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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 73


Ms LIVERMORE (7:06 PM) —I would hate to disappoint the member for Moncrieff, so I will start my remarks on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 this evening by joining the previous Labor speakers in this debate in condemning this extreme bill and condemning the extreme attack that it represents on workers’ rights in this country. I find it strange and a bit extraordinary that members opposite keep on accusing Labor Party members of a scare campaign. The previous speaker, the member for Moncrieff, did use the words ‘scare campaign’. It would be very simple for the government to stop that ‘scare campaign’ in its tracks. All they need to do is what we have asked them consistently to do, from the Prime Minister down—that is, to give us the guarantee that no Australian worker will be worse off under this new system. Give us the guarantee that no Australian worker will see their wages, conditions and entitlements reduced and affected unfavourably by the new system that this bill will put into place. It has been some months now since we have asked for that guarantee and it has not been forthcoming. Without that guarantee, which would very simply stop any alleged scare campaign in its tracks, the Labor Party will continue to do what we were formed to do: advocate for working men and women in this country and stick up for their rights and conditions in the workplace.

I guess there is one thing that I can agree on with the member for Moncrieff. That was when he said that he took pleasure in taking part in this debate. I have to say that I do too, because I am one of the lucky ones in the Labor Party who will get to have their say on this piece of legislation. We now know that the government intend to guillotine debate on this significant piece of legislation, which represents such a massive change to the industrial relations system in this country. It is part of a pattern from this government, since they got complete control of both houses of parliament, that, when it comes to serious debate about issues in this country, when it comes to proper scrutiny of legislation—which, in this case, will affect every man, woman and child in this country—they run from that debate. They do not want to have the scrutiny; they do not want to have the debate; they do not want to defend in any substantial way what they are doing to people in this country through this legislation.

So here I am: one of the lucky ones getting to have my say on behalf of my electorate, the people who elected me to come here as their spokesperson and representative in the national parliament. I get to fulfil that responsibility, right and duty as a member of parliament and stand up for the people of my electorate in opposing this legislation. The government should really be condemned for the insult that it is giving to the people of Australia in cutting short the debate on this bill. We have seen it with Telstra; we are about to see it with the antiterrorism legislation. Time after time important legislation comes before this House and the representatives, who were elected by the people of Australia to have their say on significant legislation, are gagged and shut down.

It is important to have this debate and to have it in a proper, substantial and comprehensive way. People were given no chance to consider these very significant—and, I would say, radical and draconian—changes before the last election. The government did not campaign in any serious or detailed way on industrial relations. We saw no detailed campaign in 2004 about the measures that we now see in this bill. They did not disclose to the Australian people that they would be introducing these kinds of extreme measures, which will totally change the face of Australia and Americanise our workplaces.

In introducing this bill without that kind of exposure during the last election, giving people the chance to make an informed, considered choice about the type of government they wanted and the policies they wanted to see from that government at the last election, the government are really ambushing Australian workers. They did that, firstly, by not revealing their intentions at the last election; now they are compounding the problem by pushing this bill through parliament without proper debate. Of course, the other opportunity for debate that the Labor Party has been pushing for is for the Prime Minister, who is so proud of these changes—and yet so scared of them at the same time, and seems to be running away from any kind of scrutiny—to accept Kim Beazley’s offer of a public, televised debate so that the Australian people can really have a look at what this is going to mean for them and for this nation.


Mr Dutton —Why would Kim Beazley embarrass himself?


Ms LIVERMORE —John Howard has more to answer for on that score.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Baldwin)—Order! Members will not interject.


Ms LIVERMORE —So there is no proper debate in the parliament and the Prime Minister has squibbed any opportunity to have that debate and pay the Australian people the respect and courtesy of spelling out what this will mean for them in a way that the Australian people have not had to pay for out of their taxes.

The government is trying to shut down debate over these extreme changes by guillotining debate in parliament, but workers and members of the community are still determined to have their say. The government may have the numbers here in the parliament but it is becoming very clear that they do not have the numbers out in the community. They are not convincing people that this is good for them as individual workers or family members, and they are not convincing people that this is good, or indeed even necessary, in the interests of our country’s future prosperity.

The government do not have the numbers in the workshops, the factories, the hospitals, the offices, the staffrooms and the crib rooms around the country. Certainly, the message that I am getting is that they do not have the numbers in my electorate when it comes to these extreme measures. These are the workplaces where no amount of Liberal Party propaganda can overcome people’s legitimate demands for fairness and security in the workplace.

People in my electorate have been making their views about these changes very clear. There have been quite a large number of rallies in the last three months attracting thousands of workers and other community members who are concerned about the damage that these changes will do to their families and the way of life that we treasure in this country. There have been rallies in Rockhampton, Blackwater, Moura, Collinsville, Moranbah and Mackay, which is not in my electorate but which houses a lot of people from the mining industry, which is in my electorate. Thousands of people have turned out to these marches and community events to send the clear message to the Prime Minister that they do not want his tired old dream of a deregulated American style industrial relations system to become their nightmare, where they no longer have the kind of security and entitlements in the workplace that they need to get on with their lives and build a future for themselves and for their families.

In his arrogance, the Prime Minister has tried to drown out the community’s voice through the absolute deluge of government advertising that we have seen about these changes, but the polling is showing that people are not fooled. The shows of solidarity in the community will continue in the coming months and years, right up to the next election. The government will tomorrow try to shut down debate here in the parliament, but they will not be able to avoid the outright rejection of this extreme package out in the community.

It is no surprise that the community’s reaction to these changes has been so strong. It is such a radical attack on the protections and entitlements that Australian workers have fought for and rightly regarded as their birthright for a hundred years. The Prime Minister knows that, or at least he used to know that back when he was in touch with the community, when he was in touch—or so he claimed—with the views and aspirations of ordinary Australian workers and their families. He clearly knew that back in 1996, when he very cleverly—and, some would say, in a typically mean and tricky fashion—made the promise that no worker would be worse off if a Liberal government were elected. He knew in 1996 that if he let the cat out of the bag and told voters what he was on about—the right-wing, Thatcherite agenda that is really at the heart of the Prime Minister’s philosophy and vision for Australia—he would not be Prime Minister. The changes in this bill are not things that Australian people support. These are things that go against the fundamental values and principles of a fair go that Australians quite rightly hold so dear. They have served us well for the last hundred-odd years.

Why has the reaction to these changes been so strong? What is in store for workers through these changes? The short answer is lower wages, poorer conditions and less job security. This will be achieved in a number of ways that all interact to strip away protections and leave workers vulnerable. First of all, there is a change to how the minimum wage is going to be set in Australia. That role, which was traditionally played by the Industrial Relations Commission, is now moving to the Fair Pay Commission. What a typically Orwellian name that is: the ‘Fair Pay Commission’. Unlike the Industrial Relations Commission, the Fair Pay Commission does not have to consider fairness in setting the minimum wage, and that has been given quite a deal of airing in question time, without much reassurance from those on the government side.

The current system requires that the Industrial Relations Commission specifically consider fairness as one of its criteria in setting the minimum wage. That is gone. It now becomes a totally economic argument. Never mind what it might take for a worker in this country to earn enough to have a decent life. The government has been so worried about putting ‘fairness’ in its propaganda that it seems to have forgotten to include fairness in its bill. The lowest paid workers in this country are going to bear the brunt of the government’s removal of that consideration.

John Howard’s defence—what he comes back to us with—is: ‘When it comes to wages, look at my record. Trust me.’ I think this Prime Minister’s record on the minimum wage says it all when it comes to understanding what he is all about. He is about driving down wages and creating a class of working poor in Australia. We see that in the government’s record. They have opposed every wage case in Australia since they took office. If the Prime Minister had had his way, the lowest paid workers would be getting $50 less per week in their pockets. He now has his way. We see the result of that in this bill. The first blow that low-paid workers are going to receive from the Fair Pay Commission is that there will be a delay in the first hearing on the minimum wage. So workers will be waiting for an extra 18 months to get any kind of pay rise—again, another example of where this government is so out of touch with the realities of life for those 1.4 million Australians who are on the minimum wage.

The second measure that is going to leave workers in a worse situation under this package is the shift to individual contracts. I use the word ‘shift’ but of course that is not really right, because workers will be forced onto individual contracts whether they like it or not. The fact is that workers could have chosen to be on individual contracts years ago, but they did not. Only four per cent of Australian workers are currently on AWAs. But that is not good enough for the government. Their ideological obsession has not been satisfied through choice, so this bill will see workers forced on to individual contracts that will cut wages and reduce conditions.

At the heart of this extreme legislation is the sidelining of the award system. The safety net of entitlements and conditions contained in the award system that workers have relied on for fairness and security will become meaningless once this legislation is passed. The government has already chipped away at the number of conditions protected by awards, but there are still currently 20 conditions protected by an award safety net. Under this legislation, those minimum standards of employment will be cut down to five, and everything else—penalty rates, overtime, leave loading, redundancies—will be up for grabs in negotiations between employers and employees.

The government keeps saying that there will still be an award safety net, but an employer will not have to be Andrew Johns to sidestep that situation. All an employer has to do is to include in the individual contract offered to a worker one sentence that says, ‘Penalty rates, overtime, leave loading et cetera are incorporated in the hourly rate of pay.’ The employer can do that because the legislation does away with the no disadvantage test. Currently, individual contracts are compared to relevant award conditions, and the conditions in a contract cannot in aggregate be less than the overall award entitlements. That ensures some fairness in the current system. But this bill does away with the no disadvantage test. You can forget about that.

Individual contracts will be used to undermine wages and conditions that employees are entitled to or were entitled to under the relevant award. A classic example of that was the situation that we put to the Prime Minister in question time a couple of weeks ago—the situation of Tancred Fresh, which is a fruit shop and a convenience store in Rockhampton in my electorate. In that situation, workers were presented with a contract, and the contract offered to employees included a clause that said, ‘Your rate of pay is inclusive of leave loading, all allowances, penalties and public holiday pay.’ So award entitlements were basically given away. In that situation, they were offered 16c extra per hour as compensation for giving away all of those award entitlements. The no disadvantage test applied in that case—currently—so they in fact ended up getting $1.31 an hour more.

The point is that under this system there will not be a no disadvantage test, so you could be asked in a contract to give away all of those entitlements—penalty rates, overtime rates, leave loading and shift allowances—and be offered no compensation. No-one is going to step in and say that that is not fair, that it does not stack up to the prevailing award conditions. So the bill creates a world of ‘take it or leave it’ for workers: take the lousy conditions on offer, even if they are less than you have been receiving under an EBA or the award, or you are sacked, basically. The bill makes it plain in clause 104 that it is not duress for an employer to require an employee to sign an individual contract, an AWA.

The third leg of this extreme attack on workers is the change to the unfair dismissal laws. We have heard from other speakers, and we all know by now, that there is no protection at all from unfair dismissal for workers in businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The protection that is there for workers in larger enterprises with over 100 employees is totally illusory as well. Employers are now entitled to dismiss workers for ‘operational reasons’, and that has now been drawn so broadly in this bill that it is almost meaningless. It could basically mean anything.

This legislation ultimately leaves workers incredibly vulnerable and insecure. It makes collective bargaining almost impossible. Everything is up for negotiation between employer and employee, but in a situation where the government has made sure that the worker has no bargaining power whatsoever. The worker goes in to their employer; the contract is put in front of them, and that contract can eliminate prevailing award conditions with one sentence, as we have seen in the Tancred Fresh example. The no disadvantage test will no longer exist, so there is no outside scrutiny of the contract to see whether it is in fact fair against community standards—or what used to be community standards in this country—and clause 104 says that signing an AWA can be a condition of your employment, so sign it or else. And, if you work for a business with fewer than 100 employees, even if you do sign the AWA you can be sacked tomorrow for just about anything.

That is a recipe for driving down wages and reducing conditions. It is a recipe for creating a class of working poor in Australia that we—in the Labor Party at least—have spent 100 years fighting against. Whenever the Labor Party have been in office, we have tried to ensure a situation of fairness and decency for every single worker in Australia. This bill should be condemned for the attack it represents on working people. Working people are just doing their best to create a decent life for themselves and their families. (Time expired)