Jennifer Westacott doorstop interview with Michele O’Neil, Australian Council of Trade Unions and Edwina MacDonald, Australian Council of Social Service, Canberra

29 August 2022

Event: Jennifer Westacott doorstop interview, Parliament House

Speakers: Edwina MacDonald, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Australian Council of Social Service; Jennifer Westacott Chief Executive, Business Council of Australia and Michele O’Neil, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions

Topics: BCA’s joint statement on full employment with ACOSS and the ACTU; skills; migration; workplace relations; women’s participation and advancement; childcare


Edwina MacDonald, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Australian Council of Social Service: Unions, business and civil societies, because we are all agreed and we all recognise that we need to work together with the government to achieve the same full employment. We have before us a historic opportunity to secure full employment, to ensure that people who are looking for paid work, or are also looking for more paid hours can get it, to ensure that real wages and incomes including JobSeeker are improving, to ensure productivity is improving, and the benefits are shared, and to make sure that no one is left behind. While we have a low employment rate, full employment is not guaranteed. We currently have 760,000 people who have been locked out of paid work for over a year, many of whom are struggling to survive on low income support payments of just $46 a day. And if we don't do the work now, we'll have more people joining unemployment queues in the years to come. We have the opportunity before us to secure full employment and we can't afford to squander it. If we don't do the work now, we'll be leaving almost a million people on unemployment payments. And we'll be seeing more people in a year or two will be worrying about their job and joining the unemployment queue. So, in order to secure full employment, we need to fix the employment services. We need to make sure they provide real help to people and move away from the punitive, tick-a-box compliance systems that we have today. We need to make sure the employment programs make a real difference, that we work with employers to identify workforce gaps and needs, and that we train people up to fill those gaps. That we provide people with on-the-job training to fill the vacancies that employers identify and we need to be improving real wages, and improving incomes including JobSeeker. We know that if you can't afford the basics, if you can't afford clothing, if you can't afford transport, then you're going to be so far behind in the search for employment. So, at the end of the day, we have almost one million people who are looking for work that we can support in securing employment. We'll have a win for people who are left behind, we'll have a win for employers, and we'll have a big step towards full employment in Australia. Thank you.

Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia: Hi, I am Jennifer Westacott, the chief executive of the Business Council. Well, today is a historic coming together of the business community, the union movement and the community sector. United in our shared ambition to make sure that Australians succeed, that they have better wages, better conditions, better living standards, that we leave no one behind. We really support that we've got to maintain full employment. To do that, you've got to make sure that we have a stronger economy and more diversified industrial base, that we’ve got an industrial agreement to make sure people share in the benefits, improving our economic conditions, that we're skilling up Australians so we're more competitive as a country, and that we make sure that we really look after people who are disadvantaged. And in our view, there should be no barriers to people working, no artificial barriers. We commit ourselves today to working together to make sure that people can get a job, that they can get a good job, that they can keep their job, they can get the hours they need to work, that they can get the skills they need so they can stay working all of their lives, and that they can have fulfilling, meaningful lives with much better living standards. We think the summit is a historic opportunity to bring many people together in that shared ambition. Better country, better living standards, with people paid more, more skilled with much better prospects for the future. As we face into, as a country, these challenges and opportunities of a decarbonised globe, of digitisation, of technology. We need to stand collectively together to make sure that every single Australian has the opportunities they want, can take advantage of them and no one is left behind.

Michele O’Neil, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions: Well, thanks Jennifer and Edwina. The Australian Union movement is really happy to have reached this agreement with the Business Council of Australia and ACOSS about sustaining and achieving full employment. Jobs are critical to people. In Australia, we know there's still too many people that either can't get work or can't get enough hours of work. So, we're committed to making sure that the changes that make a difference both to working people and those that are locked out of the labour market are made. These changes are in everyone’s interest. It is in all our interest to have every Australian who wants to work, working. It is in all our interests for those jobs to be good, secure, well-paid jobs that people can rely on. The union movement has been concerned for a long time that it's not just about jobs, but the quality of jobs and making sure that people have the skills and training they need, as well as the job security they need to be able to plan a life, is critical for those workers and their families but it's also critical for business and critical for our whole society and economy. Because if you have a good quality job, then of course you have more money in your pocket to spend. You're able to participate in the community and in our life as a society in a different way. What we know at the moment is that there are too many people who want more hours of work, who are either under employed or, in fact, not even technically looking for work because they have responsibilities that we're not looking after as a community. So, dealing with making sure we have support for people who do caring. Making sure that our work matches caring responsibilities and that we make the structural changes that are needed that ensure that women who want to work more hours and work, can. That we've got the supports in place to make sure that people with a disability are able to fully participate in work. And, of course, when we think of First Nation's people, there is so many barriers to employment that we can work on together to fix. This is an important week, it is the week of the Job and Skills Summit. And this agreement that we’ve reached today is a very great example of what can happen when we work together, when we keep our eye on what's in the nation's interest. When we put aside old divisions and say, ‘what can we do when we work together is identify common interest. What's good for workers, what's good for our community and what's good for business.’ Thank you.

Journalist: Just on the job summit, the trade union movement seems to be having a good run at the moment in chalking up wins with industry-wide bargaining and so forth. How far are you prepared to bend the other way on migration? Have you arrived at a number you would accept in increasing the migration cap and for how long in return for the skills, upping the skills training, etcetera?

Michele: So, we've been very clear about where migration fits in this story. We have a long history of supporting permanent migration but we know that Australia has some deep structural problems at the moment. And one of those is the fact that wages are being stagnant or going backwards in real terms for a decade. We need to have this front and centre in terms of the changes to come out of this summit. Then, of course, we also know there's an important role for migration. But we want to see a shift back to permanent migration being at the core of our migration program. We're very interested in the discussion that we're going to be holding pre-summit in the coming days. And at the summit, we will be talking to other organisations, including the business community and ACOSS about what can be done to make sure that we've got our migration settings right. But it's very clear that we have to stamp out exploitation of workers that are coming to Australia, make sure that workers in Australia have the skills and training that they need, and that also we have in place a system that doesn't just work for now, but works for the jobs of the future. Migration has got an important role to play there as has skills and training that critically lifting wages as well.

Journalist: If I can just on the migration question, sorry, your organisation is the first one, I think, to call for 220,000 about a year ago, are you expecting that to get through?

Jennifer: Well, I think the crucial thing at the summit is that we don't get bogged down on the discussion about the number. That's what Michele and I agree on. We need to talk about what is role of migration, what is the role of well-managed migration in complimenting the skills we have in Australia. We've got to make sure, and I think we totally agreed on this, that we shift to more permanent migration, more permanent pathways. We agree that we need the skills and training system to be filling those gaps where there are skill shortages and that we are actually addressing those. We are absolutely are willing to work in a very detailed way with the union movement to stamp out exploitation, particularly at the low skilled end. We need to make sure that we are really clear that if we want to decarbonise our economy, if we want to move to advanced manufacturing, if we want to be leaders in the new industries of the future, we will need migration and we will need to get the best and brightest people coming to Australia to share those skills so that we can scale up those industries. And that's the conversation we need to be having at the summit.

Journalist: Miss Westacott, if I can ask you just about the easing of the COVID isolation rules. It's apparently due to be discussed at the upcoming National Cabinet. There’s talk about it being whittled down to five days. Are you in favour of it being scrapped all together?

Jennifer: Look, I think this is really one of those things that we've always said - we have got to act on health advice. We have got to make sure that this doesn't get away with us again because the challenge is that you potentially run the risk that someone is working but then you find that 20 people can’t work because COVID has being passed on. So, this is always about getting the balance right between making sure we prioritise health needs of the Australian community, that we make sure we contain as much as possible these big outbreaks that we saw during winter so that we can keep the economy working but keep people safe.

Journalist: And just on a few key areas, including multi-employer bargaining and early termination of enterprise agreements, Tony Burke has said the government is prepared to legislate without consensus. Can I please get the BCA position on both of those policies and are you disappointed that even if there is no consensus, the government might just push ahead on those?

Jennifer: Well, on the termination and enterprise agreements, I think the point that keeps getting lost in the debate is that the Fairwork Commission has to terminate agreements. On the multi-employer bargaining, look, there are going to be things in industrial relations that the ACTU and the BCA agree on. We all agree we want people to have higher wages. We want those wages to be sustained. We want enterprise bargaining to be reinvigorated in Australia because that's the key to making sure that people have higher wages. We want to make sure that the system is simpler, fairer, and more able to be used by a wider range of people. On multi-employer bargaining, we are concerned about the unintended consequences of that. We do not believe that that is an answer to the very legitimate issue that the ACTU is raising, which is low paid workers, people who are from certain sectors who have not had the benefit of bargaining. But the crucial thing about the summit is this, that we let people raise ideas, we let those ideas be talked about, and we make sure that there is a process at the end of it to sort out those differences. What I think we want to see at the summit is that there is a reset on the importance of bargaining, a simplification of bargaining, making it more available for people and that we make sure that we've got an industrial relations system that is fit for purpose for a modern Australia, is fair to Australians, but allows the country to move forward, to create the full employment that we've been talking about today so that Australians got the best opportunities that they can have.

Journalist: You guys have got together to talk about full employment. Unemployment is only 3.4 per cent, so how is that not full employment? I gather from that, that you prefer better measurement of employment or lack thereof. Can you explain that?

Edwina: I think there two things. So, there is one looking at where we are at currently, and so I come back to how many people we have on unemployment payments. We have 930,000 people who are on unemployment payments. 760,000 of those have been on them for over a year, so long-term unemployed, 610,000 of those have been on them for over two years. So, we have a problem with long-term unemployment that we need to be addressing. So, that's the first part of it. The second part of it is where are we heading, what’s coming and what will happen if we don't focus on full employment now. Which is we’ll see unemployment increase. And so we want to be addressing both the long-term unemployment that we're seeing currently as well as making sure that down the track in a year or two, we're not facing more people worried about their jobs.

Journalist: So, what is full employment?

Edwina: So, I think there's many definitions of full employment, what we've sort of said in this paper at a high level, we're not looking at a number figure, we're looking at where people who are looking for paid work and looking more paid hours can get it, where wages and incomes are increasing, where we have productivity improving and the benefits are shared and where people aren’t left behind.

Journalist: Ms Westacott just on that, Peter Costello used to say that full employment was about 5 per cent [inaudible] is it right that we shouldn’t be chasing a particular number?

Jennifer: No, I think the points that Edwina has made are absolutely spot on. That is why we entered into this agreement today because you've got to remember a couple of things. The first of all is that there are many people who are not in work and we need to work harder to get people the jobs that they can sustain. That we remove those artificial barriers. There are many people who have been on JobSeeker for an extraordinary amount of time. Now, we want to see a shift in the employment services arrangements, business is up to working with that to make sure that we give those people an opportunity. We also want to make sure that people are working the hours they want. And also, I think this is always forgotten, and particularly it's forgotten when people talk about women. We want to see people realising their potential. Not just having a job, but having a job that they want, having a job that actually brings out the best in them. So, it's not just about getting people to work a few hours. It's about making sure that they're working to their potential, that they're advancing, that they're able to get into leadership positions. That people with disabilities, our indigenous Australians are not left behind. And that's what we're trying to redefine. Instead of everyone focusing on a number, let's think about what it means to those people who are not working the hours they want, those people who can't get a job because there are big barriers to them getting a job, and those people who would really like to be advancing but there are huge barriers about accessing childcare and paid parental leave that is stopping them getting ahead.

Michele: Just to add on the issue of the unemployment figures. The other thing we have at the moment in Australia is more people doing two or three jobs just to get by then we've ever had in our history. So, this issue raised by Jennifer and Edwina about that it's not just the bald figures about technical unemployment, it's also looking at the hours that people are working, whether people have enough work and enough pay to be able to meet the cost of living challenges, and we know how enormous they are the moment. So, the issue of the type of work that people have, the quality of the jobs, the hours that they get, and whether they can reach their full potential and get what they need for them and their families is critical to this. That's why the number is not important, what's important is the type of jobs we're creating now and into the future and who gets access to them.

Journalist: Jennifer Westacott if I could just ask the childcare sector in particular is quite concerned about the workforce shortages that they're facing, a lot of them saying childcare and worker shortages should be at the top of the summit because people can't send their kids to childcare then a lot of other sectors will suffer, do you agree with that then and do you think it needs to be a top priority right up there?

Jennifer: It's hard to say in a complex discussion that one particular thing is the top priority. But we all agree access to childcare is absolutely crucial. A subsidy system that doesn't put artificial barriers in people getting extra hours, progressing in their job, that those things need to be removed. And then the point about workforce, absolutely crucial. Absolutely crucial that we train people, that this is where I think we are going to look at some migration, but linked to skills, linked to giving people skills packages, linked to them getting permanent pathways. And of course, there will be a discussion about childcare pay rates. That's a legitimate discussion to have so that it’s an attractive industry for people. Then there is just the physical issue of the supply of places. This is why, I think, the government is right to say, it's made its commitment, but it's giving itself some time to work through those issues of workforce, of supply, of how the subsidies are designed. We’re up for that conversation, we've been advocating for a long time about making sure that we remove those artificial barriers that are in the system now that stop women participating, that stop people participating to their full potential. The other issue that I think we should be discussing is that fact that people just can't get the places, I was talking to someone the other day, who is taking their young person to three places a week. That is very disruptive for a kid, very disappointing that you can't give that young person one place. So, we’ve got to sort out a lot in childcare but there are many other issues at the summit. But women's participation, women's advancement, women's safety, women's economic security are all absolutely essential.

Journalist: Should reform be brought forward [inaudible] should it be brought forward any earlier, there are some calls for that?

Jennifer: Well I think you’ve got to sort a lot out. The last thing you need to do is to sort of create a system where you've suddenly got big shortages, and you’ve got no workers and you haven't got properly trained workers. We want to work with the union movement to make sure that we've got access to childcare, we've got it in the right places that it's able to be used by people who need to use it and that we've got the right workforce and the right subsidy system to remove these distortions that currently exist.

Journalist: Ms Westacott, Dominic Perrottet says that the summit is being overtaken by the union movement. Do you agree with that and also are you worried that COSBOA’s deal with the ACTU threatens or undermines the united front of employer groups?

Jennifer: Well, I think the most important thing is this, that if the summit is presented as a competition between labour and capital, business and unions, we're setting it up in the wrong way. This is about people coming together. This is about the union movement and the business community finding common ground in the areas that we've talked about today. And the ACTU and the BCA have been able to find common ground for many, many years and we intend to walk into the summit with that same objective. Of course, there will be differences. We don't agree with the multi-employer bargaining the way it’s been described. I haven't seen the detail of the COSBOA deal. But it's absolutely important that we remember this, you cannot get industrial relations reform in this country to stick if business and unions don't come together and find some middle ground. And that's what we'll be doing at the summit.

Journalist: Ms O’Neil, if I can just ask you about, touch on a point you raised earlier about many people holding multiple jobs at the same time because they just don't have that security. One way of increasing that security would be to do it would be to introduce sick pay for casuals. Where does the ACTU stand on that?

Michele: So, what we know is that having access to paid leave including sick pay is critical for workers. We want to make sure that there's more secure jobs. If you have a secure job, if you've got a permanent job that has leave, paid leave entitlements attached to it, then it's better for you, it's better for the planning of your life and your family, it’s better for the economy. So, we think the focus should be on creating more secure jobs with more paid leave for more people. The answer to this is to not leave people in insecure work and just add on bits to the side of it. The answer to it is give people more secure jobs. The people that want secure work should be able to find it.

Journalist: Jennifer Westacott said on Sunday that she wishes to prevent parties who haven't been party to an agreement coming in at the last minute and blowing it up. Is that a principle you agree with?

Michele: Well, I think that what we know is that it's really important that we get bargaining fixed in our country. And that's why we're putting forward the proposal we have about multi-employer and sector bargaining. We know far too many people just don't get access to bargaining. Only one in seven workers in Australia are covered by an enterprise agreement today. So, our proposal is about making sure that you bring more people together to negotiate, not have fewer at the table. So, this is what we're looking for. More areas of cooperation, more opportunities to negotiate, and find an agreement that suits multi-employers and sectors, but also of course continues the important role for enterprise bargaining alongside that. We're keen to have more people negotiating and bargaining not less.

Journalist: Jennifer Westacott where would like to land on the better of overall test? I know this has been bubbling for years now. But under the regime that you prefer, could one worker go backwards for the benefit of a community of workers?

Jennifer: Well, I think that there is a long way to go on this. At a principle level, we think this on the better off overall test. That it be retained, that it be simplified, that it be less litigious, that it be able to be applied across all employers, and most importantly that the parties to the agreement, the primacy is given to those agreements. And that where people sit down, they follow the rules, they are transparent, they negotiate in good faith, that they meet the better off overall test, that the primacy of that agreement be respected by the Fair Work Commission.

Journalist: So the fundamental question is whether it’s the group of workers that are better off overall or one person?

Jennifer: But that's a fundamental principle that we put forward. That the overall aspect of the better off overall test be restored. And that's a really crucial principle of ours. It's very important for us to remember this, that if you are going to get innovation, which drives productivity, which drives higher wages, if you are going to get these industries that Michele and I are talking about today, which we all agree, we all want to diversify the industrial base, you have to get people sitting down with their workforce, collaborating, identifying how they do things differently, how they apply technology, and reaching an overall agreement. Where those parties have agreed, that should be respected.

Journalist: That’s not Michele your view I take it? The ACTU thinks that everyone should be better off?

Michele: We think critical to the industrial relations system is fairness. That that means that when you reach an agreement, nobody should be worse off. So, we are committed to making sure that people are all better off when an agreement is reached. Having said that, we think there is room to look at making sure that the better off over all test is simple, easily applied, but critically for us, it must be fair and must protect workers.

Journalist: As it stands, the position that you have Jennifer Westacott and you have Michele O’Neil actually are contrasting because you want overall and you want everyone better off?  

Michele: So what I would say is that it's not surprising that there's some areas of difference between the Business Council of Australia and the ACTU. But what you've heard and will continue to hear in the days leading up to the summit and at the summit is that we're committed to trying to find more areas of agreement.

Journalist: It’s irreconcilable isn’t it, that difference there?

Michele: My view is that the principles of making sure that we've got a simple, fair, and accessible system means that we can look at what we need to do to deliver that. I'm never going to say that there is not a solution.

Journalist: Happy for anyone to answer this question. Clearly the summit has generated a lot of momentum, a lot of interest in these issues. What needs to happen next week and the week after in terms of tangible steps to be able to act on whatever is discussed at the summit to ensure that this doesn't just fade into the distance and everyone goes off in their different directions and none of these issues are actually solved.

Michele: Well, I think one of the things that's very refreshing about the new government is their willingness to make sure that they listen to unions, that they're listen to employer organisations, and then they listen to the community sector. That's a very positive approach. We get the best outcomes when we make sure that we get diverse voices in the room and we hear the challenges ahead and understand them properly. So, the government has already announced that in some of these areas, there will be a white paper process and in others, of course, we know that there is changes that need to be made more urgently. So, we are keen to keep working together. We don't think it ends on Thursday and Friday. We're committed to continuing to work collaboratively with of course the government and the civil society and with business.

Jennifer: I agree with Michele. I think summit has been a great opportunity to reset and to really seize the future. Not re-prosecute the old battles but to actually seize the future. To make sure that we can address these skills issues, that we can lift people's wages so we can deal with these external challenges that are coming towards the country. And the government has set up a very good process before the summit. They've got a white paper process, but they have made it very clear that if there are things where there is agreement, we can just get on and do it. And I think all of us are committed to making sure that the summit is successful but most importantly that it's a reset. And then beyond the summit, we continue to work together to find solutions and to find that common ground.

Edwina: I’ll just add that I think as well as engaging with the community sector, with business and with unions, one of the things I think we’re seeing and what we’ll see at the summit is voices of people directly affected. And as we go forward into the white paper process, we understand there will be a process of engagement around that and that will include engagement with people who are directly affected by the things we have been talking because their voices do need to be at the centre.  


Latest news