Burke hints at support for another big lift in minimum wage

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The Albanese government has given its strongest indication yet it will back another big lift in wages for millions of Australians, as inflation continues to bite.

Ahead of the latest consumer price index data, Employment Minister Tony Burke on Wednesday indicated support for another substantive rise in the minimum wage.

Official figures released on Wednesday show annual inflation was at 6.8 per cent in February, down from 7.4 in January. It was the second consecutive monthly fall since CPI hit 7.8 per cent in December.

Surging inflation, as well as the Reserve Bank of Australia’s 10 official cash rate rises since last May, has strained household budgets across Australia.

Asked ahead of the Australian Bureau of Statistics release, Mr Burke said “our values haven’t changed” as the government prepares its annual minimum wage rise submission to the Fair Work Commission. It is due on Friday.

“The thing that we must work our way through is there are some members of the workforce who have the least room to move with what’s been happening with inflation, and certainly the full award system goes all the way up to some people who are on significantly higher wages,” he told ABC radio.

“Last year, we put forward the principle that the focus needed to be on the people on the lowest incomes because they had the least savings, they had the least room to move.”

The minimum wage decision applies to as many as 2.7 million Australians, with increases taking effect from July 1 each year.

During last year’s federal election campaign, Labor leader Anthony Albanese backed a rise level with inflation. After Labor’s win, Mr Albanese’s new government said in its submission to the FWC that the minimum wage panel should ensure that the real wages of low-paid workers did not go backwards.

The FWC eventually opted for an increase of $21.38 an hour, or 5.2 per cent.

Submissions to the FWC on the wage rise for the next financial year close at the end of the month, with unions calling for an increase above 7 per cent. Media reports suggest unions would advocate for a wage rise for low-paid workers that matched inflation.

On Wednesday, Mr Burke said Mr Albanese had, as opposition leader, “absolutely” backed minimum wages keeping pace with inflation.

“You never photocopy a submission one year to the next. They’re never identical in every way. But as I’ve said, our values haven’t changed, and what you’ve referred to there is a pretty strong value statement from the Prime Minister,” he said.

Mr Albanese said his government would act in a way that was “absolutely consistent with our values”.

“What we don’t do in submissions, [as] we didn’t do it last time, was put a dollar figure on that,” he said.

Inflation at 6.8 per cent, showing signs of having peaked

Earlier in March, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher called for workers to receive a sustainable pay rise, but refused to say whether the government would repeat its call for a jump in line with CPI.

“For low-income workers, we want to make sure that they are getting sustainable and affordable pay rises,” she told ABC Radio at the time.

“Last year [we] didn’t put a pay figure on [the submission]. I think we made the argument that, particularly for low-paid workers, we wouldn’t want to see them go backwards, but we left it to the commission.”

Consultations will begin in coming weeks between the FWC, the government, unions and business groups before the wages decision is handed down in June.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said earlier in March that unions would finalise their submission in due course.

“When making our claim, the union movement will carefully consider all the pressures on the lowest-paid workers who are suffering through the biggest cost-of-living crisis in memory,” she said.

At the same time, opposition workplace spokeswoman Michaelia Cash said the Coalition backed the FWC’s decision-making process.

“This process takes into account all relevant information, which should lead to a balanced and appropriate outcome,” she said.

“Labor promised to increase wages for Australian workers and have so far failed to deliver with real wages going backwards.”

Opposition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan said any rise in the minimum wage needed to put downward pressure on rising inflation.

“Anything which is just going to raise and increase inflation growing in this country is to the detriment of our long-term interests,” he told Sky News.

“We have to get inflation under control in this country.”

-with AAP

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