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Thursday, 10 November 2005
Page: 22

Mr SNOWDON (9:46 AM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

These are speaking notes that I intended to use as part of my contribution to debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Unhappily, I have not been given the opportunity to speak in the House by the Government’s decision to guillotine debate on the bill.

I have quite simply been gagged and prevented from airing my views and the concerns of the people of Lingiari in the House of Representatives.

These notes form the basis of the contribution I would have given had I been able to speak in the chamber. I would have elaborated on how this radical attack on the working lives of Australians will affect the people of my electorate, Lingiari: people whose concerns will now be ignored.

This bill is an attack on the very fabric of Community Life in Australia.

It is not the Australia Way. It attacks the fundamental concept of “A Fair Go”.

The “Fair Go” is something that generations of Australian have fought to preserve and extend.

The nature of work and the communities supported by economic activity across the country have and will always be in state of flux.

Change is often a cause for anxiety, but for Australians there has been security in our independent system of arbitration and conciliation to protect workers and to take a wider view of community expectations and ability to progress Australia for the benefit of all.

What is unnerving for Australians is that a system that has orderly evolved over a hundred years with proper public and parliamentary scrutiny and taking account of the sensible work-family balance is being undone by a slick advertising campaign that insults the dignity of the Australian worker and by a government determined to use its complete power to limit scrutiny and inquiry by steamrolling its industrial relations laws through the parliament.

As Glenn Milne noted in the Australian Newspaper yesterday, if the prime minister:

is so proud of his final ideological vindication why not let debate run in the parliament.

A sentiment also expressed by former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

Australians should be in no doubt that this legislation will not only change the nature of the employer - employee relationship but will dramatically redefine our communities and in particular how individual workers see themselves and relate to each other at work, at rest and in their wider community.

Social commentators are beginning to look beyond the immediate workplace implications of the Work Choices Bill and see a redefining of the Australian culture.

The coordinator of the Catholics Lobby Regina Lane in the Catholic News last weekend stated that:

the changes will leave low paid and unskilled workers vulnerable to exploitation and increase the pool of working poor.

Further she adds:

The Catholic Church has a strong tradition of upholding workers rights, and has particular advocated the right to bargain collectively. This right to association and representation are fundamental principles of democracy. The attack on the unions cuts at the heart of the democratic values, rights and protections that enable the achievement of the common good.

The Catholic News also noted that:

The Australian Political Ministry Network has highlighted the impending reduction of the powers of the independent Industrial Relations Commission, which the late Pope John Paul II described during his 1986 visit to Australia as a ‘unique system of arbitration and conciliation’ which ‘helped to defend the rights of workers’.

I represent an electorate in Northern Australia.

Northern Australian electorates tend to be dynamic and progressive yet volatile regions.

Workers know that good times do not last forever and that when growth turns down and skills shortages ease, that’s when the impact of the Work Choices legislation will bite. Employers will have power to wind back wages and conditions.

Compared to the rest of Australia, Northern Australian electorates have relatively large mining, government and defence sectors and are home to some of Australia’s iconic tourist attractions.

These electorates also have significant indigenous populations.

Indigenous Australians from recent experience could tell you about what is like to have no choice in the workplace.

Barriers such as lack of education, training and employment programs continue to this day.

Experiences of exploited indigenous labour is not a distant story in the family history of many in my electorate.

In fact my electorate is named after a tireless worker for Aboriginal freedom whom instinctively knew that work choices went beyond the hourly rate.

In my capacity as Labor Spokesperson for Northern Australia, I have hosted colleagues and conducted forums at a number of communities and workplaces across the Top End of the country during the last two years.

The protection of workers rights in a society where the nature of work is changing was a theme expressed at the forums.

In the North-West, where mining is the major industry, concern were raised about Fly-in Fly-out workers. Fly-in Fly-out workers extract a salary from the community but do not form part of it, speakers said, the increase of this type of work has led to a substantial reduction in the number of services, education and employment opportunities, as well as reductions in the housing supply in mining communities.

People felt that companies operating within communities should play an active role in that community. Fly-in Fly-out does not contribute to long-term social capital development in Northern Australia. It was thought this policy was having a significant long term cost to communities.

Indeed companies that use Fly-In and Fly-Out have expressed to me their desire to access alternative arrangements if possible.

They know the long term benefits of having a committed workforce close to the security of their family and friends.

This very issue was featured in a story on the 7.30 Report on the ABC a couple of weeks ago.

In Queensland in regions such as Gladstone and Townsville the concern was that whilst population growth and long-term employment prospects were good, these needed to be managed carefully to ensure that the most effective economic benefit whilst preserving a quality lifestyle and environment unique to the region providing for families from early years until retirement.

In the Northern Territory the discussion of employment was centred largely on indigenous employment. Indigenous employment was critical if indigenous communities were to become functional.

What was clear from these forums is that employment is part of a bigger picture.

It involves access to housing, transport, education, health and other social services, plus the opportunity for family commitments both in the short and the longer term.

People working in regional Australia believe in balance. They balance the challenge of working in remote areas often with less access to social and recreational services against good working conditions and benefits and a different lifestyle.

What this legislation does is tilt the balance towards employers, but in regional Australia the tilt is to an even greater degree.

Taking up employment or changing employment in regional Australia more than often not involves decisions about relocating. To another town, to another state. Assessments have to be made about the level of educational and health facilities, distance and time to get to relatives. All matter of extra considerations to be accounted for.

Labor is disappointed that the legislation is not subject to a Family Impact Statement as promised during the election for all family related legislation.

The legislation allows individual contracts to undermine the rights of Australian workers under collective agreements and Awards eliminating penalty rates, shift loadings, overtime and holiday pay and other Award conditions.

But it is the lack of protection from unfair dismissal that undermines completely the concept of the “Fair Go”.

If you are working out bush, away from transport, legal services, with no where to live as you have been kicked out of the company camp, how do they mount a challenge for an unfair dismissal?

Under this legislation they have no protection.

Further the Government has failed to make the case that the laws will create jobs, lift productivity or improve living standards.

As Greg Combet in the Herald Sun noted earlier this week.

“The industrial relations system has not held the economy back. Industrial disputes are at historic lows and there has been sustained productivity and employment growth.”

The Australian Community its workers and families want economic reforms that will generate future prosperity.

They do not want the wholesale destruction of the rights that generations have worked so hard to gain and maintain.

Where is the community involvement if the new legislation allows businesses to unilaterally determine the pay and employment conditions of employees, free from discussion and cooperation from unions, collective bargaining, awards, industrial tribunals and workers themselves?

Rather than generating workplaces with harmony and purpose the Legislation will acerbate conflict between workers and employers.

Last week the Leader of the Opposition likened the WorkChoices bill to a nest of termites that would eat away at the foundations of living standards and family security.

 “Month by month, year by year, for workers who do not have strong bargaining power, this will erode their rights and entitlements”.

Working Australians know that once the AIRC loses its traditional power to set the minimum wage, to alter awards and to approve collectively negotiated wage agreements then it will not only be the weak that will suffer it will be all Australian working families.

Eventually, as jobs are turned over and new entrants to the labour market are employed on agreements then the termites’ job will be complete. There will be no choice for Australian workers.

Workers know that once enterprise agreements expire, only five minimum conditions will remain, a minimum wage, annual sick leave, parental leave and an ordinary working hours standard of 38 weeks averaged over a year.

Every worker in this country should be taking stock of what conditions and benefits they now enjoy and consider what they would stand to lose if not protected by an award or a no disadvantage test.

They should be discussing this with their friends and family and think very carefully what will happen in the future?

They should be asking themselves,

How would I go in an open job market in a depressed economy without the support of a union or the protection of the AIRC in its current form?

Next Tuesday 15 November is a national day of action.

I will be in my electorate talking to workers and sharing their views on this legislation.