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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 62


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (1:28 PM) —For weeks now, Australians have been treated, while eating their cornflakes—or, in my case, Vitabrits—to full-page ads which scream, ‘Australia cannot stand still.’ We have a government which is telling us that Australia is standing still. The trouble is that for the past 10 years the Prime Minister has been trying to tell us the exact opposite: that the economy is forging ahead. To give the House one quote, the Australian government placed an advertisement in the Economist, in the edition dated 22 to 28 October, saying:

Although Australians are renowned for their relaxed and friendly demeanour, they are also highly skilled and boast one of the most productive work forces in the world. Benchmarked against other OECD nations, Australia’s productivity has been consistently high, reflecting the widespread adoption of new technologies and modern work practices. The rate of increase of labour productivity was 2.1 per cent between 1991 and 2004, and was one of the highest in the OECD countries. It is also significant to note that the number and impact of industrial disputes in Australia has plummeted. Since 1985, the number of working days lost through industrial disputes has decreased on average by a sizable 89 per cent across all industries.

This was said by the government less than a month ago. When I was a kid there was a TV show called Tell the truth and it had: ‘Will the real Fred Smith please stand up?’ The question here is: will the real John Howard please stand up—the one who says Australia is moving forward or the one who says Australia is standing still? Frankly, that is one of the key reasons why Australians are not buying this legislation: this idea that Australia cannot stand still completely contradicts everything the Prime Minister has been saying for the past 10 years.

Of course that begs the question: do we need this legislation at all? Paul Keating is quite right to point out that none of this is necessary. Thanks to the enterprise bargaining reforms of the early 1990s, Australia has enjoyed well over a decade of strong productivity growth, real wage rises and low inflation. The Prime Minister likes to take credit for these outcomes, but he owes them to the previous Labor government. Indeed, the legacy that he left behind when the Fraser government, of which he was Treasurer, tried to deregulate industrial relations was one of confrontation and industrial dispute with a wage-price spiral and inflation of 10 per cent, which was knocked down to two per cent only by the high interest rates of the 1980s. Why on earth would we want to try that recipe again? As Paul Keating has written:

The abandonment of the century-old centralised wage-fixing system by the Keating government in 1993 in favour of an enterprise bargaining system has led to productivity-based real wage increases of just on 20 per cent, while at the same time maintaining low inflation.

The fact is, the industrial relations system was changed fundamentally in 1993 ...

He says we are now:

in the 15th year of the expansion—

and—

average weekly earnings growth is running at a modest 3 to 4 per cent. A rate consistent with a 2 per cent inflation rate.

And in the context of 20 years of industrial peace.

He says we should cast our minds back to that last attempt to reform the wage system when the now Prime Minister was Treasurer:

From 1979 to 1982 we had a wage explosion, leading to 11 per cent inflation along with massive industrial disputation.

That 11 per cent inflation rate with a real interest rate of 3 to 4 per cent four gave Australia 14 per cent to 15 per cent interest rates through the 1980s; something—

the Prime Minister—

has since blamed Labor for. It took a decade of tax cuts and the Accord plus the recession to break John Howard’s 10 per cent inflation rate. To make 10 become 2.

You would think that a two-decade outbreak of industrial peace and wages consistent with an inflation rate of 2 per cent to 3 per cent would be game, set and match for any reasonable person.

But not reasonable enough for this Prime Minister. Back in 1995 John Howard secured a change of government by using the words ‘relaxed and comfortable’. I really think that is what won it for him back then when he said he wanted to see Australia and Australians ‘relaxed and comfortable’. Even when I, such a determinedly anti-Liberal person, heard those words, I thought they sounded pretty good. The question is whether, 10 years on, Australia is relaxed and comfortable. No, people are tense and afraid. They are tense and afraid about national security and the threat of an attack on Australian soil. The Prime Minister must accept some of the responsibility for that: he took this nation into war in Iraq, without the United Nations sanction, to deal with a threat from weapons of mass destruction which was non-existent and, in so doing, he has put Australia at greater risk of terrorist attack. Australians are not relaxed and comfortable; they are tense and fearful—and this Prime Minister has contributed to that.

It is not just national security and the debacle in Iraq. People are fearful about their living standards and opportunities for their children. They are mortgaged to the hilt. They are extremely vulnerable to interest rate rises; they simply cannot afford one. Yet this government’s handling of foreign debt, the current account deficit, the trade deficit and skills and infrastructure issues create constant speculation that the Reserve Bank of Australia will indeed put up interest rates. That constant speculation leaves Australians tense and anxious. Then there is the pressure on family budgets from petrol price rises. Families are now going without, just to try to make ends meet. The Prime Minister says, ‘Too bad. Sorry, there’s nothing we can do about that.’ In 10 years he has failed to get this country on the path to alternative fuels—natural gas, LPG and biofuels—and free us from our dependence on imported oil. So much for ‘relaxed and comfortable’; we as a nation are tense and fearful.

What about opportunities for our kids? This is another area of abject government failure—cuts in training, flatlining in domestic tertiary student places and bringing in skilled migrants from overseas. They have quadrupled skilled migration. The idea is that that is going to solve all of our problems. Parents and young people are not relaxed and comfortable about places for their children at university and TAFE. They are tense and anxious, and tens of thousands who are now sitting for exams around the country will miss out on university places.

Against this background of fear and anxiety, the government injects these new workplace relations changes. Can the Prime Minister explain to the House and to the five million Australians who will be able to be sacked by their employer, without their employer giving any reason at all if this bill is passed, just how it is that scrapping unfair dismissal provisions will make Australian workers more relaxed and comfortable? The Prime Minister wakes up and asks, ‘How do I make Australians more relaxed and comfortable? I know: I will make it easier for the boss to sack them.’ What a genius! The Prime Minister has been trying to fool Australians into thinking we should not be worried about this. He has been spending $50 million of our money—your petrol taxes at work—on advertisements with words like ‘Unlawful dismissal will still be unlawful’. You have got to wonder how many millions of dollars have been spent on that statement of the bleeding obvious. Of course unlawful dismissal is unlawful—that is what the word ‘unlawful’ means. But what the Prime Minister has been trying to do is to fudge and blur the distinction between unfair and unlawful.

Workers should understand very clearly how things are going to work from now on. If the boss says, ‘You’re getting the sack because I don’t approve of your new religion,’ then you might well be able to take action. But, if the boss is not quite that dopey and just says, ‘You’re getting the sack,’ and gives no reason at all, there is nothing you can do about that; you are gone. So do not be fooled. This bill takes away your protection from unfair dismissal. It does not matter whether you are doing a good job or not, if you speak up at work about something that is wrong then look out. This law will change the balance of power in the workplace and the Liberal Party intends it to. That is what it is on about. This Prime Minister never was on about relaxed and comfortable. He always was on about changing the balance of power in the workplace.

The same thing applies to working at nights and on weekends. This Liberal-National Party government always claims to be great supporters of the family and of family life, but have a look at its actions, not at its words. Nothing could be more destructive of family life and husbands, wives and children than not spending time together, not being able to see each other and do family things. It is nights, weekends and public holidays that best provide those opportunities. So, if a husband or a wife has to work night times, weekends or public holidays, that is damaging to family life. That is why we have things like overtime, penalty payments, shift allowances and the like: firstly, so that workers who do have to work odd hours get properly compensated for their contribution and that hardship is properly recognised and rewarded and, secondly, so that employers are encouraged to organise their work so as to minimise these intrusions on family life and are discouraged from forcing their workers to work nights and weekends.

But these laws seek to knock over penalty rates, overtime and shift allowances and to make workers at the boss’s beck and call, hanging around by the phone, or with the mobile always on, able to be summoned at a moment’s notice. This is not relaxed and comfortable, but it is what the Prime Minister has always been on about. He has never been a friend of the battlers; he has only ever posed as one. That is why the churches are so hostile to these bills. They understand the impact on Sundays and on family life. The Prime Minister’s lame cry in the chamber I heard earlier that there is no such thing as a Catholic view on this bill misses the point absolutely.

Time and time again, the provisions of the bill give the lie to the Orwellian propaganda that has accompanied it. We have heard in the government advertising that they are on about simplifying the industrial relations. They want to give us a simpler system. I would point out to the House that we have here something like 1,250 pages of bill and explanatory memorandum, something which has been prepared by dozens of law firms, something which will not simplify the system but will complicate it, just as the GST complicated the tax system. It will be a lawyer’s picnic.

The government says we will have a Fair Pay Commission, but fairness is out as a consideration. Under the Australian Industrial Relations Commission it has always been in, but now it has been expressly deleted. Then we have had the government talking about getting third parties out, making things flexible between employee and employer. In the name of this objective, unions are attacked, the Industrial Relations Commission is undermined and awards are stripped. But does the government genuinely want third parties out? In fact, no, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has been given unprecedented powers—powers to intervene, to approve and to not approve. What is the minister if not a third party? So all this talk about flexibility and getting rid of third parties turns out to be nonsense.

Then there is the attack on the minimum wage. The government points out that real wages have risen in the past decade, and so they have. But that is due to the productivity increases driven by the Keating government’s enterprise bargaining reforms of the early 1990s and no thanks to this government, which indeed has argued against minimum wage rises at every opportunity. If it had had its way, the minimum wage would be much less than it is now, and if it gets its way the minimum wage will fall. As Bob Hawke said, what we are seeing is the Americanisation of our industrial relations system. If this succeeds, it will create a generation of working poor, and an underclass, the existence of which was revealed so graphically in America in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This government talks about the threat to our industry coming from the increasing economic success of India and China. But its solution is to compete on the basis of lowering our wages to theirs. We say that is in the teeth of this country’s best interests. This country’s best interests lie in competing on the basis of high skills and high technology. That is why the Howard government’s failure to invest seriously in higher education and failure to invest in university places, in skills training and in apprenticeships is selling this country out and is shamefully short-sighted.

I want to use the remaining time available to me to talk about the scandalous $50 million taxpayer funded advertising campaign surrounding these bills. With apologies to Winston Churchill, never before in the field of advertising has so much money been hosed up against a wall by so few in so short a time. Spending at the rate of in excess of $1 million a day—taking a cigarette lighter to public money. It is not as though, however, some people have not benefited. When I asked the Prime Minister a question yesterday, he failed to explain to the House why it was that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations awarded an $800,000 contract to the company Salmat Pty Ltd to distribute booklets that the community simply does not want. Over five million of these unwanted WorkChoices booklets are now languishing in warehouses. They will end up as food for worms and silverfish. That same company, Salmat Pty Ltd, and one of its directors are shown by the Australian Electoral Commission to have donated almost $120,000 to the Liberal Party during the latest disclosure period. Nice work if you can get it.

The Liberal Party advertiser Dewey Horton, Ted Horton’s company, was awarded a $2 million contract to produce six million WorkChoices booklets, almost half a million of which have been pulped. Mr Horton, it turns out, is subcontracting work to another Liberal Party advertiser, Mark Pearson. These two regularly work on Liberal Party advertising campaigns. The Prime Minister arrogantly refuses to release any documentation relating to Dewey Horton’s advertising contracts with the Howard government. In the last couple of days I have lodged freedom of information requests to seek to lift the veil of secrecy from the contractual arrangements underpinning the Howard government’s failed industrial relations advertising campaign. This is a shameful waste of public money.

Indeed, in the House last Thursday I raised the fact that I have been advised that documents relating to Mr Horton have been handed to the Australian Taxation Office and that he has made payments to international bank accounts when working for overseas clients. It really is too cute by half that this massive, lucrative contract given out by Liberal Party insiders just happens to go to the Liberal Party’s own advertising team. The public wants to know how these contracts were awarded, they want to see the documents and they want to know what checks the government has to ensure that contracts do not go to people who are engaged in tax avoidance. There has been no denial from Mr Horton, no denial from the government and nothing from the tax office after I raised this in the parliament last Thursday.

We have a secretive political gang known as the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications—some of the Liberal Party’s insiders in terms of campaigning. They award the advertising contracts and it is a secretive process. It is time the government came clean as to how this contract has been awarded. Has it been awarded on the basis of favours for services rendered? I think the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, was quite right to express his concern about the potential for corruption inherent in these arrangements. It is absolutely extraordinary that we can have $50 million of taxpayers’ money wasted on a campaign designed to convince the Australian people of something they do not want. It is not about information; it is about propaganda. I have presented a private member’s bill designed to straighten out this whole area of government advertising and to ensure that there is proper scrutiny based on the Auditor-General’s guidelines.

Let me conclude with one final observation. Labor’s fight is not with employers; it is with the government. I want to make one point for the benefit of Qantas. I have heard their management cheering on the government’s industrial relations changes, yet at the same time they are lobbying against other airlines being given improved access to their more lucrative routes. I say to Qantas: if this government applies the deregulation blowtorch to your workers and you cheer, and then it comes to apply that same deregulation blowtorch to you and you want to sook about it, do not expect any sympathy from me because it will not be there.