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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 8

Senator STEPHENS (9:50 AM) —I was reflecting last night on the conduct of the inquiry into this Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Perhaps a good place to start is with submission 175, entitled Research evidence about the effects of the ‘work choices’ bill, written by a group of 151 Australian industrial relations, labour market and legal academics. I quote from the submission:

We hold divergent views on many issues. Indeed, we regularly debate industrial, economic and workplace issues at national and international forums and in the Australian and international literature. We do not always agree.

However, we share grave concerns about the historic and far-reaching changes now proposed for Australia’s workplace relations and their potential effects upon Australian workplaces, workers, and our larger society and economy.

They then proceeded to list 10 very real concerns that flow from this legalisation. One of their number was Ms Robyn May, a research fellow from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, who appeared before the committee on 17 November with three of her colleagues. During their time in front of the committee, Ms May described the experience of New Zealand workers when the government implemented industrial relations changes. She said:

... collective bargaining levels collapsed in favour of individual bargaining. However, bargaining was not really what was happening. Instead, often workers were offered standardised individual contracts that unilaterally removed conditions. These were presented on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.

She continued:

The 1990s in New Zealand saw increased inequality in income distribution, a significant fall in the full-time work participation rate for men, flat productivity, a minimum wage that did not keep pace with inflation and real wage cuts for many vulnerable workers. In some sectors, such as retail, penalty and overtime payments were unilaterally removed by employers without compensation. A significant wages gap between Australia and New Zealand opened up, estimated to be somewhere around 20 per cent, even accounting for the fact that over 400,000 New Zealanders live in Australia and not just for the good weather.

This evidence continued for another 12 pages of Hansard. What was mentioned of this evidence or the submission in the majority report? Nothing. Other than a listing in the appendix and within the minority report, you would not even know that these academics had provided evidence. Their absence from the government report surely fits with Senator Brandis’s comments that unless there was something in it for them, why would they ever dream of acknowledging it. In fact, flicking through the footnotes of the majority report, I cannot even find a single mention of any of the evidence taken from the public hearings on 17 November. Perhaps this is because the majority of witnesses who gave evidence that day were highly critical of the legislation—in fact, on the day those critical of this legislation outnumbered the supporters almost two to one. Those opposite are pretending that the hearings simply did not occur.

On 17 November, the Hansard records that groups who gave evidence included the Australian Workers Union, who recommended that the bill be rejected in its entirety; the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, who had grave concerns about it; the Transport Workers Union, who also recommended the bill’s rejection; and the Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, who said the bill did not satisfy their requirements. Refusing to acknowledge these contributions to the debate is in fact another strategy of this government in silencing dissenting voices.

I would like to briefly look at what the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations provided in evidence to the committee. HREOC expressed deep concerns about the implications of this legislation, especially when coupled with the extreme Welfare to Work changes, on Australia’s social fabric. Pru Goward, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, said:

HREOC does have grave concerns about the implications of dismantling or removing any significant planks of a social, legal and economic contract in Australia which has evolved over 100 years and around which a variety of institutions, policies, cultures and government programs have grown up.

Unless careful adjustments are made to surrounding institutions, laws and policies, inevitably that whole contract is challenged. The Work Choices bill, particularly in conjunction with the Welfare to Work changes, represents a wholesale change to the way Australian workplaces operate and, as a consequence, will have major implications for the Australian community more broadly.

So there is this level of criticism from one of the government’s own. It was not what it wanted to hear, so it was ignored in the report.

The Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations stated that the IR proposals before them did not satisfy their requirements for what should be in the legislation. Mr Michael McDonald, the acting chair, stated:

The pursuit of economic growth by means that impose unfair burdens on the poor and vulnerable, and which impose burdens on struggling families, should be resisted.

And he said further:

The Australian fair pay and conditions standard does not constitute a fair minimum standard for the purpose of workplace negotiations. A departure from the current safety net would expose many low-paid and industrially weak employees to inequitable bargaining that will impact on their terms and conditions of employment and consequently their ability to support themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, these were not the only concerns that were blatantly ignored by government members in their report. In fact, practically any evidence critical of the changes suffered this fate. For example, respected legal academic Dr Jill Murray from La Trobe University, who made a powerful submission and appeared as a witness, did not even rate a mention in the majority report. She should have been included—her evidence was very important. She outlined in vivid detail what a job can be reduced to under this legislation.

Dr Murray’s evidence highlighted the worst features of this legislation. There will be no minimum or maximum weekly hours, besides the 38 hours averaged over a 12-month period. There will be no entitlement to a suitable income week by week because the concept of a weekly wage is abolished. There will be no meaningful entitlement to overtime payments. There will be no entitlement to higher rates of pay for unsociable hours; the employee can be required to work at any time in the 24-hour span. There is no legal entitlement under the bill’s scheme to certainty of scheduling; the scheduling is wholly in the hands of the employer. There is no legal entitlement to a written statement of employment status and conditions of employment on engagement. There is no legal entitlement to pay or hours records. There is no or little job security. There will be no access to modern work and family standards created by the AIRC earlier this year. There is no right to receive information about changes at work or be consulted about such issues. There is no access to legally mandated career structures. There is no right to collectively bargain. Finally, as we all know, there is no voice in the new Work Choices wage setting process.

Who are most likely to feel those effects? Those working on minimum wages, casual workers, young workers, single parents, women, unskilled workers, those with poor English and rural workers, all holding it together as best they can. They will be screwed both ways: through this and the Welfare to Work reforms. No wonder Dr Murray’s submission is noticeably absent from the majority report. Labor picked it up in the minority report and I have picked it up again now. Although there were over 5,000 individual submissions, most of those were dismissed as spam by the government.

Why does this government dismiss the contribution by academics, peak bodies, churches, welfare organisations and individuals, all of whom give their expertise as a contribution to good public policy? They dismiss it whenever the message is not what they want to hear. And why is this government taking to an art form the practice of individually impugning the professional reputation of those who dare to criticise their decision making or rash policy pronouncements? It is a disgrace. It is a shameful practice by government members and one which is intellectually lazy: taking the low road, attacking the messenger, not the message. It is a sign of arrogance, contempt and hubris that is becoming a hallmark of parliamentary debate. Where is the economic modelling? Where is the economic analysis that shows how the range of changes are going to improve productivity, create jobs, improve the circumstances of working men and women and their families? Most government members do not even feel the need to defend these aspects of the legislation, because they cannot; nor can they describe the impacts of the intersection between this legislation and the Welfare to Work reforms that we will witness being bulldozed through the Senate next week.

Let me highlight just one submission from an individual for those senators opposite and ask them to consider the important message presented in good faith by an Australian elector. I am referring to submission No. 144. It is from Kate Lester, a very worried mother who believes that her concerns about the industrial relations changes are very well founded, given the recent experience of her 14-year-old daughter, Isobella. Isobella was recently fired from an ice-cream parlour in Manly in Sydney, which had just experienced a change of management, because she refused to sign a new contract that would have undercut both her hourly rate of pay and her existing entitlement to penalty rates for working on Sundays. In the words of Ms Lester, her daughter’s employer:

... approached each young worker individually and presented a new contract. He said words to the effect of, ‘You need to sign this to confirm that you are working with me.’ He then proceeded to flick through the documents over approximately 10 minutes and acknowledged that the document contained no penalty rates and no loadings. The employer did not offer to Isobella for her to take a copy home to consider. She was asked to sign the document there and then.

My daughter wouldn’t sign the document. That night she raised the matter with me and we discussed the contract. Isobella decided not to sign the new contract.

When she went to work the following day,

the employer—

... inquired as to whether Isobella had yet signed the contract. When he became aware that she hadn’t he said ‘So, you’ve decided that you’re no longer working for us.’

Fortunately for Isobella, she had the wherewithal to ask for help from her union, the SDA in New South Wales, who instigated a claim of victimisation under section 213 of the New South Wales Industrial Relations Act and her employer quickly offered the position back. It is worth noting that Isobella’s contract still had to pass the no disadvantage test and the union represented action was an unfair dismissal claim.

Both of these protections will soon be eradicated from Isobella’s workplace and it will be open slather for employers around the country. The scales will be tipped overwhelmingly in favour of employers over employees, who will have the choice between taking a job that drastically cuts their rights and pay or taking no job at all. Parents such as Ms Lester will have to sign an AWA on behalf of their children. In her words:

I either sign the AWA to enable my child to get the job working on less than Award conditions or I refuse to sign the AWA to enable and my child is not offered the job. This is not a choice.

Let me assure Ms Lester and her daughter that we in Labor agree. You are right: this is not a choice. The very core of this legislation is about stripping choice—stripping it from the employee and dumping it squarely in the lap of the employer. That is their work choice. And Senator Brandis might note for the record that the detail is not in the legislation. This government want to hide the detail in regulations that we will not even see for weeks, perhaps months. That is their workplace relations amendment bill, and Labor absolutely and unreservedly opposes it.