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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 24

Senator STERLE (10:58 AM) —I rise to speak against the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. The irony of the title of the bill is blatant. You could be forgiven for thinking that this bill was about giving workers choice in workplace relations. It is not. And the use of a phoney name highlights the weakness of the government on this issue. The government use irony in the titles of their bills whenever they know that they are taking an indefensible position on an issue. I am sure that, if a Howard government minister introduced a bill into parliament requiring all Australians to be chucked in gaol and put on rations of bread and water, they would call it the ‘Guaranteed Food and Shelter Bill’. The Work Choices bill has nothing to do with choice. It should really be called the ‘No Choices’ or even the ‘Two Choices’ bill, because if this bill becomes law, Australians will either have to sign an unfair contract or they will not get the job. This bill is yet another example of how the Howard government ruthlessly pursue their ideological agendas without regard for the effects they will have on ordinary working Australians.

But the Howard government have not confined their blatant misrepresentations to the title of this bill. They wasted $55 million telling half-truths to the Australian public in their spectacularly unsuccessful propaganda campaign and in their ministerial press releases. On 9 October, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations put out a press release in which he made a number of unqualified claims. The minister did not have the courage to explain the Howard government’s position fully. Let me give you an example. The minister said:

Under WorkChoices the new workplace relations system:

                  …         …           …

Will better balance the unfair dismissal laws

The only way this statement could be true is if you believe that ‘balance’ means abolishing protection from being sacked harshly, unjustly or unfairly for around four million working Australians. This is what the minister and the rest of the Howard government believe but they are too gutless to come out and say it. Instead, they hide behind $55 million worth of weasel words and an advertising campaign that would make a Nazi propagandist blush. If you do not want to take my word for it, this is what Heather Ridout of the bosses union, the Australian Industry Group, in one of her brochures about the Howard government’s changes said:

The practical result of the Government’s intention to reform this area will be a two-tier system. Employees of smaller companies will lose all their unfair dismissal rights, while employees of larger companies will retain most of their existing rights.

A two-tier system! What a disgrace! Either you want people to be treated with dignity and respect or you do not. Labor believes that workers should have the right to feel protected by the laws of this nation and should be safe in the knowledge that they cannot be dealt with unfairly, not because of how many workmates they have but because of who they are. Without explaining what he actually means or offering a skerrick of evidence to substantiate his claims, the minister concluded his press release with the statement:

The Australian Government is determined to put the national interest first and take the difficult decisions necessary to keep our economy strong and our nation secure ...

Herr Goebbels could not have said it better himself. But let us have a look at this brave new world the Howard government has in store for working Australians, and instead of fascist platitudes let us deal with specifics. Let us look at a real Australian workplace agreement that governs the working conditions of a real Australian and let us deal with facts, not propaganda.

I have in my possession an Australian workplace agreement or AWA that has already been registered by the Office of the Employment Advocate. The names of the parties have been removed to protect the innocent from retribution but the agreement covers a painter in the construction industry we will call Billy the Brush Hand. Billy the Brush Hand’s boss has convinced Billy to sign this AWA in exchange for a flat hourly rate of $17.50 that requires him to forfeit his annual leave loading, his morning tea breaks, his travel allowance, his overtime rates, any right to paid sick leave, any right to paid holidays and his right to pay for time lost where a workplace has become unsafe through no fault of his own, and, to top it off, Billy can be stood down at any time but he has to give one week’s notice before he can quit. Clause 6.1 of Billy’s AWA states:

The contract of employment for this agreement shall be daily hire.

Not weekly; daily. Clause 10.2 states:

Where the employee is required to work outside the ordinary hours—

of 6 am to 6 pm—

he will be paid at his normal hourly rate.

Clause 11.1 states:

Payment for annual leave is included in the hourly wage rate ... and therefore the employee is not entitled to any paid annual leave.

Clause 11.2 states:

Leave without pay will be taken when there is a downturn in the work at hand or—

cop this Senator Joyce—

... the Christmas holiday period.

Clause 12.1 states:

Payment for sick leave is included in the hourly rate and therefore the employee is not entitled to any paid sick leave.

Clause 13.1 states:

Payment for public holidays are included in the hourly rate, and therefore the employee is not entitled to any paid gazetted Public Holidays.

I think Billy got a raw deal. It is clear that Billy had to sign this contract or he would not have got the job. As a former union organiser I have met hundreds of people who got themselves into the same position that Billy the Brush Hand has. I tried to help them all. What Billy needs is a union organiser to point out to him that under the award wage rates and conditions contained in the national building and construction award Billy would be around $12,000 a year better off than he is under the AWA he signed. When Billy was forced to accept the wages and conditions in this AWA that are so much lower than those of people doing the same job as him on other work sites, he made it harder for those workers who negotiated a better deal than he has to keep their wages and conditions, because their boss is now going to be undercut by Billy’s greedy boss. Instead of undercutting his fellow workers’ wages, Billy would have a better chance of getting a better deal for himself if he stands united with his fellow workers against his own boss’s greed.

I always found that, when people like Billy work out how much they are getting ripped off and how that has the effect of dragging down the wages and conditions of everyone else, they choose to join the union of their fellow workers and stand up for themselves. But why would the Office of the Employment Advocate approve such an agreement? What real meaning is there in the no disadvantage test? The answer is that the Office of the Employment Advocate is not really independent. The last time I looked, the Employment Advocate’s web site contained a template for an AWA complete with voluntary overtime provisions. It is absurd that the same organisation that is entrusted with promoting AWAs is also responsible for compliance. But why is the Howard government going to the effort to change the law if agreements as unfair as Billy the Brush Hand’s are already being approved by the Employment Advocate? It is because the Howard government knows that it is loosing the war for the hearts and minds of people who are being done over just like Billy the Brush Hand.

Between 2002 and 2004, the percentage of Australians employed under collective agreements rose and the percentage of Australians employed under individual agreements fell. The Howard government is worried by this trend, so it wants to rig the rules further in favour of people like Billy the Brush Hand’s boss. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations tells us that the Howard government will:

... take the difficult decisions necessary to keep our economy strong ...

We all remember in 1987 when the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, told the world:

... there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

I put it to the Senate that there is no such thing as the economy. There are individual working men and women, and there are families. Workers are not just commodities in the service of greater profits; they are people trying to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

Senators from the other states would do well to note that laws such as those proposed in this bill are not new. They were introduced during the 1990s by a Liberal government in my home state of Western Australia. Liberal Western Australian senators opposite will remember what happened to the Liberal Court government after they introduced antiworker laws similar to those in this bill. The people of Western Australia consigned the Court government at the 2001 election to the compost heap of history. Graham Kierath, the industrial relations minister, lost his blue ribbon seat of Riverton to Labor on a 10 per cent swing—not as much as Pittwater, but still a decent swing—having the misfortune to call his own defeat while sitting next to Kerry O’Brien on ABC’s election night panel. I can assure senators opposite who were not fortunate enough to see it that the close-up shot of the last drop of blood draining from Graham Kierath’s face made for great television.

Before government senators make the same mistake and end up in the compost heap with the likes of Graham Kierath, I will give them one last chance to learn from the lessons of history. What has been the result since the Gallop Labor government repealed these repugnant laws in Western Australia? Western Australia has enjoyed a run of historically low unemployment, with an average unemployment rate in the four per cent range for the last two years. Employment has increased by 130,000 jobs and Western Australia has regularly led the nation in economic performance, achieving the highest gross state product per capita of all the states and the highest measure of labour productivity for the last three years. Simply put, Western Australia has become the engine room of the Australian economy. All this after laws such as those proposed in this bill were repealed.

There is plenty of evidence from the Western Australian experience to explain why laws such as the ones proposed in this bill were so unpopular with the people of Western Australia. An independent report produced for the Western Australian Commissioner of Workplace Agreements by the ACIRRT titled A comparison of employment conditions in individual Workplace Agreements and Awards in Western Australia found that 74 per cent of individual workplace agreements provided no weekend penalty rates of pay; 67 per cent provided no overtime rates of pay; 56 per cent provided an ordinary rate of pay below the award rate; 49 per cent absorbed annual leave into the ordinary hourly rate of pay; and 75 per cent were without a pay increase provision.

The reason that the Western Australian individual workplace agreements were able to do this is because, like this bill, those laws did not contain a no disadvantage test. The abolition of the no disadvantage test puts hard-won job conditions up for auction. Once the no disadvantage test has been removed from the AWA system, jobs will go to whoever is prepared to give up the most. Public holidays, rest breaks, meal breaks, bonuses, leave loadings and overtime loadings will all be up for auction under the Howard government’s ‘No Choice’ regime.

Government senators opposite clearly want a return to the good old days of the 1930s, when workers lined up outside the factory each day hoping to get a day’s work, with the work going to whoever was prepared to earn the least. The ACIRRT concluded on page 65 of the report that:

... it appears the IWAs have been used by employers as a means of changing a number of key award provisions and are more likely to be used by employers to gain an advantage in industries that are highly competitive.

The Prime Minister has conceded that workers could be bullied into accepting cuts to their conditions if this bill becomes law. On the John Laws radio program of 10 October he said:

There are nasty people who run businesses; there are nasty people who work for businesses.

That is true. But this bill, if enacted, would provide a competitive advantage to the nasty people who run businesses and who want to screw over their staff. The good bosses—and there are plenty of them; decent, hard working small business men and women who put their family homes on the line to create jobs for other people; those who do the right thing by their workers, who invest in their workers’ skills and provide training opportunities—are the sorts of people who do not waste their time with ghouls like Peter Hendy or his morally corrupt outfit. Those bosses will be undercut by competitors who will take advantage of these laws to drive down labour costs by removing penalty rates.

Instead of competing on the efficiency of their production methods or the quality of their management abilities, they will be competing on lower wage costs in a race to the bottom, and the scungiest and least principled bosses will be rewarded. This will leave the good bosses with little option but to lower their workers’ wages to compete with their nasty competitors. And this is what this bill is about. It is about tilting the playing field in favour of the worst elements of industry by allowing the most ruthless and nasty employers to get a competitive advantage.

And yet, despite the Western Australian experience, the Howard government continues to make the false claim that this bill is about improving the economy. It might be about increasing profits for shareholders at the expense of workers, but it has nothing to do with improving the economy. The Gallop Labor government dumped laws like these and the WA economy boomed without them. Western Australians are used to the lies, distortions and hypocrisy of the Liberal Party. They are used to wild claims made without any evidence, and against established facts, by Liberal members of parliament.

On 27 November 2003, Mr Don Randall, the Member for Canning, gave an adjournment speech in the other place. Whipping himself up into a lather, Mr Randall said:

It is almost a state of anarchy in the workplace in Western Australia when you see so many strikes in so many different areas under a Labor government. Nowhere near this level of strikes was perpetrated under the previous coalition government ...

Let us look at the truth of Mr Randall’s claim. In 2003, the year Mr Randall gave that speech, there were 97 working days per 1,000 employees lost in Western Australia due to industrial disputes. It seems that Mr Randall slept through 1995, during the time of the Liberal Court government, when there were 150 days per 1,000 employees lost due to industrial disputes—97 under Labor; 150 under the Liberals.

No-one could ever accuse Mr Randall of letting the truth get in the way of a good beat-up. But we should not expect better from Mr Randall. He is a man who likes to parade himself around in the robes of Christian values come election time but ignore the concerns of church leaders once elected. We all remember 15 September 2004, during the last election campaign, when Mr Randall, the member for Canning, invited the Prime Minister to the Perth Christian Life Centre. We remember him telling the media that Christians:

... want to know that somebody actually has good Christian principles ... they want to know that they’ve got a Christian at the head of the Australian Government.

And well they might. But do they want someone who parades their faith when they are pandering to people for votes but ignores Christian principles when in office? Do they want someone who invokes Christian principles at the ballot box but turns his back on the concerns expressed by church leaders such as Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen and Uniting Church President, Dr Dean Drayton, about this bill? I do not know. It is not for me to judge.

The Prime Minister and his henchmen have long held that there is no legitimate role for trade unions in Australia. When they look at trade union members they see the enemy. When I look at trade union members I see people—Australian mums and dads working hard every day to raise their kids, put bread on their tables and make ends meet. At its heart this bill is an attack upon the living standards of working Australia and on Australian families. That is why it must be opposed and it is why I oppose this bill. I will always stand in defence of working Australians who stand together in union.

The senators opposite are not conservatives. They are dangerous radicals and they are trying to toss 100 years of constitutional stability out the window. That is what they are about—tossing decency out of the window; tossing fairness out the window. These Tory tossers are willing to toss out the safeguards that have protected Australian working families from the worst elements of exploitation for no other reason than they hate people who stand together in union asking for a fair share of the profits of their labour. The senators opposite, lackeys and bootlicks one and all, sucking on the teats of their corporate masters in the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, will be judged by the Australian—

Senator Kemp —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I do not normally rise to take points of order on these. We know that the senator is a paid-up union member and he has just been reading out—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall)—What is your point of order, Senator Kemp?

Senator Kemp —The disgraceful attack on the people in the chamber. He said senators were bootlickers and used other absolutely appalling language. We do not speak of our colleagues in this chamber the way you speak to your colleagues in trades hall. I ask that those comments be withdrawn.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Sterle, I would ask you to withdraw those references.

Senator STERLE —I will withdraw those references. But it is all right for senators on the other side to attack union leaders and their families. I am a very proud member of the Transport Workers Union. The senators opposite will be judged by the Australian people at the ballot box, just as the West Australian Liberal Court government was, and I cannot wait for the fight.