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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 83

Mr WILKIE (7:46 PM) —I sincerely welcome this opportunity to comment on the government’s extreme and unfair Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and its impact on workers, families and businesses in Swan and the wider Western Australian community. The member for Canning has just been talking about protecting small business. I agree with protecting small business, but what about protecting workers?

I would like to give the member for Canning and the House an example of where workers were being ripped off when he was actually the member for Swan. I was finding employment opportunities for young people at the time and actually placed a young person into a wrecking yard in the electorate. This particular person ended up getting some form of employment subsidy. Unfortunately, the employer decided, even though there was a subsidy being paid to help this young person’s employment, what they should in fact do was pay them less than the subsidy that was being provided. I raised this with various people and ended up getting this changed. But the worker was told that if he did not accept the lower wage being offered by the employer, even though the employer was getting more by way of subsidy, he was going to get sacked. Under this legislation that is fine; they can sack them.

Mr Randall —It’s illegal.

Mr WILKIE —I just think that is a joke.

Mr Randall —No, it’s not.

Mr WILKIE —A member of the Liberal Party in Swan, a particular person who was one of Mr Randall’s supporters in the 1996 election, actually told me it was fine to pay them less.

Mr Randall —You know it’s illegal, and you should tell the truth.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—The member for Canning was listened to in silence.

Mr WILKIE —‘It is okay to pay them less. At least the young bloke’s got a job.’ I thought that was a disgrace. This bill encourages that sort of practice. If nothing else, this bill exposes the stark differences between the conservative and Labor members of this place when it comes to valuing Australian workers and their families. It prompts members on this side of the House, at least, to reflect on, be reminded of and acknowledge the achievements of workers and their trade unions in our great history. Most importantly, it allows us to debate the legacy we would like to leave our children and our grandchildren when they enter adulthood and take on the responsibilities and privileges of jobs of their own.

This side of the House will never succumb to the conservative ideology that workers should be treated as economic units in the pursuit of capital. The Labor Party and Australian employees have worked hard—too hard—for the respect deserved by our nurses, teachers, public sector employees, miners, bush labourers, computer operators and child-care providers to let it be destroyed by right-wing ideologues in the Liberal Party. For 100 years we have maintained these principles and earned the respect of nations throughout the world. At the end of the day, of course, the Howard government may succeed in usurping the Australian Constitution and its own liberal traditions of federalism and states’ rights and in guillotining these obnoxious and extreme laws through this parliament. At that hour business councils will no doubt pop their champagne corks, and ‘the silks’ along avenues like Perth’s St George’s Terrace will start planning their next overseas holiday on the back of their union-busting court appearances.

But, if government members think the fight against this draconian and extreme bill will go away after it is passed, after the rallies are held and after families settle down to enjoy perhaps their last holiday period together, they are deluding themselves. This is a fight that will continue until the next election and it is a fight we will win.

How could workers and families in the federal electorate of Stirling, for example, not be outraged by the comments of its Liberal representative in this place? I was shocked to read in last week’s community news that at a recent meeting with workers from his electorate the member said he would rather workers be unfairly dismissed than see businesses burdened by unfair dismissal laws. What a travesty. What an insult to workers and families in his electorate. What did one of those workers who met the member for Stirling have to say? This is what a 25-year-old child-care worker who felt strongly enough over the government’s bill to visit her local member of parliament said: ‘I was really disappointed at Michael Keenan’s attitude. He just didn’t seem to care what these laws are going to mean for people who work.’

Of course, the member for Stirling does not care what these laws mean for people who work. Nor do the member for Canning, the member for Hasluck, the member for Higgins or, most definitely, the member for Bennelong. The Prime Minister would have us all believe he is a friend of Australian workers. He claims personal credit for the increase in the minimum wage under his rule. I can only say that William Shakespeare must have been looking 500 years into the future when he wrote: ‘God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.’ The minimum wage has indeed increased since the election of the coalition in 1996—despite John Howard, not because of him. If Mr Howard and his corporate mates had had their way, the minimum wage would currently be $50 a week, or $2,600 a year, lower than it is today. Maybe the Prime Minister would be happy if the average wage was $2,600 a year. I was in China two weeks ago, and I noted that some of the poorer people were lucky to be receiving $US200 to $US400 a year. I wonder whether that is the sort of system the Prime Minister would like to see in place in Australia.

Let me remind the House that had the Howard government’s submissions to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission from 1997 through to 2005 been accepted there would have been a real reduction in the minimum wage, not the increase granted by the commission—which, in any event, the Prime Minister opposed. Even now, the Prime Minister refuses to guarantee that the value of the minimum wage will be maintained in real terms. He refuses to guarantee that all Australian families will be no worse off under his industrial regime. Privately, the Prime Minister knows that, in the long term, workers will be ripped off.

The Howard government is so concerned with the welfare of the Australian family that it will not even honour a commitment given to the Family First Party that it would properly assess key legislative changes and how they might impact on families. In fact, the Prime Minister ‘conned’ Family First—and I hope this will be remembered come the next federal election. These reforms are considered so fundamentally important to the future of Australia’s economy and so crucial to improving working conditions for workers and profits for business that the Prime Minister will not even agree to publicly debate his case with the Leader of the Opposition. What is he afraid of? He sat here yesterday in question time and refused to debate these issues on national television, even though he was so enamoured with them. There is a word for the Prime Minister but, unfortunately, I cannot use it in this place.

The truth of the matter is that we have a Prime Minister who is bereft of ideas and bereft of initiatives. When it comes to industrial relations, he is stuck in the 1970s and his ideas are as stale as last week’s bread. If attacking working families in Swan is the Prime Minister’s only plan for increasing Australian competitiveness and productivity, then it is definitely time for him to pull on his slippers and head off to his retirement home—if, in fact, there is a place available, because we also know that under this government there is a shortage there as well. His Treasurer refuses to release modelling from his own department that would indicate the government’s extreme reforms, at best, would have little impact on productivity.

Let us not forget the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. This minister roams the country like some western movie snake oil salesman, his wagon being steered by the member for Goldstein in case it falls into a ravine. Sadly, this bill drives the wages and working conditions of all Australian workers into the crevasse. If the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations were forced into an AWA based on his productivity, he would be lucky to be paid enough to afford an Amanda Vanstone style milkshake.

I have been reading some insightful comments this week from Queensland’s Social Action Office, a Christian based organisation. I was prompted to visit its web site after receiving postcards at my office imploring me to act against the government’s extreme industrial relations changes. The Social Action Office makes a number of powerful points in relation to the bill we are discussing tonight and I would like to share them with the House. It states:

These changes have the capacity to fundamentally alter the fabric of Australian workplaces and society at large.

…            …            …

Until now employers have been urged to follow certain steps - ‘procedural fairness’ - in dismissing an employee.

…            …            …

With the proposed changes there will no longer be access to low or no cost independent umpires in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) for workers in companies with less than 100 employees. Although all employers will still be bound by anti-discrimination and unlawful dismissal laws (for example, a worker cannot be sacked while on leave) the reality is that workers on minimum wage levels are highly unlikely to have the financial resources to privately challenge a dismissal, unlawful or otherwise, in the legal system. The changes remove the legal requirement upon the employer for the fair treatment of workers. This means that employers could effectively dismiss workers at will with no recourse for the vast majority of workers.

The AIRC is already required to take into account the size of a business in considering unfair dismissal claims and compensation.

Let us look at what the Social Action Office has to say about awards, AWAs and the no disadvantage test. It states:

Australia’s IR system has evolved over the past 100 years and has been quite unique in the world through its recognition of unions as bargaining parties with legal rights and awards that comprehensively fixed wages and conditions. This system has moved since the late 1980s toward greater flexibility, with industry and workplace agreements. Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) are collective, certified agreements most often negotiated with support from unions. The Federal Government preferred Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) are, theoretically, more individualised agreements between employer and employee but workers under these agreements have also had the safety net of the “No Disadvantage Test”. This means that, under the present system, no worker can be forced to work to an agreement that would see them, on balance, worse off than their current industry award.

Under the Coalition Government’s IR changes the “No Disadvantage Test” will be scrapped.

While the Government claims no workers already employed by an organisation or company will be forced to sign AWAs that lower their wages and conditions the reality is that this is already occurring in the current system that still has reasonable protections for workers. This would likely worsen under the new IR regime.

…            …            …

The scrapping of the “No Disadvantage Test” will leave workers vulnerable to exploitation and, if they work for a business with less than 100 employees, without recourse to conciliation and arbitration.

One inherent problem with AWAs is that, while they are marketed by government and business groups as providing freedom for individuals to negotiate their employment contract, AWA negotiations are not played out on a level playing field. The only option and ‘freedom’ may be to accept a standardised AWA already worked up by the company/employer: to accept wages and conditions well below what is currently maintained under the No Disadvantage Test and award system or no job at all.

One causal effect of this in the ‘marketplace’ may be ‘churning’ at the bottom of the employment pond: a significant turnover of staff, particularly of those without skills, experience or the ability to negotiate a beneficial contract and who are now more vulnerable to unfair dismissal.

When I was finding employment opportunities for people, I actually experienced that. A company in Maddington, which made ladders, could not work out why it had gone through 200 employees in six months because: ‘Well, we are paying the award wage.’ But the work was filthy, so people deserved to get a little more by way of wages and conditions. But the employer just could not work it out and thought, ‘Well, the guys had a job; they should be grateful.’ But, unfortunately, the conditions were so bad that people would not stay. Again, this bill will encourage that sort of behaviour by employers. The Social Action Office goes on to say:

Domestic evidence and international experience has shown that AWA type agreements are ‘rarely beneficial for the vast bulk of employees’.

The Social Action Office also points to the research conducted by 17 of Australia’s top IR and labour market academics who have compiled a report card on the proposed changes. In their overview, they list four critical labour market challenges facing Australia: labour and skill shortages exacerbated by an ageing population; productivity slowdown; work-family tensions; and the growth of low-paid, precarious employment. As the Social Action Group states, this group believes that on all the available evidence there is no reason to believe the proposed changes will do anything to address these issues. They agree, however, that the government’s proposals will undermine people’s rights at work; deliver flexibility that is most likely to be one-way—in favour of the employer; do, at best, nothing to address the key challenge of work-family issues; have no direct impact on productivity; and disadvantage individuals and groups already most marginalised in our society.

In my home state of Western Australia, the Gallop government has won the past two elections on the promise of a fair industrial relations system that reconciles the interests of business with the rights of workers. Central to this commitment was the abolition of the system of individual contracts initiated by former Premier Richard Court and his industrial relations minister, Graham Kierath. I would like to convey to the House and to members who may not have the experience of this individual contract regime that, under Mr Court and Mr Kierath, the average minimum wage in Western Australia fell behind that of workers in other states. That is right; the very same system lauded by the Prime Minister actually resulted in WA falling behind in terms of the minimum wage. Equally frightening is that the wage disparity between men and women also increased markedly. One of the most sinister aspects of the system in Western Australia was the use and abuse of labour hire companies to get around the minimum protections—and I mean minimum—offered by Mr Court and Mr Kierath.

It is equally clear that the bill we are currently debating does nothing to stop corporations establishing an intricate spider’s web of associated companies to ensure employee numbers fall under the 100-strong threshold. As some businesses devise elaborate ways of reducing employee costs and conditions, even well-meaning and employee-friendly businesses will be left with no option but to adopt a similar tactic in order to remain competitive. Tenuous employment conditions will leave many employees and their young families unable to get mortgages and loans. Working parents will face greater pressure to work long hours. This will impact not only on relationships but also on children.

Last Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of being part of the opening of the Belmont Little Athletics centre. This is a fantastic effort, with hundreds of young children from around the area competing in games. But it can only work when they have the support of families and of volunteers. Under the sort of legislation being introduced by this government, these people will be forced to work longer, so how are they supposed to take their children to practice? How are they supposed to volunteer their time to make these things happen? This is the sort of impact in the long term that this government’s industrial relations measures will have. The Minister for Workforce Participation, who is at the table, laughs. He laughs because he thinks that that will be good; it will be good because employers will be able to do that sort of thing to employees. It is a disgrace, and I intend to oppose it.

My message on behalf of the constituents of Swan is: kill this bill. I am joined in this message by the member for Victoria Park, the Premier Geoff Gallop; the member for Belmont and Deputy Premier, Eric Ripper; and the member for Kenwick, Sheila McHale. All those state electorates are in my electorate of Swan. Families do not want to see balaclava-clad henchmen and rottweilers standing in front of businesses in Swan to carry out laws based on the Prime Minister’s antiquated views. On Tuesday, 15 November, thousands of workers and their families in Western Australia will be taking part in a national day of community protest. Meetings will be taking place in WA from Kununurra in the north to Albany in the south. I urge all Western Australians to attend one of these events. I certainly look forward to joining community members, church leaders and workers and their families on the shores of the Swan River on that day, when Western Australians will voice their disdain for this government, its out-of-date leader and, particularly, this bill.