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Thursday, 1 December 2005
Page: 11


Senator O’BRIEN (10:22 AM) —We are constrained in the second reading debate now because of the debate that has just ended, and that will mean that some people will not have the opportunity to speak, but that is a decision that the government has imposed, not my decision.

On the face of it, as I was saying yesterday, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 contains a similar prohibition on coercion as that contained in the existing act. The new proposed subsection 104(5) provides:

A person must not apply duress to an employer or employee in connection with an AWA.

But proposed subsection 104(6) says this:

To avoid doubt, an employer does not apply duress to an employee … merely because the employer requires the employee to make an AWA with the employer as a condition of employment.

Senator Barnett in particular has obfuscated on this provision in a vain attempt to hide the truth—because the government has discarded the no disadvantage test; and penalty rates, overtime and leave loadings can be excluded from the terms of an AWA without compensation.

The third matter I want to address is unfair dismissal. Upon the passage of the bill, about four million Australians will automatically lose unfair dismissal protection because they work in businesses which employ fewer than 100 employees. Inevitably, more will lose protection because the bill provides a general exemption for business—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—Order! There is too much noise in the background and I would ask the relevant senators to go to their seats or leave the chamber.


Senator O’BRIEN —on so-called operational grounds. It is another example of the lack of balance that is the defining characteristic of the Work Choices bill. This is a bad bill. The expenditure of $55 million on a taxpayer funded campaign has not changed that fact. The government has spent a lot of our money, but it has failed to make the case for change.

Sensing the government is in trouble, the Business Council of Australia has come to its rescue with its own campaign, after resisting that for some time. But, in a demonstration of greed that staggers me, the Business Council of Australia does not advocate just the implementation of the government’s extreme industrial agenda; no, the Business Council of Australia also wants massive tax cuts for the rich, including the CEOs of its member companies. Its advertising campaign has coincided with the release of the Australian Financial Review’s annual study of executive salaries. It shows that, in the past financial year, the pay earned by the chief executives of Australia’s top 300 companies rose by 16 per cent. The average annual pay for these CEOs was $1.9 million, up from $1.6 million in the previous year. That is more than $36,000 a week. Contrast that figure with $484.40 a week, the current minimum wage. Four hundred and eighty-four dollars is not even a decent lunch bill for the BCA members passionate about restraint on the part of ordinary wage and salary earners!

Australia’s industrial relations system, built on a bedrock of fairness, has served our nation well. It is not just Labor that makes that claim. Let me quote a statement published in the Economist magazine just last month:

Although Australians are renowned for their relaxed and friendly demeanor, they are also highly skilled and boast one of the most productive workforces in the world. Benchmarked against other OECD nations, Australia’s productivity has been consistently high, reflecting the widespread adoption of new technologies and—

I underline this—

modern work practices.

According to the statement, Australia enjoys the ‘highest overall productivity per person employed in the Asia-Pacific region’ and is ‘the best place in the Asia-Pacific to live and work’—well, up till now. It notes that in 2004-05 company profits in Australia grew by 11.9 per cent, and it says that over the past 20 years the number of working days lost through industrial disputes has decreased by 89 per cent across all industries. Who is the author of this tribute to our existing industrial relations system? The Howard government. At the conclusion of my speech, I will seek to table the advertisement that the government lodged in the Economist. Australia’s industrial relational relations system has delivered the very things the government is hailing in its pitch to the Economist’s international readership. Our existing system is in no need of fundamental reform. It certainly does not need the changes proposed in this bill, changes that would throw out a century of sensible industrial relations practice.

Among the loudest and least credible members of the government’s IR cheer squad is Peter Hendy of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Mr Hendy is a long-time Liberal staffer. He was Peter Reith’s Chief of Staff during the ‘children overboard’ scandal and a key adviser during the waterfront dispute. From the latter experience, we know Mr Hendy is an expert on undermining workers’ rights. So it is no great surprise to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that Mr Hendy is an architect of the Work Choices bill. That paper said that, soon after Christmas, Mr Hendy met privately with the Prime Minister to ‘work up a plan of action’ on industrial relations. That plan of action, Work Choices, is the most fundamental attack on the wages and conditions of Australian workers since the last Howard-Hendy plan. It was called Jobsback and it was comprehensively rejected by the Australian people at the 1993 federal election. Work Choices, of course, was not presented to the electorate before the 2004 poll, but that will not save it from the same fate as Jobsback. There is one thing Australians cannot stomach, and that is unfairness. For that reason alone, this law will hang like a millstone around the neck of this government.

A couple of weeks ago, half a million Australians came together to protest against the government’s radical industrial agenda. The Prime Minister and other members of the government have dismissed opponents of Work Choices as irrelevant. Let me assure those opposite that, at the next election, those who oppose these changes will prove anything but irrelevant. I joined thousands of others protesting in Launceston on 15 November and, like them, I look forward to ejecting Michael Ferguson from the federal seat of Bass at the next federal election. I say to those opposite: spend some quality time with your marginal seat colleagues because, like Mr Ferguson, many of them will not be around much longer.

State Liberal and National parties should not think they will be immune from the backlash against this legislation. My constituents know that Tasmanian Liberal leader Rene Hidding is in lockstep with the Prime Minister in this savage attack on their living standards. Should the Liberal Party win the next state election, you can be sure that a Hidding government would partner the Howard government in its attack on workers. Last month Mr Ridding wrote to Unions Tasmania confirming his support for the Howard government’s industrial relations agenda.

The Tasmanian Liberals further confirmed their support during debate on the Lennon government’s Industrial Relations Amendment (Fair Conditions) Bill on 10 November. This bill seeks to establish fair minimum standards for Tasmanian workers irrespective of whether they are covered by state awards or agreements. It contains a no disadvantage provision that means the state industrial relations commission cannot make awards or approve agreements that diminish conditions of employment. It was introduced in response to what Tasmanian Attorney-General, Judy Jackson, describes as the Howard government’s ‘unreasonable, unjustified and totally unfair’ industrial relations agenda.

During his contribution to the debate on the bill, state Liberal MP Michael Hodgman said:

Let me place on the record our views on these matters. We are 100 per cent behind John Howard and Minister Kevin Andrews’ workplace reforms, including their legislation for a unitary system of industrial relations in Australia.

Many Tasmanians are asking themselves why the Liberal Party—at a state and federal level—is so hell-bent on destroying a Tasmanian industrial relations system that works, because Tasmania has a stable industrial relations environment with very low disputation. We have a state commission that acts as an independent umpire and gives employers and employees alike a fair go.

There is some irony in the fact the Howard government’s bill is entitled ‘Work Choices’ because it will remove choice for Tasmanian workers by ripping them out of the state system. The simple fact is that Tasmanians and Tasmania will suffer under the provisions of the Work Choices bill. Tasmania has fewer large employers than other states, so changes to unfair dismissal laws will expose a higher proportion of workers to arbitrary dismissal. A higher percentage of Tasmanian workers rely on awards than in any other state. The minimum wages and conditions of these workers will not be in the hands of an independent commission anymore. The fate of Tasmanians who rely on awards will be in the hands of the Fair Pay Commission headed by Professor Ian Harper.

It says a lot about the Prime Minister’s regard for this parliament that he announced Professor Harper’s appointment before the Work Choices legislation was introduced. However, it is pretty clear why Professor Harper was the government’s choice. Professor Harper has made two public statements that auger poorly for the quality and independence of his decision making. First, he said the minimum wage has been set at ‘historically high’ levels. Second, he cheerfully admitted that he does not meet many low-paid workers in his line of work. Not only does he share Mr Howard’s views on the minimum wage; he mixes in the same elite company. It is bizarre, though, that Professor Harper finds himself able to make pronouncements on the excesses of the minimum wage when, by his own admission, he would not know a low-paid worker if he fell over one. It follows that he would not know what it means for a low-paid Australian to feed, clothe and shelter their family on the minimum wage. Before he takes up his appointment, Professor Harper ought to get out of his ivory tower and meet some of the low-paid workers I used to represent as a union official—the sort of people that clean his office every night. He ought to get out there and meet with working families in northern Tasmania in places like Invermay, Gladstone, Scottsdale and George Town before he fixes on the view that minimum wages are too high.

This bill deserves to be defeated on the floor of this chamber. It contains extreme and divisive measures that the government has no mandate to implement. Indeed, it did not take those matters to the Australian people at the last election. It will drive down wages and rip away conditions for millions of Australian workers. At the conclusion of this debate I will join my Labor colleagues in voting against this bill and I will work to elect a Beazley Labor government that will consign these laws to the dustbin of history.