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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 62


Mr BOWEN (1:23 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, you bet we are not committed to these reforms; they will take the Australian workers to a place they have not been to in many decades. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is the most important legislation that I have spoken on in my time as a member of this House, and it is likely to be the most important legislation that I speak on for a very long time. It almost goes without saying that industrial relations legislation has a massive effect on people’s everyday lives. It affects the salaries, the conditions and the balance between work and family for millions of ordinary hard-working Australians and, of course, it also affects the economy. We heard a bit about the economy from the member for Cowper, who outlined Labor’s reforms in the period after 1983.

This government mount the case that this bill is necessary for the economic health of Australia, but they failed to successfully prosecute that case. It is certainly true that an economy cannot afford to rest on its laurels, and Australia needs to continue to reform. The government’s reforms, however, show an obsession with driving down wages rather than driving up productivity. They are obsessed with slashing working conditions instead of improving the education and skills of the work force. They are driven to compete with other countries on the basis of low wages instead of high skills—and the member for Cowper came very close to admitting that in his address. This economy is in desperate need of reforms that improve research and development levels which have suffered for much of the last 10 years from this government’s changes in 1996. Only now has Australia returned to the level of research and development that we had when the Keating government lost office in 1996.


Mr Albanese interjecting


Mr BOWEN —As the member for Grayndler quite rightly points out, now they are turning their attention to trashing the CSIRO. Instead, the government is obsessed with racing countries like China, Taiwan and other trading competitors to the bottom when it comes to wages. The most galling thing about these changes is that at this time these nations are racing us to the top. Nations like China are taking their universities to being the best in the world. They are reforming their education sector and have enormous amounts of research and development. Thomas Friedman, in his latest book The World is Flat, makes the point very clearly and compellingly that when a nation tries to compete with countries like China on wages it is kidding itself. Successful nations will be the ones with a world-class tertiary education sector, innovative and entrepreneurial industrial sectors and first-class communications.

The government claim that we need a more decentralised bargaining system to drive up productivity, which has been disappointingly low in recent years, but they have not provided any evidence to support this contention. I am drawn to the conclusions of the 17 leading academics in the field of industrial relations who issued a paper earlier this year dealing with the ramifications of the government’s proposals. The experts wrote:

The Government’s claim that the individual contracts deliver higher productivity is highly questionable.

These experts did a very interesting comparison of productivity growth in Australia and New Zealand over the 1990s, when Australia had a comparatively centralised bargaining system. They found superior productivity growth in Australia—not in New Zealand with the punitive industrial contract system that the New Zealand government implemented but in Australia. These experts pointed out that productivity growth for the two nations had been similar up until that point. Promoting economic growth and productivity growth is not the primary motivation for this legislation; the primary motivation is ideology.

I am going to do something very unusual in this debate, particularly for a Labor member: I am going to pay the Prime Minister some credit—and I know the member for Grayndler is going to be surprised to hear me pay the Prime Minister some credit. But to give credit where it is due, in the 1970s, John Howard identified industrial relations as an area that needed to be reformed. He was almost a lone voice in the wilderness in the Liberal Party. There were only a few of them—John Howard, John Hyde, Peter Shack and Gerard Henderson—and they argued in the Liberal Party that industrial relations needed reform, but they could not deliver it. Even though John Howard was Treasurer at the time, he could not deliver it. It took Labor to deliver industrial relations reform, to bring an enterprise focus to bargaining and to deliver industrial reform, which led to increased productivity. The government might not like to hear it, but it is true—they cannot deny it—it was Labor that introduced enterprise bargaining. John Howard argued that it should happen when he was Treasurer and he could not deliver it.

But now the world has moved on, and we have seen massive reforms in industrial relations—the enterprise focus that we could not have dreamt of in the 1970s when John Howard was arguing as a lone voice in the Liberal Party that reform was needed. But he stuck to the same ideological agenda. The ideological agenda that was laudable in the 1970s is laughable in the 21st century. He is like one of those sad, pathetic Russians you see on television clinging to a photo of Joseph Stalin, longing for the old days, sticking to the old ideology as though the world has not moved on and saying, ‘If only Joseph Stalin could come back; if only we could have the return of Father Joe, everything would be all right.’ John Howard is stuck in his ideological time warp of the 1970s. It is the Australian people who will pay the price for this Prime Minister’s ideological obsessions and his foibles.

This is a very big and important bill. It runs to 687 pages, and it will be impossible for me to deal with each aspect, but I am going to deal in turn with what I regard as the bill’s major ramifications. Let me start with Australian workplace agreements. This government introduced Australian workplace agreements in 1996. In 1996, it put into its legislation a much trumpeted no disadvantage test, meaning that a contract could not have conditions worse than those in the appropriate award. It did not do this voluntarily. It did it because the Senate of Australia insisted on it, because the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Democrats combined to insist on a no disadvantage test. This bill rips up the no disadvantage test. This is what we get for having a government with control of the Senate.

What is worse is that this bill makes AWAs very close to being compulsory where an employer chooses to make them so. Section 104 of this bill states quite clearly that an employer can make an AWA a condition of employment. At the moment, due to Federal Court interpretations of the Workplace Relations Act, an employer can make an AWA compulsory for a new employee or for an employee who receives a promotion within the firm. This bill takes that a lot further. It says that it shall not be duress if an employer makes an AWA a condition of employment. It does not say ‘at the beginning of that employment’. It does not say ‘in the case of a promotion’. It merely says that an employer can make an AWA a condition of employment. Therefore an employer, at a time of their choosing, can make an AWA a condition of employment.

This is a terrible pincer movement. We have the government abolishing the no disadvantage test, ripping up the test which says that AWAs need to be equal to or better than the award and at the same time effectively giving employers the opportunity to make AWAs compulsory. It is offensive to call this the work choices bill. There is no choice when you make a contract compulsory. This is not about choice. How can government members say with a straight face that this is about choice when the bill enables employers to force individuals onto contracts.

The no disadvantage test, as I mentioned, was installed by the Senate back in 1996. This government, with its arrogant control of the Senate, is now in the process of ripping up the no disadvantage test. I believe that this is the most pernicious part of this bill. This is the most pernicious clause of a bill which is pernicious in many ways.

Why are we seeing this double attack on AWAs—this pincer movement—in abolishing the no disadvantage test and at the same time effectively making AWAs compulsory? It is because the government is so disappointed with the take-up rate of Australian workplace agreements that we are seeing. I think four per cent of Australian workers are currently on Australian workplace agreements. Many of these are in the federal Public Service. Many others are in the mining industry. If you look across industry generally, you will see very few AWAs. This government trumpeted them as the answer for the Australian economy, but the take-up rate has been appallingly low.

The government have gone away, scratched their heads and thought about how they can improve the take-up rate of AWAs. Instead of saying, ‘Let’s make the conditions better; let’s make them more attractive,’ they have effectively said, ‘Let’s make them compulsory.’ What an outrage. This government pay $55 million—not of their money but of taxpayers’ money—for ads on television saying that this is all about choice and they introduce a bill which takes choice away.

Let me turn to other aspects of the bill. The next most pernicious aspect of this bill is the unfair dismissal clauses. With the laws regarding unfair dismissal gone for employers with 100 or fewer employees, the employers now have the right to unfettered hiring and firing of their enterprise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that this leaves 3.7 million Australians without protection from unfair dismissal.

It is worth stressing that there will still be protection from unlawful dismissal. When the various antidiscrimination acts come into play, unlawful dismissal stops employers from removing employees for discriminatory reasons. That would be unlawful. According to official figures, only 147 unlawful termination claims have been lodged in the Federal Court since 1996. Over the same period, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission has processed more than 50,000 unfair dismissal applications.

Unlawful termination cases are much more costly, complex, time consuming and difficult for employees and employers than the much simpler unfair dismissal claims. I want to stress that these unlawful claims are just as complex and costly for employers as for employees—and especially for small businesses. Small businesses do not have the resources to go off to the Federal Court and defend unlawful dismissal claims.

Labor has long proposed sensible, reasonable reforms to unfair dismissal provisions to make it easier for small businesses to deal with them. This government has rejected the opportunity to take up Labor’s reforms. It would have been easy: Labor would have joined with the government in this House and in the other place and passed sensible reforms to streamline unfair dismissal legislation to make it easier for small businesses. The government has rejected that opportunity and has instead gone down the ideological road. It has gone down the road of abolishing the rights of employees in firms with fewer than 100 employees.

The government says that this is necessary to create jobs. Again, it fails to prosecute this claim. We have seen all sorts of claims about small business creation. The most outrageous claims have been based on a telephone poll, hardly the most rigorous of analysis. I refer the House to the study by Associate Professor Rowena Barrett, one of the 17 academic experts who I referred to earlier. Associate Professor Barrett finds:

There is no clear and convincing evidence that shows that an exemption of small business from UFD—

unfair dismissal—

will generate new jobs in small business (whether this is 50,000, 53,000 or 77,000).

Associate Professor Barrett says that there is not clear and convincing evidence. This is not about job creation; this is about ideology—that same ideological obsession that we saw from the Prime Minister in the 1970s writ large in the 21st century when he now has control not only of this place but of the other place.

I now wish to turn my attention to the so-called Fair Pay Commission, which the member for Cowper lauded so eloquently in his speech, which will introduce the land of milk and honey—everything will be okay now that we have a Fair Pay Commission. I cannot put it better than Ross Gittins, the well-respected economics writer in the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote that, if a nation has ‘Democratic’ in its title then it is certain to be undemocratic. You can be certain, with the government having put ‘Fair Pay’ in this commission’s title, that it is about anything but fairness.

Because the Prime Minister has failed in persuading the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the independent umpire which has existed for 100 years, to follow his extreme views about cutting the minimum wage, he is now going to remove the umpire and appoint a commission of five handpicked commissioners to set the minimum wage. Why is he doing this? Because John Howard has made a submission to the Industrial Relations Commission every year for the last 10 years on the minimum wage. If his submissions had been adopted, the minimum wage would now be $2,600 lower than it is now.

If the government had had their way over the last 10 years, the minimum wage would be $50 a week lower than it is now. So, of course they are outraged that the Industrial Relations Commission has shown some independence—that the Industrial Relations Commission has weighed up their application, considered the application of the ACTU, considered the applications of the state governments and come up with a fair ruling, quite often halfway between the two. So they are taking away the power of the Industrial Relations Commission and giving it to the Fair Pay Commission, which will have five handpicked commissioners and remove 100 years worth of involvement in the minimum wage by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Like so many aspects of this bill, the government is attempting to achieve what it has failed to do over the last 10 years because it has not had control of the Senate. It certainly has not had control of the Industrial Relations Commission, despite the fact that it appoints all its members and it appointed a handpicked president, His Honour Mr Justice Giudice. Even he has said the minimum wage should be higher than the government has said. The government has reacted to this by abolishing the Industrial Relations Commission’s role in setting the minimum wage.

I would like to spend a few minutes referring to the right of entry provisions in this bill. This is not perhaps the most fashionable part of the bill to talk about but it is a very important part. This bill further restricts the ability of trade unions to represent members and sort out their problems. The government come in here and say that unions need to do better—unions need to represent their members better. At the same time they introduce this pernicious bill, which handcuffs unions in representing their members. I saw first-hand the impacts of the government’s 1996 changes to right of entry, which made workers reluctant to call in their union and get the union in to sort out any problems. The vast majority of employers are good employers who never need to have the union come onto the site and intervene to fix a problem—the vast majority are. But, as even the member for Cowper acknowledged, there are some employers who cut costs, who cut corners, and their employees need the assistance of a trade union.

This bill means that unions now not only have to give 24-hours written notice of the visit—which they have always had to do; it is a legitimate thing that a union should give notice of their visit to a workplace—but they need to give the employer in writing the reason for the visit before they have had the chance to come and discuss with the employees their concerns and before they have had the chance to investigate the concerns. So the union might have to write to the employer and say, for example, ‘We have concerns over your pay books. Members are telling us that you’re not keeping adequate records of your pay.’ The employer then has 24 hours to fix it before the union comes in to go through the pay books.

Even worse is that there is now no access for trade unions in workplaces where there are only Australian workplace agreements and no access for unions to check non-member records. So you might have a union member ringing up and saying, ‘I don’t think my records are being kept correctly.’ The union can go out and check their records but can do nothing to assist those people who have not made the claim who are not union members. Of course, now the union representatives visiting the site can be confined by the employer to a particular room. The act even goes into so much detail as to say—and I was surprised to read this—that the employer can choose the route that the union official takes through their workplace from one room to another. That is how restrictive this bill is when it comes to union access to workplaces.

I am going to conclude by quoting Professor Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute—not an institute particularly close to the Australian Labor Party, and one which has made many findings in the past in favour of the government. Professor Wooden says:

If the aim of the government’s agenda is to provide employees with real choices, then I am on Greg Combet’s side—the right to bargain collectively needs to be protected. Further, the Government should have a vested interest in ensuring collective bargaining continues to flourish if it believes, as it has stated so often in the past, that enterprise bargaining has been fundamental to the productivity gains of the 1990s.

That is the Melbourne Institute—not Kim Beazley, not Chris Bowen, not Anthony Albanese, not a card-carrying member of the Australian Labor Party; it is Professor Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute, a respected think tank which the government has often relied on. (Time expired)