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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 107


Senator CAROL BROWN (8:48 PM) —I listened very closely to Senator Birmingham’s speech and I also listened very closely to his first speech and I must say this is a pale imitation of his first speech. Senator Birmingham talked about which party is best suited to government and I have to say that I am on the side of his Labor relative. We will have that discussion later. Senator Birmingham also mentioned that the ALP is all about reintroducing a regulatory framework. The ALP is about restoring fairness and balance into the workplace.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 is the bill tasked with introducing the government’s so-called fairness test. It seems ironic that, a little over a year since the Howard government introduced—and you must forgive me my use of apparently redundant terminology—Work Choices, the industrial relations package which stripped any concept of fairness from the Australian workplace, we should be debating a bill being marketed by the same government as one aimed at restoring fairness to the workplace. It begs the question: what has changed so dramatically in the past 12 months? Has the Howard government seen the error of its ways? Has it begun to realise that the Work Choices legislation in fact tipped the balance too far against Australian workers and their families by removing basic conditions like overtime and penalty rates, leave loadings, rostering protections and redundancy pay for many? Has it in fact begun to listen to the Australian public—the thousands of workers that have suffered as a direct result of the introduction of Work Choices?

I am afraid that in an election year the motivation for the government’s sudden change of heart is far more self-serving. This bill quite simply is aimed at wooing back the critical votes of Australian workers rather than restoring fairness to their workplaces. It is simply about creating an illusion of fairness rather than taking genuine steps to reinstate fairness and balance into the Australian industrial relations landscape. The fact that the Howard government has been so desperate to repackage and rebrand its tarnished Work Choices package is testament to this, as is the fact that the Howard government has recently spent a staggering $4.1 million of taxpayers’ money in one week on advertising aimed at convincing the Australian public that it has changed its ways. It is a desperate bid to claw back some industrial relations credibility.

The government’s blatant disregard for the committee process during the Senate inquiry into this bill is evidence of this. As the opposition senators’ report notes, the government announced the reference of the bill 18 days prior to its actual introduction, giving submitters only seven days to provide submissions and the committee only 10 days in which to consider such submissions, conduct a public hearing and produce a report. This level of arrogance does not reflect a government that is genuinely committed to getting it right and listening to the views of the Australian people; it reflects a government that has become complacent and out of touch with the people it is supposed to represent and a government that is willing to use its control in this Senate to railroad legislation through to suit its own political agenda.

The simple fact of the matter is: this bill, along with the rebranding of the government’s failed Work Choices package and the government’s latest stint of industrial relations advertising, is all about appearances. The government wants the Australian public to believe that its approach to industrial relations in this country has changed. While appearances can sometimes be deceiving, I am quite sure that the Australian public is well aware that in the case of the Howard government a leopard can never, and will never, change its spots.

We were all witness to the Howard government’s tricky pre-election tactics in the lead-up to the last federal election. Back then they were happy to keep the Australian public in the dark about their planned Work Choices legislation until they regained power. The first the Australian public heard of Work Choices was after the votes had been cast. Why should this election be any different? While in the lead-up to this election the Howard government are more than happy to create a temporary illusion of the inclusion of fairness in their industrial relations plans, you can be quite sure that, if they happen to win government again, this front, this illusion, will swiftly disappear, as will any concept of fairness in the Australian workplace. Do not be fooled by the spin. If the government are re-elected at this year’s election, make no mistake, it is likely that they will make even harsher changes to the industrial relations laws and the rights of working Australians in this country.

The government’s track record since the last election proves that it simply cannot be trusted to keep its promises when it comes to industrial relations in this country. It told us all during the introduction to its failed and recently rebranded Work Choices changes last year that they were necessary to boost productivity and to support economic growth in Australia. It claimed that they would benefit Australian workers and their families, giving them greater flexibility, more room to bargain with their employers and, most importantly, a greater degree of choice. A year on, it appears that little of this was true. A year on, it is yet to produce a single scrap of evidence to suggest that Work Choices was necessary to boost productivity. In fact, figures show that Australian productivity actually went backwards in the six months following the commencement of Work Choices and is presently at just 1.5 per cent, compared to a historical average of 2.3 per cent. A year on, the government is also yet to produce any hard, credible evidence to suggest that the Work Choices changes have, as the government claims, greatly benefited Australian workers and their families by providing them with a greater degree of opportunity and choice in the workplace. Indeed, a year on, sadly, the exact opposite is true.

Australian workers have suffered since the introduction of Work Choices. They have been stripped of their basic rights and conditions and, along with them, any degree of leverage to bargain or to exercise choice when it comes to negotiating with their employers. We only have to look at the myriad examples that have received media attention in the short time that Work Choices has been in place. The case of Darrell Lea workers is a good example. They were stripped of basic conditions like penalty rates for not even a 1c per hour increase. Cases like this serve as an illustration of just how far the Work Choices laws have tilted the balance against Australian workers. There have no doubt been numerous other unreported cases across the country of Australian workers being sacked without recourse or being forced to give up their basic award conditions with no power to bargain for compensation and no chance at exercising any choice in the matter. A year on and Work Choices has ensured this type of situation has, sadly, become the norm.

Workers in regional areas like Tasmania who are members of smaller communities—where unemployment rates are generally higher—that have suffered under Work Choices have generally been too scared to speak out about their experiences. The nature of these smaller communities ensures that workers do not want to risk victimisation in their workplace for speaking out against their employers. Likewise, if they are unfortunate enough to suffer the loss of their job because of a strategic company restructure, workers in regional areas are unlikely to speak out because of fear of being labelled a troublemaker and the risk of not being able to find another employer willing to take them on. This is just the way it is under Work Choices.

The government is continuing to deceive the Australian people about the real impact of Work Choices on workers and their families. A review conducted for the Victorian government on the impact of Work Choices highlighted in the inquiry into the bill the real impact the changes are having on workers and their families. The review ‘found that the wages share of national income was at a 35-year low, while the profit share was at an all-time high’. It ‘indicated that this was an extremely unusual occurrence in an economy experiencing low unemployment and labour market shortages’. It ‘also found that protected award conditions were being abolished and that the lowest paid employees were the most disadvantaged’. It found that workers in low-paying industries such as hospitality and retail have suffered wages declines, probably because of the withdrawal of overtime and penalty rates, and that women in particular have suffered under AWAs. The review found:

... WorkChoices, AWAs and, it appears, other non-union agreements have led to the loss of conditions of employment, particularly in areas like penalty rates, overtime rates and shift allowances. This has ... led to lower rates of pay than workers would otherwise have enjoyed, particularly by comparison with if they were employed under collective agreements.

It concluded:

Vulnerable groups, including women and workers in low wage industries, appear to have been particularly disadvantaged.

Only a year on and this is what Australian workers and their families have been forced to endure under the Howard government’s workplace relations changes. On Friday, 4 May, after a multitude of such evidence indicating that under Work Choices Australian workers are being stripped of their basic award conditions, the Prime Minister announced that the government would be introducing a so-called fairness test to apply to workplace agreements of all employees earning up to $75,000 per annum. The basic premise of this so-called fairness test, as I understand it, is that workers who are forced to give up any of their basic award conditions under the workplace agreement should receive fair compensation in return for that loss. To ensure that this compensation is in fact provided, each new workplace agreement for employees earning $75,000 or less will, as a consequence of this bill being passed, have to be lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate—rebranded the Workplace Authority—and satisfy a so-called fairness test.

Based on its simplistic explanation the proposal sounds reasonable. However, one does not have to dig very far beneath the surface to discover that this bill is, once again, all about form and not substance. It is all about facilitating the illusion of fairness. There is nothing contained in this bill that will remove the imbalance caused by the Howard government’s industrial relations reforms and restore fairness in the Australian workplace.


Senator Parry —Carol, you don’t believe that!


Senator CAROL BROWN —Yes, I do believe that. And I do not think you believe what you are saying.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Senator, through the chair.


Senator CAROL BROWN —Through you, Acting Deputy President. As the shadow treasurer rightly stated, this bill is all about clever politics. It is not about good policy; it is simply about creating a perception. Indeed, a closer analysis of this bill proves that the so-called fairness test is a fake. It proves that nothing about the application of this test is in fact fair. It proves that while, in some limited cases, the test may produce a pro-worker result, overall the test is designed to keep the industrial relations balance strongly tilted in favour of the employer. The result? A hollow promise designed to attract votes but giving little in return. The devil is in the detail.

Under the proposed fairness test, if a workplace agreement excludes or modifies one of the limited protected award conditions, the same agreement must provide fair compensation for the loss of that so-called protected condition. The agreement, as stated earlier, must be submitted to the Workplace Authority, which is to determine whether it has in fact provided fair compensation for the loss. However, the government has provided no detail of exactly how the fairness of the compensation will be determined. It has given no indication of what type of criteria will be used to assess whether in fact the compensation is fair.

While the government has said that the Workplace Authority will consider the industry, location and economic circumstances of the business and the specific employment circumstances of the employee, it has not indicated how these matters will be taken into account and what weight will be given to the employers’ circumstances compared to the employees’ circumstances. Compounding this convenient lack of detail, which is basically demonstrated in nearly all federal government policy, is the fact that the test only provides for ‘fair’ compensation and not ‘equal’ compensation. As the government has not detailed exactly how the fairness or otherwise of the compensation will be determined, it appears that it has conveniently created somewhat of a black hole in which such decisions will be determined—surprise, surprise. With little guidance as to how the decision will be made, the workplace agreement will be handed into the Workplace Authority and a decision will be handed out—effectively with no transparency and no accountability, with little or no chance for review, no chance for reasons to be provided for their decisions and no reasonable appeal process. How fair is this?

Another major concern that the Labor Party has with this proposal is the fact that it may allow employers to effectively pay lip-service to the idea of compensation and provide hollow promises in exchange for the loss of protected award conditions. For example, it has been suggested that a mere offer of a job by an employer may be considered sufficient compensation for the loss of any protected award conditions by a prospective employee. It has also been suggested that it may be deemed sufficient if the employer offers an employee something that provides no subjective benefit to them. The example that has been used by my colleagues is that of a car-parking space being offered to an employee who does not own a car. While this may seem plain ridiculous, if the Workplace Authority takes an objective approach to assessing the fairness of compensation without making inquires with the employee as to whether the compensation is in fact subjectively fair, under the government’s current proposal these sort of situations will likely end up occurring.

Hollow promises and the illusion of fairness—this is what we have come to with the government. The reality is that the proposed fairness test is not likely to provide any genuine or fair compensation to Australian workers forced to give up their basic award conditions. It was simply designed to act as a bargaining tool for this year’s up-and-coming federal election. In reality nothing about the test or the process involved in applying it is fair. Do you really think that all Australian workers will be in any place to negotiate what they consider fair and equal compensation for the loss of any one or all of their protected award conditions with their employer? Do you really think that the average Australian worker earning $75,000 per annum or less will be able to afford to mount an appeal to the High Court of Australia to review the determinations made by the Workplace Authority? Of course not. However, the Howard government are happy to create the illusion that they can.

In the current Australian workplace, which has been severely distorted by the introduction of Work Choices, the majority of Australian workers simply do not have the power to negotiate and, for what it is worth, do not have any choice. This is the reality of the Australian workplace, the reality that the Howard government have for far too long ignored. Indeed, it has arguably been primarily due to their ignorance of the fact that workers simply do not possess bargaining power equal to employers that they have created an industrial relations system that weighs heavily on the worker and their family.

The hollow promise contained in the bill can and will do nothing to shift this balance. It may provide some form of minor relief for a handful of employees but it does nothing to address the severe imbalance or inequality that has been created in the Australian workplace since the Howard government took power. You can be sure that this inequality will remain if the government should retain power. Why? Because its ignorance of the inherently unequal relationship between workers and employers blinds it to the fact that its system has failed and is in desperate need of a major overhaul.

Only Labor can be trusted with the task of restoring the balance to the Australian workplace. Indeed, recognition of the inherently unequal bargaining position of workers lies at the party’s very heart. It is on the basis of this recognition that Labor proposes to scrap Work Choices and return fairness to the Australian workplace. This simply is not going to happen under the Howard government. No tinkering around the edges of Work Choices, as this bill does, will lift the heavy burden currently being placed on Australian workers. You cannot, as the Howard government is attempting to do with this bill, make a system fair simply by creating an illusion and spending an extra $370.3 million doing it. What is needed is a rethink and a restructure from the core—recognition of the true nature of the relationship between workers and employers and the establishment of a system that accommodates the needs of both. That is exactly what Labor proposes to do. (Time expired)