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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 8602

Senator CASH (Western Australia) (11:53): I rise to speak on the Social and Community Services Pay Equity Special Account Bill 2012 and the Social and Community Services Pay Equity Special Account (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012. The coalition welcomed the finalisation of the long-running equal remuneration case which required Fair Work Australia to objectively consider the plight of employees in the social and community sector—or SACS, as it is known—where it was shown that there was a significant gap between the remuneration of men and women carrying out the work of equal or comparative value when compared with workers in state and local government employment. On 22 June 2012, Fair Work Australia published its final determination in what had been a long-running case in favour of the applicants.

The decision of Fair Work Australia's historic equal remuneration order will see around 150,000 SACS workers benefit from regular wage rises totalling between 23 and 45 per cent over an extended of period of time from 1 December 2012 until June 2021. This bill has been introduced in response to the FWA determination and, given the important role and services provided to our community by the social and community sector, care must now be taken to ensure that the benefits which are due to these workers are properly recognised. But, at the same time, we must ensure that services are not reduced or jeopardised and that jobs in the sector are not lost.

This bill will provide supplementation to community organisations who receive Commonwealth funding, directly or through a national partnership, to cover the Commonwealth share of the wage increase awarded by Fair Work Australia. The Commonwealth supplementation will be delivered through funding drawn from the special account by eight Commonwealth agencies and paid to assist employers who are directly or indirectly funded by the Commonwealth for the purposes of a program prescribed under the new legislation and who are required to make payments to their employees under the pay equity arrangements. The Social and Community Services Pay Equity Special Account (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012 will make a consequential amendment to the COAG Reform Fund Act 2008 in relation to supplementation for programs funded under agreements with and payments to state and territories, such as national partnership payments and national specific purpose payments.

Whilst the coalition will not be opposing this legislation, we do have a number of concerns with it. The first concern that we have is in relation to the rushed nature of the legislation. After the introduction of the legislation on 10 October 2012, the government insisted that the bill pass the House of Representatives on 11 October. When we asked the government why there was such a rush to have this legislation passed, the government failed to provide any substantive reason for the rushed nature of this legislation other than to say it was urgent because of the 1 December 2012 commencement date.

Given that Fair Work Australia had made some preliminary determinations in May 2011, recognising that SACS workers were undervalued, and that the Prime Minister in November 2011 made an announcement that the government would set aside $2 billion in support of pay increases for SACS workers, it is clear that, despite the forewarning of Fair Work Australia in its earlier decisions, the government has been dragging its feet in bringing this legislation before the parliament. The legislation could have been introduced some months ago, soon after the decision of Fair Work Australia was actually published. The government's handling of this bill is another clear example of the chaotic and indeed shambolic nature of this government and its ever-present contempt for the Australian parliament.

The coalition also has serious concerns about issues affecting the implementation of this legislation. Labor has refused to date to guarantee that community service organisations will not close or will not have to reduce their services as a result of the cost pressures that the Fair Work Australia decision may cause. There is no doubt that equal remuneration is important. However, steps must be taken to ensure that equal remuneration is paid and, at the same time, we do not seek to effect reductions in costs which would decrease the significant and indeed critical services that these organisations provide.

Again, to date, the Labor government has refused to guarantee the people of Australia that there will not be a closure of services or a reduction in the services that are actually provided. Indeed, in the Australian newspaper recently, we have seen concerns raised in the community that this funding 'will lead to job losses and service cuts to programs for the nation's most vulnerable.' Even the full bench of Fair Work Australia expressed concern about the impact of this decision on some parts of the sector that provide services for which costs cannot be recovered, or which receive no government funding.

The coalition, unlike the government, harbours serious concerns that the government's plan to fund pay rises in the community sector may change the workplace landscape and fuel further wage pressures across the economy. The coalition also has concerns relating to the nature of the rubbery figures that the government has provided in bringing forward this legislation. Prime Minister Gillard attempted to dress up a political announcement by suggesting that the government was injecting $2.8 billion in funding into the social and community sector and that the government was doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. The reality is that the workers will be receiving their pay rises as a consequence of the decision of Fair Work Australia rather than an additional magnanimous handout from the Labor government.

In relation to this legislation, the fact of the matter remains that this is a government that is driven by spin rather than substance. As usual, the Prime Minister of Australia was trying to reinvent political history with her political announcement. In fact, when you analyse what is in this bill and what was previously promised by the government, you will see that the $2.8 billion actually represents a $300 million cut in Labor's previous promises to the sector. Let me say that again: if you look at what is in the bill that is currently before the Senate, and if you look at what was promised by the government when it was making its grandiose, attention-seeking statements, you will see that the $2.8 billion represents a $300 million cut in Labor's earlier election promises to the sector. First Ms Gillard announced a $2.1 billion financial boost; then she increased it by an additional billion dollars, before reneging on that promise and cutting it back to $3 billion; and today Australians are witness to yet another broken promise as the financial injection is further reduced to $2.8 billion. Again, in the scheme of things, that represents a $300 million cut to a sector that the Labor government consistently tells Australians it supports.

While many of the workers in this industry are covered by the ASU, some are covered by the infamous HSU. We all know the history of the workers who are covered by the HSU; they have already been ripped off by corrupt union officials. On top of being ripped off by corrupt union officials they are now facing a further $300 million cut from a Labor government. The workers in this sector must be totally disillusioned as they see the Labor government rip them off on one hand while on the other hand Labor continues to dish out millions of dollars in grants to union bosses. That is standing up for the workers, Labor-style!

Despite the government's continued rhetoric that it has consulted with stakeholders on this legislation the coalition notes that, ahead of putting its submission to Fair Work Australia, the government once again only consulted with union bosses—as is Labor style. It failed to consult with the providers of the services who may well be seriously affected by this legislation; it failed to consult with state governments who are responsible for the implementation of a lot of this legislation; and it failed, contemptibly, to consult with employees on the ground who are directly affected by this legislation. In its submission to Fair Work Australia the Labor government was also trying to short-change these undervalued workers. At clause 122 of the FWA interim decision of 16 May 2011, the summary of the Labor government submission noted in part:

Any increase in wages in the industry could impose significant cost pressures which could have adverse impacts on service delivery. Such impacts could be partially mitigated through improving the efficiency of funding and other arrangements between the Commonwealth and service providers. It also referred to the importance of collective bargaining at the enterprise level on improvements in pay and conditions, employment and productivity. It noted, however, that the cost to the Commonwealth of significant wage increases could still be considerable, even taking into account a phased introduction, and budget constraints mean that “any additional Government funding would likely come at the expense of other Government services”.

Let me just say that again so that the people of Australia are very clear on what is being said: because of Labor's budget constraints directly as a result of Labour's fiscal incompetence, 'any additional government funding would likely come at the expense of other government services'. Gross debt is now in excess of $257 billion when Treasurer Swan recently promised Australians that it would not exceed $250 billion by the end of this year. That is another Labor promise that he could not keep—gross debt has now exceeded $257 billion. This country has never seen figures like that in its history.

So while the Labor government was out on the hustings soft-selling the workers that were supporting them the reality was that, in its formal submission to Fair Work Australia, the Labor government was urging Fair Work Australia to recognise the impact on cost pressures that any increases would cause. I would like to know which Labor member of parliament, when they were gloating about the decision that had been made, actually went to the workers and said, 'Do you know what we said in our submission to Fair Work Australia?' I bet not one of them did.

In discussing this bill it would be remiss of me not to state for the record that under Labor the statistics involving pay equity in Australia today are an absolute disgrace. Statistics from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency in August 2010 show that across Australia women's full-time weekly earnings are on average 17.3 per cent less than men's. When one considers part-time and casual work, the total wage gap between men and women is even worse: it is 35.3 per cent. And despite women making up approximately 45 per cent of the labour force, only 29 per cent of managers are women. What does this mean, in terms of actual financial figures? Female graduates who enter the workplace earn $3,000 on average less than male graduates. Women earn on average $231.40 per week less than men. If current earning patterns continue, the average 25-year-old male would earn $2.4 million over the next 40 years, while the average 25-year-old female would earn significantly less: $1.5 million.

As you would expect, the gender pay gap has a major impact on women's earnings over their lifetime. Women are 2½ times more likely to live in poverty in their old age than men, and by 2019 on average women will have half the amount of superannuation than men have. This is simply not acceptable and it is made more unacceptable because it is happening under a Labor government, the same Labor government that likes to stand up time and time again and say that it is the only government in Australia that (a) represents women and (b) represents the lower-paid in society. Based on those statistics that is a false claim to say the least.

There is no doubt that women in Australia have been disillusioned to find that, when they strip away the rhetoric of the Australian Labor Party, the facts expose a party with no clear agenda, a party with no policy coherence, a party driven exclusively by opinion polls and a party under which, ashamedly, the gender wage gap has worsened in recent years. In 2006, under former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, the World Economic Forum listed Australia as 45th the world for wage equality between men and women for similar work. By 2009, under the great Australian Labor Party, which likes to talk about pay equity but in reality takes absolutely no action to effect it, Australia had slipped by a full 15 places. In 2009, the World Economic Forum listed Australia as 60th in the entire world for wage equity between men and women. This means that under Labor, Australia is even behind developing countries such as Sri Lanka and Tanzania in this important measure.

Why has pay equity lessened under a Labor government over the past few years? Why does pay inequality still exist, particularly in a country with so many highly educated and highly capable women? The answer is very simple and very, very disappointing: because Labor in its time in government continues to promote spin instead of promoting policy reform in the area of pay equality. At last the electorate is waking up to the reality of a Labor government and now understands that a Labor government is more concerned with its own survival than the survival of women who continue to suffer discrimination through pay inequity and pay inequality

Unlike the government, the coalition genuinely believes in supporting low-paid workers. We are disappointed that the government are once again using this place as their own plaything so that Prime Minister Gillard, the Minister for the Status of Women, Ms Collins, and Mr Shorten can take a decision of Fair Work Australia, which recognised SACS workers were being undervalued, and try and turn the proposed pay increases into a special one-off Christmas gift made possible by the sheer courtesy of the Labor government, when that is just not what the facts add up to.

The coalition will not oppose the bill, as I have already stated. But we have serious concerns about the way the government has tried to manipulate the SACS workers with false statements. We also have serious concerns about the way the government has tried to get the credit for the Fair Work decision when the government in fact in its own submissions actually urged formal restraint by Fair Work Australia. As I said when I commenced, the coalition has very serious concerns that the Labor government has refused to guarantee that under this legislation community service organisations will not close or reduce services as a result of cost pressures that the Fair Work decision may cause. I would be interested to see, when the minister is summing up this legislation, whether or not a Labor government is prepared to go on the record to put its money where its mouth is and give a formal guarantee to the people of Australia that services will not be reduced by this legislation. (Time expired)