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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 116

Ms GEORGE (8:05 PM) —I will begin by saying the legislation before us is reprehensible. If this government had any moral integrity, it would withdraw the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. However, as the member for Cowan so rightly quoted from journalists who have written about this legislation, the government is really a mean and tricky and a scary and cruel government and it is perpetrating a gigantic hoax on the people of this nation. The people around the country will have the opportunity to tell John Howard and his government exactly what they think of this legislation, both in the short term and in the lead-up to the next federal election.

It was interesting to note this morning that, despite the $50-odd million of taxpayers’ money spent on Liberal propaganda, the people of Australia have not been fooled. An Age readers’ poll today showed that, of the 5,000 people who were questioned on their attitudes to this bill, an overwhelming 92 per cent of people opposed the IR changes. So $55 million has not bought the soul of the people out there. They know exactly what this is about. It is about turning back the clock. It is about going back to the bad old days of the master-servant relationship. It is about going back to the bad old days of the law of contract. It is about the overturning of 100 years of history and the practice of a unique system of conciliation and arbitration that we have built in this country. If this is to be overturned, it will be a callous disregard of not just our history but the rights of all working people for a fair go, be they union members or not.

Deputy Speaker Baldwin, listening to the debate before I came into the chamber, one of your close colleagues, the member for Dobell, had some rather amazing things to say. He asserted that we on this side of the House were running a scare campaign and that this was all about a rearguard action where the unions are fighting to maintain their privilege. In most of the words I have heard from members on this side of the chamber, their concerns have been expressed in terms of the impact that the legislation will have on ordinary working people. I think it behoves members on the government side of the House to actually take the trouble to read the detail of the bill. All we heard from the member for Dobell was the parroting of the lines that had been prepared for him by the minister. He is accountable to the people in his electorate, and we will make sure that the people in the member for Dobell’s electorate understand what disregard he has for the protections that the system has afforded them up until this legislation. They know that no amount of money, no amount of spin and no amount of misinformation can hide the facts and the intent that lie beneath this legislation.

It is a fact—and no-one can dispute this, not even the member for Dobell—that in the future all working people will only have a handful of four legislated minimum conditions on top of the hourly minimum wage, which is currently about $12.75. On top of that there are four conditions. There is a 38-hour standard working week—or so we thought. That was the assurance that the Prime Minister gave us. But now we have looked at the fine detail of the bill we find that the 38-hour week can now be averaged over a 12-month period. There also is four weeks annual leave, half of which can be cashed out; 10 days of paid personal leave; and 12 months unpaid parental leave. That is the core of the legislated minimum conditions that will apply across the board. Everything else is up for grabs. Why didn’t the member for Dobell make it clear to his electorate that penalty rates for weekend and shiftwork, overtime rates, allowances, career structures, public holidays, redundancy pay, meal breaks and a whole host of other award conditions will be up for grabs in the negotiating arena?

It is not a matter of trading these rights away. It is not as if they are going to be compensated of necessity under the law, because the law says that all of these conditions can be removed by the employers with the stroke of a pen, without compensation. They will not be protected by law. The take-home pay of many workers can and will be cut under this legislation, particularly the wages of those who are most vulnerable, including women and young people.

If it was not draconian enough to take the axe to ordinary working men and women who have helped build the prosperity of this nation and who deserve to share in the productivity outcomes, on top of all that, as horrendous as that is, we now see that many legitimate union activities will be made illegal and will give rise to criminal penalties. In other words, this legislation will treat ordinary, routine union activity almost akin to suspected terrorist activity. I will give you one example. Union officials, delegates and employees can be fined $33,000 under this bill simply for asking an employer to include in an enterprise agreement a provision to remedy an unfair dismissal or have union involvement in dispute resolution. I think that is the job that union delegates do across the nation—they intervene to protect job security, they intervene against capricious decisions of employers and they intervene to make sure that there are dispute resolution mechanisms in place.

On the one hand your government wants to tell us that this is all about flexibility—get rid of third parties, leave it to employers and workers to negotiate—and yet on the other hand you are going to introduce draconian laws which override any agreement that might be made at the workplace level to tell workers and employers what will and will not be acceptable. We know already that in the building and construction industries workers face six months in jail if they refuse to attend a secret interrogation and if they refuse to answer questions, even though that may incriminate them, or if they refuse to hand over documents. I am not exaggerating when I say that ordinary union business under this bill will be treated akin to suspected terrorist activity.

It is no wonder that this government is intent on rushing through the 1,252 pages encompassed in the bill and the explanatory memorandum. They are doing it in a most cavalier and arrogant manner. It is no wonder there is haste to avoid proper scrutiny of the most draconian piece of legislation this ideologically obsessed Prime Minister has introduced into this parliament. It is no wonder that to date $50 million, and more into the future, of taxpayers’ money is being spent on spin and disinformation. It is no wonder that this Prime Minister wants to hide the facts of a piece of legislation that will so fundamentally erode the living standards of many Australians and their families. But, much to their credit, the Australian community will not be fooled. This government will pay severely for attempting to hoodwink them by their glossy spin and the ads on TV. I am just amazed that it is taxpayers’ funds that are going to promote all this advertising—all the spin on the gloss—about a bill that is set to punish them if it ever sees the light of day.

My colleagues have dealt at length with the impact of these draconian provisions on the work force at large. Tonight I want to specifically have a look at the impact that these laws will have on workers, particular women with family responsibilities. I think it is quite reasonable for the average Australian with family responsibilities to hope that a government would provide first of all a secure living wage; security of employment; adequate, predictable and common family time; protection from excessive hours; leave so that they can deal with family concerns; and quality, accessible and affordable child care. I think that is a pretty simple package of issues that goes to the heart of workers’ need to balance their work and family life. Those workers, all of them out there, if they do not know now, will know very soon that this bill does nothing at all to assist them in that balance. In fact, it will make it a lot harder than it is today.

After years of fighting for equality in the work force, not only will women lose many current employment entitlements and rights of redress against unfair dismissal but they will find it increasingly difficult to manage their work and family life balance. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Baldwin, women are often employed on a part-time and casual basis, they are often located in industries with little bargaining power and they are often not members of the trade union movement. And, as we know from this legislation, more and more of these very vulnerable workers will be forced onto individual contracts in order to get paid employment or, indeed, to retain paid employment. As a group, women will lose out on pay and conditions. Despite all the spin, the statistics and the data revealed by the ABS clearly show that to be the case. The data already shows that women on AWAs are doing far worse in comparison to women on collective agreements and even on award conditions.

The trends that I have outlined are only going to be exacerbated under the new legislation, should it see the light of day. Of course we hope that the Senate will have sense and not allow it, as it has rejected it in times gone by. Both the first wave and the second wave of so-called reform were rejected when the Senate had the opportunity to consider the detail in all its horrendous manifestations.

Women will be severely impacted by this legislation, because the new no-disadvantage test, which has protected them hitherto, will disappear and their agreements will only be judged against a handful of very minimum conditions. On top of this, women are going to feel the brunt of the changes to the setting of the minimum wage. The minimum wage applies to 1.6 million workers, predominantly women, who lack the bargaining power at the workplace to extract conditions better than those prescribed in their award safety nets, and we know that this government already believes the minimum wage is too high.

Tell that to a lot of families who are absolutely reliant on the wages that working wives are able to bring to the household. We know that many in two-income families are often at work not out of free choice but out of economic necessity. As we know, the government’s aim in creating the new so-called Fair Pay Commission—but of course any reference to ‘fair’ is deleted in the detail of the bill—is to freeze the minimum wage as much as possible so that it will decline in real value over time. It is not just the fact that the minimum wage will be eroded over time; very importantly, we will see an increase in the gender pay gap that we have struggled very hard over the last few decades to redress. I think, if anything, all politicians in this chamber should be very pleased with Australia’s effort to try to close the pay gap between male and female earnings.

You do not have to look far to know that one of the reasons we have done so well in this country is that we have had a safety net of institutional arrangements, through the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, which has set the living wage, and attempts have been made by the union movement to try to address the factors that have historically led to inequality in the wages outcomes for men and women. This will all end with the passage of this legislation, because the traditional powers of the Industrial Relations Commission will be eroded, as will be the awards that have enforced a fair minimum safety net for women across the nation. It will be a lot easier to shift women onto individual contracts. They will be faced with reduced wages and conditions through the more limited no-disadvantage test.

The other area of great concern that has not been mentioned is that the test cases that we have run through the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be consigned to history, because the Industrial Relations Commission will be prevented from arbitrating on system-wide changes that will be of benefit to women workers. When you look at our history, how did we achieve maternity leave standards, parental leave and carers leave? They were all achieved through the auspices of the Industrial Relations Commission arbitrating on arguments put in test cases, and those decisions have flowed to all at work.

The AIRC has set the standards and made the general advances on work and family standards that have been so important to people across this nation. But under this bill, the umpire—the commission—will lose its historic role. The loss of this capacity will especially hurt those who are most vulnerable in the labour market and those who have little bargaining capacity. You have to ask: from where will the across-the-board improvements on conditions relating to work and family life come in the future?

These negative outcomes will be felt even more so by casual workers, who have the least bargaining power. It is of great concern that in our country today job security is a thing of the past and that 1.2 million women are employed as casuals and denied a range of entitlements that we have all taken for granted. Nearly 14 per cent of all full-time employees and 60 per cent of all part-time employees are casuals. One in every three women now employed is employed as a casual worker. Daily hire with no effective recourse for unfair dismissal will make their jobs even more precarious into the future.

I looked at the data about casual employment, and I was horrified. I had not realised the extent of casualisation among young people in the child-rearing age group. Nearly 40 per cent of all casuals in Australia today are in the 20- to 34-year age group, so you can immediately write off their chance of being able to negotiate family-friendly work arrangements or even paid maternity leave. In fact, casual employment today in our country is disproportionately made up of many people who have particularly strong needs for family-friendly benefits.

Yet we know that AWAs are very family unfriendly. Only 12 per cent of AWAs registered between 1995 and 2000 had any work and family provisions. Only small proportions of AWAs registered in 2002-03 had any family or carers leave—25 per cent of them. When you look at maternity leave, it was only eight per cent; and paid parental leave, five per cent. So let us not fool ourselves and believe the spin that these new laws will make it easier to negotiate family-friendly working arrangements. The truth and the statistics show that to be a great con.

I am extremely concerned that into the future there will be millions of women who will never get to benefit from the outcome of the struggles we have seen in this country to secure decent wages and entitlements, equal pay and family-friendly provisions. We will see a rapid expansion in AWAs. All the existing evidence shows that non-managerial employees on AWAs fare worse relative to people on collective agreements in that they face lower pay rates, lower pay rises, longer and more unsocial hours and less time autonomy. Given that loadings for overtime and unsocial hours will not be protected by law, despite the spin, there will be further growth in this country of long hours and unsocial hours worked. Control over working time, avoidance of unsocial hours and protection of common family time will inevitably be further compromised by this regressive legislation.

The government can talk all it likes about balancing work and family life; we know the problems this has created. The member for Wentworth has talked on many occasions about the declining fertility rate. I suggest to the member for Wentworth that really serious issues in that debate will be exacerbated by the deregulation of the labour market and by forcing people into accepting individual contracts or to have no job at all. There is a great deal at risk for all working people in the government’s proposed changes, but one thing can be said with certainty: women, particularly those with family responsibilities, will be the big losers under Howard’s way. We have a collective responsibility to tell people the truth, and that is why we are here. We have had enough of people coming into the chamber and just reading their lines from the brief that has been prepared by the minister. They have to be accountable to the people they represent, and we will make sure that they are held accountable. (Time expired)