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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 30

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (11:15 AM) —In speaking on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 I begin by responding to some of the comments made by the honourable member for Moreton. Clearly, he is so out of touch with what is going on in the current industrial relations scene. He is so out of touch that it sounded as though he was giving a speech in the fifties, never mind the seventies, eighties and nineties. I think all of the assertions he made with respect to Labor’s policy are entirely and utterly wrong. But the debate we are having on this bill today is no ordinary debate. This bill and the Work Choices laws it seeks to marginally amend are about what sort of country Australia is and what sort of country Australians want it to be—whether we want to live to work or work to live.

We know the Prime Minister has always held a radical view on industrial relations but only in this term—his 14th parliamentary term, his 34th year in parliament—has he had the political opportunity to impose his plan on Australian families. Knowing what we know about the Prime Minister and about his radical IR views, how can this amendment to Work Choices be seen as anything other than ensuring protection for only one job in this country—his own?

Labor clearly wants an IR system that is productive but fair. Labor—not the coalition, despite the rantings by the member opposite—commenced the move from central wage fixation to enterprise bargaining, but we did so without throwing fairness out of the back door. Why is this bill not a sufficient remedy for what ails Work Choices? Work Choices is fundamentally flawed. It is unfair and unnecessary. It is complex, and it is not a system for a modern economy. Let’s remember: the government spent $55 million of taxpayers’ money to try to sell Work Choices to Australians, telling them that their employment conditions were protected by law. If those very expensive commercials on television were telling the truth, I would not be standing here at the dispatch box this morning debating this tokenistic bill. And it is a token. It may well help some employees in this country. There may be some marginal improvement for some employees in some workplaces in this country, but it will not fix what is wrong with Work Choices. It will not be fixed by sacking one minister—a minister who this morning moved to guillotine debate on this bill—and replacing him with another. Hockey might be the jockey, but it is still the same old horse, and what a nag it is. If it had entered the Melbourne Cup last year—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—Order! Members will be referred to by their correct title or by their—

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —it would still be running, and the Prime Minister ought to know that changing a horse’s name—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Gorton will not speak over the Deputy Speaker when he is addressing him. I have asked the member for Gorton to refer to members by their correct title or by their seats.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —Indeed, if it had been running in the Melbourne Cup last year, it would still be running. The Prime Minister ought to know that changing a horse’s name will not make it win any races. It might get you in trouble with the stewards, but it will not win any races.

The government is in trouble. Let me tell the House why. When the Prime Minister referred to the coalition’s promises in the 2004 election campaign, there was no mention of Work Choices. On 28 September 2004, the coalition’s industrial relations policy was announced by the Prime Minister. There were no references in that announcement to the weakening of the independent umpire, to the abolition of the no disadvantage test, to the removal of unfair dismissal laws for employees employed by companies with between 20 and 100 workers and to the primacy of Australian workplace agreements over collective agreements. In fact, the Prime Minister did not foreshadow any of the more radical elements now contained in Work Choices, which were not removed by this bill. Consequently, there was no mandate and, I contend, no confidence demonstrated by the government that these policies had the support of the majority of Australians. Introducing the proposed changes to the parliament eight months later, the Prime Minister said:

The measures I am outlining today represent the next logical step towards a flexible, simple and fair system of workplace relations.

Labor refutes the assertion that Work Choices is flexible, simple or fair. Let me first challenge the government’s assertion that the new laws create flexibility and the required environment for economic growth. It is true that the economy is growing. In fact, Australia is enjoying its 16th year of economic growth. However, economic growth has slowed, despite the unprecedented resources boom. Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory are growing rapidly, due largely to that boom. We are seeing a modern-day gold rush in the mining industry. In fact, mining is experiencing 15 per cent real growth each year.

When the government seeks to take credit for employment growth, we know what is fuelling that growth—and it is not Work Choices. In fact, since the introduction of Work Choices, employment growth, from March 2006 to January this year, was 2.39 per cent. That is lower than for the same period in 2004-05, when it reached 2.64 per cent, and also lower than in 2002-03, when it reached 2.79 per cent. Employment growth is not increasing as a result of Work Choices. In the first six months since Work Choices was introduced, productivity growth went out the back door by a further 1.6 per cent. So here we have the situation where, in short, our economy grew and productivity accelerated that growth when a comprehensive safety net, a no disadvantage test, unfair dismal protections and an independent umpire all existed. That refutes the contention that somehow Work Choices is fair.

Is Work Choices simple? That is what the Prime Minister asserted. The Prime Minister said that the government is determined to make it simpler to bargain at the workplace level. He said that in his statement in May 2005. By the end of that year, the simplicity promised by the Prime Minister amounted to more than 1,000 pages of draft legislation followed by another 400 pages of regulation. This legislation was the height of a small child. On top of that, we now have this bill being introduced. This is a flawed bill. As I understand it, since it has been introduced there have been further amendments introduced to be made to the bill. So we now have amendments to the amendments. Whether you support the merits of the bill and whether you agree on the extent to which it can improve the lot of workers in a workplace, the fact is that this bill is flawed. The process by which the government has set about amending or atoning for its sins with respect to Work Choices is entirely flawed.

These laws are complex and, indeed, they are manifold. Complex rules to calculate everyday matters like leave entitlements have been amended, but they are still complex—and more complex than before Work Choices. Onerous record-keeping requirements had to be amended and the dates for compliance postponed again and again. There are unclear rules about what can and cannot be included in agreements. There is uncertainty about when an employer must withhold pay for periods of industrial action. There is little guidance about what is a genuine operational reason for terminating an employee. The government also asserted originally that Work Choices was fair. Indeed it has suggested that it will be more fair as a result of this bill. The government says, and it has said all along, that Australian workplace agreements are good for employees. But let’s look at the government’s own figures.

Senate estimates in May last year revealed that 6,263 AWAs had been lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate since the commencement of the government’s legislation. Of those sampled, 100 per cent—that is, all of them—excluded at least one protected award condition; 63 per cent, almost two-thirds, removed penalty rates; 52 per cent, more than half, removed shiftwork loading; and 16 per cent removed all award protected conditions. This trend, confirmed by Office of the Employment Advocate figures which were subsequently leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, confirmed Labor’s fears that Work Choices was driving down employment conditions in workplaces. AWAs in particular were being used as a pernicious instrument to subvert awards and conditions of employment in workplaces. There is no doubt that many AWAs were being forced upon employees. The government are so well aware of this that they expressly inserted a provision in the legislation that said it is not coercion to refuse employment to a prospective employee if they are told to sign an AWA if they want to get a job.

We also know that the intersection of these laws with the unfair dismissal changes meant that no employee could stand up to his or her employer and bargain in good faith genuinely for an individual agreement. There might be some with a set of scarce skills who would have the market power to do so. But, in the main, what employee would be in a position to bargain with and defy an employer putting a particular agreement before them on the table? Given that the changes to unfair dismissal laws have not been changed by this bill, it is still the case that five million Australian workers can be sacked for any or no reason whatsoever. How do you expect those employees, without any employment security at all, to stand up and say, ‘I would like a little change there, an amendment here and then I will sign that agreement’? We know it is fanciful. The government knows it is fanciful. And this bill will not fix it. This bill is an attempt to pretend to the Australian public that things have been fixed, but of course they have not.

The key to Labor’s industrial relations system will be collective enterprise bargaining. Evidence here and overseas proves that collective enterprise bargaining can achieve higher productivity and wages outcomes than systems based on individual contracts. Such a system invites employers and employees to work collaboratively. Labor’s policies will focus on increasing productivity but will also seek to restore balance in the system. Labor do not support the view that Australian workers must needlessly suffer in order to ensure economic growth. We seek to ensure that Australian families can juggle work and family interests without undue stress. The benefit of economic growth is diminished if we fail to ensure that people can have a decent life in and beyond their workplace. We are also confident that awards and collective agreements in conjunction with common-law arrangements will provide sufficient flexibility to satisfy all parties—or at least satisfy all parties that do not want to act in a roguish manner.

Despite the rhetoric of those opposite, I do not believe that most employers want to act in a manner that would be improper for their employees. But this is what you have: you have set of laws that allow bad employers to do bad things and force good employers to consider doing the same thing. It is a race to the bottom. It is forcing good employers to have to consider cutting employment conditions because bad employers are doing so. When you have that situation, the best of employers is placed in the position where they are under competitive pressure to consider affecting adversely their own staff.

It should be remembered that common-law arrangements already cover 30 per cent of all employment agreements in Australia. They have existed throughout the life of this government, they existed before 1996 and they will exist beyond the life of this government. We believe that the common-law agreements—which, by the way, are 10 times more popular than AWAs—are a sufficient instrument to be used in conjunction with awards and agreements to ensure sufficient flexibility. I think they refute the assertion that there is not sufficient flexibility within Labor’s plan for industrial relations.

Let’s now look at the government’s panic since the polls showed them that Work Choices is poison. This is the only reason why the Prime Minister has responded. Remember, the Prime Minister is the author of the legislation. The legislation is a manifestation of the Prime Minister’s dream of the last 30 years. There is only one thing more important to the Prime Minister than his industrial relations plans—that is, his continued presence in the seat across from me at the dispatch box. The only thing more important to the Prime Minister than his industrial relations plans is his own future in the role of Prime Minister of this country. So what did he do once his own pollsters told him that Work Choices was poison? He attempted to set up a set of conditions that have been contrived to convince enough people that he is fixing the problems of Work Choices. We announced our policy on 28 April. The government announced changes to the operation of Work Choices a week later. One week later, on 4 May, the government announced changes to the Work Choices legislation. I watched the media conference held by the Prime Minister and the minister. The minister looked like he had been called up for This is Your Life. He did not even know what he was doing there. He was standing there next to the Prime Minister wondering what the hell he was doing there as the Prime Minister announced that there were going to be changes to the legislation. There were announcements made and the very next day newspaper advertisements appeared across the country and television and radio advertising commenced. What we discovered in estimates was that the expense behind that has amounted to $4.1 million so far.

More interesting is that whilst the announcement was made on the 4th the operation would commence on the 7th, which was three weeks ago, and we are debating the bill now. We had advertisements on television and radio and in the newspapers about a law that did not exist and does not yet exist. We saw it for the first time this week and the government has spent millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money explaining a law that did not exist. That is an absurd situation, but it is an explanation for the panic inside the government, because they know now that Work Choices is poison. They would love to be able to leave it untouched, but it is poison and they are seeking to make amendments to it. In the current political context we see a government seeking to pretend that there are sufficient changes to remedy Work Choices, which Labor says cannot be fixed by such amendments.

We know that the government need not have guillotined the bill. There are many members in this House, representing their constituents in every state and territory, who wish to speak to this bill. They will be refused that right because the government will close down debate before the end of today so that members in this House will not be given an opportunity to speak. I would also imagine that it is to protect the government members who have been defending Work Choices for the last 18 months and do not want to go on the record and have to defend it again. We know who spoke on Work Choices and who defended it, and we know they have not changed their intent. We also know that after 18 months of Work Choices they want to convince the Australian public that we are going to get 18 weeks of fairness, but then, if they win the election, they will go back to what they want. They want to convince the public that we had 18 months of Work Choices, where they hid the figures and did not disclose them—we had to uncover them—and then they give us possibly 18 weeks of so-called fairness which is not in any way going to improve Work Choices in a proper way. They say that somehow that is going to fix the problem. That will not fix the problem.

There are problems with this bill. Firstly, we have 250,000 Australian workers on AWAs that were made pursuant to Work Choices before these proposed amendments, and they will not be able to fix those agreements. That means we have at least a quarter of a million people, if not more, on agreements that will not have this so-called fairness test apply to them. Whatever improvements could exist, those employees and their families will not be better off and will not have any remedy for those agreements. They are not to be changed and that means we will have employees working side by side on different AWAs with different conditions doing the same job. They will be doing the same job in the same workplace because the government has completely hashed this and has only sought to amend it for their own political hide. Despite the changes arising from this bill, an employee may still be worse off under a workplace agreement than under an award.

Further, it is not clear what fair compensation might be. The announcements refer to benefits such as higher hourly rates of pay and also to matters such as car park spaces or flexible hours. I think it is important to ask: will the mere offer of a job be considered sufficient compensation to offset any loss of protected award conditions in certain circumstances? The Prime Minister hinted that an offer of a job in certain circumstances may be sufficient, so there may not be fair compensation.

We have a vague definition of struggling businesses although we do not know what that means or how it will be determined. There will be no review of any decision made by the new authority, the former Employment Advocate, so we will not be privy to that. We will not know the way in which that form of compensation may exist or how struggling companies will be able to exempt themselves from this so-called fairness test.

There are major problems with bill. It does not go to the heart of the protections required. As the shadow minister said, they can change rosters without notice and that will not change; they can remove all your redundancy entitlements that are in the award and that will not change. There are so many areas that are unprotected. More importantly than the bill itself is the intent of the government. Whatever improvements there might be—and I have conceded there are some marginal ones, and that is why we will support the bill—the government do not believe in this set of laws, they do not believe in fairness in the workplace and they never have believed in fairness in the workplace. The only reason they are introducing this bill now is to save their political hide. The only job that this government concerns itself with is the Prime Minister’s. It does not concern itself with ordinary working families who are working hard to pay off mortgages and that is why this government is in major trouble. (Time expired)