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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Page: 6

Senator CROSSIN (12:51 PM) —I rise to contribute to debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. I will begin by saying that on 3 April this year, the Prime Minister stated on ABC radio:

These workplace relations changes are very important to our economic future. That is my belief and that belief won’t change.

Yet here we are, two months and a string of negative polls later, debating amendments to the very legislation the government was so determined, two years ago, not to alter. The statement I just quoted was made prior to these proposed amendments. The Prime Minister was of course referring to Work Choices—dare I say that name publicly again?—in its original form or, in the new term that we now know, workplace relations. It seems that the government has reverted to a tried and true brand name, seeing that the terminology ‘Work Choices’ has had such negative reaction from the voters. The Prime Minister made this statement on ABC radio on 3 April. Just four weeks later, on 4 May, he announced amendments to the act that he believed in so much. This was followed by a $5 million advertising blitz heralding the changes and an announcement that these changes would come into effect on 7 May, with the specifics only reaching parliament barely two weeks ago. So these amendments have been in force for six weeks, and they are not even law yet.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, said in his second reading speech:

It was never the intention that it may become the norm for protected award conditions such as penalty rates to be traded off without proper compensation.

That idea, coming from the minister for industrial relations, is not laudable; in fact, it is laughable. When you do not put protections in place, there will be the odd rogue employer that will abuse their new-found powers. Since the Work Choices laws came into effect 14 months ago, hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost award conditions that are supposed to be protected, a promise that the Howard government failed to keep. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that Australians were being forced onto AWAs that stripped them of supposedly protected award conditions, this government refused to back down, time and time again, and declared that it would stand by this draconian legislation.

The aim of this backflip—very much a minor backflip, I have to say—is not to put in place an additional safety net to protect Australian workers, as the Howard government would want you to believe. These amendments have a sole purpose—that is, to protect the Prime Minister’s job. It is interesting that the government chose to use the words ‘simpler’ and ‘fairer’ in the propaganda they initially bombarded the Australian people with to promote Work Choices. Employers complained about the difficulty in implementing AWAs and abiding by the Work Choices legislation, originally over 1,000 pages long. Now, with an extra 100 pages to abide by, name changes, an ambiguous and fake fairness test that has been in place for six weeks without legislation detailing it, and no time line as to when AWAs would be assessed for the said fairness by the Workplace Authority, it seems that the Howard government need to be educated on what the term ‘simple’ actually means.

This whole debacle is indicative of the Howard government: tired and sloppy. No matter how much money you spend on advertising propaganda, no matter how many superficial amendments you make to this legislation, it is still an absolute shambles and absolutely unfair. A bandaid cannot cover a bullet hole, and that is what this latest amendment bill is attempting to do.

There is an alarming amendment in this legislation in regard to the fairness test. The proposed amendment, as it stands, is that the Workplace Authority will have the power to decide whether an AWA is fair, based on what has been traded off, and, if need be, can use information about the employee’s personal circumstances in order to make this decision. This in itself is an outrage. How is a bureaucrat in Canberra supposed to properly assess the personal circumstances, briefly noted on a piece of paper, of, for example, Mr X in Tennant Creek? How can they justify a loss of penalty rates because Mr X prefers to work weekends and public holidays so that he is available to look after the children during the week while his missus is at work?

Do Australians really want details of their personal lives, from family and childcare arrangements to details of personal relationships and financial situations, to be put on paper and handed to their boss to be forwarded on to a bureaucrat somewhere in this country, probably in Canberra? Employees such as Mr X, whose availability to work is restricted due to family responsibilities or in other situations, maybe related to personal circumstances, may be deemed to have no entitlement to penalty rates or other protected award conditions under this legislation, even after having their private lives on display for bureaucrats to pick over. It is absolutely appalling that it has reached this stage in Australia—that an employee’s personal life can be on display for complete strangers to analyse in order to decide whether or not a loss of a protected award condition is fair.

This also poses another question: how is the fairness test to be assessed? How does one assess the monetary or non-monetary value of a protected award condition? It appears that the government sees this as a minute detail, since there is no provision in this amendment bill for the Workplace Authority to provide reasons as to how they assessed the monetary or non-monetary value of whatever was provided to an employee. The Workplace Authority are under absolutely no obligation to give reasons for their assessments, whether an employee’s personal circumstances or work situation were even relevant in assessing whether or not the Australian workplace agreement passed this so-called fairness test—just one more thing that this government feels the Australian public does not need to know.

One step back from the fairness test itself—and I am sure this has been pointed out, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears, so I will reiterate it—is: what is the definition of ‘fair’? This government has not proposed a definition in the amendment bill before us, probably to give itself room to further rip off workers while waving around the term ‘fair’ in front of their faces. The term ‘fair’ is subjective. How can the Australian public trust that the person reviewing their AWA in accordance with the fairness test provisions will have the same view of ‘fair’ as they do? If these amendments are as fair as the government is claiming, why is there a need to employ a further 600 Work Choices policemen to stop workers from being ripped off?

The government has already failed in this so-called fairness test, and it is not even law yet. In what way has it failed? It has failed to protect and compensate those workers already on AWAs lodged prior to 7 May 2007. Those hundreds of thousands of workers have already signed unfair Australian workplace agreements which exclude award conditions such as penalty rates and overtime that were apparently protected under the original legislation. Workers such as the casuals at Darrell Lea, who were given AWAs that stripped conditions like penalty rates without the hourly rate being increased by even a single cent over the life of the AWA, have received no compensation that any office or authority has deemed ‘fair’ and will receive nothing from this legislation.

There are also those whose important award conditions—rostering predictions, redundancy or long service leave entitlements—will be affected because the government feels those conditions are not important enough to be protected. Try telling a single mother of two who works in a hotel that rostering predictions are not important. This mother would have seven days notice of her roster under the Northern Territory’s current hotels and motels award. Such notice is sufficient time for her to organise child care for her children. Yet, under this so-called fairness test, rostering predictions could become a thing of the past, and this hardworking mother of two would not be compensated. It has been pointed out by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in their report entitled It’s about time: women, men, work and family—final paper 2007 that employees with families would be most at risk under the Work Choices legislation and that the fairness test is only serving to highlight how unfair the Work Choices laws and their amendments really are.

These latest amendments still do not address the issue of unfair dismissal and how it is completely balanced in favour of the employer. On 14 May 2003, the Northern Territory News reported the case of a Darwin employee who worked for a small local business and was sacked when she returned to work following time off for a work related back injury. She was a full-time employee and, while she was having time off, her employer made her full-time position redundant and replaced it with a casual position. This hardworking woman was offered the casual position upon her return to work. She argued that her boss did not have the right to replace her full-time job with a casual one and filed a dispute notice with the Industrial Relations Commission. In the meantime, she took up alternative employment at a service station and worked night and early morning shifts to make ends meet, earning $9,000 to the end of March 2003. The Industrial Relations Commission ruled that her termination was unjust, harsh and unreasonable. However, based on the legislation that the Howard government had put in place, the commission is prohibited from awarding the maximum six-months compensation in cases such as this because it must take into account any income an employee earns from alternative employment. The legislation forced the IRC to take into account the $9,000 amount and reduce the compensation that could have been awarded to the worker. The commission ultimately awarded her only $3,200 in compensation. This is just one of the many examples of the Howard government failing to support workers with its farcical industrial relations laws.

The Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the rest of the coalition delight in quoting the unemployment figures across Australia. They say that these figures are directly related to the Work Choices legislation, while conveniently ignoring the fact that Australia has been enjoying its 16th year of economic growth, coupled with a resources boom. Would the government also like to take responsibility for the fifth consecutive monthly increase in unemployment in the Northern Territory? Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures showing that unemployment in the Northern Territory is higher than the national average and is currently sitting at 4.6 per cent. The monthly unemployment figure climbed 0.3 per cent in May alone.

Senator Johnston interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Order! Senator Johnston, it is disorderly to interject. As a minister, please desist.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will take that interjection, Senator Johnston, because it is a classic example. While unemployment is going down, as it is around the rest of the country, you say: ‘We’ll take all the glory for that. The Howard government and Work Choices will take a big gold star for that, and that will be the way that we push this ideology on the rest of the country and make people believe that we are actually responsible.’ But when you look at the Northern Territory, where unemployment has gone up for a number of months and is sitting at a level higher than the national average—unemployment climbed 0.3 per cent in May alone—you say: ‘It’s not our fault. That’s not Work Choices. Things are bad in the Territory, so it cannot be us; it must be the state government’s fault.’ I see: when unemployment goes up, we blame the states; when unemployment goes down, it is our responsibility.

You have no responsibility in the Northern Territory. Is that correct? You have turned your back on the Northern Territory. Clearly, it is a major hole in your argument that unemployment figures are going down in this country as a result of Work Choices but in the Territory the unemployment figures have gone up—and we could have a massive debate about why that might be. If you look at the intersection of the import of 457 visa holders and what is happening in the industrial relations arena, you might arrive at some answers about that figure in the Northern Territory. Just as the Howard government takes credit for low unemployment in Australia, so too must it take responsibility for five consecutive monthly rises in unemployment in the Northern Territory. The government’s argument hits a seriously massive hurdle in terms of credibility when we apply it to the Northern Territory.

I notice the member for Solomon, Mr David Tollner, did not speak on this bill in the House of Representatives. Could it be that he does not believe in it? This would be a likely reason, as he stood before the people of Solomon and declared his pride in orchestrating the original Work Choices legislation. In fact, he said at a public forum that his fingerprints were all over it. He even agreed to a public debate on Work Choices in March this year. I clearly remember him saying outside his office that he would be happy to debate Work Choices with Ms Sharan Burrow, the President of the ACTU, in July of this year.

However, Mr Tollner has since backed down, for reasons known only to himself—although I notice in today’s Northern Territory News he cites that he would rather wait to have such a debate until the actual election starts so that we can hear from the minor parties. I never thought that the Greens and the Democrats would be on the mind of Mr Tollner when he wanted to justify his fingerprints being all over the Work Choices legislation. It could be that, no matter how proud of Work Choices he is, he is aware that it is a liability to his being re-elected later this year. I put it to you that that is more than likely the real reason.

Very possibly this is also the trend we are seeing with this government and is the very reason for the fake fairness test, which is a lame attempt to bring the Australian public onside prior to the federal election by creating a perception of fairness. Any reasonable person could not help but think, ‘Crikey, is it election time already?’ As with previous election years, we are seeing a flurry of activity from the Howard government, particularly this year, as it sees its pollsters returning negative feedback on the government’s beloved Work Choices legislation.

It was revealed in Senate estimates two weeks ago that the cost of the Howard government’s industrial relations advertising campaign is $4.1 million, averaging $585,000 per day or $25,000 per hour. This is above and beyond the call of informing the public of legislative changes; it is an outright public relations campaign to aid the government in getting re-elected later this year. Senate estimates also revealed that the full-page advertisements, which trumpeted these latest amendments and appeared in national newspapers on Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 May, cost taxpayers $470,000. The Prime Minister claims that the ads were to inform the Australian public of changes to the legislation. These advertisements appeared in national newspapers less than 24 hours after the Prime Minister had announced such changes, before the details of the amendments had even been written—before, I suppose, the ink was even dry on the paper. Advertisements such as these are nothing more than blatant party political advertising under the guise of government advertising and are designed to protect only one job—the Prime Minister’s.

The bill before us today is farcical, to say the least. It seems that the government either is fascinated with name changes or has so many ideas for names within a department that it feels it must give each suggested name a turn in the spotlight. We had the Office of the Employment Advocate, now known as the Workplace Authority; there was the Office of Workplace Services, now known as the Workplace Ombudsman; and there was Work Choices, which is now being referred to by the government as workplace relations. One can only imagine how much money and effort will be put into changing the stationery and the business cards alone. But this matters not. We have already established that it is an election year, after all, and it seems that taxpayers’ money is no object when it comes to protecting the Prime Minister’s job, let alone the jobs of Australians in this country.