SUBJECTS: Industrial Relations; China.
JANE NORMAN, HOST: Well, let's bring in our Wednesday political panel, and I'm joined in the studio by Liberal Senator James Patterson and Labor MP Peta Murphy, both from Victoria. Welcome to you both. James Patterson, starting with you. This is a government bill. Why wouldn't every business negotiating a new EBA seek an exemption under this Fair Work Act or the Fair Work Commission to cut wages?
JAMES PATERSON, SENATOR FOR VICTORIA: Jane, perhaps I shouldn't be, but I'm genuinely surprised at the strength of the response from the union movement and the Labor Party to these changes. Let's remember that these changes have come out of an exhaustive consultation process with both business and unions. Christian Porter conducted 150 hours of consultation. Now, of course, not everyone is going to agree with every element of the package that's coming out of it, but everybody's had their say. Some business groups are saying this doesn't go far enough. The union movement saying it's going too far. But you said in your opening that the government is picking a fight with the union movement. That genuinely was not our intention. That's not what we're seeking to do at all. What we're seeking to do is make our industrial relations system fit for purpose after the crisis and have at its heart the number one goal of creating jobs, because there's nothing more important right now than getting more Australians back into work who lost their jobs in the crisis.
NORMAN: What we heard from Sally McManus, Anthony Albanese, they are fighting words, a nasty bill. Sally McManus saying this must be rejected. So you might not have picked a fight, but I think you are going to be in a fight. So have you squibbed this potential for a compromise?
PATERSON: Well, I think Anthony Albanese himself needs to really reflect on his position. And perhaps it's because he's feeling insecure as Labor leader and as if you're a Labor leader and want to have a fight with the government over workplace rights, that's probably a safe way to do it. Perhaps that's what this is really about rather than the substance of the bill. Because, I mean, the comparisons to WorkChoices, I mean, they're just frankly insane. This doesn't come anywhere close to that. This is just about creating jobs, getting people back into work. We've got more than a million Australians who are unemployed. We need to get those people back into jobs. And if we don't make those changes, it's going to be a lot harder.
NORMAN: Well, Peta Murphy, what do you say to that argument that this is aimed at keeping jobs, making jobs? The fact is, isn't it better for a worker, as Christian Porter says, for their business to remain in business than fold?
PETA MURPHY, MEMBER FOR DUNKLEY: So, as you know, I try not to be unnecessarily combative, but a number of things that James just said then were absolutely incorrect. I mean, Christian Porter himself has conceded that in one hundred and fifty hours of negotiations and talk this proposal about the BOOT wasn't on the table. It wasn't put to the union movement. No one else put it forward on the table. It wasn't discussed. So when we think back to when the Prime Minister and Christian Porter announced that they were going to get unions and industry around the table and had the temerity to compare themselves to the Bob Hawke government, you know, fast forward and we have them saying, oh, yeah, thanks for all that effort, thanks for all that talk, but now this is what we're going to do. We're going to remove the BOOT and it wasn't part of the discussions. And it is part of a number of things this government has done under the cover of COVID that are going to cut wages and conditions and hurt working families. On the one hand, we’ve heard Christian Porter just talk about marine tourism going to be hurt for quite some time. And this is necessary past the time of the pandemic to help businesses. Well, what happened to the wage subsidy? What's happened to JobKeeper? It's already been cut in Victoria for childcare workers at the height of the pandemic. JobKeeper is going to end, but apparently working families have to lose income. It's just not right.
NORMAN: The COVID crisis has changed the game, hasn't it? Like the economy now is very different to what it was a year ago. And just back to the question I asked, would it not be better to allow businesses to have an exemption for another two years so that they can keep their doors open, keep staff open, rather than having to close and sending those workers into the dole queue?
MURPHY: So it would be better not to just cut off JobKeeper prematurely, not to taper it and cut it when businesses still need it. It would be better to have packages that allow businesses to keep operating and do something for the tourism industry that's more than a few thousand dollars for tourist agents even though they can't survive. You know, we can't say the way to get out of the pandemic and the recession is for workers to earn less. The award system is a safety net. It's a minimum. It's not, it shouldn't be the standard. And under this proposal, every Australian worker that is part of an enterprise agreement can be worse off. That's just not what we stand for as a country.
NORMAN: Sally McManus, James Patterson, said before that this would be a race to reduce wages, that if one company, let's say, in retail, was able to negotiate an EBA where they could cut the workers wages, wouldn't every other company in the same retail industry try and do the same? Is that a risk here?
PATERSON: I'm really surprised to see Sally McManus advancing that argument because let's remember what an enterprise bargaining agreement is. It's an agreement between a union representing workers and employers. So she's saying that unions are going to agree to workers having their wages cut, in which case maybe that's the union's judgment, that that's the best thing for those workers. I'm not going to say I know better than they do, but everybody agrees that the enterprise bargaining system has broken down. You talked about the number of workers who've fallen in representation, but the number of agreements is even starker. Ten years ago, there were twenty five thousand EBAs in operation. There are ten thousand today. The Fair Work Commission has totally Complexified the system and it's totally unable to be navigated by workers and their representatives and businesses. We have to clean it up. And this is only what this attempts to do. Unions will still be at the heart of the enterprise bargaining process. They're not being sidelined in any way at all.
MURPHY: Just on that,  there can be enterprise agreements that unions aren't involved in. So when you say it could be a race to the bottom with employers, they can sign up to enterprise agreements with their employees without a union. And what this legislation does, as I understand it, of course, we've had it for, you know, a split second really…
NORMAN: A few hours…
MURPHY: ... is also shorten the period of time that an enterprise agreement has to be before workers, before they vote on it. So it gives them less time to be able to actually look at it. So, it is not the case that this is saying unions are still at the heart of it, it’s not.
PATERSON: The average time it takes to approve an EBA before the Fair Work Commission right now is 122 days…
MURPHY: Not that approval time, that's not what I was referring to. (Inaudible) the time before the workers vote on it.
PATERSON: This is a very important, very closely related issue. We're putting a cap on that and saying the Fair Work Commission can't consider it for more than twenty five days. That's really important because these EBA processes are going on for months, if not years, and there's no certainty for workers or for businesses. It's not good for anyone that we don't address that.
MURPHY: And I agree with you that there are real problems in the bargaining system that need to be fixed. And Labor has been saying this for quite some time.
NORMAN: Do you think putting a three week cap on the negotiations will actually sort of help that process?
MURPHY: We need to look through all of these details. I mean, it's also, as we just said, been given to labor right now. I mean, the government, if they were really genuine about this and genuine about saying it's a crisis that we need to get through together would have brought the opposition into the conversation and given us time to look at this legislation properly rather than completely sidelined us. And as I said, come up with ideas that weren't even part of one hundred and fifty hours of negotiations with the people they did include.
NORMAN: Yeah, well, actually, I'm really glad we have such a big discussion about policy. It's a nice change, but let's move on from IR and move to China, because that's the other big issue that's dominated this sitting fortnight. James Patterson, the Senate yesterday passed the foreign relations law. We know a motivating factor behind this was Victoria's controversial belt and road agreement. Now, we've kind of gone a bit quiet on this this week, given, I suppose, the (inaudible) the relationship with China. But what do you want to happen with that agreement now?
PATERSON: I mean, you're certainly right, Jane, that Victoria's belt and road agreement has brought this to public consciousness and public prominence, no doubt about that. But actually, at its heart, what that bill is motivated at doing is making sure that our national interest and our foreign policy is set from Canberra and that it can't be undermined by any subnational entities, whether that's a state government, a territory government, a local council or a university. And on that, there's really strong bipartisan consensus. And the bill passed with bipartisan support. And I think that's a really important message that Australia sends to the world, not just China, but every other country in the world, that if you want to have dealings with Australia, you have to come through the front door in Canberra…
NORMAN: Which is what the constitution says.
PATERSON: And the reaction I get from my constituents, I tell them about this law is why wasn't that law already? It's a real commonsense thing. And I'm really pleased the Senate passed it this week.

NORMAN: In terms of the deals, now, that will be considered when it is kind of a three month process, but belt and road, we know this will anger Beijing if it is torn up. But do you think we should still go ahead with doing that?
PATERSON: Well, I don't think Australian policy should be set by foreign governments being angry or not angry with us. We have to set our policy and our own national interest. And my view is that the belt and road agreements, not in our national interest, having a state government negotiate with a foreign government, contrary to the bipartisan consensus in Canberra, that it's not a good idea to do so is inherently harmful in itself. And so I think we do need to clean that up.
NORMAN: All right, Peta Murphy, federally, Labor is opposed to this agreement, but of course, Labor State Premier Daniel Andrews has signed up to it. What do you think should happen from here?
MURPHY: So, as you said, to be clear, federal labor, we've said a number of times now we wouldn't sign the belt and road initiative. I think now it's up to the federal government to have conversations with the state government and hopefully rational discussions and negotiations, preferably behind closed doors and not via the media to see what, where they can get to with an agreement about what happens.
NORMAN: OK, I just want to ask you about the Wolverines group, which you're part of a bunch of Labor and Liberal MP’s hawkish approach to China. What do you say to criticism that some of the outspokenness of the Wolverines members has helped with this deterioration of the relationship between China and Australia, that it hasn't necessarily, you know, helped, I suppose, repair some of the tensions?
PATERSON: I would say that's very flattering to the members of the Wolverines, but not very real world. And the best evidence we have of that is the list of 14 grievances that the Chinese embassy handed to a journalist here in Canberra a couple of weeks ago. And all of those 14 things went to the heart of who we are as Australia. Our independent free media is a problem, according to the Chinese government. Members of parliament speaking out as a problem, according to China's government. But so is our decision to impose restrictions on foreign investment in Australia, which, by the way, are nowhere near as severe as China's own restrictions on foreign investment, our protections against foreign interference in our political system. And all of those things are things that are passed with bipartisan support here in Canberra that have a strong consensus in Canberra. And no foreign government should be dictating to us those things. So whether the Wolverines existed or not, those substantive 14 issues would remain. And they're not things that any government could concede on.
NORMAN: All right. Well, on that note, James Paterson, Peta Murphy, thank you very much for your time.
MURPHY: You're welcome. Thank you.