Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Well, so far, the government's had a fairly easy time of it, with changes to industrial laws in this Parliament. A clear majority in the House obviously helps, and the Senate's been pretty supportive too. So, to gauge what's at stake this time, and to discuss other topics within her own portfolio, we were joined by Assistant Climate and Energy Minister, Jenny McAllister, a few moments ago.

Jenny McAllister, always good to have you back for our regular chats on Afternoon Briefing. Why don't we start with a matter gaining some prominence today, and that's the government's intention to give more casuals the option, under certain circumstances, to switch to permanent employment. Business is unhappy with it, which perhaps is to be expected, but how can you be sure that an application by a worker to make that conversion isn't going to come at some cost to them? That is, that the employer might refuse the application and then not give them as many casual shifts?

SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY: Well, it's an important point. Casualisation has meant a great deal for a lot of people. For some people, it's very convenient, but for other people, it has reduced the security that they rely on to look after their families. So, the option for people who are presently doing, essentially, permanent hours, whether they're full time or part time, to convert from being a casual into a permanent employee is something that we know will be very important for some families. Won't be for everyone, a lot of people like working casually, but for some people it can make all the difference. We know that we need to talk to employers about this and we need to talk to unions about this so that we can bring together arrangements that are workable and practical for everyone involved. But this is a commitment that we made before the election and we want to go back to the situation we had just two years ago, when there was a clearer definition of what a casual really was and a clear pathway for people to move to permanency, if, in fact, that reflected their actual work circumstances.

JENNETT: I see the Chamber of Commerce and Industry claims, and I don't think it's the first time they've made this claim, that the government's doing the union movement's bidding because they can't generate membership as well with a casual workforce as it can with a permanent one. How do you counter that argument

MCALLISTER: Our interest is creating an economy that works for all Australians. And as I said, we know that permanency can make a real difference. For example, a permanent employee can access sick leave. We all found out in the pandemic how important sick leave can be, not just for the employee, but also for their family and often, in fact, for their coworkers, who might prefer that a person who's sick actually has the financial capacity not to come to work that day and not to make everyone else in the workplace sick as well.

JENNETT: Is it cost-neutral, though? I think that's the argument that is put on these things. Sure, the casual would lose the loadings or the employer wouldn't have to pay those, yet they are going to have to pick up the costs of these other benefits which come with being permanent. How do we know they balance out

MCALLISTER: Well, the loading is calculated to roughly approximate the costs that would otherwise be incurred by the employer if they were providing annual leave and sick leave and all of the other entitlements that come with permanency. So, broadly, the expectation is that this doesn't provide a particular additional impact on the economy.

JENNETT: All right, let's move on to the Voice, Jenny. There's yet more indications that the Voice isn't trending in the direction that proponents would like it to be. Resolve Political Monitor I think in your home state of NSW has it dropping even further. What needs to be done to arrest this?

MCALLISTER: Look, we always knew that this was going to be tough. Winning a referendum question has always been a tough ask in Australian politics. But it is a really important question, a generous offer that was made to us at Uluru and we are determined to campaign alongside many other Australians of goodwill, who want to see this change come about. I think one thing to - viewers to know is that, of course, there are plenty of people who are yet to really engage with the question that's going to be asked of them some time before the end of this year. Our goal is to make sure that when people do engage with this question, they've got really good answers about why this matters, why it matters to Aboriginal people, the difference it will make and could make in closing the gap, and the importance of recognition to Aboriginal people in the Constitution.

JENNETT: Isn't that a concern, though, because I've read some analysis and don't know how accurate can be looking at referenda in the past, but there seems to be this belief that the longer a cohort in the middle is unsure, undecided, the longer they're there, the more they are likely to break to the 'no' side in referenda in this country. If that were the case, it's doomed, isn't it?

MCALLISTER: We are really confident that getting out there and talking with Australian people is the way to make this change come about. You know, I was talking just the other evening to a gentleman, he's active in his church, active in the multicultural community from which he comes, and he was just asking really great questions about how can he get involved, how can he get information to his church to help them get involved. There is enormous goodwill out there. The campaign is just beginning and I am really confident that the Australian people will open their hearts to the generous offer that's been made to them at Uluru.

JENNETT: Countering the arguments of the No campaign is going to be intrinsic to a lot of this activity in the months ahead, Jenny McAllister. I take it you'd be aware of recent remarks by prominent No campaigner Gary Johns, himself a former Labor MP. Amongst other things, I won't go through all of it, but amongst other things, he's referred to the Stolen Generation as work done by the church until the late 1960s that was, quote, "very sensible," providing food, shelter and bringing people in. How do you respond to some of those arguments put forward by Gary Johns?

MCALLISTER: Well, Mr John's views about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are well known, and they were well known to the Turnbull Government when they appointed him to a very highly paid government position. And they were doubtless well known to the No campaign when they decided to associate themselves with him and his opinions. I mean, these views are wildly out of step with the views of contemporary Australia. I don't think they will help the No campaign, and it's really up to the No campaign to explain why they wish to have a continuing association with Mr Johns.

JENNETT: We will put that to people, broadly speaking, on the no side when we get the opportunity. A final one, Jenny McAllister, in your own portfolio area of climate and energy. It goes to an announcement I think you made last week, why would taxpayers be putting money out towards what I assume are profitable supermarkets and other large users of commercial refrigeration to switch down their power use on refrigeration at times of high demand? I think that amount is about $10 million, or just shy of $10 million. Why is that a good use of taxpayers’ money in the market?

MCALLISTER: Well, as we move through the energy transition, there are a lot of technologies that we need to trial because they can help us make our way through the transition and the enormous change that we're going through in the energy system. A lot of your viewers will be familiar with the old off-peak electricity system. You can - used to be able to put your hot water system on so that it heated up at 2 in the morning when we didn't have that much demand for power, but the generators were still turning. This is the same principle being applied to the new configuration of technologies that we're using in the power system. We've got a lot of renewables producing energy in the middle of the day, but most of our energy consumption occurs either in the morning or in the evening. So, if we can shift some of those refrigeration tasks into the middle of the day, works better for the system, reduces the overall cost of the system. It’s good for everybody.

JENNETT: It's not done in anticipation or amid warnings of shortfalls, brownouts and the like possible this summer?

MCALLISTER: This is a trial to test how this technology can work. There are really interesting opportunities that come with digital technologies that can help us make the best of the renewables that are now in the system. This is all about that and getting a good deal for the Australian public.

JENNETT: Be very keen to see the results as they come through from that trial. Jenny McAllister, as always, great to catch up and we'll talk to you again soon, perhaps back here in Canberra.

MCALLISTER: Thanks, Greg.