02 December 2020

SUBJECT: China; industrial relations.
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Joining me for more on this, Stephen Jones Shadow Assistant Treasurer. So on the reaction from the Government on this, the Prime Minister's initial criticism was pretty strong. Now he's reaching out there with Chinese community on WeChat, emphasising it's not the Chinese people Australia has a problem with. Has he got the tone of this right this week?
STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Look I’ve got no criticisms to make of the Prime Minister this week. I do of many Government members who not today but over the last couple of months have really added more fuel to the fire. We need to stand firm on our values. We need to say quite clearly that the tweet was unacceptable, that it was inflammatory, that it was offensive. But I don't think we need to be adding more fuel to the fire. I think we're going to be using every channel possible to try and normalise and improve relationships if for no other reason for all the businesses in Australia who are going to be hurting as a result of this restructure of trade with China. Absolutely imperative.
CONNELL: Just on other Government MPs speaking out though, is it the importance, and what Australia should be able to say China is at a Government level, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and so on, here is our official response. Here is our official attitude to things. If there are back benchers that speak out, guess what? We live in a democracy. Surely that should
be something China needs to accept happens in Australia?
JONES: Look, absolutely no question about the fact we live in a democracy. We want people, we want our politicians, to be able to speak their mind. But it's an issue of volume and tone. And it's also about the fact that you've got a series of senior Government back benchers in positions of influence who have been for whatever reason, I do not know, absolutely been a part of the machinery of inflaming tensions with China. And we've got a Foreign Minister who has vacated the field. I think that has been a part of. Now I'm not saying, I'm absolutely not saying that China is not at fault in this, absolutely they are.
CONNELL: Are you saying Australia is as well?
JONES: I don’t think it helped. I think in many respects I don’t …
CONNELL: This is heard from Beijing and they hear someone saying I'm alone, MPs aren’t helping. You say senior government back benchers. They’re back benchers. They can speak out if they want. We have an official Government response and another response. You're saying they shouldn't speak out?
JONES: Come talk to the businesses that I talk to. And they express concern that we’ve got this wall of noise with one of our major trading partners in the middle of a trade dispute, which is inflaming tensions. Not cooling things down. Not making easier for them or anybody else to work the back channels to try and normalise things. Tom, I don’t think that's helpful. And I think part of the problem is the Foreign Minister has vacated the field. It should with the job of the Foreign Minister, front-footing the Government’s communication.
CONNELL: Why do you say vacated the field?
JONES: We hear just about nothing from the Foreign Minister on these issues. And that has left the space open for range of Government back benchers to be filling the void. Clearly that has not …
CONNELL: But isn’t her main job main job though reaching out an official capacity? Not necessarily just making comments to try to counter back benchers?
JONES: God knows what she’s saying behind closed doors to her own back bench, but it's clearly not working, because we're in a situation which is …
CONNELL: Well I mean reaching out to China.
JONES: I want to emphasise this point: What I'm relaying to you is the frustration many, many hundreds of businesses are expressing who have trading relationship with China, our largest trading partner. And they are saying this is not helping. We're in the middle of a trade dispute and it seems that members of our Government are throwing fuel on the fire. And this is what their back bench (indistinct). It's our economic relationship and jobs and businesses are at stake.
CONNELL: It’s partly the tweet, but also the list of 14 so-called grievances, showing that it's not just Australia saying things in a slightly different way. It's the core elements of our democracy that China disagrees with. It doesn't want Australian media to be critical of China.  It doesn't want back benchers speaking out. It doesn't want us to decide what to do with our 5G. These are non-negotiables that upset China.
JONES: Yeah sure. Look, I'm not saying for a moment Tom that we don't have differences. Of course we do. But we’ve had differences for well over 70 years now. We’ve managed to negotiate those differences for well over 70 years. What has happened in the last seven years? How did we come to this point?
CONNELL:  Well let's talk about some examples, right? So 5G, we made a decision on that, and essentially went first in the world. Other significant countries followed. And China said right, Australia started this. We want to punish you. Anything wrong with what we did there? Would you take anything back?
JONES: Probably not on the 5G.
CONNELL: Probably not?
JONES: I know where you're going here and let me just jump straight to it. I don't think the Government handled the issue around coronavirus as well as could have been done. Now I want to make it quite clear, absolutely there needs to be an international inquiry that gets to the bottom of how the virus originated, how it spread so quickly. But the smart thing for Australia to do given our diplomatic, our economic exposure in China, the smart thing for Australia to do would have been to ensure before we stuck a foot forward on this, we had an international coalition.  That it wasn’t just Australia speaking out and on its own …
CONNELL:  Well we got one.
JONES: …that we had a whole range of countries coming forward together at the same time and saying this is what we need in the interests of science.
CONNELL: We also got one though. Even China voted for it.
JONES:. Yeah but I don’t think anyone can say that was before Scott Morrison stood out, and probably more driven by domestic politics than international relations, and stuck his head up on this one. And what we can be absolutely sure Tom, we can be absolutely sure this has impacted us economically.  So not the smartest way to have gone about it.
CONNELL: I just want to ask quickly about industrial relations changes. We’re sort of reading the tea leaves at the moment. But on the better off overall test, which is a significant part of this, it seem as though the Government might not be quite as rigid. One example being that, it's actually an agreement in fact not a hypothetical, if thousands of workers were better off one worker wasn’t, the whole deal had to be scrapped. Is that too rigid?
JONES:  Look, I don't want to pre-empt the outcomes of the discussions that have obviously been going on between the ACTU, the business community and the Government on this. What we want to ensure is that we have a system that works. Works for business. Works for workers. There is no secret that the bargaining system hasn't been working well. It hasn't been working well, and there are changes that probably need to be made to ensure that it can work better and get better outcomes for workers, whether that's around the tests in place or whether that's around the procedures that are in place. But I will make this point. I think we've reached a point in industrial relations where it's quite clear that the capacity of workers, particularly low paid workers, to bargain collectively and get a better wage outcome has gone backwards. It's gone backward significantly and you've got a range of figures from The Reserve Bank Governor to serious business leaders are saying we've got a problem with wages. But nobody is saying all actually one of the things we need to do here is to ensure that workers can bargain collectively to get a decent outcome. So whatever pops out it's got to ensure that workers are able to bargain collectively and get a better outcome because that's in our economic interest.
CONNELL: I guess an interesting side note that is that people just aren't joining unions in the same numbers as they were, but that might be a conversation for another day.
JONES: Happy to have that conversation about what the reasons for that are. Because when you survey workers, do they like the fact that unions exist? And would they join a union if they were able to? Absolutely yes.
CONNELL: All right we’ll have to leave it at that. I’m going to get in trouble soon, we’ve gone over.
JONES: Good to be with you.