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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 108

Ms BURKE (9:33 PM) —I rise to condemn these appalling laws before the parliament today, but I have this horror, this nightmarish feeling of deja vu, because we have been here before—yes, we have—time and time again. Finally, this tired government, with no vision or sense of direction for our country, our nation, can impose on the populace its ideology, the articles of Liberal Party faith—no more, no less, just the articles of Liberal Party faith. Here at last this government can wind back the clock and create the class divide it believes to be right and proper, with the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer, the boss with total control—managerial prerogative, to the uninitiated—and the worker alone with no voice or a means of uniting against the unlimited power of those in control: the bosses. I ask: for what? Why are we doing this? I cannot see any reason. I cannot see any justification for this load of tripe before the parliament today. It is not even new tripe. It is merely a case of old wine in new bottles—rehashed legislation, rehashed ideas from a government and a Prime Minister bent on destroying our very way of life to see his ideological obsession realised.

I did a search on workplace choice on the ParlInfo database earlier today, and what came up? Information not on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 but on the bill with the best Orwellian name that I have ever come across in this joint—the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill. That is right; that is what ParlInfo actually came up with: the Reith dogs and balaclava number of 1998. That is fantastic. That is what ParlInfo comes up with. A press release on this bill said:

The central tenet of the Coalition’s workplace relations policy “More Jobs, Better Pay” is to give employees and employers more rights to determine their own future to their own mutual advantage.

The evolutionary reform proposed in “More Jobs, Better Pay” builds on the advances in workplace relations that have been achieved since 1996.

By fostering a cooperative model employees can develop a workplace environment where they have more control over their wages and conditions, where they can develop a team approach involving employers and workmates and have a sense of accomplishment and pride in knowing they are doing their job well.

…            …            …

These steps are aimed at ensuring employees and employers determine their own future without the unnecessary interference of third parties.

That was in 1998. It sounds vaguely familiar when we consider what is going on today, but I think that if we go back further it will all sound very familiar. A line I like best from some of Mr Reith’s material was that ‘it’—‘it’ being the IR system under Labor—‘was a paternalistic system devised in another era, for another time’. The bill before the House today has some of the most paternalistic white-picket-fence stuff I have ever seen from this government. It is some of the most appalling paternalistic stuff this parliament has come up with: ‘Yes, dear little workers, you do not know what is best, so the bosses can tell you what to do, what to be paid, when to work, whether you can have leave and when you get to take it et cetera.’ There is no choice for the worker but flexibility for the boss.

The choice and flexibility of a worker can be exercised easily, and the Prime Minister said this on national television: ‘There’s the door. Get another job.’ Choice is not that easy, and it is particularly not that easy if you are a male with low skills who is employed in a low-skill area. It is an option if you are happy to take a casual, precarious job, because, when you finally get there, you will sign onto an AWA which strips away all the vestiges of hard-won conditions the Australian work force has won over the last 100 years.

Andrew Stewart, Professor of Law at Flinders University, has a nice turn of phrase and summed up well this debate in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Voltaire once said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was not holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Critics of the Howard Government might say the same about its plans to create a “simpler, national, fairer system” for regulating workplace relations.

Judging by the legislation placed before Parliament yesterday, the new WorkChoices system—as the Howard Government’s spin doctors have decreed it be called—certainly won’t be simple, nor truly national, in its coverage. And as for “fair”, well, we’ll come back to that.

…         …         …

It will shift the focus of the system more firmly towards individual contracts. But the Government has been keen to preserve the illusion there will still be awards, that workers will not be worse off, that the commission is still there to protect them.

I say “illusion” because buried in the fine print of the new legislation are many different ways in which employers will be able, if they want to (and some will), to avoid or remove the operation of awards—and without necessarily having to put workers on Australian Workplace Agreements.

Nevertheless, the need to preserve an appearance of continuity from the old regime has greatly added to the volume of the new legislation, much of which is devoted to provisions that purport to protect existing entitlements.

…         …         …

So it is not going to be simple, and it’s not going to be a truly national system either. But will it be fairer? Well, the Government is proposing to remove existing references to setting “fair” employment conditions. Even if you buy the economic arguments about creating new jobs and improving productivity (and that’s a big if), there are likely to be a lot of social costs in this package—more working poor, less job security and an even bigger squeeze on family and leisure time.

And for the businesses that will otherwise benefit from the reforms, how fair is it to burden them with laws that are lengthy, indigestible, inefficient—and that create as many legal problems as they will solve?

As I said, I think Professor Stewart summed up the debate very well. Where is the justification for this bill? The government seems to think that by lowering wages to a similar level to those in, say, India and China, it will create jobs and this will produce growth.

This reminds me of other articles of faith: the notion of the trickle-down effect—and we know how efficient that was—and the notion that there is no such thing as ‘society’. They are just not true and, like this legislation, they are merely articles of faith. Lower wages will not increase the productivity output which drives the economy and produces wealth; it will just create an American-style working poor. Australia has had an economic boom without job growth for many years now. The trend has been slightly reversed in recent times because we have had a win out of commodities that we have exported to China as a result of China’s growth. But most of our economic fortunes have been driven by consumption—yes, on the back of that credit card that one day we all have to settle up—and not through improved productivity. Our productivity has not increased.

On a recent Four Corners program, leading academics and economists could not find one shred of evidence to support the government’s claim that this legislation will boost productivity. Dr John Buchanan said:

If you look at the data on the US, productivity growth in the services sector in the US has been close to zero for the best part of 10 years because labour is so cheap. Employers have no incentive to get rid of it down market and I think the real, the cruellest irony of these changes is that it will in fact retard productivity growth, it takes away the incentive for employers to think about other ways of using their labour more efficiently.

Professor David Peetz said:

It doesn’t matter how much you cut penalty rates. It doesn’t matter how much you cut overtime rates. It doesn’t matter what you do to flexibility of working hours, what you do to wages. You’re never going to be able to compete with China and India on wages, on labour costs, it’s as simple as that. The way you compete with these countries is you compete on skill, you compete on innovation, you compete on quality. What are these changes going to do to promote skill, innovation and quality?

I echo that: what is this bill going to do to promote skills, innovation and quality? Data from the Groningen Growth and Development Centre’s research, which measures output as GDP, does not demonstrate that countries with lower regulation regimes produce greater outputs. They may produce lower unemployment but they do not necessarily produce greater output. Indeed, in 2004 France, Luxembourg and Norway were miles ahead of the USA and Australia in GDP output.

I was recently part of a delegation to Denmark and Sweden, two of the most highly regulated economies out there, with some of the highest wages not only in the OECD but in the world. Australia’s current productivity output is at 35.18; Denmark, 41.65; and Sweden, 39.24. But the winner is Luxembourg, at 56.84. The economies in Denmark and Sweden are also beating us hands down in exports. So it is not all about a race to the bottom; it is actually about a race to be clever—to be smart. None of this legislation is doing that.

So we have a bill which is not new, which is not fair and which will not increase productivity. What will it actually do? It will ensure that 3.7 million workers will lose unfair dismissal rights, with employers able to dismiss workers for no given reason. The laws will mean that any worker at any time can be put onto an individual contract which can undermine their present wages and conditions. Conditions that can be undercut by individual contracts include penalty rates, overtime pay, control over the roster, redundancy pay, meal breaks and public holiday pay. Even four weeks annual leave can be traded away. These conditions will not be protected by law. They can all be removed or undercut by individual contracts. Awards will be stripped back and will lose many core conditions. Many families are only just keeping their heads above water, and losing their rights at work will make it even harder.

The legislation will make it much harder for workers to collectively bargain, and it will limit the abilities of unions to visit workplaces and represent members. Under these laws, unions can be fined $33,000 just for asking for workers to be protected from unfair dismissal or individual contracts. The independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, will be stripped of its power to set minimum wages. That power has gone to a board appointed by a government that has consistently said that minimum wages in Australia are too high. These laws will not be good for workers, their families or Australia. These laws mean that it will be harder for ordinary working families to share in the benefits of the economic good times and that they will have no protection in times of economic downturn.

There is no benefit for workers—none. We might not see the erosion of hard-won conditions overnight but it will happen. For me the dismantling of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, taking away its role as the independent umpire and simply leaving it to police unions, is the hardest thing to bear. The AIRC was a great institution, a place where all parties could go to get a fair and free hearing to resolve disputes, to find solutions that all sides could live with—and now it has gone. Other countries would come to look at our system, which has served all sides fairly for a century, from the landmark Harvester judgment of 1907—a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work—to judgments on the right of women to equal pay and to maternity leave. All these things are gone as there simply will be no need for an umpire in a unilateral working world. I have appeared before the commission on numerous occasions, for both the unions and the bosses, because I have worked for both. I have always found that it was one of the best avenues to which everybody could go to get a fair hearing. It is a tragedy that this bill will dismantle that great institution.

I like the claim that this government has produced real wages growth—maybe for some but certainly not if you are lowly paid. The creation of the Fair Pay Commission will enshrine the government’s desire for low wages. Low-paid workers will have to wait 18 months for the next pay increase but, looking at current government form, I do not think an increase will be coming. The government has opposed all national wage cases since it came to office. If the commission had listened to it, workers on minium wages would be a massive $50 a week worse off. The endless claims that those on AWAs earn more is simply a lie. Research has shown that for casual workers AWAs paid 15 per cent less than registered collective agreements. For permanent part-time workers, AWAs paid 25 per cent less. Indeed, amongst permanent part-time employees, even award-only employees—those who received exactly the award rate—were earning an average of eight per cent more than AWA workers. For female part-time workers AWAs paid seven per cent less than collective agreements. Only for male, permanent, full-time workers did AWAs have higher average hourly earnings than those under registered collective agreements—by just four per cent. About 13 per cent more goes to managers in massive pay rises—and they are not on AWAs; they are on individual contracts. So the claim is a complete furphy.

Where is the vision to really fix our economy, for investment in skills and infrastructure, and to stop our manufacturing base bleeding? Where is the plan to value-add to create real jobs, not just have duplication through lower wages? On Friday I learnt that yet another car component plant in my electorate is to close. Will this bill help its workers to find work? No, it will not. Is there a rescue package out there for my workers in downtown Chisholm? No, there is not. There is nothing but the prospect of unemployment, because these are males predominantly of a low-skill nature. Silcraft will be axing 460 jobs between now and 2007 and will shut a plant that has been servicing Ford for many years. Only three months ago, Icon, an automotive supplier, went into liquidation, also forcing redundancies and adding to the 14,000 job losses in the automotive sector since 2002. But where is the answer in this legislation for this sector of industry as to jobs?

I suppose the government will say jobs will be protected and even created because Australia will have lower wages and will be able to compete with cheaper imports because companies’ cost-to-income ratios will improve. So all workers must do is take a massive pay cut so that they are earning wages equivalent to those in China and the jobs will be saved—terrific! All the workers and their families will be homeless and will starve because they will no longer be able to afford to pay, on that amount of money, their mortgages, rent, food, petrol or education costs. The economy will dry up because they will not have any money to spend and consumption will go down. But that will be okay as they will have a job! How absolutely ludicrous is this argument!

What is the government’s plan? The government’s plan is to drive down wages, but that is not going to create jobs. Where is the plan to increase our global competitiveness? It is not in this bill and it will not help the hundreds of manufacturing workers in my seat keep or get a job. Did anyone here spare a thought for the Arnott’s workers in my electorate who also lost their jobs? Five hundred people went when the factory closed. No longer are biscuits baked behind my mother’s home. Biscuits were baked there when it was owned by Brockhoff and then Arnott’s for well over 60 years. Gone are all those jobs. Now it is a lovely housing development site. Where did these workers get jobs? Most still have not because they were in the manufacturing sector.

This bill would not have protected their livelihoods. This bill does nothing for the working men and women of Australia whom John Howard said he was here to look after. Remember that? He was going to govern for all of us. As a local constituent asked me recently, who is looking after small business in this debate? He writes a fairly lengthy essay stating that, if it is going to be easier to sack a skilled worker from a small business, what skilled worker is going to stay working in a small business? It is going to be fairly attractive to go and work for a big business knowing that your job is stable and secure with it.

In his speech to the parliament last year, the Governor-General described Australia as ‘a beacon of democracy and tolerance underpinned by a prosperous economy and a fair society’. Over the last nine years of Howard government rule, the light from the beacon has faded because every time the coalition takes a swipe at the good things that define our country—harmony, equity and a fair go for all—the light grows a little dimmer. And now the government, with its radical industrial relations legislation, is trying to snuff it out altogether. But, as much as it tries, the Howard government will not be able to extinguish the beacon of light that is Australia. I know that the people of this nation will keep it burning. They cherish harmony, equity and a fair go for all—the qualities that are inherent in the nature of the Australian people, their psyche and their way of life. Indeed, these are the very basis of our original industrial relations system introduced by a Liberal government, which a Liberal government is trying to destroy today.

The Australian people will not accept a government that legislates away fairness and justness, the very foundations of a democratic nation. This radical industrial relations bill is the beginning of the end for the Howard government. Labor will fight these laws every step of the way. We will fight to protect Australian workers and we will not allow the government to stamp out fairness in the workplace and destroy the Australian way of life. Blinded by arrogance and ideology, the Howard government can no longer see where it is going. As it steers the nation into the rocks, that beacon, Labor’s light on the hill—no matter how dim the light, no matter how badly the coalition has battered its flame—will guide us to victory in two years time.