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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 9

Senator WONG (1:08 PM) —Labor opposes the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 before the Senate. This bill is bad policy based on bad principles. Poorly planned and poorly executed, it epitomises this government’s ideological obsessions and arrogance, and Australia’s working families will pay the price. The Prime Minister and his supporters argue that this extreme workplace legislation will benefit the economy. They claim it is essential, even urgent. But in 2004 we did not hear a whisper of the extent of this extreme agenda when the Prime Minister fought that election directly on the economy—not one word about abolishing the no disadvantage test, removing the protection for penalty rates, overtime, leave loading and shift allowances with all the negative consequences for Australian families that that will mean; not one word about removing the setting of a fair minimum wage for the Industrial Relations Commission; and not one word about abolishing unfair dismissal protection for employees in workplaces of up to and including 100 staff.

The fact is, it was only after it found out it had total control of the Senate and got a sudden rush of blood to the head that the government decided to push these 1,252 pages of legislation and explanatory memorandum through this parliament and decided to ram through the most contentious extreme rewrite of Australia’s industrial relations system in our nation’s history—a system that Australians and their governments have built over the last 100 years to serve and reflect the values and needs of our community and our economy.

The Prime Minister wants to turn back the clock. Instead of looking to the future of Australia’s workplaces, he wants to drag us back to the past—back to the 19th century when working Australians begged instead of bargained. This Prime Minister is dragging us into the American social model, pitting Australian against Australian and recasting the Australian work force in the mould of the American working poor. This Howard government has turned its back on working Australian men and women. It will strip protection from employees and strip fairness out of our workplaces. This legislation will trap even good employers in a race to the bottom on pay and conditions and it will shatter the Australian belief that working people have the right to negotiate their working conditions and the price of their labour from a position as equals, not beggars.

It will do all these things with indecent haste. Even when this government first embarked on its attack on Australian workplaces in 1996 with Peter Reith as minister, we had a two-month inquiry and more than 170 amendments. Now with total control of this Senate, John Howard’s government shows what contempt it really has for democratic processes and effective law making. But, worse, it shows what contempt it has for the Australian people. This Senate was granted a one-week inquiry—with no hearings outside Canberra—into a bill proposing the biggest legislative change to the laws governing our workplaces and our lives in more than a century. This is outrageous, scandalous and obscene, and it is a testament to the arrogance of this government since it obtained control of the Senate.

Placing an unreasonable time limit for the inquiry into the more than 1,250 pages of almost incomprehensible legislation—one of the largest amending bills ever considered by this parliament—simply illustrates the total disregard this government has for appropriate and considered scrutiny. We on this side believe it is completely unacceptable for this bill to be rushed through the parliament before we have had an opportunity to properly examine its provisions. Frankly, the Australian people deserve better. The Australian people deserve that their senators and this parliament properly consider such radical legislation and properly consider a bill that has wide-ranging and retrograde implications for working Australians and Australian families.

In the very limited time in which the Senate committee has had the opportunity to examine this bill, senators found a range of problems which will have profound implications for the operation of this bill and which will have serious and ongoing impacts at the individual workplace level. The nonsense that this legislation is adequate and ready for implementation is shown to be complete rubbish by the fact that the government’s Senate majority report itself makes recommendations on a range of matters, including that outworker provisions and state awards be protected from unscrupulous employers; that prohibited content be limited to anti-AWA clauses only; that four weeks annual leave for full-time employees be guaranteed—it has taken a government Senate majority to actually alert people to the fact that the Prime Minister’s guarantee was no such guarantee; and that full-time employees working the hours required of them be paid for at least 38 hours per week, irrespective of whether the hours required average less than 38 hours a week.

The nonsense that this legislation is adequate and ready is demonstrated by the fact that the government itself has indicated that it is considering amendments, amongst other things, on the sanctity of public holidays like Christmas Day, Anzac Day and Easter, and provisions relating to the capacity of businesses to restructure themselves to avoid unfair dismissal obligations. I note that the Prime Minister’s indication of what he wants to protect on Christmas Day does extend to making sure that people might not get the sack for not turning up on Christmas Day but certainly, if the newspaper reports are correct, does not preserve penalty rates for working on Christmas Day.

All of these facts demonstrate the absolute weakness of this bill. For the government itself to be flagging amendments to its own legislation at this late stage of the legislative process—the commencement of the Senate parliamentary debate—is ludicrous. I call on the government at this point in the process to come clean with the Senate and come clean with the Australian people. Just how many amendments are you proposing to move, and when will the Senate see them? Tell us now—now that this debate has actually commenced in the Senate chamber.

The fact is that the government have brought this shambles upon themselves. In the limited time available, the Senate inquiry was able to shine a light on a range of problems the government will have to wrestle with. The other thing I want to make a point about is this: if the government itself is still drafting amendments to its legislation, what other hidden problems still lie in the bill that will only become apparent when it is applied?

Let us turn to examples of some of the problems which were made clear before the Senate committee. The government have made a complete mess of the proposed introduction of the so-called single industrial relations system, with estimates that somewhere from 60 to 85 per cent of the country’s work force will be covered by the government’s changes. They call it a unitary system but it is anything but. It will leave anywhere from 1.5 million to four million employees outside the jurisdictional coverage of the government’s changes. That will mean incomplete and inconsistent coverage across the nation’s workplaces. It will only create confusion and regulatory difficulties for employers. If you look at the transitional arrangements, the situation only gets worse. Under the government’s changes, the transition arrangements for moving state awards and agreements to the federal jurisdiction are so complex that many employers and employees will be unsure which jurisdiction applies and what their rights and responsibilities are. Again this will only add confusion and complication.

And the decision to give the minister for workplace relations—no matter who occupies that position—executive power over what can and cannot be included in agreements is extraordinarily bad policy. It represents an unprecedented direct interference by a minister in agreement making in Australian workplaces. Unprecedented ministerial intervention will replace a balanced system, the strength of which was that it was independent and kept politicians at an arm’s length from work arrangements and disputes.

The government’s approach is neither sensible nor efficient, and it underlines the true nature of this legislation. Despite its name, its true nature is the removal of choice and fairness. The fact is these changes are all about enforcing an extreme ideological agenda in every workplace in the land.

As the inquiry heard, no-one outside of the government and some business and employer lobbyists is convinced there is a sound economic case to support these extreme proposals. But the Prime Minister continues to say it is an article of faith. Indeed, a submission to the Senate inquiry from 151 leading Australian industrial relations, labour market and legal academics confirmed the government’s failure to explain or provide evidence as to how national productivity and workplace productivity will be improved by this legislation. All the evidence on the economic impact of these changes points in the opposite direction—the opposite direction to the government’s mantra. It points in the direction of lower productivity and lower wages for Australian workers. The Prime Minister’s article of faith is an insufficient reason to introduce legislation this extreme, particularly when the evidence reveals it is an article of bad faith.

But still we have this government peddling the same old misleading idea that all individual employees on individual workplace agreements do well. When Professor Ellem issued a report card on the government’s industrial relations policy in June this year, he observed that individual contracts such as AWAs tilt the balance firmly in favour of employers, because management can unilaterally determine the pay, working hours, duties and employment conditions of employees.

The reality is that many, mostly non-managerial, employees on AWAs have a much harder time of it than employees on collective or enterprise agreements. ABS figures show that average full-time adult non-managerial hourly ordinary-time earnings for those set by collective agreement is higher than the average set by individual arrangement. Those same figures show that average weekly earnings for employees on AWAs went backwards between 2002 and 2004 by $110 a week, while over this same period employees on collective agreements had a wage increase of $46 a week. The empirical data shows that, for non-managerial staff, employees on AWAs work six per cent more hours and they earn two per cent less than those on registered collective agreements.

Under the government’s focus on individual agreements, we have seen women in non-managerial positions on AWAs earning an outrageous 11 per cent less than women on registered collective agreements. Women on collective agreements received 90 per cent of the hourly pay of men on these agreements, while women on AWAs received 80 per cent of what men on AWAs earn. So, in the 21st century, the Howard government wants to introduce a system that will wind back the progress we have made in this country towards pay equity. That is beyond deplorable. This evidence flies in the face of the government’s lie that women will benefit from these extreme changes. They will not. These changes will be harder on women and harder for families. We see the same trend for casual and part-time employees. Casual employees are paid on average 15 per cent less than those on collective agreements. Part-time employees on AWAs are paid 25 per cent less than their counterparts on collective agreements.

Given the practical experience on the ground of what happens under the sorts of changes this government wants to make, we should wonder why it is that the government is pressing ahead with its extreme agenda. We should also look at the Western Australian experience, which proves the point. In Western Australia, from 1994 to 1996 around five per cent of employees had agreements that provided below award rates in their agreements. By 1998, this had increased considerably so that around 25 per cent of all agreements registered with the Western Australian Commissioner of Workplace Agreements had an ordinary rate of pay that was below the award rate.

As the group of 151 academics observed in their Senate inquiry submission, during both periods the majority of agreements had inferior penalty rates than in the award. They stated as follows:

... in most cases where overtime or penalty rates had been reduced, they were abolished altogether; that is, in the first and second periods, penalty rates were abolished altogether in 54 per cent and 44 per cent of cases respectively, and overtime rates were abolished in 40 and 44 per cent of cases respectively.

This experience hurt the Western Australian economy and it hurt Western Australians. Under the Court-Kierath industrial relations system, labour productivity fell to an average annual growth of 3.81 per cent compared to 6.29 per cent under the current Gallop state government’s industrial relations system. In 2003-04, according to the Gallop government, labour productivity in Western Australia increased by nearly 10 per cent over the previous year. Western Australia saw employee pay and conditions stripped away and also a decline in labour productivity. It was bad for working families, bad for business and bad for the economy. This is the model John Howard wants for all Australians.

I want to turn briefly back to the issue of the effect on women. One of the most striking elements of the evidence presented to the Senate committee was the effect on women. It was clear from the evidence before the committee that there would be dire consequences for gains made for working women such as paid maternity leave. These real concerns were raised not just by trade unions and academics but by the government’s own appointee Ms Pru Goward, who expressed real concern as to the effect this system would have on the gains women had made, particularly paid maternity leave.

We on this side wonder how it is this government can call itself a champion of Australian families and say that these changes are good for families when the overwhelming amount of evidence presented to the Senate committee clearly demonstrated that women will be worse off under these changes, that pay equity will go backwards and that paid maternity leave is under threat. The reality is Australian women understand that these changes will make their lives harder. It will make harder the lives not only of Australian women but of many employees, and it will push many Australian families over the edge.

We on this side of the chamber believe it is an act of bad faith and legislative folly for the government to be rushing this bill through the parliament. The government’s industrial relations changes are not sound, economically based reforms, and they certainly are not sound, socially based reforms. They are ideological, extreme, unfair and divisive and they show just how out of touch the Howard government has become with Australian values and the concerns of the Australian people.

The government’s proposed changes have little to do with better wages, more productive workplaces and a more productive economy. They will widen the gap between the well-to-do and the down at heel. They will push more working people into poverty and despair. They will make sure every working Australian feels the chill of economic insecurity. That this government thinks this is productivity shows once and for all that the Howard government can only conceive of growth being based on exploitation. But the Australian people know that true prosperity is founded on fairness and Australians know that there is nothing fair about this bill. If there is one word to sum up this bill, it is that it is unfair. Labor opposes this bill.