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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3857


Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (10:44): This is a bill of broken commitments. After the budget, which was a budget of broken commitments, it is not surprising that this bill should come into the parliament. We all remember the Prime Minister saying on Melbourne radio that WorkChoices was 'dead, buried and cremated'. It was a full stop and another one of his great rhetorical commitments given to the Australian people in the last election. It is hard to keep track of them all—there were so many of them. He promised that WorkChoices was dead, but here is this bill in the parliament and it is a continuation of the Liberals' long war that the member for Eden-Monaro talked about, going way back to 1890. They have always been trying to get back to that point; it is their ideological starting point, when they had freedom of contract and they could push workers around. There was a series of strikes in the 1890s; workers lost all of them, but we won the moral battle.

That is why an arbitration power was inserted in our Constitution during the federation debates. People might have lost the war on the ground and they might have been pushed around by their employers, but they wanted our federation to have some fairness in it. Fairness begins at work and that is a principle that has always been present in our country.

There were also great ideological debates in the 1930s, when they tried to cut all wages and pensions by 10 per cent, in the 1960s and in 1992—I vividly remember that one of the reasons I joined the Labor Party was the prospect of $3 youth wages. The ALP's IR policy of the time said: 'We are going to basically have a brave new world. We are going to scrap every award across the country and workers will start again to negotiate for conditions that they had in the past.' All of that would have been swept away in the 1993 election if Hewson and Howard had had their way; workers would have had to start from year zero.

That is the point that this government wants to get us back to. What they intend to doing is not to bring the big bang; they are just going to cut it like you cut an onion—one slice at a time. That is their strategy. Nobody should be under any misapprehension about what this government intends to do. They intend to run austerity in the budget, even though they promised something otherwise; they intend to lift the GST, even though they say otherwise; and they intend to destroy the industrial relations fabric of this country. Once they have destroyed the sensible social fabric in this country and the Australian way—Medicare and the like—they will set out on a long ideological war to do the same thing in the workplace. Everything that makes Australia fair will be ripped away.

The people who will suffer most in this system—I have seen it, because I have been there—are people like cleaners, retail workers, trolley collectors, hospitality workers and the like. I remember in about 1994—when I was working as a trolley collector—there was the cleaners and caretakers award, which I was employed under. I did not get my penalty rate, which was one of the reasons I joined the SDA, but I at least got the award rate. Within a few years, those workers had slipped out of the award safety net through a legal technicality and their wages tumbled from $11 or $12 an hour to about $5 or $6 dollars an hour. It was still possible in South Australia a few years ago to find trolley collectors employed on $6 an hour. There were young people employed on miserable wages through a series of subcontractors in the retail sector.

That gives you some idea of what will happen if the award system goes and if those opposite get their way—that is freedom of contract. That is what happens. Even now, if you look at the Fair Work Ombudsman's website, you will find from time to time cases they have taken on to recover the wages of unpaid trolley collectors. It is people like that who suffer the most when we remove protections. Retail workers, hospitality workers, cleaners and people in the service sector are the ones who are the most vulnerable to wage reductions.

People in the building industry, who can and do organise to protect their wages can often withstand these periods of adversity during Liberal governments. But it is the people with the least protection—those who are the most unorganised and the most vulnerable—who suffer under the coalition. They have the most to fear from a return to WorkChoices, from a return to 1992 or a return to the 1890s. They do not have much protection, but they do have their votes. They have always expressed their displeasure at the ballot box about the type unfairness that those opposite are promoting.

The provisions of this act are presented an evolution, small steps and a little cut the onion—one slice at a time—and so they target things like right of entry in the workplace, but the whole of this act aims to stop unions from entering into workplaces, to stop workers from talking to unions and to stop workers from having the choice of joining a union.

Mr Nikolic: It is to protect Joe McDonald; that is what it is about!

Mr CHAMPION: No, no. I worked in the cleaning industry. I got told, 'If you join a union, you get the sack.' That was what I was told, and a lot of people get told that. How would you protect them? How would you protect them, Member for Bass?

Mr Nikolic: Joe McDonald.

Mr CHAMPION: He does not give a fig about those people. He does not give a fig about their civil rights. They bring up the bogeyman—some bogeyman trade union official. We saw that in the ads in 2006 and 2007. Didn't work then. Won't work now. All this will do is restrict people's right to join a union because they will never, ever get to see the union. The union will never be allowed to be present on the work site. So you will have the freedom to join, but the union will not be able to do much for you. That is the aim of those opposite, and they get so upset when we say it in the parliament. There are all these cries of outrage from across the room.

It is the same thing with greenfields agreements. It sounds eminently fair. After three months, if the employer and the unions have not reached an agreement on a greenfields site, the employer can then apply to the commission to make an agreement with themselves. It sounds sort of fair: 'We don't want to stop development in this country,' so three months sounds fair enough. But I have dealt with situations where existing workforces have simply been moving from one suburb to the next, from one site to the next, and that has been the mechanism to invoke this greenfields clause in order to completely rewrite, or threaten to rewrite, the conditions of an existing workforce. That is what ends up happening. If you are in the building trade, mining or any of those sorts of industries where things start up and close down and start up and close down, then these provisions for greenfields agreements will be utilised to destroy longstanding conditions. Make no mistake: conditions that have been built up in this country over 100 years of progress, decency and bargaining will be stripped away overnight.

It is the same with individual flexibility agreements. The whole set of arrangements in this bill needs to be looked at very carefully, because those opposite are seeking to use a mechanism in the Fair Work Act to completely change its aim by the introduction of non-monetary benefits in exchange for your working conditions. We all know what that leads to in retail. I remember in the old days, when there used to be more DVD and video shops, you used to get two free DVDs at the end of the week. It will be the same here: say goodbye to your penalty rates. Those are the sorts of arrangements that get made—a bag of tomatoes or something in exchange for your penalty rates. They are the sorts of silly arrangements that get made when you do not have adequate protections. That is what this bill seeks to do. Individual flexibility agreements will become individual contracts.

That is the aim of those opposite. They should be fair dinkum, just once in their lives. For once in their lives, they should be fair dinkum with the Australian people. This has become the Liberal way, you see, since Fightback! They got such a scare when they were honest with people about what they believed in that they now obscure their aim. And anyone who opposes them is an infant, apparently. That is the new rhetoric: 'You've got to be an adult.' This is the ridiculous, bizarre spin that they come out with.

What else do we find in this bill? We find that, stashed away, there is a little sting in the tail for those on workers compensation, because the bill seeks to remove employees' ability to take annual leave while they are on workers compensation or awaiting the outcome of a workers compensation case. Now, that will put some people at a great deal of disadvantage. They will not be able to take their annual leave while they are waiting for their injury claims to be heard. Effectively, this will leave some people without income.

What else do we find in the bill? We find changes to annual leave loadings and shift loadings. Shift workers all over the country, people who regularly work late at night or on Sundays, get their shift loading when they go on annual leave because it is part of their normal income. But hidden away in this bill is this: if it is not in your award, if it is not expressly provided for in your agreement, out it goes. That is the first little slice of the onion towards removing those sorts of conditions—removing annual leave loading, which the coalition have been trying to get rid of since the seventies, and removing the right of shift workers to loadings when they are on annual leave which are part of their normal income. The reason those provisions were put in place was that often shift workers would work 50 weeks of the year, working nights and getting a shift loading of an extra 30 per cent, and when they went on holiday their income would actually drop. That is why those provisions were put in place—because of that blatant unfairness.

This is just the first wave of industrial relations changes. We know that, in the lead-up to the next election, if those opposite get away with this budget, if they are feeling confident, up the GST will go—if they can convince the premiers; it seems some of them are getting cold feet—either by broadening the base or lifting the rates, or both. Then we will see the inevitable industrial relations debate. They are before the Fair Work Commission today, trying to reduce people's penalty rates on the weekend, and the penalty they want on weekends is zero. It is not 50 per cent. It is not a reasonable rate. It is zero. It is a flat rate. That is what those opposite seek.

Those opposite should save us from their mendacity, from them breaking their commitments to the Australian people. This is a bit of an opportunity for those opposite, like the member for Bass, to just for once be clear, give a bit of straight talk and go to the ballot box with what you actually believe—rather than being this wolf in sheep's clothing, which is what they seek to do every time. It will save us from bills and budgets of broken commitments.