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The Government attacks the Coalition's industrial relations policy

MONICA ATTARD: Hello, you're listening to P.M. I'm Monica Attard.


PAUL KEATING: Mr Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, one of the two or three things he's championed in his whole political life is to hop into the wages of the low paid, to hop into the wages of people under about $30,000 a year. Mr Speaker, what a noble political objective that is, to say: 'Well, there I was. I was in Parliament for 25 years and I made sure I gave them an upper cut every chance I had, a body blow to the ordinary working people of this country.' I mean, I can't understand, Mr Speaker - as a person who came from a small business environment - I can't understand why the Leader of the Opposition hates working people the way he does. I can't understand why he holds them in such contempt.

MONICA ATTARD: Well, it's clear, Paul Keating is lining up industrial relations as a key issue upon which to fight the Coalition in the coming Federal election. He believes that along with Fightback, the Liberals' hardline Jobsback policy was a big vote loser in 1993 and that John Howard is still vulnerable. But the target is getting smaller as the Coalition seems, almost daily, to be watering down its industrial relations policy. Indeed, today, the shadow spokesperson for industrial relations said the Coalition will retain a no-disadvantage test to counter Labor claims that it would abolish it.

Well tonight we're joined by Peter Reith and the Minister for Industrial Relations, Laurie Brereton, to debate these issues for the first time. In the middle is Jim Gale.

JIM GALE: Peter Reith, it seems there are no-disadvantage tests and no-disadvantage tests. Under the current law no enterprise agreement can, in total, leave a worker worse off than he or she is under the total award. Now, your no-disadvantage test is that no worker can be worse off than a 'fair and reasonable' set of minimum conditions. So, what will those minimum conditions be?

PETER REITH: Well, you're right, firstly, to say that you can have different forms of no-disadvantage test. The sort of test that I've been advocating today is much closer to the test that Mr Keating himself advocated in April 1993 and, of course, that's why the Government, really, only can resort, now, to a sort of campaign of scares and lies because ....

JIM GALE: But what will those conditions actually be?

PETER REITH: Let me finish the answer. That's why they can only, really, resort to a campaign of scares and lies because the proposition we're advocating is a very reasonable one. Now, let me answer your question. We've already said, for example, that agreements should contain a base hourly award rate of pay. So, that's people's basic wages. We've already said that they should contain a commitment to annual leave, four weeks annual leave. We've already said, for example, sick leave provisions should be included. I think we need to look at family leave because the Commission's going to hand down a decision on that.

I'm not saying we would necessarily agree with the Commission's decision but if the Commission does bring down the sort of decision I expect, then obviously we would need to be mindful of the community standards that it might set. I also want to look at casualty rates and piece rates.

JIM GALE: So, that would be about it, would it?

PETER REITH: So, there are a number of things I want to look at. What I've said today, though - and it's really in response to the campaign that people are going to be worse off under the Coalition - and that is that obviously for people who are under the award, they can stay there. If they go to an agreement, well, people are going to do that because they're better off. If they do, however, go to an agreement, then we expect that agreement to meet, you know, reasonable conditions so that people enjoy the benefits of higher productivity.

JIM GALE: But clearly those minimum conditions that you've spelt out, they're going to be a lot less than almost every award actually contains aren't they?

PETER REITH: Well they would set what we would consider to be a reasonable set of minima so that people are not disadvantaged as they take up agreements. In fact, the reality is that people are going to take up agreements because they're better off than what they've got now. That's the core of this whole issue.

JIM GALE: But it is conceivable that an agreement could be less than the award, couldn't it?

PETER REITH: Far from people being worse off under us, what Mr Keating didn't tell you in that clip is that the low paid under Labor have, in fact, been worse off over the last 12 years. Real wages have actually declined. It is incredible, but it's true, in the latest accord agreement, Accord Mark VIII, the low paid are actually about $8 a week - $8.25 to be precise, a week - worse off as a result of that deal.

All we are providing people is a real choice to actually have higher pay and that's the one thing they've missed out in the last 12 years.

JIM GALE: Well, Laurie Brereton, what's wrong with a safety-net that is basically a fair and reasonable set of conditions?

LAURIE BRERETON: What Mr Reith won't say is what the no-disadvantage test will be tested against, what the benchmark will be. Everyone knows ....

JIM GALE: Well, he's just spelt out a set of fair and reasonable conditions.

LAURIE BRERETON: He hasn't set it out. All he's said is that those four miserly conditions in Jobsback are the only things he's prepared to guarantee will be in that bundle of specific safeguards. He's said he'll look at family leave, perhaps, although he wasn't even prepared to say he'd agree with that even if the Commission hands it down. And that's got to be seen in contrast with people's comprehensive award protections.

I mean, the whole idea of the no-disadvantage test is so that workers can go into enterprise bargaining knowing that they will not be worse off than they would be, and are, under their award. If you rip the guts out of the award, if you pare it back to four miserable, miserly conditions then, of course, the trapdoor is there and they will be worse off. There's no doubt.

I think this effort today is an absolute phoney. To borrow the words 'no-disadvantage test' and to suggest that their no-disadvantage test is in any way like the safeguard in the Industrial Relations Reform Act is an absolute scam and a sham and it ought to be exposed as such.

JIM GALE: It scarcely sounds like the Armageddon the workers are facing that the Government would have us believe though, does it?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, it certainly can leave workers enormously exposed. There's no doubt about that, because if they go into bargains and you do not have, at the end of the day, an independent Australian Industrial Relations Commission which must satisfy itself in law, and the test must be the worker cannot be worse off - they've got to have the certainty and the security of knowing they can go into a bargain and not be worse off at the end of the day. Without that - and you don't get that with the Reith-Howard model, or this scam today -they'll certainly be worse off. There's no doubt about that.

Now, you used the word 'Armageddon'. The fact is, if workers find the protections available to them in awards, the penalty rates for overtime, for relevant leave loadings, whether they be casual, whether it be cumulative sick leave provisions, or bereavement leave or any of the many other conditions in a comprehensive awar - if you don't have that as the benchmark to apply your no disadvantage test to, then the trapdoor is ever present.

JIM GALE: Well, Peter Reith, can you guarantee that no worker will ever be worse off in an enterprise agreement than they are under their current award?

PETER REITH: Well, I can quote you what Working Nation said because Working Nation, which is a policy document of the Government, spelt out a set of minima of the sort of no-disadvantage type that I'm talking about, and what the Government then said - they didn't say this idea was a scam two years ago and three years ago - they actually said this is the way we should go. And what they said in 'Working Nation' was that: Look, people are under an award and they can stay under an award. And, obviously, that is our Coalition policy today and will be when we're elected.

The point is, though, if you're under an award and you want to go to an agreement, then why would you go to an agreement unless you're better off? So, that's not my words. That's actually what the Government was saying a bare, you know, 18 months ago or thereabouts.

JIM GALE: But can you actually guarantee that no agreement will be worse than an existing award?

PETER REITH: Let me finish by saying it's not me responding to this, you know, allegation now made by Mr Brereton. He's damned out of his own mouth. He and the Government in Working Nation and Mr Keating, themselves, have all endorsed exactly this sort of proposal. And for them now to say this is Armageddon, I mean, this is just a joke. What they don't tell you is that under their system, particularly for the non-unionised sector, that their system, their idea of agreements just has not worked. And again that's not me saying that. People like John Prescott are saying it.

Even the OECD in their most recent survey of Australia said that Labor's idea of agreement hasn't worked. And one of the reasons they've said it doesn't work is because it is just far too complicated and complex and far too easy for union intervention. And really when all this is boiled down, you know the truth of the matter is, this is not about workers being worse off - that's their scare campaign. They're really worried that union bosses aren't going to have the influence they've had in the past and that's the real issue, not whether people are worse off. For heaven's sake, people have been worse off for twelve years under these guys.

JIM GALE: Well, Laurie Brereton, does Peter Reith have a point? You'd have to be a bit of a mug to move from an award to an agreement that made you worse off, wouldn't you?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, of course, you might not have the chance to object. You might be told: Either take it or take the sack. You might be told: Either take it or you don't get the job. And of course, that's the real danger in Jobsback. Look, I think Peter Reith should really come clean. This afternoon, all he's said is that they've got these four miserly standards. That's all an award will be although they're going to consider some other things. But he should tell people: Is Jobsback still the Liberal Party Policy? Because if it's so, it's still a case of, take the contract or take the sack. And I tell you if it's not, it's the biggest backdown by John Howard because he's always said that his first and most important reform would be the reform to wages policy. I think Peter Reith should tell us: Does he support, will his party support the $8 that workers will get under the Accord next year, the $11 to $14 that they'll get in 1997, the $11 to $14 in 1998 and again in 1999? Does he support these? Because if he doesn't, what he's put forward at his press conference today is an absolute and utter sham.

JIM GALE: Well, Peter Reith, do you support those things.

PETER REITH: Well, I mean, that's the most ridiculous thing I've heard the Minister say for some time, which is a pretty big statement. In his Accord agreement with the Government, what they say is that they will review, subject to economic conditions, those safety-net wage increases. So, he's asking me if I'm committed to something which he, himself, is not committed to, in black and white in his own document. But I'll tell you what we are committed to, and this just puts a lie to another one of his scare campaigns: we are committed to the jurisdiction of the Commission to grant safety-net wage increases. Now, that is terribly important. That does give people a proper reassurance, particularly those who are low paid. And I tell you what, that's a hell of a lot better deal than the silly rhetoric and sham and sort of Armageddon discussions and talk and rhetoric we've had from Mr Brereton today.

JIM GALE: So is, essentially, Jobsback history?

PETER REITH: Look, we've made it quite clear. Since Jobsback two things have happened. One is that the Government, now, is in favour of agreements. I mean, their system doesn't work. They're defective, complex, bureaucratic. They don't work but they have now admitted that they're in favour of agreements. That's the one big thing that's changed since Jobsback. And the other thing that's changed since then is we've said, instead of having opt-in we'll have an opt-out policy which basically says people can have a choice. Now, you know, that's very reasonable.

I've said this, you know, in the last six months, twelve months. Mr Howard, himself, has said it in the last 18 months. That's hardly new, Laurie. I'm surprised you'd make that point. But the point is that we're giving people choice and I can tell you a lot of people are looking for some choice because they're sick of getting lower wages which has been the tangible result of 12 years of Labor.

JIM GALE: Mr Brereton, just finally, were you a little bit cheesed-off when you heard John Prescott, the Managing Director of BHP suggesting that the Coalition was getting it right, by and large, on industrial relations and that ...

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, I don't think John Prescott ....

JIM GALE: ... the current law is counterproductive?

LAURIE BRERETON: I don't think John Prescott went that far. John Prescott said a number of things only partly reported and recorded and I think his comments were pretty well balanced, by and large. There were a few things I didn't agree with there but he's certainly not endorsed the policy that Peter Reith is putting forward.

JIM GALE: Well, he said that industrial relations is all about outcomes and not processes and that the Coalition seems to better understand that than the Government and that, in fact, the current legislation is counterproductive in achieving good outcomes.

LAURIE BRERETON: But you should remember what he said immediately before that, Jim, when he said: 'It's not clear to me' - that's John Prescott speaking for himself - 'exactly what they'll do.' He said: 'I mean, I think they'll progress it, but we have to see exactly what they will do.' Of course all of Australia has been waiting to find out exactly what they will do, whether Jobsback is alive or dead and no-one is any the wiser as a result of the obfuscation by Peter Reith this afternoon. But one thing's for certain: as of today we know that their no-disadvantage test would trapdoor workers into the unknown because it is not a no-disadvantage test compared against the benchmark of your existing circumstance, the protections of your comprehensive award. And without that, it's not worth a tinker's cuss.

JIM GALE: Okay, Mr Brereton, thanks very much. Mr Reith thank you, as well.

MONICA ATTARD: And that was the Coalition's industrial relations spokesperson, Peter Reith, and the Industrial Relations Minister, Laurie Brereton, and chairing that debate, of course, was Jim Gale.