Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 45

Mr BOWEN (12:37 PM) —I thank the honourable member for Boothby for his welcome to the dispatch box and for the promotion that he bestowed upon me. The Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 purports to create a test that will ensure that certain working conditions are protected by law. These are the same conditions that the government told us were protected by law, with taxpayers’ money, not so long ago. These are the same conditions for which the government spent $55 million of taxpayers’ money on advertisements saying that these conditions were protected by law. Of course, they were wrong: they were not protected by law then. The advertisements were wrong and the government by introducing this legislation has acknowledged as much.

Now they are spending more taxpayers’ dollars in telling us that, this time, they are protected by law: ‘Sorry about that, we got it wrong last time. We told you they were protected by law, a slight mistake, but this time we’ve got it right.’ Now we are seeing even more taxpayers’ money being spent on these advertisements telling us that, this time, they are protected by law. This reminds me somewhat of that great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: there was a mistake and, all of a sudden: ‘We’re at war with the wrong country and we apologise for that. We are no longer at war with Eurasia; we’re now at war with east Asia.’ This government has adopted an Orwellian method of communication, spending $55 million of taxpayers’ money not so long ago to say that conditions were protected by law and now reverting to the position that those conditions are not in fact protected by law but that now they will be.

The government raced out advertisements, claiming that it was important that people know their working rights, before this legislation had even been drafted. One need only look at the time line to see what is driving these changes. On 3 April, the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications approved Open Mind Research Group to undertake market research on workplace relations, and on 24 April a draft report was received by the government from that company. It was not until 4 May that the government announced changes to the operation of Work Choices, and it was not until that day that the first set of instructions were sent to the parliamentary counsel. But on the next two days, 5 and 6 May, advertising commenced on these changes. On 7 May the changes came into operation, although it was not until today that these changes began to be debated in this House. This is not a change driven by policy; this is a change driven by spin and by desperation in an election year.

The money being spent on these advertisements, combined with the money spent on the previous round of Work Choices advertisements, the advertisements that had the stamp ‘Protected by law’ on them, together with the expenditure for more workplace inspectors, brings the cost of the Work Choices legislation to $1 billion of taxpayers’ money. It did not cost that much to introduce the workplace relations reforms that the government brought in in 1996—I think that cost well under $20 million. It certainly did not cost that much for the Keating government to introduce its enterprise bargaining reforms in 1994. I doubt whether that cost even $10 million. But these reforms and the associated government spin have cost taxpayers $1 billion. I wonder whether the Australian people have a view on how that money could have been better spent. I am sure they do.

But what credibility do the government have when they say in this chamber and in the media that these changes will make workers better off? The Prime Minister was asked when he first introduced Work Choices—the love that dare not speak its name. I am not sure that we have heard the term ‘Work Choices’ used by members opposite, but I am sure it has been used by members on this side of the House because, after all, it is the name of the bill, the Work Choices amendment bill that the government introduced last year. When he was asked about these changes and whether he could guarantee that nobody would be worse off, the Prime Minister said:

My guarantee is my record ...

He was right, and his record was not good enough. Today, we see the government introducing legislation in an attempt to guarantee that no worker will be worse off, because the Prime Minister’s record was simply not good enough. The Prime Minister was asked specifically whether the abolition of the no disadvantage test in the last round of reforms would mean that workers would be worse off. He said:

Oh, no, that’s not right. The no disadvantage test was working in its complexity to prevent the making of workplace agreements. The goal of getting rid of the no disadvantage test is not to hurt people, it is to make it easier for workers and their employers to enter workplace agreements. That’s the whole purpose of the no disadvantage test. To argue... This change. To argue that would be absurd.

It was not absurd, and the government is acknowledging as much today by introducing this legislation. The Labor Party warned that the abolition of the no disadvantage test would leave workers worse off. The government told us that we were being ‘absurd’. The government told us that we were being scaremongers. The government told us that we were wrong. But, today, the government walks in and says, ‘Actually, you were right.’ It is not me saying that. I was drawn to some comments by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who, when he was asked whether the previous legislation had made mistakes, said:

I wasn’t the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in the past—

whenever a minister says that, you know there is a flick pass coming—

but if you’re saying to me that we got it wrong in the past, well we did.

He further said:

We got it wrong.

…            …            …

We underestimated what would have happened if we put in place a system that may lead to people trading away penalty rates without fair compensation.

…            …            …

We are now putting in place a stronger safety net. We are ensuring that people get more, not less, insofar as the law can.

So the minister has acknowledged that the Labor Party were right when we said that the abolition of the no disadvantage test would in fact disadvantage workers.

I noticed when watching the parliament this morning that the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the member for Menzies, got to his feet to speak on the guillotine—remember him? It is easy to think that maybe he is not involved anymore. Clearly, the Crosby Textor polling is showing that he is not a popular figure for the government, because you rarely hear from him these days. But he got to his feet this morning and defended the guillotine motion. He said that these changes are finetuning to fix unintended consequences. It is more than unintended consequences. The Labor Party warned that workers would be disadvantaged if you abolished the no disadvantage test, yet today the government comes in and says, ‘We’re fixing unintended consequences,’ acting a few months before an election in a desperate move to regain the public relations battle. This is from a government that told us the conditions were protected by law.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is right about one thing: they did get it wrong. We saw this in the figures released in 2006—the most up-to-date figures available because the government has refused to release any more figures on Australian workplace agreements. They have refused to be open and transparent and to let the Australian people make a judgement about the effect of Australian workplace agreements. But we saw 63 per cent of Australian workplace agreements abolishing penalty rates; 52 per cent removing shiftwork loadings; 22 per cent not providing for an increase over the life of the agreement; and 100 per cent of AWAs excluding at least one so-called protected award condition. One hundred per cent of Australian workplace agreements abolished one condition which the government spent $55 million of the money of the Australian people telling them was protected by law. All they were protected by was spin. Now the government is attempting to say—painting the ruse—that they are protected by law.

We have seen examples of Australian workplace agreements that have abolished conditions and allowed for unfair compensation in return—companies which were simply complying with the law; companies which were simply and understandably maximising their chances under the extreme laws introduced by this government. We have heard the argument—we have heard it from the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—that these changes work because we are in good economic times, that unemployment is low, that it is an employees’ market and employees can name their price in a strong bargaining position. In some cases there may be some truth to that. In some cases, in some segments of the workforce in some regions of the country, workers may be in a stronger bargaining position than they might be in other economic circumstances, but it is not across the board.

I was speaking the other day to an employee from Western Australia who was on an Australian workplace agreement. I asked them whether they felt they were in a good bargaining position or whether they just took the offer on the table, a take-it-or-leave-it basis. They made it very clear to me that it was made clear to them that the offer was on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and there were plenty of other people willing to do their job. That was in Western Australia, the tightest labour market in this country.

The government claims that, because of good economic times, employees are in a strong bargaining position. Some are; many are not. Even in segments of our economy which are doing very well, employees do not feel necessarily that they are in a good bargaining position. Putting that aside, you do not develop an industrial relations framework which will last indefinitely based on the economic conditions that are in place at one particular point in time. The economy will inevitably turn down through any set of circumstances—a downturn in our terms of trade or a downturn in the world economy. The scenario put by the government is that in good economic times and times of low unemployment, employees are in a good bargaining position. Therefore, by definition, when the economic times are not so good and when employment conditions do turn down, employees are going to be in a much worse bargaining position, and the same framework will be place. The same framework which this government says allows Australian workers to bargain from a position of strength will be in place when Australian workers are not bargaining from a position of strength. When all the cards in any negotiations are completely on the other side of the table, that is not fair. We need an industrial relations system with balance, fairness and flexibility, but the balance and fairness in this industrial relations system falls well short of that test. These changes fall well short of that test as well.

Let us look at the detail of some of these changes—something that members opposite have been reluctant to do because it is not in the Crosby Textor manual. The Crosby Textor manual says you only talk about union bosses; you do not talk about substance. Let us have a look at the substance of these changes. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations says that they will operate in a similar fashion to the old no disadvantage test, which this government abolished. He is not quite right. As you would recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, the no disadvantage test was imposed on this government by this party and the Democrats in the other place. The government did not want to do it in the first place but, in order to get their original workplace relations changes through in 1996, the Senate imposed a no disadvantage test, which this government reluctantly accepted. The no disadvantage test prescribed that an AWA must, when compared to the underpinning award, leave the employee no worse off. This test is quite different.

In fairness, the changes do provide that an employee needs to receive fair compensation for the exclusion of certain award matters: rest breaks, incentive based payments, bonuses, shiftwork loadings, allowances et cetera. There is no protection for other award conditions such as redundancy pay, rostering protections or long service leave. They can be traded away with no fair compensation. Award conditions that are over the norm and more than what is normally the case—for example, extra leave provisions for flight attendants and childcare workers and, indeed, teachers—have no protection. The Workplace Authority Director will not be required to follow precedent, give reasons for a decision or establish published guidelines for reaching his decisions. There will be no right of an appeal.

What we see is something quite different from the no disadvantage test, despite the rhetoric and spin—taxpayer funded—from the government. We see something very different from the no disadvantage test, and we see a number of caveats and conditions in the operation of these changes to Work Choices. We see that family circumstances and exceptional circumstances of the business can be taken into account. That is not necessarily something I object to, but it is not prescribed as to how that would operate. There is no definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’. There is no definition of ‘family circumstances’. There is no mechanism to explore whether the director of the Workplace Authority needs to talk to the individual about family circumstances or whether the director must simply accept the word of the employer about the employee’s family circumstances.

There are holes in these changes to the Work Choices legislation, but, having said that, any measure that might improve the fairness of these extreme Work Choices laws needs to be supported. It would not be hard to improve the fairness of these laws. It is not a difficult ask. We are not sure whether these changes will, at the end of the day, achieve any improved fairness, but we acknowledge that they might. We acknowledge that there might be some workers who are protected by these changes. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to support them. And we are certainly sure that we cannot see a way that these changes can make the legislation less fair. We cannot see any adverse impacts from these changes to this legislation. Therefore, we are prepared to support them.

The government think, in their desperate PR battle at five minutes to midnight, that they can neutralise this issue and say: ‘The difference between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party in industrial relations is not as much as it once was because we have introduced a fairness test. We have ensured that Australian workplace agreements must be based on fairness.’ This is incorrect. What they have done is to introduce a PR test, a test designed, with the help of taxpayer funded advertisements, to get them through to October or November.

Considering that this government did not have a mandate for these changes at the last election, considering that this government did not say anything about Work Choices at the last election, considering that they did not say anything about their changes to AWAs, considering that they did not seek a mandate on which to base these extreme industrial relations changes, considering that they did not come clean with the Australian people before the last election, it is anybody’s guess how long these changes to Work Choices would last after the next federal election should the current government be returned.

This government has form. The Prime Minister has a 30-year project to introduce these extreme industrial relations laws. As I have said in this House in the past, in the 1970s he had a point but the world has moved on and it is time for the government to drop its extreme ideological agenda and to introduce real fairness into the workplace relations system. If it does not, it may fall to a Rudd Labor government to do so later this year.