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Thursday, 1 December 2005
Page: 19

Senator CONROY (10:59 AM) —I always enjoy following Senator Ronaldson because after one of his performances I am reminded of that famous saying that politics is just theatre for ugly people. He was a living embodiment of that today. I rise to speak against the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 because this bill marks a significant escalation in this government’s contempt for working families in this country. John Howard’s new industrial landscape will change the way we operate as a society. It will change the way we currently enjoy time with our families and friends, and it will undermine job security for millions of working Australians.

The Liberal Party and the National Party may sneer and claim that Labor and the ACTU are crying wolf over this legislation; however, as last week’s news poll showed, Australians know what is coming and they do not like it. Australians recognise that this legislation is the product of the extreme right-wing ideology of the Liberal and National parties. That extremism has triumphed over the more moderate voices who acknowledge the importance and significance of maintaining a cohesive industrial relations system.

Despite wasting in excess of $55 million of taxpayers’ money on a disgraceful propaganda campaign, this government has failed to convince Australians of the need for these radical changes. Senator Abetz has won a new classification of award for the most unsuccessful advertising campaign in Australian history—$55 million spent on a product, and the polling has collapsed for them. We have seen a seven-point drop in their primary vote and a 12-point drop in their two PP vote off the back of the genius industrial relations advertising campaign at the expense of $55 million. The polls have plummeted. Congratulations, Senator Abetz! You can wear that lemon with pride.

Not surprisingly, the public has not bought the argument that you can improve productivity by forcing someone onto an AWA which removes overtime, removes penalty rates, removes shift penalties and removes annual leave loading. This legislation is like a B-grade remake of Frankenstein in which the conservative beast has broken free and is turning upon its creator. This government knows that this legislation is unpopular and that it is bad for this country. It has now gone too far with the experiment and cannot turn back. There is no point trying to cover up the ugliness of this legislation by offering to protect employees working on Christmas Day and Anzac Day, because those changes are cosmetic and fail to disguise the beast underneath.

What are the changes this government will create under this legislation? There will no longer be an unfair dismissal system for workers employed by companies with less than 100 employees; the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be effectively destroyed; individual workers will be forced under duress to sign AWAs which no longer have to pass a no disadvantage test; and industrial action by unions and their members will effectively be removed as an option or a choice for workers seeking to improve their pay or conditions. That list may seem like a pretty comprehensive Christmas wish list prepared by an overeager employer group to send to Santa in time for Christmas, but it does not end there. In addition, trade unionists can face fines of up to $33,000 just for seeking to include in an agreement words dealing with unfair dismissal—$33,000 just for mentioning those words. What does this tell us about the fairness of this legislation? You cannot fool the Australian public, and this legislation will be recognised for what it is: antiworker hatred spilling from the Liberal and National parties.

You do not need to be a genius to see why this government is putting up this legislation. Its mantra about flexibility, creating jobs and growth is barely disguising its attempt to nobble the Labor Party and its traditional supporters: the Australian trade union movement. This government thinks: if you can destroy unions you can destroy Labor; however, this appalling attempt to attack working families will fail. I cannot recall a time when the Australian public were more united in their opposition to legislation than they are to these changes. We have seen rallies of hundred of thousands of people across Australia demonstrating their widespread anger. The community is outraged that this government would dare to threaten traditional Australian values such as the notion of a fair go and the right to join a union.

People are not deceived by John Howard’s explanation that they will be protected because they can get another job. How ludicrous a proposition is that? Does the government seriously expect people to believe that their position has been improved when a potential employer offers them a position on the condition they sign an AWA—an AWA which provides lower wages and lower conditions than would otherwise apply? Perhaps this is why the government is allowing the waiving of rights to receive information about the AWA.

One of the most pernicious features of this system is the effective removal of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission from the industrial process. This bill removes AIRC responsibilities for the minimum wage setting, unfair dismissal matters, certification of agreements and the arbitration of disputes. The commission will be left with no more than about 15 per cent of its current work. All that remains of the commission is a shell with limited functions so that the Howard government can say that it has retained the umpire as part of the system. This is a body that has formed a central part of our industrial relations system for over a century and has performed its role as the independent umpire without fear or favour.

In relation to the minimum wage, the AIRC will be replaced by the so-called Fair Pay Commission. This is a body specifically designed to reduce real wages over time. How do we know that? When you compare this bill with the existing provisions it becomes abundantly clear: the law currently requires the AIRC to take into account the need for ‘fair minimum standards in the context of living standards generally and inflation when setting the minimum wage’.

The so-called Fair Pay Commission puts ‘fair’ into the title but takes it out of the substance. It will not be required to take into account fair minimum standards. The government said, ‘We will call it the Fair Pay Commission but we will take the word ‘fair’ out of what it is allowed to consider.’ What a fraud. Now we know why they had to pulp millions of dollars worth of books. They had to put the word ‘fair’ in somewhere. They put it on the cover because they took it out of the substance. That is right: we have the government setting up a Fair Pay Commission that is not required to consider fairness in its decisions. What rank hypocrisy. What clearer indication of the government’s intentions could there be?

The Prime Minister likes to say that his guarantee to workers is his record. He says that minimum wages have risen during his time in office. Let us have a closer look at Mr Howard’s record. Since it came to office, the Howard government has opposed every increase in the minimum wage awarded by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. In four out of the last nine years, the government argued for increases in the minimum wage that did not keep pace with inflation. If the AIRC had accepted John Howard’s recommendations, the minimum wage would be $2,600 a year lower than it is today. That is what John Howard wants. That is what he has stated publicly. The bottom line is that the minimum wage has risen despite John Howard’s best efforts—not because of them.

Now the Prime Minister has decided to gut the AIRC because it has not endorsed his low-wage agenda. Over 20 per cent of wage earners rely on the minimum wage safety net adjustments for wage increases. In addition, the minimum wage is often used as the reference point in wage negotiations. Cutting it in real terms will have flow-on effects for those further up the income scale. A significant number of people will now suffer under the new system proposed by this bill.

I have a strong association with the trade union movement. I am proud to say that I worked for the Transport Workers Union for a number of years before becoming a senator. I did not have the resources of Senator McGauran’s family to buy me a seat in parliament, to spend millions of dollars campaigning across the whole state of Victoria. I accept that I did not have that birthright.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order! Senator Conroy, I think I am about to hear a point of order from Senator Ian Campbell.

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, the reflection on another senator—

Senator CONROY —What reflection?

Senator Ian Campbell —in those terms is unparliamentary and needs to be withdrawn immediately.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, I ask you to withdraw the reflection.

Senator CONROY —I withdraw any reflection. I do not believe there was one, but if the chair says there was one—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, you have withdrawn the reflection; just proceed with your speech.

Senator CONROY —As I said, I do have a strong association with the trade union movement. I have listened at length to rank and file workers and union leaders in this country telling me about how these changes will affect them. The greatest effects these changes will have will be to undermine the living conditions of low-earning Australians and to push down wages. While this may be good for the bottom lines of businesses in the short term, we will see families suffer and those without skills left to rot by the Howard government. As a country, we cannot afford to let that happen, as it will damage the way we operate as a society.

Once you start encouraging wage disparity of record levels between the top and bottom income earners, you eat away at the fabric of our society. Those on the bottom and middle rungs will no longer have time to enjoy with family and friends, and security of employment will be a thing of the past. Overtime at ordinary rates will be a feature of our system, and employees will be forced to work on public holidays or look for another job.

If you think I am exaggerating, let’s look at ‘Billy’, the government’s own example in the WorkChoices booklet that they had to pulp in order to include ‘fairer’ in the title. Billy is not just an example of a new job seeker; he represents any worker who can effectively be presented with an AWA and told, ‘Sign it, or else’. Billy’s AWA gives him the minimum award classification wage and explicitly removes award conditions for public holidays, rest breaks, bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift and overtime loadings. Employees will be forced to accept new AWAs on lower terms and conditions or face termination without redress. There is no real choice for the employee in this situation; it is a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition. We know that people in Billy’s position will not be high-flying executives. They will be ordinary hardworking people just trying to get by.

We can also expect these changes to pose a serious threat to safety in our workplaces as low-income earners work longer hours for the same amount of pay they would have been earning otherwise. For example, we will see workers having to take on second jobs in order to make up the income they have lost from overtime and penalty rates, and we will see them endure fatigue and excessive hours of work. There is no doubt that these changes will impact on workplace safety.

I urge the Senate to listen to people like Tony Upton, a contractor in the car-carrying business. Tony has been an owner-driver for 21 years. He is married with three children and has $120,000 invested in his business. Tony is concerned about the effect of these changes on the safety net provided by collective bargaining. In the TWU submission to the Senate inquiry he commented:

If you don’t have a safety net, you don’t know how much you can spend on maintaining your vehicle. Without a safety net you can’t figure out how much you’re going to earn in a week, so you take every job going, you don’t sleep and you don’t stop. You just keep going and that is when things get dangerous.

I urge the government to listen to independent contractors like Tony and not to fictitious characters like ‘Billy’ in the WorkChoices booklet. Those employers who try to do the right thing by providing proper pay and conditions will be undercut by the employers who use this legislation to push wages and conditions down. It becomes a vicious cycle, particularly in competitive industries such as the transport industry, the retail industry, manufacturing, hospitality, building and many others.

In industries such as the transport industry, there are few costs that employers can control other than wages. The competitive nature of that industry dictates that pressure will be placed on larger employers that are safety conscious and abide by driving hour regulations. For those employers at the other end of the spectrum, there is every incentive to push employees to break the road rules and cut time. They try to negotiate contracts which have speeds that actually are faster than the legal speed limits. That is right: there are companies out there who try to make drivers drive faster, on average, than the legal speed limit. That is unsafe and unscrupulous. The current system provides some protection for drivers from the imposition of contractual terms that would pressure them into unsafe practices. These protections will be stripped away by this bill.

In the retail industry, without an award safety net, large employers will be forced to compete with small chains on the basis of lower wages and worse conditions for employees such as ‘Billy’ from WorkChoices. In manufacturing and heavy industry, employees working with dangerous machinery and equipment will have to work longer hours just to make the pay they were getting with overtime and penalty rates.

This unjust bill also attacks the long-established right of employees to take organised industrial action. The requirement for compulsory secret ballots to occur in order to take legal and protected industrial action is intended purely to frustrate the legitimate pursuit of claims by employees. The bill effectively removes a right to strike, which is recognised internationally as a feature of free and democratic countries. The Howard government is attacking one of the characteristics of our system that differentiates us from despotic regimes. These are not rights that should be easily trampled in a democratic system such as ours. However, this legislation raises the spectre of state-sanctioned victimisation and jailing of trade unionists legitimately pursuing improvements to their members’ wages and conditions. For example, if a person contravenes an order of the commission, they may face a penalty of imprisonment for 12 months. This is extreme legislation and it goes far further than anything mentioned previously by the Howard government, and it takes Australia down a disturbing path.

The abolition of any effective right for employees of an employer with less than 100 employees to pursue an unfair dismissal claim is unarguably one of the most vindictive and ill-conceived proposals in this bill. All employees currently have access to unfair dismissal provisions. If this bill is passed, up to four million employees will be able to be unfairly sacked and left without a remedy. The concept of unfair dismissal will effectively be abolished in 98 per cent of Australian workplaces. The ACTU television campaign is spot-on in terms of what will happen. Employees with family responsibilities and those who have other fixed commitments will either have to toe the line or face the sack.

Of course, the government maintains that workers will still have the right to bring an action for unlawful termination in the Federal Court. This is nothing but a smokescreen for the removal of workers’ rights. This government cannot be seriously proposing that a low-income earner will waltz into the Federal Court with their legal advice and fund protracted litigation against a major company. Unlawful termination cases in the Federal Court can cost an employee up to $30,000 in legal fees and can run for 18 months. Not surprisingly, there have been only around 150 of those cases in the last nine years. In contrast, the AIRC has dealt with 50,000 unfair dismissal cases over the same time. AIRC cases are generally resolved within two months.

If there are problems with the unfair dismissal system then they should be addressed in a fair and balanced manner. This government has decided to throw out the whole system because it does not believe people can be unfairly dismissed. It is not making the system simpler and fairer; it is just removing important rights from working people.

The Howard government has no mandate for these radical and fundamentally unjust changes. You can pore over coalition policies for the October 2004 election and you will not find any mention of the proposals contained in this bill. There is no mention of a proposal to centralise industrial relations and override the states. There is no mention of a plan to abolish the no disadvantage test and give employers the ability to force workers onto individual contracts. There is no mention of a plan to remove the unfair dismissal provisions for all employees who work in firms with more than 100 employees.

The Australian public knows this legislation completely fails the test of fairness. There is no way to satisfactorily amend this bill. No tinkering can remove its inherent unfairness. The Senate should reject this bill outright. If the Senate does not do so, I am sure that the Australian people will. Labor have pledged to rip up this legislation, and that is exactly what we will do after the next election. Labor will restore fairness to the industrial relations system.