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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 115

Ms KATE ELLIS (10:04 PM) —On behalf of the people of Adelaide I rise tonight to place on the record my staunch opposition to the government’s Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I rise tonight to tell this government to back off and stop their attacks on Australian workers. Speaking against this legislation tonight is just one step in what will be a long and relentless battle by me and my colleagues to fight this government on this matter every single step of the way. We will fight these measures until we can tear this legislation apart and ensure that Australians have the fair rights at work that they deserve.

This legislation and the government’s arrogance in pushing it upon the Australian people must be rejected as the extreme, mean and ideological rubbish that it is. It must be rejected because the government has no mandate to force this overhaul on the Australian people. It must be rejected because, rather than addressing the crucial issues that face our great nation today, this legislation does nothing but create more problems. Most importantly, this legislation must be rejected because it punishes those who can least afford it. It strips millions of workers of protection and it sets Australia up for a race to the bottom.

The government has absolutely no mandate to push these changes upon the Australian people. Where were these plans during the election campaign? I for one was listening pretty carefully during the campaign and I did not hear a word about them. What a disgusting abuse of our democratic institutions and—even more importantly—what a disgusting abuse of the faith of the Australian people.

About two weeks ago I was approached by a woman in my electorate at Unley Park. She stated to me: ‘Kate, I did not vote for you. The reason that I did not vote for you was that I was relatively happy with how things were going and I thought that a vote for the government would be a vote for the status quo. I would most certainly have voted differently if I had known of all these radical plans the government has since pursued.’ Whilst at times it may pain me, I certainly accept that not everybody voted for me. Perhaps I even accept that not everybody will in the future. But what I will not accept is this government deceiving voters and abusing their trust, saying one thing before an election and something quite different afterwards.

What an absolute nerve this government has. Let us not forget that this government ran its last election campaign based on a scare campaign on interest rates. This government gained re-election by scaring the most economically vulnerable in our community into believing that they would be better off under a coalition government. What a disgraceful nerve it now has in turning around and robbing these very same Australians of their fair pay, their conditions and their rights in the workplace and in hurting the workers who rely most upon protection.

The seat that I represent is a wonderfully diverse seat. It covers extremely varied areas—both inner city and suburban; both rich and poor. As I move around the electorate I am often amazed at the variety of issues that are raised with me and again with the variety of views. But I have not seen a single issue that has been so universally opposed across my electorate as this one.

It is of no surprise that concerns should be so widely shared across the community, especially when one considers the incredibly broad range of people who will be affected by this legislation. This legislation will affect millions of Australia’s most vulnerable workers. It will affect workers who will be punished by unfair Australian workplace agreements which they have no choice but to sign up to. It will affect union officials, punished so severely under this legislation for going about their rightful business. It will affect the millions of pensioners, whose pension is set in relation to average male earnings, now threatened by the establishment of the so-called Fair Pay Commission. It will affect our society as a whole and the fair go that we have afforded each other for so long.

I want to share just one of the many examples within my own electorate of those who are concerned with this legislation. I will share with you part of an email that I recently received. It states:

One of my “burning issues” on a Federal level is the new Industrial Reforms. I have always been a Liberal Supporter/Voter, but after Howard’s new reform I, and many of my friends will not and never will support this reform and will vote with our “pens” at the next election, even though that is some time away. We will not forget what Howard is trying to do in undermining the very essence of what we hold dear.

I shall repeat that last part: ‘We will not forget what Howard is trying to do in undermining the very essence of what we hold dear.’ These are not my words, they are not the words of the Labor Party and they are not the words of the trade union movement. These are the words of a Liberal supporter urging this government to scrap these extreme proposals. Unfortunately, I fear that these calls are falling on deaf ears with this government, which will stop at nothing and listen to no-one in its efforts to secure the Prime Minister’s long-held dream in this area. At a time when the people of Adelaide urgently need a government to tackle the real issues facing them and their families, this government instead produces this ideologically-driven rubbish.

Let us examine the government’s public rationale for this legislation. I say ‘public’ because we know that the real rationale is based on the Prime Minister’s ideological desire to make his mark in industrial relations. The public argument put forth by the government, on the other hand, is supposedly about the economy; it is supposedly about achieving higher productivity. If this government were serious about raising levels of productivity it would have invested in training and educational institutions. It would have supported Australians who sought further education and skill development. It would have realised that reducing the opportunity for young Australians to attend TAFE colleges and squeezing the funding from Australian universities would have a negative effect on productivity growth. It would have urgently sought long-term solutions to address this nation’s skill shortage and to invest in the infrastructure that is required by our private industry to aid their future growth.

We need a government that will enhance our prosperity by tackling these issues, not a government obsessed with making workers cheaper to pay and easier to sack. But I think we all know that the government is not taking these measures for economic reasons. This is the reason why every government member that I have had the misfortune to hear contribute to this debate has focused solely on rabbiting on about what Labor did in the eighties and the early nineties rather than even attempting to make the economic case for these changes.

It is outrageous to suggest that the only way Australia can compete in the international labour market is by cutting pay and creating a low-skilled, low-wage and transitional work force. There are smarter options—options that treat workers with the dignity and respect they deserve, options that aim to improve the quality of living of Australian workers and options that maintain the notions of equality and fairness.

Another issue, which I believe is one of the pressing issues that governments in this country must address, is the struggle that so many Australians are facing to balance their work and family commitments. This is a serious issue and not one that should not be ignored. We are facing a crisis in this nation where we have the combination of an ageing population, a sustained decline in the fertility rate, a rise in the median age of childbearing and a host of mixed messages from the government. On the one hand we have a government telling young families to have one for the mum, one for the dad and one for the country. At the same time we are telling women that we need them in the work force to address work force shortages. Yet we are not addressing the crisis in child-care shortages or listening to the pleas of young mothers seeking to re-enter the work force but finding a lack of rewarding part-time work or being forced into unreliable casual jobs.

This is a time when we need to be focusing on encouraging family friendly work practices, not discouraging them. The Australian economy cannot be sustained on a growth trajectory without women playing a major and increased role in the workplace. This is a serious enough issue that one of our parliamentary committees has established an inquiry into it—an inquiry that has curiously now been put on hold. But what is this legislation doing to address these crucial issues? The answer: absolutely nothing except exacerbating the problem.

These laws will in fact make the juggling act of work and family so much harder for millions of Australian families. Where previously parents had some confidence in their hours of work, they will now face the prospect of their work hours being averaged over a 12-month period, which effectively means that they may have to work punishing hours one week and absolutely none the next. Where couples relied on unfair dismissal legislation for security and confidence in planning their lives and families, they will soon be without this protection. Where many parents relied on collective bargaining to deliver the flexibility and concessions that they require to address their family responsibilities, now many will be forced to take harsh and uncompromising Australian workplace agreements, agreements that have been demonstrated to be less friendly to family responsibilities.

We have seen here what this legislation does not do. It does not address the pressing issues facing the Australian people, the issues that this mob were elected to address. It does not help or prosper the Australian people at all. So perhaps we should look at what it does do in hurting, punishing and bullying the Australian people.

Currently, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, when making determinations in wage cases, takes into account effects on employment as well as the broader economy. Its decisions are based on fairness, as required by section 88B of the current legislation. Under this proposed legislation, the Fair Pay Commission is not required to take fairness into account. Fairness has been blatantly cut out as a consideration, as evidenced by section 7J of this bill. Although the government asserts that this legislation will lead to higher wages, these are deceitful claims and nothing short of Liberal propaganda.

The establishment of the Fair Pay Commission is John Howard’s instrument of inequality. Instead of having an independent arbiter to mediate and determine fair and appropriate wage levels, the Fair Pay Commission is designed to force down the real value of wages. The Fair Pay Commission is designed to ensure that any wage increases are limited and inadequate for working Australians. In every single year since it came to power in 1996, this government has fiercely opposed minimum wage claims put to the Industrial Relations Commission. If the government’s claims had been accepted by the Industrial Relations Commission, since 1997 the country’s lowest paid workers would today be $44 a week worse off, while families with two parents battling on the base rate would be $4,600 a year worse off.

Through this government’s Work Choices legislation, this is the kind of position that will guide and bind the so-called Fair Pay Commission—a mean, unreasonable, unfair and unjustified approach that aims to kick workers down and to keep them down. Both the Prime Minister and the Chairman to be elected, Mr Ian Harper, when questioned on the operations of the commission, assured us that the Fair Pay Commission intended to be consultative. Where was the consultation at the last election? Where is the community debate on making such extreme changes to our workplaces? When were the people of Australia given the opportunity to consider these changes before they elected this government? The fact is, this government does not believe in consulting anyone. It would rather deceive the people of Australia. It would rather spend millions of dollars to hide the real truth that lies behind this legislation.

Here is an exercise in consultation, Prime Minister. A recent poll found that just 23 per cent of Australians agreed with your industrial relations reforms. In fact, since the beginning of the Prime Minister’s disgraceful so-called educational Work Choices campaign—the multimillion dollar campaign released at the expense of the Australian taxpayer—public satisfaction with the Prime Minister has started plummeting. An exercise in consultation, Mr Howard, would tell you loud and clear that Australians do not want this legislative change. They want you to back off their rights at work.

What else does this legislation do? It strips millions of Australians of any sense of job security. This legislation abolishes the right of millions of employees to access unfair dismissal provisions. It deprives workers of the right to access a fair and affordable remedy when they have been procedurally or substantively unfairly dismissed. It is here where the government, through its sneaky, dishonest, taxpayer funded advertising campaign, have again been amongst their most deceitful. The government have continued to claim that workers’ rights will be protected through unlawful dismissal laws.

The Prime Minister has cunningly portrayed the belief that the same rights accorded to workers now will still be available to them but through the unlawful dismissal provisions. What the Prime Minister will not tell you, what he has not told the Australian people, is that the unlawful dismissal process is very different. The Prime Minister is counting on people not knowing the difference between unfair dismissal and unlawful dismissal and he has tried to make it confusing and tricky because that is his method of leadership—confuse, divide and deceive.

The truth of the matter is that unlawful dismissal is a common-law remedy that requires legal action in the Federal Court, where the employee must hire a lawyer to have much chance of success. It is costly and it is time consuming and the grounds of unlawful dismissal are limited to only certain forms of discrimination. Since 1996, there have only been 147 unlawful termination claims to the Federal Court—fewer than 25 a year—in contrast with the 50,000 unfair dismissal applications the Industrial Relations Commission has processed in the same period. The figure of 147 encapsulates the kind of protection workers can expect from this government.

The fact is that, when unfair dismissal laws are abolished by this government, workers can expect to be sacked for an assortment of unfair and unreasonable reasons, but, unless it can be linked to the narrow definition of unlawful dismissal, workers will be left unemployed and without legal remedy. If there is a problem with our current unfair dismissal laws, surely the government should attempt to address that problem, not scrap the whole protective mechanism.

In 1996 the government introduced the country to Australian workplace agreements in an effort to single out workers and split united workers from their collective bargaining strategies. It was a blatant attempt to weaken workers’ rights. Divide and conquer was the strategy then and, surprisingly enough, that strategy has not changed. The government wants to achieve now what it could not achieve in 1996 without full control of the Senate. When referring to AWAs you hear the government throw around positive words such as ‘choice’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘negotiate’. In reality, they are standardised contracts that come straight off the employer’s printer into the hands of an employee, accompanied by the line, ‘Take it or leave it.’

Now, with the removal of the no disadvantage test and the new provisions in this bill relating to AWAs, Australian workplace agreements will be an instrument designed to fiercely undercut fair and reasonable pay and working conditions. New provisions in this bill—clauses 104(5) and 104(6) to be precise—do not consider that an employer is applying duress when requiring an employee to make an AWA a condition of employment. This means that employers are now legally entitled to force individual contracts on employees.

This legislation is no solution to Australia’s need to be economically competitive. I have already outlined tonight the strategies the government should be looking towards for this means. This bill is harmful and socially destructive. It will evolve into a downward spiral of living standards, a race to the bottom, as the member for Gorton so aptly described it. By stripping allowable matters from awards, by forcing workers onto unfair individual employment contracts, by stripping workers of their rights to penalty rates and to access unfair dismissal laws—by doing all of these things and more—the government is producing a system that will undoubtedly substantially lower the benchmark of wages and conditions in this country.

The pressure on employees to undermine their conditions of work in order to maintain employment will be considerable, and the pressure on employers to offer substandard contracts in order to compete with the market will be considerable, particularly if there is an economic downturn. And so the ‘race to the bottom’ begins. Is this the Australia that we want? There is no choice but for any fair-minded member of this House to oppose this draconian legislation. This legislation is un-Australian. It is the Americanisation of our work force—the establishment of a working poor in this nation. This legislation is also a kick in the teeth to the Australians who fought for the rights in the workplace that we enjoy today.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I met Mr Schulze, an 84-year-old constituent of mine who came along in his wheelchair to one of my street corner meetings in Prospect. Mr Schulze came out because he wanted me to know how upset he was about these attacks on workers’ rights. He was visibly upset as he told me that no-one who was there in the 1930s battling for many of these rights, as he was, would ever even dream of stripping them away in this manner.

I tell Mr Schulze, and indeed I tell all of those brave Australians who fought and won the rights and conditions in the workplace that we enjoy today, that we on this side have not forgotten their battles, and we will not forget them. On this side of the House, we pay tribute to these Australians. We thank them for their contributions, which have helped shape this great nation—which have instilled the principles of egalitarianism, equality and the right to a fair go. And the people on this side of the House pledge to build on these achievements, to continue to work to improve the lives of working Australians.

It is not just our elderly Australians, though, who have fought to protect rights in the workplace. This government does all in its power to demonise the trade union movement in this nation. It has saved a special amount of the venom in this bill for the unions and it outlaws legitimate union activities. I am proud of the union movement in this country. I am proud of what they have achieved. I think it is an honourable profession to dedicate yourself to fighting for the wages and conditions of the workers of our nation. This is in stark contrast to this government which, drunk on its own power, aims to kick working Australians in the face and wind back the clock by stripping workers of the rights they have fought so hard to secure. This is not progress.

I am proud to stand here and oppose this legislation on behalf of the people of Adelaide. We will oppose it in this chamber. We will oppose it in our communities, in the shopping centres and the workplaces. But, most of all, we will work for the day when, proudly, we will oppose this legislation as we tear it up from that side of the chamber, following the next election.