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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31551

Ms JACKSON (3:55 PM) —I note that yesterday in the House—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin will be warned if he is not careful!

Ms JACKSON —the Leader of the Opposition and the member for McMillan talked about the disconnect between the Howard government and ordinary Australians. I think the contribution just made by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations indicates how big that disconnect is, and I am sure that people in the gallery would have been interested to hear his wonderful picture of the perfect world the government has created out there in Australian workplaces. It is a completely different picture, Minister, when you actually start to dig beneath these broad generalisations that you make. The disconnect that the Leader of the Opposition and the member for McMillan talked about yesterday is no more obvious than in the area of workplace relations.

The Howard government's dogmatic drive to deregulate the industrial relations system and remove established rights of employees is blind to the human consequences that result. Just to give you one example, earlier this year—I think it was in March—the Senate handed down the findings of the poverty inquiry. In its report, it found that some 21 per cent of Australian households—that is, 3.6 million Australians—now live on less than $400 per week. I think what was most extraordinary about the poverty inquiry was that in past years the single greatest cause of poverty in Australia was joblessness. What is frightening about the report that was handed down this year was that it identified a new phenomenon in Australia called the working poor.

I want to give the minister some of the figures, not necessarily from that report but from other sources of information, about what is actually being experienced out there in Australian communities. Take the research work done by the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, a very fine union indeed—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin never seems to learn.

Ms JACKSON —a union that covers amongst its membership a number of very low-paid workers. It covers people employed in occupations which the minister would surely agree with me are vitally important, like the aged care industry and our hospitality and tourism sector, as well as in our schools and hospitals. It found—and it seemed reasonable to me—that a single person without children needs approximately $550 a week before tax for a decent quality of life. I have already said that there are some 3.6 million Australians living in households that earn less than $400 per week. The full-time Australian minimum wage at the moment is approximately $470 a week, so we actually have a minimum wage set in this country which is already below that figure that is seen as necessary for people to have a decent quality of life.

Eighty-seven per cent of the jobs that have been created in the last decade, including jobs that the minister takes credit for, are jobs that pay less than $500 a week. Indeed, almost half of the jobs that I refer to pay less than $300 a week. You might be interested to know, Minister Andrews, that weekly wages for low-paid workers have actually gone backwards. During the 1990s, they went backwards by 14.4 per cent. You may also find it interesting to know—and I suspect that this helps your averages—that the weekly wages of managers over the same period went up by 41.4 per cent. In 1992, CEOs made 22 times as much as ordinary workers in Australia. In 2002, they made 74 times as much as ordinary workers.

Dr Emerson —The rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

Ms JACKSON —That is right. So I am telling you, Minister, you had better start getting behind these figures that you spruik and actually look at what is happening out there in ordinary Australian households and start to address it.

Ms JACKSON —That is right. The Senate inquiry into poverty found:

Driving this change has been a casualisation of the workforce in the last two decades and a more recent weakening of the industrial relations systems.

We already know that more than one in four working Australians is engaged in casual, temporary or precarious employment and that this is projected to rise to one in three by the end of the decade. Not only does that mean that we have a growing class of workers who are not able to access basic entitlements like sick leave, annual leave, maternity leave or any of those other benefits or conditions; these people also do not know whether they have a job from one day to the next. You cannot secure a loan from a bank or any other financial institution to buy a house, to afford a car or to meet any of those other costs of living that we have, without having secure employment.

No doubt the minister would subscribe to the view that every worker in Australia should go to work being fearful and scared about being sacked every day. Certainly, if his workplace relations fair dismissals legislation had gone through, there would be a class of people who had no right or access to redress in the event that they were unfairly dismissed. The minister and this government are consistent over this idea of fear and insecurity. They say, `The more we make Australian people fearful and the more we make them insecure, the more we put them where we want,' and that is a disgraceful and despicable way to conduct business in Australia.

The minister is repeatedly dishonest about Labor policy and what he understands it to mean. There were a number of examples of that today. The classic was the misrepresentation of Labor's position with respect to bargaining. I do not know what the minister did before he came into parliament, but his own reading of the provisions of the industrial relations act has demonstrated his ignorance on this point. He has absolutely no idea. The point we were talking about was that there was no ability under the laws of Australia—your laws, Minister; this federal law—to compel an employer who does not want to bargain with his or her employees to bargain. There is nothing in your legislation which you can rely on to compel an employer to bargain in good faith. If a boss does not want it, it does not happen. That is how your system works, but that is probably exactly the system that you want: one where the boss calls the shots and decides about agreements. Your vision of what an AWA is absolutely amuses me. An AWA is an individual contract. Individual contracts have been legal in Australia forever. What has been illegal in Australia, until people like you took control of this policy area, was to pay less than prescribed minimums well established in our community. That is what you have made legal.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member will address her comments through the chair.

Ms JACKSON —I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley. The minister and his government have made legal the ability to drive down the wages and conditions of ordinary working people. If you are a skilled employee and your skills are in demand, you might have some ability in an open market to demand higher rates of pay. But if you are employed in a low-paid occupation or are casual, you have no power. I operated in the system in Western Australia, where workplace agreements were prevalent. I witnessed people actually losing pay every week off their hourly rate, as they were forced into AWAs or workplace agreements and to take the job or resign. In the case of cleaners in the contract cleaning industry in Western Australia, over a two-year period their average hourly rate of pay was reduced by $2 an hour. Minister, if that is a system that you applaud and think should continue, get out there and be honest about it. Do not hide behind some notion that there is fairness happening out there with respect to collective bargaining.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin is warned!

Ms JACKSON —The minister's view of what happens is extraordinary. Also, I think it demonstrates the government's values. We got a lecture the other day I think from the Minister for Education, Science and Training about values and values in our education system. Let us talk about the values that the industrial relations legislation of this government demonstrates. Their values are that the notion of a fair go all round—that great Australian ethos of fairness—is not one that is appropriate in the workplace. You do not think there should be redress for harsh or unfair treatment. Probably in the minister's little fantasy world, there is no harsh or unfair treatment out there in Australian workplaces. He thinks it is all hunky-dory. I am almost embarrassed sometimes to hear the minister speak on industrial relations. I am sure that, when his advisers or people with experience from his department are in the box, they cringe and feel exactly the same way. If I look on the bright side, he might be doing more than other ministers to assist with the election of a Latham Labor government. Certainly I think most employees agree. (Time expired)