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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 141


Senator O’BRIEN (6:41 PM) —We just heard from a man who, before coming into this place, said to the people of Queensland that he would oppose and not vote for legislation to sell Telstra, and he did. Now he has invented a reason to prevent him from voting against this legislation—that is, he should simply amend legislation from the House of Representatives and not vote it down. What a movement in logic it has been for Senator Joyce since he was elected—from the point where he was prepared to and promised to vote against a piece of legislation to the point where now he says that he has not the right to do anything other than seek to make legislation better.

It is easy to present an argument when you invent the argument of those you want to argue against. We just heard a prime example of that from Senator Joyce, who concocted the structure of the opposition’s arguments. Not once have I heard any of those propositions put on this side of the chamber. But the Hansard will reveal how inaccurate the observations of the senator were. The fact of the matter is that he opened by talking about how this legislation would do what he hoped it would—that is, destroy the trade union movement. I do recall that there were a great many people on the other side of the chamber who marched in support of Solidarity, the Polish union, and talked about the rights of workers in Poland. But they are not prepared to do it here.


Senator McGauran —That was against the comrades!


Senator George Campbell —That was exactly the point, Senator McGauran, you nong!


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator George Campbell, you will withdraw that.


Senator George Campbell —I withdraw it.


Senator O’BRIEN —As I said, this extreme and divisive industrial relations legislation is given expression in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and I reject it. I do so as a member of a political party that has opposed, since its inception over 100 years ago, conservative attacks on wages and conditions of working Australians. I do so as a senator for Tasmania who recognises the negative impact that this bill will have on job security and the standard of living of the people I represent. I do so as the shadow minister for transport concerned about transport workers and small transport businesses forced to give up conditions and cut costs under the proposed regime. I also do so as a former official of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, a job where I proudly represented many of the lowest-paid workers in this country.

Any objective observer knows that there is very little equality in most Australian workplaces. The notion of employee bargaining power is a misnomer in most circumstances. It is a complete nonsense in workplaces made up of young, poorly educated, part-time or casual employees. The current edition of the National Indigenous Times highlights another group of workers who do not enjoy equal power in the workplace: Indigenous Australians. Professor Larissa Behrendt writes:

... much of our mob ... are less educated than the rest of the country, are already more likely to be unemployed, may have English as a second language and will live in remote and rural areas where there are less jobs.

She continues:

Even the many of us who live in the city know that the job market can still favour a non-Aboriginal employee and that good jobs can still be hard to come by if you do not have a high level of education.

Australia, frankly, has a shameful history with respect to the employment rights of Indigenous Australians. Anyone with knowledge of the Northern Territory cattle industry knows well the past exploitation to which Indigenous Australians were subject on the ground of race. But that is not the only place or the only industry where Indigenous Australians have been ill-served by the industrial laws of this country. These new laws will inaugurate another shameful chapter. The Howard government talks a lot about the economic empowerment of Indigenous Australians, so it is beyond comprehension that it is moving to destroy the protections afforded to vulnerable workers, including Indigenous Australians, in the workplace.

An enduring characteristic of the Australian industrial relations system—fairness—will be discarded because the Howard government has won control of the Senate and cannot restrain itself. The government did not present a radical industrial manifesto to the Australian people at last year’s election. It did not do so because it knew that the Australian people would reject its agenda. Honesty has not been the hallmark of the Howard government years, so it is little surprise that the government kept its radical agenda secret. It is bad enough to undermine the wages and conditions of working Australians, but to do so without seeking the endorsement of the people is beyond the pale. After the election it was clear that the government’s industrial relations agenda had shifted when the Prime Minister refused to reaffirm his guarantee that legislative changes would not leave Australian workers worse off. The shadow minister for industrial relations, Stephen Smith, is right when he says that the reason the Prime Minister will not offer a guarantee is that making workers worse off is a public policy objective of this government.

There are many obnoxious features of the Work Choices bill. I want to focus on three: the attack on the minimum wage, the sponsored coercion of workers to sign Australian workplace agreements and the shredding of unfair dismissal protection. No aspect of this bill is more loathsome than the attack on the minimum wage. The Howard government record speaks for itself. The plain fact is that if this government’s national wage case submissions had been adopted today’s minimum wage would be lower to the tune of $50 a week, or $2,600 a year. In real terms, the minimum wage would have fallen by 1.55 per cent since 1996.

The government could not win an argument before the Industrial Relations Commission, so it has acted to take away its wage fixing powers. This bill grants those powers to the so-called Fair Pay Commission. This new commission lacks the independence from government enjoyed by the Industrial Relations Commission. To make doubly sure that the Fair Pay Commission delivers the result demanded by the government—that is, a falling minimum wage in real terms—fairness cannot inform its deliberations. The proposed section 7J establishes the Fair Pay Commission’s wage fixing parameters, and fairness is not one of them.

Currently, section 88B(2) of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 provides that the Industrial Relations Commission must ensure ‘a safety net of fair minimum wages and conditions of employment is established and maintained’. In exercising its wage fixing function, the first matter the Industrial Relations Commission must have regard to is the need to provide fair minimum standards for employees in the context of living standards generally prevailing in the Australian community. With the passage of the Work Choices bill the requirement for fairness will be no more. It is a sick joke that the government pulped tens of thousands of propaganda booklets because they did not contain the word ‘fair’. Yet the legislation ensures that the Fair Pay Commission cannot take fairness into account when exercising its wage fixing responsibilities.

The second aspect of the bill that I want to address is the plan to allow employers to force workers into Australian workplace agreements. The bill facilitates—indeed promotes—the exercise of industrial thuggery by employers. It is clear that the Howard government has been embarrassed by the minimal take-up of AWAs by the Australian work force. The fact is that Australian workers, contrary to what has been said, do not want them. So what is the government’s response? A green flag for employers to coerce workers to give up hard-won conditions of employment in exchange for an AWA or, if they will not sign the contract, a boot out the front door. On the face of it, the bill contains a similar prohibition on coercion to that which is contained in the existing bill. The new proposed section—

Debate interrupted.