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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 55

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (12:56 PM) —The Howard government’s Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is the most vicious and obnoxious piece of legislation I have seen introduced into this House since I was elected in 1993 to represent working people in the Corio electorate. It is vicious because of the sheer breadth of its attack on the living standards and rights of working people in Geelong and their representatives in the workplace, and it is obnoxious because it reflects the enduring prejudice of a Prime Minister who smirks as his government seeks to deceive decent Australians about the impact of this legislation on their families and on their communities.

The impacts of this legislation are not hard to identify. It will destroy the living standards of many vulnerable working families in the Geelong area. In many workplaces it will pit some workers against their fellow workers, creating mistrust and conflict where there was none before. Ultimately it will adversely impact on the family lives of many working families, as their incomes contract and as reductions in their conditions of employment further curtail their capacity to engage in their community. This is a despicable piece of legislation. It offends the very values of fair play and democratic practice that many Australians hold dear.

Nowhere in this debate has the Prime Minister advanced a coherent economic argument for the extreme changes to Australian workplaces that are enshrined in this legislation. Nowhere has the Prime Minister mounted a social case that these changes will advance in any way the productive relationships necessary to underpin productivity and growth or assist families to balance their work and family responsibilities. Indeed, this Prime Minister’s failure to mount a coherent social or economic argument for his proposed changes is laid bare by the quite obscene $55 million advertising campaign being mounted at the taxpayers’ expense to persuade the workers of Australia that these changes will somehow improve their wages and conditions.

I would have thought that, if these changes were so great for the economy and so great for working people, they could stand alone in argument without a $55 million advertising rort to ram the legislation and everything in it down the throats of working people in this country. There is nothing so obscene as stealing $55 million of workers’ income tax dollars to fund a deceitful advertising campaign to try and persuade families that changes that will rip away their income and working conditions are really in their best interests. It really does not come any more obscene than that. There can be no more cynical act of any government of any political persuasion than that.

This rotten piece of legislation ought to be understood in its historical context. The Prime Minister has attempted to implement this extreme industrial relations agenda before. But it has been the collective wisdom of the Senate and this parliament, when it was free of total government control, to substantially amend this extreme agenda in the national interest. Now the Prime Minister has total political control of both houses. In the twilight of a regrettable political career and dripping with arrogance, with his last slip of the boot, so to speak, he is driving it hard into working families and the union movement.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 will create an industrial relations system that is extreme, unfair and divisive. The Prime Minister’s great opus is nothing more than an ideological expression of narrow prejudice enshrined in an outdated view of the world, which should have been left in the decade of the last century in which it is rooted. I thoroughly endorse the second reading amendment moved by my friend and colleague the honourable member for Perth, who is with me here in the chamber today, for it eloquently summarises all that is essentially wrong with the legislation.

This legislation attacks the living standards of Australian employees and their families by removing the no disadvantage test from collective and individual agreements. It fails to provide a guarantee that no individual Australian employee will be worse off under these extreme industrial relations changes. It undermines family life by proposing to give employers the power to change employees’ hours of work without reasonable notice. It denies Australian employees the capacity to bargain collectively with their employer for decent wages and conditions. It guts the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and eliminates the role of the independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions and to resolve disputes. It removes almost four million employees from the protection of unfair dismissal. It allows individual contracts to undermine the rights of Australian workers under collective agreements and awards—for instance, by eliminating penalty rates, shift loadings, overtime, holiday pay and other award conditions. It denies individuals the right to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation. It launches an unprovoked attack on responsible trade unions and asserts that those unions have no role in the economic and social future of Australia, despite what the Prime Minister has said in this chamber today. It destroys rights achieved through the hard work of generations of Australian workers. It undermines the principles of fairness that have underpinned the Australian industrial relations system for the past 100 years.

As attacks on working families go, this legislation is the most vicious and comprehensive attack I have witnessed in the whole of my time in public life. The erosion of working conditions will be a slow burn. It will be over time, as industrial workers have their wages and conditions pared away and as their children take an AWA or do not get jobs, that the awful realisation will dawn on Australians that John Howard has effectively Americanised Australian labour relations. He seeks to Americanise the Australian education system. He seeks to Americanise the Australian health system. He seeks to Americanise the independence of Australia’s foreign policy. And he now seeks to Americanise our workplace relations. Is it no wonder that he is known in political circles as the ‘little Bush’.

The central economic argument mounted by the government in support of these changes—namely, that workplace flexibility is needed to maintain growth and employment—is fundamentally flawed. It is quite a pathetic argument. It founders on its own inconsistency. Labor left the coalition four years of four per cent annual economic growth, and over the past 10 years the Australian economy has grown at that rate. If the Australian economy has performed so well as a result of the structural and industrial relations changes brought in by Labor, what possible justification is there for this extreme and radical attack on Australian workplaces? Likewise, when members opposite cite the low level of industrial disputation in this country in recent times—industrial disputation that was brought to its historical low levels by the Labor Party in government, not by a coalition government—that in itself undermines their argument, their central economic thesis.

Ten years ago New Zealand walked down the path of individual industrial contracts in labour relations. Australia under Labor walked down the path of collective enterprise based agreements. The rate of productivity and growth in the Australian economy has doubled that of the New Zealand economy. You cannot be such economic imbeciles that you do not understand the basic economic arguments that we are advancing here today. The Treasurer claims that there is a lower unemployment rate in New Zealand than in Australia. He claims that, but he omits to mention the real reason why the rate of unemployment in New Zealand is so low: hundreds of thousands of them are over here, seeking a better standard of living than they can obtain in their own country. Australia’s fundamental economic problems will not be addressed by an extreme and radical industrial relations policy.

We are a community under the Howard Liberal government, and we are riddled with external debt. Put simply: we are the banana republic that has been mentioned in Australia’s history, under the Liberal Party and under the tutelage of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. Household debt is also at record levels. For many average families the loss of income from the loss of penalty rates could lead to them losing their homes. We as a society have relied on consumption as the overwhelming driver of economic growth domestically, and now many of our households are on a financial precipice. They cannot afford to have an extreme industrial relations system foisted upon them. Our national savings ratio is extremely poor, our manufacturing industries are under enormous pressure from our competitors and massive skills and infrastructure shortfalls inhibit our economic performance. Australia’s competitive economic future lies not in the punitive dog-eat-dog workplace relations bill that we have before us, as promoted by this Liberal government, but in a committed and strategic investment in education, skills, innovation and infrastructure. This bill before us is not a blueprint for future development; it is a blueprint for future productivity disaster.

I want to look at the effect that these unfair and unwelcome changes will have on rural workers and farmers, because as shadow minister for agriculture and fisheries I am concerned about not only the economic impact on the rural work force but also the adverse impacts on the fabric of rural and regional communities. The government believe that the awards under which most of Australia’s agricultural workers are employed are so bad that they plan to leave them in place for the next five years—long after the rest of the government’s extreme changes to Australia’s industrial relations system are likely to have come into force.

The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry spent two parliamentary question times last month denigrating hardworking rural workers such as shearers, fruit pickers and farmhands and mocking a number of provisions of the awards that currently govern their conditions of employment. The minister’s attack on rural workers was not only offensive but factually incorrect. The award clauses that seemed to amuse this millionaire minister, at the expense of relatively low-paid rural workers, were largely taken from little-used state awards. Few, if any, of the workers that the minister was making fun of would actually be employed under the awards that he was quoting from. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of agricultural workers are employed under federal awards, especially the federal Pastoral Industry Award. The Australian Dairy Informer—the official organ of Australian Dairy Farmers Ltd, one of the most important rural organisations representing farmers—said in its edition on 4 November:

The Federal Pastoral Award has historically been a relatively flexible award, meaning that changes to agricultural arrangements will be less significant than some other industries.

In other words, dairy farmers have few complaints about the current system and changing it will bring little benefit. In any case, the government are not planning to consign these awards to the dustbin of history any time soon. They have run into a problem of their own making. They have finally woken up to the fact that the proposed unfair industrial relations changes will have a number of unintended and unwelcome impacts on the farming community and they simply have not got a clue as to how to deal with them.

The reason is that 90 per cent of farmers run their businesses as sole traders or in partnerships; only 10 per cent are incorporated, and these are mostly owned by the big end of town. Yet the proposed new industrial laws rely on businesses, including farm businesses, becoming incorporated. Most farmers do not want the extra expense and paperwork associated with being incorporated, and they certainly do not want to pay tax at the corporate rate. To make matters worse, farmers know that if they incorporate they will no longer have access to the Farm Management Deposits scheme. The so-called FMDs are only available, and can only be available, to unincorporated bodies. So the government have found this all too hard and have decided to ring fence the rural awards while they try to find a path through this regulatory mess of their own making.

The Leader of the Opposition has made a clear and unequivocal commitment to tear up and junk this awful piece of legislation. Labor support a fair and productive industrial relations system in which those who work hard are rewarded. We do not support a system that discriminates against and abuses working people. The Leader of the Opposition has outlined clearly Labor’s commitments in relation to this bill, based on the following fair principles: the need for a strong safety net of minimum award wages and conditions, the need for a strong independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions and to settle disputes, the right of employees to bargain collectively for decent wages and conditions, the right of workers to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation, proper rights for Australian workers unfairly dismissed and the right to join and be represented by a union. Those are the fair and reasonable principles on which Australia’s industrial relations system will be based when the Labor Party return to office.

In conclusion, I remind those opposite of Labor history. We on this side of the House are great students of industrial history. The Labor Party was formed when a group of shearers got together and sat under a tree in a remote Queensland town and formed one of the great labour movements of the world. That is the history of this nation. I say to honourable members opposite: follow your Prime Minister down this road, because many of you are oncers. Many of you will not see a productive political life in this parliament. As you introduce this bill and vote on it, be mindful of one fact of history: the Labor Party’s reason for being is exactly this sort of situation. Have your day in the sun because, as you do, you swell the ranks of the union movement and you increase the resolve of working people to exact the political price from you at the next election. Be mindful of this fact: as the lemmings on the other side follow their Prime Minister down this path and as you seek to rip away the wages and conditions of working people, so they will exact a political price from you and take away the political lifestyle to which you have been accustomed. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hatton)—Before I call the member for Fisher, I indicate that there was a half-hearted call from the member for Fisher and the member for Corangamite—without rising to their feet—arguing that the word ‘imbecile’ should be withdrawn by the member for Corio. I point out that it was used in a general manner and although, subjectively, people might not like the word I think it is hardly unparliamentary.