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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 119

Senator CARR (9:27 PM) —I would like to say a few words about this draconian piece of legislation to indicate my very strong opposition to it, which I believe I share with the vast majority of Australians. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is a dishonest, deceitful piece of legislation, its very title suggesting that it is about workers’ choices when it is all about bosses’ choices. The bill ought to be retitled ‘Bosses’ choices’ to give a more accurate reflection of its legislative intent. This legislation is really about stripping away Australian workers’ choices, not about providing them with opportunities to defend their living standards and ensuring that they get a fair share of this nation’s wealth.

The government claims it is seeking to simplify industrial relations, but the legislation runs to 680 pages and is full of vague language, imprecise terminologies and operational contradictions. It will be a great lawyers’ banquet for the next generation if it stays on the statute book. It may well be that with the situation emerging after the next election it will have to be repealed to save the country from the enormous costs that will be associated with the illegal interpretations that will feed the fortunes of the legal fraternity in this country.

This is not legislation that is designed to improve the lot of workers; it is about a reduction in living standards. It is not about providing freedom of choice; it is about breaking trade unionism. That is the aim of the Prime Minister, and I put it to the chamber that that has been the aim of the Prime Minister for his entire political career. He, of course, joins a long list of conservative politicians who have sought to achieve that objective. The government presents to this chamber the proposition that this is a brave new world and that we are embarking upon a new industrial relations framework, yet nothing could be further from the truth. What we are seeing is a repeat of the historic obsession that the conservative parties in this country have had with the destruction of working-class organisations.

I could go back to the 1890s where the catchcry of conservative politicians was ‘freedom of contract’. I could talk about the 1920s when Stanley Melbourne Bruce attacked maritime workers when he introduced that notorious legislation that became known as the dog-collar act and then, in the subsequent election in 1929, Prime Minister Bruce lost his seat in the federal parliament. There has been a long history associated with the conservative parties in this country seeking to essentially criminalise trade union activity. I take the view that the rights of Australian workers live on beyond the legislative attempts by governments of a conservative ilk to destroy trade unionism in this country.

Recently we have seen the Business Council of Australia try to come to the assistance of their political allies in the government by running an advertising campaign supporting the government’s very unpopular measures. They have been attempting to counter the effects of the Australian Council of Trade Union’s campaign. Of course, we have seen pressure being mounted by the same political organisations for various tax cuts for business. It is almost as if it is quid pro quo. What we are seeing is a spurious campaign which effectively argues that, without further cuts to workers’ wages and Australian workers’ standards of living, Australia’s international economic position will deteriorate. Perhaps if that model were accepted, and if we were to argue it through logically, we should apply it to the BCA’s own members in relation to the way in which executive salaries, payouts and various golden handshakes operate.

In contrast, what we see when we look at the international circumstance is that the claim that the conservatives in this country make, that higher wage levels lead to increased unemployment, does not match the international evidence. If you look at the United States, for instance, you see that, over the past five years, the minimum wage has fallen by almost 12 per cent while jobs growth has risen by only 2.9 per cent. In the United Kingdom, over the last five years, the minimum hourly wage has more than doubled, from around ₤2.30 to ₤5.05, while jobs growth has significantly risen by 4.4 per cent. If we look at the Scandinavian countries, we see a growth in wages of 4.8 per cent in Denmark, three per cent in Iceland, 4.6 per cent in Norway and 6.3 per cent in Sweden.

All these countries have lower levels of unemployment than Australia’s 5.2 per cent and are ranked as being more competitive in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness ranking. With respect to the high unemployment countries of France and Germany, the European Commission’s director-general of economic and financial affairs states:

... there is no compelling evidence of any strong impact of wage compression on total employment.

In addition, when you examine the statistical definitions that are being used around unemployment in these countries you see that it is very conservative. In Germany, a person is unemployed if they work fewer than 15 hours; whereas, in Australia, if a person works more than one hour a week, they are deemed to be employed. So there is a massive contrast in terms of the hard economic data on these questions.

If we look at the Australian circumstances, we can take three indicators. Firstly, industrial disputes are running at a very low level. They have been doing so for some years and there is little sign—other than the government’s very best efforts to stir up industrial turmoil—that that is likely to change. Industrial action has not been a threat to economic prosperity. Secondly, Australian productivity rates are increasing and they have been doing so regularly for the past decade or so. There is no productivity strike by Australian workers to match the pre-emptive strike on wages and conditions that has actually been orchestrated by this government.

Thirdly, we should look at what is happening with businesses themselves. Do we see any evidence that there has been a squeeze on profits as a result of wages growth? The evidence is in fact to the contrary. If we look at the share of GDP employed by wages and profits throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, we see that wages represented between 56 and 62 per cent of GDP. In the 1990s wages moved in a narrow band between 53 and 56 per cent of GDP. Wages as a percentage of GDP now stands at a historically low level of 53.2 per cent. If we contrast that with profits, we see a very different set of circumstances. In the equivalent decades of the 1970s and the 1980s, profits averaged between 15 and 21 per cent of GDP. Throughout the 1990s, profits moved through to 21 to 24 per cent of GDP. What is the equivalent figure now? In the June quarter of 2005, profits as a percentage of GDP had risen to 27.4 per cent. That is the highest percentage we have seen since reliable records have been kept.

So I would ask the question: who is it that is doing it hard under the present arrangements that we see in this country? Where is the pressure coming from to crack down on wage rates and working conditions? It is certainly not on the basis of our national accounts. It is certainly not based on the empirical evidence. I say that it is based on an ideological jihad that is being presented by this government against the working people of this country. We have a Prime Minister who is committed to an ideological obsession to destroy trade unionism in Australia. That is what this legislation is really all about.

There is not enough time for any one of us on this side of the chamber to detail all the problems with this bill. There is not enough time to go through point by point the extraordinary flaws in this legislation. If we look at the pathetic list that was prepared in the minister’s office and presented by Liberal senators on the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiring into this legislation, we can see that there is no attempt to address the fundamental flaws in this bill. There is an attempt to provide a bit of window-dressing to suck up to certain sections of the National Party while they play their silly games in Queensland so they can appeal to their One Nation supporters, but there is no effort whatsoever to address the fundamental problems associated with this bill.

I will talk about a couple of things. I was able to participate in the Senate inquiry for one day, and it struck me just how extraordinarily clear the employers were about what they are trying to get out of this legislation. Let us take the question of the greenfield agreements which are contained in this legislation. It is one of those great Orwellian expressions that this government has become very fond of using. Under these greenfield agreements, there will be an opportunity for employers to negotiate with themselves as to what makes up a new agreement and there will be a unilateral determination of terms by employers themselves. Furthermore, if you go to work under one of these so-called agreements, you will have the award conditions stripped away and you will not be able to return to those award conditions at any future time.

In fact, there is a demand by sections of industry to extend the time for these so-called greenfields self agreements from one year to five years. If you think about the number of building sites around this country with an average duration of, say, 2½ years, it is unlikely under this provision that it would have any application on awards or agreements entered into under normal arrangements throughout the building industry in any of the major cities, because the proposition here is that an employer can run on the basis of take it or leave it. The government pretends that this is really all about choices. There is no choice in a situation in that context. The pretext of such an arrangement means that the employer determines the conditions under which people will work or they will not work at that job. There is an overriding provision to remove existing agreements. They can override notional agreements that would otherwise be preserved state award provisions. Remember, this is in the context of a no disadvantage test.

What you have is a new right to unilaterally terminate award conditions that will be used to deny unionists and workers any future access to benefits, to the security of an old award or a collective agreement. We had a conservative industrial relations practitioner and expert with a long association with business tell the Senate inquiry:

Businesses will be able to restructure their arrangements, regardless of what awards or agreements they currently have in place, set up a greenfields agreement for a new project or a new undertaking and therefore clear the way entirely of any previous award or agreement conditions.

What choice is in that for people who are unemployed, are seeking employment or have a situation where there is no choice but to take the job under those conditions or not take it at all?

We have a situation here where a new business can be determined by the employer and he can reclassify his situation to meet his own new conditions with no definition of what a new business is and no definition of what a greenfields site would look like. It is entirely down to the employer. Does that have to be a genuine new business? If you look at the transactional arrangements that are put in when businesses move between one entity or another, you will see there is no protection for the existing awards and arrangements that are in place.

The Master Builders Association is not simply content to adopt this policy of take it or leave it. In fact, they have a situation, as I said, where they are seeking to extend these arrangements from the provisions for 12 months in this bill to five years. As I was driving to the airport on my way up here this weekend, I looked up and there was a MBA sign on the side of the freeway in Melbourne—just outside Melbourne airport. The MBA sign had a very large slogan written on it. It said, ‘MBA—masters of our industry.’ It is a new sign and it reflects a new approach that the MBA is taking because, under this legislation, they see themselves as being able to impose their will and be masters of the industry. In this environment we are supposed to believe that there will be a cooperative industrial spirit developed. Of course, if we take the legal counsel of the MBA, if you do not wish to be employed on any particular project and do not wish to take up those conditions, you can easily get another job. That is the approach that is being taken.

Of course, there is a broader context to all of these changes. We see in this arrangement that there is a whole range of provisions and, as has been stated clearly in the Senate inquiry, we will now be the only OECD country that seeks to penalise strikes but encourage lockouts. That is a provision of this legislation. If you look at this bill in the context of the broader legislative program of this government, you will see a situation whereby the industrial relations legislation is not the only weapon on which unscrupulous employers can rely. What we have here is a situation where the Welfare to Work provisions are being put through the parliament simultaneously. We see a situation where unemployed people, and persons who are on various social security benefits, are having their rights stripped away from them and are being obliged to enter into the labour market. We also see a situation with regard to the changes that are occurring in the immigration law whereby the government is seeking to bring into the country various persons on various visa entitlements which are very different from what we have come to understand in this country in recent years.

Let me give you some examples from the meat industry, for instance. Many employers who have embarked upon industrial campaigns employ a militancy, I might say, which has been aimed at reducing wages and conditions of members in the meat industry and have sought to use people who are refugees or on migration visas as part of a tool in the industrial war against the AMIEU. We saw the struggle at O’Connor’s abattoir in east Melbourne four years ago whereby that company locked out its workers and tried to replace them with an untrained, casual work force of guest labourers to direct the government’s campaign at the time. I have no doubt whatsoever that this government was intimately involved with O’Connor’s in that dispute.

The application of the regulations is designed, in part, to undermine job security and, at the same time, provide a reserve army of unemployed to allow employers to take up actions. We have also seen in the newspaper on a recent occasion another employer in the meat industry, V&V Walsh—a western Australian meat processor—who earlier this year sought to employ guest workers from Ghana and the Philippines. What we see there is a situation where the company has involved a large number of workers from these countries. The HR manager pointed out in a published article in the Australian that the beaut thing about these new arrangements was that if they did not like what people were doing ‘you just inform Immigration and they go home’.

So you have an industrial environment in which workers have their conditions undermined, and at the same time the employer is able to call upon groups of people who have no protections because they are on visas which are subject to removal at the drop of the employer’s hat.

The workplace arrangements bill that we have before us is the centrepiece of the government’s attack on the living standards of Australian workers. It is a flawed strategy. It promises to reduce wages when we need greater investment in skill levels in this country. It is said that in times of high unemployment some sections of the work force will be able to do quite well in this environment. I acknowledge some people will do well—particularly those with very high levels of education and high skill levels and those already benefiting from the capacity to take advantage of the skill shortages. But the bargaining position of the great mass of workers—those who do not actually have those skill levels, such as those who push a broom or work as process workers in the meat industry—will be fundamentally undermined by the legislative provisions of this legislation.

For those people, I say that we must oppose this bill. So I stand with the 500,000 Australians who a fortnight ago demonstrated their public opposition to the bill and with the millions more who were with them in spirit. This is a bill that ought to be rejected by senators. I believe this is a bill that will ultimately bring this government down. That is not the reason to oppose it. The reason to oppose it is that the bill is fundamentally wrong. You will find in due course that a majority of Australians come to that conclusion and, like Lord Stanley Bruce before you, you will discover the meaning of that.