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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 120

Senator LUNDY (10:31 PM) —Upon being elected to the Australian Senate I never imagined that I would have to debate and defend the laws that constitute the very heart of the Australian ethos and the fabric of our society. Far from the flippant disregard for the social impact expressed by those opposite, the fair go, standing up for your mates, being fair dinkum and cheering on the underdog are all popular cultural expressions of our values. And they are at risk. Whilst these words have come to illustrate the stereotypical Aussie, they are values shared by most of the world’s diverse communities, so it is no wonder Australians are so comfortably multicultural. These values represent fairness, honesty, dignity, empathy and compassion.

The problem the Howard government has is that these values are all codified in our industrial relations system, the system the Prime Minister is now seeking to destroy. It is no wonder that people are unhappy. Many years ago a freshly federated Australian nation saw these values given life in a system for managing fairness in the world of work. Through the original Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904 the members of the first parliament of this country codified the application of fairness, honesty, dignity, empathy and compassion for working people. The system provided both employers and employees with a methodology to resolve disputes, a robust system for addressing the inevitable and ongoing tension between the interests of employers and employees. It also provided protection for those who were vulnerable.

It should also be said that this system of industrial or workplace relations had a far wider effect than just on work. It was, and is, about both individual and collective opportunities within communities, towns and the nation. It is about self-esteem, safety and health. It is about relationships and birth rates. It is about pride and dignity and even about prejudice. Over the years this system has been morphed and moulded to suit the times and the economic priorities of various governments. But all have either conceded or celebrated the wisdom of having such a system of industrial relations, of having that independent umpire.

That is, until now. Until now the extremist views of the far right of the Liberal Party have been marginalised and contained. This has occurred either by the Liberal Party itself keeping these extremists in a minority or the Senate keeping the coalition government in a minority. In July 2005 this all changed. When the coalition government led by Prime Minister Howard took control Australia was faced with a big political first: a majority in the Senate by a party in which the majority holds extremely right-wing views. So extreme are the views of this Liberal-National coalition government and so willing are they to exploit the majority in the Senate that for the first time the uniquely Australian system of managing fairness in the workplace is going to be destroyed.

These changes we are now debating represent a direct attack on the ability of working people to obtain a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. No longer will the needs and interests of the employee be a factor in the setting of wages and conditions. No longer will an independent umpire arbitrate on wage rises and disputes. The use of individual contracts and Australian workplace agreements, or AWAs, will ensure that all the power in a negotiation between an employer and employee or even a potential employee is in the hands of the employer. No longer will individual contracts or AWAs be merely an option where an award or collective agreement exists. These proposals have been constructed so that these individual agreements will be mandated by attrition. In other words, the Howard government is dictating that individual contracts will be the way contracts of employment are determined in the future. This is an authoritarian approach that offends even the most basic concepts of democracy. It does not even serve the interests of individuals. It sets worker against worker. These changes we are debating attack the principle of standing up for your mates, and every effort is being made by the Prime Minister to prevent working people from joining together to look after one another.

From the Prime Minister’s perspective, collective activity is the enemy as it not only allows working people to stand up for themselves but, if their organisation is strong enough, can help other working people who are not able to be collectively active achieve a better result. This is why the unions have come in for such a bashing by the Howard government. Unions are created by collective activity of working people. Unions are the product of the collective conscience of people striving for fairness and looking after the underdog. When the Liberal Party attack unions they are doing far more than performing a well-worn ritual of class warfare. They are attacking the principles of fairness and dignity. They are attacking the Australian values of a fair go for all, standing up for your mates and looking out for those in need.

These changes also undermine any remaining skerrick of credibility this government may have had in representing the battler. What could be more dishonest than calling these extreme changes ‘work choices’ and then spending over $50 million misleading the Australian public about their true implications? Every time one of these taxpayer funded Howard government ads is seen on TV it should be a reminder of the deception and lies. There are few real choices for any party in this legislation. There are none for employees—and I will come to that. But even employers who have been duped into thinking these changes will benefit them or their business need to take a closer look.

I have watched how some of the ideologically motivated employer organisations have pushed and promoted these changes with predictable monotony, funding their own ads. I have watched with interest as the small business employer groups fall lazily into line without so much as a synapse firing to connect the changes with a rise in some serious social and economic problems. These problems for business include increased red tape, hostility in their human resources department, division and distrust among their work force, and employer discomfort because they have to create hardship.

For many employers, the glib rhetoric of increased flexibility means, in reality, imposing longer and/or erratic working hours upon their employees. Increased efficiency means paying less for holidays and overtime and restricting or preventing leave, which cause their employees personal and financial distress. For employers in dangerous sectors these changes mean losing the practical function of employees and unions improving safety and enforcing standards—not to mention the goodwill of the workers in achieving better safety and health. I know that many employers are not happy with this prospect. They know who does the work on safety.

According to the Sensis business index survey released today, support from small to medium business is going backwards, with as many as one in 10 now feeling that the IR changes proposed by the Howard government will have a negative impact on their business. Report author Christena Singh said that 26 per cent of businesses believe the changes have gone too far and are scared and confused about the potential impact these laws will have on their working relationships with staff who, with good reason, have become insecure about their future employment.

But employers are naive if they think they can continue as they are. Under these changes, the more an employer wants to keep things the same the greater the administrative and cost burden they will endure, and the smaller the business the greater this burden. Does this sound familiar? Small business has no friend in the Howard government. In addition, under legislation passed previously that targeted building unions, such as the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, actual financial penalties are levelled at employers who try to work with unions or look after their employees. This is the authoritarian nature of these changes. Good employers and well-intentioned employers will have no choice but to offend the dignity of their employees and deprive them of hard fought for conditions.

It is this impact on employees that I turn to now. I have reflected on the dilemmas confronting some employers with consciences, but this is nothing compared to the pain, humiliation and harm that many working people will suffer as this new authoritarian regime of industrial relations spreads through their workplaces like a cancer. I learnt my politics as a labourer from life and work on building sites. I became a unionist and later a member of the Labor Party as a direct result of this experience. I know what it is like to rely on overtime penalty rates to pay my debts. I know how incomprehensible it would have been for me as a 16-year-old to negotiate my rates and conditions, and I was probably at the confident end of the spectrum.

Just whose kids does Mr Howard think will be well served by this legislation? I do not think his own kids will ever have to endure it, but I feel for all the young people who do not have a hope of securing a fair wage under an individual contract regime. This is the reality that many of them face. I also know what it is like to argue with an employer to have the right to protect myself from substances like asbestos. My job was to remove the stuff. It was the most gobsmacking experience to go to that workplace and have to fight for respiratory protection—and they knew it caused cancer. What is going on in this world when this happens today and every day? That is the role that unions have, to organise the workers to protect basic, commonsense safety. And that experience is why I am in the Senate now.

This is the reality for many employees, as all workplaces have their hazards. Safety is one of the most basic rights and it requires constant and diligent attention. I have reflected many times in this chamber on the constant vigil needed—and only unions can provide it. I know the routine, because after labouring I spent close to 10 years supporting workers and delegates in making their workplaces safer. It does not happen by itself. So to dismantle union organisation specifically increases the risk of injury and death.

It is true that companies benefit directly from this diligence to safety through improved productivity and higher morale. The safest sites are invariably the most productive. Contrary to the ridiculous Liberal rhetoric we have heard throughout this debate, the most productive sites are the ones with the most effective union organisation, including delegates dedicated to safety and quick dispute resolution. It is a tragedy that the blind ideology of the Howard government’s IR changes will deny workers the power of this collective action to defend safety standards. This can only result in more deaths and injuries. The statistics do not lie. There will be blood on the hands of those who vote for these bills.

I recently visited a site in Canberra where a number of building workers expressed their fears about the changes. Not only did these strong unionists defend their hard-won conditions and express their pride in having helped secure many improvements for the next generation, they spoke of the personal impact on family life.

Senator Ian Campbell —Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I seek your ruling on whether it is in compliance with standing orders to imply that someone who votes for this bill will have blood on their hands. It seems to me to be a highly inflammatory thing, a reflection on senators and a form of intimidation on senators who may be asked to vote on the bill shortly.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—On the point of order, there have been many comments along those lines from both sides of the chamber during this debate. I do not accept that particular statement. I do not think there is a point of order but I will check with the Clerk. On advice, Senator Lundy, it has been suggested that you rephrase your comment without quite the same attribution.

Senator LUNDY —Certainly. I do not mean to intimidate anyone opposite other than to make the point that I believe there will be an increase in death and injury without unionisation, on building sites in particular.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator Lundy. I think that is appropriate.

Senator LUNDY —I knew quite a few people on the site I visited and many of them were there when the union rallied to achieve industry superannuation and transportable long service leave. Many of these workers were there when they won the right to something as prosaic as the right to wear hearing protection. They were there when they won the right to have a drink and snack mid-morning and they were there when they fought for a chair and a table to have it at. They were there when they fought for a safety switch on temporary power boards, and they fought for the right to be trained in up-to-date skills. They also rallied and went on strike for a decent career path and for modern awards. They know their mother fought for the right to work when she got married and for pay equity. They know their father fought for holiday and sick pay. They know their great-grandparents benefited from the establishment of the minimum wage. They know their great-great-great-great-grandparents fought for the eight-hour day.

There are workers all around this country, past and present, who have endured some loss of pay and some discomfort to themselves for the greater good of others. This is a remarkable display of human spirit. It is the philosophy of the collective. It is about people joining together to improve the rights and conditions of those who endure hardship, put themselves at risk in their day-to-day work or just need some support. It is what is called a social democracy, and this is the philosophy so hated by the Prime Minister. What does this make him? It makes him a little dictator. And there is no small ‘l’ liberal left in this person or in the Liberal Party. These building workers not only are conscious of all this but know that the things they hold dearest—their time with their family and friends, their dignity in earning a living wage—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Lundy, Senator Ian Campbell is on his feet. I understand what you are going to say, Senator Campbell. Go ahead, put it on the record.

Senator Ian Campbell —Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. Australia is one of the greatest democracies in the world. The Prime Minister is a great adherent to that democratic principle. To accuse the Australian Prime Minister, in fact any Australian Prime Minister, of being a dictator is an absolute outrage and totally outside standing orders.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Lundy, I request that you rephrase the comment about the Prime Minister.

Senator LUNDY —I think he has dictatorial attributes.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —No, Senator Lundy, I think you need to rephrase that comment.

Senator LUNDY —I withdraw that comment, but I think I have made my point. As I was saying, these building workers not only are conscious of all this but know that the things they hold dearest—their time with their family and friends, their dignity in earning a living wage, their natural instincts to stand up for each other and their pride in their skills—are all at risk.

Senator Ian Campbell interjecting—

Senator LUNDY —It might not happen immediately, but without this system of industrial relations underpinning all these values of Australian life they will disappear over time.

Senator Ian Campbell interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Campbell, I ask you to stop interjecting in that way.

Senator LUNDY —All of these issues impact on real choices faced by Australians. I was not exaggerating when I said this legislation was about relationships and birth rates. With declining birth rates already, how will greater job insecurity and even more irregular hours be conducive to planning a family? It can only make life harder for people already under immense time and financial pressure.

It was not an exaggeration to say it is about prejudice, either. The Prime Minister’s industrial relations changes will allow the personal prejudices of unscrupulous and vindictive employers—of which there are some; not all, but there are some—to reign unchecked in workplaces. The removal of unfair dismissal protection is the most obvious invitation to discriminate, but the bill also proposes to remove the requirement to have antidiscrimination clauses in all agreements. Employers will have such power and control over employment and dismissal that antidiscrimination laws will become practically meaningless. Sexism, racism, ageism, religious discrimination and all those terrible things will have life breathed back into them by a Prime Minister excited at the thought of his ideological dream of smashing unions coming true. This is just one example of how these changes have far broader social implications.

Much of the evidence from the Senate inquiry, stunted and all too brief as it was, shed additional light on many other examples of the broader social and economic impacts of the changes. I will find another opportunity to focus on the massive negative impact on women and young people and on the economic facts of the matter. But today I want to focus on an area that relates to my portfolio responsibilities of sport and recreation. Today the ACTU released the family impact statement for the industrial relations bills before us. It observes in relation to family wellbeing:

Time spent together is the glue that builds family relationships, and it is important to the maintenance of personal relationships as well as parent-child relationships.

I do not think anyone would disagree with that. Given that longer and more unpredictable working hours are an inevitable outcome of these extreme changes, this should be of major concern. I am concerned about how the changes will impact on one of the most meaningful and fun experiences parents share with their kids, and that is through their sport. Under the Howard government’s regime, employer demands for parents to work longer hours, the deprivation of leave entitlements and the imposition of unwanted shift work will mean that many parents cannot commit to coach, manage or support their children’s sporting events after school or on weekends. This pressure will exist for volunteers and officials at all levels of sport. It is relevant to this debate that there are a lot of them. (Time expired).