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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1109


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (Gorton) (15:15): Thank you, very much, Madam Speaker! I will start my contribution this afternoon by referring to statements made by the Minister for Employment, who in today's papers has given an indication that the government will no longer be proceeding with changes to the minimum pay rate and to penalty rates.

There is no logical reason why any reasonable person would believe undertakings by either the Minister for Employment or the Prime Minister when it comes to industrial relations. It is clear from the actions of this government that they say one thing before an election and do something entirely different after the election. We saw that writ large in the announcement of the budget last May by the Treasurer, when we saw a budget replete with a litany of lies by this government. As dishonest as it was unfair, it was a budget that looked to cut health, cut education, cut the ABC's funds and cut SBS. Those cuts were seen against the backdrop of a Prime Minister who before the election had made it clear that there would be no cuts in those areas of public policy.

We should have seen early on—indeed, we did see early on—that this government is indifferent to employment, to Australian workers and to our businesses and industries in the labour market. As early in the life of this government as December 2013 we saw the Treasurer of this nation stand at the dispatch box and goad Holden to leave our shores; and Holden left. We have now seen the death of the car industry in this country. Car makers are leaving this nation, aided and abetted by a government that is hostile—indifferent at best—towards that industry and the workers who need to be gainfully employed in that industry. That was clearly the beginning of the government's turning its back on Australian workers, on Australian businesses and on the needs and aspirations of working people in this nation.

Of course, that was not the only time we have seen the government turn its back like that. Prior to the election the former Minister for Defence gave an undertaking that submarines would be built in South Australia. There were no corrections made at the time by the Prime Minister. There were no corrections made by the former defence minister—we know why he is no longer the defence minister. That undertaking was made prior to the election. Instead, we have seen the Prime Minister engage in private with the Prime Minister of Japan to do a deal that fundamentally contradicted the undertaking given by the government before the election. What does that mean for employment in South Australia? Unemployment in South Australia is rising and rising, and the government shows a callous disregard for those workers and for that industry.

It does not stop there. We know that the government cannot help itself. It wants to change fundamentally the landscape of industrial relations in this country. There is no other reason why you would refer to the Productivity Commission a review with terms of reference as wide and deep as the review currently being undertaken by the Productivity Commission. This review goes to penalty rates, to the spread of hours, to the minimum pay rate—to every condition of employment that governs Australian workers, over 11 million workers, who would be subject to changes arising out of the recommendations of Productivity Commission's review, which will be embraced by the government. Never mind the undertakings given by the Minister for Employment or indeed the Prime Minister: when it comes to industrial relations this mob return to Work Choices like a dog returns to its vomit. That is the reality. The government's DNA is such that it cannot do anything but return to an industrial relations system that will see employers holding the whip handle and workers being vulnerable and exposed.

If we were to believe the undertakings given by the Minister for Employment we would see the withdrawal of the Fair Work Amendment Bill. The Fair Work Amendment Bill currently before the parliament refers to provisions that would allow for the trading of penalty rates for so-called non-monetary benefits. If the minister, the Prime Minister and the government are genuine in their concern for exposing vulnerable workers to losing penalty rates they would withdraw the bill. We would also see the Productivity Commission review withdrawn or its terms of reference written in such a way as not to alarm Australian workers, unlike the scope of the current review. We will not hold our breath waiting for those things to happen, because with this government it is not their words you have to listen to it is their deeds you have to witness before you can believe them on industrial relations.

It is not just in the area of policy that the government cannot be believed it is also in the way the government operates as an employer. Let us look at their record on employment and the decisions they have made recently in so far as they affect public sector workers in this country. First we saw the government provide an offer to the Australian Defence Force—an offer that in reality was a pay cut for ADF personnel. If anyone believes that ADF personnel, who place their lives in danger in defence of this nation, should be given an offer by this government that cuts their wages in real terms then I would like to hear them defend it, because in reality that is the offer on the table from this government to the ADF—and it should be withdrawn immediately. It should be withdrawn forthwith because it is an insult to the men and women in uniform who put themselves in harm's way to defend this nation. But this is not just about the government's offers to the ADF. We have seen the offers to front-line staff in Centrelink and Medicare whereby staff are effectively being asked to accept a cut in real terms to their pay packet. This is not acceptable behaviour. However, it really does shine a light on exactly the way in which this government believes employers should operate: offer pay cuts to workers and cut the number of workers in every workplace. This is, of course, what the government is seeking to do.

If this government and, indeed, if this Prime Minister were genuine about the concerns that we and others have about their intentions, they would revise their offers to the Public Service, provide reasonable offers and engage genuinely with them in order to resolve the outstanding matters between the workforce, the unions and the government. But we will not hold our breath when it comes to that, because, as I say, it is in this government's DNA to attack workers, whether they are in the public or private sector. There are six pieces of legislation in the parliament still waiting for support. Indeed, those six pieces of legislation in myriad ways go to impacting upon working people in this country. Again, we would like to see the withdrawal of those pieces of legislation if the government expects us to believe that it is fair dinkum.

The other thing we should touch upon in relation to this issue is jobs. We listened to the Treasurer today in question time talking about the rate of growth, but the reality is this: the unemployment rate in this country is at its highest for 12 years. In fact, the last time the unemployment rate in this country was 6.4 per cent was when the Prime Minister was the minister for employment. It has been 12 years since it has been that high. Another concerning figure is that since the election 100,000 extra people have joined the unemployment queues in this country. It has gone from 695,000 to 795,000 Australians lining up in unemployment queues, looking for work, since the election. This is not a government that is focused on jobs. This is not a government that has a jobs plan to create employment for Australians in this country. Indeed, this is a government that has, as I say, a disregard for business, a disregard for Australian workers and a lack of a jobs plan for those many, many Australians without work. What we would like to see, if the government could actually focus on Australians' jobs and the Prime Minister could stop thinking about his own, is improvements to the employment market and opportunities for all Australians to find work.