Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Page: 942

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (11:40): I rise to strongly oppose the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2017. The government have certainly chosen to go to war with the union movement to suit their ideological agenda and to support their mates in the big end of town. There has been a lot of rhetoric about how this bill and the ABCC will usher in a brave new world for Australian workers, how they will drive down house prices and how there will be jobs for all—a utopian workers' paradise, apparently.

Let me tell you what this legislation and the government's ideological drive to cripple the trade union movement will actually do. What they will do is further entrench inequality. And I would like to tell you a story that is quintessentially Australian. I am certainly very proud of being a descendant of a people who, a short time ago, were paid for their day's labour in rations. While white Australians were enjoying a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, First Australians, Indigenous Australians, were rewarded with flour, sugar and tea, and a bit of salt beef if they were lucky.

In the 1960s, the drive and push for equality of wages came from the union movement—not from the bosses, not from the wealthy landholders, not from the government but from the Australian union movement. Ordinary working men and women, white men and women, saw the appalling living conditions, the unfair treatment and the lack of monetary compensation paid to Aboriginal workers, and they said, 'No. This isn't the Australian way.' In 1963 the Australian Council of Trade Unions put out a policy position announcing there must be an end to wage discrimination. Union representatives joined the Equal Wages for Aborigines committee and helped finance a leaflet, Equal wages for Aborigines: there must be an end to wage discrimination. The leaflet urged unionists to protest to the Minister for Territories about the low wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Northern Territory.

In 1964, the North Australian Workers Union presented a case for equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers. The cattle industry, the largest employer of Aboriginal labour, was not legally required to pay Northern Territory Aboriginal drovers more than roughly three pounds per week. White drivers got five times this amount. Two years earlier, the electoral act had extended voting rights to Aboriginal people, but, industrially, they were still outside the award structure which guaranteed fair wages to workers.

The Australian industrial system, built up over more than half a century, also laid down working conditions—annual and sick leave, and workers' compensation. Aboriginal workers, however, were specifically excluded from awards in jobs where they were most represented, such as in the pastoral industry. The North Australian Workers Union application to vary the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951 to include Aboriginal pastoral workers was the first of three such awards to come before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in 1965. This application was a test case. The majority of the 2½ thousand pastoral workers classified as wards under the Northern Territory ordinance were paid no more than three pounds three shillings three pence per week. That equal wages committee opened its petition campaign with newspaper advertisements asking the public, 'How equal is an Aborigine on three pounds three shillings three pence per week?'

It pointed out that these low wage rates were inconsistent with stated policy that Aborigines should enjoy the same rights and privileges as other Australians.

In March 1966, the commission brought down its long-awaited decision on the proposed variations to the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. It agreed to the deletion of the clauses which excluded Aboriginal pastoral workers from the award but deferred the date of implementation to 1 December 1968. This deferral was the last straw for unions and for Aboriginal pastoral workers who were the ringers of the Top End. In April, Lupna Giari, also known as Captain Major, the head Aboriginal stockman at Newcastle Waters pastoral station, led a walk-off of about 80 pastoral workers and their families. News of this strike spread, and in August 1966 Vincent Lingiari, the head stockman at Wave Hill, south of Darwin—one of the largest pastoral leases in the Northern Territory, owned by the wealthy British Vestey family—also led 200 workers and their families in a walk-off. They set up camp at Daguragu, or Wattie Creek. The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, FCAATSI, supported these walk-offs and encouraged public donations to help the striking families. It was the meatworkers' union that placed a black ban on Vesteys' meat.

Fifty years ago, the Wave Hill walk-off initially started as an industrial action, but it became about much more than wages. Unions and workers drew attention to appalling living conditions and the poor quality of food and, at Wave Hill, they also drew attention to the fact that they were working on Gurindji land, the land of their forebears. The dispute widened, and it certainly deepened. It became a claim for land. This industrial dispute, born from the unfair and unequal treatment of Aboriginal workers, out of sight and mind of governments and the powerful, was supported and boosted by the trade union movement. It was where the beginning of the Aboriginal land-rights movement gained incredible momentum, eventually resulting in a Commonwealth act, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

In many ways, it has led to me being able to be here in the Australian Senate, the equal of every single senator here. I am here as a legacy of the men and women who fought for these rights, supported and assisted by the union movement. It is a great legacy because it showed unions that Indigenous workers were willing to fight for wage equality, and it shifted unions to the role of supporting and fighting for all workers, not just white workers but black workers too.

I have heard talk in the Senate, in debate over related bills, about black bans. Let me tell you: we know all about black bans. We know all about blacks being banned from work and from equal wages. It is not history; it is happening today, under the CD Program. CDP forces the overwhelmingly Indigenous population of remote communities into labour with none of the benefits of employment enjoyed by every other Australian worker. These workers' labour is without the protection of federal OHS standards or workers compensation, and they earn no superannuation. It is no wonder that First Nations people cannot rise above deep disadvantage, when financially there is no road out of such poverty. For women, there is no independent financial future to assist them out of lives riddled with violence.

I am sure the union movement will not allow a policy which denies workers their rights and creates a two-tiered unemployment system to stand. The ones who are again pushing to change this out there in our regions across the country, fighting for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work for those on CDP, are the unions. The unionists are the ones calling attention to a policy which denies workers their rights today and creates a two-tiered unemployment system right now.

Trade unions have been longstanding supporters of Indigenous rights and the fight for justice for Indigenous Australians. Unions have campaigned for education in the Northern Territory to ensure that Indigenous Australians in remote communities can get access to quality schools and an education which respects culture. Recent events in the Northern Territory and the treatment of young Indigenous people in juvenile detention centres show that the struggle for Indigenous rights has not ended and that the trade union movement still has a vital role in ensuring justice and equality for Indigenous Australians, just as it has a vital role to play in ensuring fair and safe work practices around Australia, especially in regional and remote workplaces. In workplaces hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres from the nearest work safety office, it is union members who do their best to ensure safe work practices. It is the unions that give the moral support, the mental support, for workers embattled in their workplaces in those remote regions.

Let me share with the Senate just one example of hundreds. A schoolteacher, an amazing woman who had worked to get to where she is today and who is one of the first Aboriginal women schoolteachers in this community, had been living in a government house, just like every other teacher and colleague of hers was doing at that time. But an authority from above said that anyone who was a local person could not live in a government house. She is a traditional owner of her region, and she had studied and worked hard to be there beside her teacher colleagues, and all of a sudden she and her family were to be kicked out of their home. Why? Because she was considered a local. Yet everyone knew she had nowhere to go. Every other house of her family's was overcrowded, with 15 to 20 people, and her only choice was to go and live in a tent out on her country. Who was it that stepped up to support this woman? This is just one story in hundreds. It was the union movement, and a bit of common sense came into play and she is still in her house. Well, what do you know? On construction sites, mines, pastoral properties and in remote communities, it is often the union members who are left to speak up to protect themselves and their colleagues.

Yesterday we heard about the dismal inroads being made into the unacceptably high rates of Indigenous unemployment, highlighted in the Closing the Gapreport. There has been a decline in the Indigenous employment rate since 2008. In 2014-15 the Indigenous employment rate was 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians. For Indigenous Australians living in remote areas like the Territory, it is even worse. In 2014-15 only 35.1 per cent of Indigenous people of working age in very remote areas were employed, compared with 57.5 per cent of those living in major cities.

The construction industry is an important player in the limited employment market that exists in very remote areas. And a lot of this work is government funded building work. The amendments to this bill have the potential to throw the industry into further chaos and confusion, with who knows what effect this will have on the already abysmal employment rates in the bush. This legislation will undoubtedly further entrench inequality in our society. It will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. What is truly, intrinsically Australian is a striving for equality, for a fair go. That is what unions are all about. And that is what this government's agenda seeks to destroy.