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Thursday, 1 December 2005
Page: 24


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (11:20 AM) —I rise to speak on the so-called work choices bill, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. The Australian Democrats have made clear in our report to the Senate committee and in various contributions in this place—specifically from my three colleagues, who preceded me on this legislation—that we will be opposing this legislation. Typically, because we still take seriously the role of the Senate as a house of review—that is, it entails an obligation to effectively analyse, scrutinise and assess legislation—we believe that not only do we have a responsibility to look for flawed legislation, where there may be mistakes or technical problems, but we also have a responsibility to improve legislation where it is bad and ameliorate the worst aspects of legislation. Therefore we have a series of amendments that will be moved on behalf of the Australian Democrats in an attempt to try to lessen the impact of this legislation.

We are not stupid. We have seen the numbers in this place, and we have certainly heard how, despite some of their individual preening and posturing, some individual senators—despite their comments and their purported concern for Christmas Day and/or workers—are going to give in to the agenda before us. Their having done so, this legislation will now pass with a majority of the Senate. Please do not get me wrong: I recognise a mandate in the sense that the government have a mandate to form government with a majority in the lower house. They also have a majority in this place. But I did not think that that majority would equate with numerical thuggery.

I never thought that we would see a curtailing of the role of the house of review in the way that we have seen it since the Senate resumed in August this year. I did not think we would see displays such as those that we witnessed this week in the lower house—that is, the perpetual gagging of people. Not only have the debates been gagged; even the debates on the debates have been gagged. I did not think we would witness members not being heard in the lower house, as has happened this week. So I did not think that the upper house would emulate that behaviour, because I have always thought that the green leather benches were where the action was and the red leather benches were where we saw more considered—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order! Senator Stott Despoja, sorry to interrupt you. Would the two ministers please keep their conversations down. If you are seeking advice, you might do it in a more quiet way and maybe in another place. Thank you.


Senator STOTT DESPOJA —As I was saying, I thought that this chamber would be the one where we took that process of comprehensively analysing and assessing legislation before us in a much more serious manner. But we are not doing that. In fact, this fortnight we were told that the government has, I think, an ambit claim of somewhere between 17 and 23 pieces of legislation. We are grappling with arguably the most serious legislative reforms this chamber has seen certainly in a decade—and, in the case of industrial relations legislation that is before us, arguably in 100 years. We are looking at the overturning of an industrial relations system that has served us well. It is an industrial relations system that recognises that workers are not as powerful as employers—that bosses do have more power and workers can be more vulnerable. And that premise is in the process of being overturned in this place. It is being overturned in a way that is gut wrenching and soul destroying. It is soul destroying because some of us do believe, as legislators in this place, that we have serious, far-reaching responsibilities to democracy.

Other legislation, combined with this bill, will have a far-reaching effect on the social fabric and the social cohesion of this country. Look at it, Mr Acting Deputy President: we are knee deep in it—whether it is a radioactive waste dump, whether it is radical welfare reform or whether it is antiterrorism provisions that overturn fundamental principles like the rule of law, professional legal privileges, human rights and civil rights. Those very aspects of our democracy are threatened not only by the substance and policy of the legislation with which we are dealing but by the process—the way in which it is being dealt with. I have been lucky enough to sneak in and grab my spot on the speakers list before it runs out—that is, before this debate is gagged, as it will be at midday today. I only hope that this is not setting a precedent for the remainder of the fortnight. I only hope that the antiterrorism law and the other bills that are still on the government’s long list of ambit claims will not be dealt with in the same way.

This bill before us is an attack on all workers, but particularly and most appallingly on our most vulnerable workers—women, families, workers with family responsibilities, younger people, workers with disabilities and, of course, it almost goes without saying, the low paid. But, in this place, on occasions I wonder if we have all forgotten what it is like to be low paid, because so many of these provisions suggest that we have a parliament, a government and an executive that are way out of touch with real Australia and the real concerns of ordinary workers. Reading through some of the submissions from the Senate inquiry and the personal stories, I found many of them heartbreaking. People keep saying the sky is not going to fall in—and I am not even going to refer to Senator Joyce’s outburst this morning—but the reality of the impact of this legislation is that a lot of the changes will be insidious. A lot of these people are so powerless and vulnerable that we do not always hear from them. These people do not always have a voice to speak for them, and that is why this Senate has to do its job properly today, and hopefully not pass legislation that is such an unprecedented and far-ranging attack on these people.

My colleagues, in their contributions and indeed in our Senate committee report, have discussed the impact that this legislation will have, particularly on the low paid, young people and those with disabilities. So today I want to talk about the impact of this legislation on women in Australia and specifically on workers with family responsibilities—the majority of whom, of course, are women. It is particularly concerning that many women, particularly mothers—and in particular arguably one of the most vulnerable in our community, in a political sense and in every other sense; that is, single mothers—are among the most disadvantaged of all workers in terms of their pay and their conditions.

In fact, as the Democrats minority report on this legislation argues, we believe women and employees with family responsibilities will be hit hardest by these proposed changes. Workers with family responsibilities need job security, predictable common family time, protection from excessive hours and flexibility. Yet Australia already lags behind other countries on several of these measures, including working hours and policies to assist employees juggle their work and family lives. Of course, this legislation exacerbates all these issues, as argued overwhelmingly through the Senate inquiry process and in the submissions.

On average, full-time working women earn around $155 less per week than men. Their male counterparts get $155 dollars more on average per week. For women in a good bargaining position, these changes will have little impact. But, as a large number of submissions to the Work Choices inquiry showed, because women are in and out of the work force for family reasons, they generally have lower bargaining power. This is a point that has been proven time and time again through research. This means they can be more easily forced onto AWAs. In fact, the Court government’s deregulation of the labour market in Western Australia resulted in women in that state fairing worse relative to males and to other women around Australia. In February 1992, the Western Australian gender pay gap was 22.5 per cent. By May 1995, it had widened to 27.8 per cent. We know already that many existing AWAs are in fact less family friendly. That point, as I recall, was borne out by the Victorian government submission to the Senate inquiry process. I thought that submission was quite informative and precise in the way that it pointed out its concerns about how the legislation would specifically affect workers with family responsibilities.

The submission listed a number of concerns. These include the removal of work and family conditions—for example, the right for parents to request extended parental leave—and the right to sell two weeks annual leave. This will reduce common family time. Key conditions, such as public holidays, rest breaks, annual leave holdings, allowances and penalty shift and overtime loadings, can be left out of AWAs. Workers with caring responsibilities will have less bargaining power in relation to family unfriendly conditions. The Victorian government argues that this will advantage the careless worker and may lead to ‘a race to the bottom, so that even good employers cut conditions’. It argues that the diminished role of the Industrial Relations Commission, which, as it says, ‘has been the source and forum for all recent general advances on work and family standards,’ will no longer play this role. So that umpire, that force of hope for fairness, particularly in relation to work and family, is effectively being emasculated. The loss of arbitral power of the AIRC, it argues, will reduce the capacity of employees to contest their employer’s application of work and family provisions, and the establishment of the Fair Pay Commission will see a likely fall in real wages.

The Victorian government is also concerned about the expansion of individual agreements. Its submission points out that ‘existing evidence shows that non-managerial employees on AWAs, relative to those on collective agreements, face lower pay rates, lower pay rises, long, unsocial hours and less time autonomy. Women fare especially badly as do part-timers and casuals, who have disproportionate responsibility for families’. It is concerned with the family unfriendly nature of AWAs generally. There is ‘less annual leave, long service leave and sick leave’. In fact, according to these statistics ‘only 12 per cent of AWAs registered between 1995 and 2000 had any work and family provisions.’ The fact is that most people who need those family friendly provisions have the least access to them. Only 51 per cent of women on AWAs had access to annual leave, so we are not talking about other specific work and family measures; we are talking about annual leave and just over half having access to annual leave. That is compared with 62 per cent of men. Fourteen per cent fewer women than men had access to any general work and family provisions. This is an outrage. It is a particular outrage in 21st-century Australia. How far backwards are we going to go as a consequence of this legislation?

This bill will encourage growth in unsocial and long hours. Hey, let us learn from parliament. I cannot wait for those sittings to roll on into the night! Conditions such as compensation for overtime and unsocial hours are not protected under the bill. Of course, as the Victorian government argues, control over working hours and the right not to work unsocial hours are important to protect family shared time. According to its submission, ‘almost two-thirds of Australians already work sometimes or often at unsocial times.’ Work Choices will exacerbate this.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission argued that the Workplace Relations Act had been, ‘singularly unsuccessful in achieving pay equity’ and it was ‘concerned that the Work Choices bill will not address this issue’. Further, HREOC argued that:

State industrial tribunals have been more successful in addressing the historical undervaluation of women’s skills and in assessing the work value of occupations traditionally carried out by women employees. HREOC is concerned that the restriction of State industrial jurisdictions will remove an important avenue of redress for women employees seeking equal remuneration.

HREOC regards it as essential for gender pay audits and work value tests to be conducted before the federal minimum wage is set by the AFPC, the Australian Fair Pay Commission. It recommended in its submission that the Work Choices bill be amended to require this. HREOC goes on to recommend that the bill should require the AFPC to conduct cross-classification comparisons to ensure outcomes that are equitable for men and women and that ‘the AFPC should be required to take into account structural problems in the classification rates that may affect pay equity.’

There are a number of additional recommendations contained in the Senate committee report, and I commend those to the Senate. They deal with a number of issues specifically dealing with pay equity. The Democrats agree with those. Since 2001, the Democrats, and certainly I, have been calling for a national review of pay equity in Australia. We have been arguing that such a review should be conducted by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It is shameful that, 30 years after the equal pay decisions of the 1970s, there is still a gender pay gap in this country, not to mention that this gap has only closed marginally, slightly, while the Howard government has been in power. It is time that the government looked at these issues, particularly pay equity, and examined the idea of some kind of review. At this stage I foreshadow that I will be moving on behalf of the Australian Democrats an amendment during the committee stage to introduce those recommendations outlined by HREOC.

OECD evidence shows that, where the provision of family friendly conditions is left to the market, they tend to favour high- to middle-income earners and those in the public sector, which is unsurprising. In Australia, for example, employer-provided paid maternity leave is more available to high- and middle-income earners and public servants. By comparison, of course, paid maternity leave is almost unheard of in the hospitality or retail sectors. This means, once again, the most disadvantaged workers—those on lower wages, those with fewer conditions, those with decreasing conditions—miss out. Under this legislation there is absolutely no indication that that is going to get better. Of course, there are a suite of reforms required to ensure this work-family balance that we all talk about but very few governments—Labor or Liberal, at this stage—commit to. On a federal level, however, we have gone backwards. This legislation is a huge step backwards should it be passed. We are towards the bottom of the OECD listing when it comes to the work force participation of women. When it comes to women with children under the age of six, we need to improve their participation rates.

I do not suggest for a moment that we do that by using sticks and not carrots. I do not suggest that it is about ripping welfare payments and income away from mothers and fathers—but in this case in particular women with children aged six years and under. I do not suggest that it is about ripping away the bedrock that they may have, even if it is some measly, below poverty-line-level income support. I am talking about the realistic creation of sustainable and meaningful jobs. I am not talking about casual and part-time work that is uncertain and insecure; I am talking about part-time work that is flexible, meaningful, properly compensated and secure. That is not what is provided for under this legislation. What about ‘flexibility’ under this legislation? I love that word but it is Orwellian in its meaning. It is double-speak when it comes to this legislation, as is the word ‘choices’ in the title of the legislation. It is immediately transparent to any worker, who knows full well that choice for workers is not part of this legislation but that choice for bosses is, as it always has been.

The suite of reforms that we require includes affordable and accessible child care. We need paid maternity leave. Indeed, we need paid parental leave, but as a starting point we need paid maternity leave from this government—a national, government funded, consistent maternity leave scheme; preferably a 14-week scheme, because that is the recommended standard at an international level. The government could do it. Its own Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, has shown how it is possible. She has endorsed the figures that the Democrats took to the 2001 election campaign. She was the first to make it clear that this is not only feasible and practical but also economical. So there needs to be paid maternity leave, child care, the right to return to work part time, flexible working hours and more family-friendly working hours if we are to assist more women and men—workers who are parents—to return to work and remain in the work force after taking leave to have a child.

I want to say a couple more things on the process. I am glad to see that Senator Abetz is in the chamber because he took advantage of a dorothy dixer during question time to have a go at Associate Professor Barbara Pocock. I will not reiterate his comments; suffice to say that she and others have the opportunity to respond if they feel they have been adversely reflected on—and, let us face it, I think she was. I am very proud of the fact that Barbara Pocock worked for the Democrats when I was leader. She was seconded to Senator Andrew Murray’s staff. Indeed, ironically, she worked closely not only with the Democrats but with the Labor Party and the Liberal Party in reaching agreement and compromise in moving amendments that were acceptable to the government on some occasions when it came to industrial relations reform. I want to place on record that I was offended at the way that the government targeted a former staff member of mine. I hope Senator Abetz won’t be reflecting on any other staff members of mine, including a former staff member who is his nephew.


Senator Abetz —He’s sound.


Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Okay. I am not sure if that former staff member will want a right of reply because I am not quite sure if being called ‘sound’ by Senator Eric Abetz is necessarily something he would want. (Time expired)