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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 15


Mr STEPHEN SMITH (10:03 AM) — The problem for the House and the problem for the Australian community is that these reforms in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 are not evolutionary; they are revolutionary. These reforms tilt the balance of power in the workplace so substantially against the employee in favour of the employer and do that in such an unfair way that they effectively change the culture that Australians have come to see in our workplaces. These are not evolutionary reforms; they are revolutionary reforms. The proof of that is in this very simple fact: we heard none of these things in the run-up to the last election, yet now they are so tremendously and terribly important that they have to be done or our economy and our international competitiveness will crumble, collapse and fall. We heard nothing of these things before the last election.

When did we start to hear of these things? We started to hear of these things when the government woke up on a Sunday morning in October last year and realised that it had all power under the sun. It realised that it had control of the House and control of the Senate and that it could do what it liked, and it would. Where did it return, when it appreciated, realised and understood on a Sunday morning in October that it could do what it liked? It returned to John Howard’s longstanding, ideological and political views about industrial relations and workplace relations—the sorts of views that he had adhered to and articulated in the sixties, seventies and eighties but had dropped off in the nineties and in 2000 when he came to appreciate that these views were not acceptable to the Australian community.

When did we start to hear about these extreme measures? When did we start to hear about these unfair measures? When did we start to hear about these divisive measures? When the government realised it had all power under the sun. What have we seen? On 26 May in this place, the Prime Minister gave a ministerial statement. On 9 October the Prime Minister and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations released an advance explanatory memorandum of 60 pages. We have had five months and $55 million worth of Liberal Party advertising, at the taxpayers’ expense, to get to yesterday and today. What did we find out about that advertising campaign? A very important illustration was made about that advertising campaign. A number of people who were involved in the production of the ads themselves said that they had been misled as to what the purpose of the ads was. A young hairdresser from Melbourne and a couple of employees from Sydney who worked in a workshop said, ‘We were told that these nice, friendly adverts were about workplace safety.’

If you cannot trust the government to be truthful even to the people involved in the production of the advertisements, how can you trust the government to be truthful about the content of the legislation? That is why the government wants to slide through 1,250 pages worth of bill and explanatory memorandum with minimum scrutiny. Introduce it yesterday, debate it today and slide through a Senate inquiry. Even when John Howard had Peter Reith and the alsatians and the balaclavas, you had a Senate committee that met for two to three months examining it line by line. Even with Peter Reith, alsatians and balaclavas, John Howard gave what he described as a rock solid, ironclad guarantee that no individual Australian employee would be worse off. In respect of these measures, he said, ‘No Prime Minister can give that guarantee.’ The problem for John Howard is that he gave it himself.

The reason he will not give that guarantee—the guarantee that no individual Australian employee will be worse off as a result of these changes—is that the public policy objective of these changes is to make people worse off. That is the public policy objective. By reducing their wages and removing or reducing their entitlements, the public policy objective of these measures is to effect a further shift in the total income of the economy from the wages proportion to the profit proportion of the economy. John Howard will not and cannot give the guarantee that no individual Australian employee will be worse off, because the public policy objective is to make them worse off. We often hear from the Prime Minister: ‘In 1996, all these things were said, and it did not occur then. It’s Chicken Little—it did not occur then.’ But guess what happened in 1996? Because the government did not have control of the Senate, the Senate effected something in the order of 150 to 230 amendments, knocking off some of the worst excesses of that which the government presented. So the sky did not fall in, because the government was not in the position that it is in now—all power under the sun and unbridled political ideology.

What do we find now? How does that attack on wages and entitlements occur? It occurs in a very un-Australian way. A lot of us have been poring over this bill page by page—and there will be a lot more detail that will come out in due course—and, as you turn over each page, redolent in each page is just how un-Australian these measures are. Why are they un-Australian? Because they make people vulnerable and they prey on their vulnerability. They make it easier for employees to be forced onto employment conditions which are inferior. They make it easy for employees to be dismissed without any remedy. The bill preys in an un-Australian way, in an unfair way, on vulnerability. Where we will end up as a consequence of these changes, if they are allowed to be implemented and effected, is with an American-style working poor. People at the lower end of the scale, on wages reduced in real terms and with entitlements and conditions stripped away, will rely, as the working poor in America do, on the tipping bowl mentality to try to make ends meet. That is where we will end up.

How is the attack effected on wages? The attack is effected on wages by the government’s attack on the minimum wage. The government’s objective is to reduce the minimum wage in real terms. If the government’s submissions to the Industrial Relations Commission had been agreed to by the commission, the minimum wage since the government came to office would have been $50 a week or $2,600 a year less. The minimum wage would have been reduced by the government in real terms by 1.55 per cent—not the 12 per cent increase in real terms that has been effected as a result of the commission’s activity. The government wants to get through the back door what it has not been able to get through the front door.

So what does it do? It removes the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, from the wage-fixing mechanisms. It establishes what it calls the Fair Pay Commission. I agree with Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald: if you are the ‘Socialist Republic of Mongolia’ and you are required to call yourself the ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Mongolia’, it is because you are not democratic. If you are required to call yourself the Fair Pay Commission, it is because you will not end up with fair pay; you will end up with unfair pay and low pay—and the proof of that is in the pudding. Yesterday in question time the Prime Minister denied that fairness had been removed from the requirements of consideration of the calculation of the minimum wage. And what do we find? We find the current Workplace Relations Act 1996 explicitly has at section 88B(2), ‘(a) the need to provide fair minimum standards ...’. In the government’s legislation, on page 29 of the bill in section 7J, ‘AFPC’s wage-setting parameters’, there is no reference to fairness.

So just as the government did when they shredded some of their advertising materials because their market research said, ‘You’d better put the word “fair” in because the community respond well to “fair”,’ they have labelled the wage-fixing mechanisms fair but have taken fairness out of the criteria. That is another classic John Howard mean and tricky approach where you pretend something is fair, you label something fair and what you do is pull fairness out of the criteria. Just as the bill is called Work Choices, this bill provides no choice—no choice for employees, only choice for employers. Where do we find that? We find that in the second bundle of the attack upon living standards, entitlements and conditions. The government in their adverts say, ‘These are all protected by law’—and what do we know? We know that the wage is attacked through the change to the minimum wage calculation entitlements, and conditions are attacked through the removal of the no disadvantage test and through the capacity of people to be forced onto individual contracts unfairly. Where do we find that? We find that in section 170WG of the current act which says:

(1)           A person must not apply duress to an employer or employee in connection with an AWA or ancillary document.

The bill as introduced repeats the same provision but states:

To avoid doubt, an employer does not apply duress to an employee for the purposes of subsection (5) merely because the employer requires the employee to make an AWA with the employer as a condition of employment.

It is not duress if you require an employee to go onto an AWA which is not protected by the no disadvantage test. Penalty rates, overtime, leave loadings: all those conditions are removed without adequate, any or just compensation. It is not duress to force an employee—a new employee or an existing employee—onto an AWA as a condition of employment.

What does the word ‘duress’ mean? The normal and natural meaning of duress is: coerce, compel, force, pressure, threaten, browbeat, bully, intimidate, demand. The government sits there and pretends that (a) there is no change other than to current arrangements and (b) nothing bad is going to happen. This is a monstrous, unfair, further shift in the balance of the bargaining powers between employers and employees.

How do we see the attack upon living standards? We see the attack upon living standards through the attack on a real wage increase in the minimum wage and an attack upon the removal of conditions and entitlements, forcing people unfairly onto AWAs or individual contracts without the protection of the no disadvantage test. That was a protection inserted by the Senate the last time there was substantial reform along these lines in 1996.

That duress—the coercing, compelling, forcing, pressuring, threatening, bullying, browbeating, intimidating and demanding—comes even before you get to the government’s unfair dismissal proposals, under which you can be unfairly dismissed with no remedy if you are in a company which has 100 or fewer employees. Four million Australian employees—98 per cent of Australian workplaces and 99 per cent of private employers—come into that category. And that is before you get to the change that the government proposes to make in terms of operational reasons irrespective of the size of the company. The new provision is at subsection 170CE(5D) and reads:

... operational reasons are reasons of an economic, technological, structural or similar nature relating to the employer’s undertaking, establishment, service or business, or to a part of the employer’s undertaking, establishment, service or business.

That is so wide that any decision by an employer to terminate an employment for so-called operational reasons will be justified by any ground. This is effectively giving Peter Costello what he wanted, which was to abolish unfair dismissals for all employees. And no compelling economic or other reason has been made out for these views.

There is a lot more that I could add, and that my colleagues will add, but I thought it appropriate that we give the House the opportunity, by way of a second reading amendment, to list in some logical order the A to Z of the reasons the House should reject this bill. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“the House declines to give the bill a second reading, because the House condemns the Government:

(a)   for failing to allow the House of Representatives and the Australian people proper scrutiny of the bill prior to the debate in the House;

(b)   for spending over $55 million dollars of taxpayers’ money advertising Liberal Party policy proposals before the Work Choices legislation has entered the Parliament;

(c)   for misleading the Australian people in those advertisements by making unsubstantiated assertions about the benefits of these changes and misrepresenting the extent to which employees will lose their rights under the Work Choices legislation;

(d)   for creating an industrial relations system that is extreme, unfair and divisive;

(e)   for failing to put working families first in developing its plans to dramatically change Australia’s industrial relations laws;

(f)   specifically, for failing to commission and publish a Family Impact Statement as promised during the election for all family related legislation;

(g)   for failing to provide a guarantee that no individual Australian employee will be worse off under the extreme industrial relations changes;

(h)   for attacking the living standards of Australian employees and their families by removing the ‘no disadvantage test’ from collective and individual agreements;

(i)   by allowing employees to be forced onto unfair Australian Workplace Agreements as a condition of employment;

(j)   for abolishing annual wage increases made by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for workers under Awards with the objective of reducing the Minimum Wage in real terms, and by removing the requirement that fairness be taken into account in the calculation of the Minimum Wage;

(k)   for delaying 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;

(l)   for undermining family life by proposing to give employers the power to change employees’ work hours without reasonable notice;

(m)   for destroying rights achieved through the hard work of generations of Australian workers;

(n)   for undermining the principles of fairness that underpinned the Australian industrial relations system for the past hundred years;

(o)   for gutting the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and eliminating the role of an independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions and resolve disputes;

(p)   for developing proposals that will deliberately distort the workplace bargaining relationship in favour of employers and against employees;

(q)   for denying Australian employees the capacity to bargain collectively with their employer for decent wages and conditions;

(r)   for denying individuals the right to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation;

(s)   for allowing individual contracts to undermine the rights of Australian workers under collective agreements and Awards, for instance by eliminating penalty rates, shift loadings, overtime and holiday pay and other Award conditions;

(t)   for removing from almost 4 million employees any protection from unfair dismissal;

(u)   for refusing to consult with State Governments in developing a unitary industrial relations system resulting in an inadequate and incomplete national system;

(v)   for launching an unprovoked attack on responsible trade unions and asserting that those unions have no role in the economic and social future of Australia;

(w)   for proposing to jail union representatives or fine them up to $33,000 if they negotiate to include health and safety, training and other clauses in agreements;

(x)   for ignoring the concerns of the Australian community and Churches of the adverse impact these changes will have on Australian employees and their families;

(y)   for failing to guarantee that wages will be sustained or increased in real terms under these changes; and

(z)   for seeking to justify these measures by asserting that slashing wages will somehow make Australia more competitive, more productive, and increase employment”.

This is the A to Z of why the House should reject these revolutionary reforms. The government’s measures are not evolutionary; they are revolutionary. The government seeks to justify these unfair, divisive and extreme proposals by saying they are necessary for our economy—as if somehow the slashing of wages at the lower end will magically increase employment, as if somehow by slashing wages we can compete with India, Indonesia and China on their wage rates.

We can only compete by investing in the skills, education and training of our work force, by being a smart and great trading nation and by investing in infrastructure, innovation, research and development. These are the things that will continue to sustain our prosperity, not an unfair attack in an un-Australian way that will see slabs of our community end up with the tipping-bowl mentality of the American working poor, who live in a world where they cannot make ends meet and where there is no family and work balance in a dog-eat-dog society.  Such a world is un-Australian, unethical and immoral and runs counter to the characteristics, values and virtues that have held our nation well for more than 100 years. These extreme measures are contemptible and should be rejected.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Is the amendment seconded?


Mr Griffin —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.