Questions and Answers, CEDA State of the Nation Conference

08 Sep 2022
Prime Minister
Local government; care industries; multi-employer bargaining; integrity

DIANE SMITH-GANDER, CEDA: Well, thank you very much, Prime Minister. There was a great deal in there and I would just love to talk about forever about gender equity. But you and I have talked about that a great deal before. You also talked about Question Time. I hate Question Time, I've got to say. It just seems like a waste of a very short period of time that our elected representatives have together. So point-scoring just doesn't do it for me. But you know that as well, we've talked about that before also. But there is a question here in the pigeon hole. I'm going to go with the flavour in the room. That comes from James Pearson, who is the CEO of the City of Joondalup in my home state of Western Australia. It strikes to your question about the sort of national dialogue in a way: “Local government is the closest of all levels of government to the community. How will your government engage with councils to deliver economic and social reform?”

PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: I'm very aware of the City of Joondalup there in the great state of Western Australia. And one of the things that we will do is reengage directly between the national government and local government. I think across a range of funding programmes the key dynamic or factor was an electoral map. We have rejected that approach. So I believe, for example, that community infrastructure funding, whether it be for local roads or local facilities, things that will drive local jobs, should be determined at the local level. And local government is in best position to do that because it is local government that elected representatives and have a much better idea of doing it than making decisions in Canberra or, for that matter, in state governments. So I very much want a reframe. It's something that I've done as a former Minister for Local Government. And one of the things that we will be re-establishing is the Australian Council of Local Government, a body that brings together every local government, from memory there’s 537 in Australia, together with the national government to talk about how those priorities and programs can best be delivered. The other thing I found is that delivering programmes to local government is more efficient than other forms of government as well. They employ day labour, they have suppliers who are locals as well, so it has a multiplier effect in local communities. I really look forward to my government re-engaging with local government. It is something that we've done – when you look at where effective programmes can be run, whether it's in housing, in a range of areas as well, that direct engagement is so important.

SMITH-GANDER: You talked about the really important role that local government has in employment and of course, they'll all be bargaining with their people going forward. We need to get wages going. You knew this question had to come. You make a really strong case for industry bargaining to address low wages, particularly in the care sector. People are interested in how this might differ from modern awards and why awards are not actually the answer when that's a sector that gets a lot of government funding, you're already going to Fair Work Commission. Isn't that a more direct and swifter method?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's not one size fits all, and that's what really came out of the summit. But when you look at bargaining, you talk about enterprise bargaining in the childcare sector, for example, or other sectors. The truth is that short of childcare workers taking action that they're reluctant to do for obvious reasons –the nature of their work just like in the health sector nurses, etcetera – they have, over a period of time suffered for that, if you look at where the wage disparities are. So one of the things we did when we were last in government in 2012 was that we had a case through the Social and Community Services Award which substantially lifted the pay of people in the community sector. And that meant that there was more certainty. It meant people were able to stay in the sector. Things didn't collapse. The world didn't end. The sky didn't fall. If we don't do something in aged care, if the Fair Work Commission were not to grant an increase – and they are independent of government – then we'll continue to see people leave the sector. I was asked during the campaign about issues including the aged care workforce and where the workers are going to come from. The first thing that you can do is stop people leaving the workforce. That would be a really smart idea. You need to do that by giving them hope that the conditions in which they've had to work, but exacerbated by the pandemic, have meant that, for some of them, it's just too much. They've gone on to stacking shelves where you can earn more money than the difficult physical and emotional work of working in the aged care sector. I spoke to a childcare operator here in Canberra yesterday, of her 19 staff, 14 have left in the last two years. We need to recognise that this is not an issue of ‘do we pay people more and better compensate for them and in doing so close the gender pay gap?’ as sort of some academic debate. This is a matter of whether the aged care sector can function. Whether there's people where, if you think about if your mum and dad is in aged care, when they press a buzzer there'll be someone there for them. It's literally at that point and that's why we need to do better. There's a range of ways, both through the Fair Work Commission, but also fixing the bargaining system so that we don't create a situation whereby you have two employers and one thinks that they can't grant higher wages because, in a competitive sector, that will disadvantage them. That's really what multi-employer bargaining is about. It's not about industrial action. It's not about ending the economy. It's about, in a range of areas including small business, recognising that there are advantages for business in having simplification of the bargaining process and also advantages for workers as well in those outcomes.

SMITH-GANDER: I think everyone agrees that bargaining needs to be given a good overhaul. And you certainly won't get any argument from CEDA that the issue in care sectors is not about a supply gap, but it is actually about a missing wages gap. My mum passed away in aged care last year. Very well-looked after. I loved going to the long service awards morning tea: 15 years, 20 years. And I said, ‘how come you've been here 15 years?’ And the answer is always, because they pay me well and that treat me well’. I'm really looking forward to 1 July next year when we take away that prohibition on women working full time because of the last two days of childcare. So I think there's a lot of talking to go, but you will understand, of course, that a lot of people in business are going to see enterprise bargaining being broadened out as a bit of a slippery slope. But hopefully we can all get there with goodwill. So this question, which is the highest voted, is that ‘the US has recently shown how fragile democracy is. How will the current government increase public trust in government, protect democracy and reduce corruption while the national agenda is delivered?’ And I think this is a great one for you to finish on.

PRIME MINISTER: It is. We need to recognise that there is a breakdown in faith and trust and we need to not take democracy for granted. In some places in the world it is in retreat. If you look at some of the surveys of young people about systems of government, that's a little bit scary in terms of what system they think works better. And that's why we need to act. I think that democracy is undermined by a lack of transparency and I think we've seen that. The reason why we've asked the former High Court judge Virginia Bell to have a look at the fact that the it would appear that the former Treasurer wasn't aware that there was another person as Treasurer and as Finance Minister and Health Minister and all of that. Whilst it made for a number of really good jokes on this stage at the Midwinter Ball last night it's actually pretty serious. It's actually pretty serious because under our legislation, for example, ministers have specific responsibility. Resources Ministers, for example, are responsible for examining in an objective way, without interference from anyone else's decision making processes, to determine funding. I think is why it is a serious issue as much as it was a source of some good humour last night. The big picture element that we will do is to introduce legislation for a national anti-corruption commission. That will be introduced next week into our national parliament. I committed to it being introduced this year, so we're doing it pretty early. We're doing it so that there can be a full parliamentary examination through the committee process. And that will hopefully provide a ballast and some comfort that there is a process that's not aimed at replacing existing mechanisms – because the truth is there are a range of existing mechanisms which are in place, such as through the Australian Electoral Commission and through the very various bodies of this parliament. But clearly we need to respond to that and the government will. But, also, I think there's a need for a recognition of a changing culture as well. You can legislate and set rules, but you change mindsets as well. Over a period of time, there was a law of diminishing returns under Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison, whereby in the end all these funds were available. The Budget in October will see some of the funds, that were just on the whim of a Minister, wiped out as part of the savings that are required to help send the budget in a better direction than the way it was headed. There's some tough decisions required that requires people in position of power to give up some of that power and to be accountable.

SMITH-GANDER: Accountable. That's an absolutely fabulous word for you to finish on.


SMITH-GANDER: We look very much forward to the balance of your term with transparency, lively debate and conversation.

PRIME MINISTER: Hopefully it is not just ‘term’-singular.

SMITH-GANDER: It is the one in front of you and I do understand that. I thought about that as the words were coming out of my mouth. Thank you so much. We very much appreciate your frankness.