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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 54

Mr CREAN (12:43 PM) —I rise to oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and to support the amendment moved by the member for Perth. This bill represents the most retrograde step in industrial relations since Federation. I know it will be bad for families and I fervently believe it will be bad for the economy because of the impact it will have on productivity in the workplace where we have to develop cooperation and get the team working together. I notice that the member for Mitchell, who just spoke, has left the chamber but he urged the trade union movement to move forward in this debate—to look forward. The trade union did, in the eighties. I was privileged to lead it. But it was able to move forward because it had a government that was prepared to work with it to try to address the pressing needs of the nation—in particular, how to get inflation under control, how to become more export oriented and how to drive productivity through the workplace.

As President of the ACTU, I remember talking to the then industrial relations spokesman for the Liberal Party, one John Winston Howard. He came to see us about the accord and never came back after we had taken him through what it was we were trying to achieve for this nation. The current Prime Minister never embraced the accord, but he now wants to claim credit for the lasting benefits that the accord introduced. That is just sheer hypocrisy. And I might just say it is not the trade union movement, as Mr Cadman would have it said, that is steeped in the past—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Baldwin)—Order! The member will refer to members by their seat.

Mr CREAN —The member for Mitchell. It is this government that is steeped in the past. This bill is steeped in the past. It is built on obsession and it is built on ignorance. It is an obsession that is blind to the experience and blinkered to the opportunity of this nation. This bill involves the most massive legislative reweighting of power to employers since Federation. It gives the minister unprecedented powers to intervene. It destroys collective bargaining. It makes it easier to sack people. How do you increase employment and job security by making it easier to sack people? Yet that is what this bill does. It also guts the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It can, through ministerial intervention, abolish the right to strike and it massively limits unions in carrying out their legitimate role.

The Prime Minister calls this the Work Choices bill. I call it the no choice bill. If anyone has any doubt about that, just look at clause 104 as an example. It is headed ‘Coercion and duress’. Clause 104(5) states:

A person must not apply duress to an employer or employee in connection with an AWA.

That is unremarkable and, indeed, is commendable: no duress by either side. It would be fine if it stood alone, but it does not stand alone. I urge the House to look next at subclause (6). It says:

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.

I repeat in a more succinct form what that provision says: an employer does not apply duress merely because he requires the employee to make an AWA. Give us a break. The message in that provision, writ large to all employees in this country, is take the AWA or take the sack—take the AWA or you do not get a job. That, according to the bill, is not duress.

Despite what the explanatory memorandum has to say, the bill makes no distinction between new employees and existing employees. Also, it is something the employer can insist upon at any time, including unilaterally, even when the collective agreement is in existence. Think too of the double standards inherent in this bill. Littered through it are penalties, fines—call them what you like—on employees and unions for being engaged in duress. But employers, coercing their workers by insisting on AWAs, not only are encouraged to do so by this legislation but are specifically exempted from any penalty. What is fair about that? What is fair about that fundamental dimension of this legislation?

Collective bargaining is essential to protect people’s living standards because, simply put, an individual up against the boss is not a fair match. I ask those parents that are listening to this today: do they really think that their young son or daughter going to their first job is a fair match one out against an employer who has been in business for yonks? Does anyone really believe an individual, vulnerable because a company is restructuring, is a fair match for an employer prepared to demand anything of the employee? Of course they are not. That is why unions were formed, because there had to be a representative role by which you could reweight, in a sensible way, the balance in the workplace.

If anyone has any doubts about that, I refer them to the Bakers Delight case. Everyone knows Bakers Delight—a baking franchise all around the country. I have previously raised in this House the issue of Deanna Renella, a year-10 student employed by that company. The judge in the case remarked that it was ridiculous to suggest that she was in an equal bargaining position with her employer. Do not just take my word for it; look at what the judge said in this case. What did Deanna have to do to get a job? She was given a two-page pattern AWA that gave her a flat rate of $8.35 an hour. It provided for no annual leave, no annual leave loading and no sick leave. She was underpaid, according to the judge, by 25 per cent.

The judge in her case was able to order restitution to get her her entitlements because the AWA was not properly filed. It was a technical breach, but the fact is that there were 50 other employees in that company paid under precisely the same AWA conditions for whom restitution could not be ordered because, in their cases, the AWAs had been validly signed. All of those other 50 employees remained on a pay rate 25 per cent lower than the award provision. There is another irony in this of course: this bill says that a union cannot insist on pattern bargaining across businesses, but the employer in Bakers Delight can insist upon an AWA being a pattern, being identical, across all—if they want—Bakers Delight outlets. I ask again, what is fair about that? Why have we got this bill so heavily weighted against the unions and so favourably weighted to the employer?

Another interesting thing is that this 25 per cent underpayment occurred while the Prime Minister’s no disadvantage test was in existence. If a person can be paid 25 per cent less than the award with a no disadvantage test supposedly protecting them, imagine what is going to happen when the no disadvantage test is abolished. Of course, the Prime Minister has abolished it. He promised before the last election that there would be a no disadvantage test; now he will not stand by it. Anyone who thinks there is not going to be exploitation and reweighting against poor, vulnerable workers in this country should think again. It has happened with the no disadvantage test. The no disadvantage test has been stripped away and this bill enables any employer to rock up to an employee at any stage of the game and say, ‘That’s your AWA: take it or leave it.’

Not only is section 104 a mechanism that gives the employer the whip hand but nowhere in this bill is there a requirement for the employer to bargain in good faith. Think about that too. I think this is a very revealing circumstance. If anyone has got any doubt, have a look at the Morris McMahon dispute. I attended a meeting of the workers back in 2003, from memory. That was a circumstance in which the work force, collectively, wanted to bargain with the employer. The employer simply said, ‘I refuse to bargain,’ and under the conciliation and arbitration act there was no requirement—because the government had taken it out—for the employer to bargain in good faith. This bill does not prohibit that refusal to negotiate. I ask people to reflect on this seriously, because we all know that disputes can only be resolved by negotiation, not by intransigence. But this protects an employer’s intransigence.

Collective bargaining is also undermined in this legislation, with the huge array of new powers in the hands of the minister to intervene. He can intervene to overturn decisions and to declare certain matters out—I think they call it ‘prohibited content’. He can intervene to suspend industrial action and he can be backed by heavy penalties, $33,000 fines, for circumstances in which unions merely ask for something to be included in negotiations. Make no mistake; this bill destroys collective bargaining in this country. Labor will emphatically insist on the rights of workers to collective bargaining. We will ensure that right in legislation and repeal those provisions which undermine it. We will also legislate to require employers to bargain in good faith.

There is also a claim that this bill is good for the economy because it is encouraging the focus at the enterprise level. This claim is fatuous in the extreme. Let us understand the history of this—and I ought to know because I was heavily involved. Labor introduced enterprise bargaining in 1987. I think it was in Accord Mark III. The collapse of the Australian dollar at that time—the banana republic time; everyone remembers that—necessitated moving away from a centralised wage-fixing system to one based on the enterprise and on productivity. Wages were required to be linked to productivity. We as a trade union movement and a labour movement understood that and we developed a response of smarter, more efficient ways of doing things and of building those into the negotiations to create smarter workplaces and more efficient workplaces. It was a hard adjustment, particularly for those industries which had been protected, where the tariff levels were coming down, and which were being exposed to greater international competition. But this was a brave, bold and selfless decision that the trade union movement took together with the political wing—the government of the day—in the interests of securing this nation. The end result was the biggest step up in productivity that this country has ever seen. This is what the government now wants to ditch.

It is very interesting that New Zealand has gone down the path of the individual agreement. Labor and this current government have up until now embraced collective agreements based around the enterprise. That is what has delivered this country the big step up in productivity. If there is any doubt about that, I have a reference here to a Professor Peetz from Griffith University, who did a study on this that showed that the productivity of the Australian system was superior to that of the New Zealand system. That is the legacy of a sensible approach, yet it is not a system that the government proposes for us. Productivity has already fallen back in this country because the government has failed to invest in research and development and failed to invest in the drivers of economic growth such as skills and infrastructure.

The productivity of this nation will fall again. Why? Because the government is creating an environment of division, fear and insecurity, all leading to non-cooperation in the workplace. There has to be a circumstance where this government creates an environment for genuine negotiation and genuine sharing of the benefits of the business. That is a smart way to drive this economy forward. Cohesion and partnership in the workplace have delivered for this nation and for its people. The Prime Minister, of course, wants to break that.

I go to the Prime Minister’s claim about real wage growth under him. This is his catchcry whenever people say, ‘What about the no disadvantage test?’ He says that real wages have grown under him in every year. That is true—but, as the member for Reid says, they have grown despite him. The truth is that real wages growth did not begin when he became the Prime Minister. They began before that, in 1991. What has allowed this country to deliver real wage growth each year for the past 14 years is the fact that this nation, through the accord, broke the back of inflation. This country, through the accord, locked in low inflation. Unions and their members selflessly accepted real wage reductions to lock in that low inflation. They then committed to lifting productivity by linking future wage growth to productivity.

That remains a magnificent commitment. Yet this bill attacks the very best of the organisations that helped to deliver it. Despite economic difficulties with its rank and file, this was a trade union leadership through its organisational structure that understood the importance of doing this for the nation. That selfless act has been rewarded in the most disgraceful and ungrateful of ways. We know from bitter experience that you cannot believe a word that the Prime Minister says. Now, with control of the Senate, he shows that he is beyond showing a scintilla of gratitude.

We need to understand what we are facing with this legislation. This is a radical step back to the past. This will entrench division. This will make people insecure in the workplace. This will lead to a cutting of their wages. This provides for no effective underpinning and no effective security. Of course we have to have a profitable economy, and we have to drive enterprise and productivity. But there has to be fairness in the system as well.

As I have said on previous occasions, there is no point in joining the race to the bottom. If people really think we should compete with China and India by driving wages to the bottom, I will disagree with them any time, fervently. But I also know that, if we cannot compete on the basic wage structure, we have to compete on a smarter basis. But you are not going to get a commitment to that smart approach—a commitment to doing things differently, creatively, intelligently—unless you take the people in the work force with you, rather than divide them, play one off against the other and try to have some cute excuse where they turn up one day and are presented with a piece of paper and someone saying, ‘Sign up to that or you’ve lost your job.’

We are a better society than that. I have led a trade union movement and I have been part of a political party and part of a government that has been proud to work in unison with the working people of this country to advance the interests of this country. I am damned if I am going to put up with government coming in here and recreating the division. The country does not need it, and the bill should be opposed. (Time expired)