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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 39

Senator McEWEN (11:57 AM) —I am proud to stand here today and say that Labor opposes this bill, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I am also proud to say: yes, I am a fully paid-up member of my trade union and, yes, I was a trade union boss. Over here, on this side, we cannot wait for the day that Labor Prime Minister Kim Beazley tears up this legislation and throws it in the bin. And there will be a queue of Labor senators ready to throw the match that will incinerate it.

Once again, this government is arrogantly using its majority to ram through extreme legislation that the people of Australia overwhelmingly reject—despite the fact that the government spent $55 million of taxpayers’ money trying to make people accept it. Once again, the government is treating the Australian people with contempt so that the Prime Minister will see realised his lifelong dream of wrecking an industrial relations system that is based on the core principle of a fair go for workers. His ancient, tired, patronising vision for Australia is about to come true. His vision of Australia is of an Australia where the wealthy and the powerful get more wealth and more power, and the poor and the vulnerable hold out their hands and hope for some crumbs. The government attempts to defend its decrepit view of the world with rhetoric as tired as the legislation—

Senator Kemp interjecting—

Senator McEWEN —with rhetoric as tired as Senator Kemp’s blathering on about unions. But Australians are not buying the government’s claims that their new system will be flexible, simple and fair. Australians are not buying the Prime Minister’s weasel words about his record being his defence when he is asked a hard question about whether or not any Australian worker will be worse off as a result of this legislation. Australians did not buy those happy, smiley people in those $55 million adverts and they know that this is sneaky, nasty and bad legislation.

We are told that Australia needs these new industrial relations laws, despite the fact that there is no solid economic evidence to support the alleged benefits of this legislation. And none of the submissions to the all-too-brief inquiry into this legislation provided any sustainable reason for needing radical change to our system of workplace regulation. Indeed, those opposite keep telling us things are good under the current system: wages have increased, they say; unemployment is down; and industrial disputation is at its lowest level for 90 years. They conveniently ignore, of course, that, if the Howard government’s submission to the annual safety net adjustment wage case were taken on board by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, Australian workers on the minimum wage would have been $2½ thousand per year worse off. If things are so good, why do we need these radical changes; why do we need these extreme changes?

There is no justification in precedent outcomes, either. Where similar laws have been tried before, close to home in Western Australia and New Zealand, there was not some economic nirvana as a result, certainly not a social nirvana. More New Zealanders than ever flocked to Australia, where they could earn a reasonable wage. The Western Australian Labor government did not hesitate to repeal that state’s Liberal government workplace relations laws that were supposed to deliver an economic bonanza in that state. Instead, those Liberal laws drove down wages so that Western Australians ended up with a minimum wage $50 less than that in the rest of Australia, a position that the Western Australian government is successfully addressing by restoring balance to the workplace relations system in that state.

There is no justification for these changes, because this legislation is all about driving down wages. It is about putting more power in the hands of employers and destroying collectivism and community in the workplace—that is, the principle of working together in a collective, the principle of everybody helping each other so that everyone benefits, particularly those who need assistance. It is not a principle that those opposite care for. It is not something they are remotely interested in. They prefer a dog-eat-dog world where the industrially weak and economically vulnerable get stomped on and then get patronisingly told it is good for them. If this workplace relations legislation is not enough of an indication of that, you only have to look at their so-called Welfare to Work legislation, which will punish people for being disabled or single supporting parents.

Of course, of all the rhetoric and weasel words we hear from the government, it is the ‘choice’ bit of Work Choices that is the most galling. This government has a peculiar interpretation of ‘choice’, I have to say. Under this legislation, more than 3½ million Australians will have no choice if they want to take action because they have been unfairly dismissed. And, if Senator Barnaby ‘Doormat’ Joyce thinks an amendment that says workers cannot be sacked for refusing to work on Good Friday or Christmas Day is going to actually protect—

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: could I have you rule on whether it is appropriate to put the word ‘doormat’ in front of another honourable senator’s name, or is that against standing orders?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Chapman)—I would suggest that it is unparliamentary to refer to an honourable senator in that way and I ask Senator McEwen to withdraw that comment.

Senator McEWEN —I withdraw that comment. And I say that, if that doormat, Senator Barnaby Joyce, thinks an amendment that says workers cannot be sacked for refusing—

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: the senator is now defying your ruling. Could you either ask the senator to respect your ruling and withdraw her comment unreservedly, or take relevant action under the standing orders.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator McEwen, I had an indication from you that you were withdrawing that comment, but then you proceeded to reinforce it.

Senator George Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: I can understand Senator Ian Campbell’s sensitivity—in fact, he has been extremely sensitive over the past two days in this chamber—but, if you would like to go back and look at the record, I think you will find that the word ‘doormat’ has been used consistently in this chamber for a very long time, particularly in reference to Senator Alston, who was constantly referred to as a doormat. Not once was the use of that language ruled as being unparliamentary. So I would ask you to check the record to see whether or not your ruling is in fact correct.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I have ruled that it is an inappropriate reflection on a member of this chamber, and I would ask Senator McEwen to withdraw it, as she indicated she was doing but then proceeded to reinforce it rather than withdraw it.

Senator McEWEN —I withdraw my comment about Senator Barnaby Joyce. If any of the doormats over that side of the chamber think that an amendment that says that workers cannot be sacked for refusing to work on Good Friday or Christmas Day is going to actually protect anyone, they are living in la la land. Of course no employer will admit that that is the reason for sacking someone; they will invent some excuse like work performance, a lack of work or a restructure. And, if they have got 100 or fewer employees, there is nothing a worker can do about it.

Workers will not have the choice of staying on an award if their new employer offers them an AWA. Workers will not have the choice of including some things in their workplace agreement, whether individual or collective, even if their employer agrees to it. There will be plenty of choice for the minister, though—plenty of choice for the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. He can choose to outlaw whatever he likes if parliament agrees to it, and that bunch of doormats over there will undoubtedly agree to whatever the minister wants to put in his regulations.

There will be no choice to be in a collective agreement if your employer refuses to negotiate with you and your workmates. There will be no choice to stay in a state industrial relations system because it is simpler, cheaper and easier for workers to access. And there will be no choice if you start at a new workplace where the employer has negotiated a greenfields agreement with himself—and, if the government accepts the recommendations of its mates to extend greenfields agreements to five years, you are going to be stuck with those conditions for five years. There will be no choice for employers when they get caught in the race to the bottom that this legislation will inevitably lead to. So much for choice: 1,250 pages of amendments and explanatory memoranda that say that people will actually have less choice.

Talk to representatives of working people and they will be scratching their heads about some of the garbage that has been spouted by the government as justification for this legislation. Take for example the statement that the award system is inflexible. The inference is that somehow awards prevent employers from rewarding their staff for a job well done or from offering family-friendly arrangements to employees. Awards are only minimum standards. Admittedly, they are much better minimum standards than what the government wants to replace awards with via its take-it-or-leave-it AWAs, but under the current system employers only have to pay the minimum. If they want to pay more under the current system, if they want to give better provisions under the current system, they can.

In my experience as a union official, employers have always been able to pay more, give bonuses or extra conditions, or accommodate family needs. They can do this within the current system of awards and agreements. For example, in local government in South Australia there are huge skills shortages in some areas of expertise like planning and environmental health—no doubt some of those 195,000 skilled jobs that the government has been unable to supply. Employers in that industry offer a range of above-award incentives—including wage supplements, flexible start and finish times and working from home arrangements—to attract staff to those jobs. And that is not unusual; it happens in heaps of other industries. If employers want to offer Rolls Royce employment conditions, the award system is not stopping them.

Then there is the furphy about simplicity. We are told the new legislation will streamline things for employers—but it will not. This legislation is bureaucracy gone mad. Under this legislation, Australian employers will have to come to grips with a plethora of regulatory and adjunct organisations. These include: the Office of the Employment Advocate to ‘approve’—and I use that word loosely—agreements; the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to conciliate disputes, but, sadly, no longer to run test cases that in the past have won family-friendly provisions such as maternity leave and redundancy pay for all Australian workers; the Federal Court to interpret laws and undertake prosecutions; the Fair Pay Commission to make recommendations about minimum wages and conditions; and the government, which might or might not accept those recommendations.

And the list goes on: there is also the Office of Workplace Services, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the Building Industry Taskforce and alternative dispute resolution providers. And all of that is because this government cannot bear the fact that the Australian Industrial Relations Commission is an independent organisation that operates as an umpire in the world of work. It is because this government is obsessed with smashing the trade union movement. It is because this government wants to centralise control over Australia’s industrial system and give its minister the right to intervene in legitimate workplace bargaining. It is because this government wants to replace the relatively user-friendly state industrial relations systems with a convoluted, complicated, adversarial federal system. It is because this government has, in nearly a decade in office, harboured a long-held desire to wreck the Australian concept of a fair go at work.

Employers are already confused and worried about what is coming. If that list of potential agencies and organisations that I referred to previously is not enough to make the average employer reach for their lawyer’s phone number, many employers will now also have to grapple with new complications, including whether or not they are constitutional corporations. In this regard, I would like to bring to the attention of the Senate a matter brought to my attention by the Local Government Association of South Australia—an employer organisation representing 68 councils that employ, collectively, more than 8,000 South Australians. And, yes, Senator Abetz, over on this side we do talk to employer organisations as well as to unions, churches and community groups. We are not spooked by employer organisations—unlike you, who are apparently spooked by trade unions.

The Local Government Association of South Australia is an employer organisation with extensive industrial experience and expertise. I know because, in my previous life as a trade union official, I came up against the considerable experience and expertise of the LGA on many occasions. On 22 September 2005, the LGA wrote to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, noting that under what was being proposed, and taking into account the decisions of authorities such as the High Court, it was likely that some of its members—some of those 68 local authorities—would be considered to be constitutional corporations and some would not. Within one industry, in one state, providing essentially the same services to the community, some employers would be under one award and some would not. Some employees would be on one set of conditions and some would be under a different system. Smaller councils, particularly in rural and regional communities, would be dancing on the High Court tightrope trying to work out whether or not they are constitutional corporations.

It is not a scenario that members of the Local Government Association of South Australia want to see. Life is complicated enough in local government without this. Local council communities do not, I am sure, want to be forking out for High Court challenges. So how did the minister respond to the LGA? In his letter to the LGA dated 28 October 2005, Minister Andrews said: ‘If you have not already done so, you may wish to seek legal advice on the status of the local councils you represent.’ How very helpful. How very condescending. How useless an answer is that? How useless is it to tell a peak employer body representing nearly 70 employers, thousands of employees, and with lawyers on tap, ‘Go and get some legal advice’? They have had the legal advice, and the answer is: a legal minefield is in the offing. What an arrogant, condescending response from the government to a worried employer organisation.

That response is almost as condescending as the comments that this legislation will be good for families, and that it will help people balance their work and family responsibilities. How can you possibly claim that a bill that is intended to drive down wages is going to be good for families? How can you say that making it easier to sack people for no reason is good for families? How can you possibly say that working on a take-it-or-leave-it AWA with no penalty rates—regardless of whether you work weekends, weekdays or nights—is good for families?

Most of the organisations and individuals who made submissions to the very brief inquiry that this government deigned to allow know that this legislation is going to be bad for families. For example, the Uniting Church of Australia, in its submission to the Senate inquiry, said:

We believe that the Government’s new minimum conditions of employment are not adequate and will not be effective in maintaining an appropriate standard of living for low-paid workers and their families. Lowering the floor for working arrangements, failing to include greater protections and resources for workers on individual agreements, and encouraging an approach wherein personal litigation in the Federal Court is the only means of redress for these workers will impact heavily on these vulnerable people.

And there was this contribution from the Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations:


that is, the Australian fair pay and conditions standard—

does not constitute a fair minimum standard for the purpose of workplace negotiations. The 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 ... their families.

If the government members opposite will not listen to the submissions from academics—who they appear to despise and revile, if Senator Abetz’s comments during question time are any guide—and union representatives, you would have thought they might at least listen to the churches. But it appears the appeals of the churches to the government to revisit this terrible legislation have also fallen on deaf ears. Certainly, Senator Santoro heard the churches: he told us all about it yesterday. But apparently he did not like what he heard and so he discounted what the churches said. That is typical of the arrogance we see every day from this government.

Many people, including senators opposite, say that not all employers are going to line up to grab the chance that this legislation gives them to drive down wages and conditions. Of course that is true. I agree that most employers respect and value their employees and attempt to reward them appropriately. But some employers do not treat their employees fairly, and that is one of the reasons why we have laws in the first place: to protect those who need protection. As has been mentioned by my colleague Senator Wortley, the member for Kingston, in South Australia, Mr Kym Richardson, has apparently acknowledged that employers do not always act appropriately, because he wants to set up a hotline in his electorate office to take phone calls from workers fearful of being exploited. I hope his staff are ready for it. No doubt they will be happy to work all of the hours required, without penalty rates or breaks, to answer the calls from Mr Richardson’s constituents. I hope they work under the same conditions the people Mr Richardson purports to represent will have to work under when this legislation comes into place.

Heaven knows the current Workplace Relations Act is hardly a great piece of legislation. It is deficient in terms of protecting workers in many respects. But this new raft of legislation means that many otherwise good employers will be engaged in the race to the bottom. In competitive industries like cleaning, hospitality, retail or transport what an employer pays in wages vis-a-vis what their competitors pay can mean the difference between the survival and the demise of their business. I know that. When that new restaurant down the road opens up, with all its staff on AWAs that have no penalty rates and pay only the minimum wage, what do you think is going to happen to the other restaurants on the strip that have tried to pay their employees a decent wage? They will not be able to compete and will be forced to cut wages if their business is to survive.

Welcome to the world of tipping. Welcome to the American way where, yes, there are plenty of jobs—it is just that not too many of those jobs pay enough for people to live a decent life on. Welcome to the world of hospitality workers, hotel cleaning staff, security staff, cab drivers and delivery drivers having to grovel for tips to survive. Welcome to a world where the minimum rate of pay does not move for years at a time. Welcome to Mr Howard’s arcane world of poverty and privilege. Welcome to the nightmare that this legislation will visit on Australia.