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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 91

Mr GEORGANAS (8:25 PM) —I rise to speak on one of the most fundamental issues facing Australian society today—this coalition government’s industrial relations policy. I oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Regardless of what the previous speaker, the member for Maranoa, had to say, of course the unions are fighting. They are fighting the fight of their life: they are fighting to maintain workers rights; they are fighting to maintain the minimum wage; they are fighting to ensure that they keep leave loading, overtime pay and everything else that they have fought for for the Australian public for well over 100 years.

This bill is specifically designed to drastically curtail the working conditions and undermine the living standards of ordinary Australian working people. It constitutes an unprecedented class offensive being waged against the working men and women of Australia. It is nothing less than an attempt to turn back the clock to the 19th century and reinstate a master-servant approach to industrial relations in this country.

Before turning to some of the more controversial components of the government’s package, I would like to briefly touch upon two matters that highlight the contempt with which this government is prepared to treat the Australian public. The first concerns the Orwellian language that it has shamelessly employed. Over and over again the government has resorted to falsehoods and deceit in the lead-up to the introduction of this legislation. Just like in Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, key words and phrases used to support this draconian bill mean exactly the opposite of what the government claims they mean.

Two examples will perhaps suffice to illustrate this point. The Prime Minister and his workplace relations minister incessantly claim that this legislation is all about providing workers and employers with choices and have gone to the extent of labelling the bill Work Choices. In fact, the bill is all about strengthening the bargaining position of employers at the expense of working people. For many millions of Australian workers, the only real choice they will have once this legislation is passed is to accept exactly what their employer decrees or lose their jobs.

The other example concerns the new body to be set up to determine minimum wages—the so-called Australian Fair Pay Commission—which the government wants to use not to increase the real value of the minimum wage but instead to reduce it in line with its far right ideology. In Britain, at least the government had the honesty to label such a body as the Low Pay Commission. The hypocrisy and dissembling which have characterised the Howard government’s handling of the industrial relations debate have debased the English language and, in the process, further eroded public confidence in the parliament.

The second preliminary matter I feel obliged to raise involves the obscene haste with which the government has sought to rush this legislation through the parliament. The bill is almost 700 pages long. It is the most radical raft of industrial relations changes that have been introduced in this nation in more than 100 years, and it will have a profound impact on the economic wellbeing and job security of our fellow Australians. Yet this government is hell-bent on pushing the bill through as quickly as possible and with as little debate as possible.

With an issue of such importance to the entire community, you would have thought it essential that sufficient time be made available to provide the community and the parliament with the opportunity to digest the government’s proposals and to come to grips with their far-reaching implications. At the very least, two or three months should have been put aside to enable full public consideration of this very important bill. That the government is prepared to use its numbers to force the bill through with only a minimum of scrutiny highlights the contempt with which it is prepared to treat both the public and the parliament.

A key aim of the legislation is to shift workers from industrial awards and collective enterprise agreements onto Australian workplace agreements, known as AWAs. The government’s rationale is that this will enhance workplace flexibility, stimulate productivity growth and, in turn, lead to higher wages. While the legislation may result in increased flexibility, this is likely to be a one-way street. Employers will be able to demand greater flexibility from their work force, but only under exceptional circumstances will it be possible for workers to benefit from any increased flexibility.

Penalty rates, rostered hours, overtime payments and other allowances are all at risk under this government’s brave new world of flexible working arrangements. Most at risk will be the lower paid, particularly women workers, who already bear the brunt of the work-life collision. We should all be working to improve the balance between work and our family lives—not making it worse as has been the case under this government.

Nor is the government’s package likely to increase productivity. Profits might increase, but there has been no evidence put forward by this government that suggests that its draconian proposals will improve productivity. On the contrary, the low-wage philosophy which underpins its proposals runs the risk of locking Australia into a low productivity economy. At a time when we should be building the skill base of the Australian work force in order to improve our international competitiveness and paying people a decent wage in the process, this government has embarked on a divisive campaign to roll back the hard-won gains that have made Australia a great country and a land of opportunity.

The government’s claim that the AWAs will result in higher wages is also false. Average full-time adult non-managerial hourly ordinary time earnings are higher for workers employed under collective agreements than for those employed under AWAs. Women on AWAs have been particularly hard done by, earning 11 per cent less than their counterparts on collective agreements. And while workers on AWAs experienced an 11 per cent drop in earnings between 2002 and 2004, those on collective agreements had an average increase of six per cent.

The most vulnerable workers, however, under this government’s package will be young workers. The Prime Minister has yet to explain how a 16- or 18-year-old can possibly bargain on an equal footing with BHP Billiton, Holden, Woolworths or, for that matter, medium-sized or small employers. They will simply be told: ‘Take it or leave it. There’s a hundred people waiting at the door to sign that very contract that you won’t sign.’ Young people are going to be ripe for exploitation of the worst kind. It is already happening—we know that—but under this government’s package exploitation will be institutionalised. The government has even gone to the extent of legally sanctioning the use of duress by employers to force young workers, and for that matter any other workers, onto AWAs.

This government’s proposals will also result in the stripping of industrial awards: existing conditions will, over time, be eliminated or cut back to the bare minimum. No longer will the award system provide a safety net. Award conditions will no longer be protected by law.

What is worse, Mr Howard’s legislation provides employers with numerous options for removing workers’ existing conditions, even where they have expressly chosen to work under collective agreements. This may not happen overnight; it is likely to be a slow burn. It is, nevertheless, central to the government’s agenda. For instance, once a collective agreement has expired, all an employer has to do is give the workers 90 days notice in order to declare the workplace award free and collective agreement free. Once this is done, the only obligation on the employer is to comply with the government’s minimum employment conditions. These so-called ‘guaranteed’ conditions are four weeks annual leave, personal leave, parental leave, a limit on the number of ordinary working hours and the minimum wage. But even here all is not what it appears to be. The government has made it clear that it is prepared to allow annual leave to be reduced to two weeks a year and has already flagged its intentions to reduce the real value of the minimum wage. This is a government ideologically committed to institutionalising unfairness.

This is also evident from the government’s proposals for the treatment of unfair dismissal. Protection for workers from arbitrary dismissal has been a feature of Australia’s industrial relations landscape for many decades. It is integral to any sense of industrial fairness. Despite this, the government has decided to proceed with a platform of extremely regressive proposals. For several years, the government has indicated its intention to limit unfair dismissal protection to workplaces with more than 20 workers. Prior to the introduction of this bill, it declared that unfair dismissal protection would be available only for workers who had an employer with a work force with more than 100 workers. This proposal apparently did not go far enough. We now find that even in the case of employers with more than 100 workers it will be possible to also dismiss people on the grounds of so-called ‘operational’ necessity. This is an incredibly elastic formula that will essentially allow employers to sack workers on the flimsiest of pretexts provided it can be dressed up as an ‘operational’ requirement. At the stroke of a pen, millions of Australian workers will be disenfranchised from protection against arbitrary dismissal.

The government claims that its unprincipled position on unfair dismissals is designed to assist small business, although it now looks as though this claim will have to be amended to include the big end of town as well. Do not get me wrong: Labor is not opposed to a review of procedural fairness in relation to unfair dismissal legislation. But this government’s jackbooted approach will set job security in this country back 100 years—and along with it the quintessentially Australian notion of what we have all known as a fair go. This government seems determined to throw out the baby, the bathwater and the bath when it comes to unfair dismissal law.

The government also claims that existing unfair dismissal provisions discourage employers from employing more workers. Estimates by members opposite vary, but figures as high as 80,000 have been bandied around. Empirical evidence to back up these claims, though, has been conspicuous by its absence. Hardly surprisingly, the claims have been dismissed out of hand by serious commentators. As expressed by one leading researcher, Dr Paul Oslington, who has attempted to model the government’s claims:

Even if we do the simulations as optimistically as we possibly can, you can’t get any substantial impact on employment.

By any objective standard, unfair dismissal legislation is an industrial relations issue in need of some tweaking here and there. That this government is prepared to jettison any sense of even-handedness in this area is a reflection of its ideological obsession and the lengths it is prepared to go to to placate the more reactionary elements within the business community.

Almost two million workers, approximately 20 per cent of the Australian work force, depend on the minimum wage. Historically, increases in the minimum wage have been set by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Since coming into office in 1996 this government has consistently argued for minimal increases in the minimum wage. The minimum wage is currently $25,188 a year. If the government had had its way, the minimum wage would only be $22,500 a year. That is $50 a week, or $2,600 a year, less than what has been awarded by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Over the period from 1997 to 2005 the minimum wage increased by 9.2 per cent in real terms. Had this government’s approach been adopted by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission the minimum wage would have fallen by 1.6 per cent in real terms.

The government argues that the increases awarded by the Industrial Relations Commission have priced the unemployed out of the labour market. Its solution is lower minimum wage increases and, in real terms, a decrease in the minimum wage. Yet during this period jobs have continued to grow. In the last five years, for example, jobs growth has been in the order of 10.4 per cent. In other words, although there have been real increases in the minimum wage there has also been an increase in employment and a fall in unemployment. The government has chosen to ignore these inconvenient facts. Instead, it has opted to shoot the messenger by removing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission from its traditional role in wage setting. It will be replaced by the misnamed Australian Fair Pay Commission. Although nominally independent, members of this commission will be determined by the government and will have fixed terms of appointment. From the outset, the commission will be under pressure to adopt the government’s position on minimum wage increases. If the government’s track record is anything to go by this is likely to result in reductions in real terms in the minimum wage. Once again, fairness will be sacrificed on the altar of ideological obsession.

The damage will not, however, stop there. A lower real minimum wage will inevitably have a spillover effect on other wage earners, since it is the base upon which many other wage levels are set. This in turn, over time, may well have the effect of reducing the real value of wages for workers who earn more than the minimum wage. In doing so it may also reduce in real terms average weekly earnings. In addition, as increases in the old age pension are linked to increases in male average weekly earnings, any reduction in the value of male average weekly earnings is bad news for pensioners. As you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have the honour of representing the people of Hindmarsh, which has the oldest age profile of any electorate in Australia. If we go through the same experience as New Zealand did when it deregulated its labour market in the 1990s then we can expect the living standards of pensioners to be adversely affected. For Labor it is totally unacceptable that older Australians should end up as collateral damage in this government’s reckless campaign to cannibalise Australia’s industrial relations system.

Trade unions have played a vital role in our society over the last 100 years. They have made a major contribution to raising the living standards of ordinary working people in this country. The trade union movement is still the largest voluntary organisation in Australia. Trade unions have acted to curb the worst excesses of our industrial society and have sought to enshrine human dignity as a right for all, not just for the rich and privileged. Many of the human rights and industrial conditions we take for granted are the direct result of many struggles over many decades by many working people committed to building a better society. These gains have now been placed in great jeopardy.

This government has an ideological hatred of trade unions and in this bill has gone to great lengths to shackle their ability to act on behalf of Australia’s working men and women. This government’s legislation is nothing less than a full-frontal assault on the rights of working people to organise in defence of wages and working conditions. It seeks to make access to workplaces by union representatives much more difficult, it seeks to curb the right of workers to take legitimate industrial action, it seeks to provide the minister with extraordinary powers to interfere in industrial disputes—which, incidentally, are at a historical low—and it seeks to impose harsh penalties for even the slightest infractions by workers or their representatives. In short, this bill is an attempt to get rid of unions while not actually prohibiting them outright.

This policy is as short-sighted as it is vindictive. Increasingly, public policy in Australia has been dominated by corporate business interests. If we are to have a vibrant democratic society it is absolutely essential that we have countervailing forces that can challenge the dominance of the big end of town. The trade union movement has been an important part of this countervailing coalition. If we truly value our freedoms and our way of life we need to defend trade unions. Not only are trade unions necessary to protect and advance the interests of ordinary working Australians, they are also essential to ensuring that our society does not end up simply being an adjunct of big business.

This bill is without doubt the most nasty and divisive legislation that has been introduced into this parliament in living memory. What makes matters worse is that it is as unnecessary as it is regressive. The government’s industrial relations program is at best a fourth-rate issue that has been shoved up the public policy agenda because of a 20-year ideological obsession nurtured by the Prime Minister and his acolytes. The government has at no stage put forward a coherent and reasoned case that would warrant such a drastic overhaul of this country’s IR laws. Much of its argument for change is premised on the simplistic view that a deregulated labour market is the best, indeed the only, way forward for Australia in terms of employment growth and prosperity. This is despite the fact that there are many countries, particularly in Europe, which have more regulated labour markets but which also have higher living standards and better employment outcomes than is the case in Australia. In this respect we could learn much more from countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. This would be much more preferable than continually seeking to impose the worst aspects of the American system on the Australian community.

Madam Deputy Speaker, when I made my first speech in this place I referred to the ever-increasing pressures that Australian families have to contend with. In doing so I also called for a return to the traditional Australian ethos of a fair go. With this bill this government has made it abundantly clear that it is not interested in the welfare of ordinary Australian families or in the fairness that in the past has helped make Australia such a great place to live. While we may lose the vote on this bill in this place I can assure you that Labor will repeal this odious piece of legislation at the first opportunity. With the support of the Australian people, this could be as early as 2007.