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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 111

Senator FORSHAW (9:50 PM) —I always enjoy following Senator Mason because he gives you so much material to respond to. The problem tonight, as usual, is that I do not have the time. I will leave it for another occasion.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is 687 pages long. It is an amendment to an existing act, but it is actually longer than the existing act. The explanatory memorandum is 565 pages long. It is an extensive and complex document and it needs a lot of study and explanation. But it has one overall purpose. That purpose was outlined by the current Prime Minister back in 1992. He was then the shadow minister for industrial relations in the failed Hewson coalition. On the occasion of the launch of the coalition’s industrial relations policy on Tuesday, 20 October 1992—this was Fightback, remember—he was speaking about their policy on minimum conditions. He said:

The first of those will be a minimum hourly rate of pay, calculated by reference to what otherwise would have been the award minimum if the person in question had remained within the award. And it is very important that I emphasise that it will be an hourly rate of pay. That carries with it an enormous change under this policy. What it means is that the policy is effectively abolishing the concept of a fixed working week. What it means is that the length of the working week, and whether somebody is paid penalty rates, or holiday loadings, that all of those things will become, if people go into workplace agreements, will become matters of negotiation.

He went on:

... as I’ve gone around Australia, as has John—

and he is referring to John Hewson—

talking about this policy that if we really want to modernise the Australian economy, if we really want to internationalise the work practices of Australia, if we really want to make the Australian workplace competitive with the rest of the world we have to embrace a very important principle, and that is if somebody makes a capital investment in this country they ought to be able to run that capital investment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year without penalty as to the time of the day or night they run that investment.

It has been the PM’s dream for years and years to wind back the current industrial award system, diminish the role of the Industrial Relations Commission, reduce the role of trade unions in representing workers and remove longstanding award entitlements such as guaranteed wage rates, classification structures and standardised hours of work. It has been the dream of John Howard to abolish penalty rates and remove leave and leave loading provisions in awards. It has been John Howard’s dream to get rid of allowances and the right to seek redress for an unfair dismissal. They are just a few of the elements of this dream. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister looks set to achieve it as the government now has the numbers in the Senate. All of the posturing of Senator Joyce and a few others will come to naught, I predict. But the PM’s dream will become a complex nightmare for many workers and their families.

Other speakers have identified many of the specific measures contained in the bill which will impact most severely on employees and their families. Hopefully, we will get a chance through the committee stage to do that in more detail. But I just want to focus on a couple of those before turning to the spurious reasons that are advanced by the government, government senators and their supporters, most noticeably the ACCI and the Business Council of Australia. I will just name a few of the significant effects of this legislation. As we know, awards will only be allowed to include five matters. Senator Mason talked a moment ago about five principles. Awards will only be allowed to have five matters. We note, of course, that, in the first wave in 1996, award provisions were reduced to 20 allowable matters. The effect of that was that people’s legal rights under awards were removed from those awards. Prior to the election, in all of the bills that were brought before this parliament, the government sought to remove the right to pursue an unfair dismissal claim for employees in businesses with 20 or fewer employees. Since gaining a majority in the Senate, that 20 has now become 100. The definition of ‘small business’ has now grown to include the bulk of businesses in this country.

Penalty rates, of course, are not just a loading for employees who work beyond the normal working week or the normal working hours prescribed in a day. They are also and have always been intended as a deterrent to employers from working their employees excessively long hours without any break. Under this legislation, you will no longer be able to prescribe a penalty rate in an award. As to hours of work, the government has waxed lyrical that it will prescribe a standard 38-hour week, something that is prescribed in most awards in this country. But, of course, we know that the 38-hour week under this government’s proposals can have effectively no beginning and no end because it can be averaged over an extended time. Originally, the government’s proposal was that it could be averaged over a year.

Method of payment is a simple thing, people might say, but it is very important. There will no longer be any guarantee of how an employee must be paid his or her wages, salaries and entitlements. People currently paid weekly or fortnightly as a prescribed condition in an award may find their payments changed to monthly or longer without notice or consent. There is no requirement for consistency. Imagine the impact upon an employee and his family if they find that they go from fortnightly pay to monthly pay. They have to look at the budget because many people these days have automatic deductions from their bank accounts to pay their interest bills and whatever other repayments they may have. What is to stop an employer changing it again? The employer might think: ‘The cash flow’s a bit short this month. I won’t worry too much about accessing the overdraft—I’ll just pay the employees in a couple more weeks’ time or another month’s time.’ The removal of that prescription in an award removes that entitlement, which is guaranteed at the moment.

I could go on and on, but time does not permit me tonight. When this government and this Prime Minister argue that these changes are just about bringing in flexibility and modernising the award system, that is a nonsense. This is not reform. You do not reform a system by removing entitlements in awards. You do not reform a system by undermining the industrial legal system and structures of this country. That is not reform; that is bastardisation. That is what it is.

The government uses all sorts of Liberal wordspeak to try and justify this legislation. It speaks about providing choice. But when the Prime Minister was shadow minister for industrial relations in 1992 he was not talking about choice. He was talking about a brave new world and his vision, his dream of the 365-day year with 24-hour, around-the-clock operation and employees having to cop what was given to them or what was prescribed for them. That was not choice, and this is not choice. The government speaks of flexibility. It claims that these changes will lead to higher productivity, increased employment and higher wages, but there is no empirical evidence at all for these claims. It is merely a series of repeated statements; it is rhetoric. It is a constant mantra that we will see increased productivity and increased employment.

In the great liberal tradition, as John Faulkner so eloquently put it tonight in his remarks, the principle of liberalism is to protect the rights of the individual. That is what John Stuart Mill was on about. That is what Gladstone and others were on about. That is not what Mr Howard is on about at all. The irony here is that individuals—the people that this Liberal Party has said it was founded to represent—will be left largely to themselves, without adequate support or protection, in an uneven contractual relationship.

A moment ago Senator Mason talked about the industrial award system and said that the industrial relations system had not delivered any of the great advances in this country. He should go back and read his history. That is unprofessional and unacademic coming from Senator Mason. He also misunderstands the situation. He misunderstands the purpose of the industrial award system and of the Industrial Relations Commission. It is about protection. Its role has been to conciliate, arbitrate and protect. That is what the law is about. The law ultimately exists—and this is industrial law—to protect people, to protect individuals. When you remove laws, when you wipe them out, as you are doing by stripping the awards back and by taking away the right of the Industrial Relations Commission to determine the national wage increase, you are removing their rights. So, as I said, the claims that have been made are false; they are mere rhetoric.

When the Prime Minister has been asked to give a guarantee that no worker will be worse off, he has responded that he stands on his record. But what is that record? As we know, since 1996, when this government was elected, it has followed the tradition of the Fraser-Howard government to oppose in the Industrial Relations Commission the increase sought in every single national wage application. Not only that, it has actually opposed the increases that have ultimately been awarded. On not one occasion has the Howard government ever made a submission to the national wage bench where the level of the increase that it said should be awarded to workers has matched what the commission has ultimately awarded. The commission has always awarded more and, as we know, if the government submissions had been adopted on every one of those occasions, workers today would be $50 per week less well off on their minimum rate of pay. So when this government boasts about how it has presided over a 12 per cent wage increase across the Australian work force, it misrepresents the truth. It has not presided over that. It has not delivered that at all. It has opposed those sorts of increases for workers. But now it claims the credit, because the commission had the temerity to disagree with the government and award more.

I heard Senator McGauran earlier this evening in his entertaining but tortuous remarks refer to the great work done by the NFF in revolutionising the system of industrial relations in this country. I remember those times pretty well. I was pretty deeply involved as the secretary of the AWU. Do you know what the NFF used to do? They used to go to the national wage commission and argue that rural workers should not receive an increase. They did it on four occasions. They said that farmers could not afford to pay it. It did not matter which rural industry they were in, they said that no farmer in Australia could afford to pay a minimum wage increase for station hands, shearers and so on. They lost every time, but it was a device that let them delay the case for months and months, and in that industry it was impossible to get a retrospective application because of the casual and itinerant nature of that work. That is how they denied workers in rural industries the legitimate national wage increase that they should have got.

What else did the NFF do? They hired a gun barrister, famous for Mudginberri, Mr Costello, to go into the Industrial Relations Commission and argue that rural workers should not receive superannuation. I know this because I was the advocate for the union. Fortunately, Mr Costello did not win. But that is what the NFF did. They said, ‘Rural workers are not entitled to superannuation.’ But they also said, ‘Mr Commissioner, if you think rural workers should get superannuation, despite the NFF submission, it should only be paid to rural workers who work for at least a five-week period with one employer.’ This of course ruled out just about every rural worker in the country, particularly shearers, who move from employer to employer. Fortunately, they did not win that case either. But that was the sort of thing that the NFF stood for. Of course, now they are out there championing this legislation. Why? Because it gives them another opportunity to strip back the minimum entitlements that these workers receive.

Senator McGauran talks about what is happening in France and some sort of socialist moribund system they have over there that is causing economic problems. I remind Senator McGauran that the major problem in France is that the economy and the system there are based upon protection for the farmers. It is the farmers in France who will not agree to economic reform—and you know it. In France, the equivalent of the NFF is the major problem in terms of restructuring the economy and doing something about getting rid of those subsidies that are paid to the farmers. So do not lecture us about a moribund system.

As I said earlier in the debate, there are many industries where flexibility already exists. The rural industries, the mining industry and the retail industry all have flexibility in hours of work and so on—and, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall, you referred to how salaries can be annualised et cetera. But of course it is all based upon a system which ensures that employees are not disadvantaged when it comes to rates of pay, entitlements et cetera and that penalty rates, for example, are built into the hourly rate. That is not what this government is proposing.

Finally, I will turn to the use of the corporations power, section 51(xx). The government is using, pretty much for the first time, the corporations power under the Constitution to justify this legislation and, in so doing, is effectively dismantling the state systems. If the government is so intent upon using the corporations power to get rid of awards and regulate the wages and working conditions—and thereby reduce them—of employees in this country, why doesn’t it use the corporations power to do something about the corporations themselves? Why doesn’t it use the corporations power to do something about James Hardie? The victims of the James Hardie are being assisted by the union movement. I do not see the federal government coming to their assistance—and it has the power to do it.

A recent survey on the salaries of chief executives revealed that the head of Macquarie Bank gets $18½ million a year, the head of Leighton gets $12 million and the head of Rio Tinto gets $6 million. Why doesn’t the government do something about the excesses that exist in the corporate world, where high-priced CEOs, all members of the Business Council of Australia, are paid huge amounts even when they fail to run a company profitably? Why doesn’t the government use the corporations power to do something about that? But of course it will not. (Time expired)