a blind eye to ordinary workers' pay cuts. We can't sustain that in the economy - it hits confidence - it means that ordinary people aren't going to go and, you know, stop and buy a coffee on the way to work, they're not going to spend a bit of their pay packet on the weekend taking the kids out for a meal. That has a knock-on effect, not just for the 700,000 workers that are affected but right across our economy. 

KELLY: Does that argument though and Bill Shorten being, sort of, quoted there saying one thing and now doing another, is he having a bit of problem here, a pattern of inconsistency? Because the Government can also quote, you know, the 360 that he has done on the need for business tax cuts - he used to say lower corporate taxes quote, "assists the creation of jobs, creates jobs right up and down the income ladder". Is the pattern of inconsistency here a problem for this leader?

PLIBERSEK: No. You have to take into account the circumstances in which you're working. If we could afford big business tax cuts now it would be a different matter. But our AAA credit ratings that Labor fought so hard to win during the Global Financial Crisis - first time in Australian history that we'd won three AAA credit ratings from three ratings agencies - that's under threat. We've been told it's under threat. We've also been told by Treasury that these $50 billion of big business tax giveaways over the next decade would add virtually nothing to our national productivity. So, when the times are right, we reduce taxes where we can - Labor has got a history of doing that, you know about the tax reductions during the Hawke-Keating years. We are saying that at this time - knowing that this will add little to national productivity, knowing that company profits are high but wages growth is so low - that the tax cuts shouldn't be a priority and that making sure people have a decent day's pay for a fair day's work: that should be our priority as a Parliament. The Parliament has the ability to legislate in this area, and it should. 

KELLY: On another issue but still involving the Fair Work Commission, the ACTU pushed for ten days domestic violence leave written into awards. There's no final decision from the Commission yet, but the Vice President, Graeme Watson, of the Commission has delivered his single judgement and he's ruled against the leave application. Now, earlier we spoke to a representative from business, Innes Willox from the AI Group.

*excerpt from Willox interview plays*

KELLY: What do you want the Commission to do on this and do you accept any of those points made by Innes Willox, that not all businesses have the same circumstances and not all could manage something like this, 10 days domestic violence leave? 

PLIBERSEK: Look I did hear those comments earlier this morning and I think, relating to the decision of Mr Watson, and I think it is very important that we wait for the other commissioners to make clear their position on this - as you say, this is not the final decision. It is disappointing. Labor does believe that we need domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards. Our policy was for 5 days domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards because we know for certain that people use up other leave first - most workers don't want to go their boss and say can I have a day off to go to court to get an apprehended violence order against my husband or boyfriend, ex-partner. They use up other types of leave first. In desperate circumstances they might use this leave it would be used, in practice – Innes mentioned some of the large employers who already have it, it's not being widely used at the moment. It's being used in desperate circumstances where people would otherwise lose their jobs. Now if someone is the victim of domestic violence and then she loses her job as well, potentially loses the roof over her head, loses the ability to support her children, and you see how this has a cascading and disastrous effect on a family that's already doing it very tough. So we believe that it's a provision that would not be very widely used but should be there as a backup for people who have so much going on in their lives. A little bit of extra help really doesn't go astray at a time like that. 

KELLY: We're going to get the report into the notions around changing 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act today. If the recommendation is for change, which plenty of people describe as modest change, replacing the words "insult and offend" with "vilify" as opposed to dumping the 18C section all together, would Labor support that?

PLIBERSEK:  Well this just shows what's so very wrong with the Government at the moment. This proposed change doesn't create an extra job. It doesn't make anyone feel safer. It's just such a sideshow - 

KELLY: Not all policies are about jobs though. 

PLIBERSEK: I don't know - think when you've got underemployment at historic highs and 56,000 jobs lost in the previous year, you'd want a government that was actually focusing on making sure that you had a job and that it was a decently paid job. This is a side show. In the last year - in 2015-16, the last year we've got figures for - 77 complaints were made and only one of them ended up proceeding to court. Are we really saying as a nation that the big problem we're facing today is one court case last year? We know that Section 18D of the Race Discrimination Act gives explicit protections for free speech, including for artistic or academic discussion - if there's goodwill in the discussion involved it doesn't matter under this provision whether something is insulting, there are protections there. I think this is an absolute sideshow and we won't do anything to weaken protections against race hate speech in Australia. 

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us. 

PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure Fran.