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Thursday, 1 December 2005
Page: 29

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (11:40 AM) —I rise to join in the debate on the Orwellian named Work Choices legislation—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I do so because it is one of the most important and radical bills that have been introduced into the parliament in the 12 years that I have been a member of the Senate. It really reflects an ideological obsession of the Prime Minister. In my view it is clear that this is much more about ideology and about governing for your mates than about governing for ordinary Australians.

I know that the Business Council of Australia and others are ecstatic because there will be no restraints placed on them as a result of this legislation. I do not say that they should not be able to argue for their interests, but in this country we have always tried to have a balance, and to balance the rights of employers with the rights of workers. This legislation provides no balance. This is very much a one-sided piece of legislation that removes the most basic rights of employees. This is not something for which the government has a mandate. It is not something that it exposed in any detail before the election. In fact, on one of the key issues, unfair dismissals, a straight-out mistruth was told during the election campaign, when one sees what is proposed in this legislation.

The most important point to this debate is that I think this represents the first sign of the government over-reaching. Whatever people might say about John Howard—and I do not list him among my personal friends—he is a very smart and cunning politician. I have never underestimated him. I think sometimes some of my colleagues have, but he is a very cunning politician. Hubris has set in, ideology has taken over and absolute power has gone to the heads of the Prime Minister and this government.

We knew when the government gained control of the Senate after 1 July that the world had changed and that the government now had absolute power. But the old saying, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is writ large in this bill. This is not the sort of bill that would have been passed at any other stage of the Senate’s history. Even when the government previously had control of the Senate, the old Liberal Party would not have advocated this. We heard from Malcolm Fraser the other day. I think Senator Faulkner made a speech in which he referred to Menzies and his attitudes. This is not the old Liberal Party; this is a hard right, ideologically driven agenda that seeks to strip workers of their entitlements.

I am not as confident as some of my colleagues that the effects of this legislation will be felt immediately. Our experience of this sort of thing in Western Australia was that, while it was enacted by some employers quickly, generally it took a while to take effect. I will come to the Western Australian experience in a moment. What we do know is that the rights of workers will be removed automatically and quickly, and we do know that, particularly when the economy starts to turn, we will really start to feel the effects. I concede that while the economy is going strongly, while there is a skill shortage and while there is low unemployment, the effects of this bill will not be as hard-felt as they will in the longer term. But no matter who is in government, the economy always turns. Good times turn bad, and when that happens we will have, under this bill, a race to the bottom. Competition between workers for a restricted number of jobs will mean that employers will be able to lower conditions and, in competing against other employers, many will be forced to offer the lower rates of pay.

So I, for one, think this is a bill that will, over time, do great harm to the industrial relations system in this country, and to working men and women and how they balance their family and work responsibilities. I think it will also do harm to the underpinning values of Australian society. I actually think this debate is more about values than industrial relations. It is about what values the Australian parliament ought to reflect and what values Australians hold dear. I think the reason that the government have been so spectacularly unsuccessful in their taxpayer funded advertising campaign is that the values that they are trying to promote are not accepted by Australians.

We do not want to adopt the American systems. We do not want to go down the low-skill, low-wage path. We do want to achieve high productivity and high skills. But we want to do that with some fairness in the workplace, and with some ability for people to manage their affairs so that they are not just seen as workers, but as human beings, as members of families and as members of the community. We have got to get that balance right. There is no balance in this bill. This is stripping away workers’ bargaining powers and replacing them with virtually nothing.

During the debates, we have seen the government point to the American and British systems, and say this is all part of a continuation of labour-market reforms started by Labor. It is nothing of the sort. Even under the American model, the rights to collective bargaining are protected—they are not protected terribly strongly, but they are protected. There is no protection for collective bargaining under this system. People are treated purely as workers—as part of the supply chain, the production chain. They are not allowed to come together in any meaningful way to argue for their rights and for measures which allow them to provide proper balance in their lives. So, as I say, I think this is much more about values than about industrial relations. It is about the values of a fair go; it is about those values that we have held dear for over 100 years in this country.

No-one on this side argues that there ought not to be changes. We have always argued that the industrial relations system, like our economy, must evolve. If you look at the big changes in economic policy in this country, they were made by the Labor Party. Some of the biggest changes in industrial relations were made by the Labor Party. But this goes too far. It does not go too far by an inch; it goes too far by a mile. This gets to the situation where there is no balance and there are no protections. It takes us down the road of the American system. It takes us down the road where the values that are underpinning this bill are not Australian values; they are not the values that we have cherished and promoted in this country over many years.

I think John Howard has seriously misjudged the Australian public in going down this path. I think that this is the beginning of the end of this government, because it is clear to the Australian people that it is not governing in their interests. They smell the arrogance in the air. They smell the abuse of power. They smell the fact that this government is out of touch. They know this is not in their interests. $50-odd million of their money has been spent to convince them, and it has not worked because they know the government is trying too hard. If someone spends $50 million trying to convince you that you should not believe what you know to be true in your heart, you begin to get suspicious. When people cannot turn on their television for two weeks without seeing a government ad telling them that a better world awaits them, they begin to say, ‘Why are they spending so much trying to convince me of this if their case is so strong?’

That is the reality. The government cannot convince the Australian people that it is right. It has lost the political debate. It will continue to lose the political debate, because the Australian public know this goes too far. They know the government is overreaching, that it is doing it for the wrong reasons, and that it is not doing it in their interests.

For those who are unionists, it is clear to them. For those who are non-unionists, it is clear to them. They know this does not assist them in any way, and they know that the protections that they have traditionally been afforded are being removed. They know that, when hard times come or there is pressure on them in the workplace, they will not get protection, they will not get the opportunity of accessing an independent umpire and they will not get the protection of being able to combine with others to ensure their rights are protected.

I think this is, as I say, fundamentally about values. It reflects a government that has overreached, has grown arrogant and is unable to quell its urge to exercise absolute power. People with experience in this parliament recognise that. People like former Senator Harradine would never have voted for this legislation. Senator Murray from the Democrats—who, I think, is regarded around the chamber as someone who has some expertise, and who has taken a keen interest in these matters—is appalled. Those who sit in the middle of politics in this country are appalled at the abuses reflected in this legislation. They are appalled at the lack of balance. They are appalled at the attack on ordinary people’s rights and capacities to protect their lifestyle.

So this is not just from the Labor Party; you have the Greens, the Democrats, Family First and the Labor Party, coming from very different political positions, all arguing that the government have got this wrong. And, as I say, the government have been unable to convince the Australian public. The shameful abuse of their position in spending $55 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted. Not only were the process and the politics behind it bordering on corrupt, but it has also failed. It has failed because, fundamentally, Australians understand that there is no intellectual strength behind the argument.

In addressing these issues, I bring some experience to these matters, because I lived in Western Australia—as I still do—when the Court government introduced what are widely known as the Kierath industrial relations reforms after they were introduced by the state industrial relations minister at the time, Mr Graham Kierath. He introduced what he said were workplace reforms, and they bear a striking similarity to the federal system proposals we are debating today.

The proposals we are considering here today are very much in tune with the proposals introduced in Western Australia. They reflect the same ideology and the same approach. The experience of Western Australian workers of those laws was that they drove down wages and conditions, and those who had high skills and were in high demand did quite well, but those who had lower skills—women and the young—did very poorly. ACCIRT, the research centre at the University of Sydney, did some very good analysis of the outcomes of the Court government changes for workers, for the Commissioner of Workplace Agreements in WA. It looked at what had happened to those in cleaning, retail, hospitality and security industries, occupations dominated by women and young people and those with lower skill levels. It went through what the experience had been under this sort of system—a very similar system.

It found that 56 per cent of individual workplace agreements provided for an hourly rate of pay below the award equivalent. Fifty-six per cent ended up on pay less than the award. Ninety-six per cent of contracts which included hours of work provisions specified Monday to Sunday as ordinary days of work. The traditional hours of work were abandoned, and workers in 96 per cent of contracts were required to work on all seven days if required by their employer. Only a third of the agreements contained overtime provisions and, of those, 80 per cent specified overtime at the single rate. So the penalties that had protected workers’ interests—first, by rewarding them for working unsociable hours, a decision that they could make, and, second, by providing a disincentive for employers to make employees work unsociable hours unless it really was required for their business—were removed. I accept penalty rates are a penalty on the employer for making their workers work unsociable hours, but that helped as a check; that is what has made sure that only employers who really need employees for those hours have accessed them.

Of those agreements in WA, only 36 per cent specified annual leave provisions and, of those, nearly half absorbed annual leave into the ordinary rate of pay. In its conclusions, ACCIRT said, ‘The findings in this report suggest that workers are in general worse off under individual workplace agreements.’ Professor David Plowman examined two of the government’s key claims. The first was that the system created jobs. The evidence was that under this system there were no more jobs created in WA than in the rest of the economy—that it had no significant impact on the creation of jobs. The other finding that is worth mentioning here is that, contrary to the government’s claim, it in fact saw women employed on lower rates of pay than the rest of Australia. Not only did their situation worsen in comparison to men, but the situation worsened for women compared to other parts of Australia. So individual workplace agreements lowered wages for the lower skilled, for women and for the young.

Now, some people did very well out of the WA changes; I am the first to concede that. A lot of miners in north-west Western Australia did very well because they had high-level skills and there was a skills shortage. And they are still doing very well, because they can basically name their own price. If you are a sparky or a plumber in the north-west of WA, it is much better than being a politician: they get about twice what we earn, and they work two weeks out of four. So times are good; I concede that. But they will not be so good when the economy turns. As they found out when the economy was a bit flatter before, they were not nearly in as good a bargaining position. The point about this legislation is that it removes protections. It removes the protections for those who do not have bargaining power. Negotiations in the workplace, like everywhere else, are about power. If you have power, you get a good result. If you do not have power, you do not get a good result. This will fall most hard on those who do not have power—women, the young, the unskilled—just as it did in Western Australia.

Labor fundamentally oppose this bill because we regard it as un-Australian. We believe that the values that underpin it are not Australian values. I do not think they are even American values. They remove the necessary protections that people in Australia’s work force ought to enjoy. We do not want to stifle productivity; we want to encourage productivity. We want to see high-skill, high-wage workers in this country. We do not want to see us having to import people to take high-skill jobs. The government’s failure in the training area is, I think, a national disgrace. The fact that we have trained so few apprentices in the last 10 years has seen us fall into this skills crisis. But what we now know is that the government is committed to a low-wage, low-skill outcome that drives down the minimum wage. After this system had been put in place in Western Australia, we saw that, when the Labor Gallop government came to power, they had to increase the minimum wage by about $100 a week because it had fallen so badly. The protection for those at the bottom had all but disappeared.

These are not Australian values. These are ideological values driven by an ageing man whose vindication of his 20- or 30-year quest lies in having this legislation passed. And the Liberal Party have fallen hostage to that. I say to a lot of those marginal seat members in the House of Representatives: you have made a very stupid decision. Like so many of your Western Australian and Queensland members, you will regret this decision at your leisure, because you will be turned out. The Australian people smell the arrogance, they smell the ideology, they smell the fact that this is not for them and they know that you have overreached. They know you are driven by wrong motives and they know you are not governing for them. One of the things about the Australian public, and sometimes it has been very much to my chagrin, is that they are perceptive and they actually work it out. As a group they work it out. They can see through the posturing and the rhetoric and they actually make judgments that generally get it right. They know what is a fair thing. They know what is an Australian answer to an Australian problem and when they see us going down the American path—

Senator Abetz —Here we go: the ‘American path’. That was Mark Latham’s thing.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —they say, ‘Hang on, we don’t want to go that way.’ Senator Abetz may grin and make false claims, but the point is that Australians have figured it out. They know this legislation is not good for them. They know it might be good for certain vested interests, such as large donors to the Liberal Party and some of the wealthier in our society, but the great mass of ordinary Australian workers know this is not in their interests and they will deliver their verdict on the government at the next election. But we will resist these changes. Labor are fundamentally opposed to these changes. We think they ought to be defeated. But, if we do not win the vote, we will win the political argument, because Australians fundamentally believe in a different set of values than those that appear in this bill.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—Order! The time for the second reading debate has expired.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.