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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 133

Senator SHERRY (6:07 PM) —The Senate is currently considering the so-called Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I will firstly make some general comments about this Liberal-National government’s approach to the legislation and then go into some detail about the alleged economic benefits claimed to flow from this particular bill. The bill goes to a radical shake-up of our current industrial relations system. The current system regulates and protects wages and conditions for all Australian workers. In its essential elements, the bill goes to a new so-called Fair Pay Commission to set the minimum wage, with no explanation about what is inadequate about the current setting of the minimum wage.

Secondly is the removal of the no disadvantage test that prevents an employer from packaging wages and conditions—such as public holidays, penalty rates, shift payments and others—below their equivalent award value or level. The removal of that no disadvantage test has significant implications for the overall total level of remuneration of employees in this country. There will be a stripping back of awards to just four provisions—annual leave, parental leave, personal leave and maximum number of ordinary hours, plus whatever the new minimum wage is to be. There is the removal of unfair dismissal provisions for employees working for a business of up to 100 staff, and, finally, a so-called review of the number of awards with the stated intention of slashing the current approximately 4,000 back to a handful. Presumably, in that slash and burn effort, no-one’s wages and conditions—or minima—are going to be increased, but rather will be decreased back to whatever remains in the award minima to be determined. We are effectively presented with the deregulation of most of the wages and conditions applying to Australian workers in this country. This deregulation principle that the Liberal-National Party has adopted, effectively treats Australian workers, human beings, as just another market commodity to be traded and sold like any other good or service. That is the fundamental approach of this government.

The consequence of this bill will be profound in its economic and social impact on Australian families, because it will remove what is a strong, fair safety net that currently protects Australian workers and their families. Deeply embedded in Australian economic and social culture is the notion of the fair go principle. That is what distinguishes Australia from most, if not all, other similar types of advanced economy countries around the world. Take, for example, the United States. The concept of the fair go principle in the United States, compared to Australia, is very weak indeed. Over time, it is not going to happen the day after the bill passes, we will see the gradual erosion and a withering away of wages and conditions for millions of Australians.

This bill most starkly represents the Americanisation of Australian society. This Liberal government has taken up with great gusto elements of economic and social policy from the United States. We have seen it in other areas, such as education and health, but its most significant and serious impact is represented by the bill that we are considering. It will lead to growing numbers of working poor in Australia.

What is interesting to note about this particular legislation is that not one word of it was mentioned prior to the last election. Senator McGauran looks slightly astounded—I will get to the astounded and squashed National Party a little later in my comments. If you look at Liberal-National Party policy, there was not one word mentioned of this particular legislation prior to the last election. It was only mentioned after the election when the Liberal-National Party discovered that it had a majority in the Senate. I remember the words of the Prime Minister at that stage when he publicly stated that there would be no extreme legislation presented and that the government would not take advantage of the majority it had in the Senate. Do you remember that commitment by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard? Like a lot of other commitments that we can remember—like the ‘never, ever’ comments about the GST—it did not last very long.

Also, it is interesting that, at the last election, the Liberal-National party signed up to family impact statements on legislation. Where is the family impact statement on this particular piece of legislation? This is yet another convenient promise made by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and forgotten as soon as the government had the opportunity with the majority in the Senate given to them in last election. There was not one word of this so-called reform mentioned prior to the last election.

What we saw after the election, of course, was the top end of town at it straightaway. The Business Council of Australia, ACCI and other principal business interests, were immediately saying to the government, ‘You should not miss this opportunity; get in there, reduce wages and conditions of Australian workers in the name of flexibility.’ Of course, it did not take long for the Liberal-National Party to buckle. Within a couple of weeks they were announcing a radical, draconian shake-up—effectively, deregulation of our industrial relations system. It did not need much pressure, of course, because ideologically the Liberal-National Party have always wanted to deregulate the labour market. That is what drives this particular piece of legislation. So they could not resist the temptation of a Senate majority and they could not resist the pressure because, as I said, ideologically that has always been their view and, certainly, the long stated view of the Prime Minister. He has just never had the opportunity. I think that this bill, more than anything, and the approach of this government, reflects arrogance. They are out of touch with the community. It is about reducing the security of Australian workers and their families. That is what it is all about.

I have to say that I have been pleased at the awareness in the broader community of the implications of this legislation. In my 15 years in the Senate, I have only ever encountered a similar volume of comment from the ordinary person in the street where I live on one other issue, and that was the GST. There is certainly very significant concern about this legislation in the community—as there should be.

The Liberal Party, in particular, is fond of using the word ‘choice’. It is used as a convenient title, as a badge, for anything nasty that it wants to do. So, if you want to do something nasty, don’t call it deregulation—goodness gracious, if you called it deregulation, the reaction would be even worse; what you do is attach to the title the word ‘choice’. The claim is that it is all about choice, flexibility and productivity. The claim by the government is that individuals and the country’s economic prosperity will improve. I want to pose a fundamental question: if, as the Liberal-National Party claim, we have enjoyed 14 years of economic growth, why change the current system? Why change the current industrial relations system if the economy is doing so well?

Senator McGauran —For the future ageing population.

Senator SHERRY —The ageing population? I might get to that later, if that is the limit of your contribution, Senator McGauran—

Senator McGauran —That is one part of it. You wanted an answer.

Senator SHERRY —The Labor Party in government did more in relation to the ageing population issue by introducing compulsory superannuation, Senator McGauran—which you opposed. You opposed funding the ageing population and funding retirement incomes.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—Senator Sherry, I think you should address your remarks through the chair.

Senator SHERRY —Thank you, I will. Senator McGauran is interjecting. He can make his own speech. The weight of evidence does not justify the claim that this government has made about the so-called economic benefits. In fact, the central case the government puts forward is false. It is a false argument—albeit, it is the only argument the government can latch on to to cover what it effectively intends to do. It is a deliberate pitch at, I might say, taxpayer expense. We have this appallingly extravagant and costly propaganda campaign that will reach a total of some $55 million before the legislation even passes. If you are going to have a legitimate education campaign to inform the community about the implications and details of a new law, why do we have a $55 million campaign before the bill passes the parliament? We have never seen such an extraordinarily extravagant, costly campaign in Australian history. Thank goodness for the ACTU: they have alerted the Australian community to this appalling legislation. They should be congratulated on their community campaign.

I live on the north-west coast of Tasmania. In my home state of Tasmania, UnionsTas, with hundreds of grassroot activists—and this is what should worry the Liberal-National Party—on the north-west coast of Tasmania have been running a very strong campaign informing people in the community about the impact this legislation is going to have. Last weekend I was at the Devonport show, where UnionsTas had a stall. I have to say that it was more popular than the Labor Party stall, the Liberal Party stall and every other stall in that particular shed at the show. There was enormous community concern expressed as people lined up to sign the petitions and to gather information about what was going on. I congratulate the union activists for the work they have done. This grassroots campaign will continue on to the next election—have no doubt about that. The Labor Party’s campaign and the grassroots campaign through the union movement will continue. Even a $55 million taxpayer funded propaganda campaign will not be able to overcome the effective communication of that grassroots campaign that we are seeing.

My philosophical approach is that central to any civilised society and central to the Australian ethos is the notion of a fair go. I am proud to say that the notion of a fair go was a founding principle of the Labor Party and the need for government to intervene to redress the balance between the employer and the employee. It is the owners of capital who have the greatest bargaining power. This notion of choice is a misnomer. It is not a level playing field. An individual is expected, as a consequence of this legislation, to individually bargain with an employer. The employer has the absolute right to hire and fire. They are the ones who employ and also fire. But the employer also has significant resources that an employee or potential employee does not have. An employer has accountants, lawyers and, in many cases, specialist industrial relations officers to assist them.

What I find interesting about AWAs is that an employee can present an AWA but I have never heard of them doing it. I have never heard of an individual fronting up with their own AWA and saying to the employer, ‘What about my AWA?’ This is the choice we have got. It is always the employer putting the AWA in front of the employee. The reality is—and this is where it is not a level playing field—that, if you do not sign the AWA, you do not get the job. If you do not accept what is in the AWA, you do not get the job. That is not a level playing field as far as negotiations go. Our current industrial relations system does intervene in the market in the name of social justice and fairness and it does intervene to redress the bargaining balance between an employee and an employer. That is a very important part of the Australian social ethos.

We also saw the arrogance of this government on display with respect to the committee inquiry. We had a quickie five-day Senate inquiry. Mr Howard, the Prime Minister, claims: ‘There was no need for an inquiry; we’ve had inquiries into industrial relations in the past.’ That is true, but we have never had a fair dinkum inquiry into the massive new deregulatory and radical provisions that are in this bill. So what do we get? We get an arrogant government shoving the bill through the Senate and saying, ‘We’ve got the numbers.’ That is the attitude that we are being confronted with here time and time again.

Senator McGauran is in the chamber. I can never resist the temptation to remind him about the position of the National Party. Senator Joyce is here as well. We heard a lot of noise from Senator Joyce on behalf of the Queensland National Party last week. They were going to fight to ensure that significant public holidays could not be taken off employees. They were going to fight for Christmas Day, Anzac Day and Good Friday. They were also going to fight to stop companies restructuring to take advantage of the 100 employee cut-off point below which unfair dismissal provisions do not apply. What have we got? Senator Joyce cannot even save Christmas Day. There was a lot of noise from Senator Joyce, but the only way to effectively ensure that all public holidays are adequately protected is to have a penalty which applies to all public holidays and which cannot be taken off employees. Senator Joyce laughs and smiles but what we had last week was the usual Joyce histrionics and National Party positioning. What has he delivered? He cannot even save Christmas Day.

I referred earlier to Devonport Show Day. On the north-west coast of Tasmania, we have—

Senator McGauran —We did not save that!

Senator SHERRY —I will take that interjection, Senator McGauran. Devonport Show Day is a very important—and they laugh—local public holiday. You go round to the local show days in Victoria and Queensland and suggest that they should be wiped out and you will get a pretty—

Senator McGauran —They are not a public holiday.

Senator SHERRY —They are a public holiday in Tasmania, Senator McGauran. In Tasmania, we have locally declared and gazetted public holidays for our shows right around the state of Tasmania. They are very important. Those local public holidays, such as Devonport Show Day, King Island Show Day, Burnie Show Day and Hobart Regatta Day, are very important to a local community. It is not just the so-called iconic public holidays, such as Good Friday and Christmas Day, that are important. Local public holidays are very important to the fabric of our local communities, and they will slowly whither as a consequence of this legislation.

I recommend to the Senate and to those listening that they read the Senate report on this particular bill. Although it had to be rushed because of the arrogance of this government in wanting to push this legislation through the Senate by Christmas, it does go into some considerable detail—particularly in the Labor Party section of that report and in the report by the other cross-bench parties—about the so-called evidence being advanced about this legislation ensuring a stronger economy and stronger employment growth. Where is the empirical evidence that the deregulation of the labour market that will occur as a result of this bill will result in a stronger economy and lower unemployment? Where is the evidence?

If you look at the OECD countries—the advanced economies—and compare Australia to them, there are some countries with more tightly regulated labour markets that have lower unemployment rates and there are some that have more tightly regulated labour markets with higher unemployment rates. There is no clear empirical evidence that deregulating the labour market will of itself ensure a stronger economy or lower unemployment. The reality is that a strong economy and lower unemployment are consequences of a whole range of economic and social policies. They will not, as this government in its propaganda campaign is claiming, flow as consequences of this particular radical deregulation of the Australian labour market. They will not happen as consequences of this bill.

The Liberal-National Party claim this because it is the only line they have to try to justify this legislation, but there is no clear evidence that that will occur. I urge interested people to look at the economic evidence, because it does not exist. It is an assertion; it is a claim. It is a propaganda line of this government that is being projected on the airwaves and in newspapers to the tune of $55 million. (Time expired)