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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 101

Senator MILNE (8:03 PM) —I rise to oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I do so because there has been no demonstrated logic to support such legislation. In fact, what we have heard is a pure ideological position. It is ironic that those who have introduced this legislation accuse the Labor Party of being so indebted to the unions when in fact the whole driving force for this legislation is a pure ideological position.

We have heard from Senator Boswell and others that we have to have a modern workplace and we must be efficient and more competitive. When you ask people, ‘What do you mean by a “modern workplace” and “efficient and more competitive”?’ the answer you get is, ‘Look at New Zealand. We have to compete with New Zealand, and New Zealand has 30 per cent lower wages.’ You then begin to get some insight into the pretence behind an ‘efficient and more competitive modern workplace’ and what it means. It is simply an old-fashioned, low-wage workplace. That is where this legislation is taking Australia—back to an old-fashioned, low-wage workplace.

This legislation will undermine a lot of the things that people have fought for over the last 50 to 100 years to establish in Australia. The basis of the Australian ethos is a fair go, and the government is actually removing a fair go from the people who are least able to withstand this attack. I will give an example of that—and I would appreciate Senator Abetz’s response to this. I would like to talk for a moment about Braddon in north-west Tasmania. In Braddon, 30 per cent of people are on welfare, there is no public transport system to speak of, the population pattern dispersal is linear and there are a number of small towns.

What will happen in a place like that when the government’s so-called industrial relations fairer workplaces et cetera intersects with the government’s Welfare to Work provisions? What will happen is that those people will be forced to take a job on low wages with no penalty rates and with inadequate protection because if they do not they will lose the minimal benefits that they have. But they have no prospect of getting to the job in the first place and, if they cannot find a way to get to the job, they will be faced with a downward spiral. As Catholic Welfare Australia submitted:

The interaction of the Welfare to Work legislation with the Government’s proposed industrial relations changes potentially create a situation in which an income support recipient is required to accept employment which does not include penalty rates, overtime and leave loadings for casuals, under threat of losing payment for 8 weeks.

During the course of the debate on this legislation I was approached by a number of nurses. They were distraught about this legislation because, as they pointed out, nurses like to get on with the job of nursing, of caring for people. They do not want to go and work out individual arrangements—individual workplace agreements. They want to be able to bargain collectively to establish wages and conditions that are appropriate for their sector and then get on with the job of nursing.

The second point they made to me was about the collegiate atmosphere and teams that operate in hospitals and on wards. You have to have a situation where people are on the same pay for doing the same work. If you create a scenario whereby somebody is able to argue for something better than a colleague you create dysfunction in the workplace, and we are going to find that. When you look at a number of teams, particularly the emergency services teams—firemen, paramedics, ambulance drivers and so on—all of them are saying the same thing, that this legislation will undermine the collegiate atmosphere in the workplace. Furthermore, as they have pointed out, it will undermine the safety and access to services—particularly in remote and rural areas—where service delivery is part of the award. Once this goes there is no guarantee that you are going to get the level of service you previously experienced in those places.

We heard from Senator Boswell that farmers need to compete, and on a so-called level playing field. Look at the ridiculous outcomes of the free trade agreement with the US and the proposed free trade agreement with China. China will never present to Australia the opportunity of a level playing field because in China wages are extremely low and products are subsidised by those poor wages and by appalling environmental and occupational health and safety standards. A factory worker in China is paid precious little and the damage to their health—and life, in many cases—is such that, when you incorporate those kinds of subsidies in terms of human rights abuses, environmental abuses and so on, no Australian farm worker, or farm operation, could compete on price. What we are looking at it is a pure and simple race to the bottom as Australia’s so-called solution to the challenges we have.

What are the labour market challenges that face Australia today? The first is a labour and skills shortage exacerbated by an ageing population. The second is the productivity slowdown. Then there are the work-family tensions and the growth of low paid, precarious employment. There is simply no reason to believe that the federal government’s proposed changes will do anything to address these complex economic and social problems. Rather, the government’s proposal will undermine people’s rights at work, deliver a flexibility that, in most cases, is one-way—favouring employers and not employees—and, at best, do nothing to address work-family issues, have no direct impact on productivity and disadvantage the individuals and groups already most marginalised in Australian society. We are already seeing the gap between the rich and poor growing wider every year the coalition is in office.

Senator Abetz —That is the exact opposite of the facts.

Senator MILNE —That is not the exact opposite of the facts. I invite Senator Abetz to spend some time on the north-west coast in his state of Tasmania and tell people there—

Senator Abetz —I have spent more time on this planet than you have.

Senator MILNE —Considering your age, that is probably the case. But I urge you to go up to the north-west coast and have a look at what has happened there, because we have found that, with the government’s economic rationalism, the public sector has been withdrawn from rural and regional areas and the level of opportunity in those places has been seriously challenged. We have had an influx of people moving from the mainland because they can access cheaper housing. So we are getting a demographic that is exacerbating the problems in the region rather than improving them.

I think that Australians will look back in horror on this period of government as they see that, whilst it talked about competitiveness and so-called standards of living, Australian quality of life eroded. We have been told about the dramatic cut in unemployment that has occurred during the years the coalition has been in power. When people talk about unemployment, they do not talk about what constitutes a definition of unemployment. If people work for a few hours a week, they are deemed to be employed in the way the figures are counted. If you have a look around Australia you see this incredible increase in casualisation of the work force and loss of conditions. You find that families are much worse off than ever in the time that they are able to spend together as more and more people enter the casual work force.

More and more young people are forced to work in the evenings and on weekends. Just ask any of the sporting clubs around the country why they are having such difficulties with junior recruitment. It is because young people are being forced to work quite long hours, after hours, in order to finance their education. Many of them are university students who have been forced into that position by the introduction of higher fees. We have a situation in Australia where the government might look to issues such as its interest rates record, or quote the unemployment statistics, but that does not reflect the quality of life and the experience of people around Australia.

I think that the government has seriously misjudged the electorate when it comes to this legislation, because the one thing it is doing to the Australian people is introducing insecurity, more than ever. People do not like insecurity. People like to have some predictability in their lives, and this legislation takes away that predictability. The government is going to set up a scenario where Australian workplaces are going to have more and more of the rules of the corporation. Australian culture is going to become even more corporatised than it is now. You are going to have a situation where people cannot predict when they will be able to work or have time off. As for the so-called flexibility arrangements, the flexibility will be all on the side of the employer, not the employee.

If you want to get greater participation in the work force, particularly women participating in the work force, people desperately need predictability because of the caring responsibilities they have for children and elderly parents and for generally making an unpaid contribution to the community, which Australia has always benefited from. The government has saved billions of dollars as a result of people taking on volunteer caring and support roles that previously they may not have done, but this legislation is certainly going to take away people’s opportunities to have the time to make that voluntary contribution.

The Greens will continue to oppose this legislation right down the line. We will continue to oppose it to the next election. We will go to the next election with a policy of overturning this, because Australian people want some security and predictability in their lives. In my view, the government exploits to a great extent the fear factor in order to frighten people into conservative choices, but on this occasion it has overstepped the mark. It has introduced such a high level of insecurity into Australian homes that people will not want to make decisions about purchasing goods and services. People will be afraid to make a change in their lives because of the insecurity that the government has introduced to the workplace, because once people go on these individual awards they stand to lose many of the conditions that have been hard fought for by the unions for a long time. The OECD countries generally have legislated to protect the rights of employees to collective bargaining. Australia has not done so, and it is to our shame that we have not done that. I think it is something that many people will live to regret.

Whilst the government is arguing that it has a high degree of confidence that this will somehow make Australia a better place, it is in fact undermining the very fabric of Australian society by encouraging poorly paid jobs with irregular hours and little security, worsening the work-family balance. What sort of a legacy is that for a government to leave? It is a very poor legacy. It is giving employers power over employees instead of promoting innovative solutions based on equal partnerships. There can never be an equal partnership, particularly when you are talking about, in many cases, people who are young and inexperienced or people who do not have the skills to be able to negotiate a decent and fair outcome in their workplace arrangements.

We will find many people are disadvantaged by this legislation. Whilst the government may continue to pontificate about the fact that it is their own fault and that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I would argue that the government is creating something in Australian society that we have not seen before, and that is a situation where people fear for their future because of the increased inequality between employee and employer in this country. The fabric of Australian society does not deserve to be torn apart in this way, and we will continue to oppose this legislation.