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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 16

Senator KIRK (10:23 AM) —I rise to speak to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, and to oppose these extreme and unfair laws that will punish the most vulnerable workers in Australia. This is bad legislation. It is unfair legislation and it is divisive legislation. Furthermore, it is family-unfriendly legislation. This legislation is a blatant stab in the back for Australian workers and their families.

Australians have never asked for this legislation, and the government never told us about this legislation at the last election. During the last federal election in 2004, the coalition parties made no mention of scrapping the award system or abolishing the no disadvantage test—that is, they made no mention of removing protection for penalty rates, overtime, leave loading and shift allowances; nor did they make mention of removing the setting of a fair minimum wage from the Industrial Relations Commission; nor did they make mention of abolishing unfair dismissal protection from employees in workplaces of up to and including 100 staff.

The Australian people do not want this legislation which is before us here today, a point that my colleagues and I will continue to make in this debate. But are Prime Minister Howard and his colleagues listening to ordinary Australians? No, they are not. Australians are now starting to see through this Prime Minister. They are starting to see him for what he is—out of touch with the wishes of the Australian people. By hastily pushing ahead with this ideologically driven bad legislation, this government is arrogantly and shamelessly trampling on the wishes and better interests of this country’s workers and their families, and the processes of parliamentary democracy. More and more, this government is showing its true colours. By allowing only one week for a Senate inquiry into a bill proposing the biggest legislative change to the system of industrial relations in Australia in over 100 years, it has abused, as it no doubt will continue to abuse, its Senate majority. At nearly 700 pages, and with explanatory memoranda of some 560 pages, the so-called ‘Work Choices’ bill is the largest amending bill ever considered by this parliament. To add insult to injury, hearings were scheduled in the week following the closing date for submissions. It is outrageous for the government to think that this was sufficient time for the Senate committee to properly consider the 5,000 submissions that it received concerning this bill.

During the Senate inquiry, Associate Professor Barbara Pocock, a research fellow from the University of Adelaide, provided an overview of a submission made by 151 Australian academics. The submission represented the views of a large, diverse group of Australian experts, including the majority of senior, experienced leaders in the field—31 professors and 28 associate professors from 26 institutions, with expertise in the field of workplace issues, including the disciplines of economics, management, business, law, psychology and industrial relations. Associate Professor Pocock summarised the submission as follows:

The proposed changes deserve a thorough public discussion, which the government’s timetable does not allow. These changes are, in our view, profound, they are not evolutionary, and beyond their intended consequences the bill has potential for serious unintended consequences.

We are concerned about the issue of complexity. One of the government’s goals is to reduce complexity. However, the bill adds a whole raft of new complexities, so we do not view this as deregulation; it is increased regulation.

There is the question of a changing balance between employers and employees. Employees and employers approach the labour market with different levels of power.

Internationally, labour law is designed to protect workers from exploitation and to ensure basic rights, including the right to organise and to bargain collectively.

The bill ignores these widely accepted views and shifts the balance in Australian workplaces—a historic and radical change, which is in conflict with international treaties to which Australia is a party.

We are concerned about increased inequality in the labour market arising from the bill. Such inequality has already been growing in Australia.

It has important social consequences, a large body of social research tells us, for things like social exclusion, violence and health.

Finally, the bill reduces the existing work and family supports in Australia, and it offers no general way forward to improve the important areas of labour law and workplace life. This has very important implications for future labour supply and for those least able to bargain for themselves, as well as for many other Australian men, women and children.

As I said, this submission was a summary of a submission made by 151 Australian academics, including some 50 or 60 professors and associate professors, from 26 Australian institutions in disciplines ranging from economics and business to law and industrial relations. This is not the view of just one academic.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before the Senate since I became a senator in mid-2002. Industrial relations legislation affects the wages, salaries, terms of employment and family lives of all Australian workers to an extent that is almost unsurpassed. It also has a profound effect on the economy and the labour market. This government has maintained, throughout its $55 million propaganda campaign, that these laws are essential to fuel economic growth and improve productivity in the work force, but it has failed dismally to make the case that this bill will improve the living standards of Australian workers.

This bill does not reflect the economic and social realities of the Australian workplace. Rather, it is motivated by this government’s extreme ideological and political agenda. This bill is a three-pronged attack on working families and their way of life. Firstly, it targets for destruction the wages and conditions of Australian workers. Secondly, it undermines the Australian way of life and in particular the Australian notion of the fair go, which as we know is a fundamental part of Australia’s national identity. And, thirdly, it attacks the trade union movement in Australia.

Despite the government’s deception in its publicly funded $55 million advertising campaign, this bill will lead to a decrease in the minimum wage that will leave working Australians worse off. By spending such an obscene amount of public money on propaganda, the Prime Minister has effectively shown that he is prepared to say, do and spend anything to get his extreme industrial relations changes through the parliament. That amount of money, $55 million—which is equivalent to the annual wages of nearly 1,700 registered nurses—could have been far better spent, with a direct benefit to the overall wellbeing of the Australian community.

The Prime Minister and his government have repeatedly refused to guarantee to the Australian people that no worker will be worse off under these revolutionary changes, despite continual invitations from the opposition for him to do so. Instead, the Prime Minister has insisted:

My guarantee is my record.

Sadly, however, this response does little to generate confidence in Australian workers once that record is subject to scrutiny. The Prime Minister’s reluctance to provide a guarantee that no Australian worker will be worse off is all the more startling given his enthusiasm to do so in 1996, when he introduced his last reforms to workplace relations laws. On that occasion, the Prime Minister quite promptly declared that no Australian employee would be worse off as a result of those changes. In the Prime Minister’s own words, that promise was ‘a rock-solid, ironclad guarantee’.

According to the Prime Minister, his record is that wages have grown by 14.9 per cent in real terms since he took office, and that the minimum wage has grown by 12 per cent in real terms. However, as the shadow minister for workplace relations, Mr Stephen Smith, has observed, the increases in the minimum wage over the last 10 years have occurred despite opposition from the government, which has consistently opposed decisions of the Industrial Relations Commission with respect to the minimum wage. Had the Industrial Relations Commission accepted the government’s submissions, the minimum wage would be $50 a week, or $2,600 per year, lower than its current level. If the commission had accepted the government’s submissions, the minimum wage would have been reduced in real terms by 1.55 per cent.

But this bill is designed to give the government a new chance to drive down minimum wages through the quite inappropriately named Fair Pay Commission. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will effectively be bypassed by way of this legislation. Prime Minister Howard’s record shows that we can expect to see a fall in the minimum wage, a move that will spell disaster for the nearly two million employees who are currently dependent upon it. The government’s attempts to drive down wages stem from its outdated economic view that lower wages will somehow improve flexibility and productivity. As numerous economists have said, there are few sound economic theories to support this view. For example, Mark Wooden, the deputy director of the respected Melbourne Institute, has expressed doubts as to whether there is any evidence that these new laws will boost productivity.

As my colleagues have observed, the economic basis of the government’s actions is that Australia needs to compete with India, China and developing nations in wages. All this amounts to is a race to the bottom, a race which Australia ultimately cannot win. Labor is of the view that more sophisticated solutions are needed to increase Australia’s international competitiveness. As the Leader of the Opposition has maintained, these solutions involve increased investment in education and training. Australia must become smarter. It must improve its infrastructure and improve the skills of its workers. We simply cannot compete with India and China and others on our doorstep by lowering wages and diminishing conditions. Apart from taking steps to reduce the wages of Australians, the government has introduced in this bill measures that will have a damaging effect on the conditions of Australian workers and their families.

One of the most significant changes that this bill makes to the workplace relations structure in Australia is its scrapping of the award structure. Under the present federal award system, there are 20 allowable matters governing conditions and entitlements for employees. The no disadvantage test is also in place to ensure that any individual or collective agreement does not place an employee at an overall disadvantage in comparison with a relevant award. Under the changes foreshadowed in this bill, the award system and the no disadvantage test will no longer safeguard the conditions of employees.

The bill establishes, as a minimum standard, four allowable matters in awards, including annual leave, personal or carers leave, parental leave and ordinary hours of work. These four minimum requirements will form the basis of the government’s so-called fair pay and conditions standard. At risk are public holidays, rest breaks, meal breaks, incentive based payments, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and loadings for shifts and overtime. These are some of the most crucial conditions currently enjoyed by Australian workers, and they are central to their way of life. All of them may be taken away from Australian workers at the stroke of a pen and without any compensation. They will not be protected by law, as the government claims.

The government’s frontal assault on the awards system coincides with a new and greater emphasis on Australian workplace agreements. Together with the abolition of the no disadvantage test, AWAs are set to become the government’s new mechanism for the removal of fair pay and conditions. The bill seeks to implement a radical departure from the existing requirements under the Industrial Relations Act by way of placing workers on AWAs. Under the present arrangements, AWAs may be made compulsory by an employer for new employees or for existing employees who have received a promotion.

The thrusting of AWAs onto employees and the simultaneous abolition of the no disadvantage test will be a tragedy for Australians and their families. By tearing up the no disadvantage test, the government has ensured that workers forced onto AWAs will not enjoy the protections they have under the award system. What will workers be able to say about being subject to inferior conditions? Absolutely nothing, if they wish to keep their jobs.

The government’s experiment with AWAs represents one of the greatest failures in the history of workplace relations laws in Australia. It is a source of great embarrassment and disappointment to the government that its much trumpeted AWAs have been such a dismal failure. To date, only four per cent of Australian workers are on AWAs. What has been the government’s response to the overwhelming rejection of AWAs? Has it sought to improve conditions? Has it sought to provide real incentives for Australian workers to enter into individual agreements? The answer is a resounding no. Instead, the government’s solution to the refusal of Australian workers to adopt AWAs is to make them compulsory. The government has done this out of frustration rather than any genuine attempt to reform industrial relations laws. It has done this because it is drunk with power after gaining control of the Senate, and now we are seeing how that is breeding laziness and cynicism.

AWAs are a euphemism in every sense of the word. They are contrary to the established system of industrial relations in Australia, with its long traditions in collective bargaining and enterprise bargaining. The title ‘workplace agreement’ is nothing short of deceptive. The bill does nothing to encourage agreement between employers and their employees. Rather, it places the balance in employer-employee relations firmly in favour of employers. It provides for a workplace climate in which employers will be able to call all the shots by insisting that employees sign away their conditions. There is no agreement at all in such a process.

I now want to turn my attention briefly to another of the government’s attacks on the conditions of Australian workers, and that is the removal of unfair dismissal laws in Australia. Prime Minister Howard has manipulated public perceptions of these laws to create the belief that workers will maintain their existing rights in relation to dismissal under the bill. The government, from the Prime Minister down, has loudly proclaimed that the present unlawful dismissals regime will remain. At the same time, it has fostered the perception that these will provide similar safeguards to the present unfair dismissal laws. The government’s aim in perpetuating this view is to blur the distinction between unfair and unlawful dismissal laws.

The fact of the matter is that the two are very different, particularly in terms of how they are initiated. Unlawful dismissal is a legal remedy that requires a dismissed employee to initiate legal proceedings in the Federal Court. Only a limited number of rights are covered under unlawful dismissal laws, and they incur all of the high costs and delays associated with legal action. By comparison, unfair dismissal laws offer a far simpler and less costly process. Most are settled within two months through conciliation. Unfair dismissal claims are initiated in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. As we are aware, it is this which is being attacked by the government. (Time expired)