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Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Page: 895

Ms GEORGE (1:48 PM) —I have listened to the contribution from my friend the member for McMillan and I must say that I was quite confused about the essence of his speech. He asserted, as have other members on his side of the chamber, that somehow the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, speedily brought into this House by the Deputy Prime Minister, is somehow a debt to the union movement. The member for McMillan should understand that this is a debt to the Australian people. The Australian people spoke very loudly and clearly at the last election, and there can be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the Your Rights at Work campaign touched the real-life experiences of so many people across the length and breadth of Australia that even the so-called ‘Howard’s battlers’ deserted the government in droves. It is their rightful expectation that among the first issues to be debated in the 42nd Parliament will be a transition bill to get rid of the most extreme, unbalanced and regressive industrial relations policies ever inflicted on the Australian people.

Central to that agenda, of course, was the law of the individual contract so much supported by the former Prime Minister and the former Treasurer. They wanted the individual contract to be the centrepiece of their new industrial relations regime. By so doing, they overturned the hundred years of history of a fair conciliation and arbitration system that was the envy of many countries in the world, a system that had an effective award base that provided a safety net of industrial conditions for all Australian working people. So let us forget about this nonsense that somehow this bill is a debt to the union movement. I think the Australian community spoke very loudly and clearly, and today we see in the debate on this bill our commitment to the Australian people to get rid of individual statutory arrangements and to bring into being a fair, flexible and balanced industrial relations system.

I heard the contribution from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition this morning and I thought it revealed a rather naive and selective interpretation of the legacy of the Howard government’s approach to industrial relations. Her comments in the debate this morning were as confusing as her party’s flip-flopping about the issue of AWAs over the last few days. I am very relieved, as would be the Australian people, that wiser heads appear to have prevailed in the party room yesterday—at least until this point in time—and that now they are saying Work Choices is dead and, along with it, the AWAs, those insidious instruments that were used to undermine the conditions of so many working people across our nation.

For the record and, in particular, for the benefit of new opposition members, I want to say a little about the history of the former Prime Minister’s attitude to the issue of industrial relations in this nation. Anyone who knows anything about that history knows that the former Prime Minister was very much on the public record as having a very well defined position about what he wanted to achieve over his many decades of involvement in public life and in this parliament. Certainly John Howard never did anything other than publicly disclose that his long-term agenda—an agenda he pursued for all the time that he was in parliament—was to overturn our unique system of conciliation and arbitration and the protection that working people in this nation had, from the early days of the Harvester judgement to the creation of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, under a system which understood that everybody needed to have the underpinning of fair and decent industrial entitlements and standards.

The Four Corners show the other night was really revealing about many issues. I nearly choked when I heard Joe Hockey, a former industrial relations minister, say this on TV:

Quite frankly when I took over the job I don’t think many ministers in Cabinet were aware that you could be worse off under WorkChoices and that you could actually have certain conditions taken away without compensation. And once I started to raise those issues with colleagues and they became more informed of the impact of WorkChoices we introduced the fairness test.

The interviewer said to Mr Hockey, a former industrial relations minister:

You’re saying to me that Cabinet colleagues were unaware that you could be worse off?

JOE HOCKEY: Some were, yeah, yep.

LIZ JACKSON (To Joe Hockey): Care to name them?

JOE HOCKEY: No, not really! (Laughs) Not really!

Then Andrew Robb, also a senior minister in the Howard government, said:

I think it was the most powerful symbol of the fact that we had stopped listening and that we’d run our race and that we’d been there so long, that we were no longer alert to the views of the Howard battlers, the people who’d put us there in the first place.

It is hard to believe that this level of ignorance prevailed around the cabinet table. If it did, I contend that it was a gross dereliction of duty and responsibility to the millions of hardworking Australians and their families for cabinet ministers to say on the public record that they had no idea that certain conditions could be taken away without compensation. If there was that ignorance, it does not absolve cabinet members of their complicity in the most extreme industrial relations legislation ever visited on the Australian people.

I wonder whether their ears were closed when, in the very early days of the Work Choices regime, a brave shop steward called Mrs Harris, who worked for Spotlight, came forward. Mrs Harris said on the public record, ‘I was a former supporter of the Howard government, but I can’t support a government that takes away long-established entitlements from decent working people.’ Do you remember the Spotlight AWA? What the Spotlight AWA did to the workers in that enterprise was very common. We found that that Spotlight agreement had no penalty rates for Saturday or Sunday work and no penalty rates for public holidays. If a worker on the Spotlight AWA worked on a public holiday, they got $14.30 an hour in compensation, compared to their award rate of $35.70. Their only compensation was a day off in lieu at ordinary rates. In that agreement, and so common among all those agreements in the early days of the Work Choices regime, there were no overtime payments, no paid rest breaks, no annual leave loadings and no meal, uniform or first aid allowances.

People like the former minister for industrial relations go on the public record and say that they sat around the cabinet table but had no idea of these terrible things that were happening to ordinary working people. You knew, because the Office of the Employment Advocate actually did a survey of the first 250 AWAs. What did that show? Nearly one in five of them excluded all award conditions and replaced them with the barest of the five minimum legislated standards. We know from that survey that two-thirds of them scrapped leave loadings and penalty rates. We know that more than half removed shift allowances and around one-third modified overtime loadings and rest breaks. Yet the former industrial relations minister can get up and say on the public record in a TV interview that they did not realise that all of these terrible things were happening. Their ears must have been closed, because everybody on the opposition benches who was talking to their community and listening to their constituents knew the tragedy that was occurring out there of people being unfairly treated in the workplace and having their long-standing entitlements ripped away without any proper compensation.

For the new members of the opposition, let me just remind you that John Howard was on the public record all of his life in politics as saying that one of his long-term dreams was to overturn a system that had worked so well in this country, a system that provided a balanced and fair industrial relations framework and, as I said earlier, a system that was the envy of many countries around the world. In 1996, when John Howard was first elected, he wanted to visit on the Australian community a very similar industrial relations outcome to the one he achieved under Work Choices. But, much to the satisfaction of the Australian community and working families, the Senate in those days put a brake on the most extreme parts of the proposals. When the Howard government introduced its first IR bill in 1996, it sought even back then to abolish the no disadvantage test that Labor had put into place to ensure that enterprise bargaining was built on a framework of decent and fair minimum standards.

I think it would be appropriate for the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to familiarise herself with the history of the no disadvantage test and to understand that that test only survived because the Senate at that time rejected the extreme conditions that John Howard wanted to first introduce back in 1996. The majority of the Senate committee that looked at John Howard’s first industrial relations bill back in 1996 said:

The protection of conditions underpinning agreements is one of the most important provisions available …

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member for Throsby will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.