SKY NEWS AGENDA
MONDAY, 5 NOVEMBER 2018
SUBJECTS: Qantas and unions, agricultural visas, the need for rational debate around Australia’s economy.
KIERAN GILBERT: With us now, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for your time. The warning from Qantas is quite a stark one this morning from Alan Joyce. What's your response and can you placate the airline chief’s concerns?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Absolutely, Kieran. Labor isn’t interested in disharmony. What we want to do is get wages going again. In Australia, we’ve barely seen real wages move since the Abbott Government was elected in 2013. We got productivity growth, but we haven’t got wages growth-
GILBERT: So would you rule out industry wide bargaining then, where a series of employers can be caught within one particular bargaining claim?
LEIGH: We’ll certainly look at a range of options on industrial relations laws. We’ll restore penalty rates. We’ll ensure that labour hire firms are used to fill temporary shortages rather than being used to drive down the wages of Australians. We do know that productivity has continued to grow since the Abbott Government won office, but wages haven't kept pace and it’s really important that Australia gets a pay rise.
LAURA JAYES: It doesn't sound like you’re ruling it out, Andrew Leigh.
LEIGH: We're open to changes that see a fair industrial relations system, Laura. I think that's what most Australians would want. They feel they're not sharing in the prosperity that is being produced through the productivity that's occurring in workplaces. Economist Saul Eslake contrasts the situation now with the situation in the 1970s when we had a real wage overhang. He says there's now a real wage underhang. Workers just aren't getting their fair share of the pie-
GILBERT: If you have industry-wide bargaining and the warning is from Alan Joyce that many small suppliers won't be able to match, you know, if there isn't the sort of highest common denominator which then is applicable to thousands of companies that a lot of the smaller ones won't be able to match those standards.
LEIGH: Kieran, we’ll have those conversations with employers, unions, and other stakeholders. But I think we do need to make sure that our industrial relations system is fit for purpose, that we don't have Australians workers struggling to pay the mortgage, to feed their family. Australians are entitled to share the productivity gains they're producing at work. It's as simple as that. CEO pay is going up significantly. We've got record numbers of people that-
GILBERT: Businesses, businesses are entitled to be efficient. The best way to have jobs is efficient businesses.
LEIGH: This is why I mentioned productivity, Kieran. The thing is, we are seeing those efficiency gains. Workers are producing more, but it's not showing up in their pay packet. It’s a significant challenge right across advanced nations at the moment. Part of the challenge is uncompetitive markets - I talked about this in the speech last week - and part of the challenge to getting our industrial relations laws fit for purpose at a time when the union membership rate is as low as it's been since 1904.
JAYES: Can I ask you about this agriculture visa, these changes that Scott Morrison has already slated today. Is Labor behind this
LEIGH: Laura, we saw a report last week saying that there was a billion dollars of unpaid wages to backpackers in Australia, suggesting that a third were being paid less than $12 an hour. So I'm surprised the government hasn't been willing to talk about how it's going to deal with those abuses in the system. We saw the debacle of the backpacker tax which has led to many of these concerns. The government needs to be very clear about how it's going to deal with those abuses and how it's going to create more opportunities for Australians to work in agricultural work. The Pacific Seasonal Worker program has been well evaluated, but extending a backpacker program which has produced a billion dollars of unpaid wages without showing how you can tackle the problem is characteristic of the short-sighted approach of the government.
GILBERT: It's also about flexibility, isn’t it? Obviously farmers need that, don't they?
LEIGH: One in 10 of these backpackers were being paid less than $5 an hour. Now it might seem flexible if you’re the employer Kieran, but if you're the worker, that seems anything but. We've got to make sure that we have good industrial relations laws, again, that are helping us engage in a race to the top rather than driving things down to the bottom.
JAYES: Andrew Leigh, this is all part of obviously a big campaign from Scott Morrison to try and gain seats in Queensland at the next election. Is Labor’s job made harder in Queensland with a change of leader in Scott Morrison?
LEIGH: Steve Ciobo didn’t seem to think so. Certainly the Queenslanders I spoke to in Dickson and Petrie last week didn't have very much time for the new prime minister. Frankly if he's going to copy Bill Shorten’s bus strategy, if he's going to be Bill Shorten lite, I suspect Queenslanders will say we'll have the real Bill Shorten – the guy who’s been up here doing dozens of town hall meetings from Rockhampton to Mackay, the guy who is here regularly speaking about the concerns of Queenslanders rather than just blowing in when the polls are down.
GILBERT: You've been subject to some criticism over recent days for an opinion piece you wrote in The New York Times, where you said that Australia's miracle economy isn't looking so miraculous right now, talking about the fact that unemployment rate is stuck at around 5 per cent compared to the likes of Germany, United States and so on. Josh Frydenberg said you should lose your job over that. Should you be critical of our country offshore like this?
LEIGH: I'm not sure whether these guys have heard of the internet, Kieran. Things are not published inside little bubbles these days. They’re published on the internet and it's a global conversation. I was part of that international conversations as an economics professor and I'll continue to engage the debate as to how we raise wages, how we get a more diversified economy. If the New York Times is keen to discuss Australian economics, I think that's a great thing for Australia.
JAYES: Why are you so pessimistic about the Australian economy? We were the feature on the front page of The Economist just a couple of weeks ago as the example that the world should look to but you say it's not so rosy. Why?
LEIGH: Laura, at the time I was writing the unemployment rate in Australia was above the OECD average. You have countries like Germany and the United States with unemployment rates more than 1 percentage point below ours. We have significant challenges with wages. There’s no point just putting your head in the sand, taking that Jack Nicholson approach from ‘ A Few Good Men’ saying ‘you can't handle the truth’. We have to talk about the truth in the Australian economy and how we're going to set it right. We have to make sure that we have policies to diversify the economy and that’s why Labor’s produced more positive policies than any opposition in living memory. That's why we’re engaged with the experts and willing to have the conversation. We're not scared about the prospect that Australia could be better tomorrow than it is today. That's the great vision that Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen, the entire Labor economic team are working towards.
JAYES: Ok. Well, it seems like you’re very pessimistic, Andrew Leigh. Extraordinary.
LEIGH: We’ve got things to do, Laura, but I’m optimistic about the future.
JAYES: Maybe you’ll be a little bit more positive as we get closer towards an election. Andrew Leigh, we’ll be speaking to you a lot between now and then. See you soon.
GILBERT: Thanks for your time.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra