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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 14

Senator MURRAY (1:26 PM) —The Democrats agree with Labor’s minority report statement on the 678-page Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 where they said:

The decision to hold a one-week inquiry into a bill proposing the biggest legislative change to the law regulating workplace relations in Australia in over a century, is a subversion of the democratic process and effective law making.

The Democrats were therefore unable to give the bill the full response it deserved. Nevertheless, my very capable adviser Kellie Caught and I banged out a lengthy Australian Democrats minority report in a rush over three days. I intend to repeat some of our observations made there.

The disregard for the Senate as a house of scrutiny may appear remarkable from a government whose Prime Minister promised to use its numbers wisely and not provocatively. On that basis you would expect the heady hubris of numbers would not get in the way of good law making, but it is apparent the Prime Minister was saying what the Australian public wants to hear and not what he believes. He intends to use his power decisively and deliberately. He wishes to get it over with precisely because his government is using the power of the state to have its way to attack the institutional foundations of the workplace and against ordinary Australians and their way of life. Once the Work Choices bill has passed then he can use long political acumen and experience to implement it and to shore up its defence.

The Democrats oppose the Work Choices bill. As Dr Cooney succinctly said to the committee:

It is overly complex, too punitive, one-sided and interventionist.

From the industrial onanism of the new greenfields agreements to the legal ways contrived for employers to back out of agreements, this critical legislation introduces fundamental changes to the industrial relations system which will have a major impact on Australians and their families. The legislation will try to transform six systems into one against the wishes of the states. Unlike other transference of powers to the Commonwealth under corporations and tax law, this is the first time in the history of the Federation that we are faced with a hostile takeover of state systems by the Commonwealth.

If there is one good consequence arising from the Work Choices bill it is that it will force all political parties to recognise that the Work Choices bill is a radical change. Each party will have to reassess their vision and solution for relationships at work in the 21st century. This is because with the Work Choices bill the Liberal and National parties are assaulting the cultural, economic, social, institutional, legal, political and constitutional underpinnings of work arrangements in Australia. Occasional bitter and protracted fights over the direction and nature of law and regulation governing work and industrial relations in Australia do not contradict the broad social, political and governmental consensus there has been in this area. The broad consensus I refer to has been that the standards of an advanced, progressive, First World liberal democracy should apply in Australia with respect to wages and conditions and the organisation and management of work.

Much as conservatives and organised capital dislike the movement, there was nevertheless a broad acceptance that the organised collective expression of labour rights through the union movement should be respected and supported. That broad consensus accepted that our workplace law should reflect the social contract that growing national, individual and entity wealth should be accompanied by rising living standards and a comprehensive safety net for the disadvantaged and powerless in our society. Low or inadequate wages were to be supported by a sufficiently comprehensive welfare system to ensure family stability and sustainability.

Although conservative Australian federal and state governments have been slippery on these matters, it was expected that our laws should reflect the commitment made as a result of our ratification of international conventions and treaties governing the rights of the working population. That broad consensus meant that wages and conditions of work should bear in mind the family more than the individual; that governments and parliaments should determine law and regulation, but that enterprises, unions and tribunals should determine the detailed content and decisions of workplace relations; that independent specialist tribunals rather than the courts were preferred for conciliation, arbitration and determination; that collective labour and collective capital had primacy over individual arrangements; that statute was the dominant determinant of collective arrangements at work and common law the dominant determinant of individual arrangements; that industrial relations should be a multiple federal system and not a single national system; that it was justifiable to subordinate the economic to the social in the workplace by ensuring the living standards of the worst-off should be consciously and deliberately raised; and that health and safety and compensation for accidents or negligence should be a primary feature of workplace law.

Control of the Senate allows for the exercise of authoritarian conservative power. The coalition are determined to fundamentally change the nation. It is why I have consistently said that this is going to turn into a battle of the government against the people. In that battle, the Prime Minister has the cards heavily stacked in his favour. He and his ministers have been successfully using doublespeak to conceal the true nature of these changes. Small ‘l’ liberal words like ‘choice’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘freedom’ disguise the heavy authoritarian micromanagement and restrictions on collective labour—the unions—and the dismantling of the architecture and infrastructure of our workplace relations system.

The government have already shown they will use all the financial and other resources of the state to advertise and sell their policy. Capital, particularly big business and employer organisations, support the heavy rebalancing of a system designed to lift the profit share at the expense of the wages share and to give collective capital—the market—primacy. For those looking for strong media opposition, big business media owners and shareholders have already voiced their support for Mr Howard’s proposals. The counterargument will need to be put out through advertising, traditional media and other mediums but, in resource terms, opponents of the government’s policies are minnows to a shark.

Industrial relations concepts and law are already complex and not well understood. For most Australians, full understanding will dawn only when employers start to exercise their new powers detrimentally. That is not to forecast that everyone will be affected equally or negatively. Labour that is well represented and resourced, or in short supply, will find itself naturally quarantined from negative effects. The coalition government can rely on most Australians not grasping what is happening until long after it has happened.

Evidence to the committee made it clear that the full effects of the legislation will not be felt until after the next election in late 2007. Not only will 25 to 30 per cent of all workers remain under state systems until then, but the transitional arrangements and the continuing validity of many existing agreements that only expire in 2008 will mean that, for large numbers of Australians, the effects will be felt only after the next election. That is what Mr Howard is counting on—that and the expectation that the coalition will remain in effective control of the Senate for two more elections, after which it will be very difficult for these changes to be reversed.

In a nutshell, the fundamental changes Mr Howard’s government seeks to introduce will be the antithesis of many of the previous consensus items that I outlined earlier. We will see a national system forced onto resistant states; the individual fostered over the collective; an individual wage and conditions fostered over the family wage and conditions; disputes going to the courts instead of the tribunals; capital and business given freedom; and labour and unions’ rights and freedoms heavily restricted.

Unwisely, unprecedented ministerial intervention will replace a sensitively balanced system where politicians were kept at arms-length from work arrangements and disputes. We will see the safety net shrunk by three-quarters, the withering away of the award, the decline in real terms of the minimum wage and the loss of most statutory conditions.

From hostile coalition questions to academics and union officials during the inquiry, it has been obvious that there is also a strong political motive in play. The coalition are fierce political competitors and will do whatever they can to weaken their main competitor, the Australian Labor Party. Consistent references in parliament make it clear that the coalition see the union movement as politically synonymous with the Labor Party. Whatever the legitimate criticisms that can be made about the relationship of parts of the union movement with Labor—and we have made criticisms ourselves—it is immoral to target the interests of working Australians for political gain.

The startling thing is how economically reckless the coalition are being. Their economic argument is faith based but it boils down to this: lower wages, far fewer conditions and more power to employers all equal more jobs. That is the mantra, endlessly repeated in various ways but unsupported by credible empirical evidence. If it deserves to be taken seriously as a proposition, it needs to be supported by specific evidence. The need for further industrial relations reform might indeed be apparent, in general, but the merits of this specific proposal have not been persuasively argued.

The Australian Democrats have unfavourably contrasted the coalition’s GST and new tax system with the coalition’s unconvincing workplace relations campaign. The GST was the centrepiece of the 1998 election campaign. In contrast, the coalition’s radical industrial relations agenda was a sideshow in the 2004 election, hidden by the interest-rate smokescreen. Very detailed government documents argued the case for the GST and the new tax system, complete with all the modelling, tables, graphs and cameos that were necessary. In contrast, this radical industrial relations assault on Australians’ working lives got a seven-page announcement in May and has been lightly amplified since.

The GST was agreed to and supported by the states. This industrial relations package is opposed by them. The GST’s economic and financial benefits were credibly contrasted to a failing federal-state funding system. In contrast, the coalition agree that our present IR system is not broken and that it makes a very positive contribution to Australia’s economy and society. The coalition agree that Australia now has lower unemployment, lower interest rates, higher productivity, higher real wages and very significantly lower levels of industrial disputation than in the past. They agree the system works well overall. Yet amazingly, the government propose to trash the current Workplace Relations Act. On the evidence before me, the Work Choices bill is likely to threaten our economy, productivity and society—and for what?

I would be derelict in my duty if I merely criticised the new coalition policy without offering the Australian Democrats’ alternative. The Australian Democrats believe that, vital as it is, work is not just about economics, productivity, efficiency and competitiveness—it is a fundamental feature of our nation state as a society, our way of life and our place among nations. The Democrats recognise that Australia has to keep reacting to economic, trade, technological, domestic and global realities. We recognise that society, enterprise and work are continually changing. We believe that changes to our system are necessary, but they should be contiguous and in continuity with our social and cultural heritage and our values. And foremost among those values is the ‘fair go’ principle.

The Democrats workplace vision requires that, to make it happen, this vision should be negotiated between Commonwealth and state governments, industry, union and employee representatives. The Democrats support and propose the following workplace relations system. We believe we should have a unitary, single national industrial relations system that is negotiated between the states and federal government to provide simplicity, common rights and obligations, and to improve efficiency, domestic and international competitiveness and productivity.

The Democrats support a well-resourced national, independent workplace relations regulator to properly regulate and oversee a national unitary system. Other sectors of the economy have regulators like ASIC, APRA and the ACCC—and so should work arrangements. We support a strong, independent well-resourced and principled tribunal in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. This umpire must facilitate agreement making at the enterprise, as well as overseeing the industry-wide award system. It must conciliate, arbitrate and facilitate mediation in specified circumstances. It must settle industrial disputes. It must maintain the minimum wage. In doing so, it must take into account the interests of the unemployed, protect the interests of low-paid workers and the disadvantaged, and protect small employers in a weak bargaining position. We believe that the capacity of the Industrial Relations Commission should be improved, enhanced and strengthened, not weakened.

The Democrats support the 1996 Workplace Relations Act, as amended up to 30 June 2005. While this act could be improved, we believe that overall it works well and does not need radical change. We believe the federal system as it currently stands should be left intact with only moderate change as the need arises. The Democrats support genuine bargaining in good faith and a genuine safety net, underpinned by an award system that can be altered through the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The Democrats support collective and individual agreements, including Australian workplace agreements as they are at present. However, AWAs must be underpinned by the safety net of a no disadvantage test against the award, negotiations must be genuine and there should be mechanisms to ensure that employees are not coerced. We support tightening the current AWA system. We do not support the radical loosening that is occurring.

The Democrats support freedom of association and the right to join a union or employers’ organisation without duress or compulsion. We support collective bargaining as an inalienable right and the legitimate role of unions in protecting the interests of workers who wish to be represented by them. We support the right for all employees to be protected from unfair dismissal as tightly defined in the federal act, not as loosely defined in the state acts.

In trying to quell the genuine concern of the public over these industrial relations changes, the government often draw a comparison between their 2005 plan and their 1996 proposals. They say the strong concerns expressed then were unfounded and that ‘Australians clearly benefited with more jobs, higher wages and a stronger economy’. In the Prime Minister’s words, ‘The sky did not fall in.’ The sky did not fall in because of the intervention of the Australian Democrats. The reason the 1996 reforms worked is due to the Democrats’s success in moving 176 amendments that ripped the ideology out of that 1996 package and made the law socially acceptable while keeping it economically effective.

It is a nonsense to suggest, as some do, that industrial relations have stood still since then. No fewer than 18 significant amending bills, on my count, have passed through the Senate since then. We Democrats have used our balance of power and our honest-broker role over the last nine-plus years to pass sensible law changes, often after moderating the original aggressive proposals. Although we pride ourselves on not being beholden to unions or business, we have been sympathetic to the legitimate and practical needs of both. We have operated on the values and principles of a progressive liberal democracy, and those values and principles have stood us in good stead. As a result, the Democrats can rightly claim to have played a key part in ensuring that federal workplace relations law has made a major, positive contribution to Australia’s economy and, importantly, to Australian society. Australia now has lower unemployment, lower interest rates, higher productivity, higher real wages and very significantly lower levels of industrial disputation than in the past.

The Democrats are not opposed to industrial relations reform, as long as it is moderate, steady, considered and fair, and it delivers productivity efficiency and competitive gains that accord with the values and goals of a civilised, First World society. The Democrats support an industrial relations system that operates within a framework that takes into account social impacts as well as economic considerations. In this context, we support a system that provides for the orderly regulation of employment practices in a way that maximises and balances productivity, jobs growth and job security while ensuring fair and just pay and conditions and treatment. We support a system that builds on the strengths of Australian values: the fair go and an egalitarian society that fosters equality, community and mateship—one that rewards enterprise and having a go.

The Australian industrial relations system has been built on a foundation of social justice and fairness, centred around a safety net of pay and conditions to protect the most vulnerable in our society. This foundation has fostered our belief in an egalitarian society. I remain unashamedly of the view that the basic wage and conditions must allow a decent living standard for a family. This task must not be left to the welfare system, whose safety net can never fully compensate for a family standing on its own feet through work.

It is the Senate’s duty to make every effort to address injustices, anomalies, mistakes and unforeseen consequences in the bills before us. We cannot just vote against a bill without trying our best to effect change. In the three short days since the Senate committee report on this legislation was handed down, the Democrats have constructed about 40 pages of draft amendments. It is the least we could do in the time available. It is a rushed job and it is too limited a response, but it will be our best effort to ameliorate this legislation. This legislation is messy. It is unfair. It is unAustralian. It is unwise. It will be economically ineffective and socially harmful. We will move key amendments, but the Democrats will oppose the bill outright.