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Thursday, 10 November 2005
Page: 18


Mrs IRWIN (9:46 AM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

The brave new world of employment in Australia that is set out in this bill is a long way from what the great majority of Australian have thought of as basic to their work and living conditions.

But I doubt that many Australians will read the detail in the legislation.

Australians do place their trust in governments.

And we are generally optimistic.

Most of us expect to be able to work to support ourselves and our families.

We expect that working reasonable hours in a decent job will provide us with the means to do more than just get by.

We expect life to get better not harder.

We expect that our children’s lives will be a bit easier and their opportunities will be greater than they were for our generation.

If you ask what people mean when we use words like aspiration or what someone once referred to as the ladder of opportunity, the answer you will nearly always get is not that they want a bigger house or a better car.

It is not overseas travel, or a boat or caravan.

What they aspire to is to see their children achieve to the best of their ability.

And in what has been something of a surprise to me, its seems the biggest response expressing concern for the impact of the government’s IR legislation has come from older generations and in particular from post war baby boomers.

A generation which is now entering retirement but having lived and worked for most of its time under the previous and existing industrial relations systems, it sees a dismal future for younger generations if these changes go ahead.

Apart from the great depressions of the 1890’s and the 1930’s, Australia has not suffered form a time when living standards have gone backwards.

But that is the direction we will be headed in if this legislation is passed.

The other day in this house the minister for workplace relations boasted that the minimum wage in Australia at $12.75 an hour was nearly twice the minimum wage of $6.85 in Australian dollars that applies in the united states.

The Prime Minster tells us that the interests of the unemployed will be taken into account when determining the minimum wage.

His theory is that if you reduce the minimum wage then more people will be employed.

But what he doesn’t come out and say is that for the United States.

The country whose industrial relations system he so much admires.

In the united states, where the minimum wage is about half of that applying in Australia.

The unemployment rate at about five per cent is the same as Australia’s with a minimum wage twice as high.

Can you imagine a family in Australia trying to get by on less than $250 a week?

But if we want to continue to compare our performance with the United States, we should also look at what is happening to wage levels across the board.

Over the past five years the median wage in the united states has gone backwards.

Average wages in the us are less now than they were 5 years ago.

And that is in spite of huge increases in higher level salaries.

Jobs growth has been in the area of low skilled low paid work, the main factor in driving down average rates of pay.

Skilled jobs have disappeared offshore and productivity growth has stalled.

That is what has happened in the most flexible labour market in the world.

And the result of that degree of labour market flexibility is the emergence of a sub class of working poor.

And a nation where one child in five lives below the poverty line.

Now I know that Australia has a system of family assistance payments, but you have to ask if they may come to represent a subsidy to low paid workers.

For more than 100 years we have had the benefit of a system which took into account the needs of low paid workers and attempted to ensure that Australians in full time employment could live in what was once termed frugal comfort.

But given this government’s record of opposing increases in the minimum wage, we can now expect the gradual erosion of a living minimum wage in Australia.

And despite what the government’s advertising blitz would want us to believe, increasing levels of employment are far from guaranteed by cutting the wages of the lowest paid.

You would expect the government to trot out a stack of expert opinions showing how much better off every worker will be under the changes.

But the government can’t seem to get the experts to agree with its vision of a workers paradise that it thinks will follow from these changes.

The Prime Minister won’t give a guarantee that no worker will be worse off under the changes.

The Prime Minister says his record is his guarantee.

But even if we ignore his record as the world’s worst treasurer back in the early 80s.

When we take his recent record you have to ask if the present run of luck with the economy will go on forever.

How much longer will we enjoy our best terms of trade in more than 100 years.

How much longer can we run up trade deficits before we can’t run up any more debt.

How much more can our manufacturing industries shrink before we are left with just a few cottage industries.

But to listen to government members the solution for these problems lies in these changes.

At a time when we face severe skill shortages the government’s solution is to import skilled workers when we can find them.

At the same time youth unemployment continues at high levels.

But according to the government all this will be solved by pushing wages down.

What’s the point of spending years gaining a skill when it is not valued.

When instead of higher pay attracting more entrants to a trade or profession, the government simply allows employers to recruit workers overseas.

One way or another, Australian workers whether they are part of the traded goods.

Economy or the domestic economy will be forced to accept wages payable in a global economy.

And the only direction for wages under those conditions is for wages to fall.

This is the biggest change to wage determination in Australia.

The basis for our wage fixing system from the beginning was that if Australian industry was to be protected by tariffs, then industry must pay a level of wages that suited Australian conditions.

And while that has changed over the years, the expectation of workers has remained.

We are not the only country facing adjustments in a global economy.

But we have two choices.

We can allow Australian wages to fall to the levels of China or India.

Or we can decide that we must maintain a high standard of living for all Australians.

We must decide if we exist as an economy or as a society.

The other tool for ensuring some equality in living standards is that provided by our social welfare and health systems.

But these rely on taxation revenue from a productive workforce.

So these changes go to the heart of our society.

They place at risk every aspect of our social structure.

That is why they have raised the concern of so many civic and religious leaders across this country.

If the people of Australia were ever relaxed and comfortable, these changes have come as a sharp reminder that you cannot take for granted the protection offered under our previous wage fixing and industrial relations systems.

This is the brave new world.

There will be some winners.

But there will also be a lot of losers.

What this government has placed in jeopardy is not just the economic future of some Australians.

It runs the very great risk of destroying the foundation of Australian society.

Instead of a workforce confident in its skills and work ethic we risk becoming a nation where our workforce performs only to a level seen as acceptable for the wage offered.

Instead of pay for performance we will see performance for pay.

If you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

Improvements in productivity do not come about by squeezing the last drop of blood from workers.

They come about by the combined efforts of workers and management to make those improvements.

The first thing that every manager should learn is that people work for their own goals not those of the organisation.

Successful managers can bring those individual goals together with the goals of the organisation.

But for all the talk that we get from this government about flexibility, in almost every case it is totally one sided flexibility.

If an employer demands work outside regular hours or split shifts, they may suit some employees, but not all.

And when an employer can’t find enough flexible employees they will complain about workforce shortages.

Now what really alarms me about that are moves being made as part of the next wave of globalisation.

We have seen manufacturing jobs going offshore.

We have seen computer software development going offshore.

We have seen call centres going offshore and many other support and maintenance functions.

But there is now a great deal of pressure from countries such as India and the Philippines for global markets in direct services.

Now Australia has for historical reasons not allowed guest workers in the same way as some European countries.

The idea of Australia making use of low skilled and hence low paid workers on short term contracts is being floated by some industry leaders.

And this legislation effectively opens the door to guest worker type contracts.

When we treat employment as just another market transaction, it really doesn’t matter who is employed.

What this legislation will destroy is the whole idea of a living wage.

By stripping conditions such as career progression and skills recognition, we are destroying the opportunity for employees to set personal goals and work toward developing with an organisation, to the benefit of the employee, the organisation and the nation.

By abolishing the established loadings for working unsocial hours we are tearing away the social fabric of our society, our families and in many cases a healthy lifestyle.

And in opening the way for averaging of work hours over the year, penalty rates for overtime will become a thing of the past.

This will have a huge impact on many medium income earners.

Many families depend on the extra pay that overtime delivers.

The penalties paid by workers in higher marginal tax rates can only be justified by time and a half payments.

But experience in industries where workers.

Have already traded away overtime payments.

Shows that income levels have fallen dramatically.

And overtime is no longer an option.

Many workers do not have the choice to work the extra time.

They cannot negotiate their hours or even agree to roster overtime or weekend work.

Without penalty rates there is no incentive for workers to volunteer to work outside social hours.

We already know of the difficulty in attracting nurses to work on weekends.

How much harder will it be to get staff when there is no incentive to work these times?

In one example of an arrangement where overtime payments were cashed out, the loss in income was over $10,000 a year.

That is a huge amount to a working family and means the loss of those little extras in life that many workers would hope to receive.

These changes will not take place overnight but they will happen.

Over a period of years workers will see much of what they have taken for granted will be eroded by these changes.

By then Australia will be a different society.

And it may be impossible to put things back the way they were.

The challenge today for the labour movement is to take this legislation as the starting point.

To think of this as the burned out ruins of a system that will need to be rebuilt.

In a few short years Australian working people will be crying out for a fair and decent system to protest their rights in the workplace.

Our challenge after today is to rebuild that system.

It will not be the same as the system destroyed by this legislation but it can be a fair and decent system all the same.

This bill, the Prime Minister’s dream will become a nightmare for the working men and women of Australia.

Its effects will lead to the end of this government as surely as a similar attempt to abolish the industrial relations system in the late 1920s under the Bruce government.

The Prime Minister would do well to recall the fate of the Bruce government and Bruce himself, he lost his own seat at the election following his attempt to make his dream a reality.

Or it may be that the Prime Minister will retire before the next election and pass on this poisoned chalice to his successor.

Either way, by then the damage will have been done.

And a Labor government will have to put the pieces back together again.