Interview on ABC News with Jane Norman

JANE NORMAN, HOST: Let’s bring in our Tuesday political panel now and joining me in the studio is Liberal Member for Durack, Melissa Price.


NORMAN: And Labor Member for Eden-Monaro and frontbencher, Kristy McBain. Thank you for your time today.


NORMAN: Well, let’s start with the super simple issue of workplace relations. And, of course, we’ve got a second lot of amendments that are set to be introduced into the House of Reps today. Kristy McBain, starting with you – it’s a government bill – there doesn’t seem yet that there is enough support for this bill to get through Parliament. Are you worried that the Government has been too ambitious here, has overreached in what it’s trying to achieve?

MCBAIN: I don’t think so. I think what we’ve seen is 10 years of an economic policy which kept wages deliberately low. And what we’re saying is we need that to change. We want workers to get a pay rise. We’ve seen minimum wage workers get a pay rise. We’ve seen aged care workers get a pay rise. And we need to get wages moving. People across my electorate, a lot of whom work for minimum wage and for small employers, want to see their wages go up. So it’s time that we actually moved on this. We’re a new government. We’re a good government that’s listening, and we’ve already seen amendments made. And now we want to get this bill through the House because, as my colleagues have said, the importance of getting wages moving for Australians is now more important than ever with the price of inflation going up.

NORMAN: Yes, exactly, with inflation at a 30-year high, so nobody, I think, would argue with that. But in terms of just the size, the complexity of this bill, the amendments that are being put forward day by day, why is there a Christmas deadline on this?

MCBAIN: As I said, I think it’s really important that we actually say to the Australian people we have an ambition to get wages moving. We took that to the election. We’ve saw – we’ve already seen pay increases for those lower paid workers in our system. We want to make sure that every worker has the ability to bargain. Our enterprise bargaining system has been largely broken down, and we want to get wages moving. And the best way to do that is put this bill through, get it moving so that employers and employees can get on with that job of entering the enterprise bargain system.

NORMAN: Melissa Price, let’s bring you in on this discussion. I think if one – if businesses and unions can agree on one thing it’s that the enterprise bargaining system is broken. You look at the numbers, the percentage of workers covered by EBAs now has fallen over time, which means more people are on the lower award rates. Is this something that the Liberal Party, the Coalition, might look at supporting to actually try and improve the bargaining system?

PRICE: Well, firstly, we don’t know what are the proposed amendments that we’re going to be able to see. But from all accounts – and this is just not me as a Liberal representative but from industry perspective, small business – I don’t think there’s one industry group that’s happy with where this IR legislation has landed.

What we do know is that this is same old Labor. I mean, you have a look at all the industry groups that came along only a few short months ago, Jane, where they all came along to Parliament House and they all participated. The Government was very interested in their views on how we make sure that we plug those incredible important skill gaps. And now here we have a lack of consultation.

So, I think the industry was thinking, “Well, maybe this is a new Labor Government, a new broom that we’ll be able to work with to make sure that we get the productivity gains that we all need. Everyone’s a winner.” Don’t forget, we’re just coming off a two-year pandemic. Small businesses are still hurting. They’re just getting on track. We’re getting people back into the workforce. But I think what industry now is starting to shake its head and now coming to realise is that this leopard has not changed its spots.

NORMAN: Well, let’s just look at the really broad objectives of the bill. So, the Labor Government says it’s to fix the bargaining system to give workers the power to actually negotiate higher wages and better conditions. What is it that you’re concerned about that’s contained in this bill?

PRICE: Well, it’s about the collective bargaining opportunities. I mean, someone said to me the other day; “Well, what about if you’ve got a shopping centre and you’ve got a whole bunch of hairdressers.” And I’m thinking of Karrinyup Shopping Centre in Perth and you’ve got small, large, medium, all different size of businesses. I mean, effectively that one industry could get covered by one particular agreement. And there would be all sorts of – big businesses, small businesses. And I appreciate that there’s an exemption for 15, but it wouldn’t take long for a hairdresser to get up to 15 people on a Saturday with casuals. So effectively just about all of those small businesses that we would think were tiny businesses could get captured by this.

NORMAN: So, the Government has put some limitations around that multi-employer bargaining aspect. Amendments to be introduced into the House today, so I understand you haven’t sort of seen the specifics of them. But, I mean, I guess how tricky is this area to change? Because the Coalition tried unsuccessfully in government to also reform workplace relations. Is there not a middle ground that can be reached here?

PRICE: Possibly. But, you know, I’m looking at what industry are saying and the business groups. And, you know, they’ve tried to go through this with a fine-toothed comb, but the reality is they haven’t had time to do it. And their conclusion is this is actually not going to push us forward. You know, the effect is more strike action, back to the bad old 1970s. This is not going to increase wages, which is what, you know, we’re being told that ultimately what its objective is.

NORMAN: Well, Kristy McBain, just on that issue of the time being given, David Pocock is in the spotlight because basically the Government needs to convince either him or Jacqui Lambie to back this legislation to get it through the Senate. That’s kind of the way the numbers have fallen. He’s saying he’s open to looking at this bill, but he just wants more time. Isn’t that a reasonable request for a crossbencher to put forward?

MCBAIN: I guess how long do we wait? We’ve had 10 years where we haven’t seen real wage growth at all. We’ve got inflation running at all-time highs. Do we say to people, “Sorry, we’re going to put this off for another six months, another 12 months, another 18 months.” How long does the consultation need to take place for?

In the current system, multi-employer bargaining is already available under three separate streams. So, this isn’t a new concept. It is a different concept. So, what I would say to those crossbench senators is there are – there is plenty of time to review the legislation. There is time to consult with the people you wish to consult with. But the aim here is to get wages moving. And workers are telling us that they haven’t had real wage increases for 10 years. It’s time to get this done.

NORMAN: All right. Well, let’s move on to another diabolically complicated issue that is dominating debate here in federal Parliament – and that is energy prices. We all know that power prices are forecast to rise quite significantly or steeply over the next couple of years.

Melissa Price, just starting with you because your electorate in Western Australia takes in the North-West Shelf, which is, of course, where the big gas exporters are taking gas out of the ground and shipping it off to countries around the world. I’m just curious about what’s the industry telling you about the state of the debate at the moment – are they getting a bit concerned?

PRICE: Okay, so I guess, you know, as you know, as a West Australian, so we have our domestic gas policy of 15 per cent is obviously very helpful when it gets into the local supply. But, you know, that’s only part of the story in Western Australia because you may have seen this ridiculous situation with electricity in Western Australia where Collie, which is a supplier of coal, has been shut down and won’t be supplying coal. We are now going to get coal from Newcastle transported to Western Australia, and we were told this was going to avoid blackouts in Western Australia.

We’re now told that over the course of, you know, maybe December, January, maybe on Christmas Day, we’ll be subjected to text messages to tell us maybe to turn our air-conditioning down. Now, that was 47 degrees in Geraldton on Christmas Day last year, Jane. It was very high, I accept that. But that is just a ridiculous situation where there’s a lack of planning. And we’ve all got to do better. Now, I’m on record saying that the climate wars are over. There is bipartisan support for Australia to reduce its carbon footprint. But all governments, whether they’re federal or state, have to be serious and have to really consider what is the price we’re willing to pay for that. So, I say all forms of energy must remain on the table. We need to have a balance.

But in terms of the gas producers in Western Australia, like, at the moment, I think they’re all feeling pretty demonised at the moment.

NORMAN: And well, Kristy McBain, what do you think about that? I mean, I suppose we’ve had different comments. We heard Madeleine King earlier in the program. We’ve had Industry Minister Ed Husic calling gas producers greedy, saying they are milking gas prices. Is that the kind of language you’d use? Is that helpful language given that, I guess, the Government’s looking to gas producers to ramp up production?

MCBAIN: Well, I think, you know, we have to be serious about energy production in Australia. And we had 22 energy policies, none of which landed for the former government. We’ve seen four gigawatts of energy leave our system and only one gigawatt come on under the previous government. We need to be serious about where our energy is going to go for the long term, which is why we were so serious about the Powering the Regions policy, our Powering Australia policy. That’s why we need to start dealing with the transmission issues that we have. We know we’ve got a lot of old infrastructure and we need that upgraded.

But we have to work with the producers we have, and hopefully, the producers that are going to come on and also the new renewable energy sector that’s going to come on as well. So, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach; we’ve got to be looking at all energy sources, as Melissa said, to make sure that we cater for all Australians right across this country.

NORMAN: So, there are calls in the short term to put a cap on coal and gas prices to try and bring down power prices basically that are souring. Is this something you would like to see? And how urgently does this need to happen?

MCBAIN: Look, I think the Treasurer has said that all options are on the table. That we need to have discussions with the companies around caps, that we need to look at regulation, that we need to look at incentives. We should look at all of those options, because the most important thing is to make sure that we land something that is good for producers but is most importantly good for Australians.

NORMAN: And, sorry, I understand question time is creeping up on us, but just one final question on this issue: the AWU has listed an example today of a manufacturer who paid less than $10 a gigajoule for their gas in the previous contract. In the new contract they’re about to sign they’re being offered $33 a gigajoule, so three times the price. And that is from Macquarie Bank, so an investment bank offering this. So, I mean, there’s enormous pressure on manufacturers and households right now to solve this.

MCBAIN: Yeah, there is, and, it impacts everyone in the system from mum and dad at home to our big businesses and manufacturers across the country. So, we have to come up with a really good plan. And I think that as the Treasurer said, no option should be off the table at this point in time, and we need to be working together to solve the issue.

NORMAN: And, Melissa Price, just to finish off on this issue with a really quick response. Price caps are being talked about as a short-term solution. Longer there are a range of other issues – proposals. Where do you sit on the idea of a price cap?

PRICE: Well, there’s no doubt there has to be greater conversations – negotiations with gas companies. But what we do need in Australia is greater supply. And at the moment I don’t know that our gas producers or even anyone who is considering being a gas producer is being encouraged to do that.

But no sooner had the ink dried and we had Minister King in the house lauding the Heads of Agreement that they’d signed which was apparently supposed to put a cap on the gas prices, no sooner had we heard that then the gas producers increased their prices. So, either that Heads of Agreement was not legal so therefore it was just a bit of a framework, or there was enormous wriggle room in that. So, I think there’s still some answers to – that we need in terms of, well, what was that Heads of Agreement.

NORMAN: And I’m sure the opposition will continue to ask those questions. Melissa Price and Kristy McBain, thank you for your time today.

MCBAIN: Thank you.

PRICE: Good on you. Thanks, Jane.