Tony Abbott interview 31/1/2001: Full transcript

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Tony Abbott interview 31/1/2001: Full transcript

Peter was a very successful and effective minister and yeah, sure he had his fights.

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Comparing his style to Peter Reith’s

Peter was a very successful and effective minister and yeah, sure he had his fights. but they were all fights that we had to have. And he didn’t shirk them. He didn’t pick them, unnecessarily, but he fought the fights we had to have and by and large I think he made much more of a difference to the system than the system did to him. So Peter Reith was an outstanding success as minister, he leaves very big shoes to fill. I will do things I guess in my own way. I share Peter’s broad philosophical approach. I enthusiastically endorse the policy directions that we have taken. But look, inevitably, I’m a different person. Over time I guess I’ll do things somewhat differently but, look, you won’t see a sharp break from the Government’s positions and policies. Because they’re good positions and good policies and I want to support them but I guess inevitably I’ll do things my way just as he did things his way.

On IR policy going into the election

We’re not going to see any attempt this side of an election to turn the industrial relations world on its head. Because we couldn’t get legislation through the Senate anyway. The only way we could get major new legislation through the Senate is by taking it to an election and getting a mandate for it. And so in the short term what I’d like to do is see if we can find common ground on some of the issues that are currently stalled in the Senate. And I don’t believe that we’re going to make radical or dramatic changes but I suspect it might be possible to find some common ground with the Democrats on some significant incremental changes to unfair dismissal and so on.

I’d like to begin to make some changes that’ll really promote fostering employee share ownership in Australia. I think that owning a stake in your own business should be as common and as much a part of the Australian dream as owning a stake in your own home.

I’d like to try to ensure that the wages of ordinary working people continue to increase fast. The best way to do that is to encourage even greater flexibility and creativity. One of the real feathers in this Government’s cap has been, I think, the way average weekly earnings have gone up by about 12% in the last 4.5 years. After being static. The average weekly earnings went up 0.5% over the life of the Labor Government and that’s an absolute travesty for a Government which claimed to be by the workers, of the workers, for the workers. And so I want to really stress the capacity for higher pay under a more flexible system, where we get [to by] increasing the movement of people into AWAs rather than staying under the old awards and so on.

The final thing I’d like to stress. And I do so not as someone who is advocating it as a policy as such, but more someone who’s advocating it as something that should be discussed, is this whole question of the possible federalisation of the industrial system under the corporations power.

Now Peter released a very good paper, Peter released a very good series of papers late last year and I think those papers are documents that deserve serious study and debate and I will do my best to foster that in the weeks ahead.

The advice I get is that if we just use the corporations power, the existing corporations power, quite apart from anything... I mean the Prime Minister’s promised that we won’t use any referral of powers on this head to further extend the Commonwealth’s industrial reach. But we don’t need a referral of powers on the advice I’ve got to federalise, if you like, under the corporations power up to 85% of the coverage. So, you know, I think it’s a very moot point whether Australia in 2001 really does need six separate jurisdictions and whether we are best advised to unify the system on the basis of the most widely accepted one of them, that puts the Commonwealth system in.

On the uncovered 15%

I believe one of the things that could be done under the existing federal system is (I am an L-plate minister—and some of the technicalities of this I’m still not on top of so you might like to check) I believe there is a provision under the Workplace Relations Act for legislating minima for people who are not covered by the award. And certainly I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do something like that if it was going to mean that we were actually going to unify the national system of industrial relations.

I’m not saying we should go down this path, I’m just saying we should have a very serious debate about it and we should very seriously examine whether it really is sensible in this day and age to have six separate national jurisdictions.

No doubt I’ll be making speeches at many conferences and talking to many journalists-I guess that’s the first way of fostering debate, to keep talking about it, so I’ll be talking about it.

On how to convince the states of the need for change

It’s not a question of them handing it over, we can just go and take it. I’m not saying we will, or that we would, I’m just saying that we can, so it seems, under the existing corporations power and we are debating whether or not we should. And we want society at large to consider whether or not we should.

Specifics of IR policy

We’ll certainly have an industrial relations policy, and I imagine it’ll be an innovative and extensive one. [On unfair dismissals] Let’s see, let’s see, we certainly believe in significant changes to the unfair dismissal laws. We want fair employment laws, we don’t want unfair employment laws. At the moment we think that the unfair dismissal law works to the disadvantage of workers because it makes it too difficult for employers to take people on.

[On exemptions for small businesses] Well that’s something we are very strongly pushing, but there are other things which we may well do within an election context. In the end no-one becomes a worker unless someone else has given that person a job and if I don’t believe that I can get rid of people then I’m going to be a lot more reluctant to take them on in the first place. I mean if you can’t fire, you can’t hire. If a worker is in a sense a worker for life, now I’m dealing perhaps in hyperbole for the purpose of the discussion, but if people become workers for life we’re going to see a lot fewer jobs around. Just as if we wanted to completely destroy the housing market we’d give tenants rights for life, we did have a system like that, we did have protected tenancies, there was very little for rent.

Australian Workplace Agreements

I’m advised that the Employment Advocate is approving AWAs at the rate of about 6000 a month. That’s I think a very significant growth. Sure it’ll take some time at that rate for mass penetration, but still I think there are now something like 250,000 AWAs. That’s a not insignificant proportion of the workforce.

[Is it worth pushing when only 1% of employees are covered by them] Yes it is, because the existence of AWAs impacts on a lot of other agreements that are not themselves AWAs. For instance, if employers and employees have the option of an AWA, if agreement can’t be reached on for instance a certified agreement, well then your certified agreement is more likely to be different than if there was no possibility of an AWA. So the existence of AWAs in the system has a kind of a demonstration effect on the rest of the system.

Test cases
 
Living wage

We don’t intend to change our general practice. We will certainly make an appearance in the Living Wage case and we will be arguing for a modest increase. Every time we’ve backed an increase, we’ve never backed an increase of the order of what the unions have asked for but we’ve always backed an increase. We can expect the same general approach again. Let’s just wait and see [about figures].

Casuals

I’m not going to confirm anything because I can’t remember exactly what the advice was there but I would expect us to be involved in that [maternity leave for casuals and other industry test cases].

BHP Iron Ore

We intervened in that when it was initially heard and on appeal we’ll certainly continue to be involved.

Transmission of business

Again, my memory is that we did appear in that case and I’d imagine that it’s now gone to the High Court, it’s been decided, I suppose it’s a bit of a messy decision but nevertheless you know if further cases proceed I imagine we’d be involved.

Australian Industrial Relations Commission

The IRC has a very important and legitimate role in setting award safety nets. I don’t think the IRC is necessary for the micro-management of businesses and our essential problem with the old industrial relations system was that it often involved judges and commissioners making what really should’ve been business decisions. That’s our belief—that the Commission has an important role but that it’s to establish safety nets rather than to micro-manage business. One of the other historical problems has been the fact that unions have had a form of legal privilege in our system by virtue of the fact that only a union could come and by taking certain action produce an award. I mean, why should only unions be able to do that why should non-union organisations of workers or workers individually be able to do that. So I am against providing unions with legal recognition and understanding over and above other organisations in our society.

On IRC overwork

I’m expecting to meet with Justice Giudice in the next couple of weeks and I’d certainly welcome any comment he wants to make to me on that [coping] or any other subject he thinks I should know about. But look you know the Commission exists, in terms of useful and important function we’ll make sure the Commission continues to operate efficiently.

Meetings

I don’t currently have a meeting in the pipeline with Arch Bevis.

I’ve spoken twice now to Meg Lees about my desire to have a serious sit-down with Senator Murray, and I hope to organise that in the next few days.

I’ve had a few people come in my door from various business organisations, I’ve had some discussions with people from a non-business background but I haven’t as yet met formally with union delegations, I thought it was best to wait till I was properly sworn in. But any union that desperately wants to see me—I mean the point I make is that I’m the minister for employees and not just employers. If they want to see me, ring up, let’s make a time and get together.

WA visit, February 2

I’ll be looking at some portfolio programs and facilities. I’ll also no doubt have something to say about the West Australian election and the importance of keeping Richard Court in Government if you want to protect the advances in wages and conditions which have been made under the WA industrial regime.

We would like to think that WA workers will continue to have the opportunity to enter into AWAs or AWA-like agreements. Labor would scrap them, anyone in the west who gets shoved back onto the award I suspect they’ll lose up to 30% of their salary and labor’s policy in the west is a recipe for a 30% pay cut for workers.

Allowable matters

[On plans to cut them back further] The Government has tried—my understanding is that the legislation has been stalled for some time. That’s something I’ll talk to Andrew Murray about. I suspect we’ll have to reduce our ambit claim, so to speak, rather than expand it.

Union fee for service

I think this is a very interesting development. Knowing the hold that the unions have on the Labor Party, if Labor is returned in Queensland no doubt we’ll see pressure being brought on non-unionists to join the union on pain of being forced to pay the fee they anyway and I think it’s a real problem.

It’s not legal, but I think they could certainly coerce and intimidate. I think this presages a campaign of coercion and intimidation to try and restore compulsory unionism.

That would be a very, very, very retrograde step and good luck to the unions if they want to make themselves deeply unpopular, go for it.

Would the Govt address this in its IR policy?

Certainly all governments consider all problems and how they might be solved by legislation or other actions—sure I’ll be considering it but I’m not saying we’ll be particularly focussing on it or something else.

On impasse with the states over employee entitlements

Isn’t it better that people get a safety net than nothing at all? Or isn’t it better that they get 60% of their full entitlements rather than just 30%? I mean, at the moment the Commonwealth is providing 30% and the states are providing 0% and they’re posing as the workers friends. By all means, let Labor states have different policies but in the meantime why don’t they join with us and do more for workers who have been left high and dry now.

I’m in conversation with the ACT and the South Australian Governments about them coming into the scheme and I’m expecting to talk to the West Australian Government after the state election if it’s returned. I think the cost factor that scared the states off any form of participation when this matter was first raised after 12 months of experience don't look quite as dramatic. Paid entitlements are in the order of say $50m a year rather than $140m plus which people thought it was once.

  

 

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