7 April 2015
Transcript - #2015041, 2015

Interview with Steve Price, 2GB

SUBJECTS: Penalty rates, union campaign against businesses that closed during Easter

STEVE PRICE:

I have got to say I was amazed at the number of places I found closed over Easter because of the outrageous cost of penalty rates. It was made worse in places like Victoria because if I am right, the state government there declared Easter Sunday an actual public holiday which meant that the rates went even higher.

A well-known, popular hotel that I know in inner Melbourne closed all of Easter, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday; normally packed, absolutely shuttered up. Tourists visiting the southern capital were shocked to find entire shopping arcades like the Block Arcade were closed.

Wasn't much better here in Sydney, smaller operations in particular just can't afford to pay time and a half or in some cases double time and a half, and the penalty argument really needs to be had. As an example the other way around, a taxi driver I talked to today, told me to forget penalty rates; he worked yesterday for 10 hours and made a grant total of: $60 for ten hours work.

Now, at the weekend one of the most disgraceful acts was a union Facebook page created to name and shame businesses that chose to close rather than pay teenage staff $350 a day-wouldn't the cab driver love that.

Joining us on the line to talk about this and that campaign is the Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson, thanks for your time Minister.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Good wishes to you Steve, and to your listeners.

STEVE PRICE:

$350 a day for a teenage staff member?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is pretty tough. I was surprised and frankly disappointed by the union campaign targeting hard working, courageous, enterprising men and women that in many cases mortgage their houses so that they and others can have opportunities in the economy.

They deserve more respect than being targeted by a campaign that seems to think the only thing that matters is what the unions' demand- without realising you need a viable business to be able to offer employment opportunities in the first place.

And some respect and recognition needs to be afforded to those that are making tough decisions to provide those enterprises with the opportunity to offer work.

Yet that seemed to not be part of the thinking of this campaign on the weekend.

STEVE PRICE:

You've raised the possibility of a review of penalty rates, so that will bring down on your head the mother of all scare campaigns, won't it?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes, it is really quite curious, I mean I was asked by a journalist whether there should be a review of the machinery of penalty rates and my point was stating the bleeding obvious and that is: That is what the Productivity Commission is doing as part of its independent review.

That is what is the normal course of events of this so-called 'modern award review' that Bill Shorten put in place when he was the Minister for Employment, and frankly that is what workplaces do when they have a discussion with unions usually on Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

Yet, somehow stating the bleeding obvious becomes a news story in this shrill environment where the only thing that seems to matter and get any traction is this completely over the top union campaign that seems to ignore what is currently in the existing law that they championed when Labor was in office.

STEVE PRICE:

How disgraceful was it to name people and shame them because they chose financially not to open up? I mean, if you can't make the numbers add up then the sensible thing is to close but most people would rather not do that, but some people have had to do that.

For the unions then to point their finger at hard working Australians employing union members is just disgraceful.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes I was really disappointed and saddened.

I cannot for the life of me imagine the logic that says 'Go after a workplace because they cannot find a viable option to open on public holidays'. As you mentioned in your introduction, which was not just Good Friday in Victoria, it was Easter Sunday and then Monday.

STEVE PRICE:

Is that a first?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes it is- It was one of the two acts of economic self-harm that the Labor Government in Victoria campaigned on: To create two new public holidays – just as a time when we are trying to improve our productivity and improve the environment so that enterprising people are prepared to invest and take risks and mortgage their houses and have a go, so that others can have a go too.

We get two more public holidays, one is on this Easter Sunday and in an act of pure genius the incoming Labor Government wants to make the Friday before the AFL Grand Final a public holiday as well.

Just when you want vitality and energy and all the excitement in a great city like Melbourne, you are going to have this risk of a repeat of what happened over the weekend where large chunks of the commercial area you could fire a cannon down.

STEVE PRICE:

So that turns time and a half into double time and a half?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes and in some cases it is a really punishing transformation and to put it in its most simple terms: That is an awful lot of macchiato's you have got to make to pay the bills.

It is just something that I am fearful that gone are the days when the union sector and the labour movement more generally actually recognised that the opportunity and the capacity to provide work was an essential pre-condition for a worker to get working hours.

But that seems to have drained away in this recent campaign where they are going after the very people that are the courageous enterprising Australians that create the economic opportunities that give people the chance to work.

It is quite remarkable- You got after those workplaces, how is that going to help, to trash talk them on social media? Is that going to make it easier or more difficult for those workplaces to offer people shifts and the opportunity to work? It is quite a bizarre campaign.

STEVE PRICE:

I will grab some calls in a moment from our audience who are in small business, give us a call and let us know if you did not open at the weekend because of this.

So does that create an unequal playing field across Australia? Would Easter Sunday in New South Wales not be a declared public holiday so would have different penalty rates than across the border?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes that is right and then another example is some of the bigger businesses might have an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that sees a reduced rate of the penalty rate applied, and that usually occurs because there has been some trade-off for the standard hours of pay that is covered by the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

Many of your listeners may not be aware, it is not actually the Government that sets these penalty rates, and there is certainly no Government campaign to abolish or change the regime because at the moment that regime sees the Fair Work Commission set the rate of the penalty rate.

Then the laws that the previous Labor Government put in place provides for employers and employees to negotiate, if they choose, around certain terms and conditions.

This is not something that the Parliament of Australia sits in judgement about; this is something that the Fair Work Commission deals with. You saw recently a case where the restaurant and catering industry basically said, look, we need to recalibrate the rate of the penalty rate so that there is some prospects of a viable business offering work because it can justify opening its doors.

These are the sorts of things that are being canvassed, yet the unions seem to want to turn the other way and say there is some campaign to wipe-out anything that looks like, sounds like and walks like a penalty rate.

I have not met too many businesses that want to completely abandon the concept of penalty rates.

They just want a sensible discussion about at what rate that penalty rate should be and what are the parameters that active that higher rate of pay. But you cannot seem to get a sensible conversation around that happening at the moment.

STEVE PRICE:

Minister, do you also have sympathy for some businesses that – to get around this – just pop a 15 per cent surcharge on top of a bill?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes and this has been happening and then I have even seen some cases where they have been targeted as well. I am bewildered by what the union campaign is about here.

You have got enterprising people, particularly in small business where it is not usually a unionised workshop or workplace, it is people just working alongside each other for the shared purpose of offering a good experience for customers that will see the business rewarded for their effort and enterprise along with the team, the staff and it is one big family.

Yet you are seeing this division and this campaign to almost vilify employers, particularly smaller employers who have got no capacity to push back and are just getting trash talked in social media for no good purpose and no good goal.

I am really troubled by that when we want more enterprising Australians to support economic growth and jobs, realising that 519,000 jobs were lost in small business under the Rudd Gillard Rudd years.

We need to recover those jobs and energise enterprise at a small business level, and these campaigns add nothing in that effort.

STEVE PRICE:

The shoppies union was quoted as saying 'The majority of the community supports employees being compensated for working on a public holiday'. I don't think that that is a great revelation… Yes, if your neighbour works in retail and has to work on an Easter Sunday or an Easter Monday then fine, let them come to some agreement with their boss about what the bonus might be for working on a day like that or be given the opportunity not to work if they do not want to.

No one is suggesting that you take the negotiation out of this, are they?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No, I would not have thought so, but if you followed what some of the union activities are about – I think they are out there tweeting that I am anti-penalty rates! It is just a blatant lie, a self-serving blatant lie. I have never been against penalty rates.

Mind you, I think it is worth having a conversation at the rate of the rate, and the weight and timing in which those higher rates of pay are activated - and I think most people think that is a sensible conversation to have.

STEVE PRICE:

Yeah well think about it, you're a chef of a cook in a food outlet and the boss comes up and says: 'I'd like you to work Good Friday, I can't pay you double time and a half which is what the public holiday rate would be. I can pay you double time?' Or 'I can pay you a bonus or you can have a couple of extra days off later in the year, what do you think?'

MINISTER BILLSON:

It sounds like a sensible conversation to have with appropriate bumper rails to make sure no one is forced into doing something that is against their will.

STEVE PRICE:

Wouldn't you rather time and a half than nothing?

MINISTER BILLSON:

This is the conversation that is popping up. I see in some parts of the country where particularly students are keen to bring in some extra income- they are red hot keen to work in the hours that might not suit another group within the community.

Where is that opportunity for a uni student to bring in some extra income?

I know when my wife and I owned our retail business in the Riviera of Melbourne, down on the Mornington Peninsula; we did not open on a Monday because it was really quiet. But we were all hands on deck on the weekend because that is when the visitor traffic was. We were responding to our business conditions with a view of trying to make a quid so that we could pay the rent and pay the staff and actually see a reward for our effort and our enterprise.

It is not just those employees that deserve a reasonable reward and recognition and a chance to progress for their efforts, it is also the employers as well; those courageous men and women that sacrifice much to create opportunities in our economy.

I think the conversation has gotten completely out of whack and way too shrill at a time when we should be looking for ways to align the goals and ambitions of the workplace with the employer and the employee.

Instead we are seeing this combative, almost vilification of small business employers, just when we need more of them, not less.

STEVE PRICE:

What about my poor old mate the Bangladeshi cab driver? Made $60 in 10 hours.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes that is tough, but this is the thing, we have got people out there having a go that cannot actually be absolutely certain on what the reward will be for their effort and enterprise. But that does not mean you shut down the opportunity at all.

That is why our focus is on energising enterprise. What can we do to say to that great Australian spirit of we are wanting to have a go, that you can do so and have a fair go and make sure everybody has got that opportunity.

That is where our focus is, not these campaigns that seem to go back to the 1950's or sometime of class warfare, or there is this constant battle where the evil employer overlord spends every waking moment thinking how they can rip-off their staff or something like that. That is not the world most of us live in, yet that is where the conversation seems to be taken by this union campaign.

STEVE PRICE:

Minister, thank you very much for your time.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Good to talk, best wishes to you Steve.