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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27269

Dr EMERSON (1:19 PM) —I note that in the last two minutes five bills have been passed by the House of Representatives, proving the point that where good legislation is presented in this parliament Labor will support it. But on this occasion, with the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002, good legislation has not been presented in the parliament and Labor will oppose it. We assess bills on their merits; this bill has no merit.

In this bill the government is yet again seeking to tear away the safety net of employment conditions that has been assembled for working Australians over more than 100 years. The bill would further reduce from the current 20 to 16 the matters that can be included in awards and would put limitations on some of the remaining 16 matters. It follows the 1996 first wave of industrial relations amendments that restricted allowable matters to just 20. The government is always chanting the mantra of `choice', but when it comes to choice for employees and choice of matters that can be included in awards, the government wants to restrict choice. Do not take any notice of what the government says about choice. It is what the government does that counts, and the government is consistently trying to restrict choice for working Australians. After reducing to just 20 the number of matters that could be included in awards back in 1996, the government tried in its failed 1999 second wave of industrial relations legislation to further reduce the number of allowable matters. The Senate rejected that second wave legislation in its entirety.

The attempt to remove picnic day holidays from awards, which is in this bill today, was also in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Tallies and Picnic Days) Bill 2000. The picnic day aspect of the bill was also defeated in the Senate. In his second reading speech for that bill, the then minister—now the Minister for Health and Ageing—acknowledged that these provisions have been tried before. He said:

The government is now in a position to introduce a further single issue bill drawn from the More Jobs, Better Pay Bill 1999.

That was in fact the failed second wave bill. Now the government is at it again, obsessed with tearing away at the safety net of awards that prevents the working conditions of vulnerable Australians from falling to the floor. These provisions were unacceptable to Labor in 1999, they were unacceptable to Labor in 2000 and they are unacceptable to Labor now.

I want to spend a few moments talking about the award system. Australia's award system has been established over a period of more than 100 years. Awards ensure that conditions of employment cannot fall below a decent level. They ensure that employers cannot compete on the basis of reducing employment costs below an acceptable community standard. It is all part of Australia being a fair country. Awards are traditionally made and varied by the relevant industrial relations commission, which makes an assessment of what is fair in all of the circumstances of each case, following submissions by the affected parties.

The bill before us today subverts that whole process by simply taking away the award standards through legislation rather than giving the parties the opportunity to explain their respective cases before the commission. By doing this, the bill further weakens the role of the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. This is part of the government's concerted attack on the commission. In 1996 the government took away the commission's powers to settle disputes and to require parties to bargain in good faith. The commission's power to make awards was limited to 20 allowable matters in that first wave of legislation. The commission was required to undertake a complex and time-consuming process of stripping awards of non-allowable matters. This process would have to be repeated if this bill were to be passed by the parliament.

In the last few years, the government has blatantly disregarded the convention of making balanced appointments to the commission, stacking it with commission members drawn almost exclusively from business backgrounds. This bill continues the process of undermining the commission, by effectively saying to the commission: `It doesn't matter what you decide or what you think is appropriate for inclusion in awards; we the government will delete the bits we don't like through legislation'—a heavy-handed intervention by the Howard government.

The bill would remove a number of very important matters from federal awards, and I will go through them. It would remove skills based career paths—an absolute scandal. It would remove bonuses, long service leave, notice of termination, and even jury service. In addition, some allowable matters would be restricted. These include training or education matters, the right of unions to take part in dispute settlement procedures and transfers of one type of employment to another. Allowances would no longer include accident make-up pay. Cultural leave would be limited to ceremonial leave for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and other similar types of cultural and religious observation. Public holidays would only include government-declared public holidays, and therefore not union picnic days. The scope for awards to contain matters incidental to specific allowable matters would be narrowed.

I will now speak a little bit more about the removal of some of these matters. I turn to skill based career paths and training. Removing skill based career paths and training and education matters from awards is the Liberals' latest step down their road to a low-skills, low-wage Australia. In the 21st century the key sources of productivity growth are skills and ideas. Today's productivity growth is tomorrow's prosperity. What has this government got against skills formation? What has it got against the high road to high skills and high wages? Why does it want to strip out skills formation from our award system? I will explain exactly why it wants to do it: because this government supports the low road to low skills and low wages. The Howard government has failed to invest properly in skills formation in this country, jeopardising future productivity growth and the prosperity that flows from it.

This was neatly summarised by the Labor senators in their report from the Senate inquiry on similar provisions in the 1999 second wave of industrial relations legislation, where they said:

4.63 The proposal to remove training and skill-based career paths from awards indicates that the Government has not properly considered its amendments to allowable award matters, or is simply motivated by an unreasonable ideological desire to downgrade the Commission and its awards. As witness after witness pointed out during this Inquiry, it would be insane to remove training provisions from awards. It is not in the interests of the Australian community or the economy.

4.64 The amendment would send the wrong signal to employers and employees about the importance of training and skills formation. Many employers and employees have spent a great deal of time establishing industry-wide training frameworks. If these industry-based structures were removed, many employers may not have the time, resources or inclination to renegotiate training and career path structures for their own workplaces.

I note that business organisations such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have identified the need for greater skills formation in this country, and yet the government that says it represents business wants to strip skills formation and training out of the award system. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot on the one hand support the idea—which is a great idea—that skills formation is essential to future productivity growth in this country, and then strip skills formation and training out of the award system, as the Howard government seeks to do.

The Productivity Commission has found that skills formation failed to accelerate during the 1990s, making no significant contribution to productivity growth. A recently released report of the Productivity Commission, by Dean Parnham, revised in December 2003, called Sources of Australia's productivity revival, said:

... the weight of evidence suggests there was a slower rate of accumulation of human capital in the Australian workforce in the 1990s, which all else equal would have detracted from a productivity acceleration in the 1990s.

So the situation is that, during the 1990s, not only was productivity growth not assisted through skills formation but deceleration of skills formation would actually have detracted from productivity growth. So we have had a decade of record productivity growth, but there is a need to identify and invest in new sources of productivity growth, of which skills are probably the most important—and the government wants to strip skills formation out of the award system. It wants to consign Australia to being a low-skills, low-wage society, competing on wage costs against the countries of East Asia.

The government has entered vulnerable working Australians into a race to the bottom. It is a race that we should never have entered and it is certainly a race we would never want to win. Stripping skills out of the award system is callous and heartless, but it is the Liberal way. In doing so, the government is sacrificing the future living standards of working Australians by jeopardising productivity, the source of tomorrow's prosperity.

I now move to the second matter that would be stripped out of awards if this bill were to pass the Australian parliament: the ability to transfer from one type of employment to another. The bill would make non-allowable any provision dealing with transfer from one type of employment to another type such as full-time, part-time or casual work. We know the government's agenda here. Job security is a big issue in the Australian work force today. It is causing a lot of work related stress. More than 27 per cent of our work force is in casual employment. That amounts to 2.2 million Australians. Of those 2.2 million Australians, more than 60 per cent have been employed in the same workplace for more than one year.

Casual employment can play a valuable role in seasonal work by ensuring that there is ready availability of a seasonal work force, whether it is in agriculture, hospitality, retail or other industries. Casual work can also play an important role in the entry or re-entry into the work force of the unemployed. But casual employment has been abused in this country in circumstances where employees have been with the same workplace for five, 10, 15 and even 20 years at a time. Some casual workers—in fact many—may choose to receive a loading to compensate for having no job security or leave entitlements.

The government says it is all about choice, but when Labor says, `Let's give casual employees who have been employed on a long-term regular basis the choice to ask reasonably for a conversion to permanent employment,' the government says that that is crazy and should not be allowed. The government wants to make that choice unavailable for long-term regular casuals and yet it has the hypocrisy to say it is the government of choice. It chants the mantra of choice but it means choice for employers, not choice for employees. It does not want casuals to have the choice to at least make a reasonable request to convert to permanent employment in situations where they have been in the same workplace for a long time and have been employed on a regular basis.

Many of these casuals who have been employed on a long-term regular basis cannot get the job security that they want and need for both peace of mind and, importantly, access to a home loan and other bank loans. When casuals in these circumstances go to banks, they find they are confronted with the realities of what is called a low-doc loan, meaning a low-documentation loan. If a casual cannot provide a work history and an appropriate assurance in the documentation that they provide for the bank then they are consigned to a low-doc loan. The low-doc loan is offered at a higher interest rate or for a smaller amount than would be offered to someone who is employed as a permanent.

Consequently, if a loan is available at all to a casual it is restricted to low-cost housing—that is, only to housing which a casual can afford. That is the idea that this government loves: two Australias—one which has people who can afford to get into a home on a higher income and another which has people who are consigned to low-cost homes in outer suburban areas and rural and regional Australia. That is what this government supports: two Australias—one Australia that is affluent and another that is underprivileged and consists in part of casual workers who cannot even get a proper bank loan.

Last week the Senate Community Affairs References Committee brought down its report on its inquiry into poverty and financial hardship. That inquiry was bipartisan. It is very important to understand what it had to say about casual work and the prevalence of the working poor. The report says:

The prevalence of working poor households in poverty is due simply to low-wage employment. Driving this change has been a casualisation of the workforce in the last two decades and a more recent weakening of the industrial relations systems. Between August 1988 and 2002 total employment of casual workers in Australia increased by 87.4 per cent ... By August 2002 casual workers comprised 27.3 per cent of all employees, an increase of 7 percentage points since August 1991.

The report went on to say:

... because of the precariousness and uncertainty of their employment, career progression and training is often unavailable.

It says:

... the rise in workforce casualisation is the result of attacks on Australia's traditional industrial relations system.

Who has launched those attacks? The Howard government has, of course. The Howard government has launched those attacks and that is creating the problem of job security for long-term casuals.

The Industrial Relations Commission is currently in the process of putting provisions into awards to allow long-term regular casuals to ask to transfer to permanent employment if they so desire. Employers can refuse such requests if it is unreasonable for their business to agree to them. This provision is already in a number of awards, including the metals award and the hotels award. I do not see the metal industry collapsing under the weight of this light touch regulation. I do not see the hospitality industry collapsing under the weight of this light touch regulation.

The regulation is in existence in this country at this moment, but if this legislation were passed then that light touch regulatory approach would be removed and, along with it, the choice for long-term regular casuals to at least be able to formally request a conversion to permanent employment—so much for the government chanting the mantra of choice and flexibility. This bill would take the provision right out of awards that already have it. It would stop the commission from putting it into any more awards. Again, it involves the government removing choice for employees but, of course, not for employers. When the Liberals talk about choice they mean choice for employers. When they talk about flexibility they mean downward flexibility for working Australians.

The Industrial Relations Commission, with its skills and expertise in workplace matters, has decided that these casual conversion provisions provide an appropriate response to modern workplace issues. Not only is the government negligently ignoring modern workplace issues; it is stifling efforts by other bodies with innovative solutions to these issues and challenges.

Equally ridiculous is the proposal in this bill to remove long service leave from federal awards. Removing long service leave would mean that workplaces would revert to relying on state long service leave laws, which obviously vary from state to state. This could have adverse consequences for both employers and employees, depending on each particular award provision and state law. It is totally inconsistent with the government's own stated objective of having a unitary industrial relations system, which it sought to use to justify its Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 [No. 2] that was defeated in the Senate earlier this week. That bill would have effected a hostile takeover of the state unfair dismissal systems and replaced them with a weak federal system. The government said that the reason it wanted to do that was that it valued a unitary system. And yet in this legislation it is totally contradicting that position by wanting to take long service leave out of federal awards and make it a matter for the state systems.

As Reg Withers once said, `Consistency is the sign of a small mind.' The government certainly has a small mind here. The removal of long service leave from awards would particularly affect employers operating in more than one state, making it much more difficult for them to operate. It would mean that a multistate business that currently has one award standard for long service leave would instead have to apply several different long service leave standards, depending on which state the workers were in.

There is a proposal to change the allowable matter on public holidays to remove union picnic days from awards. I notice that the member for Canning is chuckling about this, because obviously he is someone who is not too committed to public holidays, as I will explain in a moment. The government is obsessed with this particular provision. As well as trying it on in 1999 it bowled it up again in 2000 with a bill specifically targeted at removing union picnic days and tallies in the meat industry. There is no logical reason to exclude this holiday from awards. I can only assume that the government does not like it because it contains the word `union'. Union picnic days are not only available to union members, so the member for Canning and all members of the government want to deprive working Australians of a public holiday.

In many awards it forms part of the core 11 public holidays to which all employees are entitled. So, if it were removed, would it be replaced by another public holiday? I doubt it. Maybe this is part of the government's solution to the ageing of the population: reduce the number of public holidays from 11 to 10. Not only work until you drop but, when you are of working age, do not take holidays—or take one less holiday. Is that the government's agenda? I will be interested to hear from the member for Canning. Does he believe that the Australian work force should receive one less public holiday? He probably does, because that is the Liberal way. Perhaps this is part of the government's work until you drop strategy. Perhaps it is some formula relating to productivity growth. But it is a mystery to me and an insult to working Australians who would be deprived of a public holiday if this provision were to go through. I will just point out, in relation to working until you drop—

Mr Randall —It is a rort!

Dr EMERSON —The member just said it is a rort, so he does want one less public holiday for the Australian people. Let that go on the record. The Treasurer warned the Australian people on 26 February this year that:

There's going to be no such thing as full-time retirement.

It sounds like there is going to be no such thing as 11 public holidays if this legislation gets through, as confirmed by the member for Canning. I will move on to jury service. Is that a rort too? Does the member for Canning support the removal of jury service from the award system?

Mr Randall —Madam Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. The member opposite asked me a question. Can I answer it?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Gambaro)—The member for Canning knows the appropriate forms of the House. It is not in order for him to answer a question. It is the member who is on his feet who has the call.

Dr EMERSON —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. He is getting a bit bristly now that he has been outed for supporting one less public holiday and he obviously has concerns about the provision for jury service in the award system. The government wants to remove the provision for jury service from awards. This provision ensures that employees are not out of pocket if they are called to serve on juries. Are the member for Canning and other members saying that Australians who are called to serve on juries should pay their own expenses, that they should pay their own way and be out of pocket? Is this part of working until you drop? Is this part of the government's agenda? Obviously so. Removing these provisions would make the administration of our justice system considerably more difficult and would place an unfair burden on those called to serve on juries. It simply shifts costs onto working Australians—again, the Liberal way.

The government says in its explanatory memorandum that the matters to be taken out of awards are `more appropriately dealt with at the enterprise or workplace level'. So you would have to go and get your public holiday reinstated at a workplace level. You would have to ask the boss if it was all right to have a public holiday. Labor supports enterprise bargaining, but it has to be underpinned by a fair award safety net. Continually tearing away at this award safety net is not the basis for fair bargaining. The changes proposed in this bill are clearly designed to reduce the bargaining power of employees in negotiations for agreements by reducing the base from which they start negotiating—by tearing away at that safety net. The changes will also have the biggest impact on those vulnerable employees with little bargaining power, who are not able to negotiate an enterprise agreement with their employer. That is again targeting the legislative changes to the most vulnerable of working Australians—the working poor.

If the government's other bill, the Orwellian-titled better bargaining bill, were passed, the bargaining power of employees would be greatly reduced as they would be severely restricted from taking any effective lawful industrial action. So on the one hand the government is reducing the capacity of employees to bargain and on the other it is taking away award conditions and saying, `If you want these back, you have to try and bargain with your employer, but we are going to make sure you do not have any bargaining power.'

In conclusion, the pattern of the government is quite clear. It wants to tear away at the safety net protecting the working conditions of vulnerable Australians. It is the same callous behaviour that is being displayed in its unfair dismissal bill, which is already a double dissolution trigger. It is the same callous behaviour that the government is displaying in the termination of employment bill, which seeks to take over the states' unfair dismissal systems and replace them with a weak federal system. That bill is also, as a result of its rejection earlier in the week, a double dissolution bill. This is the same callous behaviour that the government is displaying with its Orwellian style protecting the low paid bill, which would make it harder for the Industrial Relations Commission to grant minimum wage rises to the poorest working Australians in this country. These and other bills that make up the Howard government's dirty dozen bills are designed to keep vulnerable working Australians in this race to the bottom of low skills and low wages, and here is the government seeking legislation that would further deskill the Australian work force.

It is an absolute disgrace that we are even debating this legislation. How members of the government can come in here and argue for a further deskilling of the Australian work force when the Productivity Commission has found that skills formation decelerated during the 1990s and probably detracted from productivity growth is an absolute scandal. But they will do it without any shame—be assured of that. They will worsen the plight of the working poor in Australia and increase their numbers.

The Senate inquiry that I referred to earlier found that 21 per cent of households—or 3.6 million Australians—live on less than $400 a week, which is less than the minimum wage. It found that there were children aged eight to 10 who were regularly sent off to school without breakfast or lunch. It found that a Chinese migrant outworker was receiving $6 an hour to support her two children. Is this the Australia that we want? Is this the nirvana of a fully deregulated labour market, to which the Howard government is so committed?

It just astonishes me that this government can come into this place with this legislation and advocate a further deskilling of the Australian work force. The government's own Intergenerational Report forecast that productivity growth will slump back to its mediocre long-term average by the middle of this decade, which is only a year away. Australia's faltering productivity growth is hardly surprising when the Howard government has no modern economic reform agenda. It is hardly surprising when, over the last decade, government investment in education in Australia has fallen from 4.3 per cent of GDP to 3.8 per cent. That itself is a scandal. It is short-sighted. The reality is that this government, instead of apologising for the deskilling of the Australian work force, has brought legislation into this parliament to further deskill the Australian work force; to increase the number of working poor in this country; to take away any remaining bargaining capacity; and to take away a public holiday from the working poor. How much more heartless and how much more callous can a government get?

Mr Randall —You're a disgrace!

Dr EMERSON —The member for Canning has just used the word `disgrace'. He is absolutely right: this government is a disgrace. To bring in this legislation to deskill the Australian work force shows the true colours of this Liberal government—a government that wants to make health care available only to those Australians with enough money to buy it; a government that wants to make sure that only the sons and daughters of wealthy Australians can go on to university; and a government that wants to ensure that there are more working poor, that they have no bargaining power and that they have no skills to be able to go to an employer and command some decent wages. The government wants to tear away at that safety net. I can assure all decent Australians that Labor will oppose this legislation vigorously and use every resource at our disposal to make sure that this bill never sees the light of day on the parliamentary statute books of this country.

Mr Randall —What a disgraceful effort!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I ask the member for Canning to control himself. I call the honourable member for Herbert.