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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 133


Mr GARRETT (6:26 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and add my voice to colleagues on this side of the House, including the member for Denison. I strongly support and endorse the remarks he just made to the House. The development of Australia’s industrial relations system over the period of our life as a nation is the mark of our particular genius for accommodating competing rights and interests. This system operated in a way which ensured fairness for workers and the capacity for businesses to engage fruitfully in the economic system. It did so in a way which ensured fairness and conformity with law and working practices. If it needed to be improved or to adapt to changing circumstances, it was possible for constructive change to occur, as was palpably displayed in the Hawke-Keating era. However, the legislation that the government is introducing into this parliament casts aside this legacy. It proposes a destructive approach to industrial relations. It throws the lot out. It seeks to bypass the Constitution and, despite not a skerrick of substantive evidence being put to this House, it reconfigures the system to significantly reduce the rights of working Australians to receive a fair day’s pay and conditions for a fair day’s work.

The arguments used by the minister to justify the government’s actions have been spurious. The minister typically distorts history to make any point—for example, his common claim that the industrial relations principles are based on the old economy and ‘static institutions’. These comments belie the adaptations and adjustments the system has accommodated for decades up to the present time. He claimed that the industrial relations system has overlooked the creation of jobs. Apart from failing to note that the system specifically allows for and expects employment conditions to be factored and considered in determinations, this comment again belies our experience of the industrial relations system co-existing with lower rates of unemployment.

No-one is immune from this minister’s criticisms. He has also admonished managers. He said that, until the early 1990s, they had shown little willingness to innovate. This would come as a surprise to the many public and private sector managers who have made innovation a byword for their actions in the workplace over an extended period of time. It is managers, after all, who play a major role in driving economic performance. Importantly, when last surveyed, managers did not rate the current award system as the most significant impediment they face to making innovative changes. They put financial constraints and government policy at the top of their list and not the industrial relations system that this government is dismembering.

I spoke in the House on 6 September in the debate on the now superseded Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill 2005 about the impact of the government’s proposals to change the Australian industrial relations system. Without repeating those words now, I draw the House’s attention to them. At that time I raised concerns about the impact that the proposals would have, especially on the low paid. I also raised my concern that no case had been mounted that the current industrial relations landscape holds back the Australian economy in any way, shape or form. I think this was graphically shown on the Four Corners program of 29 August this year. Questioning Heather Ridout of Australian Industry Group, the reporter asked:

Can you cite any economic evidence that individual contracts actually boost productivity?

HEATHER RIDOUT, AUSTRALIAN INDUSTRY GROUP: No, and I...

SALLY NEIGHBOUR, REPORTER: No? Is there none?

HEATHER RIDOUT, AUSTRALIAN INDUSTRY GROUP: Well, I, I’m not aware of direct research to that effect.

Professor Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic Research was asked the same question. He replied:

I’m not sure there’s any.

Professor David Peetz from the School of Business at Griffith University said this:

There’s no evidence for it at all. Over the long run productivity is determined by the rate of technical progress.

There you have it—it is not by focusing on ‘transaction costs’, as some members opposite have claimed. It is a risible claim that reasonable working conditions and the capacity to bargain for them are merely transaction costs in some kind of person-less calculation. It is technological progress that determines productivity and, tied to that progress, substantial reskilling of Australia’s workers. That should be the emphasis of the government, as we have argued in this House repeatedly. But they just do not get it.

With the introduction of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 the government now reveals the details of the ideological master plan. My concerns about that plan as expressed before remain unchanged. With the guillotine to be applied to this debate, the government holds the parliament in contempt and the laws are forced through. The bill, with its 687 pages of detailed amendments, along with the explanatory memorandum of 565 pages, amounts to 1,200-odd pages. It is clearly both exhaustive and, given the time frame for passage to this House, exhausting. The bill presents us with a package that is mind numbing in its complexity. The magnitude of the changes have been heralded by the government since the Prime Minister’s May statement. The October Work Choices information package and the ridiculously and obscenely expensive advertising campaign that accompanied it all, stand as testament to the significance of the changes. The government spent over $50 million of taxpayers’ money in what was really a blanket blitz of propaganda. It has pulped brochures that do not conform to the government’s thoughtspeak, and the Prime Minister ducks for cover at question time—today again refusing to engage in debate. All this is emblematic of the government’s approach.

Given the level of detail combined with the stated importance of the changes, a dispassionate observer would simply ask: ‘Why hasn’t there been more time for debate?’ But it is a repeated pattern with the Howard government that the opportunity for parliament to comprehensively examine and debate issues of this magnitude, particularly when much of what is contained in the legislation would open the government to criticism, is simply curtailed.

The fact is that any so-called reforms, to be worthy of consideration, should promote both fairness and efficiency. But in this case fairness has been left out altogether and the efficiency gains the government speaks of are, in effect, a one-way, low-wage street, leading to the Americanisation of our industrial relations system. Having worked over a number of years in the United States, I well know that when the US economy is robust, working conditions and remuneration conditions barely cover expenses. When it slows down, people are stranded. They are caught between the necessity to work and a system that permits their labour to be traded down when the economy goes soft. Many end up as working poor, and you see them on the streets, under the bridges and in the poor neighbourhoods of the towns and cities of America.

Many colleagues and commentators have noted in respect of this legislation that the devil is very much in the detail and that working Australians need more time to learn about these changes. I would assert in the House that members on both sides and in both houses need more time to consult their constituents and to form views and express concerns to the government. Working people should not be told that they should just trust the Prime Minister. That approach is too condescending by half. Working Australians deserve much better than that.

I can assure the House that of all the issues that are of significance in the seat of Kingsford Smith, these industrial relations laws and what is contained in them is the most significant issue. It is the issue we receive the most mail about in our office, it is the issue that we receive the most telephone calls and emails about, and it is the issue when we go out into the community, into the shopping centres and onto the street corners, that we find that the majority of Australians have concerns about. I say to them that we are listening to the them and that their concerns and problems with this legislation are entirely justified.

The government claims that there has been consultation about these changes. It is a fanciful claim. The Prime Minister’s May statement was some 12 pages long. The WorkChoices booklet released on 9 October, only four weeks ago, was 67 pages. Neither of those documents went close to touching upon the intricacy of this 1,252-page package. For members opposite to claim that this is in some way a simplification of the industrial relations system borders on the farcical.

The changes that will be wrought by this bill are sweeping and they have the potential to be catastrophic. The impacts will be felt through the term of this parliament and beyond and they will be felt in the lounge rooms of the people of Kingsford Smith. Last week the ACTU predicted that many Australian families who rely on regular overtime will suffer reductions in take-home pay in the order of $265 per month. That is a dark cloud for these people indeed. It also appears on analysis available so far that the protections promised in the Work Choices media campaign are not what they seem. We were subject to a media blitz the like of which the country has not seen—a media blitz that I have to say does not seem to have been particularly successful.


Ms George —It backfired on them, didn’t it?


Mr GARRETT —It has backfired on them, as the member for Throsby comments most assiduously. Many people who are listening, reading and in this House will recall that there were matters which would be protected by law, and they will recall that penalty rates was one of those matters. Your penalty rates ‘protected by law’ went the advertisement. Your penalty rates ‘protected by law’ as proposed in the government’s advertisement is simply not true. Some people will have their penalty rates protected in some circumstances, but this package will not protect all penalty rates all the time.

In my electorate of Kingsford Smith there are many registered clubs. The employees of those clubs are paid under the Club Employees (State) Award. That award, at clause 15, affords bar staff, on Saturday, a penalty rate of time and one-half. Under this law, the Club Employees (State) Award will no longer be an award. As the member for Denison and others have remarked, it will become a transitional agreement. It will have a life of three years and, at the end of three years, it will disappear. The employees will then be moved onto the appropriate federal award. Presumably, the appropriate federal award will be the Hospitality Industry—Accommodation, Hotels, Resorts and Gaming Award. I advise the House that that award, at clause 19—surprise, surprise!—provides only time and one-quarter for Saturday work. A clear reduction in penalty rates for bar staff in New South Wales clubs, on current rates a reduction of about $3.10 per hour, is under way and a similar thing will happen to Sunday rates.

Not only is this contrary to the government’s publicly stated position—club employees’ penalty rates will not be protected by law—but, more importantly, it exposes club employees who rely on penalty rates of $200 per month to the loss that they will inevitably and ultimately suffer. For people whose living expenses are high, who have families, who need child care, who are paying off a mortgage, who are meeting rising fuel bills, the prospect of being $200 a month worse off is indeed a catastrophe. It is not an overstatement or an overuse of that expression. For these people, these laws are a very dark cloud.

There are in the order of 40,000 employees who are covered by the Club Employees (State) Award in New South Wales. It is these 40,000 people who will suffer a loss of award protections for penalty rates arising from this legislation. They will all be exposed under this legislation. But it is not just members of the House who are finding this bill daunting; the language of the bill is largely impenetrable to all. Members will have observed the minister being interviewed by Tony Jones on ABC’s Lateline program on Thursday last week. It is worth repeating an extract from that interview. Mr Jones is talking about a child-care worker, Mary, trying to make sense of this legislation.

TONY JONES: Alright. Let’s take a child care worker as a hypothetical case, call her Mary. Mary’s employer wants her to go onto an AWA. Now the first thing Mary has to work out is whether the offer is as good as her pre-reform wage instrument. That’s right, isn’t it?

KEVIN ANDREWS: Mary will know what she’s getting by the way of her take-home pay at the present time. So if she’s offered an AWA, she can compare that and she can get some advice.

TONY JONES: It isn’t her take-home pay, though, is it? It’s her basic periodic rate of pay that’s involved here. She can’t be offered less than her basic periodic rate of pay. That figure excludes overtime and allowances, doesn’t it?

KEVIN ANDREWS: What she has to have in any agreement in the future is the fact that she gets the wage made at an hourly rate, but according to the award classification which is relevant to her industry and her job—a 38-hour ordinary week, four weeks annual leave, sick leave, carer’s leave and personal leave.

TONY JONES: It does exclude overtime and allowances—the figure that she can’t receive less than in her AWA—that’s right isn’t it?

KEVIN ANDREWS: Her overtime and allowances are matters which can be negotiated between her and an employer—

there is the rub—

If they don’t negotiate it specifically then the relevant award provision applies.

TONY JONES: She has to work out her preserved Australian paid classification scale. Once she does that she has to work out whether that is, in fact, related to her pre-reform wages. These are incredibly complicated concepts for people like Mary, a child care worker?

KEVIN ANDREWS: We can simplify all that. Can I cut through all that, Tony. We simplify all that. The Australian Fair Pay Commission will establish for all relevant awards and classifications, will have an hourly rate. It will publish this. It will have these details available quite readily to Australians. In fact, what you’re describing is the great difficulty of the system at the present time. What we’re going to do is to be able to have a system—

TONY JONES: What I’m describing is what’s in your legislation, actually, what’s in the legislation we’re looking at.

That extract from Lateline sums it up. It makes it all clear. It is not a John Clarke script. This bill involves a level of complexity that renders it incomprehensible to ordinary Australians—workers and employees alike. The system does not become simpler; it becomes more complex. The pages and pages of the bill are a testament to that fact.

This bill is a mess. It brings changes that are fundamental to our way of life, and it removes fairness from the workplace. The bill is a mess, and it is also in contempt of a system that has served Australians well. It emasculates every industrial tribunal in this country, and it takes away recourse to an independent umpire. This bill is a mess, because it destroys the award system and it removes crucial protections for working Australians. As has been pointed out in the House by the shadow minister, the member for Perth, it removes the no-disadvantage test, which has served to underpin the award system that has done Australians fair over the last 100 years. The bill is a mess because it restricts the activity of registered organisations, and it destroys the fundamental rights of workers to organise and operate effectively a trade union. It denies a fundamental right that they have had in the Federation. By removing unfair dismissal rights it eliminates all sense of security in the workplace.

By introducing this legislation into this place in this manner, a bill which I have described as a mess has been foisted upon the Australian people. The government has attempted to persuade us of its merits by spending hard-earned taxpayers’ money. It now wants to seek to gag the debate—to guillotine debate in the House. The word ‘arrogance’ does come to mind. It is used often, but in respect of the way in which this legislation has been introduced and managed by the government I think the word is entirely justified.

The government’s package is an affront to many Australians, because no case has been made for these massive changes. The extent of the detail in the document is oppressive. The long-term effect on Australian workers faced with having to make their own claims in order to be able to exercise their rights in the workplace—rights which have been significantly reduced—will be that in some instances, particularly into the medium and longer term, they will face some catastrophe.

Whether it concerns the residual powers given to the minister to make determinations in relation to prohibited content—namely, those things that are not permitted to be part of an employment agreement—whether it concerns court fines and jail for those who seek to add conditions, whether it refers to the situation that obtains for Mary, whether it concerns the impact on families who need certainty about their working arrangements but who will now face working hours that can be averaged over a 12-month period or whether it concerns workers in low-paid jobs who do not have the resources to resolve their own disputes in cases of unfair treatment, the likelihood with this bill is that, in areas where efficiency gains are all but fully realised, the only prospect for Australian workers is that they will be asked to do more for less. There is no other conclusion that can be drawn from this legislation. The haste with which the government acts means that the substance of these changes will pass without the opportunity for people to fully understand and comprehend them. This bill should be rejected by the House. (Time expired)