Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC Radio Melbourne

VIRGINIA TRIOLI, HOST: Well, intriguingly, just as the weather gets very, very cold, there's an influx of Federal Government Ministers here to Melbourne, and I'm pleased to say that Tony Burke, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and the Minister for the Arts, joins you in the studio this morning. There's a lot of to talk about when it comes to jobs and job growth and wages, and the like, and of course managing that beast inflation.

Tony Burke, good to see you. Thanks for joining us this morning.


TRIOLI: Economists are arguing at the moment that if you go for higher wages you lose the inflation fight. So which one's more important to you?

BURKE: I don't accept that that's a choice. We have always been told that now's the wrong time to have wages growth. For ten years we were told we couldn't have wages growth because inflation is low. Now some people are saying, "Oh, we can't have wages growth because inflation is high."

There will be some commentators who will always argue against workers getting a better share. The facts are that we need to get wages moving. Every business that says, "Oh, we would have trouble paying for more wages," they all want their customers to have wage rises.

To get wages moving across the country is something that we need to be able to do, and this concept that inflation gets blamed on whether workers, including low‑paid workers, are able to make ends meet, it's not a choice I accept.

TRIOLI: So it's not a binary. But we've never really been in the territory before, have we, where we might see significant wages growth at a time of high inflation and you believing that you can still keep a rein or even pull inflation in; I mean you're in brand new territory here?

BURKE: Yeah, but we know for a fact that the inflation problem that we're dealing with at the moment isn't caused by high wage growth, because we don't have high wage growth. The inflation problem that we've been dealing with has been a combination of supply constraints, both in terms of skills and infrastructure, but also a whole lot of international factors. And for the answer from some to be to take all of that and say, "Okay, well, this becomes an argument for people on the minimum wage to not be able to keep up," like wow, that's a real stretch for all of those factors to be causing high inflation, but for the blame then to be sheeted home to whether or not workers get a pay rise.

TRIOLI: And yet you're not backing the 7 per cent increase; you're maintaining your call for the national minimum wage to move in line with inflation, which leaves it to the Commission to decide. So I guess, just to sort of call you out on the first part of what you're arguing, if you truly believe that wages should be significantly increased, then you would, in number, you'd support that, wouldn't you?

BURKE: Well, the way we've handled it, because the submission to the Annual Wage Review isn't the only thing we're doing on wages, so in terms of the Annual Wage Review, we certainly think people on the minimum wage need to be in a situation where they're not going backwards.

We put that argument 12 months ago, when we first raised it during the election campaign; we were told that the sky would fall in, that it would cause mass unemployment, and of course none of those things happened, and people on the minimum wage, when inflation was running at 5.1 got a 5.2 per cent increase.

But that's not the only ‑ and so we'd then leave it to the Commission to work out, okay, how far up the scale of the award system should you follow that. You've got to remember, some people in the award system are on significantly higher wages; like there's an award for pilots, for example. So you've got a big range of people on the award system, but we've said, start with the principle: if you're on the minimum wage you have the least capacity to deal with higher prices, and more of your expenditure goes to fundamental, just to, you know, fundamentals like food, your absolute essentials; that's where your money goes. So those people certainly should not go backwards.

Across the board though, we had a huge debate last year on the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill about a whole lot of changes that we were making to be able to get wages moving. The Annual Wage Review submission is not the only thing that we do here.

TRIOLI: But small business employers in particular, they're already facing a scheduled superannuation payment increase that's coming down the pipeline soon. Will they be able to handle all that? I mean if it goes through say at 7 per cent or even slightly less, and they've been hit with that as well, will they manage that?

BURKE: If you're running a shop, you want two things: you want to keep all your bills down, it's not simply the wages bill, and people will argue to try to keep all their bills down; but they also want their customers to be able to spend, and the challenge that you have is in making sure that people can make ends meet. You need to be having some pay increases across the board.

I'm looking forward to the time where -- like the highest quarter of inflation we've had was quarter immediately before the election; that's the highest quarter we've had of inflation.


BURKE: -- since then, quarter on quarter, we haven't reached those sorts of high numbers again, and I'm looking forward to the time when those two lines cross, that is inflation comes down, wage growth gets past it. We're going to get that sooner than we thought, it's projected in the budget, but we're certainly not there yet.

TRIOLI: Your Reserve Bank Review says it should be left to the Reserve Bank Board to determine what full employment looks like at any moment, but the RBA's model has always been that we need a certain number of people to be unemployed to keep inflation under control, and that's you know, sat between, what, 3.5 to 6.5, depending on where the economy is. Why leave it to the Reserve Bank, and are we in some way afraid of full employment?

BURKE: Well, I'm certainly not --

TRIOLI: I mean full, full employment, not that kind of dodgy number that is still regarded as full employment?

BURKE: Well, there will always be some people between jobs, moving from one job to the other, who appear in unemployment statistics; there will always ‑‑

TRIOLI: Yeah, but that's never going to amount to like 3.5 full ‑‑

BURKE: No, I hear what you're saying; I hear what you're saying. But you'll never find me arguing we need to get more people unemployed. Now, the Reserve ‑‑

TRIOLI: So why leave it to them to decide?

BURKE: Look, there's a – and this is more Jim Chalmers' territory than mine – but there's an issue in terms of financial markets and world's best practice in terms of how central banks are governed, and so the concept of having an independent Reserve Bank is viewed as a cornerstone of ‑‑

TRIOLI: Yeah, but you're having a review. If you actually have the review you can get your hands right in there, and ‑‑

BURKE: Oh, but, yeah, we are ‑ the review ‑‑

TRIOLI: ‑‑ and change how we decide this for all time?

BURKE: -- the review is not saying that we will no longer have an independent Reserve Bank, like the concept of the Reserve Bank remaining independent is something that the Government’s remained committed to.

TRIOLI: But let me get clarity on this. You would rather that there actually was a firmer definition of what full employment looked like that wasn't a number like that; that wasn't 3.5 per cent?

BURKE: Look, I'm the Employment Minister, and I'm part of a Labor Government. Every time I can get somebody from unemployment into a job, I want to be able to do it ‑ every time.

TRIOLI: What do you think the new wages data will show? It's out today at about half past 11, I think. What are you anticipating?

BURKE: Well, I'm not going to offer a number a couple of hours before, it would be a mug's game getting into that. Certainly, what's happening in terms of the whole trend of wages is after wages flatlining with deliberate government suppression being part of that, we said that we would change the law to get wages moving, and we're starting to see those changes come through in the figures.

The Annual Wage Review that we did last year was part of that. In future figures, we'll see what we've done with respect to the 15 per cent pay rise for aged care start to happen, but the other things that we've done have got bargaining moving.

There's a whole lot of companies that have come back to the bargaining table now. Enterprise agreements are tracking at a percentage higher than where the Wage Price Index is at, so people on agreements are being paid more, more people are now getting on to agreements, there's more of those being negotiated. So whatever comes out in two hours' time, I don't know, but certainly we're expecting the overall trend of wages to continue to increase.

TRIOLI: And you won't be seen as the Minister for Inflation if any of this wages growth ends up tipping that figure higher?

BURKE: If anyone wants to blame workers, particularly workers on modest incomes for inflation, I'm happy to have that argument with them, absolutely happy to have that argument with them.

TRIOLI: Well, we know who to come to.

BURKE: All the range of factors, there will be some people who will always say it was workers' fault, and they want to be on for that debate, I'm happy to have the argument with them.

TRIOLI: On other topics, according to a poll out today, support for the Voice has slipped, while the No vote is actually rising. Why isn't the Yes campaign, and of course, you know, the Government, which is firmly behind that, why aren't you advertising, marketing and explaining more powerfully and persuasively what the Voice is and what the Voice isn't, given the anxiety and the misinformation about it. I watch and listen to a hell of a lot, Minister, and I can say I never ever see it, I never hear it. Maybe one or two ads, and those ads don't even mention the Voice.

BURKE: Look, the campaign very much -- the proposal came from the community, the campaign will very much come from the community. The government is completely supportive; like we're all in on this in terms of wanting to see a successful referendum. Referenda in Australia are hard; that's a fact. The decision ‑‑

TRIOLI: Yeah, but you just don't want to have one that you're going to lose, do you, not on something as important as this?

BURKE: Yep, and I'm optimistic about us being able to get there. But for people in the midst of this, wanting to know, well, what is it about, it's about two things: it's about recognition and consultation. It's about recognising First Nations in our Constitution, because they're not there, and secondly, it's about making sure on issues that affect First Nations that we consult with First Nations. That's ‑‑

TRIOLI: But the ads don't say that, and there's so much misunderstanding about it, and I hear it here ‑ they call in ‑ that the Voice will be a new ATSIC, that it will lead to land grabs. Why doesn't the marketing campaign so far ‑ and you're running out of time ‑ why doesn't it strenuously talk about that and name it and say what it's not?

BURKE: Look, there will be more of that to come, but can I just say ‑‑

TRIOLI: You're leaving it late.

BURKE: ‑‑ there is nothing that we can do that will stop some people from lying about the referendum. Like there is nothing that we can do that will stop some people from putting out strategic misinformation ‑‑

TRIOLI: That's no argument to not step up and meet them where they are with their arguments though?

BURKE: No, no, no. But I just said there will be more on that, and I'm ‑‑


BURKE: ‑‑ I'm here answering ‑‑


BURKE: Well, in this conversation right now, in this conversation right now, that's exactly what I'm pushing back against. So, you know, the argument about ATSIC, it will not be a body that has control of funding. It's just not that. It's about consultation; it's about recognition, and if you think about the ‑ and what I'd encourage people to do, if they haven't, is to read the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is one of the most beautiful statements that you could read, and it's generous. It's a really generous request for the nation to walk together.

TRIOLI: But Minister, until I asked you that question, I don't think anyone on this program, including the ads that we've played, have actually used that simple phrase, "It's about consultation." So if we have to leave it to my getting a Minister in this studio and me asking that question, and you saying it, for that to make it clarified, you've got a problem, haven't you?

BURKE: Look, I've heard the Prime Minister say what I've just said scores of times, and ‑‑

TRIOLI: Yeah, well, you hang out with him.

BURKE: I've heard him say it scores of times. We'll keep saying it; we'll keep explaining that that's the two things about recognition and consultation, and it's a response where there's this really generous statement that came from the community after huge consultation itself in the Uluru Statement of the Heart that just ends with that simple request of asking Australians to walk together.

TRIOLI: Tony Burke is with you, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister For the Arts, at 9 minutes to 9.

A couple more questions before I let you go. The Federal Government is now part of that joint investigation into claims that Indigenous artworks created at the APY Centre Collective have been painted over by white staffers to make them more commercially attractive.

Are you looking, or do you want to see, as part of this investigation and this review, to codify what is and what isn't truly original work or what is or isn't Indigenous work?

BURKE: Okay. Can I ‑ this is a huge question, so if you can forgive me for stepping it through. First of all, there is a concept for all artists where we can't judge that because someone has assisted, therefore it's not their personal work.

TRIOLI: There's a long tradition for that.

BURKE: Yeah. Michelangelo didn't do every brush stroke on the Sistine Chapel, and so we can't as a general rule for First Nations, in terms of whether it is that person's work, say, "They had an assistant, therefore it's not their personal work" and set a standard for them that doesn't apply to any other artist in Australia or throughout world history. So we've got that concept.

There is a separate concept called "Tjukurrpa", which goes to Dreaming stories, where there are strong cultural rules about who is allowed to tell the Dreaming stories, and there is a challenge from First Nations organisations and some of the principles of First Nations art centres have signed up to, that it is wrong for anyone cultural authority to be telling those dreaming stories.

So where does that all leave us? In the concept of a work of art, the backwash, the stretching of a canvas, things like that, assistants have always helped with that; always will help with that.

In the part of the artwork that is the direct telling of the Dreaming story, there is a principle there that only those with cultural authority, and therefore, you know, not people who are not First Nations, only people with cultural authority have the right to be able to tell that.

TRIOLI: But if something is done with the permission, with the say‑so, with the authority of the artist, even if it does involve someone from somewhere else in Indigenous Australia, or even a white person, isn't that okay, if it's done with their say‑so?

BURKE: Yeah, and this is where – these are the principles – there's some meetings being run through Franchesca Cubillo, who's the First Nations Director of the Australia Council, bringing together the peaks at the moment. Now, those peaks don't represent every part of Australia, but we're stepping this through to work out how we reconcile those two principles, and there is a further question as to whether some of those principles ‑ you've then got, okay, that might go to what's right and what's proper, and then there's a further question, well, exactly where here is there a role for government, and where is it not part of government's business?

TRIOLI: I reckon it's going to be a fascinating review, and probably a timely one as well. But really good to spend time with you, Minister. Thanks for being here.

BURKE: Great to be back, Virginia.

TRIOLI: Thank you. Tony Burke, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister For the Arts.