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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 111

Senator BARTLETT (8:52 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is detailed and complex, as many speakers have said. It has to be said every time we speak on this issue that the amount of time that the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee was given to examine the legislation was nothing short of disgraceful—and, of course, not just the lack of time that the committee was given to look at it but the lack of time the community was given to look at it.

In some respects, despite the complexity of the legislation and the enormous amount of detail, the core elements are fairly simple. The key thing that the legislation does, above all, is destroy the fair go in the Australian workplace and, indeed, in Australian society in many respects. It does not just destroy it; it endeavours to smash it into a million pieces. I think the big question is whether or not it is actually going to be possible to restore it. To some extent I suspect that question will be answered at the next election, not just in terms of who is elected to government but, equally importantly, who is elected to the Senate. If the coalition maintains its majority in the Senate, or at least a blocking majority, then even if it loses office the prospect is that these changes will not be able to be wound back or repaired—and I am not sure if we can actually wind them back—to fix up their many flaws. If that opportunity is not there and it is not able to be done in a couple of years time then I suspect that the damage caused by this legislation may be pretty much permanent.

Having said that, there will undoubtedly be some individual winners from the changes made in this legislation, but there will also undoubtedly be just as many losers—in fact, probably a greater number. Leaving aside the ledger counting up the number of individuals who win and are better off and the number of individuals who are worse off, I think it is quite clear that as a society we all lose. My colleague Senator Andrew Murray from Western Australia sat through all of the evidence presented to the inquiry and, I would suggest, has been more immersed in industrial relations legislative issues than the vast majority of senators in this place. His assessment of the evidence is that this legislation is likely to threaten not just our society but our productivity and our economy. I totally agree with his assessment.

It is a matter of great frustration to me that the very extreme and ideologically driven measures that are contained in this legislation were not given the attention they deserved during the last election campaign because, of course, they were not actually mentioned during the last election campaign. Whilst we all knew that the Prime Minister had a longstanding ideological obsession with attacking the union movement and reliving in the 21st century the class warfare of a bygone era, this was not actually given any flesh in the last election campaign. There was no detail or promise of any sort of extreme measures like this in the last campaign, or even if you looked back to the range of legislative measures that the government had put forward over the eight or nine years they had been in power. There were certainly some ideologically extreme measures in amongst those, but this legislation even goes far further than all the most extreme measures that the coalition put forward in a wide range of legislation over the last eight or nine years. The simple fact is that the very extreme, ideologically driven measures that are contained in this legislation were not put before the Australian people at all; they were hidden from the Australian people. And I suspect that if the Senate result had not turned out the way it did then they would have remained hidden.

The last election campaign was particular frustrating from my point of view because, as leader of the Democrats at that time, I was trying to draw the attention of the public and the mainstream media to the real possibility that the coalition could gain control of the Senate. I chose the best area to highlight where this would make a huge difference—industrial relations—because we could see the sort of extreme measures the government had tried to put forward, and they had been prevented from having them passed into law because of the approach of the Democrats. But, as all senators would know, the Democrats have not taken an approach identical to that of the Labor Party or the Greens over the last eight or nine years of simply opposing every piece of industrial relations legislation. We have also supported many pieces of legislation in this area—about 19 or 20 specific pieces of legislation—including some quite significant ones. What we did was amend the extreme, ideologically driven measures that did not have evidence to back them up as improving productivity without unfairly disadvantaging some of the less powerful in the labour market.

Our record in the industrial relations arena is probably the perfect demonstration of the consistent exercise of the balance of power in the Senate. We are able to balance the union focused approach of the Labor Party and the similar ideological approach of the Greens with the ideological mirror image on the part of the coalition. We were able to take a middle path that I believe has stood the test of time. The results have shown that it has been a pretty good effort. I would not suggest it is a perfect record, but certainly it was quite a good effort to balance the competing arguments and priorities in this difficult and complex area. Sadly, now we are reduced to the entire nation hoping they will be able to leverage a few extra marginal gains through the efforts of Senator Joyce, from my state of Queensland. That is not to criticise Senator Joyce—at least he is putting in a bit of effort and at least he is not just swallowing the nonsensical, misleading and farcical propaganda the government is putting forward as a substitute for argument. He is putting in a bit of effort—

Senator Conroy —Please, there are 12,000 Telstra workers who have got Barnaby Joyce’s phone number!

Senator BARTLETT —Nonetheless, I think that to suggest that somehow or other we can all rely on Senator Joyce to fix all of the flaws in this legislation is a bit of a forlorn hope. I think the contrast between what we will get from Senator Joyce in that balance of power role and what the Democrats were able to deliver in the industrial relations arena over the last nine to 10 years is pretty stark. It shows how enormously significant that very slender Senate majority win of the government at the last election has turned out to be. As I said, it is therefore a matter of continuing frustration that attempts were made at the last election to point out not just the real prospect of the government gaining control of the Senate but also the example of the industrial relations arena as a clear area of law where it would make an enormous difference. That message was not able to get through, obviously. We are faced with the result this week.

It is interesting to look at the government’s response to the various criticisms about this legislation. Firstly, we have had the flagrantly corrupt misuse of the public’s money in simply buying over $50 million worth of advertising to try to con people into thinking that there is nothing to be concerned about. On top of that, we have had basically just a few recycled mantras as a substitute for argument. One of the most common ones we have had from the Prime Minister and others is that his guarantee in this area is his record—people should be comfortable about the outcome of this legislation because Mr Howard’s record shows that he can be guaranteed not to harm people in the industrial relations area.

The problem with that, of course, is that the record in the industrial relations area is not Mr Howard’s; it is the Democrats’ and the Senate’s record of fixing up the extreme and ideologically driven components of the legislation that was put forward. We have heard it again today and many times in recent months. Government ministers have repeatedly said that everybody said the sky would fall in under the 1996 legislation and it did not happen. We had Senator Barnett today quoting Mr Stephen Smith and Mr Beazley from 1996, who said that it would lead to worse conditions and a massive rise in industrial disputation, and it was about the abolition of safety nets. And then Senator Barnett said, ‘See, none of that happened.’

The fact is that none of it happened because the Democrats moved well over 100—I think it was 160 or so—amendments to that legislation to ensure that it would not happen. It would have happened had it not been for the Democrats and it will happen this time because the Democrats, sadly, are not in a position to prevent it from happening anymore. That is a decision that the electorate made, of course. They had a few good reasons to punish the Democrats at the last election. I am not disputing the electorate’s choice in that respect. I am simply talking about the consequence of it. The consequence of it is that the ability of the Democrats in the Senate to prevent those sorts of outcomes, which we were successfully able to do back in 1996, is no longer there.

You simply cannot say, and it is dishonest for government members to continue to say, that all of these predictions were made in 1996 about major changes to the legislation that happened then and those predictions did not come to pass. The predictions were about legislation that did not end up passing into law. The legislation that was passed into law was dramatically and comprehensively amended by the Democrats under then leader Cheryl Kernot and agreed to with the government. It was radically different from the legislation that was initially put forward.

To try and draw comparisons with predictions from 1996 is simply dishonest and misleading. Perhaps one should not be surprised about that, because a lot of the government’s campaign around this particular issue and their propaganda have been dishonest and misleading. Nonetheless, that lie must be called for what it is. It is a simple fact that the predictions that were made or the concerns that were expressed in 1996 were about the unamended legislation. The legislation that was passed addressed the vast majority of those concerns because of the 176 amendments that the Democrats were successful in moving at that time.

What we have in this legislation is a deliberate and clear attempt to lower wages, reduce conditions and abolish safety nets. We have the abolition of the no disadvantage test safety net against the comprehensive award structure that it was used to measure against. This is not a perfect mechanism. It is like every mechanism; it does not operate with total perfection. But the simple fact that this legislation quite flagrantly and deliberately seeks to remove—or seeks to gut, anyway—the accurately described no disadvantage test against the comprehensive protection of the award gives a pretty clear indication that some people are going to be disadvantaged. It is basically there in black and white.

The fact is that, apart from destroying the fair go, a large part of what this legislation is aimed at is simply continuing the old class war and attacking the trade unions. As my colleague Senator Murray said, this is in part driven by the political interests of the coalition parties. They are doing whatever they can to weaken not just the trade unions but also the ALP. It is fairly clear that the coalition see the union movement as politically synonymous with the Labor Party. Any opportunity they can get to damage the union movement they see as damaging the Labor Party and its funding base as well. There is obviously some degree of truth in links between the Labor Party and the union movement, but to call them synonymous is overstating the case enormously.

Nonetheless, it is without doubt that, if the union movement’s strength and financial position were weakened, that would weaken the Labor Party and that would be to the advantage of the coalition. That is all very good as a political game and a political strategy, but unfortunately the victims of this clever little piece of game playing will be the Australian people, and they should not be the sacrificial pawns in any sort of game playing, political or otherwise. It is very unfortunate that the ideological obsessions of the Prime Minister and many within the government are so extreme that they are quite prepared to do that for political advantage and for the opportunity to fulfil those irrational ideological obsessions.

To summarise, the legislation, as the comprehensive minority report of Senator Murray indicates, is flawed in a wide range of ways. For the long period of time—just over eight years—that I have been in the Senate, industrial relations is probably the area where the Democrats Senate team have spent the greatest amount of time. That has been a consequence of it being consistently the area where we always found ourselves with the balance of power and because the issues involved are often complex and difficult. Certainly in the period when I was the Leader of the Australian Democrats, it was an area that I paid a lot of attention to, in conjunction with my colleague Senator Murray, because the issues were difficult and complex and the judgments that had to be made about what was acceptable and what was not acceptable were sometimes quite difficult and finely balanced. But it is one that the entire Democrats Senate team worked consistently on together for many years. It is worth emphasising that, without exception, we always came to a unanimously supported final position.

In passing, I note a quite bizarre comment from Matt Price, who in a range of the Murdoch papers on Sunday described Senator Murray as ‘easily the most conservative senator ever elected to the Democrats’. Senator Murray is a lot of things, but I certainly would not call him the most conservative of Democrats there has ever been. I could name quite a few others; I will not go down that path. But the simple fact is that—

Senator Conroy —Go on: name them.

Senator BARTLETT —I am a pretty conservative guy in a lot of circumstances, I would have you know, Senator Conroy.

Senator Conroy interjecting—

Senator BARTLETT —The fact that you dye your hair does not mean that you do not have conservative economic beliefs.

Senator Conroy —What about the earring?

Senator BARTLETT —I do not think fashion sense actually links to economic policy beliefs. Trust me on this. It is worth emphasising that the positions of the Democrats in the industrial relations arena over many years have been the unanimous positions of the entire Democrats Senate team on each occasion, going back even to the Kernot era—and the Labor Party were sufficiently impressed with her that they took her away so I could replace her.

Senator Carr —What an improvement!

Senator BARTLETT —I think so. So it is important to emphasise that this is a consistent position of the Democrats. The well-argued position put forward in the Senate committee report by Senator Murray is comprehensively supported by all the Democrats, and that is a progressive position. It is one that balances and recognises the need for the continual evolution of our workplace relations system, but it also recognises that we do have some solid economic fundamentals, in large part because of the record of the Democrats. There is no justification for an extremist, explosive device being thrown in the middle of it, as this legislation represents. (Time expired)