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Thursday, 10 November 2005
Page: 28


Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (9:46 AM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Mr Speaker I rise today to speak in opposition to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Workchoices) Bill 2005.

When a bill is presented to the house, the long standing practice is for the Government to allow a gap of at least a couple of weeks before debate is scheduled to begin.

This allows MPs to read the legislation, consult their constituents, consult community groups and prepare their feedback on the pros and cons of the bill.

When this Bill was presented to the house last week, the Government scheduled debate to begin the very next day. Such is their desire to avoid an open and fair debate on the changes.

Such is their determination to ram this legislation through the parliament as quickly as possible.

There are many problems with this legislation Mr Speaker and my time here is limited so I shall only be able to speak about a few of the issues that matter to me and that matter to my constituents.

These include:

  • the effect that this bill will have on working conditions in Australia;
  • some of the feedback I have received from my constituents regarding this bill;
  • the Prime Minister’s motives for moving this legislation in the first place and
  • problems with the coalition’s economic arguments used to support this legislation.

Mr Speaker the Industrial Relations Legislation currently before the house will fundamentally shift the balance of power in favour of employers and away from working Australians.

Far from making workplaces fairer, as the amended Workchoices brochure misleadingly suggests, this legislation actively seeks out and removes any semblance of fairness from the IR system in Australia.

Under the proposed changes workers will lose their protection against unfair dismissal.

Prior to the introduction of this bill the government said they would remove protection for companies with fewer than 100 employees.

When the bill was finally introduced into the parliament we saw that in practice this bill will remove protection against unfair dismissal for all Australians.

For example, under the changes companies with more than 100 staff will merely need to site ‘operational reasons’ before unfairly dismissing a staff member.

The changes will gut the Industrial relations commission, all but removing its ability to arbitrate disputes and taking away the commission’s ability to rule on the minimum wage.

The Industrial Relations Commission has provided a fair and impartial arbitrator of Australia’s Industrial Relations system for many decades. If this bill is passed that proud and honourable history looks set to end.

Instead the minimum wage will be set by a government appointed and cynically named “fair pay” commission. If that sounds reasonable consider this:

If every submission that the Howard Government submitted to the Industrial Relations Commission regarding the minimum wage had been agreed to, Australian workers surviving on the minimum wage would be $50 a week or $2600 per year worse off.

Since their election in 1996 the Howard Government has tried to take $2600 from the annual pay packet of low income earners in Australia. Under these proposed changes they will control the committee responsible for setting the minimum wage in the future.

I’ll leave it to your imagination to work out what will happen to the minimum wage under the authority of this government appointed commission.

Tellingly, the government’s proposed reforms will remove the word “fair” from Industrial Relations Law. If we look at Section 88B(2) of the current Workplace Relations Act we find that the Industrial Relations Commission:

“must ensure that a safety net of fair minimum wages and conditions of employment is established and maintained.”

Under the new legislation, in the section of the Act which transfers the ability to set the minimum wage from the AIRC to the “Fair Pay Commission”, the word fair is not mentioned, it does not exist.

The Government has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to reassure the Australian people that their workplace rights will remain “Protected by Law” under the new legislation.

This claim is based on the premise that the new law does not directly do away with workplace conditions and does not specifically force people onto individual agreements.

What it will do is remove the current “no disadvantage” test for individual agreements. It will mean that employers can simply write individual agreements removing or reducing workplace conditions that are currently protected.

Of equal concern is the interpretation of “duress”: Under the new IR legislation; requiring an employee to sign an AWA as a condition of employment will no longer be considered an act of duress.

So employers will have the ability to remove just about any workplace rights they dislike from individual agreements and then offer employment on the condition that new employees sign away those rights.

If a new employee refuses to sign an unfair AWA they don’t get the job.

If an existing employee refuses to sign away their existing conditions, well.

They can’t officially be fired for refusing to sign an AWA but how long can we really expect them to last without protection from unfair dismissal? Not long Mr Speaker, not long at all.

Mr Speaker this legislation is nothing short of an all out assault on working conditions in Australian workplaces.

The government can stamp the word “fair” on as many brochures as they want but the fact is that this legislation is inherently unfair and the Australian people have not been fooled.

I have been contacted by many of my constituents who are concerned about the Howard Government’s IR legislation.

While they have been eager to tell me about their concern over the legislation, members of my community have also been eager to ask me this question:

Why?

Why, I am asked Mr Speaker, is the government doing this? When there is no hard evidence, none, that the measures will benefit working Australians.

Why would the Howard Government want to remove the rights of ordinary Australians?

What sort of mind is behind moves to remove the word fair from the Workplace Relations Act?

Why does the Prime Minister want to take away the need for dismissal to be fair, for employers to negotiate with employees in good faith, for them to negotiate at all?

After all, as the Howard Government loves to boast, Australia currently has relatively high employment with a growing economy.

Why then does the Prime Minister want to risk our current good fortune with a massive shake up of the Industrial Relations system?

The answer Mr Speaker is threefold: Because he can, because he believes that he should and most of all, because he wants to destroy the union and labour movement forever.

For the first time, the Howard Government has control of both houses of government.

When the Prime Minister tried to take away workers’ rights back in 1996, the Senate amended his legislation and removed the worst parts of his IR Bill.

Since then the Prime Minister has been waiting for the chance to undo the hundreds of amendments that softened his 1996 IR Bill and now he finally can.

Now he has the Senate in his pocket he can try again and unless there are coalition senators prepared to stand up for workers’ rights, this time the Prime Minister is likely to succeed.

The second reason for the Prime Minister’s desire to push ahead with this legislation is that he thinks he can convince Australians that the changes are a good idea.

Not based on any empirical data mind you, not based on the findings of any reputable research organisation but on what he calls, “an article of faith”.

The Prime Minister has quite literally come out and admitted that these sweeping changes are based on Liberal party ideology, an article of faith.

The third and possibly most compelling reason for these changes is the Prime Minister’s personal desire to see the IR Laws weighted in favour of employers.

The Prime Minister has been dreaming about getting his hands on the Industrial Relations Laws for 25 years. Now his dream is about to turn into a reality for the Prime Minister and a nightmare for Australian workers.

A nightmare in which the clock is wound back to the days when the power of the employer was absolute and workers’ rights were a contradiction in terms.

So, along with proposing amendments that remove unfair dismissal and gut the AIRC, the Prime Minister has taken aim squarely at the Australian Union Movement.

In the final years of the Howard Government the Australian people are going to see from the Prime Minister, that which we on this side of the chamber always knew existed:

Hatred for the unions, hatred for anyone prepared to stand up for Australian workers and an absolute determination to shift the balance of power away from Working Australians in favour of employers.

Until now, cooler heads in the Australian Senate have kept the Prime Minister from attacking Australian workers and the Labour movement quite so blatantly.

Now that he has secured his place in history as the second longest serving Australian Prime Minister, now that the Senate is under his control, he thinks he can afford to be blatant, he now shows his arrogance and he knows that he will be enjoying his retirement long before the damage from these legislative changes is finally measured in full.

In the mean time the Prime Minister is determined to destroy Australian Unions and through them, the wider Labour movement and he doesn’t care how many Australians suffer in the process.

So he has proposed legislation that will effectively stop unions from doing their jobs.

Access to workplaces will be tightly controlled by employers.

If an employee wants his union representative to investigate a possible breach of their agreed working conditions, the union representative will need to seek permission from the employer and detail the exact problem they are investigating before they can enter the workplace.

That’s like giving a suspected criminal two weeks notice that you’re going to search their house.

By the time the union representative gets to the workplace, if they get into the workplace, I think you’ll find that the employee who made the report will have withdrawn their complaint, if they haven’t been removed for operational reasons that is.

Mr Speaker not content with reducing the ability of workplace advocates and union representatives to help their members, the bill even introduces criminal penalties for discussing the details of AWAs.

Make no mistake Mr Speaker, this legislation will see union representatives sent to gaol for standing up for their members.

Mr Speaker I already mentioned the fact that many of my constituents are worried about their own jobs. What may be surprising is that my office has also been contacted by quite a few people whose careers are already over, who have already retired.

You see they know all too well the value of a workplace delegate whose job it is to stand up for workers.

Holiday pay, sick pay, lunch breaks, weekends: These conditions have all been fought for over the past decades by thousands of Australian workers.

Mr Speaker my constituents appreciate the efforts that Australian unions have put in for their members. They have also seen what happens to workplaces when the balance of power shifts too far in favour of employers.

They can not believe that an Australian Government in this day and age is still clinging to the old class-warfare mindset behind this legislation.

The reality is that you do not need to decide whether to back workers over employers or vice versa, in fact you really shouldn’t.

It is quite possible to support business while ensuring workers’ rights are protected. It has been done before and should be done again. A cohesive and cooperative workplace is a productive and safe workplace.

The reforms introduced by the last Labor Government were enacted in cooperation with the Australian Union movement and to the great benefit of both workers and employers in this country.

Mr Speaker in preparing for this debate I had a look at the Government’s argument that taking away workers’ rights will benefit the Australian economy.

One of the government’s key claims is that taking away workers’ rights will increase wages through increased productivity. Let’s examine that argument.

We needn’t look further than an article published in the Age Newspaper on the 8th of November this year.

Entitled: “IR Plan won’t lift output.’ just ask the Kiwis’, it was written by that paper’s Economics Editor and fairly comprehensively debunks that myth.

First let us have a look at the theory that these changes will increase wages.

The article points out that in 1991, in the middle of a recession, the conservative New Zealand National Party decided the smartest thing they could do was attack workers rights in much the same way as the current Australian Government is attacking them today.

At that point Australian and New Zealand workers’ wages were fairly similar.

Since then wages in New Zealand have increased by approximately 7% which is roughly equivalent to a ten cent per hour pay rise each year. That wage increase has largely been attributed to an increasing proportion of skilled professions.

New Zealand workers who remained in unskilled professions have watched their real pay fall by around 2% since then.

In that same time frame Australian wages have risen dramatically by comparison.

Between June 1992 and June this year the Average Weekly Wage for full time workers in Australia has risen by 71.7%.

So much for the theory of wage increases through decreased workplace rights.

What about the claim that the Government’s IR changes will improve productivity in Australia?

Well Mr Speaker another quick glance over the Tasman will reveal that since the New Zealand Nationals introduced their IR package and slowed wages growth in that country, Australian productivity has left New Zealand’s far behind.

The OECD estimates that since 1990 Australia’s productivity has grown at double the rate of New Zealand’s.

Knowing the Howard Government I’m sure that they will respond by playing the man and not the ball. If someone disagrees with them, they love to attack the commentator in an effort to discredit their argument.

So let us look a bit closer to home.

You don’t get much closer to the Coalition than the Australian Industry Group, you certainly won’t find many more pro-industry commentators.

Which is why I was particularly interested in the comments made by Australian Industry Chief Executive Heather Ridout, on the ABC’s Four Corners Program on 26 September this year.

When asked whether there was any economic evidence to support the Government’s argument that individual contracts boost productivity, she replied:

“No...

“Well, I, I’m not aware of direct research to that effect.”

When asked about the government’s claims that removing unfair dismissal legislation will encourage higher employment, she responded by saying:

“You’re not gonna go around putting on more people just because the unfair termination laws have changed”

So if the IR changes aren’t going to make Australia’s productivity grow and aren’t going to make wages rise, if removing unfair dismissal legislation is unlikely to have a marked effect on employment, why is the Government still pushing ahead with their plans?

The answer Mr Speaker once again is simple; ideology.

The government isn’t basing their plans on solid economic theory and they aren’t copying an existing successful system.

They are doing it because for the Prime Minister and his followers, it is quite literally, in his own words, “an article of faith”.

Those of us who believe that empirical evidence and historical good works are more reliable than an economic article of faith know that these changes are not only dangerous, they are totally unnecessary.

The reality is that allowing workers to collectively bargain, allowing an independent umpire in the form of the Industrial Relations Commission and ensuring that the industrial umpire has real power to mediate solutions, has been to the benefit of all Australians.

Australia’s productivity growth, set up through the hard work of the Hawke and Keating Governments, has been to the great benefit of all Australians, including employers.

As real wages and productivity have risen, Australian businesses and their employees have enjoyed the benefits. Now instead of supporting the system that has supported the economy, this government wants to rip it all up.

The Australian people don’t want these changes and Australian workers can’t afford these changes.

Sadly, I doubt very much that the Government will listen to any of our argument.

Well we do not agree with this Government’s approach to workplace reform. This bill deserves only one action—to rip it up.

And that is exactly what we on this side of the chamber plan to do at the first available opportunity.