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Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union National Council dinner, Thursday 21 October 1999, Canberra: address.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

 

 

CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY    EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY

 

ADDRESS TO THE LIQUOR, HOSPITALITY

AND MISCELLANEOUS WORKERS’ UNION

NATIONAL COUNCIL DINNER

THURSDAY 21 OCTOBER 1999

CANBERRA

 

Thanks for the opportunity to address you here to night.

 

I don’t want to take up too much of your time for a dinner speech after what I’m sure has already been a busy and productive day, but I do want to address a few emerging issues which I think must be of concern to all Australians.

 

There is a wearily cynical line which has persisted in Australian politics for perhaps the last 20 years, and that is that there is no real difference between the two sides of politics - only differences of packaging and emphasis.

 

This line has been disproven again and again, but is curiously resistant to reality.

 

It has never been true, but it has never been less true than today.

 

One day, a long time ago, John Howard sat down and wondered.

 

He wondered how he would get the Australian people to support his ideas - ideas that he knew they did not like and would not vote for.

 

He wondered - how do I get the GST up when Australians keep rejecting it?  How do I cut wages when so many low income Australians will get hurt?  How do I cut social security when unemployment is high and so many depend upon it?  How do I deregulate universities when fees will go through the roof?  How do I dismantle Medicare when it is one of the most popular government programs?

 

In other words, he pondered how to inflict upon the Australian people the radical conservative agenda he had cherished through the wilderness years of Opposition.

 

He pondered how to inflict the Howard Project on Australia.

 

And finally he hit on the answer - he decided simply that he would not tell the Australian people what he was going to do.

 

He would say instead that he wanted everything to be relaxed and comfortable.

 

John Howard has learnt a lesson.  He has learnt that when you are, and I quote his own words, “the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had”, you never reveal your true identity to the public.

 

But there is one thing that John Howard didn’t count on.  He didn’t count on his plans being revealed.

 

•   He didn’t count on the release of the secret employment agenda in February of this year - a document that supports cutting wages.

 

•  He didn’t count on the release of his secret plan of welfare cuts for the poorest families in Australia, and for people with disabilities.

 

•  And he didn’t count on the release of the secret Kemp plan to drive up university fees.

 

This week, John Howard made it known through a careful leak to the press that he wasn’t happy with at least five of his Ministers.

 

We were meant to think that he wasn’t happy with their radical ideas, and that he didn’t support those ideas.

 

I n fact, what he meant was that he wasn’t happy that their ideas got out before they were meant to.

 

Everything has its time and place with John Howard - and if an idea is nasty, that doesn’t mean putting a stop to it, it just means making sure the timing i s right before you release it.

 

What kind of government is it that governs by secret agendas?  That can only ever govern in refuge from the aspirations of the people who elected it?

 

One such government has just been made extinct in Victoria, just this week.

 

But this Howard Government shows no inkling of understanding that anything is wrong.

 

Let me now go through the three key planks of this secret Howard Government agenda.

 

The first glimpse we had was when the Opposition released a copy of the Minister for Employment’s employment strategy in February this year - a strategy that was a direct response to an invitation from the Prime Minister.

 

The strategy is an elaborate plan to cut wages - particularly for the most vulnerable and low paid Australians.

 

Peter Reith criticises the recent safety net wage increases granted by the Industrial Relations Commission as too generous and argues that the most vulnerable should be paid lower wages.

 

He also argues that there be a single simplified benchmark award for the no disadvantage test, and a move away from penalty rates despite the Prime Minister’s election pledge that no worker will be worse off.

 

For the unemployed the plans get even worse.

 

The Minister notes that removing people from allowances has proved difficult - leaving no room to doubt that that is what he would really like to do.  Instead he opts to extend mutual obligation and tighten co mpliance.

 

He notes that this would actually reduce the recorded level of unemployment, as people in Work-for-the-Dole-type schemes are not recorded as unemployed.

 

He also supports a lower wage for the long-term unemployed.  This means that the most disadvantaged Australians would earn less than others for performing the same work.

 

But the most instinctively cruel part of all is that he supports cutting welfare benefits so that when wages fall, the gap between social security and wages does not get any smaller.

 

Peter Reith is fully prepared to punish all welfare recipients with welfare cuts so that the wages of the long-term unemployed can fall.

 

For mature age employment, the Minister says do nothing.  He says you simply ‘badge’ other programs as mature age initiatives even though they are not.

 

Now if all these ideas sound familiar, let me tell you why.  Let me remind you of something John Howard said in 1992.  And I quote: 

 

“As I’ve said before, I’m going to stab it [the Australian Industrial Relations System] in the stomach.”

 

That is a million miles away from “no worker will be worse off”, but a million miles closer to where Peter Reith is coming from. 

 

Make no mistake, this is the Howard Project in action - it may be Peter Reith’s letter, it may be confidential, but it’s pure John Howard.

 

And this is where Labor comes in.

 

Let me say these things about the Labor Party’s attitude to industrial relations.

 

We oppose the government’s second wave legislation now before the Senate.  We will move our amendments, but if they fail, we will be voting against the legislation.

 

But on the specifics, we say this.

 

Firstly, as one of our first acts in government, we will abolish the Office of the Employment Advocate.  The OEA was formed in 1996 to assist the government in its vendetta against unions.

 

It has proved to be nothing but the industrial police force of this government, tasked with harassing union members as part of an ongoing political campaign.  There is no place for such an organisation in the Australian industrial relations system.

 

The second important issue I want to discuss is Labor’s attitude to the Coalition’s Australian Workplace Agreements.

 

Under Peter Reith, AWAs have been used to undermine conditions and pay as workers are forced into individual contracts.  The government is using AWAs deliberately to encourage companies to sidestep union negotiated collective agreements.

 

Labor is committed to abolishing this system, which is secret, unreviewable and unfair.  As we develop our alternative policy in this area, we note that one model which has enjoyed the broad support of the trade union movement - and proved workable for all parties - has been that of the Queensland Labor Government, which was confronted with a similar situation when it came into office. 

 

Queensland Labor has ensured the supremacy of collective agreements, and introduced transparency and accountability into the process, so that employees cannot be worse off if they enter into an individual agreement.

 

These have been impo rtant and effective reforms, and we will look closely - in partnership with the union movement - at what these reforms offer in the way of a workable model.

 

Given what Peter Reith’s employment strategy had to say about welfare cuts we should have known that the government would be secretly beavering away on a plan.

 

And so it was.

 

The alarm bells went off a few weeks ago. 

 

Senator Newman’s office carefully leaked advance details to the media of a speech she was to give to the National Press Club on the 29 th of September.  It was all part of an elaborate softening-up strategy.

 

That paper contained details of cuts to the sole parent pension when children turned 12, and the extension of mutual obligation to people with disabilities - forcing disabled people to work for their pension.

 

The speech was all set to go, but then someone very high up lost his nerve.

 

Knowing that the very same week, Peter Costello would introduce his preferred response to the Ralph Review of business tax - including a $4 billion unfunded tax cut for big busin ess - John Howard decided perhaps this wasn’t the time to announce social welfare cuts.

 

He made sure that paper temporarily disappeared.  Despite repeated calls for the government to table the paper in the Senate it still remains hidden.

 

What we do know is that the government was fully prepared to contemplate cuts to pensions and benefits, despite the Prime Minister’s promise that social security payments would not be cut.

 

This is perfectly consistent with Peter Reith’s employment strategy.

 

There is now no doubt that there is support at the highest levels of government for welfare cuts.

 

One thing is certain - if you or your family depend on the social security system for income, if you are disabled, or a sole parent, then you have every reason not to trust this government.

 

The planned cuts have not gone away, they have simply been stamped ‘secret’ and filed in the bottom drawer for some future occasion.

 

Again, it is worth rewinding 12 years to John Howard in 1987.  John Laws asked him:  “Well, would yo u take the scalpel to social security?” John Howard responded:  “Some areas.  Yes.”

 

Some areas alright.  Again, the Minister might be Jocelyn Newman, the paper might be secret, but the grand project is still alive.

 

Then, just when we thought the cloak and dagger had been given a rest for a while, we had the most spectacular revelation of all - the release of the Government’s real wish list for higher education.

 

The release of Dr Kemp’s plan to privatise the university system shocked the community.

 

Not only were university fees to be deregulated, sending fees soaring, but real rates of interest were to be charged on student loans, sending the total cost of a university education into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 

This was the blueprint for a two-tiered university system where students from middle-income homes get to attend one set of lower-priced and lower-quality institutions while young people from the wealthiest homes fill the lecture halls of the elite universities.

 

Where the quality of your education depends on what’s in your wallet, not what’s between your ears.

 

The regional universities would wither on the vine while the city universities prospered.

 

And what about smart kids from poor homes?  Forget about it - they would never get to university.

 

There would be no Commonwealth scholarships to help them as there were in the old days.  It would all be up to the discretion of the universities.

 

This is not a plan for the Knowledge Nation.  This is a plan hatched in some laboratory dedicated to the dumbing down of the Australian people. 

 

This would have ended educational opportunity in this country as we know it.

 

Families would have faced a nasty choice - between paying off your home or sending your child to university.

 

Just like the welfare discussion paper, the Prime Minister acted to squash the plan.  Any Minister with a scrap of pride would have resigned, but Dr Kemp is still there.

 

But plans like these don’t ever really go away.  They are always there, bubbling under the surface.  Don’t th ink that by speaking against Dr Kemp’s plans the Prime Minister doesn’t agree with them. 

 

Again, what he’s angry about is not the plan, but its timing.  It will not go away, it just awaits the right moment.

 

John Howard has been awaiting the right moment for 12 years.  Listen to his words in 1987:

 

“The only way [to get more money into universities] is to allow [students] to pay fees and to allow the institutions to charge fees and I invite, challenge, or whatever you like, the government to point to another way of doing it.  There isn’t.”

 

In case you think that these three radical policy agendas - cutting wages, cutting welfare and putting university education out of reach - are the work of renegade Ministers, think again.

 

These are all John Howard’s policies.  They are blue-ribbon conservative policies.

 

They are the policies that conservatives get into government to deliver.

 

But Australians must ask themselves, is this really the kind of Australia we want? 

 

One where a disabled person does not have a pension to fall back on.  One where a sole parent d oesn’t know how to feed her children when they turn 13?  One where if you work, you are still poor?  One where families have to choose which child will go to university, or whether they will pay off a house or their children’s university education?

 

Is this the kind of Australia we want?  Take a look around you - after nearly four years of conservative Government it is already happening.

 

Never have we seen an economic expansion where so many families have fallen behind.

 

More sole parents are dependent on government; more children are raised in jobless households; more households live in poverty; 230 areas have double digit employment rates; and 6 regions receive more in welfare payments than they pay in income tax.

 

With every additional year of conservative rule, the nation takes a few more steps towards a future that none of us want.

 

A future where the few thrive at the expense of the many.

 

There has never been a time when the differences between the two major parties have been more extreme.

 

John Howar d wants to make you pay more for your education.  Labor wants to reduce the cost of an education so that more Australians can get one.

 

John Howard wants to cut your wages.  Labor wants to boost your wages, and give you an incentive to find work, particularly if you are one of the many now struggling on low incomes.

 

John Howard wants to cut welfare.  Labor wants to make sure that those without work can lead decent lives and have opportunities to move from welfare to work.

 

John Howard’s agenda is set in stone.  It was set in stone in the 1950s and it hasn’t changed since.

 

He has a vision of an Australia where all responsibility lies with the individual and where no help is offered to those who need it.  In John Howard’s world the strong prosper and the weak wither.

 

Labor’s vision is of an Australia where strong communities support individuals to achieve their aspirations and where help is always provided to those who need it.  Labor’s vision is one in which all Australians have the right to participate in the generation of our national wealth, and to benefit from it.

 

In short, Labor’s vision is of government for the many, not just the few.

 

The differences have never been more stark than right now; the choices never more obvious.

 

It is Labor’s task to prepare for the next election, to be the choice of the majority of Australians, and to govern for all Australians when we get there.

 

Thank you.

 

 

jy  1999-10-25  16:18