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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Page: 18

Senator POLLEY (1:47 PM) —I too rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. I have been amazed at the arrogance of my government colleagues throughout this debate. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me how out of touch and arrogant they are, particularly on this issue and the effect it has on Australian families. I see that the Howard government is up to its usual tricks trying to spin and spend as soon as it sees an election around the corner. Months out from an election, it is interesting to see the government scrambling to convince the public that these changes are something more than a distraction from the inherent unfairness of the Work Choices legislation. The central question is: if Work Choices is not broken, why does it need a fairness test? I am yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for this from the government. It is almost as if it were saying, ‘It is bad legislation but we are trying to make it a little less bad.’

We all know that this amendment is truly a reaction to the polls and to the prospect of the government finding out at the next election just how unpopular Work Choices is. It has been 13 months since Work Choices was introduced, and it has taken the government till now to realise that workers have been asked to trade away protected conditions. When it does react to the polls, it comes up with something that lacks substance—another example of a cynical government trying to distract the Australian public by offering something that sounds good but in reality offers nothing. A fairness test, indeed! The government has realised that Australians have seen Work Choices for what it is—an unfair and unbalanced industrial relations system that weights the system in favour of employers at the expense of workers. We have seen in the last 13 months many examples of this.

The changes in this bill do little to restore the balance that has been lost under the extreme Work Choices legislation. These changes do nothing to protect redundancy or long service leave. They are just another example of clever and cunning politics by this government. We in the Australian Labor Party think that the Australian public deserve better than that. We believe in a truly fair industrial relations system that gives everyone, both employers and employees, a fair go and the ability to work in a reasonable environment. It says a lot about the priorities of the Howard government that the fairness test this bill is supposed to implement does so little to fix the system that the government itself created. Make no mistake: Work Choices with all its unfairness is exactly what the Prime Minister intended, and it is imperative that we point out how unfair and unjust the system is to all Australians. But the government has been trying to hide the substance of Work Choices with spin; trying not to call its own legislation by the name he gave it: Work Choices. We all know what this unfair industrial relations system stands for. What else can we expect from John Howard? After all, he said, ‘Australian families have never been better off.’

I turn to some of the problems with this bill. I have noticed that this bill is called the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill. What an ironic title. There is no safety net under Work Choices, and the government is well aware of that, so I do not quite know what the government means by titling this amendment bill ‘A Stronger Safety Net’. It is just another example of its cunning and the tricky politics under the Prime Minister. The government obviously thinks it can again mislead the public into believing that it is strengthening something in Work Choices, when the sad reality is that it is just more clever Howard government window-dressing. The central point that must be made is that Work Choices is inherently unfair legislation. No number of fairness tests and fake safety nets can change its nature. Australians can see that this government is not interested in making the legislation truly fair, or even in looking after ordinary Australians. If it were, it would do more than wheel out these cosmetic changes with an election around the corner. It would implement a truly fair and balanced industrial relations system. All the government is interested in, as the Prime Minister himself puts it, is ‘pulling a rabbit out of the hat’ and playing election-year politics.

This is unacceptable when we are talking about the rights of Australian workers. We all know, at least on this side of the chamber, how Work Choices has failed Australian families and, in particular, Australian women. A close look at this bill shows that the so-called fairness test the government is trying to slip past the public is nothing more than a sham. It does nothing to fix the government’s hated Work Choices legislation. The only way Australians can be sure of restoring balance to the industrial relations system is by repealing the Work Choices laws and implementing the Labor Party’s industrial relations platform, dealing fairly between employers and employees.

This amendment is intended to help Australians on AWAs who trade away conditions, but it does nothing for those who are already on workplace agreements and have already traded away their conditions. Is the government going to do anything about those who have already lost their rights under Work Choices? Of course not. This government is forgetting about those workers and allowing them to continue to work without their protected conditions.

While we are talking about Work Choices let us remember that it is hardly a system in which an employee has a great deal of choice. If an employer decides not to bargain in good faith then they do not have to. The core of Work Choices has always been about taking away basic conditions such as penalty rates, overtime and shift loadings from workers. The Prime Minister can talk all he likes about fairness, but the cold, hard reality is that this attempt to hide the true nature of the Work Choices legislation has failed.

Once again the government resorts to advertising and spin to try to fool the Australian public into thinking that the system has changed, but they will not be fooled. The government has disowned Work Choices, but it continues to refer to it as the great hope of the labour market. We all know how extreme and unfair Work Choices has proven to be in practice. This government has no qualms about using taxpayers’ money to the tune of $4.1 million in order to tell everyone how fair this amendment is, but that is only the tip of the iceberg with regard to the advertising budget. Of course there was the $55 million spent in 2005 to explain to Australians that award conditions were protected. The proof that this was not the case is evident in this amendment. This legislation spends even more money though—more than $350 million of new money has appeared from nowhere to sell this amendment. This government, I have found, is very fond of names, and this amendment is no exception. Nearly everything is changing its name—from the Office of Workplace Services to the Office of the Workplace Advocate—all at the taxpayers’ expense, of course. But the substance of Work Choices stays the same. Once again, spin over substance.

I understand from reading the amendment bill that the government is going to employ hundreds of new staff to police these new changes. These contractors will be required to implement the so-called fairness test the government is proposing. This massive increase in both staffing and funding in the industrial relations sector represents a huge bureaucratic increase. According to forward estimates, the total additional funding will be a massive $1.83 billion—an enormous expenditure that the government has incurred in implementing and advertising Work Choices, but money that could have been put to better use designing and implementing a fair and balanced industrial relations system.

In my own state of Tasmania many working families are already struggling. Work Choices represents a further weakening of their bargaining power. Some are losing award conditions, like the workers taken over by United Petroleum in 2006—a case that is just the tip of the iceberg. ACTU research shows that Tasmanians on AWAs earned almost $100 a week less than their friends on collective agreements. There is no fairness in that. Labor’s approach to this amendment is that if it does no harm and if there is a possibility, as slim as that may be, that it makes a difference to even one worker then we will support it. If a worker is offered an AWA that strips away all 11 of their protected award conditions then this bill might prevent that AWA.

Of course we may never know because the mechanism on which the government is proposing to judge Australian workplace agreements is secret and non-renewable. That is what this bill does: it sets up a secret process under the Workplace Authority to determine whether an agreement is fair or not. The authority does this unilaterally without having to provide reasons for its decisions. It does not have to explain how it values the services provided by the employee, or the non-monetary value that it assigns to something provided by an employee. It does not even have to explain how it reached its decision and why it considers an agreement to be fair or unfair. There is also no scope for either side of the agreement—the employee or the employer—to make their feelings known. Is that fair? Of course it is not.

This bill also has something else that I find worrying—that is, a section that allows employees’ personal circumstances to be used when determining the industrial conditions that are offered to them. Surely an employee’s personal circumstances are just that—personal—and should not be used as a basis for determining their entitlements. This is truly worrying and once again proof of how the government’s rhetoric about fairness does not match its actions. Is it fair that an employee’s personal circumstances can affect their awards and entitlements? Of course, the government does not want to talk about these aspects of the bill.

Let me turn to the credentials that the Labor Party has on this issue. I would like to add something more about the Prime Minister who seems determined to bring up Labor’s economic credentials, and it is something that I think is worth pointing out. When John Howard was Treasurer in the Fraser government, all the way back in 1983, interest rates were high, inflation was 11 per cent and unemployment was 11 per cent. If we are going to talk about economic credentials, let us at least be fair about it and talk about the Prime Minister’s background on the subject.

The Labor Party, when it came to power in 1983, worked hard to rebuild the Australian economy and laid the basis for the sustained economic prosperity we have today. We did this partly by developing a fair industrial relations system, and working hand in hand with employers and employees to ensure that the best outcomes were achieved for all Australians. Sadly, Work Choices cannot be said to be doing the same.

In conclusion, it is a system and a process that John Howard has ripped up and changed in order to implement his own extreme industrial relations Work Choices legislation. This government does not believe in the conciliation and arbitration system. It does not believe in fairness. It does not believe in a balanced system. Work Choices exposes what the Prime Minister believes in—an unfair, extreme and unbalanced system that does nothing to deliver fairness at all.

The PRESIDENT —Order! The time for this debate has expired.

Senator POLLEY —Mr President, I seek leave to have the remainder of my speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The incorporated speech read as follows—

He believes in a system where workers lack the real power to negotiate with their employer, where it is worker against worker, and conditions are something that are not guaranteed. The government is trying to be too clever by half. They cannot have it both ways; you cannot implement an unfair system and then try not to call it by name hoping that no one will notice. That is the action of a cunning and desperate government. Let us also not forget what the Treasurer said when asked—words to the effect that everything can change after the election. After the next election all bets are off for this government. Let us not forget Work Choices when that election comes around, and make this government accountable for failing the people of Australia.

In the end, this is the story of the Howard government. It is not, and never has been, about a fair go for ordinary Australians. It is about keeping power for as long as possible and using taxpayer money for its own ends. Not only does this government take away workers rights, but then it uses their tax dollars to tell them how much better off they are. That is what this government thinks of fairness. Australians should not make the mistake of thinking that this government cares about workers’ rights, and should send that message home to the Prime Minister through the ballot box at the next election. It is time for a fair system, it is time for balance in IR and it is time for Work Choices to be consigned to history.

Debate interrupted.