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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 34


Mr RIPOLL (11:22 AM) —Today I rise to speak on the government’s misleadingly named Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. It is anything but that, and it is completely removed from truth. As its title suggests, the bill proposes amendments to Australia’s industrial relations laws which will, by the government’s own admission, effect the greatest changes to Australia’s industrial relations framework for more than a century.


Mr Johnson —You’re not a shadow minister, get back to your spot! What are you doing at the table?


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—The member for Ryan has completed his speech.


Mr RIPOLL —Today I want to outline why Labor is opposed to these changes by highlighting the very simple fact that these legislative measures have absolutely nothing to do with offering working Australian families real choices in the workplace, and least of all to do with providing a platform for future growth and expansion of the Australian economy. Today’s debate also provides an opportunity for me to spell out to the House and to the people of my electorate my commitment, and that of my party, to ensuring that working Australians have good and fair employment conditions. This is one of Labor’s foundation principles, and a principle which the party has held central to its existence during its long and illustrious history as a political force in this nation. It is one built on the community. Labor has, in the words of one of its finest parliamentarians and one of our nation’s great prime ministers, Ben Chifley, been a movement committed to ‘bringing something better to the people’—‘better standards of living’ and a ‘greater happiness to the mass of the people’. This bill does none of these things. In fact it is contrary to these exulted ideals and will fundamentally affect our Australian way of life. It will affect it for the worse. Greatest of all, it will not do it immediately but it will be a slow burn that affects people for the rest of their lives.

At this point I would usually look at the bill in detail and offer my support to the measures being proposed or explain my reasons for opposing any of the changes to Australia’s laws that this government might be seeking to implement. But here I have got the 1,252 pages that were dumped on the table yesterday—giving the opposition no time to examine these complex and difficult changes. They are the most radical changes in 100 years and we were given no time to examine them. We had barely 24 hours to digest this complex 1,252-page bill. The government had an army of lawyers—11 law firms—on top of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and the government’s own lawyers, working on this complex legislation that it calls simple. If it is so simple, why is it so long and why did it take 11 law firms to get it right?

The government has introduced a bill which will implement laws that will have a profound impact on Australia and our way of life. But instead of offering those here, who have been elected to represent their constituents, the chance to debate this legislation in a considered, proper and democratic way, the government has chosen to ride roughshod over Australia’s parliamentary process. This is a contemptuous display of arrogance by an out of touch, out of date and out of control decade-old government that is more interested in pursuing tired and outdated ideological measures that have no relationship to a modern Australia, and that certainly have no relevance to advancing the industrial relations system in this country. And the government has the audacity to speak about choice—or even use the word ‘choice’—in relation to this despicable bill!

Nevertheless, the best way I can comment on the content of this bill is to draw on what the government has been saying over and over, in a numbing performance of government advertising. It is over-the-top, outrageous Liberal Party propaganda which has been masquerading as government advertising. In pursuing this ideological attack on the rights and conditions of Australian workers and families, the government has embarked on one of the most outrageous, costly and wasteful advertising campaigns in modern history. This government has an impressive track record, though, of wasting taxpayers’ money on shameless party-political advertising.

For instance, who could ever forget the so-called ‘Strengthening Medicare’ debacle? The federal government wasted more than $20 million of taxpayers’ money promoting their scam safety net. This money would have been enough to cover every bulk-bill consultation in my electorate of Oxley and half of those in the neighbouring electorate of Blair for a whole year. But, before the ink was even dry on the election writs, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing broke a key election promise by raising the cost at which the so-called safety net cuts in. They broke this so-called ironclad, rock solid guarantee. It was an ironclad, rock solid, never-to-be-broken guarantee. The government literally sprayed $20 million worth of taxpayers’ hard-earned money up on the wall.

But wait, there is more. As always with this government, the devil is in the detail. Last financial year alone the government spent $137.7 million on advertising. Since coming to office in 1996, the Howard government has wasted more than $1 billion on campaign advertising, much of it political propaganda that should have been paid for by the Liberal Party. The government has admitted it has already spent more than $55 million in just over a month on mind-numbing ads that people cannot bear to look at anymore and that tell you absolutely nothing about what is contained in these 1,252 pages of disgraceful so-called reforms. The Senate estimates this week have shown that the government will spend more in the coming months. We were not far off when we said that it will probably spend close to $100 million. Advertising legislative changes when there has not been legislation passed in the parliament, and when there is not even a bill in the public domain for debate, is not the action of a responsible government. It is all hubris. It is arrogance, and it is just not on.

The reality is that the Australian people expect better and deserve better—they deserve better than what the government are giving them. This is a complete and utter waste, and the public knows it and is sick of it. If anything, these ads have actually backfired on the government. The government think they are really clever. They are treating people as though they are stupid. These mind-numbing ads that they have put on television, on radio and in print media over and over again are straight out of the Goebbels propaganda handbook. If the government think that that is all it takes to convince ordinary Australians and working families that the government are not deceiving them on these issues, they are wrong.

The government may have actually twigged that people are not that stupid, that they have some idea of what the government are about. I do not think anyone out there in the community is fooled. All these changes—everything that is contained in the two volumes—are not about giving anybody a pay rise or making anything fairer or simpler. It is simple: it is all about cutting wages; it is all about taking conditions off people. The government will talk about all sorts of rubbish in this place and attack Labor on a whole heap of fronts and they will talk about the so-called economy—they will talk about all these things—but where is the structural reform in our tax system? Where is the reform in infrastructure? Where are the building blocks to deliver the next 15 years of economic growth and prosperity in this country? The building blocks were not delivered by the government; they were put in place during the eighties and nineties under successive Labor governments. We put in the building blocks and we will have to do it again when this mob here wreck the economy. They are doing everything except dealing with the future—the next 20 years of economic growth.

Just last week the federal member for Fisher, Peter Slipper, let it slip—the slipper let it slip—when he said that the multimillion-dollar ads were a dud. Just like the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and just like this government on this issue, they were a complete dud. This is what Mr Slipper had to say:

I don’t think the ads are as effective as the Government would like them to be.

In other words, people are not buying the absolute rubbish being walloped out to them. They do not buy it. He went on to say, ‘I hope that we are going to change the ads’—not stop them, not give people real information, but just change the ads. Maybe there will be a different colour and a couple of different words, but that is it. The ads are going to keep coming—but do you think they will fool people?


Mr Hardgrave —Ha, ha!


Mr RIPOLL —The minister at the table laughs. You can laugh all you want. Government members can snicker. They are not laughing at me, they are not laughing at us—they are laughing at ordinary Australian families. They are laughing at the workers of this country—the people who are the backbone of this country.


Mr Hardgrave —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I claim to be misrepresented. I simply say to the member for Oxley that I am happy to encourage him in his speech, but I will not be misrepresented in that way.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Quick)—Order! There is no point of order.


Mr RIPOLL —This is what government does when it does not like hearing the truth. Do not worry about what I have to say, Minister—worry about what Australians have to say. I can tell you that the phone calls are coming thick and fast. Maybe they are not coming to your office and maybe you do not even know they are coming, but let me tell you that people are just starting to wake up to what you are on about. A commentary by Glenn Milne published in the Australian this week summed up the whole sorry saga. Milne argued that the ads have rewritten political history at an excessive cost and are clearly ineffective. You cannot keep telling rubbish and lies to the Australian people, because they will figure out what you are doing.

The government’s agenda should be about improving the nation’s health care system. That is what they should be doing. In just two days, the government’s spending spree on advertising could have paid for the annual wages of 80 registered nurses and 92,000 bulk-billed GP consultations. It could have covered the cost of employing 1,700 nurses in a hospital for a year. Investing in the next generation of skilled workers would have been a better spend, instead of wasting this huge amount of money.

When I talk to employers in industry, the first thing they ask me is: ‘How do we get more skilled workers?’ They do not ask: ‘How do we lower wages?’ They want to work with their work force; they actually want to work with people. They want to look at the building blocks. What is government doing for industry? What is government doing for infrastructure? Nothing. All we get from this government is ideologically driven rubbish. Skilled workers is the answer for the next 15 years of growth. That is how you spur on the economy—not by introducing rubbish legislation that will lower wages and knock unions on the head. That is all this government is about. John Howard gave up the ghost when he said the industrial relations plan is ‘an article of faith’. It has nothing to do with commonsense, nothing to do with the economy, nothing to do with any rational examination of what this country needs. He just said that it is an ‘article of faith’. It is ideologically driven. It is his lasting legacy, his last hoorah as a Prime Minister who wants to be remembered for having introduced the most extreme, radical industrial relations changes in this country for over 100 years.

What about investing in our children, our education and those sorts of things? Our neighbours are investing in education. While we are decreasing funding to universities and university places, our neighbours are increasing funding. The OECD average is going up; ours is going down. They are creating more university places because they understand where future growth lies. It is not in producing 1,252 pages of absolute garbage to attack ordinary families; it is about improving our creaking and crumbling infrastructure. Where is the roads infrastructure to have better delivery of freight? Where are the railheads that we need? Where are the efficiencies in our ports? Those matters are not being dealt with. The government are not even interested in delivering efficiency in our ports. They do not even talk about it. It is not on their agenda. On their agenda is a simple little phrase by the Prime Minister giving away what this is all about—‘an article of faith’. It is pure ideology—the worst thing in politics you can possibly ever have. Where is the taxation reform? Where are the things that the government need to do? People, business, employers, employees—everybody is screaming out for the real taxation reform that they need. Those are the things which will deliver the growth that we all need.

Even the Business Council of Australia would have chosen a whole range of things instead of these ads. They have put out their own ads, and while I may not agree with everything that the BCA might say, they are certainly right on the need for a whole heap of reforms. But the government are simply not up to the task. We see these ads being shot with people who do not even know what the ads are about. They have to pay the boss six grand. He does not know what they are about, either. They do not even tell the workers because, if they told them, the workers would say, ‘Go to buggery, we’re not going to let you film us doing this sort of stuff.’


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order!


Mr RIPOLL —We have had a range of incredible things. This legislation will simply destroy the working conditions for ordinary Australian families. John Howard and this government want to take away the rights that underpin family life in this country. We hold those things sacred. It is about our lifestyle. We already are the hardest working nation in the world. A lot of people may not know this statistic: we actually beat the Japanese last year—we worked more hours than the Japanese. We are the hardest working people in the world. What does this government want to do? Make us work harder? It is not about working harder; it is about working smarter. Isn’t that the call? It is about working smarter. You do not deliver growth by lowering wages and trying to compete with India or China. We will never beat them on wages, but we will beat them on ingenuity, innovation and technology. All the growth in First World nations and all the things that deliver prosperity to us were never built on driving down wages; they were built on innovation, on using our brains and on working smarter, not harder. Squeezing people, hurting people, does not deliver better outcomes for this country or for anybody else.

We oppose what this government are trying to do. They have taken ‘protected by law’ as the mantra, the spin—protected by absolutely nothing! We have already got laws that protect these things. In fact there are 20 allowable matters currently protected under the law. The government are saying, ‘We’re going to protect five.’ Gee, that is an increase! The government are responsible for slashing the tax act from 3,500 pages to 9,500 pages! It stands this tall. That is the complexity and the red tape introduced by this government. They are going to reduce people’s sick leave entitlements, halve annual leave, make you work harder and give you fewer holidays. People already do not take enough holidays. People should be encouraged to actually spend some time with their families. You do not develop a strong economy and a strong Australia by breaking up families. Divorce and family breakdown costs this country billions of dollars. We need to be out there encouraging better workplaces, better innovation, better technology. These are the things that Australia needs and demands. People deserve this; the country deserves this. And we are getting nothing.

Taking away people’s unfair dismissal laws is absolute rubbish. The government talks about protecting people’s unlawful dismissal. Be careful about the words this government uses: there is a big difference between ‘unfair’ and ‘unlawful’. Unlawful is already protected—that is why it is called ‘unlawful’—but this government will carry on with a whole heap of rubbish. The last thing that this bill is about, as with most bills this government introduces, is the short title. Just look at the short title on the front: Work Choices. It is not about work choices; it is about less choice.

I did as best I could to go through this mass of information and see what is in there. There are jail penalties for people revealing what is in an individual workplace contract. Jail? You are going to send somebody to jail for six months for doing that? What sort of a country are we living in? There are $33,000 fines for people. Even if you are a representative of workers and you ask for, say, an unfair dismissal law to be included in a contract, you can be put into jail. It is a jailable offence to ask for it—not to put it in but to simply ask for it. Incredible stuff. If it were an Orwellian fiction, you would get a good laugh out of it, but then you realise this is actually going to be Australian law. It is certainly not a laughing matter. I cannot find anyone laughing.

The only people I see laughing are this mob opposite. This mob keep laughing, but they forget they are not laughing at us here. We are the representatives of people in our electorates. Every time you laugh, every time you snicker, every time you ridicule—like you did with shearers—you are laughing at good strong Aussie workers who have built this country: shearers, truck drivers and ordinary people out there earning a decent living, earning minimum wages. When you laugh at us, you are laughing at them. When you belittle us in this House, you are belittling them, and they do not appreciate it. Shearers do not appreciate being laughed at at all.

The simple question we have to ask of this government and the Prime Minister—and we have asked it many times—is: will you give a guarantee that no-one will be worse off under these radical, extreme industrial relations laws? The Prime Minister is not prepared to do it, because he cannot—he knows he is taking away the no disadvantage test. Not only is he getting rid of the fair umpire, its arbitration and conciliation, but he is going to get rid of the no disadvantage test so that you can be disadvantaged. Why else would you get rid of a no disadvantage test? So you can be disadvantaged. He will not give a guarantee to the Australian people that they will not be disadvantaged. This government is taking us down a very dangerous road—a low-wages, low-economic path of trying to compete with our neighbours and the rest of the world on wages. We will never compete on wages. We will never be able to compete with China on wages. We know where we can compete: we will only ever compete using our brains, using innovation and using technology.

What we are enjoying today is a historically significant period of economic expansion. We have had low inflation, productivity growth, low unemployment—well before this government came to office just over nine years ago. They did not build that 15 years of economic growth. They did not build it; they had no hand in that. All they have done is use up the goodwill and the good economic measures that we introduced—the very painful, very hard reforms that we put in place—for the future, for the next 20 years, when we were in government. That is the work of a government—you have to make the hard decisions. This is not a tough decision about trying to produce good productivity and economic growth.

Take a look at Queensland. If you were an employer in Queensland, why would you trade the lowest unemployment rates, the lowest inflation rates, the lowest tax and the best industrial relations system in this country for the federal system, which is worse by half? Why would you do that as an employer? There are more disputes under the federal system than under the state system. We in Queensland have actually enjoyed a decade of one of the lowest dispute levels in this country because we have put in place something called enterprise bargaining—enterprise agreements, collective agreements—simple quality backed by awards and backed by minimum standards. That is what the government should be doing instead of trying to— (Time expired)