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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 91

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (7:38 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007, as has been said by my colleagues preceding me in this debate, represents very small, incremental improvements to the gross unfairness of the post-Work Choices Workplace Relations Act. It should also be said that it is building on a very low base, because the Work Choices objective of driving down wages and conditions and of putting fear into the hearts of workers has substantially bitten in the workplace—otherwise, why would the government have gone to the extent they have to make changes to Work Choices at this point in time? They have made those changes because we are three or four months out from an election, they know that Work Choices in the workplace is biting hard against them, and they are trying to minimise the damage of the legislation to ordinary working Australians.

It has not just been Work Choices. I have been here since 1997 and I do not think a year has gone by in which we have not had a debate over some aspect of our industrial relations system. The government were frustrated for a considerable period by not being able to get passage through the parliament of the worst excesses of their industrial relations agenda because they did not have a majority in this place. But they have had a majority in this place since 2005 and they have used it brutally. They used it to introduce legislation in the industrial relations environment which went far beyond anything they took to the electorate to seek a mandate for in 2005. This is clearly an ideological agenda; everyone knows it is an ideological agenda. But who is it hurting? It is not hurting us on this side and it is not hurting employers, but it is hurting ordinary workers, particularly those on low incomes.

You can tell it is an ideological agenda just by listening to the contribution of Senator Barnett. He talked about union bosses; that is currently a line they are trying to get across. He talked about the dirty tricks campaign; that is another line they are trying to get across against the ACTU. He talked about Colombia, despite the fact that Ms Burrow, the president of the ACTU, told the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education committee that what had been reported was a falsehood—a lie, to put it in common terminology. Despite Ms Burrow telling the committee that, Senator Barnett persists in perpetrating the falsehood attributed to Ms Burrow. He talked about the Labor Party being the lapdogs of the union bosses. It was nothing but invective and rhetoric on behalf of the government. There was not a lot of substance in the contribution.

I know Senator Barnett is trying to impress those above him, including the Prime Minister, because he sees himself being left behind. He is being passed by all of his colleagues from Tasmania. Even Senator Parry, who has been here only a couple of years, has surpassed Senator Barnett and been appointed the Government whip. But you do not get yourself promoted by being prepared to ape the language of the leadership—by getting out there and promoting the rhetoric that you think will curry favour with them. You get it by doing hard work, Senator Barnett, and dealing with the substance of the bills before us.

You talked about union bosses and I heard you name a lot of people. You named Greg Combet and a number of others. I did not hear you name the leader of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Peter Hendy, who is a union boss. Didn’t he once work in Mr Reith’s office? Wasn’t he one of the people who assisted Mr Reith on the waterfront—one of those who got up to the dirty tricks campaign on the waterfront to knock off the maritime workers union? Wasn’t he one of the leading protagonists in Mr Reith’s office? I did not hear you mention him. I did not hear you mention Mark Paterson, who is an ex-union boss and who now sits in the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources as the secretary of that department. I did not hear you mention him in your discussion about union bosses. Is it only those union bosses who work for trade unions who are bad; not the ones who work for employer organisations, who, in your view of the world, are all good?

At the hearing of the Senate committee we heard evidence from ACCI. It was remarkable, because Mr Barklamb, acting on behalf of ACCI, said that he did not believe this legislation was necessary—that in fact it was being driven by a publicity campaign, a scare campaign, by the ACTU; that none of the issues that were being raised were actually happening out in the workplace; and that it was all of a state of mind that was being created by this campaign by the ACTU.

I pick up the government majority senators’ report on the hearings and their conclusions. The first paragraph of the conclusions reads:

The committee majority considers a flexibility in workplace agreements is crucial for improving productivity, employment and suitability of workplace conditions.

I understand what productivity is and I understand what you need to do to improve productivity, but individual or collective workplace agreements by themselves will not increase productivity. I understand what employment is, and you can argue that both ways. I am struggling to understand what ‘suitability of workplace conditions’ means in the context of this paragraph. Then it goes on to say:

This also allows employees to negotiate conditions that are more appropriate to their circumstances.

In the hearing I asked Steven Smith from the Australian Industry Group if he could tell me how long it took to negotiate an AWA in a factory of boilermakers or a factory of metal workers. He could not tell me; he had no idea. I asked him if it was common for agreements in a factory of that character to be the same in that they contain the same conditions. He essentially admitted it was. He said that where there are negotiations, where there are more negotiations, is within senior management ranks—managerial staff and technical staff. Gee, that was enlightenment! I have only been in the game 42 years and I always understood that was the case: that management and technical staff were in a position to be able to negotiate their own agreements, but for the vast majority of people on the workshop floor it was a collective agreement. The conditions are similar because you could not work a factory on any other basis, otherwise it would be absolute mayhem. They still persist with this argument that employers like Ford at Broadmeadows, General Motors Holden and Bluescope Steel are all sitting down individually with their employees across the table saying, ‘Joe, what would you like this year in your agreement? Are there any family-friendly clauses we can put in? You have got three kids: would you like to knock off at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and start at 9.30 in the morning and come back, say, at 7 o’clock, when you put the kids to bed, and do an extra couple of hours to make up your wages?’ What utter garbage. No-one who has any cursory understanding of how industry operates would contemplate for one minute that that sort of system would work. It is absolute nonsense. The majority report went on to say:

Some apprehension has been expressed in the community that agreements could possibly be negotiated that remove entitlements without adequate compensation.

They came close to actually saying, ‘Yes, there are circumstances where workers out there can get ripped off’. Well, gee, that is enlightening! But it goes on to say that this has been driven largely by a campaign more remarkable for rhetorical excess rather than for evidence based comments. ACCI’s contribution to the inquiry was summed up in the first paragraph of the majority senators’ report.

They went on to talk about the dirty tricks campaign of the ACTU. Again, I have been involved with the union for 42 years and have been an official for 27 of those, and let me tell you, there would not have been 12 months go by that we did not put out material to our members advising them what was happening in the economy, on wages, on working conditions, what changes there were and giving them ideas on how they can promote the agenda out in the workplace. The Australian Metal Workers Union have published a number of books on the economy: Australia ripped off was one and Australia betrayed was another. A number of these were written when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister. Mr Howard was Treasurer for about seven years. He was the Treasurer who left us with double digit inflation in 1983, double digit employment and double digit interest rates. Check it out, Senator Barnett; make a note of it. I can guarantee you they were all in the double digits in 1983 when Bob Hawke walked into the Lodge.

When you look at the inflation and unemployment rates of 1983 and compare them to the size of the workforce that existed at that time, it was substantially more significant. You can put on that term whatever you like, but it is an important part of these Work Choices amendments so I presume you know what ‘significant’ means. It was more significant than what the inflation and unemployment rates were in 1996 when you came into office—much more significant. But I did not hear you talk about any of that. The reality is that in this country we have an industrial relations system that is deliberately constructed to be unfair, otherwise what was the basis of adopting it in 2005 anyway? It was deliberately put in place to ensure that the pendulum swung fairly and squarely in favour of employers and against employees, and it was constructed in such a way that third parties, that is, unions, would be cut out of the employment relationship to maximise the ability for employers to exercise the flexibility they wanted in the workplace. That is exactly what has happened. When you look at Tristar and other prominent cases which have been reported publicly, what has been happening in those factories is as a direct result of the imbalance this government put into the employment relationship as a result of Work Choices.

Now, ho, ho, ho—it’s starting to bite! Workers are coming back to bite you, because they are the ones who have suffered the consequences of it. The government knows that. The government does polling, the same as Newspoll does polling, the same as the ALP does polling—and everyone knows that industrial relations has been a front-and-centre political issue since its introduction in 2005, the only difference being that, the longer it has been in place, the more workers are exposed to it, the more they understand the nature of the legislation and the more they are determined to get rid of it. I think Mr Howard is going to find that out come October/November, whenever the election is held. Sure, it is true to acknowledge that what you are doing with respect to this legislation is incrementally better than what is currently there—but, as I said, albeit that it is being built on a very low base.

I want to quickly dispel this myth on wages that you keep raising. You keep raising ABS statistics. I quickly want to mention that the ABS, in some of its studies on relative wage levels, has found that the average weekly total cash earnings for full-time, non-managerial adult employees who had their pay set by award conditions only was $767.30. Mind you, it should be acknowledged that, for the vast majority of people on awards, wages are built upon by common-law contracts—that is, over-award payments and workplace agreements—so one should not assume that they constitute a majority of the workforce. But what the ABS went on to say is that this compares with average weekly total cash earnings of $1,103 for full-time, non-managerial adult employees who had their pay set by a collective agreement and $1,061 for full-time, non-managerial adult employees who had their pay set by individual arrangement. That is not just AWAs, that is a total of common law and AWAs, so again you have to disaggregate the figures in order to get what the AWA element was. But the ABS, in the statistics we have been using, clearly is saying that persons on collective agreements are better off than those on individual contracts. That is from the ABS report 6306.0 entitled ‘Employee earnings and hours’. You can find that at page 8, Ms James, if you are determined to go and have a look for it. That shows unambiguously that workers on collective agreements take home more money at the end of the week than do those on individual contracts.

There should be nothing remarkable about that, in terms of this debate, because we know from the data that the Employment Advocate, as he was then, when Work Choices first came into being, collected and actually analysed the first month and a half of data. He stopped analysing it after he saw the results, not because it was too difficult but because the results were too painful for those on the other side to have to deal with. We know that 45 per cent of all AWAs stripped away all protected award conditions. We know that this provision that you have put in place will not mean one iota of change for those 45 per cent of AWAs that have already stripped away the protected award conditions, because you are not going to go back and apply the fairness test retrospectively. You are not going to go back and say, ‘That wasn’t a very fair arrangement; we think you ought to make those past agreements that have been registered meet the current test.’ You know you are not going to do that, so those agreements will run for two, three, four, five years with those conditions unprotected and those workers having already had those conditions cut out of their overall terms and conditions of employment.

I have grave doubts that 500 people, half of whom have been recruited from labour hire firms, who are now doing the assessment of the new agreements—who, as I understand it, have had two weeks training at the maximum—are going to be able to apply the rigour of scrutiny necessary in those new agreements to ensure that the Employment Advocate, workplace director, or whatever his new title is, will be able to stand up, put his hand on his chest and swear at estimates that every one of those new agreements in fact has met the fairness test. (Time expired)