Around one minute into employment minister Michaelia Cash’s interview with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, the Melbourne radio journalist summed up what was to come over the next nine minutes.
“Oh dear,” he said, as Cash struggled to explain the Turnbull government’s submission to the Fair Work Commission’s minimum wage case, which claimed that low paid workers are “often found in high-income households”.
While it offered little by way of opinion in its submission to the FWC’s recent decision to cut Sunday penalty rates, the Turnbull government had far stronger views for the annual review of the minimum wage, arguing an increase was “not an efficient way to address relative living standards or the needs of the low-paid”.
Mitchell wanted to know “how many of the 200,000 people struggling on $17.70 an hour are coming from high income households? How relevant is the minimum wage in that case.”
“The minimum wage is absolutely relevant and no one denies that,” she replied.
So Mitchell pressed for a number. Again and again. He wanted a figure for workers going home to “fat rich parents at home” or “going home to wealthy support”.
“That’s not what the government is saying,” Cash said.
“Yes it is,” Mitchell replied.
And on it went, with Cash trying to explain that: “Often what it is, is that they will have another partner that has a high income and they are part of the contribution to that household’s income”.
She accused Mitchell of trying to “pick and choose”, before deflecting that it was a detail “provided to us from the department”.
But he was undeterred, saying “If 99% of low income workers have got higher paid houses to go home to, then it’s entirely different than if it’s 1%. Now what is it? Do we know?”
She tried to fend him off again: “I think this is where the confusion lies. Very much. You need to look at the submission as a whole, OK?”
But he kept asking. More than a dozen times amid sighs, and the minister going “no, no, no”.
Here’s part of the exchange (edited for clarity):
MITCHELL: Minister, you don’t have a figure here, do you?
CASH: No, no, no. It’s not that we don’t have a figure.
MITCHELL: You do have a figure? Give it to me.
CASH: It’s very much that you need to look at the minimum wage review as a whole, OK?
MITCHELL: You’ve put this argument that many of the people on the lowest wage are actually coming from wealthier households. How many of them?
CASH: OK, OK.
MITCHELL: How many of them? That’s a simple point, how many, what percentage?
CASH: No, OK, I don’t have the figure, OK, but it’s not as simple as that, as I said, you pick and choose a particular line from the submission and then what you then lose is the totality of what the submission says.
MITCHELL: But you’ve got to be answerable to every line in the submission… You can’t say “that’s a line, that’s irrelevant”.
CASH: No. No. We’re absolutely not saying is irrelevant…. we provide contemporary economic information….
Around six minutes into the sparring, Mitchell pointed out the political problem for the government, already facing defeat in the senate over its tax cuts for business and plans to cut Sunday penalty rates.
MITCHELL: The point is, in political terms this line from your department – this line from the government – about low-paid workers being found in high-income households is poison. The electorate will look at that and say “You elite lot”. How many of the middle-aged women going and cleaning toilets in hotels today are going home to a rich sugar daddy?
CASH: No, no, no, no, please Neil.
MITCHELL: That is what you’re saying here.
CASH: No, no, no. I do take issue with that.
MITCHELL: Quote, “are often found in high income households”.
CASH: You are taking one sentence and you are distorting the fact. We have a national minimum wage and no one denies that there should be a national minimum wage.
Just under 2% of workers, 196,300, were paid the minimum wage in May last year.
The government’s 85-page submission warned the FWC to be cautious in an “uncertain economic outlook” arguing that any increase not supported by higher productivity or higher prices for customers and consumers will most likely cost jobs”.
Unions want a $45 per week pay rise. An number of employer organisations are for an increase of between 1.2% and 1.5% – between $8.10 and $10.10 a week – to just over $680 a week. Wage growth currently sits at 1.9% one of the lowest levels on record, while inflation is running at 1.5% and unemployment has increased 0.2% over the last 12 months to 5.9%.
Last year the FWC granted a 2.4% increase. Its next decision is due in June for begin in the new financial year.
Listen to the full interview here.