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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 64

Mr DANBY (6:28 PM) —It is an honour to rise to speak in opposition to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Last week I was ejected from the chamber, along with 10 other members, for protesting against the indecent haste with which this extreme bill is being rammed through this House. Honourable members might not regard me as normally being a militant member of this House. I respect the parliament and I respect the Speaker. I have no desire to make his job more difficult but this bill, and the way this government is trampling on the rights of members of this parliament to get it passed, is enough to make a militant out of anyone. If the government persists with these tactics and will not be dissuaded from its extreme course of action then opposition members will continue to protest. If that means being ejected from the chamber again, we will wear that as a badge of honour.

It is clear that in rejecting this bill the opposition is speaking for the majority of Australians. Let me refer to the recent findings of a poll commissioned by the ACTU but carried out by an independent research company. The poll showed that 62 per cent of Australians believed that wages were being reduced under these new laws, 69 per cent of people believed that the laws will create greater fear in the workplace, 64 per cent believed that the changes will reduce job security, 82 per cent were very concerned about the reduction of the ability of workers to collectively bargain with their employer, 70 per cent thought that the reduced role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission was a bad idea, 85 per cent believed that unions should have the right to enter workplaces to talk on behalf of their members and 59 per cent agreed that pay and conditions are generally better in a unionised workplace. In other words, the Australian people understand very clearly what the Howard government is up to with this bill. They understand that this bill is an attack on the wages, conditions and living standards of all Australian employees. They are not fooled by the government’s dishonest propaganda about this bill.

Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the state of public opinion in relation to this bill is that the government’s propaganda campaign, all $55 million worth of it, has been a total failure. It has not persuaded the Australian people that this bill is a good thing. It has been inept, boring, annoying, repetitive and fundamentally dishonest. That is because no advertising agency can persuade people that having their wages reduced, their conditions eroded, their rights in the workplace abolished and their quality of life worsened is a desirable thing. There is an old adage in the advertising industry that if you spend enough money you can sell the public a bad product, but only once. The Australian public have become increasingly cynical about this government’s bogus information campaigns and resentful of the fact that they are forced to pay for them. The return per million dollars of taxpayers’ money spent on these campaigns has declined steadily and has now apparently gone into negative territory—that is, the more governments spend on these tedious and dishonest ads, the fewer people are convinced.

Before I turn to the bill itself, I want to say something more about the advertising campaign. Not only has it been ineffective in terms of its content but it has been a total disgrace in terms of the process by which it has been carried out. There has been no transparency in the way the contracts for this campaign have been decided and no oversight of the way huge amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent. Government members like to skite about the recent High Court decision, but they know as well as I do that the court’s decision was based on narrow technical grounds and was not an endorsement of the ethics of the way the government is spending public money. I am reluctant to make accusations of corruption, but what other word can be used when a Liberal government hands out an enormously lucrative contract to the Liberal Party’s advertising agency Dewey Horton while other advertising agencies are given no opportunity to bid for the contract? In many countries this would be criminal conduct.

Last week, the honourable member for Wills raised some serious questions about Dewey Horton’s principal, Mr Ted Horton. I have no personal knowledge of these matters that the honourable member has raised, but I have not yet heard any government member refuting the statements made by the honourable member for Wills. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, it is certainly true, as the honourable member for Wills said, that the Australian people are entitled to some transparency concerning the awarding of advertising contracts by the mysterious Ministerial Committee for Government Communications. Under what parliamentary authority does this committee spend $50 million of taxpayers’ money? Charles I got his head cut off for this kind of encroachment on the rights of parliament.

Mr Tanner —A good precedent!

Mr DANBY —I thank the member for Melbourne. The way in which the advertising campaign has been conducted is a symptom of the government’s increasing arrogance. After the coalition parties won control of the Senate last year, the Prime Minister told us that there would be no hubris. Maybe he even meant it, but they just cannot help themselves. A year later their hubris is out of control. Now they think they can do whatever they like. After their ‘escapes from jail’, in electoral terms, in 1998 and 2001 and after our own goal that we on this side scored in 2004, they think they are unbeatable. You can see it on the smiling faces of the members for Aston and Moncrieff. Let me remind them that, in the original Greek myth, hubris is always followed by Nemesis.

I now turn to the bill. If the Howard government’s advertising campaign is a product of arrogance, this bill is a product of ideology. We all know that this bill is being introduced into this parliament in this form, at this time, for one reason: the Prime Minister. I have a different attitude from that of most members of the opposition to the Prime Minister. I knew him in a previous life and I have a regard for him. One way or another, however, his time in power is running out. For more than 30 years his obsession has been his dislike—hatred, indeed—of the trade union movement and the values it represents. Ever since the fall of the Fraser government he has been waiting for this chance to carry out the full Thatcherite revolution in Australia. He did not expect to get the chance and, now that he has it, he is determined not to waste it. Indeed, there is a prevailing mythology in the government that the Fraser government was a do-nothing government, and they are all determined to carry these so-called reforms through to the bitter end whether or not they are the right thing for Australia. This is why I believe the Prime Minister is risking everything on the culminating chapter of his great ideological crusade.

I hope that honourable members opposite realise that the Prime Minister is now, as was once said of British Prime Minister Gladstone, an old man in a hurry. He has his eyes fixed on a place in history. He does not care what happens to the honourable members opposite in 2007 provided he can retire in triumph with his life’s work complete. He is quite willing, in my view, to drag all of them over the edge of the cliff in pursuit of his obsession. I hope honourable members opposite enjoy their roles as foot soldiers in the Prime Minister’s great anti-union crusade while they can. I suspect some of them will have cause to rue the day they signed up for it.

Let us be clear what this bill is about. It is a frontal attack on Australian workers in the broader sense of the term. Its real objective is to drive down wages and destroy the capacity of trade unions to resist effectively abolishing all legal avenues for seeking wage justice for employees. The more subtle members of the government try to gloss over this by using the rhetoric of individual freedom and painting a rosy picture of a country where every school leaver enjoys the right and the wonderful freedom to sit down with a multinational corporation and negotiate their very own individual contract of employment, but the less subtle members of the government give the game away. And who is less subtle than the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the honourable member for Gippsland?

At several question times recently, we have seen the minister for agriculture get up and read out extracts from awards relating to agricultural workers as though they were the funniest things he had ever seen: ‘How dare these yokels demand that their employers’—the Victorian squatter class, of which some people say the McGauran brothers are fine representatives even though both of them live in Melbourne—‘be forced to pay these various trifling allowances?’ This line of heavy-handed ministerial humour is very revealing because every one of those award provisions represents a long struggle and a hard-won victory by unskilled workers—men who perform hard physical labour in the hot sun so the squatters of today, and yesterday, can live in comfort without working—towards gaining a small improvement in their working conditions and their standard of living.

By ridiculing these award protections that have been built up through a century of effort, the minister for agriculture revealed more than he intended to about the real motives of this government. I represent a largely middle-class electorate—not many people in Melbourne Ports these days earn their living by physical labour—but the provisions of this bill will still have a major impact on many people in my electorate. These are the large number of white-collar employees, many of whom are young people struggling to buy homes in suburbs where the cost of housing has risen enormously and to raise children in households where both parents work. These people are battling to find and to pay for increasingly scarce child care. Many of them are also paying school fees to give their children the education of their choice. My electorate is full of people like that, people who will lose out if this bill is passed.

This government enjoys demonising the ‘militant unionists’ of the CFMEU and MUA as a means of building support for this bill, but the irony is that these unionists are more than able to look after themselves. I do not think that anyone who knows these unions would imagine their allowing this government to drive down their wages or strip away their conditions, and I hope they do not. I have a great admiration for the blokes who work on Australia’s wharves and ships. They have great skills that are constantly denigrated by some of the people opposite. However, the people who will really suffer from this dog-eat-dog industrial relations system that this bill will usher in are not militant trade unionists but non-unionised workers; young people; unskilled people; women, including those from non-English-speaking backgrounds; people who work in shops, offices and call centres; and people who do not have the industrial muscle or tradition of militancy of the kind that people had when I had the honour of working for one of Australia’s great white-collar unions, the SDA. These people are the real targets of this bill. Some of these are the very people who are coming back to the Labor Party—Howard’s battlers. They are being driven back by the extremity of this government’s legislation.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations tells us that the Australian industrial relations system is outdated—that it is a relic of the days of HB Higgins and that it must be radically reformed if employment opportunities are to continue to expand and if incomes are to rise. Yet, while he says this, every day the Treasurer contradicts him. We just heard another contradiction from the previous speaker, the member for McPherson, who told us that unemployment is falling and incomes are rising. The Treasurer boasts about the strong and successful Australian economy. He is quite right: the Australian economy is strong, unemployment has fallen and wages have risen. These things are the result of the economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating governments, including the reform of the industrial relations system carried through by Paul Keating.

The government boast about the increase in incomes over the past decade as if it were their doing. In fact, this increase has been brought about by the sustained economic growth created by the reforms of the Hawke government and delivered to Australian workers by the industrial relations system, as reformed by the Keating government—the very system that the Howard government now tell us must be done away with. As many members on this side have pointed out, these wage rises have taken place in spite of this Liberal government and not because of it. If the Industrial Relations Commission had accepted the Howard government’s recommendations there would have been no rises in the previous years.

We have also heard a lot of cheap rhetoric from members opposite about wage rises under this government compared with the preceding Labor government. It is true that incomes have risen more rapidly over the past decade than they did in the previous decade, but that is because the Hawke and Keating governments did the hard work of basic structural reform of the Australian economy. They cleaned up the mess they inherited from the former Treasurer, John Howard. Part of that reform process was the accord with the trade union movement, which necessarily involved wage restraint and the restoration of profitability in the private sector. Now Australian workers are reaping the benefit of those reforms as a result of their earlier restraint. We make no apologies for those policies, which are the foundation of our present prosperity.

Let me remind members opposite that there was no greater urger of the need to reduce wage overhang in those days than the then opposition leader, Mr Howard. Historically the Liberal Party, whether in government or in opposition, has been opposed to wage increases, including increases in the basic or minimum wage for the lowest paid workers. The only reason the Howard government are now able to pose as a champion of the workers is that they are coasting on the prosperity and growth created by Hawke and Keating and because they have been unable to prevent the Industrial Relations Commission from providing an arena in which wage claims can be arbitrated in a civilised way and where the interests of the lowest paid workers are protected.

This arrogant government has control of both houses now. It is bent on destroying our current industrial relations system, which with appropriate reforms has served Australia well for nearly a century. The government also want to destroy the values that underlie that system—the values of social solidarity, social cohesion, support for the powerless and respect for the rights of all citizens. The government wants to destroy the institutions of Australian social solidarity and to make it impossible to ever reconstruct them by discrediting the ideas that underlie them. This is why the government plans are being opposed so firmly by Cardinal Pell, Archbishop Aspinall and Archbishop Jensen—hardly militant trade unionists but leaders of the community who understand the damaging consequences of what this government is trying to do to Australian society. I remember too the Prime Minister’s embarrassment when the member for Lowe raised with him the quotes of His Holiness, the Pope, who when visiting Australia commended the Australian industrial system to the world as an example of the way people could deal with each other in a civilised way.

Let me conclude by quoting the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, a conservative in most matters and a Christian leader whom this government has been quite happy to quote in support of some of its other policies. The archbishop said:

This nation and its political leaders must be committed to ensuring optimum working conditions for the nation’s workers; a living wage that will mean everyone has the ability to provide for themselves and their families the necessities of life, strong unions that will represent workers, and the preservation of leisure time for families to be together for rest and recreation and to maintain their relationships.

That is a pretty good summary of the system we currently have—a system which has served Australian workers, business and society very well; a system which is currently delivering record profits to Australian business, rising wages to Australian workers and falling unemployment. It is the system that the government now wants to destroy, all because of, I believe, the Prime Minister’s long obsession about—and indeed hatred of—trade unions, an obsession that was relevant 30 years ago when we had massive industrial disputation. But now we have an all-time record low of industrial disputes. The system is not broken, so why are we trying to fix it? The Prime Minister claims to be a Burkeian but in fact he is abandoning his Burkeian ideology to pursue a more extreme Thatcherite ideology with this system. Seldom has such a wide-ranging and destructive change been put forward with so little justification. This extreme legislation is the final ideological excess of an arrogant and ideologically obsessed government. It should be rejected by this House.