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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 92


Senator FAULKNER (8:11 PM) —United we bargain, divided we beg. That simple truth underlies the foundation of the union movement and it underlies the foundation of the Australian Labor Party. In the 19th century, working Australians were at the mercy of their employers. The legislation that governed their working lives was the Master and Servant Act. In a time without pensions, welfare or public health care, they had to accept any work, for any pay, at any conditions, or face starvation and ruin. As individuals in the workplace, they could not stand against the economic power of their employers. As individuals in the community, they could not stand against the political power of the wealthy and the privileged. But they could stand together: first, in the unions in their workplaces, where the strength of solidarity was a fair match for the force of finance; then, in a political party—the Australian Labor Party—where collective action became collective voting, and working Australians had a voice in parliament to protect their interests and to work for their industrial rights, their economic security and their human dignity.

For the whole of Australia’s history as a nation, working men and women have stood together to support and assist each other. Our labour movement has been guided by two great truths: firstly, the practical realisation that we each of us do better together than we do alone; and, secondly, the deep conviction that we have an ethical obligation to look beyond our own interests—the conviction that the welfare and wellbeing of the person working next to us, or in the office across the street or in the factory down the road is our responsibility and our concern.

Perhaps you think that I must be biased. Perhaps you think that my assessment of the importance of the union movement lacks objectivity. I would like to quote the opinion of someone who spent a lifetime in politics, and quite a lot of that time as Prime Minister of Australia:

The trades union movement has meant a great deal in our industrial history. It has represented collective bargaining. It has given strength to the workers as a group which no worker as an individual could have possessed. It has been an effective weapon against the obdurate or short-sighted employer. It has had supreme value in the working of the characteristically Australian system of compulsory industrial arbitration. As a servant of the wage earner, unionism has done an extraordinarily good job of work.

The speaker was Robert Gordon Menzies in 1942. Those who only know the Liberal Party from its current incarnation, after John Howard’s years of purges, might be surprised to hear the great Liberal icon and founder speaking so forthrightly and so enthusiastically about the virtues and values of the trade union movement. But the Liberal Party that Menzies founded was not bound in Mr Howard’s ideological straitjacket. In his 1946 policy speech Menzies said:

The wage-earner in an industry is a human being whose welfare should be the care of the industry in which he co-operates. Legal duties and legal wages are not all.

The founder of the Liberal Party was not arguing to reduce the obligations on employers. He was urging employers to meet and exceed legal minimums. He went on to remind his audience that when employers had ‘an automatic resistance to all claims and a belief that the only obligation to employees is to be found in minimum wages and conditions’ they were creating the conditions for industrial conflict and social disharmony.

So what did Menzies, that great hero of John Howard and the Liberal Party, say were Liberal principles and values? He said that the Liberal Party stood for good wages and conditions, for the prompt re-examination of the basic wage by the arbitration court, for the provision of adequate tribunals for the timely rectification of grievances, for profit sharing, for ample security against unemployment and old age and sickness and for a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Menzies said that the Liberal Party:

... believes in Trade Unionism and in the protection by law of the rights secured by wage-earners. And, because it believes in all these things, it stands for a fair industrial law which will be enforced without fear, favour or affection against employer and employee alike ... We aim at high wages ... good conditions ... sharing of prosperity ... the independent settlement of differences by Conciliation and Arbitration.

How different is it today? John Howard has remade the Liberal Party in his own image. The Howard government, John Howard’s Liberal Party, is introducing legislation that is based on the idea that the only obligation to working Australians from either employer or government is minimum wages and conditions. John Howard, the self-proclaimed heir to the Menzies tradition, is taking the setting of the minimum wage away from the independent Industrial Relations Commission and giving it to a hand-picked Fair Pay Commission strictly forbidden to consider fairness when it sets that wage. He is taking away Mr Menzies ‘adequate tribunals for the timely rectification of grievances’ and he is throwing employees and employers back on the courts and the common law.

It is not just this one piece of legislation we are debating now. Menzies believed in ‘ample security against unemployment and old age and sickness’—the very principles under attack from the Howard government’s so-called Welfare to Work legislation. And Mr Howard is viciously attacking the ability of working Australians to get aid and assistance from their unions, from those very organisations that Menzies praised so highly as having ‘been an effective weapon against the obdurate or short-sighted employer’ and as having, in his words, ‘given strength to the workers as a group which no worker as an individual could have possessed’. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Mr Menzies were in federal parliament today he would find himself unable to vote for a bill that so thoroughly betrays his beliefs, his principles and his values.

Even today another former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, said of the Howard Liberal Party, ‘It is unrecognisable as Liberal.’ No previous government has so enthusiastically trashed the idea of independence and impartiality in our industrial relations system. No previous government has gone so far as to legislate for industrial outcomes rather than industrial instruments.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that if Mr Menzies, with his firm belief in, in his words, ‘a fair industrial law which will be enforced without fear, favour or affection’, were in John Howard’s Liberal Party, he would have to cross the floor on this bill. Menzies was conservative—very conservative—but at least he never envisaged turning back the clock in Australia’s workplaces to the 19th century. Mr Howard has sold out not only on public holidays, penalty rates and the minimum wage and on working Australians but even on his hero, Sir Robert Menzies.

Instead, the voice advising the government today on work force rights and workplace justice is Peter Hendy, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive and, not coincidentally, Peter Reith’s former chief of staff. Mr Hendy claims the government’s proposals will boost productivity by increasing trade-offs for wages and conditions in the workplace. I have no doubt about the trade-offs Mr Hendy has in mind. Mr Hendy has real form.

Can we expect the kinds of trade-offs that the employees of Patrick Stevedore found they had to make when they arrived at their workplaces and found them locked and patrolled by Rottweilers and by mercenaries in balaclavas? Will they be the kinds of trade-offs that happen when your employer shifts staff to a shelf company and assets are held in another company to avoid fulfilling contracts and paying entitlements, as happened to those waterside workers in 1998? Peter Hendy was in that plan up to his neck. Any trade-offs and flexibility that Peter Hendy thinks are a good idea ought to make working Australians both alert and alarmed.

Hendy’s appointment to this cushy sinecure at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry was a reward for his role in the notorious ‘children overboard’ deceit. When the Senate inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident sought to ask Mr Hendy about his role in that massive fraud perpetrated on the Australian people, he was nowhere to be found. On four occasions he was invited to appear to give evidence but not once was Hendy willing to face the music. It was a very different story with the recent grotesquely abbreviated Senate committee inquiry into this Work Choices bill. Hendy could not get to the witness table fast enough to ingratiate himself with the government, toadying to John Howard and Kevin Andrews and singing the praises of this brutal attack on working Australians. He was a key player in one of the most divisive election campaigns that federal politics in this country has seen. It is no surprise to see Peter Hendy, along with that other ‘kids overboard’ player and henchman, Ian Hanke, as camp followers to the government on this legislation.

John Howard and Kevin Andrews have taken a great deal of trouble to target the farcically named Work Choices bill straight at unions, the labour movement and the representatives of working Australians’ collective interests and collective concerns. Work Choices is about preventing working men and women from making any choice that involves collective strength, collective bargaining and collective interests. The labour movement is enduring proof of the Australian values of mateship, egalitarianism and fair play. No wonder it so offends John Howard and his brand of divisive, ideological and extreme Liberalism.

But I can tell you now that this vicious and brutal attack on working Australians and the values we hold dear will ultimately fail. The labour movement together has toiled for more than a hundred years in the service of the industrial rights, economic security, and human dignity of working men and women. John Howard seeks to strip away the gains we have made in that century of effort. He seeks to strip fairness from the workplace and security from our families. This bill will be rammed through the parliament now that John Howard has total control and can pursue his extreme ideological agenda. It will be rammed through this chamber. But I want to say here tonight that the Australian Labor Party and the Australian union movement are here for the long haul. We have seen a century of struggle and we know that our greatest victories are yet to come.