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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 123

Senator HUTCHINS (9:50 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

After 18 months of asserting its WorkChoices regime is not a threat to workers’ pay and conditions, the Government has finally conceded the point we all recognised when the legislation was rammed through this place: that WorkChoices and the ideology behind it is fundamentally unfair.

With the introduction of the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007, we see the first major crack in the WorkChoices framework.

The Government, in conceding its extreme workplace laws are unfairly reducing the wages and employment conditions of thousands of Australian families, is also finally coming to understand how despised WorkChoices is.

In the same Orwellian fashion in which the original legislation was named, WorkChoices has now disappeared from the official Government lexicon. Ministers and entire bureaucracies are now discouraged from using the term WorkChoices, and backbenchers are loathe to utter the word for fear it will alter their electoral fortunes.

This all points to what we have long known to be true: average working Australians find impalpable the notions that their take-home pay can be cut down; that they can be dismissed for practically any reason without any recourse; and that the balance between work and family life is harder than ever to achieve.

Even if the Government does not want to mention WorkChoices, it is our duty on this side to remind them of their betrayal of working families.

I have had significant numbers of people come to my office regarding the

ways in which WorkChoices has hobbled their earning power. These are ordinary people from working families, predominantly on the Central Coast and in western Sydney, who want nothing more than to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Yet, they have been the targets of an ideological crusade. I have heard from men and women who have been sacked inexplicably; who have worked for companies run down to less than 15 employees so they receive no redundancy payments; who have signed AWAs because, in reality, that is the only choice they had.

The economic statistics and the economic reality, particularly in some of my duty electorates, are disparate concepts.

The official figures show we are enjoying record-low unemployment. But the reality is that there are literally millions of Australians who are only working a small number of hours a week and struggling to get by, but they are counted among the employed. They want more work but either cannot find it or are coming up against barriers to further employment. These include fewer training opportunities because of the Government’s chronic disinvestment in this country’s education sector, or particularly in the case of women, the high and often prohibitive costs of childcare, where working mothers would have to pay more out of their pocket for childcare than they could earn in a day.

Thrown into the mix is an industrial relations framework that is prejudiced against those with the least amount of bargaining power. They are typically those employed in retail and hospitality, and again, women make up a large number of both of these sectors. There are also large numbers of these workers in my duty electorates, in some areas making up a quarter of the workforce.

This Bill seeks to remedy the inherent unfairness of the WorkChoices legislation, and Labor will support the Bill because we welcome any relief for working families in the interim, but I and my colleagues, like many other fellow Australians, maintain the only way to ensure a consistent fair go in the workplace is to get rid of this Government and its extreme IR laws with it.

I would like to highlight, in particular, the Catholic position on WorkChoices. Of course, I recognise that the policies of the Government are not dictated by any particular religious philosophy, but it is important to note it has been falsely stated by the Prime Minister that there is no Catholic position on industrial relations. I think it is clear that the tradition of Catholic social justice speaks out against the ideology underpinning the Coalition’s workplace regime.

The Catholic Church’s thinking on industrial relations is pointedly referred to in Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in which it is written:

Now, for the provision of such commodities, the labor of the working class- the exercise of their skill, and the employment of their strength, in the cultivation of the land, and in the workshops of trade- is especially responsible and quite indispensable. Indeed, their co-operation is in this respect so important that it may be truly said that it is only by the labor of working men that States grow rich. Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create- that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable. It follows that whatever shall appear to prove conducive to the well-being of those who work should obtain favourable consideration. There is no fear that solicitude of this kind will be harmful to any interest; on the contrary, it will be to the advantage of all, for it cannot but be good for the commonwealth to shield from misery those on whom it so largely depends for the things that it needs.

This is the position that has remained consistent throughout the Catholic Church’s teachings, and is particularly applicable to the situation Australian workers find themselves in.

The assertion by the Prime Minister that there is no Catholic position is an attempt to avoid the criticism of his industrial relations policy by a significant member of the Australian community, one that has intimate daily contact with the most disadvantaged.

The Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, Kevin Manning, has been an outspoken critic of the unfairness of the Coalition’s IR policies. Bishop Manning’s criticism is based upon the Catholic principle that the most vulnerable members of our community are protected from conditions that would make their lives even more difficult.

This is a principle that does appear in our tradition of providing for those without employment, for those with disabilities and for those who must care for another on a full-time basis. This is also extended to the concept of universal health care.

These are all traditions that are being assailed by the Coalition. It is bringing to bear the sharper end of its ideology on the most vulnerable in our society. We on this side believe in giving people the opportunity to improve their own situations, but we do not agree with the methods used by this Government. The idea that a person can be denied access to any Commonwealth assistance for up to two months is inconsistent with the responsibility of the Government in caring for those who are least able to care for themselves.

In the same way, WorkChoices is counter to this concept. WorkChoices tips the scales too far in the favour of one group in society, at the expense of another. Working families are faced with stark choices: do they risk their jobs by protesting against an unfair workplace agreement, or do they lose their overtime and shift loadings because a poor-paying job is better than none at all?

This is the reality people are facing. With no training opportunities and expensive childcare, they are being herded away from Commonwealth assistance and towards cutthroat, American-style workplaces where the share of profits is going up but the share of wages are heading south, and where a refusal of a job could lead to them being without the means to buy food and pay for utilities for months on end.

Is this the fruit of the national prosperity we keep hearing about? Is this what we do for our countrymen and women who are being left behind?

There has been talk recently of the human dividend being derived from the wealth of the national economy. What indeed is that human dividend? The Prime Minister will point to a set of numbers to try and quantify the human dividend of the economy, insisting it is the best it will ever be, but anyone

who has their ear a bit closer to the ground will know there are rumblings of dissatisfaction among the shareholders. Australians are putting in- their hard work, their knowledge, and their passion- but are they receiving back in kind all they should be?

In particular, when we see the share of profits of companies and the tax take of the Commonwealth increasing at the same time as the share of wages decreasing, what does that say about the distribution of the human dividend in the era of WorkChoices?

Bishop Manning told the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes of NSW on 16 April this year:

I suggest that you attend to the number of times the vocabulary of economic prosperity is used by the supporters of WorkChoices without reference to the human dimension of economic growth.

Authentic human development can never be equated with economic growth alone.

When the economy takes precedence over the authentic development of the human community certain concepts gain an unwarranted pre-eminence.

Those concepts include a free market at the expense of all considerations of the human condition, and profit as the key characteristic of the health of an economy.

These are the concepts that drive WorkChoices. These are the ideological underpinnings that the Prime Minister has set for his workplace laws. Despite the cracks opening up in the system with the introduction of this Bill, there is nothing that genuinely provides for the concept of fairness in the workplace or of a sincere attempt to protect the most vulnerable.

Debate interrupted.