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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3890

Mr GILES (Scullin) (13:13): I rise in opposition to the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 and in support of the amendment that has been moved by the member for Gorton. It is a pleasure to follow the member for Lyne, who made a typically thoughtful contribution and a very sincere one, no doubt. While I disagree with almost every component of it, I say at the outset that the one matter that the House's attention must be directed to is the assertion that this bill implements the government's election policy. That is simply not the case, and I will turn to that in the course of my contribution.

On a very similar note, before the election, the then Leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister stated that the coalition wanted to 'protect workers' pay and conditions' and promised—I think this might have been a 'solemn promise', but I am not sure what standing solemn promises have in the lexicon this week—that he would be the best friend of Australian workers. That was before the election. With this week's budget, we know how much such a promise is worth from Australia's Prime Minister. In the budget, alongside cuts to health, cuts to education and real cuts to pensions—all broken promises—we have seen further attacks on workers and those seeking work in a continuation of this government's desire to see a race to the bottom.

In particular, I draw the House's attention to the $1 billion stripped away from apprentices and the nearly $2 billion stripped away from skills programs. These are attacks on young workers. I think of the cuts to Youth Connections, Partnership Brokers and National Career Development. The government are ending programs that have been effectively preventing young people from slipping through the cracks and providing them with pathways to attain education and enter the workforce. A small investment continued in this area would have kept 100,000 young people on track. There are also savage cuts to income support for those under 30. They are being asked to wait six months to receive income support from this cruel government. All of this is from a government without a plan for jobs, save a plan for 16,500 hardworking public servants to lose their jobs.

Half an hour or so ago I read a report on the budget from the Grattan Institute, a body far more disposed towards this government's economic policy settings than I am. What really interested me in this review, which was broadly complimentary of the government's budget, was that the Grattan Institute CEO, John Daley, sees the budget as likely to discourage further workforce participation and thinks that it will in all likelihood hinder people in finding what he described as 'proper long-term jobs' and so reduce workforce productivity in the long term. So much for the rhetorical flourishes around this legislation and from the government more generally.

Turning back to our Prime Minister, I do not think Australian workers were looking for a best friend in this Prime Minister, but they want and, indeed, deserve a government that is on their side, a government that will fight for jobs and stand up for fairness and rights at work. This is the context in which we are taking part in this debate. This is a debate that mysteriously started before various state and Senate re-elections but has only now been brought back.

When the member for Sturt introduced this legislation, he claimed that it delivers on key aspects of the coalition's election policy and does not go any further and that the coalition would implement specific recommendations directly from the 2012 Fair Work review. However, the government is going further than its pre-election promises in a number of places and clearly beyond the review's recommendations, which recognise, document and provide evidence for the present arrangements. These matters deserve detailed scrutiny.

In my contribution I want to focus particularly on the proposed changes to the enterprise individual flexibility arrangements and then briefly consider changes concerning right of entry and greenfields. In terms of individual flexibility arrangements, Labor supports flexibility where it genuinely provides flexibility for workers and not simply convenience to employers. In 2009, the then Minister for Workplace Relations Julia Gillard said of the enterprise flexibility agreements clause in the Fair Work Act:

That clause gets the balance between fairness and flexibility right. It provides very, very strong protections for working people, as it should, but enables limited flexibility arrangements for work and family life matters, for example, to be entered into.

I emphasise the mention of 'very, very strong protections'. Very, very strong protections are warranted.

IFAs were not designed to be imposed from above on unsuspecting employees as a means of ripping away conditions such as penalty rates. Getting the balance right is vital due to what seems to people on this side of the House the very obvious power imbalances at hand. And yet, post the election, we see exactly this in recent coverage of the government's true intentions in this regard.

In an article titled 'Coalition MPs plot to strip penalties' in The SaturdayAge, the Minister for Employment conceded:

… the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission's review of workplace laws were deliberately broad enough to cover ''a full and thorough analysis of all aspects of the Fair Work Act''. And the draft terms of reference explicitly mention ''pay and conditions'' and ''industrial conflict'' - which is widely understood to include penalty rates …

Penalty rates, as the member for Charlton set out so persuasively a few moments ago, are so important for the living standards and the way of life of so many Australian families.

I note that there is such a large rollcall of MPs and senators openly agitating against penalty rates, including the member for Leichhardt, the member for Wannon, the member for McMillan, the member for Longman, the member for Mitchell, the member for Reid, the member for Dawson, the member for Tangney, Senator Edwards and Senator Seselja, who were described as seeking to 'liberate' small businesses from having to pay their employees for losing their weekends and public holidays. There is not much freedom there. There is not much liberation for affected workers or meaningful flexibility for those people to manage their work-life balance on their terms.

In keeping with the government's refusal to discuss its plans to smash penalty rates, the Treasurer stated:

'I'm not going to get into a debate about penalty rates. That's what I did for 12 months of my life when I was workplace relations minister and I've expunged it from my memory.'

The Treasurer may wish to forget about WorkChoices, but the people of Australia have not and the Labor Party will not. The people of Australia deserve a real explanation about what this government is planning to do in relation to Fair Work.

We have heard ominous remarks by the Prime Minister about wanting to place his stamp on economic policy, and we have certainly seen that with announcements by Holden, Toyota, Qantas—and many other companies who have made similar decisions—costing over 60,000 jobs. The Treasurer, aped by others in the coalition, has stated that it is apparently up to the business lobby to make the case for workplace relations reform. In other words, the coalition has outsourced IR policy to the big end of town, as with its policy settings more generally. We have seen this with the Commission of Audit, which contributed so powerfully to the cruel budget this week. The Faustian pact here seems to be as follows: big business lobby groups simply have to make demands, maybe confect an emergency and perhaps run some ads and the coalition in government will give them whatever they ask for.

This is a government that simply will not tolerate dissenting views about its agenda. In everything from the arts to workplace relations we are seeing an enactment of the Prime Minister's sinister injunction that, 'We expect everyone in the system to be working enthusiastically with us as we reshape our country.' The Treasurer's language of a 'shared burden' is telling in this regard. We are all in this together, but some must do more lifting: those least able to do so. We see Robin Hood in reverse in this race to the bottom.

It seems that the lesson the coalition learnt from the 2007 WorkChoices election was not about the Australian notion of a fair go and fair remuneration or a sense of egalitarianism and how Australians see fairness in the workplace and in workplace laws as fundamental to their sense of a decent society. Instead, the coalition was spooked by a grassroots campaign of ordinary working people, organising with their unions, and saw it as a threat that they would need to distract, disable and destroy before future attempts to strip workers of their rights and entitlements could proceed. And what is the end game? We need only look at the United States to see the inspiration: a country where wage growth is stagnant, where inequality is stark—a land of gated communities—and, most relevant to this debate, a country with a permanent pool of low-skill, low-pay and insecure workers, the working poor.

The Victorian secretary of the United Voice union, Jess Walsh, has outlined what was at stake for her members in respect of these arrangements and also for so many others in Australia. I quote Jess:

Members of United Voice rely on overnight and weekend pay rates. Nationally, more than 4.5 million Australians are in industries where these rates apply.

For many of our members, these soon-to-be-tradeable pay rates make up one-quarter of their income. Their work is essential to our community but they are paid relatively poorly, often with a base pay of less than $40,000 a year. So let us be clear: these are not affluent people. They work around the clock, and the very night and weekend shift loadings that they rely on to pay the mortgage and buy groceries and other staples of life are up for grabs.

Flexibility can be a win-win for employers and employees. Indeed, the fair work review expert panel cited data that demonstrates the majority of present enterprise arrangements already provide as much, if not more, flexibility than provided by the 'model flexibility term'—a term that government is seeking now to legislate to insert into all agreements. The amendments proposed by this government in relation to IFAs reinforce why, when it comes to the Liberal Party and workplace relations, the devil is always in the detail. The government is unreasonably proposing that key safeguards be abandoned when it comes to what can be traded away in an IFA. While the relevant expert panel recommendation says that if a non-monetary benefit is being traded for a monetary benefit, the value of the monetary forgone must be relatively insignificant and the value of the non-monetary benefit proportionate. Despite this clear prescription, 'relative insignificance' and 'proportion' are concepts which are missing from the bill which is before us. That the full recommendation is missing is an alarming reflection of this government's approach to workplace relations and probably reveals the genuine intention behind the construction of this important and troublesome provision.

The government has also included a requirement for employees to provide their employers with what it has misleadingly labelled a 'genuine needs' statement. This statement is intended to capture an employee's state of mind at the time the IFA is agreed to. The government has tried to pass this off as an employee safeguard, but what it really does is provide employers with a deferred defence to any future claim to the effect that it has contravened a flexibility term. The Fair Work Act Review panel did recommend the act be amended to provide a defence to alleged contravention of flexibility, but the proposed amendment is not in the spirit of that recommendation. This bill goes beyond the panel's recommendations and much, much further than the coalition's disingenuous election policy. It is a breach of faith with the Austra­lian people at large and particularly for those working families who depend on penalty rates.

The member for Charlton in his contribution talked a bit about flexibility—a contribution that took us through the evidence in this regard and made clear that the case for change, as set out in this bill, has not been made. Before the election, the coalition flagged a requirement for the Fair Work Commission to be satisfied that parties had considered ways to improve productivity before approving an enterprise agreement. The coalition's policy document said it would task the Productivity Commission with undertaking a thorough analysis of the laws and the impact they have. Given this interest in productivity, I read with interest a recent speech by Phillip Lowe, Deputy Governor at the Reserve Bank, at the Sydney Institute—a hotbed of socialism—about demographics, productivity and innovation. Productivity growth is something that I would like to think all of us in this place support. It is how we can collectively increase living standards in Australia. In his speech, Mr Lowe described the challenges and opportunities for Australia in this area. He stated:

Improvements in productivity require existing resources to be used more efficiently … So if we are to improve efficiency and advance technology then innovation is required …

   …   …   …

This means there is likely to be more of a premium on getting policies right in some key areas ...

These measures include:

•   The way in which we finance innovation …

•   The incentives for innovation …

•   The way we support human capital accumulation and research.

•   Our business culture and the way we promote and support entrepreneurship.

•   The way in which we promote competition in our markets, for it is often competition, or the threat of it, that is the driver of innovation.

Noticeably, one supposed threat to, or solution for, increasing productivity that Mr Lowe did not observe was penalty rates or employees' rights at work. It gives the lie to the coalition's grand claim that things like penalty rates somehow impede productivity in Australia. The Howard government made the same untruthful claim when it introduced Work Choices. It was claimed that it would increase productivity; of course, it did no such thing. There is a role for government in enacting a productivity agenda, just as there is in protecting people's rights at work, but it is a positive role that supports people; it does not undermine them.

I turn very briefly to the provisions in relation to greenfield sites and simply observe that this bill goes beyond the review in two important respects. The three-month termination period provided for is inconsistent with recommendation 30 of the expert panel and clearly tilts the balance too far in favour of employers. Further, there are simply no incentives for employers to bargain under the provisions as set out. This is effectively attempting to exclude unions—diminishing rights in deference to ideology.

Lastly, there is right of entry. As the member for Gorton has already stated, Labor's view is that employees should be free to join or not join a union, if they so wish. The right for employees to organise and be represented is a basic freedom that should be respected. The provisions here do not do that. They go beyond the expert panel's recommendations and are clearly intended to exclude unions and restrict industrial rights. I am committed to opposing the bill in this place and in the community.