Interview with 2CC's Mark Parton

  • Leader of the Government in the Senate
  • Minister for Employment
  • Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
  • Senator for Tasmania

SUBJECTS: Public sector wage bargaining negotiations; Remuneration Tribunal; superannuation.

MARK PARTON: Fighting words from Senator Eric Abetz who yesterday launched a scathing attack on the main union representing Public Servants by saying it had been deliberately misrepresenting the Government’s position on bargaining negotiations. So in the Senate yesterday, Senator Abetz said the Community and Public Sector Union should stop scaremongering and, instead, help its members negotiate what small productivity-backed increases are possible given the mess by the former Labor Government.

So he suggested that they should abandon their 4 per cent per annum pay claim that will cost 10,000 jobs. Sounds like a big number, doesn’t it. He said it will be most severe in cash-strapped agencies like the Australian Crime Commission, which is having difficulty offering any increases without cutting jobs.

Senator Eric Abetz is on the line right now. Morning, sir.

MINISTER ABETZ: Good morning. Good to be on the programme.

MARK PARTON: Fighting words. Is there much point in getting into a public stoush with the union in this way?

MINISTER ABETZ: I think it’s important that the community generally understands that, one, Australia has a huge financial mess that we are seeking to clean up, and that it is irresponsible for union bosses to raise expectations that they must know are not achievable. To ask for a 4-plus-4-plus-4 per cent pay rise over three years is a huge amount of money in a cash-strapped Government. With the 12 per cent increase, it translates to an extra 10,000 jobs. And what makes this so disappointing is that the Public Service knows how cash strapped we are as a Government. Day by day, they are paring back programmes because they know Australia can no longer afford to borrow just to pay the interest. We’re doing that, we’re borrowing $1000 million a month just to pay the interest on existing loans, and it nearly seems as though the CPSU is in a parallel universe and saying “I know there’s a stack of money, just go for it, let it rip”.

MARK PARTON: Well, I guess they’re doing their job aren’t they? You know, it’s their job to try and get the best conditions for workers and, I mean, in recent years we’ve seen unions back away from some claims. But they certainly weren’t unions representing government workers, they were unions representing workers at companies that they made the call that if they don’t tone down what it is that they’re doing, the company may go broke. The CPSU knows that the Federal Government is not going to go broke.

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, look, unions have a very important role, and I think most of your listeners would agree that unions generally are a good thing in the Australian community – they look after the interest of workers. But they also have a responsibility, and that is – especially at the leadership level – not to raise unreasonable expectations. Because when you do that and you cannot meet them, you then have to make the other side – in this case the Government – the enemy for your own raising of false expectations, and you then have to demonise the Government, whereas a sensible approach saying we do understand the difficulties, we do realise that there’s not enough money around. That is why I, on behalf of the Government, wrote to the Remuneration Tribunal suggesting that there should be no pay rises for members of Parliament, High Court judges, Secretaries of the Public Service Departments, et cetera, because there simply was not enough money around and it would be a good thing to do. The Remuneration Tribunal happened to agree with us that that would be a good thing to do.

Now, we have shown leadership in this space, saying no pay increase. It’s a pity that the union leadership cannot say, look, times are tough and it stands to reason if we want to look after our fellow workers, then a modest pay rise will ensure job security for literally thousands of our fellow workers. And, so, it’s up to them to determine whether they are going to look after their fellow workers, or greedily run after cash, which they know is not sustainable.

MARK PARTON: Eric, we took a call from Phil just before the news at seven. I think it was the first time he’d ever called us, and he called about superannuation. And he said what he’s never understood in this country is that although the announcement was made yesterday with the repeal of the mining tax that regular workers are not going to get the sort of superannuation increase that they thought they might he said, of course, those working in the public sector, most of them will get it and he said what he doesn’t understand is why. Why the conditions are so different from private to public sector workers, that it’s as though his role as a worker is not valued as much as someone who’s working for the Public Service. Can you understand what he’s saying?

MINISTER ABETZ: I can understand that a lot of people in the private sector believe – and objectively you can make that assessment – that they don’t enjoy as good conditions as those in the public sector. And, if I might say, that is why in circumstances where the Government is cash strapped, we are calling on my colleagues not to take a pay rise, that is why we are saying to Public Servants, please understand that a modest pay rise subject to productivity trade-offs is the only way to go in the current circumstances. And I think those who are out in the private sector, whose taxes pay for the Public Service and indeed for that matter, my salary, are entitled to ask, what are we doing to constrain their tax burden?

MARK PARTON: All right. Are we entitled to ask you then, Senator Abetz, if you’re going to forego any salary increase or change in conditions for you, personally? Surely, if it’s good for one, it’s good for everyone.

MINISTER ABETZ: Mark, absolutely right. And that is why, as I said earlier, on behalf of the Government I wrote to the Remuneration Tribunal saying no pay – the Government’s submission to them was, no pay increases, and the Remuneration Tribunal have agreed with that as a result of myself and my colleagues getting a, if you like, a pay freeze and sure, we’ve got higher incomes than the average Public Servant. But, nevertheless, we believe very moderate pay increases are appropriate subject to productivity trade-offs. But the 4-plus-4-plus-4 being suggested by the union, one, is unaffordable – it raises expectations which are cruelly not going to be able to be delivered. So one wonders why such a cruel representation is made to them, that this is something that is achievable.

MARK PARTON: All right. Thanks for your time this morning, appreciate it.

MINISTER ABETZ: Thanks a lot, Mark.

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