Anthony Albanese has clarified that Labor would only support a 5.1% pay rise for the 2% of Australians earning the minimum wage of $20.33 an hour – and only after one was ordered by the industrial tribunal.
The opposition leader earlier this week said he “absolutely” supported a minimum wage rise in line with inflation but on Thursday made clear his stance did not extend to 2.7 million other workers whose pay was set by an industrial award.
Albanese said his earlier comments also did not mean Labor would push for a 5.1% rise in its submission to the Fair Work Commission.
Labor has focused on wages in the final fortnight of the federal election campaign, eager to paint the prime minister, Scott Morrison, as supporting a real pay cut for the lowest-paid workers with wages rising less than inflation.
But Albanese and senior ministers have been less than definitive about how its position would translate into a submission to the Fair Work Commission’s annual wage review.
The commission is accepting submissions until 7 June in a case that sets the pay of about one-quarter of Australia’s workforce.
The federal government’s submission to the review notes that less than 2% or 235,000 Australian employees are paid the national minimum wage of $20.33 – far fewer than the 23% or 2.7 million employees whose pay is set by an award. Morrison repeated that fact in Wednesday night’s leader’s debate.
In most years, the commission orders an identical increase to the national minimum wage and the minimums in 121 industrial awards, such as last year’s decision which boosted both by 2.5%.
On Tuesday, Albanese was asked if he would support a pay rise of 5.1%, the current rate of inflation. “Absolutely,” he replied.
The government has seized on the answer, incorrectly claiming that making a submission with a particular pay rise was unprecedented and arguing it would be inflationary.
The comment was widely interpreted as meaning the 5.1% figure would be contained in Labor’s submission – but Albanese refused to guarantee that in the final leaders’ debate on Wednesday night.
Although the Fair Work Commission “sets the wage” he argued low paid workers “don’t deserve a real wage cut”.
“Those low wage workers, people on the minimum wage, are cleaners, they’re people working in the care sector, they’re people who work in retail, they are people who helped get us through the pandemic,” the Labor leader said.
All three of the sectors listed by Albanese – aged care, retail, and cleaning services – are covered by awards.
On Thursday, Albanese told reporters in Gladstone that “this is about whether those people on the minimum wage in Australia get a dollar”.
“What I said the other day and I stand by consistently, is that if the Fair Work Commission makes a decision which says that real wages for minimum wage workers should not be cut, that is something that I would welcome,” he said.
The comments confirm that Albanese’s construction of his “absolute” pledge is an answer to a hypothetical of whether he would welcome 5.1% after a rise of that size is ordered – rather than in a submission before the decision is made.
Asked if he supported 5.1% rise across all industrial awards, Albanese replied that the commission “draws a distinction” between the national minimum wage and minimum rates in awards.
“What I am talking about here is people who are on $20.33 an hour, that the federal government says they should have their real wage cut.”
Earlier, Morrison told reporters in Bass that Albanese had “failed” to explain where he thinks “wages should or should not be”.
“He has had three positions on the one thing on one day,” Morrison said. “He knows he got that wrong. He knows he acted recklessly, and he’s been trying to cover his tracks ever since.”
Morrison argued that higher inflation would mean wage rises “would be clawed back in even higher interest rates and even higher inflation”.