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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 105

Mr ADAMS (4:26 PM) —Last week saw a vicious and unprovoked attack on the working conditions of Australians with the introduction of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. This bill has no redeeming features and attacks the fundamentals of working conditions in this country. It has particular ramifications for those people who work in the regions. I believe the people of Australia will not take kindly to these bully-boy tactics. There has been no proper reason given for this legislation. As they say, ‘If the system isn’t broke, why fix it?’ Where then is the economic reason—or any other reason—for this legislation?

In his speech the member for Wentworth was arguing classic economics to justify this bill—that labour costs have to go up and down, like everything else in the economic system. When you talk about things going up and down in this bill you are not talking about the price of spuds, wheat or roofing tiles; you are talking about the quality of people’s lives going up and down. Their ability to feed their family fluctuates as a result of the domino effect throughout the system.

The PM says that having a job is what it is all about. It is not only about having a job but about having a job with fair wages and conditions, which we on this side of the House would call the dignity of labour. The union movement has correctly identified the impact of the new workplace legislation introduced into federal parliament, which will strip away 100 years of respect for workers’ rights, remove legal protection for many employment conditions and set a whole new low for future workplace conditions of Australian workers. We have now seen the legislation. As I have observed, it has 687 pages—with an explanatory memorandum of 565 pages—which made it impossible to read before the bill was debated. But I have gathered from dipping into it that this legislation confirms all of Labor’s criticisms of the government’s plans.

Unfair dismissal rights are gone for nearly four million workers. For example, individual contracts will be able to cut take-home pay. With respect to basic conditions, the award safety net is to be removed, as is the no disadvantage test, which underpins workplace bargaining. The real value of minimum wages will be allowed to fall and workers will have no enforceable legal right to collectively bargain. This legislation tears up 100 years of the social contract in Australia. Since Federation, our industrial relations system has been built on the idea that ordinary, hardworking Australians get to participate in the benefits of economic growth and that there are protections for people when times get tough. The federal government’s laws will attack this system.

Under these laws, unions and workers can be fined $66,000 for even asking for workers to be protected from unfair dismissal or individual contracts or for clauses that protect job security. The government is knowingly misleading the public. Australian working families who are only just keeping their heads above water will be severely impacted by these changes. Penalty rates, public holidays, overtime pay, control over the roster, shift penalties—none of these conditions will be protected by law.

Union members have been joined by the broader community, who care about decent rights and conditions in the workplace, in opposing these laws. These changes were not put before the Australian people at the last election. This is a disgrace. The first opportunity for the Australian public to demonstrate their opposition to these laws is the national day of community protest in November. The sad thing about this legislation is that we have been inundated with advertising that is just plain deceitful, as the Prime Minister and his government have repeatedly and steadfastly refused to guarantee that Australian workers will not be worse off as a result of their changes to the industrial system.

It seems very clear that the laws will allow Australian workers to be sacked at any time, without the right to claim unfair dismissal, because of economic or technological reasons or if a business wants to restructure operations. It could be interpreted that reorganising the parking outside someone’s business could be a reason to sack an employee or the whole work force. I could say we are entering a new era in industrial relations, but it is more like going backwards into the future, where there are no safeguards for the working people any more.

We have been led up the garden path by this government with dishonest promises. It makes me think back to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. We are in the position the animals were in after the revolution—things are reverting to capital’s bidding through a greedy regime wanting absolute power. It does not matter that the story was based on Stalinist Russia; the resemblance to today is quite frightening, and I think the Australian public are waking up to it.

The government is using fear tactics to get laws changed to prevent criticism. Whether from outside the country or within, those fear tactics are a good way of drawing attention away from workers’ loss of rights. Remember in Animal Farm when the new set of rules came in? ‘Four legs good, two legs better’. Exchange the ‘legs’ for awards and we start to see some real comparisons. There is an attempt to dumb down the work force so it is unable to assist itself against the employers, who may be very good and fair people. It seems even the government does not really trust decent employers. Just take the ‘prohibited content’, for example—employment conditions and allowances that are not allowed to be part of any employment agreement. But there is no description of this. The minister only has the ability to declare such content under regulation. It is too bad if the employer believes this is a fairer way to go!

Both the bill and the explanatory memorandum do not state what ‘prohibitive content’ might mean. Despite this, any attempt to include prohibited content in an agreement will lead to a ‘civil remedy provision’. We have to ask: on whom and what? The penalty is 60 penalty units for doing so—apparently that is worth a $33,000 fine. It is okay to spend $55 million on an advertising campaign which purports to depict a new era of freedom of choice, but in reality the minister can intervene at any time in any agreement and strike it down. I am sure Mr Jones in Animal Farm would be delighted with this sort of power. Where is the deregulation and flexibility in that?

The legislation that we are struggling through—the masses and masses of pages—sets about dismantling our industrial relations system that has stood us in good stead through some pretty tough times in the last 100 years or so. What for? Where are the economic arguments to back up these more flexible arrangements? Parliament was told that there had been no advice given by Treasury on the economic benefit of this workplace reform. Here is one of the biggest changes to the way workplaces go about dealing with their work forces—and no-one has done any research into the economic effects of such changes? I think someone is telling porkies somewhere. We know that New Zealand’s productivity is half that of Australia’s since they went down this road. I suggest that maybe they have found that the economy will not necessarily benefit from these changes—that they will lead to instability in the work force. Maybe capital will go looking offshore for a more compliant work force. We do not think Australians are going to accept this without a fight.

I do not believe we want to compete with India or China in the low-wages stakes. I think we can compete with those countries better if we maintain our standards and develop our training of Australian workers so that their skills are sought after all over the world and in Australia. Let them produce better goods and better services. We have many shortages in all fields. How is this legislation going to solve this?

Yet this is where we are heading—with low wages, poor conditions and occupational health and safety being disregarded. Who is going to complain about an unsafe workplace if they are on casual work and may not be picked up the next day if they complain about anything? I have seen this already apply in my own state of Tasmania.

In fact, we had a case finalised in the courts the other day where a company finally pleaded guilty to charges arising from the death of a 16-year-old boy in Launceston last year. He died from head injuries when the forklift he was driving toppled over. By pleading guilty, the company avoided a trial and therefore having to answer questions as to why the boy was on the site at the time of the accident, why he was driving the forklift that he was unauthorised to drive and had no licence for, and why the subcontractor had brought the young man in in the first place. The company knew what was going on and took no steps to stop it, to provide training for the forklift or for safety procedures around the site. The forklift was inspected after the accident. It was found to have tyres underinflated, tread missing from a tyre and an inoperable handbrake, compromising its safe use. This sort of thing is happening without further deregulation of the workplace. What are we going to be getting into when these new laws come into being?

This government is trading safety for some mythical flexibility, which it controls anyway. I say we must resist. We must fight these changes. We must fight them in the workplaces; we must fight them in the street. We must involve families whose children will be a target of such systems, with family values being sold down the drain. We must stand up for the rights and conditions of workers, many of whom fought for us. Our mums and dads are being let down by this government. Their struggle now becomes our struggle.

We must fight and we must never give in. This is Labor’s heartland under attack. We must take the stand. Many of our supporters may go to jail; many may have to fight court cases. But we have made the commitment. When Labor are re-elected, this proposed insidious system will be thrown out. Labor will ensure that it will be replaced with proper conditions and best practice and will ensure that any changes are with the full advice and consent of the union movement and other advocates.

I oppose this bill in its entirety—the whole box and dice. The bill is not a fair bill and it will not add to the prosperity and conditions of most Australians. I will not rest till it rests where it belongs. I will put it into the wastepaper basket where it belongs, to be recycled along with all the other propaganda that this government has put out to be pulped—that it has wasted in trying to justify this bill and bring it into existence. I oppose the bill. I will continue to oppose it for a long time to come.