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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 4

Mr BEAZLEY (Leader of the Opposition) (9:13 AM) —I absolutely oppose this bill. This government, with total control, is out of control. It has turned its sights on that most basic protection of our people—a fair and decent wage. The bill is evidence of a government growing more extreme and arrogant and more out of touch by the day. It is the product of an extreme, outdated ideology—an ideology that has nothing to do with the challenges we face in the first quarter of the 21st century and nothing to do with the nation’s economic needs, but everything to do with the prejudices that one politician formed in the last quarter of last century. It is the most savage attack on the values of Australian society and the security of working families that I have seen in 25 years in this place.

The Australian public are just now getting to understand how un-Australian this bill is. They know it threatens aspects of the Australian way of life that they have held sacred for generations—fair minimum wages for all workers, decent working hours so families can organise to spend time together, penalty rates and shift loading. So much of this is now at risk; so many of these provisions will be eroded by this bill. This nest of termites will now eat away at the foundations of the living standards and security of working families. Month by month, year by year—there will be no cataclysm in this—workers who do not have strong bargaining power will see the steady erosion of their rights and entitlements, and those who do have strong bargaining power will be fewer and fewer in number.

Australians simply do not want this law. They do not want to wind the clock back to the 19th-century model of industrial relations, where employers enjoyed absolutely unchallenged power over employees enforced through individual contracts. Every published opinion poll points in the same direction—two in three Australians oppose this legislation. That is why the Prime Minister has been so desperate with it. It is why he has rushed this legislation into parliament—1,252 pages of legislation and legal explanation. Only after we twisted his arm did we get even 24 hours to make our way through the complex maze of this bill. It is why he has had to pull Andrew Robb onto the job, because his minister has done such a pathetic and unconvincing job of a sales pitch. It is why he has had to pull in Ted Horton and the Liberal Party advertising agency, Dewey and Horton, who runs their nasty election campaign ads. It is why he has had to pull in 11 big-city law firms to write the bill for him. It is why this government has had to steal $55 million worth of taxpayers’ funds—more than the entire spending on the federal election campaign by all the parties in last year’s election—to fund Liberal Party ads to try to change people’s minds about this disgusting law. Why do I emphasise these things? Because this is straight out of Liberal polling tactics, straight out of Liberal advertising; this is a pure political exercise of Liberal ideology.

The Prime Minister’s problem is this: no matter how much he tries to ram his ads down the throats of Australian families, he is up against something that is bigger than anything he has tried to do in his nine long years of office. This is not some technical argument about federalism and states rights, though every now and then they seem to retreat to that. It is not an academic debate about labour market institutions and productivity growth. It is not a textbook debate about backwards-bending labour supply curves. It is about basic values and the lives of Australian families. It is about the kind of Australia we want our kids to grow up in. It is about how mums and dads manage the difficult balance between work and family life. It is about whether we put families first, whether we say that what we value most in our society are family and relationships and a fair go for everyone, whether we still believe that being an Australian means respecting and valuing every person in this country—no matter if they are a kitchen hand, a nurse, a mechanic or a customer service representative.

Let me make this clear. John Howard picked this fight. And he is not just fighting the unions or the Labor Party; he is fighting against basic values that Australians do not want to lose—the right to a fair go and the belief that you deserve decent standards and decent protections, even if you cannot afford a big-city law firm to protect you in court. The real danger for John Howard in this law is not that Australians do not know enough about this legislation and need to be told more; the real danger for him is that Australians already know enough about what he is trying to do in this bill. They know exactly what it is all about, and that is why they do not trust him. Frankly, the more they find out about it, the more detail they get, the more the tide will move against him. But the Prime Minister assumes that, if he just shouts louder and louder and longer and longer, he will win the argument—like a child who does not want to face the truth but just blocks his ears and raises his voice to fever pitch.

And hasn’t it been a fever pitch for the last month? There is barely a place you can turn to—on TV, on radio, on Australian web sites or in papers—without being bombarded with this deceitful, misleading campaign. The real character of what is in this bill is shown up by the arrogance and deception that has characterised these changes from day one. If you want to know what is behind these campaigns, look at the tricks they have used to introduce it with this ad campaign. Never in Australian history have we seen such a partisan abuse of public funds. In other democratic nations you could not get away with this abuse. In other nations governments have fallen and leaders have been forced to resign for abuses of office smaller than this. You would go to jail for this campaign in the United States. These ads do not provide information; they provide disinformation, as every independent commentator has been saying for months. Australians will not accept what this bill tries to do to their way of life.

You can imagine what it must have been like in the Liberal Party strategy room when they first got the polling results back in June and decided to blow this money. Imagine the atmosphere. Mark Textor plonks down a slab of polling results showing that 70 per cent of the Australian community believe the changes are bad news. He says to the Prime Minister, ‘You’re in trouble. You just cannot sell this law to the workers. They’re not going to buy it; they don’t trust your motives; they don’t want to lose their holidays; they don’t want to lose the independent umpire; they don’t what lose their penalty pay.’ ‘If you’re going to win this debate,’ Ted Horton says in this gathering, ‘we’re going to have to turn the message inside out. Don’t tell them what we’re taking away; just tell them what we’re letting them keep, and bombard them every day and night until those poll numbers shift.’ We can tell exactly what the Prime Minister said in response: ‘Whatever it takes, whatever we have to spend. It is not Liberal Party money anyway. It comes from the taxpayers, so we can take as much as we like and to hell with it. They can’t vote us out now.’

We can see exactly the strategy they came up with. They will not tell us what the legislation really does. They will not tell us that it takes fairness out of the national wage case. They will not tell us that it takes rights against unfair dismissal away from almost four million Australians and compromises for all the rest. They will not tell us it allows employers to dismiss workers with no compensation simply by bringing in the lawyers and restructuring the business. They will not tell us that it smashes the award system, destroys the no disadvantage test—the foundation of a fair system of enterprise agreements. Instead of telling people what the legislation really does do, the ads tell us what the legislation does not do. It is like an arsonist who burns down your house who, as it all goes up in flames, just says, ‘Well, you’ve still got the garden shed protected by law!’

The whole aim of the ad campaign to sell this bill has been to create the false impression that the laws give stronger legal protection than people have now. That is exactly the message they convey. It is not an information campaign; it is a political advertising campaign conducted for the partisan political purposes of the Liberal Party. It is precisely what that great English writer George Orwell was writing of almost 60 years ago in his landmark essay, Politics and the English language:

… political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness …

…            …            …

… designed to make lies sound truthful …

Let us take a couple of examples of making lies sound truthful. Under the award system, Australians have 20 pay and condition standards that are protected by law. After this bill is passed, they will have just five. But the Prime Minister hopes that, by talking about the five and how they are protected by law, we will not know what is happening to the other 15 entitlements that can now be removed at the stroke of a pen—rights like holiday leave, redundancy pay and penalty rates. Take another example: employees’ rights to protection from unfair dismissal. The ads tell us that employees’ rights against unlawful dismissal are protected by law, hoping to confuse people about the difference between unlawful and unfair dismissal rights. An honest information campaign would tell people about the difference between the two sets of rights, and tell them that for 99 per cent of workplaces the government wants to abolish unfair dismissal rights completely. Instead, there is no mention of what is being taken away, just the misleading impression that nothing is changing.

Take another example—the example the government cites to show the benefits of enterprise agreements. The ads suggest that to enjoy the flexibility of these agreements we need to change the bargaining laws, but the fact is that the flexibility to improve work practices and to get higher pay is already in the system. It has been there in part since 1991 and in full since 1994, and it is what has underpinned the growth of real wages for 15 years—introduced by a Labor government. The bill does not make it any easier to increase pay; it just makes it easier to cut take-home pay because employers do not need to compensate workers for taking away entitlements like penalty rates, holiday pay and shift loading.

That is the breathtaking arrogance of the Prime Minister—taking millions upon millions of dollars out of the pockets of working Australians and bombarding them with a campaign that tricks them about the rights they have already got, that tricks them about what they stand to gain and that tricks them about what they now are going to lose. It is a typical mealy-mouthed, tricky, lawyerly deceit that has characterised John Howard’s prime ministership for nine long years. And it is a deception from the beginning to the end, because they know that they cannot let Australians know the truth about this bill.

But on this side of the House we will fight to let them know. As leader of the Labor Party, let me say how proud I am to be able to take the lead in this House in defending the rights of working families against the attacks in this bill. Let me say how much I look forward to the contributions of my colleagues as we dissect these 1,252 pages of infamy and expose this bill for what it really represents—the greatest backward step, the most systematic attack on the Australian way of life and Australian values, the most systematic attack that we have seen in a century in this parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Let me go straight to the government’s deceitful rationale for this bill, because we are going to hear a fair bit about that over the next few months and years. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations says it is about higher productivity. The Prime Minister yesterday was saying it was about the economy. Of course this government has never offered anything more than an assertion; it has never demonstrated any understanding or interest in the serious international economic debate about what drives productivity in a country like ours. If it was interested in understanding productivity, it would quickly learn this: its own policies—closing the door of TAFE colleges to young Australians, squeezing the universities, giving no priority to research and development and innovation—are the clear explanation for the slump in productivity growth in recent years.

Let us not forget that Australia is the only country in the developed world in the past decade that has actually cut public investment in education and training. The reality is this: if we do not invest in the skills of our work force, the only way we can compete is by cutting pay and fostering a competitive option for low-skilled, low-wage temporary jobs. You do not compete with India and China on the basis of skills; you compete with them on the basis of wages. And on the basis of that every Australian family goes to hell in a hand basket. That is the road the Liberal Party wants to take us down—as if we could compete with low-wage countries like China and India. And it has started already with the regulations gazetted by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs this week that set up a system of foreign apprentices in Australia, a system that gives employers the incentive to bring in apprentices from overseas because they know they will have absolute control over those workers. If they do not do what they are told, they lose their apprenticeship and they have to leave the country. How do young Australians compete with the low wages and poor conditions of overseas apprentices? But this is the bleak world that John Howard’s industrial and migration laws now are creating. It is a profoundly pessimistic view of Australians in the future, but it is all you have got left if you do not believe in investing in your own people.

Our view on this side of the House—Labor’s view—is completely different. We believe Australia’s future prosperity will come from competing on the basis of our creativity and skills, not by cutting minimum wages. That is why we need a genuine productivity agenda which allows businesses and employees to share the gains of both pay rises and profit rises. Let us not forget it was the Australian Labor Party that delivered the golden era of productivity growth in the 1990s. But it is the Liberal Party whose narrow, antiworker, antiskills ideology has delivered the productivity slump of recent years—great productivity growth under Labor, great productivity slump under Howard. What this country needs is not these 1,252 pages of extremism. What we need is a positive vision for raising productivity, not a negative vision for cutting pay.

First, above all else, our labour market policies need to focus on helping people to work smarter. It means recognising Australian workers as the greatest asset in our nation. It means investing in the know-how of Australian workers. It means rejecting short-sighted policies of cutting back the national investment in skills and education. It means giving every Australian school student the choice of a first-rate, specialist trades or technology high school. It means training Australian workers, instead of relying so heavily on importing 180,000 skilled workers from overseas. It means no longer turning away Australians from TAFE colleges, as the Howard government has done to 270,000 Australians. It means fostering better management practices and fostering innovation, like our competitors have been doing. It means national leadership to deal with our crumbling infrastructure. There is a genuine agenda for productivity growth: improved skills outcomes, better human resources management practices, a new approach to innovation, national leadership on infrastructure and competition policy. But instead we get this attack on the living standards of Australians from a government that has no ideas to raise productivity, just tricky ideas as to how to cut pay.

As our eyes glaze over with the mind-numbing complexity of these 1,252 pages of legislation, we might as well ask what we are doing in this House debating it today. If it is not about productivity, what is it for? The Prime Minister let the cat out of the bag some months back at the Liberal Party Federal Council meeting as he fought off rising internal opposition to this plan. As he said in his own words, industrial relations is just an article of faith for him. It is not a matter of reason; it is a product of brittle, extreme ideology. It is because John Howard has been obsessed with industrial relations laws for almost 30 years. And now, with unchecked power in this parliament, John Howard can impose his ideological vision on the nation. So Australian families now face the erosion of their work and pay conditions, all because of one man’s ideological obsession with an outdated view of Australian workers.

Australian workplaces have changed since Treasurer John Howard messed up his economic policies and oversaw a wage break-out of 14 per cent back in 1982. But John Howard has not moved with the times. What this bill shows is a plan to take us backwards to the 19th century world, even with the same arguments and language of the 1890s—the ‘freedom of contract’, the language used to justify employers having unrestrained power over their employees. More than a hundred years ago, Australia abandoned that. It was not under a Labor government. Indeed, it was under Alfred Deakin, who as Attorney-General introduced the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. With that bill, Deakin called forth a new era that recognised the rights of workers. I quote him:

Social justice is a lofty aim ...  We have trusted for centuries to the various tribunals erected for the administration of civil justice, and I hope that we shall begin from this day forth to trust to these courts for industrial justice.

There is no interest in justice in the Liberal Party of today. The Liberal Party is not the Liberal Party of the turn of the century in Federation; it is the pre-Federation Liberal Party with just a nasty right wing, hand-me-down ideology to Americanise our workplaces. Let us be plain and simple about this: it Americanises our workplaces. But I have got to say this: having had a chance to study this bill and knowing that that is what I thought their intentions were, actually American workers have more rights than Australian workers will once this bill is through. This has gone beyond Americanisation of workplaces—perhaps the South Americanisation of workplaces.

This bill is like, as I have said before, a nest of termites that in the months and years ahead will slowly eat away at the foundations of the living standards of our families. It undermines family life by proposing to give employers the power to change employees’ work hours without reasonable notice. It attacks living standards, removing the no disadvantage test from all our collective and individual agreements. It abolishes annual wage increases—made by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for workers under awards—with the simple aim of reducing the minimum wage in real terms. It delays the next national wage case by a period of six months so that at least 1.7 million workers under awards will not receive a wage increase for a period of 18 months or longer. It destroys the legacy of the hard work of generations of Australian workers. It undermines the principles of fairness that have underpinned the Australian industrial relations system for the past hundred years. It takes away the independent umpire who currently can ensure fair wages and conditions and resolve disputes.

It distorts the workplace bargaining relationship in favour of employers and against employees. It denies Australian employees the capacity to bargain collectively with their employer for decent wages and conditions. It denies individuals the right to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation. It allows individual contracts to undermine the rights of Australian workers under collective agreements and awards by eliminating penalty rates, shift loadings, overtime, holiday pay and other award conditions. It takes away any protection from unfair dismissal from almost four million workers and, frankly, seriously compromises it for all. A little known point in this piece of legislation is that for workplaces over 100 there is a right of unfair dismissal now if it is in the operational requirements of the company. That is before we get to analysing all the complexities in this which allow for constant restructuring of the work force, constant creation of greenfield sites in which for five years no strikes can take place and so on. It proposes to fine union representatives up to $33,000 if they negotiate to include health and safety, training and other clauses in agreements—and if they do not pay that fine they go to jail.

The dishonesty and deception is becoming clear. First, the government say they want to simplify workplace laws. But they have added 1,252 pages of complex law and legal explanation. Kevin Andrews could not get his own department to write the law. They had to hire 11 law firms to write it for them at enormous cost to the taxpayers. Second, they say the law will provide for fair wage decisions by the new Fair Pay Commission. But the bill does not even allow the Fair Pay Commission to take fairness into account when it comes to pay decisions. Right now, the AIRC makes wage decisions based on fairness—that is explicitly in section 88B of the current law—but, under section 7J of the new law, the Fair Pay Commission is not even allowed to take fairness into account in making its decisions. They have explicitly cut fairness out of the wage decisions for struggling Australian families.

Third, they say the bill aims to get rid of unions having a say in working conditions. But the bill gives the Liberal Party minister control over every wage agreement in Australia. There has never been such power for an industrial relations minister. The bill prohibits any workplace agreement from including what the minister decides is prohibited content. The minister can decide to prohibit anything he likes. Already, they have decided that they will slap a $33,000 fine on a union official who asks an employer to include a provision in the agreement that protects workers from unfair dismissal, a $33,000 fine for asking for union involvement in dispute resolution, a $33,000 fine for asking for a commitment to collective bargaining. So what comes next? What else will the Liberal Party prohibit? What other bans will they slap on the Australian workplace in their micromanagement of Australian work practices? It is an offence to try to negotiate anything the minister prohibits. So, with one stroke of a pen, a Liberal Party minister can interfere in every single enterprise agreement signed up in Australia, no matter what its character.

Fourth, it appears the bill will allow an employer to require employees to sign an Australian workplace agreement or lose their job. Section 104 of the bill says specifically that it is not duress for an employer to require an employee to sign an AWA. That seems to say, despite what the explanatory memorandum says and despite all the government’s claims, that an employer in fact can demand you sign the contract or you lose your job. We need urgent clarification of this because we know that the AWA can remove basic pay conditions that families rely on to survive from week to week such as overtime, penalty rates and holidays.

The Prime Minister tells us in this place that he is the workers’ best friend. With friends like this Prime Minister, who needs enemies? And here in this House yesterday, as he slapped the minister on the back and congratulated him on his attack on working Australians, we saw his mask drop. We saw the end to the pretence of friendship with working families. The Prime Minister has exchanged hypocrisy for vice. In the government’s extreme changes that we debate today, we see Australian politics stripped bare. Australian politics is reduced to its historic essentials in this debate. This is how Australian politics began: two opposing political forces, two opposing political ideas, on one side my party, this fighting Labor Party, a parliamentary vanguard at the head of a mass movement of millions, united to fight for mateship and the fair go at work, standing alongside the trade union movement—the other wing of the total Labor movement, that movement which has fought so nobly for so long for decent pay and conditions for ordinary Australians, which has stood up when it has often been hard to stand up, which stood up for people other than their union members, which stood up for fairness, decency and social justice in this nation for 100 years—and it is targeted in this legislation for jail, for fining and for destruction. And then opposite us: this lousy rotten tory mob determined to tear this country apart, to set family against family, friend against friend and to politicise every workplace.

In 25 years in public life, I have never seen a greater threat to Australian living standards than the government’s extreme plan—one man’s tired old dream; a living nightmare for all Australians. This fight will go on until the next election, and my party will go to that election on a platform to dismantle the system the government has put up, the injustices that are contained in it, and to put in place a balanced and fair industrial relations act. This law is gone. The Labor Party will fight to the end for the rights of working Australians. We will fight for a fair go for all Australians. We will fight for the rights of working families and decent work laws. We will fight for a strong safety net of minimum award wages and conditions, an independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions and to settle disputes, the right of employees to bargain collectively for decent wages and conditions, the right of workers to reject individual contracts and the forbidding of individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation, proper rights for unfairly dismissed workers and the right to join a union and be represented by a union. That is our party’s policy platform, if the government wants to know it. It appeared not to want to yesterday. Our party was created by working people and has been built on their determination, their dreams, their unshakable belief in a fair go for everyone, and we will never walk away from the right of every Australian to a fair go. (Time expired)