February 10, 2021

PAUL TURTON, HOST: Pat Conroy is the Member for Shortland and he joins me now to tell us more about Labor’s plan.

Pat Conroy, thanks for doing that by the way and good afternoon.

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Afternoon Paul, how are you?

TURTON: Yeah good, good. Do you reckon you can win the next election on a platform of industrial relations reform?

CONROY: Well not just industrial relations reform. We will be bringing a very strong and visionary policy package to the Australian people and it will all be centred on demonstrating that Labor is on the side of the people. Labor is on your side. Labor is really focused on improving the lives of Australians.

TURTON: How do you think the Government has handled the pandemic?

CONROY: I think on some things they’ve been quite good. I think people gave them some kudos for the National Cabinet. I think other things they were slow to get organised, for example the wage subsidies came out slower than we were calling for and they’re pulling support back way too early. So for example, I was at a food bank yesterday and they’ve seen a 600 per cent increase in demand for food parcels since JobKeeper and JobSeeker started to be cut. So on some things they’ve done well and we should applaud them for that, but fundamentally they haven’t made sure that the most vulnerable people in our society are being looked after.

TURTON: Pat, I don’t know how you feel about past leaders speaking out but Keating was of course quite outspoken about the $10K withdrawal of superannuation that was permitted over successive fiscal years. Do you support that, because that was one way of course that those who were doing it tough had access to money that they’d accumulated?

CONROY: Well the Government effectively outsourced assistance. Rather than traditional methods of governments assisting which is helping people who have lost their jobs, helping people who are in dire economic strife during a recession, they said to some of the most poorest in our community ‘you look after yourself by pulling out your own super’. And I understand why some Australians felt they had to do that if, for example, they were one of the one million casuals not eligible for JobKeeper, but that meant that they lost in some instances an entire life’s savings, and they also pulled it out at the worst possible moment. The stock market has rebounded massively since the trough in July which meant that that $10,000 was pulled out in July is probably worth $20,000 now in super. It’s been a disaster because the Government, for example, excluded one million Australian workers from the JobKeeper subsidy.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, what reflections would you like to make in regard to the casualisation of the workforce because we’ve seen the major corporates - BHP last year ran this massive campaign about how they were making everyone permanent staff because it was good for the company and good for the towns and all of the rest of it. They are trying to shake off the FIFO image. Is that the reality of the situation?

CONROY: Unfortunately it’s not. So pre the COVID crisis, for the first time in Australia’s economic history more than 50 per cent of Australian workers were in jobs where they weren’t entitled to things like long service leave or sick leave or annual leave holidays. That was before the crisis, and then during the crisis, we’ve seen the most vulnerable workers – workers who are casual without sick leave – being laid off, losing their jobs, facing huge economic pressures, or being forced to risk their health by going to jobs while they were still sick and in fact spreading COVID as we’ve seen in aged care, cleaning, and hospitality. 

So I think unfortunately we’re in a position where a huge number of Australians are employed as casuals or so called gig workers with things like Uber and those sorts of companies, and that’s led to a very precarious existence. These people are being underpaid, they don’t have entitlements, they can’t plan for their future, they can’t take out a mortgage, they can’t take annual leave or plan for their future and that’s massively unfair. And it’s meaning that there are a lot of Australian workers who are actually getting paid below the minimum wage that exists in this country and that’s just, I think, a disgrace.

TURTON: Most people think if they go on contracts or if they’re a casual they get more money not less.

CONROY: They think that and that’s the way the system should work, but the system doesn’t work like that. So for example, if you’re a labour hire coal miner and you’re working next to a permanent coal miner, you’d think ‘well I’m a casual coal miner so I should get paid 25 per cent more than those coal miners’, but in fact they are paid 40 or 50 per cent less, and they don’t have the entitlements that that permanent coal miner has. So for some employers, not all employers, there are some good employers out there, but for some of the more dubious employers, they’re employing sham casuals - people who have none of the protections of permanent work, but they don’t have the 25 per cent loading that casuals should get. 

This is the worst of all worlds, and that’s why Labor’s policy announced today goes to the heart of those matters: stopping sham contracting, making sure that someone employed in labour hire is getting paid the same as the permanent worker doing the same job, making sure that there’s proper regulations for the gig economy, and looking at portable entitlements for casual workers in industries such as cleaning and hospitality. They are really important reforms that will actually make the economy work better because people will actually have more wages in their pocket which means they can spend more in the economy and sustain businesses.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, Mr Albanese says he will recommit to abolishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission and also the Registered Organisations Commission which was set up to keep an eye on unions. Now obviously that will lead critics to suggest that the unions are pulling the strings at the Labor Party in terms of policy creation. Is that right?

CONROY: No that’s not true at all. These two bodies have become ideological watchdogs under the Liberal Government. For example, the ABCC spent many millions of dollars prosecuting workers for wearing stickers on their hard hats or talking to someone on their tea break. This is an ideological attack on unions through the ABCC. And the Registered Organisation Commission is mostly focused on, for example, trawling through the records of unions on whether they’ve supported the Labor Party at some time. 

They don’t protect workers. We’ve got workers (inaudible) dying every week in this country, and the ABCC is not interested in that. They’re interested in stopping workers flying the Eureka flag or having Eureka flag stickers on their helmets. That’s not what is the issue in workplaces in this country. It’s the lack of occupational health and safety and some people underpaying wages. We’re against wrongdoing. If someone breaks the law – whether it’s a union organiser or employer - they should be prosecuted to the utmost but these organisations don’t do that. They just attack workers.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, it’s not industrial relations based but I’m just wondering did the franking credits policy make its way into the final cut for policy?

CONROY: We haven’t announced all of our policies but Anthony Albanese indicated a couple of weeks ago that we won’t be taking that policy to the election. We’re very much focused on a smaller number of policies. We won’t be taking 300 policies as we took to the last election. We’ll have a smaller number that will improve the lives of Australians. Whether it’s the IR policy that will give greater job security to workers, whether it’s bringing manufacturing home, or lowering power prices by rewiring the grid, or cutting families’ childcare costs by $3,000 a year. We’re really focused on being on the side of Australians and delivering for them, and that’s a genuine policy commitment. It’s not just a glib political line. We are genuinely putting our money where our mouth is and releasing policies that I can hand on heart say will improve the lives of Australians.

TURTON: Without being glib also, how many words will your slogans have? Will you go for three?

CONROY: (laughs) Well our slogan is ‘on your side’.

TURTON: Oh, well there you go.

CONROY: And that is what it is. We’ve been very open about that and just think about it. We’ve committed to reducing childcare costs so families are $3,000 a year better off. We’re providing security at work so that casual workers have entitlements or gig workers can actually earn a living wage. They’re all about demonstrating that we will improve the lives of Australians, and that’s what I think politicians of all sides should be doing. Not engaged in mudslinging, not engaged in some sort of arcane ideological battles, but saying ‘these are the concrete things we will do if we are elected to improve the lives of Australians’. And that’s what I think my job is.

TURTON: Okay. Pat Conroy, thanks for coming on today.

CONROY: Have a great afternoon, bye.