Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Workplace relations; small business; Royal Commission into child sexual abuse; AWU; Julie Bishop and asbestos victims; agreement to continue homelessness partnership – ABC TV Insiders with Barrie Cassidy

Program: ABC TV

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well that’s the Sunday papers and we’ll go to our studio guest now, Brendan O’Connor, who is one of the Ministers as I said helping to set up the royal commission.

But he’s also Minister for Small Business and this week frustrations in the business community about the Federal Government reached new heights. While the Minister joins us, let’s hear from Innes Willox. He’s the head of one of the more moderate employer organisations, the Australian Industry Group.

INNES WILLOX CLIP: We’d hoped somewhat optimistically, perhaps somewhat naively that some progress would have been made by now in addressing the clear problems with the Fair Work Act. The traffic over the past two years has been all one-way and it has all gone in the wrong direction. Australian’s workplace relations system needs to be as flexible and productive as possible whilst ensuring fairness for both employees and employers. It is nonsense to accuse anyone who argues the case for more flexible workplace arrangements as calling for the return of Work Choices. And this sort of rhetoric really has to stop. We are not asking for the Fair Work Act to be scrapped but for a series of sensible changes to be made to address problems which have been widely identified by employers and industry groups. This message is equally relevant to the Government and to the Opposition.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Minister, good morning.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Good morning Barrie.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Listening to that, surely you sense yourself that you sell business short by dismissing every proposal that comes up in terms of industrial relations reform as a return to Work Choices?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, we’re happy to look at a whole range of issues. I think it’s unfair to characterise the Government as not wanting to do that. Also AiG and other employer groups should recognise that this Government, in response to the global financial crisis, has grown the economy – 3.4 per cent growth, 800,000 jobs, low unemployment, low debt, confined inflation. That’s a pretty good recipe for business success. I mean there is no other place in the developed world that you’d want to be investing than in this country and that’s why there’s a pipeline of investment. And I think that’s important to note.

Further to the AiG’s comments, they talk about productivity – that has improved significantly in recent times and we should continue to look at those things. But we want to do that on the basis of a high-wage, high-growth economy, not the race to the bottom approach.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Yeah but I think his frustration is with politics – when Tony Abbott blames the carbon tax for everything, you criticise him for that. The same with industrial relations performance, if they raise any idea at all, there is this threat that you will say “Work Choices”.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, that’s entirely up to the Opposition to outline what its plan is in relation to industrial relations and it chooses not to do so and hide those facts, that’s something –

BARRIE CASSIDY: What he said, he’s promised cautious responsible reform, this is Tony Abbott – “cautious, responsible reform within existing legislation”. Now there’s the rider, “within existing legislation”. So you can’t accuse him of returning to Work Choices if that’s the parameter.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, if indeed that’s what he’s suggesting, and I think they’ve literally hidden their spokesperson on IR, Senator Abetz, and they don’t want to have a debate around that. I know the AiG has been criticising the Opposition for not coming out with their plan.

But again I say that of course we can look at what else we can do to improve productivity in this nation. It has been on the improve but there should be a mature debate about those structural changes that might be required.

But I think people should also – and the AiG should – recognise that we’ve responded well to the global financial crisis which leaves us in a better place than any other developed nation in the world.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now on small business, Tony Abbott is promising to grow the number of small businesses, double the existing rate of growth. He says 30,000 new small businesses every year.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I don’t think it’s just about the amount of small businesses. We have small businesses and microbusinesses being created every day in this country. We’ve actually brought in some reforms to make it easier for them to do that.

We’ve also introduced the loss carry-back initiative, the instant asset tax write-off – two initiatives that Tony Abbott says he will abolish if he’s elected – which will help small business. When we actually injected money to confront the global financial crisis and invest in infrastructure, particularly in the construction industry, that helped thousands upon thousands of small businesses and he voted against that. And I think therefore what he says and what he does are two different things.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, he’s saying reduce red tape by $1 billion a year and of course take away the carbon tax.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Whatever that means. Yes, he talks about removing the carbon price reforms that we’ve put in place but what he doesn’t explain is that means the tax free threshold which is now $18,200 will have to return to $6,000. Those two small business initiatives he’s going to abolish. And let’s remember this – he joined up with the Greens to actually vote down a business tax cut for small business. So I don’t think he’s the friend of small business that he paints and I think small business people know that.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, let’s talk about the Royal Commission now. Do you accept that thousands of people want to tell their story and you can’t really deny any of them that opportunity?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think that’s why we’re having a very significant consultation with victims’ groups and other bodies and indeed the Attorney has been talking to her State counterparts about where we go with this very significant commission.

The Prime Minister announced this last Monday, a very important decision to allow victims to have their stories told. Now we can’t return to those adult victims their childhood, we can’t restore innocence to those children that have been abused, but we can provide an avenue for them to have those stories told, to have their cases examined.

But I think there is a tension here. People are calling for a confined period of time and at the same they’re asking for all things to be considered. Now the Government in determining the composition of the commission and the terms of reference has to consider all of these competing interests.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you know how long it will run? Do you have any idea how long it will run?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think the terms of reference will have some part in that. As I’ve said during the course of the week, commissions like these control largely their own destiny. For example, we could even contemplate a particular time period and the commission could say we need further time to examine a particular area.

That will happen and of course that happens in the course of the commission’s inquiries. So I think that’s why we’ve been very careful not to outline or foreshadow a defined period.

But I think we do need to, through the terms of reference and the consultations with those who are involved, we do need to do two things – allow for the capacity for people to tell their stories wherever possible, but in the end we want to get something done that will ensure that children in this country are safer in the future because institutions respond adequately to child sex abuse or child sex abuse allegations.

BARRIE CASSIDY: In the end, you say, is there scope to take action as the hearing is going on or do you need to wait until it’s all over?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I think getting the parameters right is very important and to have the composition of the commission and terms of reference determined by year’s end is important. But after that point the commission has, as I say, control largely of its own destiny. You can’t set up an independent body and then control everything it examines.

But I think we are conscious of the fact and when I engage with victims’ organisations, I’ve said to them and they have said back to me that we need to allow for this therapeutic dimension and allow people to be properly recognised, their stories to be recognised, but there needs to be some understanding that arising out of this commission will be a determination that will change the way in which institutions respond to such allegations and such vile crimes.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And could it mean more than one Commissioner and does that then raise the possibility of parallel hearings?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, the composition can indeed allow for more than one commissioner. You can have report-backs from the commission, you can have hearings heard concurrently. There are a range of ways in which you can deal with this.

But in the end the test for this commission will be what can be put in place arising out of this commission that will respond to the inadequate institutional responses to child sex abuse in this country.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And because it looks at institutions, that does not include the family situation, for example. But does it include Aboriginal communities?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, again, we’re setting the parameters. We’re looking at children in state care, we’re looking at religious organisations, there’s no reason of course that wouldn’t involve Indigenous children.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay, now there’s another matter, the matter surrounding Julia Gillard’s time at Slater and Gordon and it won’t go away. Julie Bishop has now taken up the running from Tony Abbott. Is it starting to bite?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well I think people are sick of the smear that’s going on. There’s no doubt that Tony Abbott is using Julie Bishop by proxy.

And of course Julie Bishop I think has her own questions to answer. Clearly there’s been some matters arising out of her role as a lawyer at CSR where she used allegedly procedural tactics to deny victims of asbestosis their day in court.

Now, she wants to go around spending her entire time not involving herself in foreign affairs as she’s supposed to as shadow minister, but instead seek to smear the Government and the Prime Minister with unsubstantiated allegations and I think there’s some questions that she should be answering as well.

BARRIE CASSIDY: You’re suggesting then that she delayed justice for the terminally ill? Surely she would say she was doing her job as a lawyer.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I don’t say that. I say allegations have been made in relation to that and they’re now of course in the public realm and she should respond to that. I mean, this is where you get –

BARRIE CASSIDY: Are you making that allegation or are you saying that that’s just typically the inevitable consequence of a lawyer –

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’m saying that there’s been questions about the way in which she – of course she has every right to represent her client but there’s been allegations about the way in which she used procedural tactics to impede the capacity of victims to have their day in court.

Now, they’re allegations. This is the point Barrie – when you go down this path, you set up a particular test about your conduct years ago as a lawyer, well it seems to me that Julie Bishop has indeed some questions to answer.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright, I just want to ask you finally about another one of your hats and that’s homelessness. Because you did have an important meeting this week with State Ministers. But in the end though, what was resolved? Because you’re well short of a long-term agreement, you have got a transitional agreement in place in the meantime that runs for 12 months but there’s no funding for that.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well we’ve put unprecedented funds into homelessness, we’ve built 21,000 social housing homes since we were elected, 10,000 under the affordable rental scheme, so we’ve been looking at investment and infrastructure.

But we’ve also, Barrie, put in more resources to deal with homelessness and it really is critical therefore that Governments on Friday said that they want to proceed with a long-term agreement and they want to invest in homelessness. They need to get the approval from their Cabinets to do that as quickly as possible, preferably before the end of the year.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But is there a query over that? Will they to come the –

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, they’ve suggested that they will agree. It’s incumbent upon them now to respond and say that they’ve got that approval. We need to make sure that some of our most vulnerable Australians have sufficient resources so we can get them out of that position of homelessness, get them back on their feet and make sure they stay there.

It is in my view shameful that we have such a high proportion of our population that are either at risk of homelessness or homeless –

BARRIE CASSIDY: And shameful that it’s on the increase – it’s increased by eight per cent.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I disagree with that. The ABS figures certainly showed an increase between 2006 and 2011. Our investment only really commenced around 2009 and of course the ABS figures stop short of where we are now, 15 months later.

I would say we’ve arrested that increase because of the investment and indeed we’ll see some progress on it provided all Governments, working with the not-for-profit sector, sign up to this longer-term agreement. That’s essential and I call upon the Governments around the country to sign up with the Gillard Government and tackle this issue.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Thanks Barrie.