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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 34

Senator MOORE (11:37 AM) —I am very proud to stand here this morning to speak in opposition to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. It is always important to be very clear at the start about which way you are thinking on any form of legislation. Just for the record: I am opposing the falsely named Work Choices bill. We have heard on numerous occasions in this place about the use of language. Here we have a piece of legislation that purports to talk about choices for workers—and not just workers who are working now but workers into the future in this country. My first point of opposition is that I oppose the title. It is wrong, false and misleading.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you know that in this place I try very often to find areas on which we can all agree. As a representative of the people of Queensland, I consistently look at legislation that comes before the Senate to consider where we, across the whole range of government, opposition and smaller parties, can find agreement. I try and find areas on which we can work together so that we can come up with legislation about which we can stand proudly before the people who vote both for us and against us and say, ‘We are taking these actions for Australians.’ But on this particular piece of legislation I cannot find any common ground.

This is one of the few pieces of legislation that has come before the house in the short period since I was elected where there is such a great gap between the positions being taken by the government and those on this side of the house that it is actually a threshold piece of legislation. There is no agreement on the values basis on which the decisions have been put forward. On the content, the background and the whole philosophical basis, there is so much difference that there is no common ground. There is but one action for people on this side of the house to take, and that is to oppose it.

But I think it is important to give some indication on the record of exactly what the opposition means. There are so many things about this process that I find not just wrong but offensive. I will begin with my frustration about the way the people from the government, rather than argue the value of the legislation, consistently seek to label and attack the people who think differently to them. Of course, that can be seen as ‘robust debate’ and I have heard it described as such. I do not agree with that term. There should be at least some mutual respect. People can disagree but treat with respect the people with whom they disagree.

But in this place, through hours of discussion, both in this period of debate and in previous ones, about the best the government can do when talking about people from this side of the house who think differently to them is to call us union hacks and to say that we are but dancing to the tune of our masters. Perhaps sometimes I do dance, but not to the tune of my masters—I reject the term ‘masters’ and I reject strongly any allegation that people on this side of the house are mastered by anyone.

I am a proud trade unionist. I have been one from the time I commenced work in the Australian Public Service. I was a member of my trade union and then I was fortunate enough to be elected as an official to the union that serves the Australian Public Service. Yes, I am one of those people on this side of the house—I forget what the total is this morning, but I am aware that there are a high number of us—who proudly and publicly say, without any hope or intent of trying to cover it up, that we have worked as trade unionists. That is a great job. It is a job that carries with it a degree of respect and responsibility. It is one that I think should be understood and respected rather than used as some kind of criticism.

Senator Kemp —And it carries with it the prospect of a Senate seat.

Senator MOORE —Not in my case, Senator, but I don’t know about others. But we do not label people from the other side of the house. We do not tend to presume that, just because they have a certain employment background or philosophical background, they have not got the capability for independent thought. So one of the first things to which I object—apart from the erroneous title of the legislation—is the tendency to use personal attack rather than to look at the actual arguments we should be discussing. On that basis, I say I am a trade unionist and I am proud of it. I think there is something we can all learn from taking on representative roles. It should not be a term of abuse.

With regard to the process we are working with in this place, the thing that most appals me about what has happened in this discussion about industrial relations is the sham attempt at consultation through the committee process. I will not go into detail here, because we have heard numerous people who sit on the relevant Senate committee talk about how they felt betrayed by the lack of time, the lack of understanding and the lack of genuine respect that was given to the large number of Australians who wanted to partake in the Senate committee inquiry.

We should have known that was going to happen, because when the committee was reluctantly formed—and I state again that it was reluctantly formed, because I think there is some understanding of the background and the strong history of Senate process—the very first step was to list all the issues, the key industrial issues, that could not be discussed, that were withdrawn from the terms of reference. I am surprised that the terms of reference did not just say, ‘Please come in and agree with the government.’ That would have been the expectation of the government in putting them together.

There was a very short time for members of the community to put forward their concerns, their arguments, about what was of value and what was not of value in the new Work Choices bill. At the end of that time, unsurprisingly, a report was put out. We got it only at the beginning of this week. That is a very short time for people to be able to see exactly what the key arguments of the debate are going to be. But we did get it and it has been widely circulated and, to no-one’s surprise, there are differing opinions that come out in it.

The really sad part about all those comments is the fact that there is no way that the government can pretend that they have not been informed about the concerns that the Australian people have. I am prepared to say that they may not understand them, but there is no way that they can say that they do not know about them. Anyone can see by looking on the parliamentary committee’s web site the wide range of community organisations, employer groups and employee representatives—citizens of the country—who were concerned about how this legislation will impact on them and their families into the future.

One of the issues that came up the most was not only concern about what is happening now but also concern about the fact that, as a result of the current electoral position, this legislation will get up. There was an understanding that that will happen and that that will mean major changes to the way that industrial relations operates in this country, Overwhelmingly, the issue that came up for me in reading the many submissions was that people are afraid for their families into the future. They wanted some kind of statement or understanding from their government that the issues that they were raising were not just to be dismissed, tossed away or talked about as just ideological difference. They wanted an understanding about the major issues.

We have heard from other people concerned about the issues of security in the workplace. That came up consistently. These people were concerned about appropriate wage rates and penalties. We have heard so much evidence about the way people in our community are totally reliant on those supplementary payments that they receive on top of their core wage. The government seem to understand only the concept of a flat wage. They have no understanding about the various things that come together to form your weekly, fortnightly or monthly income, depending on how you are going to be paid. That is an issue in itself. No-one is quite sure exactly how people will be paid under the new arrangements. There is no clear commitment on how people are going to be paid—that is, weekly, fortnightly or whatever. That regular payment is the lifeblood of so many Australians. They live from payday to payday. Some of them manage so effectively that, when we are fortunate enough to meet with them in our work and also in the committee process, their stories about the way they manage their lives are astounding. Every cent is accounted for. The way that this legislation can—not may or not even will, I hope—affect that security is genuinely terrifying for many Australians. People were seeking some reassurance from the government about security.

With regard to the general process, one of the most frustrating aspects of the last couple of months from my point of view has been the number of people who have spoken to me and said, ‘We didn’t know they were going to do this.’ You learn very quickly in this job not to speak immediately but to take a breath and then give a response—and that is what I had to do when people said that to me. Of course the government were going to do this! There was no doubt. We knew that just from reading the histories of various people in the Liberal Party-National Party coalition at the moment—and from the histories of many people in government going back prior to the early eighties. We know that there is a strong commitment to deregulating the work force. For them, that means taking away any regulation or obstacle or anything that will put barriers around the open market freedom of any activity—in this case, the work force and the way industrial relations operates.

Regulation is seen as obstruction by many people who are arguing to bring in this legislation. Any form of law or protection is seen to automatically be in conflict with the concept that is most regularly promoted as the most important thing in this new change, namely, the ‘f’ word—that is, ‘flexibility’. The master of this legislation is the term ‘flexibility’. Anything that can be perceived to impede open flexibility in any way is seen as evil and to be destroyed. The process that we have to follow here is working with the community to ensure that they understand their entitlements and their rights as workers. That key element is lost in this legislation. In the quest for flexibility, there is an open presumption that there is an equal powerbase in every workplace—that is, that employers and employees will be able to sit down together in an equal and open arrangement and be able to effectively negotiate all their conditions of service, their wage expectations and their future employment options. That is a situation that we could all seek.

We have heard the paean of praise from so many government senators when they talk about how many jobs and how few industrial disputations there are at the moment and how strong the labour market currently is. All these things are being valued strongly by the government before they impose the Work Choices bill. One would ask: if things are going so well, why is there a need to implement such an overwhelming change? In contributions we have heard in this place, we hear that in the past people on this side of the house have consistently argued against any industrial relations changes brought forward by the government and we have been told that, despite the opposition that we have put forward and despite the arguments that we have raised about people’s workplace conditions, the sky has not fallen.

That is true. However, the workplace changes that are being recommended in this piece of legislation are very similar to those that the government wished to introduce in this place in 1996 and were not able to because of the very extensive Senate process which resulted in numerous amendments to what was then on the table. We on this side of the house and those in the community did argue at the time against many of the same things that are being put forward now, only this time the proposed changes are at an even greater level. We used many of the same arguments about the impact of workers’ security and workers’ families as we are using now. The key point, which we need to state so often—and I never tire of stating the issue—is the need for respect: respect for people as individuals, respect for people as workers and respect for people as employers. But that issue is not anywhere to be seen in this legislation. It is not in the legislation and, to the best of my knowledge, it is not in the unwritten, yet-to-be-seen regulations, which we yearn to see so that we can see what all the detail is going to be.

The government is committed to having simpler legislation and structures—we hear that regularly. As an ex public servant, one of the real tests you apply when you are looking at legislation is to see, first of all, whether it is simple to read. This one does not pass that test; this legislation is not simple to read. One of the expectations was that this was going to make people’s access to understanding their rights much easier. I encourage people to have a look on the internet and read this legislation, and then let the government know whether you understand exactly what your rights are—either as an employer or as an employee. Read the legislation. But, if you find the legislation a little confronting, go to the explanatory memorandum, because another little trick you learn is that when the explanatory memorandum is bigger than the legislation you have a bit of a problem on your hands. And that is the case with the Work Choices bill. To wade through the Work Choices explanatory memorandum is not a simple task. I accept that legislation is complex. I accept that this is a very difficult change. But one of the arguments being put forward, consistently, about why we need this change is to make it simpler, to make it more accessible. I am not a lawyer—I would be proud to be one, but I am not—but I tender exhibit A: the legislation and its explanatory memorandum. This is not a simple piece of legislation. It does not meet that particular test.

I talk to the community people who come to see me—and I know that there have been efforts to lobby people from the government as well—raising the concerns that I mentioned earlier. I know that you have heard them, although I remain unconvinced that you have understood them. When people come, I ask them about how they found the government advertising campaign. We have been blessed by the government’s advertising campaign: a $55 million—and rising—advertising campaign, plus the supplementary efforts by various employer bodies that we have received in our mailboxes and on our TV screens, particularly during the cricket. In this one we are seeing the happy, smiling faces and, again, dancing in the workplace—I wonder where all this dancing comes from, sometimes. In terms of the process, at least this time the message was ‘Just trust the government’. I think we could get rid of everything else; the message was ‘Trust the government’. I am not convinced that message has been heard. The only good thing I can say about this advertising campaign is that it has not caused me to dislike one of my favourite pieces of music, which a previous advertising campaign did—the campaign on the GST. I actually applaud the fact that they did not take away one of my favourite pieces of music this time.

There are so many arguments against this legislation. I would like to mention the issues to do with women, although I know previous speakers have spoken about the major concerns they have about how this legislation will impact on women. In my first speech in this place, I talked about Emma Miller from Queensland, who is one of the founding mothers of trade unionism and the peace movement in this country. Each year in Queensland we celebrate women in trade unions through the Emma Miller Awards. And every year we have unions nominate women from their membership to celebrate with them achievements they have had in their workplaces and in their lives, linked to their union.

When we had the Emma Miller Awards a couple of weeks ago, we had eight women standing up to say, ‘Thank you. I represent my union, and this is what it means to me to be a unionist.’ They talked consistently about the values of solidarity, of working together to form something stronger. I know that Senator Faulkner quoted last time, ‘United we bargain, divided we fall,’ which is something that is an important value base. In terms of the difference I noted at the beginning of this contribution, there is such a difference, a gap, in the value bases between the government and opposition on this point that it is impossible to find common ground.

As the women were speaking about what it meant to them, they were talking about how their history affected how they saw their futures. They stated that they felt that the contributions that the Australian workplace system had achieved over the previous years were of value to all Australians. They talked about the issues of maternity leave and paternity leave and their ability to obtain those in their workplaces. The fact that these hard-won conditions can in any way be at risk is a deep worry to very many people. It is beyond a philosophical difference. It is something which should be guaranteed for workers in the Australian community.

We should have work choices in our community. No-one from this side of the house wants to necessarily impose conditions or wages that would be harmful or destructive in any way. What we want are these work choices to be cooperatively decided, rather than imposed on people with the threat that, if you do not work with this choice, you will not have the choice to work. (Time expired)