Minister Shorten interviewed on ABC Radio National


SUBJECTS: Flood response, industrial relations legislation, Qantas

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: How would you feel if you lost your home, your business and all your possessions?  Too many Australians have had their properties damaged and destroyed in natural disasters this year and the level of damage is only set to intensify.  A report out today by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO shows that our country is getting hotter, drier and wetter and torrential downpours, searing heat and dangerous bushfires are becoming more severe. It's our new normal. Government Services and NDIS Minister Bill Shorten joins us from the Parliament House studio this morning.  Bill Shorten, welcome.


KARVELAS: Government payments have surged as thousands need help to recover from this year's floods.  Can we put a dollar figure yet on how much these floods have cost us?

SHORTEN: I don't think we can yet, but the costs are enormous. You're quite right. There's the individual costs.  When you have flood damage and water across your floorboards, it is nothing short of a disaster.  Businesses are interrupted.  There are farmers who were looking forward to their first really good season in a long time and that's been heartbreaking. There'll be insurance claims. There's of course government payments to try and help people temporarily mitigate some of the effects of the flood. So it will run into hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

KARVELAS: And of course you've experienced it very much in your own electorate as well which I suspect brings it home even more.

SHORTEN: Yeah, it does.

KARVELAS: How has that sort of changed - perhaps it hasn't changed - but has it given you a different perspective on the way this works when people are in desperate need?

SHORTEN: It hasn't necessarily changed my perspective because I worked on the aftermath of the Brisbane floods in 2011, but it does remind me of the human cost.  When we see it in the news and you're not affected, it's bad and I think Australians watching it on television think, "Oh, that's really bad".  But when you see it live and first hand, you see people pulling out their wrecked furniture on the side of the road, when you see they've got to pull up the dirty carpet, as I saw when I walked down the streets where people returned the morning after the floods, the day before ,and you just hear literal wails of despair, cries of despair, you just   it is a big deal. It's a massive deal and it's not easily resolved, and so what it reminded me of is at least for the extent that I can control any of the relief and support is to make sure that we get payments out to people, we try and take as much of the bureaucracy out of people already dealing with trauma out of their lives.

KARVELAS: Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced further grants for council areas, small businesses and not for profit organisations. Do you imagine there will be more financial support needed for flooded areas?

SHORTEN: Yeah, there'll have to be. I guess it comes in several categories. You've got the   the first thing when a flood hits is just protecting life, you know - the rescues, the SES heroes and just ordinary citizens and boats evacuating people. But then once the initial mud - the floodwaters recede and there's the mud and the clean-up. But then beyond that - and that's still big - but then there's dealing with insurance companies, there's getting the tradespeople in to fix up the damage. That takes months, not days and weeks.

Then there's the interruption to business, so I think that - and then there's dealing with insurance. So there's several stages of this. When the cameras move on, as they inevitably do to the next issue, there's just still so much work to be done.  I visited Rochester up in north Central Victoria on Cup Day and whilst the waters had receded, that had washed across the whole town. So when I look at the vision in Central New South Wales, this is a job of months and years, not of days and weeks.

KARVELAS: Look, the other big issue that the Government is currently tackling is your industrial relations legislation and a Committee report on the industrial relations bill has been handed down. It's recommended the bill be passed, but called for some changes like increasing the minimum number of employees from 15 to 20 that can engage in multi employer bargaining. Just what is your position - should it change to 20?

SHORTEN: I'm sure that the Government will listen very carefully to the report's recommendations. But just for listeners who are saying, ‘Well what's this argument all about?’ – what Labor is proposing is implementing policies, which it's really spoken about for years. How do we get wages moving again in a modest and reasonable way?

So this, really for 10 years people's wages have been stuck in suspended animation, in the deep freeze. Everything's been going up but people's wages. The bargaining system has essentially been broken. There's two ways that people get wage rises other than just changing their jobs or getting a promotion. It's through increases to the minimum wage, and then you also have the option of bargaining - where there's improvements in productivity and through negotiation between employees at a company and employer, they mutually agree to lift wages. The minimum wage has moved too slowly. It's now moved again a bit better, so that's been good, Labor's been keeping its policies there. But this process of negotiating wage rises has essentially been broken for 10 years. So what the laws that Labor is proposing to put up in the Senate are to allow essentially low-paid and feminised industries to be able to access bargaining.

KARVELAS: But it's more, it goes further than that, Bill Shorten, it's not just the low paid industries. In fact the Minister has been making the point that it's the others too and that's where the concern is. Back to this point about the 15 or the 20, does a workplace that's got a head count of 20 sound more reasonable to you, is that the likely ending point?

SHORTEN: That will be up to ultimately what we can convince the Senate to do.

KARVELAS: But do you think on the basis of fairness and the concerns though of small business

SHORTEN: I don't think the wages system will ultimately sink or swim on whether or not it's 15 or 20. But that will be up to others to negotiate. I'm not going to negotiate on the radio. But do I think ultimately the sky will fall in if it's companies of less than 15 exempted or if it's companies of less than 20? No, I don't. What I think is that there's a lot of overheated rhetoric in this wages debate. The truth of the matter is that for literally millions of people, they haven't been able to have any access to getting a wage rise even though everything else has been going up. So I think these laws are about redressing the imbalance which has emerged over the last 10 years.

I mean at the end of the day when we talk about wages, it's not just low-paid people. If you're earning, 60, 70, 80,000, $90,000 a year, if you get a wage rise, you're not going to save that margin of the extra wage rise. What it does is it helps you pay the bills, helps you buy some more presents at Christmas, it helps you just try and keep up. So that has an effect in the economy of creating more expenditure. The thing is when a worker gets a pay rise they're not putting it in a Swiss bank account, it circulates in the Australian economy. It generates jobs. It generates confidence.

KARVELAS: It's true that   you are right, workers spend the money because they have bills to pay.  But the RBA Governor Philip Lowe has had this message, he says, "If we all buy into the idea that wages have to go up to compensate people for inflation it will be painful, so best avoid that".  That's a pretty strong statement from the RBA Governor. What's your response?

SHORTEN: I would say this.  It all depends on what the wage rise is.  The reality is though that when you're getting your electricity bill every quarter, when you get your gas bill every two months, when you've got the increased costs of the kids going to school, when you've got the mortgage payments where the RBA is increasing the interest rates, you can't get blood out of a stone. Real people are hurting without some wages movement. These wages changes aren't going to lead to double digit wages inflation. Like it's just rubbish. That's not what's happening. So a lot of these debates are theoretical. If wages move too far too fast, that's not desirable. But wages not moving at all is a disaster.

At the end of the day, I'm watching these Coalition conservative politicians and some of the senators, you know, stroke their chins and opine how terrible it is if wages go too far. The problem is wages are not going too far. The problem is they're not moving at all. The problem is that we've got an energy shock caused by the conflict in Ukraine. The problem is we've had people fall behind. This isn't a question that the wages system will unlock faster than inflation wage rises. I do not believe that is the case at all. But where you've got inflation going up 7.5 per cent and wages aren't moving at all, that's a 7.5 per cent wage cut. Why is it that the experts who complain about people on less than $100,000 a year getting a wage rise, they're not the ones who are under $100,000 a year.

KARVELAS: It's an interesting point, one being made on the text line very much that it's, you know, easy for higher income earners to make the point.

SHORTEN: That's exactly right.

KARVELAS: Just a very brief comment from you because Phil Coorie is on next, but the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is reportedly meeting with Qantas boss Alan Joyce today. Is Labor going to give concessions to the national carrier, which is an employer that the ACTU accuses of being anti-union?

SHORTEN: Oh no, I'm unaware of that discussion so I couldn't add any light to that. But when it comes to…

KARVELAS: What do you make of the Qantas claims then? They have made claims about having to cut back because of this bill.

SHORTEN: Listen, Qantas is a national carrier and there's many things that they do well, but it's a matter of record that even before I entered Parliament I used to represent Qantas engineers. Qantas play hardball on workplace relations. They're entitled to their opinion and during COVID they've been doing remarkable things. But when it comes to workplace relations, my electorate covers Melbourne Airport. I have a lot of airline people who live in my electorate. I don't agree that when Qantas was laying off staff it was doing the right thing. So Qantas has always had a particular point of view on workplace relations. They've never hidden it. But, you know, I'm going to leave Qantas to run an airline, but I don't want them in charge of the wages system of this country.

KARVELAS: We're out of time. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHORTEN: Thank you.

KARVELAS: Government Services and NDIS Minister Bill Shorten there.