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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 106


Senator CAROL BROWN (8:32 PM) —There is little doubt that the changes before this chamber will have a dramatic effect on Australian workers and their families. There is also little doubt that the rationale behind these moves is to pay people less. The goal is simple: to cut the wages of Australian workers in the future. The government calls these new moves Work Choices. But what it really means is ‘no choice’ at all. Under these moves Australian employees will only get penalty rates and conditions if their bosses say so. That is not a choice; it is no choice. Under these moves Australian employees who work in businesses that employ fewer than 100 people can be sacked for virtually any reason. That is not a choice; it is no choice. Under these moves, in firms with more than 100 employees where operational reasons apply to your sacking you cannot make a claim of unfair dismissal. That is not a choice; it is no choice.

The full suite of working rights is up for grabs under these laws. Penalty rates for weekends and after hours work, overtime pay, allowances, public holidays, redundancy pay and meal breaks can all be ‘bargained away’. But this is ‘bargaining’ in the loosest sense of the term. What the government really means is that your employer gets a bargain, cashing in your entitlements, while you, the worker, get nothing in return. It has been a cynical exercise for it to attempt to pass off this extreme, ideological dream as a ‘bargain’ for Australian families. We should make no mistake: hard-won rights will be taken from workers under these proposals. They will not be protected by law. And what will be the result for many Australian workers and their families? Reduced pay, poorer conditions and little recourse to unions or industrial courts to fix it. What sort of a ‘bargain’ is that?

Anyone who doubts that the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is about slashing wages and reducing conditions should recall the words of the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Ian Macfarlane, on 2GB with Alan Jones a few months ago. In a moment of honesty and frankness, in complete contrast to the subsequent spin of the government’s $55 million taxpayer funded advertising campaign, he revealed the real intent of these laws. He said:

We’ve got to ensure that industrial relations reform continues so we have the labour prices of New Zealand ... They reformed their industrial relations system a decade ago. We’re already a decade behind the New Zealanders. There is no resting.

There is no resting for this government until it drives the real wages of Australian workers down. Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of the New Zealand labour market can tell you that today, on average, New Zealand wages are around 20 per cent lower than equivalent Australian wages. Even with a 36 per cent increase in the minimum wage under Helen Clark’s Labour government, New Zealand’s minimum wage is still only $9.50 an hour. Meanwhile, under the current system, Australia’s minimum wage sits at $12.75.

These reforms are painted by Senator Abetz and others as ‘flexible’, but again they really mean something quite different. What is meant by ‘flexibility’ is inflexible arrangements for workers and complete flexibility for employers. That is why Peter Hendy at the ACCI and his mates are so keen on this bill. Forget ideology and theories. Think about it in a practical sense. What flexibility does a young uni graduate have when desperately seeking a first job? None. What flexibility does a factory worker in a one-company town have when the boss wants his weekends ‘bargained’ away? None. What flexibility does a retrenched middle-aged woman have when attempting to re-enter the work force? None.

This government is so out of touch it pretends these scenarios are a level playing field. If the implications were not so serious, we would think this was a joke. As Dr Bruce Felmingham, a respected economist from the University of Tasmania, put it in a recent opinion piece:

The buzz phrase among labour market reformers is labour flexibility, which really means limiting the tenure of employment contracts, making it easier for employers to dismiss employees, taking the unions out of the equation and ultimately to make minimum wage provisions flexible in a downward direction.’

Dr Felmingham is, of course, right and he is not alone. Eminent economists and commentators have pointed out that there is little if any substantive justification for these changes other than cutting wages. The argument and logic of the government’s message just does not stack up. That is why the Prime Minister is so desperate to see the legislation debated and passed before Christmas. It is why he has had 11 of the biggest law firms in this country write all 1,252 pages of it for him. Ultimately, it is why he spent $55 million of taxpayer funds—more than both major parties spent on the entire federal election campaign in 2004—to try to sell his message to the Australian public.

But Australians are not being duped by the spin, doublespeak and hollow words of this mean-spirited government. Every published opinion poll points to the fact that two out of every three Australians oppose these proposals. Why? Because this is not about spin; it is not about happy people waving in the background of a glitzy advertising campaign; it is about basic values and the lives of real Australian families. It is about the value at the heart of this nation—a fair go for all. This government has spent around $2.75 on every single Australian man, woman and child trying to persuade them that these insidious changes are a good idea, but it has not worked. No government can get rid of a nation’s values for $2.75 a head.

You might think that if the Prime Minister can give no guarantees that people will not be worse off under these changes, there is surely a role for independent employee groups to make sure things stay on track. But, sadly, that is not the case under these extreme proposals. In the same breath as the Prime Minister refuses to provide a guarantee that workers will not be worse off, he seeks to crush the very unions that would represent anyone who is made worse off in the future. It is like a strange sort of insurance policy: ‘I cannot rule it out now but if I have my way you will never hear of it in the future.’

Under these laws union officers can be fined $33,000 for seeking a range of ordinary and sensible measures to protect workers—$33,000 for asking an employer to include in an enterprise agreement provisions to: remedy unfair dismissal, include unions in dispute resolution, allow employees to attend trade union training, commit the employer to negotiate future collective agreements or request any other aspect the federal minister decides should be illegal. That is $33,000 for each one of those offences. It is as extreme as it is offensive. These penalties are a blatant attempt to silence the stories of hardship that will emerge from workers and unions in the future, when the effect of these changes begins to bite.

As I have said on a number of occasions in this chamber, the myth of reform in the case of these laws is just that—a myth. Reform implies positive, structural improvement and progress. But what is proposed here is not reform at all. It is a clear case of dismantling, destructing and eroding the protections afforded to Australian workers and their families. It is setting fire to the safety net that underpins our liberal economy. There is no way of describing these moves as anything other than regressive ideological politics at its worst. They are the Liberal articles of faith, as the Prime Minister told his party room. But for real Australians these articles of faith mean that the value of fairness will be obliterated from the industrial relations system of this country.

Contrary to the rhetoric we hear from the other side, this is not about more jobs and higher wages; it is about dismantling a system that took more than 100 years to evolve. That system works, that system is balanced and that system is fair. These laws, on the other hand, are all about cutting wages, undermining the work/family balance, creating an underclass of Australian working poor and destroying the unions that would represent them. They are confirmation that after nearly 10 long years this government has run out of ideas. Having run out of ideas in the present, it is sending us back to the 19th century to repeat our IR lessons. And the 19th century is where we will stay on IR until we learn anew the lesson of balance between liberal economic practice and decent legislative protection for working people in this country or we return a Labor government to tear these laws up.

This government is into slashing wages and protections for Australians in the work force; the Labor Party has a different way—the high-skills way. On this side of the chamber we understand that you achieve growth and your goals as a nation when you look after the people who work to make the nation great. You compete with China, India and our other competitors in the international sphere on skills and innovation, not wage costs. The moment you try to compete on wage costs you have already lost, and so have the workers of Australia. Throughout the government’s spin campaign we have heard the message: you keep what you have got. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rule under this system is not that you keep what you have got but that you will get what you keep—and workers are keeping a lot less under these changes.

Under these laws, the 20 statutory standard protections that Australian workers enjoy will be replaced with just five: a minimum hourly rate of pay, 10 days sick leave, four weeks annual leave, unpaid parental leave and a 38-hour week. But even elements of these are up for negotiation. Two weeks of your annual leave can be bargained away and your 38-hour week can be averaged, as it is flexible. It is feasible that you could do 60 hours for 12 weeks and then 16 for 12. Who knows what ratios or scenarios might unfold in the new labour marketplace? Imagine the impact on family life of uncertain and irregular hours and income levels. Imagine the impact on family budgets, with penalty rates gone and wages slashed. How can you pay a mortgage if one week you earn $765 and the next you are back to $204? How could you even get a mortgage, if you want a home, with that level of variation in your income? How could a family cope with this level of uncertainty or meet the costs of living?

For that matter, we should ask ourselves seriously how we and our families could cope. As Dr Don Edgar, the foundation director of the National Institute of Family Studies, suggests in a family impact statement prepared for Unions New South Wales on this legislation:

In my view, the proposed legislation breaks the nexus between family needs and appropriate wage rates, and potentially undermines the links between decent job conditions and family wellbeing.

He goes on:

These proposed IR changes are a recipe for a more savage workplace, a less caring society, an individualistic, competitive auction room with no collective spirit.

We should not kid ourselves—these laws are anti-family in the most fundamental sense. All too often in this chamber we get lost in rhetoric. We forget the real, human impact of the laws that we make. With these laws we are forgetting that many people are already doing it tough and are fearful that things will get tougher once the protections of our IR system are removed.

I am sure that senators on all sides have received tens, if not hundreds, of letters, emails or telephone calls making this point. In a letter to me recently, a constituent from my home state said:

I am extremely concerned about the new IR laws for two primary reasons.

A: As we have a twenty year old son doing an apprenticeship I recently wrote to the PM’s office requesting information regarding apprenticeships and the protection there of.

We have never received a reply.

B: My son works a ten hour day for low apprentice wages and he has pressure applied to work Saturdays.

My son comes home at night totally exhausted and is generally in bed by 8pm sound asleep until his alarm wakes him at 5.40am ready to go again.

I presume this situation could well worsen under the new laws.

Is this the way we should be treating our valuable youth?

So I ask you all this question: is it?

Equally, is it a good idea to be going down this path when as a nation, with our economy going comparatively well, we still see outrageous abuses of employees’ rights? Take, for example, the case of Sydney teenager Andrew Cheong, as reported in the Australian last week. Andrew had always dreamt of becoming a carpenter, but got saddled with a dodgy boss who did not pay his wages, did not register his apprenticeship and used him as a labourer and cleaner only, instead of training him in his trade. It was only when a union intervened, using the existing protections of a state award and the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission that he got the money that he was owed. Those avenues will not be there for others like him in the future. What would happen to someone like Andrew in a recession environment under these laws?

Recently, with the Tasmanian federal Labor team and our leader, Kim Beazley, I hosted a ‘Last Ever Weekend Barbecue’ in Hobart. It was a fantastic event, attended by around 150 people, and served to highlight the impact of these laws in my home state. It sought to bring home the reality that these changes in the Tasmanian environment will have a more profound negative effect than anywhere else. For example, already we know that Tasmanians earn, on average, less than Australians in other states and territories. Take a look at the median weekly family income figures, for example. In June 2005, Tasmania had a median weekly family income of $852. At the same time, Australia as a whole had a median weekly family income of $1,114—a difference of $262 a week.

From that sort of start, the last thing Tasmanian workers can afford is a low-wage, American-style industrial system. In the US, the minimum wage has not increased in eight years. In real value, it has actually declined by 14.9 per cent, but living costs have gone through the roof. Tasmanian families would wither under a wage freeze and a real wage decline of this magnitude and nature. Similarly, the unfair dismissal changes this bill proposes are a huge concern in Tasmania as it has a higher proportion of small businesses compared to other states.

In Tasmania more than 90 per cent of all businesses have fewer than 100 employees, or, to put it another way, more than 90 per cent of private sector employees in Tasmania work for businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Under these laws, the employees in these businesses would have no recourse if they were unfairly sacked. The ‘Last Ever Weekend Barbecue’ was a great success in bringing these issues forward in the Tasmanian community and a great precursor to the nationwide rallies on 15 November where more than half a million Australians gathered. But what was the response of Senator Eric Abetz, the state’s senior government member, to the concerns expressed at this event? He was unmoved and attacked them, alleging it was hypocritical to host a ‘Last Ever Weekend Barbecue’ and invite journalists to attend it on a weekend. But we should not be surprised at this reaction. It was, sadly, in keeping with the government’s standard response to community concern about these laws.

Following the national protests on 15 November the Prime Minister was similarly unmoved by community concern. The concerns of more than 500,000 workers and their families could not move their Prime Minister. Nothing demonstrates more how out of touch this extreme, conservative government has become. As one article put it:

John Howard has thumbed his nose at hundreds of thousands of protesters opposed to his workplace changes, saying most Australians will look back in bewilderment at union anger once the new laws are in place.

These are just two examples of what is a general antipathy towards human stories and human concern from the government in this debate.

For another example, cast your mind back to the words of the Treasurer in August this year, when he made the telling remark to the Australian that these IR reforms were nothing on the GST:

IR is a big reform, but IR, for starters, only affects people in the workforce.

Yes, Treasurer, it only affects people in the work force—more than 10 million of them nationwide—and people are rightly concerned about the nature and the scope of these changes for themselves and for their families.

Along with the hundreds of thousands of working Australians, hundreds of eminent groups and individual experts have voiced their concerns about these proposals, including: the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward; Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Church; Reverend Dr Ann Wansbrough of the Uniting Church; Bishop Philip Huggins of the Anglican Church; Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence; 151 eminent Australian academics; and more than 60 women’s groups from the What Women Want Consortium. On top of that, we have received more than 4,500 submissions to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee, most of which raised concerns about the path we are taking here. There is a huge amount of concern for what is a radical revolution in the Australian working landscape, but this government is not listening and it is not interested in listening.

The path of these laws through this parliament might be somewhat certain, but the future of these laws is definite: they will slowly erode the pay and conditions of Australian workers; they will cause hardship and pain for families; they will remove the protection of unions from many in our work force; and they will be regarded as the failed and flawed experiment of an ideologically driven government. This will not happen tomorrow or later in the week, when this bill is passed; it will take time. But, make no mistake, this bill is wrong, this bill is an attack on all Australian employees and this bill should be relegated to the dust bin, where it belongs. No amount of tinkering at the edges in this chamber will change that. That is why Labor opposes this bill.