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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 141

Mr BYRNE (6:58 PM) —I am pleased to rise tonight to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I want to make one comment on the contribution made by the member for Indi. The only thing we agree upon is that we barrack for Collingwood. Without going into specifics, I completely disagree with the rest of it, particularly with regard to that speech. In that contribution, there was some discussion about AWAs, about the animus behind and the motivating factors for debating this incredibly large document—the extensive provisions in this bill. There has been some discussion about whether this is a debate about ideology. I recall that the member for Wentworth spoke about the Labor Party sticking to an outmoded ideology—an ideology that has had its time.

Interestingly, reflecting on that particular point and what motivated the presentation of this bill—what the reasons were for this bill being brought forward by the government—I have come to believe that its genesis was driven purely by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is seeking to implement an agenda that he has had from the time he came into parliament, but it is an agenda which will ultimately result in the destruction of families and businesses. I do not say that just as a Labor member of parliament, or on behalf of the federal opposition. I will cite a number of more ‘independent’—if you want to use that term—people who have some level of concern about the legislation which has been brought forward and which we are debating tonight.

I would like to read you a letter written to the Age by a business consultant. It is about the government’s proposed legislation and also the market signals that it sends to employers in this country. The letter says:

I operate a part-time business consultancy specialising in the small and medium enterprise sector. I would like to share the views of one company that approached me to consult to it, on the proposed changes to IR.

This company stands out as an example of the way in which workers can be abused by the proposed changes. It imports electronic equipment and parts from Asia and assembles or rebadges and packs the products for sale through major retailers. It employs 79 permanent staff, of whom 67 work in the plant on an average weekly wage of just over $700 and they are non-unionised.

The company is highly profitable—in excess of $1.5 million last financial year—and is owned by a brother and sister in their early to mid-30s. Both have MBAs and a background in merchant banking, and inherited the company on the death of their father two years ago.

Despite its profitability—

it is profitable—

the company is relatively dysfunctional, with low staff morale stemming from a constant comparison of the siblings’ management style ...

I will not go any further with respect to that part of the letter. The letter goes on:

The owners have signalled that when the new IR legislation is passed they will sack all of their 67 process workers. The sister stated:‘This will teach the bastards that do not show us the respect that we deserve a lesson.’

She was talking about the 67 full-time process workers who have delivered this company an annual profit of $1.5 million in the last financial year.

The company then intends to replace the present workforce with the same number of casual employees on AWAs and pay the absolute minimum wage that they can get away with, plus the basic statutory employment conditions. The higher pay scales, permanency, penalty rates, shift loadings and other benefits now enjoyed by this company’s workforce will be converted into profit (not productivity improvements) for the owners.

You will recall that in this House there has been much discussion about increased productivity as a consequence of these legislative amendments.

With a degree of glee I was told that this increase in net profit—again, not productivity—will be more than $700,000 a year, or $350,000 to each of the owners. I asked where were the replacement employees to come from. The answer was the company would list the positions with a government Job Network Provider so that they could get employees (free of any recruiting charge to the company) who would then be compelled to take the positions at the minimum wage level offered under the threat of the removal of their welfare payments by Centrelink.

In addition, the brother, correctly, pointed out that in the area near the plant there is a large number of households containing single mothers who will be compelled to work under the changes to the single parent mutual obligation rules. Thus, to use his reasoning, the Government’s welfare reforms will deliver his company low cost labour through compulsion.

I made the observation that productivity would fall with the removal of experienced operators, only to be told that the siblings had factored this in and considered that the productivity loss would be irrelevant because they would clear the $700,000 additional net profit from their new workforce.

I suggest that the thinking of these employers is more widespread than the Howard Government has publicly admitted, and this imposition of pure ideology over common sense will see the Coalition decimated at the next election ...

That is not the Labor Party opposition saying what these changes will mean; that is a business consultant, who is consulting with companies in my area, forecasting what will happen when these legislative amendments are passed.

I was watching the Prime Minister on the 7.30 Report the night before last and I was listening to his contribution in the House today. He reflected that the legislation was in response to changing times. In fact, a number of contributors in this House from the government side of the chamber have spoken about an outmoded industrial relations system. They say that this legislation has basically been crafted in response to this, and that we need to enhance our productivity to enhance our employment.

But, interestingly, to find the genesis of the basis of the government’s industrial relations changes you need to look into the past. In fact, you need to look at this speech. It is headed: ‘Transcript of a speech given by the Hon. John Howard, MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Employment and Training, on the occasion of the launch of the coalition’s industrial relations policy, at the Sheraton Wentworth Hotel, Sydney, on Tuesday, 20 October 1992.’ That is 13 years before the legislation was tabled in this place.

If I may, I will draw attention to some of the Prime Minister’s words with respect to the industrial relations policy that was launched, I presume, as part of Fightback, which was rejected by the Australian people in 1993. He said:

Mr Chairman, I would now like to turn to a number of specific issues that may well arise under this industrial relations policy.

This was the policy of 1992.

The first and most important of these, which I foreshadowed earlier, is the question of minimum conditions. Obviously if people remain within the award stream then those people will continue to enjoy the conditions but if, on the other hand, people enter into a workplace agreement, then there will be certain minimum conditions that must be observed in relation to that workplace agreement. That means every workplace agreement that is written will need to respect these minimum conditions.

The first of those will be a minimum hourly rate of pay, calculated by reference to what otherwise would have been the award minimum if the person in question had remained within the award. And it is very important that I emphasise that it will be an hourly rate of pay. That carries with it an enormous change under this policy. What it means is that the policy is effectively abolishing the concept of a fixed working week. What it means is that the length of the working week, and whether somebody is paid penalty rates, or holiday loadings, that all of those things will become, if people go into workplace agreements, will become matters of negotiation.

This is 20 October 1992. He continued:

I’ve frequently said—

and this gives a pointer to why we are really debating this legislation—

as I’ve gone around Australia, as has John—

that is, John Hewson—

talking about this policy that if we really want to modernise the Australian economy, if we really want to internationalise the work practices of Australia, if we really want to make the Australian workplace competitive with the rest of the world we have to embrace a very important principle, and that is if somebody makes a capital investment in this country—

that is, a business, small or large—

they ought to be able to run that capital investment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year without penalty as to the time of the day or night they run that investment.

So do not come into this place saying that this is something that has just been crafted to increase and enhance workplace productivity when, in the words of the now Prime Minister on 20 October 1992, he forecast exactly what is going to happen to this place, to this country, if these legislative provisions are introduced. If I may just continue further in the Prime Minister’s words, the second minimum condition—

Ms George interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The member for Throsby should restrain herself.

Mr BYRNE —It is a very worrying development, Mr Deputy Speaker, going back to the Prime Minister’s words in the past. Many people in this House have been reflecting on what has been said by past opposition leaders. I think we also need to look at what has been said by the past opposition leader who is now Prime Minister. He said:

The second minimum condition that will have to be observed is four weeks’ annual leave.

Have you heard that before?

The third minimum condition will be two weeks’ non-cumulative sick leave.

And the fourth, will be twelve months’ unpaid maternity leave subject to twelve months’ prior service in the relevant work or occupation.

Ms George —Sounds familiar.

Mr BYRNE —Does that not sound familiar, Member for Throsby?

Ms George —Very familiar.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Throsby is warned.

Mr BYRNE —Because it sounds awfully familiar to me. Now it is interesting that, in 1992—when the opposition did have the guts, I guess you would say, to put forward their principles in a policy document which was rejected by the Australian people in 1993—the document said:

Not even the most supreme sceptics about the principles of mandates in politics could conceivably argue after the next election that we wouldn’t have a mandate for industrial relations reform. Some of us have talked of nothing else for the past eight or 10 years, and one of the reasons that the coalition has been so resolute in putting forward clearly and succinctly the policies on which we stand, why John Hewson has stood so firmly and so rock solid in favour of the policies that we have enunciated, is our fundamental belief that if you are open and candid with the people before you win the election then you have the moral authority to do what you said you were going to do after the election.

Where was this document prior to the last election? Do you think that the Australian people, after having rejected a document like this in 1993, would have voted for this? So the Prime Minister has been hanged by his own words on 20 October 1992. But he has in fact done us the favour of speaking about this issue again. That was in a debate on a matter of public importance on 29 April 1992. He was talking about the then Prime Minister Paul Keating, and he said:

The Prime Minister falsely alleged—

this was when we were debating the Fightback package

that workers will have their conditions driven down. They will not. There will be a minimum wage calculated on an hourly rate. There will be minimum requirements regarding such things as annual leave and sick leave. But let me make it abundantly clear to all members of the Government, in case there is any doubt on their side, that we believe that such matters as penalty rates, the length of the working week, overtime, holiday loadings and all of those things that are holding back the needed flexibility in Australia’s industrial relations system ought to be matters for negotiation ...

It was 1992 when the now Prime Minister, in this place, said:

We do not shy away from that. We do not walk away from it for a moment.

What do you think the Australian public would have said if they had had that document put in front of them in the 2004 election? Do you think they would have voted for that, knowing that they would have had to work under that system? The words of the Prime Minister reflect back to the real intention of this legislation. Let me reiterate it.

Ms George —It’s a great quote.

Mr BYRNE —It is a great quote from the Prime Minister.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —If the member for Throsby wishes to stay in the parliament, she will abide by the rulings of the chair.

Mr BYRNE —Let us look at the animus, the driving force of this legislation. Working families and particularly Family First, who had asked for a family impact statement, will now understand why they have not been given one. I do not know if anyone in this place who is sitting here at the present time has seen the proposed and promised family impact statement that was supposed to have been given to Family First to validate and to verify this legislation. My understanding is that they have not been given it, but perhaps, when Senator Fielding looks at this transcript, he might understand why he has not been given it. Let me reiterate it:

... if somebody makes a capital investment—

which is a business—

in this country, they ought to be able to run that capital investment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year without penalty as to the time of the day or night they run that investment.

So what does it say when people come into this place from that side of the House, saying that this is not going to impact on families, when their leader, who is the spiritual creator of this particular legislation, has basically forecast what will happen?

In my view, and in the view of a number of people in this place, basically the job of governments is not to eliminate markets. It is not a democratic socialist party creed to eliminate markets. But, when Labor deregulated the financial markets and deregulated the economy in the eighties, as it had to do, it put a fundamental underpinning with respect to family payments, with respect to the industrial relations system. It realised that to compete in the international economy it had to globalise the economy—not without some level of pain, I might add—but it did not allow the market to operate as an unfettered force which alone determined the working conditions and lives of Australians.

Let me give you a quote from a conservative marketplace analysis—written, I think, by a professor of philosophy—and let us see how it applies to the industrial relations legislation that has been brought forward by this government. It says:

... the market ... does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles ... antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity ... to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty.

In essence, this says that it is antithetical to families if you allow market forces solely to drive policy. But does not this legislation do that? Is it not the end of the train line for the Howard government? Is it not giving, through its use of the corporations power, the capacity to the market to drive everything? Working conditions are to be set by the market, by business, and where are the protections for the workers who have delivered productivity gains to this country? It is not the government that has delivered productivity increases; it is the Australian community. It is the Australian workers, within the current industrial relations system, who have delivered those productivity increases. Why then is the government making a scapegoat out of those people, out of the community who have delivered the economic productivity that we now enjoy?

As well as the letter that I have quoted from, there is another document, from the churches. Peter Jensen, when talking about this on behalf of the churches, said that he had some level of anxiety about the so-called Work Choices bill that has been brought into this place.

The other thing I have never seen in my time in politics—and I thought I had seen it all in my six years in this place, particularly after the GST advertising campaign—is the amount of advertising that has gone into falsely misrepresenting what is actually going to occur in the workplace, without legislation being brought into this place. Many older members on that side of the place would never have tolerated that if they had greater say—I know that for a fact. I know that there is great unease on the coalition side about what this government is doing.

The great thing about a Senate which is not controlled by the government of the day is that it operates as a check and as a balance. The Australian people gave this government control of the Senate in 2004 but we must remember that they expected the government to operate with control—in essence, to use its untrammelled power conservatively, not to punish them. Yet one of the first major things that has occurred is so-called reform that will profoundly change their working lives and make their lives less secure.

It does not matter how much advertising you do. It does not matter how many glossy brochures you pulp or put out. The fact of the matter is that this is the last will and testament of the Howard government and John Howard. But John Howard has to remember the following. He said he was going to stab the Industrial Relations Commission in the stomach and, in effect, destroy the industrial relations system. People will remember that he stabbed the Industrial Relations Commission, and he should be very careful, given his abuse of untrammelled power in the Senate, that the Australian public does not cut his throat at the next election. (Time expired)