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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 118

Senator HOGG (9:37 PM) —I rise to make some comments on this piece of legislation before the chamber this evening. The first thing I must address, of course, is the title of the legislation itself: the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. If ever there has been a misnomer, that is it—‘A Stronger Safety Net’—because that implies that there was a safety net there in the first place. Of course, if one knows anything about the Work Choices legislation, one knows that there was not even a skerrick of protection for the low paid—those people most vulnerable in their employment situations in the community out there in the real world.

Senator Parry interjecting—

Senator HOGG —That is the truth of the matter, Senator Parry. You should come down and see what the real world is about, not live up there in your lofty tower. Find out that in the real world the people who are most vulnerable have been attacked by the Work Choices legislation and have had their basic and fundamental conditions undermined. For the government to talk about ‘A Stronger Safety Net’ is a complete untruth at best. There has never been a safety net with the current Work Choices legislation. The government rejected any concept of a safety net when the Work Choices legislation passed through this chamber over 18 months ago. There was no thought ever taken by this government of giving proper protection for those people who are the weak and vulnerable in the workforce.

I have heard the arguments over a long period of time, because I have a history as a long-practising trade union person, whether it be in a full-time or part-time capacity. I have seen governments of all persuasions go through the issue of industrial relations over a long period of time and come up with many schemes. There was Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who came up with the much vaunted voluntary employment agreements back in the 1980s. What were voluntary employment agreements? Nothing more than AWAs. What were voluntary employment agreements designed to do? Attack the most vulnerable. They were nothing more and nothing less than AWAs. There was no concept of a safety net in the Bjelke-Petersen era; there is no concept of protection for people in the Howard government era either. That has never been part of the mantra of the coalition forces, whether they be in places like Queensland or in federal government. The fact of life is that if you were skilled, if you were well educated and if you were well placed you could defend yourself most admirably and most adequately in negotiating the terms and conditions of employment that you might seek. However, if you were weak, vulnerable, unskilled or semiskilled then you were exposed. That is what this government cannot come to grips with. You have never been out there. You have never met the unskilled or the semiskilled. You have never met the vulnerable. You have never met those people who are in precarious employment.

Senator Parry interjecting—

Senator HOGG —You do not understand what precarious employment is about. Senator Parry, I will come back to you outside the chamber and tell you how precarious your employment is. But that is for another time. It is not because of me; it is because of you. The driving force in the Bjelke-Petersen era and in the era of this government is supposedly in the name of lifting productivity and profits. But, of course, the people who have been asked to sacrifice the wherewithal to generate that so-called productivity lift have been those who are in vulnerable employment.

Of course, the award over a long period of time was a safety net. It was always available to employers to go beyond the safety net—to pay in excess of the safety net and to give conditions of employment they were far superior to and far better than those that may have prevailed in the award. That was the case back in the eighties when VEAs were around.

Senator Bernardi interjecting—

Senator HOGG —Senator Bernardi, you had probably not even been born.

Senator Bernardi —I had!

Senator HOGG —I am being kind to you. That is also the case in the current situation. The safety net has been withdrawn by the withdrawal of very basic and very simple award conditions. Obviously, if you destroy the safety net then you can go below. So to come here now and feign that one is putting in a stronger safety net is just a nonsense—absolute nonsense—when there was no safety net there in the first place. It is always good for people such as Senator Parry and others to feign that they are the protectors of the workers. Of course, they have never done anything like that themselves. As a matter of fact, the first worker they meet will be the first. You would not even recognise one, Senator Parry. Anyway, that is for another time and another day. The simple fact of life is that those people who are in vulnerable industries, such as those who work in the retail industry, are in real trouble indeed when you hear about the likes of the Darrell Lea episode.

Senator Bernardi interjecting—

Senator HOGG —Anyone with a sense of justice, equity and fair-mindedness, Senator Bernardi, would realise what that agreement was about. It was not about delivering fairness, equity and justice to people. The sooner you wake up to it, the better, because you should understand, as much as anyone else. You have got an intellect. Come to grips with the facts. Even Senator Mason here knows that these people, under the Darrell Lea or even under the Spotlight agreement, were not in receipt of fairness, justice or any equity whatsoever. They were simply the subject of a rip-off by their employers. Fortunately some of those matters have been redressed. This legislation has been portrayed by some as a backflip. That is complete nonsense. This maintains the harsh, unfair, unjust and extreme IR laws—the Work Choices laws—that this government put in place back in November 2005.

That the government have gone down this path is a hypocritical act. It is of course welcomed that they think there might be a need for a sense of fairness, equity and justice, but this is too little too late. The government have let a wash of AWAs go past already, and those AWAs are not subject to any fairness test that this legislation might pretend to put in place. Purely and simply, the legislation will take effect from a prospective date. That is, of itself, insufficient—if there was unfairness in the legislation, that unfairness should have been redressed in the original legislation, not some 15 to 18 months after the legislation was originally passed. This is purely and simply a political stunt by the government to try to crawl back in the polls. That is all it is about—it is a political move on the part of the government, and I can understand why the government is making this cynical political move.

This does not restore anything to those who have already signed away conditions of employment through an AWA. To believe that these people entered into it necessarily in a willing and helpful fashion is quite nonsensical when one knows that many of these people are in a vulnerable position and would have to enter into an agreement of their employer’s making and choice rather than to sacrifice any income. It does not save anyone who comes on as a new employee and is forced onto an AWA, and it does nothing at all for those people on NAPSAs—notional agreements preserving state awards. Why? Because these cease to exist from 27 March 2009.

Senator Bernardi —Like the union bosses, they will cease to exist.

Senator HOGG —I am glad you are enjoying this, Senator Bernardi, because you need a little bit of education. The fact is that NAPSAs will not be affected by this legislation. From 27 March 2009 there will be a minimum of five conditions under the Work Choices act, and they will apply. Therefore, those people who are on NAPSAs—and there are a large number of people on them—will suffer a fate which is worse than death in a sense because this so-called legislation which is meant to be a stronger safety net will not apply to them at all. The so-called fairness test will be seen as nothing more than a cynical move on the part of this government, as it should be.

If equity, fairness and good conscience had prevailed in the first instance, this measure would not be up for determination now. But equity, fairness and good conscience did not apply and so the government have brought this legislation before this chamber in a very cynical way to try to claw back in the polls, where I understand they are not travelling too well. A no disadvantage test was deliberately and consciously left out of Work Choices. It was not left out by mistake; it was left out deliberately. The government had the opportunity when the original legislation was put forward of doing that very thing, as Senator Bartlett reminded the chamber. There is no doubt that the abuses that people have suffered as a result of the Work Choices legislation will never be undone with this new legislation. This legislation will not redress any of the problems that people have faced as a result of signing up to AWAs since the inception of this legislation.

It is only a politically expedient move on the part of this government to see that this legislation is passed before the Senate gets up this week. There is no real value in the legislation in the longer term because this government has no heart in seeing that those who are vulnerable, who are unskilled and who are in precarious employment are protected.

Senator Bernardi —Such as a few Labor senators.

Senator HOGG —I am glad that you have interjected. At least it shows someone has a bit of sense around here, Senator Bernardi. The old saying is very true in this instance: you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time. The absolute proof of the pudding will be that most of the people who were fooled in the first instance by the language of this government in the sale of Work Choices will know that there is absolute hollowness in that language.