Q + A - JUNE 9, 2013
LABOUR MINISTER SIMON BRIDGES, INTERVIEWED BY CORIN DANN
CORIN Well, Minister, thank you very much for joining us. And I don’t want to dwell on the Peter Dunne issue, but it’s relevant in this case in that this bill passed its first reading in Parliament largely thanks to the support of United Future. You may not have that support in future.
SIMON BRIDGES - Labour Minister
Well, we’ll see. I mean, I’m confident we’ll pass the bill. In one shape or form, we’ll have United Future and ACT or, I think as the panel was saying, a National MP, so I think we’ve got the numbers. I think it’s good law.
CORIN But if you had to have a by-election, for example, there could be quite a big delay.
SIMON Well, look, I think that’s very speculative. Let’s see what Peter Dunne does. I mean, ultimately, those are questions, I think, for him, but today we have the numbers. We passed it at first reading. I think it’s good law, and I think we’ll continue to pass it.
CORIN It must be disappointing, though, because it does highlight that you don’t have a big majority.
SIMON Well, you know, look, I think we have a majority, but this is MMP politics. We work with what we’ve got. National’s the biggest in the Parliament, the most popular party in Parliament by a long way and, you know, this example of, I think, putting forward moderate, centre-right law.
CORIN But that’s the issue. The unions don’t believe this is moderate or centre-right. They see it as far more divisive than that, so wouldn’t it be helpful for you to have a bigger majority to pass legislation which the unions feel is radical?
SIMON Oh, of course a bigger majority is always better, but in the end, law is law, and passing law still becomes good law. I think we’ve had the numbers and will continue to have the numbers. I think the reality is when it gets thrashed out at select committee, as it ultimately will, I’ll be proven right - this is moderate, centre-right government law. It’s not something like the official - that the unions said.
CORIN Where is the need for this? Where is the need to tamper with our employment law? It’s working at the moment, isn’t it?
SIMON Well, it’s working in a way. I think I could go through all of the discrete changes and point out to you parts of it that are unworkable, parts of it that are sloppy, parts that are creating real problems. But ultimately, if we have more fair, more flexible law, it creates more efficiency and productivity that flows through to profits and actually is the best, most sustainable way of getting higher wages for workers.
CORIN How will this help, though, the gap between the rich and poor in this country?
SIMON Well, I think over time, actually, it will. Primarily, it’s about fairness and flexibility, and what I mean by that is fairness is a two-way street.
CORIN But how will it reduce that gap?
SIMON Well, because, ultimately, with the series of discrete law changes we’re making- I’m not saying it’s going to save the world, but the changes that we are making, fundamentally- I could dress it up in economic language, but fundamentally mean that employers and employees are spending more time on ICT if they’re an ICT business, on getting containers into ships if they’re a port, rather than mucking round on protracted issues.
CORIN So the businesses are going to be more profitable; they’re going to make more money. What is to guarantee that that money is then going to be passed on to the workers? Because they’re losing their ability to negotiate those pay rise, because this, according to the unions, will reduce their ability to collectively bargain.
SIMON I simply don’t accept that. The reality is if you look at the history of labour law in this country, we had, I think, a rather purist approach with the Employment Contracts Act. We then got a significant move to the left with the Employment Relations Amendment law that Labour brought in. We are simply moderating that in some ways, yes, we think are fairer for employers. That’s the facts of the matter.
CORIN But they’ll be now able- for example, let’s take one issue; they will be able to walk away from bargaining.
SIMON Because that’s not good for anyone, what we’ve seen happening, frankly, at the Ports of Auckland, where you have medieval war of attrition, basically, where the last person standing gets to write the rules. It goes on forever. We’re recognising what Labour actually recognised when they brought that law in originally, which is that sometimes parties with the utmost good faith just can’t agree. And we say, ‘Look, get back to doing your business rather these protracted disputes.’
CORIN But that’s one case. That’s one case, but if we look at the overall workplace stoppages in this country, they’ve declined. I think there was 12 last year. Strikes aren’t an issue in this country.
SIMON But, fundamentally, that’s actually my point as well. That’s why we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
CORIN So was it because of the Auckland Port issue that you’ve done it?
SIMON Well, no. I mean, we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water. We’re not going back to some purist contracts model with no place for the unions. We’re keeping good faith as fundamental. We’re keeping freedom of association. These are moderate changes that in a series of areas make, I think, positive reform.
CORIN I’ll come back to the issue around, I guess, the lowest-paid workers, because they’re always the most vulnerable. And these changes always end up looking good and making sense, but for the vulnerable workers who might not be able to defend themselves or stand up for themselves, it weakens their position, and surely they’re the ones that should be being looked after?
SIMON We see that, for example, in 6A - that’s a reform there in relation to cleaners and so on - where the law had a good purpose, which is to protect vulnerable workers and give them continuity. Well, again, despite many businesses saying we should, we’re not throwing that law out. But there are a series of areas where it’s just unworkable, where businesses don’t know whose holiday pay they’re transferring over and the like. So that is pragmatic reform that we think works and does mean, actually, ultimately businesses can spend more time looking after their workers and doing good business, yes, making more profit, because, I don’t know about you, but in my life, whenever I’ve earned more, it’s because my business has been doing better.
CORIN Yeah, but those people on the bottom are earning minimal wages - $13.50 an hour. A lot of them are struggling. How on earth is that going to help them?
SIMON Well, I’ll come back to it. Look, I think, ultimately, this is moderate, centre-right law. It is about fairness and flexibility, and when I talk about fairness, there are a number of areas where the unions have had a lot of fairness and, actually, we want to level up the playing field because we do think the employers also have some rights to proportionate responses. Where there’s a strike, for example, at the moment, the employer’s options are really suspension or lockout. Well, why shouldn’t they if it’s a partial strike be able to say, ‘No, we are going to stop pay for half a day’? That’s more proportionate than having to go to some nuclear options, if you like.
CORIN And tea breaks and meal breaks has been one issue that’s sort of cropped up and people have talked about. So, effectively, an employer can now say to a worker, ‘Because of the nature of your work, we don’t want you leaving your workplace, your desk or whatever. I’m going to take away your right for a tea break or a 10-minute, you know, cigarette break.’ That seems pretty draconian.
SIMON Well, that’s not quite right. Now, if you believe the unions, that’s what they’re saying. They’re saying no one’s going to have a meal or tea break any more. Simply nonsense. Actually, the vast majority of workers, I think, won’t notice any difference.
CORIN I accept your point - the unions are probably seeing it from an extreme point of view. But, technically, an employer can do that if they think they’ve got a reasonable case for it.
SIMON Well, no, I doubt they could, actually. I think the courts would interpret it in different way, because fundamentally the law says they have to act reasonably, it has to be necessary, and where there are changes, there needs to be compensatory measures. But, you know, there have been a number of examples where someone’s on sole guard in a sole position where there does need to be some flexibility over what was a reasonably rigid, prescriptive model, and that’s what we’re changing. But I don’t think we’re going to see for the vast majority of people any feeling of change in that specific area.
CORIN Flexibility’s the big word here. You’re sort of saying that flexibility is required here to increase profitability, to boost the economy, to grow it for everyone, and that will help people hire more staff. I understand that argument, but, really, isn’t it about demand? That’s what’s going to drive jobs in this economy - demand for goods and services. Flexibility - these are minor things.
SIMON Oh, sure, I agree with that. I actually don’t- I would not-
CORIN So why do we need these changes?
SIMON I would not overstate the significance of this law, but is it a good thing? Yes, it is. Does it make a series of discrete changes that will improve efficiency, productivity and, therefore, profitability so that workers can get more, yes I do?
CORIN And it’s not just some ideological battleground issue that the business lobby groups have been in your ear about?
SIMON No. Look, if it was that, I can tell you it would be a much stronger, different bill than this one.
CORIN So you’ve pushed them back a bit, you’re saying?
SIMON Oh, look, businesses will always want changes in this area. As I say, look at the history of this, and I think that gives the lie to the union position. Employment Contracts Act, Employment Relations - this really is a series of minor amendments to that to improve it, to, I think, yes, even up the balance somewhat for employers, because I think we did go too far in the favour of unions. But I think it’s nevertheless moderate, pragmatic law change.
CORIN Simon Bridges, Labour Minister, thank you very much for your time.
SIMON Thank you.