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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 46

Senator LUDWIG (12:26 PM) —I was caught unaware by the shortness of the previous speech, but I appreciate that I now get an opportunity to speak for longer. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 sums up what kind of a government we have in power today: an extreme, out of touch and arrogant government that is growing even more so every day. It fails to listen to its own constituency and even to its own coalition partners such as the Nationals in Queensland, who also find this legislation intolerable.

Let us first consider what this bill is not about. This bill is not about making the Australian industrials relations system better or simpler, and anyone who thinks that it does has been taken in by the cheap rhetoric of this government. If the Howard government were genuine about industrial relations reform, it would have consulted with the state government representatives, small businesses and unions to negotiate an outcome. We all know that the idea of a unitary system has been around for a while. There are reports on it, going back to Sweeney in 1975 and Hancock in the eighties. But this government thinks it knows best, it seems. It does not. It should have taken a leaf out of those two major reports and developed a consultative model to do the same.

In the decent economic analysis that I have seen, none of it—in fact, I have not been able to find any—backs up the government’s absurd claim that these changes will bring about an economic paradise with thousands of jobs. I am happy to be corrected. If you can find any such analysis, table it. There is no evidence to support it. Let me repeat that: none, zip, zero, nix, nought, nothing. Instead, the government have chosen to take the most extreme path possible and they will try to smash the states, regardless of cost or consequence.

Christians have a great saying: as ye sow, so shall ye reap. This government will reap the dividends of their extremist approach. If the states will not be consulted now, they will do their consulting in the courts. The results will be a series of court challenges that could potentially last for years—perhaps until 2010 or 2011. The result will be the states’ refusal to cooperate on non-incorporated businesses and on state public services. There will still be no achievement of a unitary system. There will still be seven industrial relations systems. The primary demand of business is certainty, yet what this extremist bill delivers for business is five to six years of uncertainty—and that is just the beginning of it.

Consider this: does anyone really believe that the Howard government—with their hopeless grab bag of ministerial incompetence, their internal factional strife that we saw played out so brutally and viciously in the case of John Brogden, and their internal leadership strife between the death grip of the Prime Minister and his wishy-washy, will-he-won’t-he Treasurer—can stay the course through the next election, let alone maintain the momentum to ensure that the industrial relations system that they think will work will actually work, or will they take their hand off the tiller and concentrate on their internal factional bickering and let it slide? I take the latter as the likely outcome.

And consider this: what will the Labor government do with this nice little package that the government has delivered for us? Tear it up! That is what we will do. We are warning you now because we do not want to be responsible for the years of industrial uncertainty for business that you are creating with this divisive and extremist legislation. Senator Ian Campbell, I hope you are also going to contribute to this debate. Let every small business owner—because I know you have been a champion of those in the pass—every franchisee, every self-employed person and every entrepreneur know this: this extremist Liberal government is foisting years of uncertainty on businesses throughout Australia.

This bill is not about making life for Australians easier or better; this bill is about taking basic rights away from workers. This bill strikes at the very foundation of this country, which is fairness, all because of one man’s tired old dream—a dream for him but a living nightmare that does not belong in the 21st century and a dream that does not fit in with the challenges that Australia now faces. Some conservative commentators have pointed out that there has been a lot of hype about the impact of this bill, and the government has been quick to mouth soothing words. I have heard these soothing words: ‘Come into the warmth.’ It sounds to me more like an invitation into a spider’s web.

While we are all enjoying the sunshine provided by 13 years of the Hawke-Keating Labor government and the greatest economic reforms ever undertaken in this country, let us consider the future. Here is a fact: markets fluctuate. To everyone paying off a mortgage, to every parent, to every worker in a factory, in the fields, in the office, on the salesroom floor, on a boat or on a rig, to the timber workers and fishers, to the traders and brokers, to the bartenders, dishwashers, cooks and cleaners, and to the call centre workers, let me put this question: how will you go when times get tough under this government’s industrial relations package? How will your conditions last when it is time to renegotiate your contract and there are 10 others after your job who are hungry for it, hungry enough to take anything on offer to get a foot in the door? How long will it take before the employer comes to you with one hand clasped in the other and shoulders hunched over saying: ‘Look, the competitive pressure’s getting to me. I have to drive your conditions down to stay competitive, to stay in business, but any job’s better than none’? That is one of the matters the employers will come to you with.

It is a race to the bottom. Will employees lose their weekends? Will they be marked because they dare to complain about unpaid overtime? This legislation allows reasonable time to work but does it allow reasonable time to stay at home and have family time? Will it reasonably allow you to say no to an employer and not face the sack if they have fewer than 100 employees? Will it reasonably allow the employer to not indulge in intimidatory tactics?

Ever since this long-running debate on IR began, Prime Minister Howard has repeatedly refused to guarantee that no individual Australian employee would be worse off under his extreme industrial relations changes. That is because he cannot. He knows the truth, as does every member of the Liberal Party and the coalition in this country. That is why he is spending taxpayers’ money like a drunken sailor, throwing it at any TV station, radio station or newspaper that will run an ad—$55 million worth of it, and I suspect more to come. There is an old saying that the bigger the lie and the more often you repeat it, the more people will believe it.

There is something in our national character that makes us baulk at extremism. We do not like it and we are not comfortable with it, and most of us feel a sense of great unease whenever we hear extremist politics being bandied about. Yet the Howard government has become deaf to the concerns of ordinary Australians. The Prime Minister has isolated himself in the ivory towers of big business, the corporate box and the first-class flights to Rome, and let us not forget the $40,000-per-night hotel room. He is probably on his victory lap with Mrs Howard, sipping champagne and making toasts with foreign dignitaries and diplomats before retiring. Doesn’t he look happy for it? He is happy to push through this extremist legislation because he no longer listens to Australians.

The government deliberately kept the public in the dark about details of the legislation. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this government misled the Australian public with its $55 million ad campaign, its government lies. The Australian community is only just beginning to fully understand the extreme nature of these changes. But worse is still to come from this government, because if these irresponsible and unfair changes are passed through this place then the public will really understand what rights they have lost—the rights that they deserve to have in the workplace, the rights that Prime Minister Howard and his ideologically extreme Liberal government have taken away from them. Back in 1996, the Prime Minister gave what he described as an ironclad, rock solid guarantee that no individual Australian employee would be worse off. He will not give it now. But I could encourage those on the government side in their speeches to give it. The Prime Minister will not give that guarantee because he knows that the public policy objective of these proposals is to reduce wages and reduce or remove conditions and entitlements.

Let us be clear: IR reform in itself is not bad. But I do not call this IR reform. It is changes to the industrial relations system that we have known. Labor cannot support this extreme model because it is a clear attack on workers’ wages. On wages, the Prime Minister says: ‘My guarantee is my record. Look at my record.’ The Prime Minister says that, under his record, real wages have increased by 14 per cent and the minimum wage has increased by 12 per cent in real terms. But let us look at the Prime Minister’s record. It is a record of failure, a record of selling out workers. Why? Because the labour movement through the ACTU has delivered the increases while the Howard Government has opposed every single minimum wage case. The minimum wage has increased by 12 per cent in real terms despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts, not because of them. If the Australian Industrial Relations Commission had agreed to the submissions made by the government since it came to office and made its first submission to the AIRC on a minimum wage case in 1997, those on the minimum wage would be $50 a week, or $2,600 a year, worse off. That would have been the consequence of the Howard government’s extremist submissions to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

That is why the Prime Minister wants to take an axe to the minimum wage and remove the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission. He wants to get through the back door what he has not been able to get through the front door. He has opposed the minimum wage increases so he wants to create an unfair pay commission. Yet you come to entitlements and the great con continues. The Prime Minister is saying that they are only knocking off four allowable matters—long service leave, jury service, notice of termination and superannuation—because those matters can be dealt with in the state system.

At the same time, he is proclaiming how wonderful it is that the government is preserving four legislated minimum conditions. Of course, if you include the minimum wage, that is five. They will be leaving 12 others floating. Public holidays, rest breaks, bonuses, annual leave loadings, penalty rates and shift and overtime loadings are among those that can be written off by a single line in an AWA. Shame on this government.

The report by the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee into this bill found that the drafting of section 104(6) enables an employer to require new and existing employees to make an AWA a condition of employment without this being termed duress under the legislation. You have actually got to say it is not duress under the legislation to give it effect because that might be what it actually does. The committee was told by DEWR that section 104(6) was ambiguous in this respect. An example recently referred to in question time in federal parliament relates to an AWA which states:

Wages: Your rate of pay which is inclusive of leave loading, all allowances, penalties and public holiday pay is $17.20 per hour.

That is all it takes to knock off the default clause.

The government is also seeking to do away completely with unfair dismissal protection for many millions of workers. They will lose their protections. Where we can decide and decipher, those businesses with 100 or fewer employees will have no protection, other than the statutory law protection, which is not about the unfair dismissals that the employees want to progress. They want the ability to be able to use the commission as it has always been used—to help workers and employers. It creates a forum for them to discuss the issues that beset them.

Now the Prime Minister and his ministry of cronies would have us believe that unlawful termination laws will protect employees from being unfairly sacked, but unlawful termination is not the same as unfair dismissal. Unlawful termination laws are very narrow and apply in very few circumstances. The government’s proposed unlawful termination laws will not cover most circumstances in which employees are unfairly dismissed. In fact, despite the rhetoric of a fair bargain between an employer and an employee, the government has already rigged the bargaining process to advantage the employer before they even sit down at the table.

The proposed legislation will make it an offence punishable with a $33,000 fine to even suggest that certain provisions—such as unfair dismissal—be included in the agreement. If a union official or an average employee—or even a not so average employee—has the temerity to say that they want certain protections outlined in their agreement then they are $33,000 out of pocket if the government decides to single them out. The government, despite its rhetoric of choice, has taken certain provisions off the bargaining table completely. There is no choice.

The opposition believes that workplace collective bargaining should be promoted and underpinned by a safety net of fair and relevant minimum standards of pay and employment conditions. As included in the committee’s report, a legislative framework for agreement making should ensure fairness, flexibility and job security; provide an arbitral role for the Industrial Relations Commission to ensure that parties to a dispute enter negotiations in a reasonable and proper way; and require employers and employees to bargain in good faith. The Work Choices bill does not meet any of these basic requirements.

There are pressures, but these pressures are occurring where we have skills shortages in the labour market. What has the government done about that? The government has left us unprepared for the demands we now face, and the way to invest in the future is not to whack workers with wage decreases or to take away their long service leave, their penalty rates and their right to take the day off on public holidays. The way to invest in the future of the Australian economy and Australian workers is to invest in their skills, training and education. That is the right course, but it is not the course this government wants to take.

Already we are seeing cases which illustrate that the Howard government’s pledge that workers will have choice is a furphy. When it comes to the crunch, workers will have to fight and fight hard for their rights to be taken seriously by employers, and they will need strong unions behind them to help with the fight. In fact, there is only one choice that Mr Howard wants for workers—the choice to sign up to a non-union agreement or face termination. The government does not want workers to have a choice. One of the choices of a certified agreement is for a greenfield business to have a bargain with itself and come up with a term and a certified agreement that will be presented to its workers when they turn up. That is not a contract; that is not a wages for work bargain. That is a disgrace. The government does not want workers to have a choice at all. It wants workers to leave unions—it is driving them way—it wants workers to be forced to sign up to non-union agreements, and it wants to cut penalty rates and entitlements and drive those conditions down.

This is the future of the Australian workplace system. The big end of town tells the workers what they will work for, and everyone else has to be quiet. Everything about this situation underscores why the workplace relations changes are bad for Australia, bad for workers and bad for the unions that represent them. It is no wonder that Mr Howard has consistently refused to guarantee that no worker will be worse off under the new legislation. This extremist government simply does not believe in a fair go for ordinary Australians who happen to belong to a union or who happen to want to collectively bargain for a better deal.

If you have time, come to my office and I will tell you about some of those employers and how they bargained unfairly. Under Mr Howard’s extremist new laws, I suspect that they will be able to do it even better. They will want to sign up people for an AWA on a take it or leave it basis: ‘If you want to earn enough to feed your family and pay your mortgage, sorry, that is all I can afford as an employer and all I am going to offer as an employer.’ The right to collectively bargain is of paramount importance. It should not be lost in this way. It should not be forgotten.

Debate interrupted.