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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 61

Senator WONG (4:31 PM) —I rise to speak on behalf of the opposition on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. The government announced this legislation because it needed a quick political fix to a problem called Work Choices. We know this legislation is only about a quick political fix because the government drafted its political advertising even before it drafted this bill. The government has admitted this. This legislation is not about fixing the inherent unfairness in Work Choices; it is about fixing what the government calls the ‘perception’ in the Australian community that this government is arrogant and out of touch and that its Work Choices laws are unfair.

The government senators who reviewed this bill agreed in their report. They said, ‘The legislation is aimed at assuaging concerns which have emerged in the community’—about Work Choices. It is because this government needed a quick fix to a political problem called Work Choices that the Senate was forced yet again to hold a one-day token inquiry—a Clayton’s inquiry, the inquiry you have when you do not want an inquiry—into legislation that will affect every employer and employee covered by the government’s Work Choices laws and that again increases the regulatory and red-tape burden on business.

This bill makes an already opaque workplace relations system absolutely muddy and interminable. It adds further complexity, confusion and chaos for Australian employers and employees. The arrogance of this government is breathtaking. It is so intent on making sure it has a quick political fix to the problem of Work Choices that it does not seem to mind yet again adding to the mound of legislation representing its supposedly simpler industrial relations system. In fact, as employers and employees know, this system is anything but simple. And, because this government needed a quick fix to a political problem called Work Choices, here we are again in this place debating yet another round of amendments which the government is rushing through and which were drafted at the last minute, debated at short notice and designed solely for a political fix. But make no mistake: this short-term political fix has long-term consequences for all Australians, workers and businesses. The government has, in effect, manufactured a reason for introducing yet another round of multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded political advertising in the lead-up to the election, which it calls an information campaign about the so-called fairness test but which, so far, has not mentioned a fairness test at all—and the campaign was in fact developed before the fairness test was even announced.

Let us be clear about what we know of the government’s advertising. We know that $55 million was spent on Work Choices mark 1. We also have on the public record $36.5 million having been flagged to be spent on Work Choices mark 2, and I note that the government are yet to come clean on how much will actually be spent and whether the $36.5 million figure, which has been in the public arena, is correct. So far they have not said that it was not. We also know that, over a six- or seven-day period after the Prime Minister’s quick political fix announcement, the government spent about $25,000 an hour in the first week of this campaign advertising this so-called fairness test.

And, as the minister has recently confirmed, not satisfied with wasting taxpayers’ money on political advertising on industrial relations, the government now wants to add amendments to this bill to force employers to hand out government propaganda to every employee within the next three months. Who needs volunteers to help with election campaigning when you are requiring every employer in the country to hand out political propaganda for the Howard government on industrial relations? But, whilst this government can find a quick fix to the political problem called Work Choices, it is a real shame that we will never see the Howard government find a genuine fix to the real problems caused by its extreme Work Choices legislation.

In the six weeks since the government announced this bill, over 30,000 AWAs have been made. Because this government needed a quick fix to a political problem called Work Choices, those 30,000 Australian employers and employees who have made AWAs since 7 May have been left in the dark with no guidance about how to comply with laws, because these laws were not even drafted until a fortnight ago.

It is clear that this is not a government that believes in fairness at work. Those of us who participated in or listened to the first Work Choices debate will well remember that this government in this chamber voted against a range of things which it is now trying to turn around. It voted against the principle of fairness. Let us be clear: time and again amendments were moved by Labor in this place and, I think, also by some of the minor parties, which sought to—

Senator Murray —Forty pages of amendments were guillotined.

Senator WONG —Forty pages of amendments were guillotined, Senator Murray reminds me. I recall getting 336 amendments some 30 minutes before the committee stage commenced, but that is another issue.

Time and again in this place the government voted in that debate against putting the principle of fairness in the legislation. In fact, I recall Senator Abetz making some interesting comments during that time. When we were trying to ask him to justify this, Senator Abetz said, on page 50 of the Hansard:

You could have fairness without actually saying it.

Clearly, you could not have had a modicum of fairness, because now you have bowled up with a bill that has ‘fairness’ in it, in an attempt to try to deal with your political problem that is Work Choices. Senator Abetz also said:

Very briefly, it is implicit in what the parameters are. To use fancy words to say that as a result of putting in the word ‘fair’ it somehow will or will not make it fair will not necessarily assist anyone in this debate.

What a ridiculous contribution to this chamber! What a ridiculous contribution, particularly in the light of what you are now doing, which is seeking to put some words about fairness into this rotten piece of legislation. Let us also remember that in that debate this government voted not only against fairness but against the protection of penalty rates, against the protection of meal breaks and against pay equity. Who can forget that? Pay equity is the principle that you should have equity between different types of jobs, and it entitles women to earn the same wage for work of equal value. The government voted against that, and then bowls up here and try and convince the Australian people, through these amendments, that this is a political fix to all the problems that its Work Choices legislation introduced.

This is not a government that believes in fairness at work. This is a government operating with a simple and arrogant approach to governing this country: pollsters first, advertising second and policy third. That is what this bill is all about: pollsters first, advertising second and policy third. This bill is not about the Howard government listening to the Australian people; it is about the government listening to its pollsters. It is not about tough decisions, conviction and the national interest; it is about politics—first, second and third. It is not about the government providing fair compensation for employees; it is about the Howard government hiding the unfairness of its legislation until after the next election.

The reality is that since this Prime Minister secured control of this chamber he has changed. The arrogance which came with that power has caused the Prime Minister to betray the Aussie battlers he always claimed to represent. Mr Howard could have created a workplace relations system built on fairness and balance and on protecting vulnerable workers, but instead he fell under the spell of implementing his lifelong obsession to impose his extreme views about industrial relations on the Australian people. Let us not forget that it was Senator Minchin, the Leader of the Government in this place, who came out with some honest statements about the government’s real plans. The government’s real plans are nothing to do with reintroducing fairness. That is just a political fix to get you through to the next election. Senator Minchin made it very clear, in March 2005, when he said to the HR Nicholls Society:

We do need to seek a mandate from the Australian people at the next election for another wave of industrial relations reform.

In other words, Senator Minchin did not think the Work Choices legislation went far enough. That is the real agenda. The only reason we have some words about fairness being introduced into the Work Choices legislation now is that the government knows it has a political problem.

The Australian people are not going to be fooled by this. When the Prime Minister says he is not for turning on the fundamentals of Work Choices he is actually being truthful. This is his creation. It is his political labour of love, and he wants it to continue. As I said, we know from Senator Minchin, and from comments by the Treasurer and others, that the government actually wants to go further in industrial relations. What none of the government really wants—unless they are dragged kicking and screaming to it—is a fairness test. That is why we saw Mr Costello refusing to rule out removing the test we are currently debating, until after the election. And that is why we have this quick political fix. We have the spectacle of this government no longer using the words ‘Work Choices’ because they have become a hated name of its hated laws. And, as I said, this government continues to use taxpayer funds to try and fix its political problems through advertising.

Finally, what does the government do? It brings this bill into parliament. It is the Prime Minister’s way of pretending to fix Work Choices without really fixing it. Minister Hockey does the same. He has been saying for months that there is no methodology to determine whether employees on Work Choices AWAs are better off, because of the need to compare apples with apples, but he found a methodology quick smart when the polls and the Prime Minister demanded it. For a bill that is supposed to be about fairness, it is interesting that the government could only bring itself to mention the word ‘fair’ five times in 83 pages of new laws.

We know the Prime Minister is a clever politician, but the fact is that this is a quick political fix, not a real fix. And that fact is made clear by asking one simple question: does anyone in this chamber, or any Australian, actually believe this bill would be before this parliament if this were not an election year? Of course it would not be. The electorate will judge the Prime Minister’s motives and his quick political fix later this year. The task for the opposition is to judge this bill. Any cogent analysis of the bill shows that the so-called fairness test within it is a fake fairness test. It will not bring Australians the fairness that they have lost, because of the extreme nature of the Work Choices legislation. The only way to do that is the Labor way—by ripping up Work Choices and ending unfair Australian workplace agreements.

But Labor supported this bill in the House, and we will do so in the Senate. Work Choices is inherently unfair, but if there is a chance that this bill will make a difference to one worker in Australia in the interim we will support it. If a low-paid worker is offered an AWA this afternoon, and that AWA takes away all 11 of their protected award conditions—like overtime and penalty rates—for no monetary or non-monetary compensation, then this bill might just stop that AWA. But let us make no mistake: this does nothing to alter the inherent unfairness of Work Choices and its key objective, which is to cut workers’ pay and conditions.

However, this bill fails resoundingly in many other areas. The hundreds of thousands of workers who have already signed up to unfair AWAs and who have received no compensation for losing these conditions get nothing from this bill. Since Work Choices commenced, workers who have been offered AWAs which took away protected award conditions without any compensation—like the AWAs for the workers at Spotlight or the AWAs for the casuals at Darrell Lea—will get nothing from this bill. The bill will not produce any fair outcome for Australian workers who have lost other important award conditions such as rostering protection, redundancy or long service leave entitlements. Under the government’s new test, these employees will not be entitled to these award conditions or to any compensation in lieu of them. In fact, if they are offered these basic entitlements, which used to form part of the safety net for workers in this country, they will now be considered as fair compensation for the loss of other award conditions such as penalty rates and overtime. Effectively, workers have to trade one set of conditions against another. In the words of Orwell: some award conditions are apparently more equal than other award conditions.

Senator Mason interjecting—

Senator WONG —I am glad you enjoyed that analogy, Senator Mason. Think of a mother working in a retail shop under the Victorian shops award. Under normal circumstances, this working mother would receive at least 14 days notice of a change in her roster—a protection which means that the mother has the time and the certainty to arrange child care when her shifts change. In an emergency the notice period is reduced to 48 hours, which is still enough time for the mother to arrange something. However, if this hardworking mother were offered an AWA today, that standard award protection could be stripped away from her and the government’s test will do nothing to protect her. Indeed, if she is provided with this notice period, it might even be considered to be fair compensation for the loss of other protected award conditions, particularly as the reason may be that it is of benefit to her because of her family responsibilities.

The bill may also jeopardise the job security of those employees whose family circumstances mean that they need to work certain hours. This is set out in section 346M(3) of the bill, which states:

... In considering whether a workplace agreement provides fair compensation to an employee ... the Workplace Authority Director may also have regard to the personal circumstances of the employee ... including in particular the family responsibilities of the employee ...

This is the first time in the nation’s history that our personal circumstances can determine our worth at work. Does that mean that it will be fair for an employee with children who says that they would prefer to work on Saturday, because their partner is home, not to be paid penalty rates but to work side by side with workers who are being paid penalty rates? Who assesses the impact of these personal circumstances?

The bill and the EM suggest that this is solely at the discretion of the Workplace Authority. The authority receives details from the employer or employee, but there is no mechanism outlined in the bill to ensure that this will occur objectively and without prejudice. Furthermore, do Australians really want details of their personal circumstances forwarded to a big, Canberra based bureaucracy and weighed up by bureaucrats who do not even have to talk to them? As we consider more examples like these and introduce more factors into the test, the more the process becomes engulfed in secrecy.

The bill sets up a secretive, unwieldy and unreviewable process for the Workplace Authority to unilaterally determine whether an agreement is fair. The authority is not required to give reasons for how it assesses the monetary value of something provided to an employee, what it thinks of an employee’s work situation or their personal circumstances or how these considerations are relevant. It is not even required to give reasons for how it reached a decision that an agreement is unfair. This deficiency was highlighted before the Senate inquiry, and I sure that some of my colleagues will speak on it.

There is no right of appeal for any of these matters, unless Australian employers and employees want to go to the High Court. Of course, that is beyond the capacity of most employees. Government senators on the committee knew of these concerns and concluded that the need for speedy decision making should overcome amendments to ensure that a so-called fairness test was applied in a fair way. Again, political expediency won out. The bill sets no time limit on the Workplace Authority to tell employers and employees whether the test is going to be applied, what the designated award might be and whether their agreement even passes the test. In effect, it creates a system where employers and employees can be left in the wilderness for weeks or months, not knowing whether their agreements, which are already in operation, are lawful.

Frankly, the bureaucracy and the expenditure that come with this bill are unbelievable. According to the EM, the government will spend an additional $370.3 million on the implementation of the so-called fairness test. The Workplace Ombudsman will receive an additional $64.1 million, and DEWR will receive an additional $2.7 million. From the Senate estimates process, we learnt that, as at the end of May, in excess of 20,000 agreements had been lodged and that these will be subject to the test. We are going to see a massive increase in bureaucracy in order to consider this backlog of agreements, which is a result of the government’s hasty political announcement prior to the bill passing through the Senate.

Let us be clear: under Labor, Work Choices will go—lock, stock and barrel. There is no fixing this legislation; it is rotten to the core. We will build an industrial relations system based on balance and fairness. If by chance this bill helps even one worker exist at the extremity of the operations of the government’s extreme legislation, we will not stand in its way in helping them. These workers need all the help we can give them, but we believe in fairness at work every day and that employees deserve their pay and conditions to be protected every day. We believe those protections should not be stripped back, undermined and lied about by the federal government. When Labor say that we will protect conditions, unlike the Howard government, we actually mean it.

In the time between now and the election, there is no choice for Australian workers. However, at the next election Labor will give Australian working families a clear choice to reject these unfair laws and to support the introduction of an industrial relations system based on balance and fairness—and fairness not just in name but in substance. Today we will give those of you in the Senate a choice. On behalf of the opposition, I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate condemns the Government’s lack of honesty about:

         (a)    its plans for extreme industrial relations laws before the last election;

         (b)    the impact of its inherently unfair Work Choices laws including the way these laws have:

               (i)    caused the pay and conditions of individuals on Australian Workplace Agreements to be cut,

              (ii)    allowed good workers to be dismissed for no reason at all,

             (iii)    placed an unprecedented paperwork burden on small businesses, and

             (iv)    destroyed the independent industrial umpire;

         (c)    the cost of the taxpayer polling research which apparently led the Government to dropping the term ‘Work Choices’ and bringing this bill to the Senate;

         (d)    the magnitude of the taxpayer funded advertising campaign to promote the Government’s political spin on industrial relations;

         (e)    the fact that this bill leaves Australians still overwhelmingly exposed to the harshness of Work Choices; and

          (f)    its intention to legislate even harsher laws if re-elected”.

Later, at the committee stage, we will offer that choice. Labor cares about employees in this country every day, not just in the days leading up to the election. (Time expired)