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
Monday, 8 March 1999
Page: 2309

Senator HARRADINE (1:10 PM) —It is clear that the government's credibility is in tatters. We have just heard Senator Murray express his view and the view of the Australian Democrats that the word of this minister is not his bond and that the word of the government may not be able to be trusted on a whole range of matters and cannot be trusted on such an essential issue as this. It involved an agreement between the Australian Democrats and the government. That agreement involved the provision in the legislation. The Democrats have honoured their part of the bargain; the minister has not. That is for them and him to consider, but it is for us to recognise and to listen to what has been said by Senator Murray and the Democrats.

It means that at least half of this Senate cannot accept from this government at face value what it says. That must cause concern amongst those ministers whose word you are inclined to believe. There are a number of issues which I have mentioned from time to time, and some of them that I have not, where the word of certain ministers cannot be taken at face value. I will give you one example, because it was given by Senator Murray and it is in response to what Senator Murray said.

Senator Murray indicated that I had accepted the word of the government in relation to the common youth allowance. It is true that I decided not to block the passage of the common youth allowance bill after receiving personal assurance from the highest level of government that that issue would be taken into consideration and that the parents upon whom there would be a greater burden would have their benefits or tax arrangements altered to cover for the extra burden. Indeed, the minister for social security as well as the Leader of the Government in this place had indicated that something would be done about that.

A shift in the age of dependency was introduced with the common youth allowance and that did place a greater financial burden on families, which the government had said it would take account of. It has not done so. It will be interesting to see whether it does so in the forthcoming budget. Otherwise the government is assuming that an adult sibling is sharing in their parents' income and then turning around and ignoring the income sharing when it comes to taxing the parents. That is a matter that has concerned me for some considerable time. I have just got it off my chest.

Senator Murray interjecting

Senator HARRADINE —I had it in the bottom draw, actually. I thank Senator Murray for indicating what he did to give me the chance to do that.

Turning to this particular piece of legislation, the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 , clearly the legislation is not necessary and clearly it ought to be defeated. Under the present section 120B of the Workplace Relations Act there is a provision for the AIRC to examine youth wages. As has been indicated by Senator Murray, it is doing that, it is proceeding to do that, and it is doing so in a manner that will mean that there will be a report to the government on this particular matter by 22 June of this year.

It seems that the exemptions are in the legislation until the year 2000. What is the rush? Why can we not see what the Industrial Relations Commission will say about it? For example, are they going to tie junior wages to at least some sort of training? Presumably they are not going to adopt the attitude of the government that youth is a source of cheap labour—in other words, the exploitation of the most vulnerable. I say: let the commission proceed as they have been asked to do by the government. Let not this sort of interference take place with the AIRC in the performance of their functions. I will have a bit more to say about that shortly.

Having disposed of that, I think we can talk generally about the whole system of industrial relations, and I ask the chamber to at least acknowledge that I am entitled to say some thing about industrial relations. For many years I have worked for the development of a system of industrial relations in this country which will see orderly industrial progress. I believe also you need to have a philosophy, a set of values, a set of principles, upon which this can be achieved. You should not do it by personalities.

So, when I became the Secretary-General of the Trades and Labour Council in Tasmania in 1964, one of the first things I thought of doing was changing the objective of the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council. That objective was the old Wobblies objective of the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. We turned that around and had inserted into the rule book the objective of assisting in the development of an economic and social order in which persons can live with freedom and dignity and pursue both their spiritual development and their material wellbeing in conditions of economic security and equal opportunity. That was framed into our objectives.

Against that objective, we had to time and time again defend the trade union movement, defend industry and defend Tasmania against the push by the extreme Left, particularly in Victoria and particularly amongst some of the thugs in the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, to some personal sorrow, I might say. But eventually we were successful. We were able to defend the workers of Tasmania against the constant attacks and disruptions, for example, to our lifeline—the shipping services. I have to acknowledge the wonderful work that people within the trade union movement in Tasmania did and the support they gave me and my executive, including the support that we received from the Waterside Workers Federation in Tasmania. We kept the Ship Painters and Dockers out of Hobart.

We believe that the industrial relations system should be built on a fair go for all and on trust and mutual obligation, to promote a productive Australia, to protect the vulnerable from exploitation and to achieve orderly, peaceful industrial progress and the settlement of disputes by an independent umpire. In other words, we want a fair go.

I am very sad to have to relate that, in my view, the action of the current minister, Mr Reith, is reversing that progress. It is based upon a nihilist philosophy of the survival of the fittest. His grand plan for workplace deregulation, instead of building trust, will mean distrust. Instead of mutual obligation, the power will be where the balance is, and that will be upon the exploitative employer, who is in fact the minority. Instead of a productive Australia, there will be seething discontent within industry; and the vulnerable, the weakest, will become the most exploited. Instead of orderly and peaceful industrial progress, there will be at least disaffection within industry and, indeed, disputation.

This gives me the opportunity to refer to the 101 suggestions of Mr Reith. These were, of course, leaked—I do not know how. I will turn to some of these to indicate how I see they would apply to workers in Australia. These measures, the Reith plan, are contained in the document which is attached to Mr Reith's letter to the Prime Minister. The Reith plan will allow exemption of small businesses—that is, 15 employees or fewer at the moment—from having to pay award wages and conditions, leaving their employees unprotected. It would provide scope for large firms to opt out of rules governing wages and working conditions if they meet some sort of vague standard of best practice. Employers would be able to hire unemployed on cut-rate wages and working conditions, leading to lower wages throughout the whole of industry.

The Reith plan waters down the no disadvantage test, weakens the right of unions to fully represent their members and provides a big push for ordinary pay only for work at night and on weekends and public holidays. It attacks the independence of the industrial umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It proposes that Reserve Bank and Treasury government officials will be able to hear living wage hearings. It provides for lower minimum wages in regional areas and a further cut in the number of protective clauses in industrial awards.

Might I say something to the Australian Democrats. I feel certain they will not be conned again but, when the workplace relations legislation came before us, they obviously did not see some of the problems. One of those problems, for example, related to the reduction in the number of allowable questions to be determined in an award. A provision in the Victorian awards—and I am sure Senator Collins will recall this—protected Victorian shop assistants from being required to go topless or wear skimpy clothing, as was being sought by certain auto spare parts retailers and some other employers. The award that was obtained by the SDA at that time protected those employees, but because Mr Kennett abolished the system in Victoria, these employees now come under federal awards. But this is not an allowable matter under the new legislation, so these people are not protected. I do not say that the Democrats knew what would happen—of course, Mrs Kernot did not know that but she ought to learn and I hope she has learnt her lesson.

Finally, I believe that Australia deserves better than to go down that path of Mr Reith's into conflict, disruption and distrust. That path will mean that the most vulnerable employees will ultimately be unprotected, unrepresented and exploited. That path will only lead to the expansion of the vast army of underemployed workers now. What it is all about is the acquisition of profits over the rights not only of the employees but also of those decent employers who believe in a fair go.

You know as well as I do that the trend now in the United States of America is for the big companies to make their profits hand over fist. Each of them has a certain cost cutting percentage. It is not being done in the normal way, but they are cost cutting. Unilever, for example, is one of those companies which has just made an enormous distribution to its shareholders. That appears to be the only rule for companies like that: never mind the customer and never mind the employees, just do the begging of the shareholders. (Time expired)