Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Politicians have returned to Canberra with many of their constituents finding it harder to get by. With three sitting weeks left until the May Budget, offering more support for Australians and key Government promises like the safeguard mechanism and the Voice referendum will be under intense negotiations, and while the super debate rages, the Government will be encouraged by significant public support on the policy they announced last week.

Tony Burke is the Leader of the House and joined me a short time ago.


KARVELAS: This morning, Newspoll has shown two‑thirds of voters support your changes to super, including 80 per cent of Labor voters, and also actually a majority of Coalition voters. Are you buoyed by the response?

BURKE: I think that matches what we’re getting in the community. People understand that a trillion dollars of Liberal debt doesn’t look after itself and there are different ways you can go to try to deal with the debt that you face. You can have modest revenue‑raising measures like this one is; you can do what you can to grow the economy, which is what things like the Reconstruction Fund are about; or you can try to make cuts like the previous government did with Robodebt. When people look at the different options, I think people can see this is a pretty sensible, calm response to it.

KARVELAS: Do you see it as evidence that voters have an appetite for more reform, more changes to taxation, particularly at the higher end?

BURKE: I think you’ve got to be careful of over‑reading what’s there at the moment. I think the fact that this has been a modest, calm, balanced change I think is part of the support that it’s receiving.

KARVELAS: So, what are you saying, that this should not be seen as evidence that Australians have an appetite for broader tax reform?

BURKE: I think when you’re getting a good response about a particular proposal, then the response is about that proposal that’s in front of people. I just don’t think you can draw too much further than that.

KARVELAS: Greens leader Adam Bandt says given we’re having a cost‑of‑living crisis and there’s no doubt we are, you need to revisit the Stage 3 tax cuts. Will you?

BURKE: Well, I’m not the first to say to you our position on that hasn’t changed.

KARVELAS: That’s the line.

BURKE: One of the things that you – 

KARVELAS: But obviously – I’ll give you one more fact. Forty‑nine per cent increase in calls to Lifeline. There’s obviously a genuine thing going on in the community. People are very, very worried about their ability to pay for basic things. Can you justify the Stage 3 tax cuts given that?

BURKE: As I said on that, our position hasn’t changed but our determination to act on cost of living, I think, is there for people to see. What we’ve already done in terms of making sure that there are caps on how far energy prices can go, in making sure that we deliver cheaper medicines and in making sure that we’re delivering cheaper childcare. All of that is happening at the same time as in my own portfolio we’ve been doing more than any Government in memory to be able to get wages moving.

Cost of living is not simply government revenue versus expenditure. Cost of living is about what are those prices that government can have an impact on and you can’t have an impact on all of them, but there are some where you can, and what can you do to get wages moving?

KARVELAS: Now, you’re the Workplace Relations Minister. The latest ABS data shows the number of multiple job‑holders rose 1.7 per cent to a record 925,000, so that means people are taking on extra jobs just to pay for basic things, it seems. Are you concerned about that trend?

BURKE: I’ve been concerned about it my whole career. It was one of the issues that I went to in my first speech and ever since. When I actually worked as an organiser for retail workers and I discovered that the person who I would have met at a night‑fill meeting at midnight the night before was then serving me a coffee at 8.00 am the next morning, you know, in a completely different role. There are always going to be some people who choose multiple jobs – students in particular. There’ll be times when people move in and out of a series of different jobs and have more than one on the go, and that’ll always be the case. Increasingly, though, it’s people who are trying to hold a household together, who are having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and some of the problem here is where full‑time jobs or part‑time jobs are available with regular decent hours and people are only being offered very short shifts and insecure work.

If you look at last year, a whole lot of the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill, the focus was on the better pay part. The secure jobs part of that bill was a critical first step in being able to get a better deal for people to get more hours at their main jobs rather than having to juggle two or three all the time to make ends meet.

KARVELAS: Okay. So, they’re the people juggling, but at the same time, Australia Post has paid millions in bonuses to senior staff after the board deemed them appropriate. Is that appropriate given what’s going on in the rest of the economy and how other workers are coping?

BURKE: Yeah, I haven’t seen that one. But the general principle I think that everyone needs to always bear in mind is even when a government enterprise is functioning on commercial terms, people do have an expectation that ultimately taxpayers own it and so they’re always expectations there. But the specifics of what you described, I’m not well across.

KARVELAS: Well, not everyone – we talked about superannuation, not everyone supports the rest of the Government’s agenda. Former Productivity Commission chair Gary Banks has this morning criticised Labor’s energy and IR policy. He paints a pretty dire picture, saying your IR bill will harm productivity and saddle the nation with higher labour costs. Is he right? Are you taking Australia down a path of lowering productivity and actually dealing with high labour costs that will slow the economy?

BURKE: I read all of that with interest this morning, including the sections where he effectively praises John Howard’s WorkChoices policies. The thing that we always need to remember when we talk about the economy is it’s not just the national figures. It has to speak – your economic management has to speak to what’s happening in people’s households. You can never have a situation where you think “oh the national numbers are good, therefore what’s happening in individual households doesn’t matter.”

Effectively, a whole lot of the article that he wrote and the commentary around it accepts an argument that somehow the nation can be better off if people have less secure jobs on lower wages. That’s just not my view. That’s not my sense of what governments are there for. It’s not my sense of what makes an economy strong.

KARVELAS: I just want to go to some other issues if we can, Minister, that are on the agenda this week with your hat of Manager of Government Business.

BURKE: There’s a lot around this week.

KARVELAS: There really is and I really just want to get some commentary from the Government on some of these. This week the Government needs to pass the Referendum Machineries Act to change how the referendum will take place. You’ve already made some concessions to the Liberal Party. Are you expecting their support or more negotiations?

BURKE: In terms of the House of Representatives, I expect we’ll finish that debate either today or first thing tomorrow, so that’ll be through the House. And obviously within the House, if issues haven’t been settled, to be able to get a majority in the Senate, you don’t have to in the time that you’re passing it through the House. The Prime Minister’s certainly been trying to leave the door open to provide as much bipartisanship as possible. But you know, the concept, the main issue that we often hear from the Opposition at the moment is equal funding for the Yes and the No case. There is equal funding and that’s zero for the Yes case and zero for the No case in terms of taxpayers’ dollars. An equal requirement is already there and that is our position.

KARVELAS: Just on another issue. Your colleague and reconciliation envoy Senator Pat Dodson is demanding the Government immediately act on the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into the Aboriginal deaths in custody. Can you justify pushing for the Voice to Parliament without acting on this immediately?

BURKE: Obviously, I’m not the one with carriage of this, but it’s incredibly important. Anything about custody involves the states, and what Pat Dodson’s really calling for is for the Federal Government to provide leadership in bringing the states with us. One of the things that has to happen nationally is for there to be a national register. We did at the election make a commitment to be able to deliver on the national register, so that part of it we’re already committed to.

Bringing the states along on this is something that hasn’t happened, that should have happened and I’m certainly hopeful that we’re able to get there. But I wouldn’t view it as a test against the Voice, because what we’re looking at here is something where the states run the prison system and so, therefore, it’s a case of the extent of bringing them together. Ultimately, the decision on state laws is still going to rest with them. It’s not something where we can simply force that. But the part of it that we are asked to do with the national register is something we’ve committed to.

KARVELAS: Just on a very key decision that will be made this week – tomorrow of course the Reserve Bank is predicted to increase interest rates again for the tenth consecutive time, and the cost‑of‑living crisis, which we’ve already talked about, is key here. Do you think the bank can really justify doing that given as I’m – and I’m going to go to that figure again: this 49 per cent increase to Lifeline, for instance. There’s obviously some really acute issues happening in the community. Are you concerned about the direction the RBA’s going in?

BURKE: Well, I’m not going to second guess the bank and no member of cabinet will, although plenty of other people are out there.

KARVELAS: Some assistant ministers have second‑guessed the bank.

BURKE: Plenty of other people will be out there giving views. There is no doubt that what you’ve described is exactly what’s happening in households at the moment. It’s also the case that even if rates were to hold at the moment as people come off fixed‑term rates, there are individual households that are seeing a very significant increase. So, the bank has to do its job. The Government has to do ours. And, as I said before, everything that we can do on cost of living, we’re focused on and we’re doing.

KARVELAS: Is there more that you can do?

BURKE: There’ll be more industrial relations Bills this year. The big thing is even though last year we did things that would get wages moving and lift the floor, there’s a series of different loopholes where people are still able to undercut different wage principles, whether it’s through wage theft or – and the way people can get away with that in different forms, or whether it’s areas like the gig economy that are effectively award free. So, there’s different areas where people are still falling through the cracks and there’ll always be more to be done on this because every time you close a loophole, there’ll be a bad actor who goes out and tries to find a new one.

This Government, though, has been really active from the moment we got in, in trying to make sure that we get wages moving, improve job security and this year will be the year that we close loopholes.

KARVELAS: Just finally, putting on your arts Minister hat on, a survey released by the Government – 

BURKE: I often don’t get asked about the arts portfolio.

KARVELAS: There you go. Put it on and consider this: a survey released by the Government this morning has found just over half of the 4,000 respondents said streaming companies like Netflix and Disney offered enough Australian content on their platforms. Are you still considering what content quotas for those service also look like? Does this change your approach?

BURKE: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. I want to make sure that Australian stories are always a serious option on TV. We’ve always – we’ve got a situation at the moment where there’s four different ways you can watch TV. You can watch the public broadcasters, you can watch commercial free‑to‑air, you can watch cable TV – through Foxtel – or you can watch the streaming services. On the first three that I just went through, there are Australian content obligations. On the streamers, there are none. That’s not sustainable, particularly – the different forms will always exist, but we can’t have one area where effectively there’s no rules at all. And in the conversations with the streamers they’ve understood that that once we came to government we would be making a decision as to how to get the best Australian content. When they produce Australian content, I have to say, the quality of what they produce has been really good. I want to make sure that there’s more of it.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us. I had a huge list to get through and we did. So I appreciate your time.

BURKE: Fantastic. See you.

KARVELAS: Leader of the House and Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Burke, of course, setting up the week in Parliament for us, a lot of big debates.