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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 99

Senator MARK BISHOP (8:49 PM) —I want to address in this second reading debate some of the more pressing issues behind this draft bill—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. At the outset, without exaggeration or hyperbole, it should be said that the Australian people should not have any doubt that this is the most doctrinaire and revolutionary piece of legislation considered by this parliament for many years. Therefore, I wish to address this bill in that changing industrial context.

It is commonly known that there were three major events which shaped Australia in the 20th century—the two world wars and the Great Depression. Each of these was global in effect; each took the Australian population a generation to recover from. But, despite those setbacks, Australia grew as a nation to become greatly prosperous. We took our place in the world as a nation formed on principles of equality and a fair go. We were largely a classless society with well-established democratic principles. Liberty, equality and fraternity sat well with us. They became enshrined in our constitutions, our institutions and our public ethos. We had common values including, importantly, religious tolerance. We shared a responsibility for those of lesser means. Income redistribution in this country and the provision of welfare based on means has rarely been questioned.

In world terms, Australia had a very useful mix of both economic and social policies. Industrially, though, it was often difficult, often tough. This was as a result of international tensions between labour and capital, fed by those three crises. Negotiations on working conditions were often disruptive and costly. However, despite our considerable industrial turmoil, our industrial policies supported our common values. These were enshrined through court cases and eventually formed a solid body of industrial law. We developed laws and institutions which evolved to match the circumstances of the time. Today, their maturity has led us into an era of industrial peace never known in this country. We have enjoyed enormous growth in productivity.

During the 1980s and early 1990s we saw enormous changes in workplace relations. We saw the ALP-ACTU led reform, which brought about an enormous productivity surge. Those changes provided much of the base for our recent national economic growth and success. That process involved considerable restructuring. Unions were amalgamated and awards were often restructured. The wages accord saw an end to the Howard-Fraser induced rash of inflation. The economy was put back on track after the appalling mismanagement of the then Treasurer, the current Prime Minister. But how quickly people on the other side forget.

At the end, however, the basic principles and values were preserved. We built a stronger economy with an even fairer workplace. The emphasis was on working together. It was a process of management realising that their work force was their most important asset. The theme was: people, people and people. Capital investment in equipment was vital, but so was investment in the workplace. Training and skills were paramount. Enterprise bargaining recognised the need for flexibility. It also recognised the need for a useful share of profit, based on productivity at the workplace. In healthy workplaces, management and unions and their work force worked cooperatively for a common end. It may not have been perfect, but it was streets ahead of the old confrontationist environment. Harmony in the workplace is still unsurpassed in Australia—all based on those reforms of the middle eighties and early nineties.

However, at the time of the growth of the accord an undercurrent began to develop. That undercurrent was based on the far Right of conservative politics. They argued for deregulation of the labour market in absolute terms. The Prime Minister was their cheerleader. Their first ambition was to smash the unions for purely political reasons. In addition, they shared a very dry—as it has become known—approach to economics based upon the theoretical operation of the marketplace. Labour was just another input to the processes of production. It should be subject to the laws of supply and demand like every other input. No recognition was given to other values, or to the overall health of the general community or society. This was a bare, 18th century philosophy: survival of the fittest. Having deregulated, the role of government was to, in the most minor and insignificant way, pick up the pieces. That is exactly what this workplace reform, Work Choices, does. The dries of the 1980s have finally won through. This legislation throws out over 100 years of history. It abandons everything working people have fought for over the last 100 years.

There are three undesirable themes to this workplace reform legislation before the chair at the moment. First, there is a sinister and cunningly calculated political agenda. Second, there is the overturning of a core of values in our society, of which our workplaces have become central. Third, there are a range of social consequences the likes of which few have contemplated—that is, except for the masterminds of this most elaborate plan. I call this plan ‘elaborate’ quite deliberately. It has been contrived after years of frustrated ideological fervour. It is based upon a narrow view of society.

This is the plan: first, as always, there is the political agenda. There is only one goal here: to eliminate collective bargaining—that is, to divide and rule—and to deal with the individual employee as a contractor for a fixed period. For those who believe unity is strength, forget it. Unity is out; power is back. The removal of collective bargaining means a further decline of the unions. New restrictions on union activity in the workplace will make it even harder. That weakens the trade union movement. It attacks directly the base of the Australian Labor Party. The conservative dream of a one-party state is suddenly realisable and suddenly available. That is the Lee Kuan Yew model: a guided democracy.

This brings me to the second part of the plan: the radical changes to the workplace. The industrial relations regime in Australia has played a most important part in the shaping of our national culture and the values that derive from that culture. Fundamentally, those values are based on the notions of equality and a fair go. The responsibility of the employer for the employee was forged over a century. At the heart of this, until more recent years, has been a commitment to, responsibility for and obligation of permanent employment—that is, a value which says that the employer values the commitment of employees. In return, the employee commits to the employer and the health of his enterprise or business.

When done at a collective level, this has always formed a contract which has ensured certainty on both sides. As we know, this path has not run smoothly. As we have seen over the last 15 years at least, though, industrial activity and industrial action has never been so low. The formula, formed over much time and given expression in the mid-1980s, is working and working well. That is where the productivity has come from. We have grown beyond the adversarial world of crude force as part of a tripartite pact. Government, business, the union movement and employees have all gained.

The third downside of this master plan is the unanticipated social consequences, unanticipated by some and deliberate by others. Because this plan is about the individual, not the collective good, individuals will necessarily suffer. The protection of the collective is to be stripped away. Gone will be the concept of continuous employment or permanency, and with that also goes certainty of income—important elements in our society, although, it must be said, they have been breaking down somewhat slowly in more recent years. The principal cause of this has been what has been termed by many as the ‘casualisation’ of labour. The proportion of part-time and casual work has grown at the expense of full-time work. This is described as ‘flexibility’ and for some it has been beneficial.

There is always, however, a downside and that concerns the loss of permanency and the financial uncertainty that goes with that loss of permanency. The effect has been most marked with middle-aged men. That is the price of flexibility and this legislation will accelerate it, particularly the new dismissal provisions. Loss of job certainty, lower superannuation, sporadic work patterns and poor savings over time all add up. The capacity to borrow for a family home will simply be a dream for many. The social implications of this are obvious. Awards will become redundant and will form only the most minor and the most basic of safety nets. The real safety net will be income support from the taxpayer, and this is already becoming the new form of income redistribution rather than by way of the tax system. As part of this plan, the Howard government has been paying family benefits and bonuses very generously in recent times. It has become a popular vote winner, but of course it has, as always, an ulterior purpose. The purpose is to get minimum wages determination out of the industrial environment. That is why we are going to have the so-called Fair Pay Commission. The minimum wage will indeed be as it is described, a true minimum. It will not be negotiated; it will be set by a group in the Fair Pay Commission. Supplementation through family benefits will be for the government to determine, according to what the government of the day thinks can be afforded.

There is another rub, too. Instead of wages being more remote from government control, direct influence over wages will be established, via this body, for government. Minimum wages will become dependent on the budget itself. This is a very different form of income redistribution than we have understood in this country for decades, if not a century. In fact it may be more efficient and fairer than the tax system, which to date is so full of tax avoidance. It may well be that the principle ‘to each according to their need’ as a value will be enhanced. ‘From each according to their capacity to pay’ will be as problematic as it has always been.

But those who are listening do need to understand the detail of this carefully drafted plan. It is a devious plan with serious long-term social consequences. It is why the Prime Minister trumpets every day that he is the working man’s best friend. He is not, of course; he is the best friend of the employer, who will be able to reduce his wages bill. For the low paid the government will be paying a wages subsidy to employers. That is what productivity means to the Howard government. It is not about working smarter or building skills over time. It is about cutting costs, but cutting those costs at public expense. With reduced safety nets and awards restricted below current levels in real terms, wages can and will be, as the market operates, pushed even lower. The taxpayer will make up the difference.

In conclusion, the workplace relations legislation is, as referred to by speakers on both sides, a real watershed in our history. The Prime Minister’s ideology, poached from Great Britain in the 1980s and the United States Republicans now has its head. Australians need to understand the plot and the consequences of implementation of this plan. They are being conned again. The trouble is that the penny is starting to drop and the consequences of this legislation are going to be visited perhaps in two years time. Thank you.