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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 140

Mr GIBBONS (10:01 PM) —I stand proudly in this House today to vigorously oppose this nasty, cruel and obnoxious Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and to join with my colleagues on this side of the House in fighting this legislation every step of the way—right up until and including the next federal election campaign, if necessary. Labor will completely dismantle this legislation at the first opportunity and reinstate the powers of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and a fairer awards based system that has served this country so well for the past 100 years.

There is no doubt this government wants every Australian worker on an individual contract. Under these new work laws all the power will be with the employer. The government’s plans mean that AWA individual contracts will not be underpinned by award conditions and that means conditions like standard working hours, penalty rates, overtime payments and redundancy pay are no longer guaranteed. The no disadvantage test that protected Australian workers the last time the Howard government tried to attack their wages and conditions will disappear under this legislation, leaving millions of Australians vulnerable to exploitation. It was Labor that insisted on these provisions last time the Prime Minister attacked workers’ conditions, but now the Howard government has the numbers in the Senate the no disadvantage test is abolished. The Prime Minister has consistently refused to give workers the only guarantee that matters—a legally enforceable guarantee that they will not be made worse off by his laws. No amount of taxpayer funded advertising, spin or phoney protections can hide that truth.

Prime Minister Howard constantly states that Australian families will be better off under the proposed changes to the workplace relations system. The most sickening aspect of the Howard government’s ruthless and cruel changes to Australian living standards is the impact on age pensions. The base pension is indexed twice yearly in March and September based on 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings. These are the people who have built this nation over past decades and the only thanks they get from the coalition government is a reduction in their already meagre pensions. I do not think there could be a more callous or cruel outcome than that inflicted on senior Australians.

As there is no doubt the government’s objective is to drive down wages, the flow-on effect will drive downward pressure on pensions. Figures from the Parliamentary Library show that in September 2004 there were 15,858 aged care pension recipients in my electorate of Bendigo. This was part of a total of 27,724 people who were dependent on full or part pension entitlements. Every one of these Australians faces the potential of having their income reduced under this government’s attack on living standards. I call on the Prime Minister and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to introduce positive and effective initiatives to insulate and protect all pensioners from the impact of these draconian changes to our standard of living. They deserve nothing less.

The Prime Minister told reporters in Sydney on 23 October that the great value of his so-called Work Choice policy is that it will strengthen the economy and that is the best message the government can give to Australian families. However, the federal government is concealing advice formulated by Treasury that fails to show any economic benefit from its workplace changes. The Treasury prepared advice on the economic justification for proceeding with the workplace law changes, unveiled last week. In fact, a Treasury official confirmed that his department had reached conclusions about likely changes to productivity as a result of its economic modelling but told a Senate estimates committee yesterday that he was ‘not at liberty’ to reveal the advice. The Treasurer has refused to release the advice, saying that it is confidential. The government has hidden the department’s advice because clearly it has failed to provide the economic justification for these radical, extreme and obnoxious changes. This proves that Treasury has disowned the government’s false claims that its changes will have a beneficial impact on employment and wages.

What the Prime Minister will not say is that he expects salary and wage earners—hard working Australian families—to pay for a stronger economy by giving up part of their hard won wages and conditions. Everyone hopes for a strong economy, but under this government’s changes those who can afford it least are expected to pay the most for it and the Prime Minister keeps adding insult to injury when he peddles the line that it is a workers’ market. I would like to see the Prime Minister explain that to the 100 former employees at Penny and Lang in Carisbrook, or the between nine and 14 per cent of people who are currently unemployed in the Bendigo electorate.

Forcing those who can afford it least to give up part of their wages and conditions has been a Howard obsession ever since he entered federal parliament and it is only Labor and the unions that have prevented him from achieving this appalling idea in the past. The Howard government is scornful of the ACTU campaign to alert Australian families to the consequences of the government’s changes, but there is now no room for doubt. Even the government’s own $55 million taxpayer funded propaganda package released just a few weeks ago clearly shows that workers will be worse off under these new laws. The ACTU’s deep concerns about the changes on Australian workers are in no way alleviated by the Work Choices pile of propaganda. Australian working people will still be hit hard.

Unfair dismissal protection will disappear for the four million working Australians working in businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The government’s token offer of $4,000 to help with unlawful termination claims is about as helpful as a bucket in a flood. Unlawful termination laws will not protect people from being sacked for questioning their pay, for their boss being in a bad mood or for any number of other patently unfair reasons. Individual contracts will be able to cut take-home pay and working conditions. Instead of needing to meet safety net award standards as a no disadvantage test, individual contracts need only contain five minimum entitlements. Awards currently contain at least 20.

This government has constantly worked to reduce award conditions to a few allowable matters. The former workplace relations minister Peter Reith argued for abolishing many award provisions and just retaining 20 allowable matters during his term as minister. Now Minister Andrews wants to reduce the number to just five allowable matters, with emphasis on the ‘allowable’, which means allowable only if the employers decide that way. This government and this minister would be arrogant enough to consider abolishing the 10 commandments and replacing them with just two or three allowable matters. I can just see the quotations: ‘Blessed are the economic rationalists for they shall inherit the lot’ or ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, but only after Minister Andrews and his coalition government have finished with it.’

Minimum wages will no longer be set by the independent umpire, clearing the way for them to be lower in the future. The government has failed to get its way with the current Industrial Relations Commission, asking for a minimum wage $50 per week lower than the current $484. This is the obvious reason it is setting up the deceitfully titled Fair Pay Commission.

The legislation requires that this so-called Fair Pay Commission is directed not to take fairness into account when considering wages for low-income workers. Only the Howard government would be economically dry enough and arrogant enough to set up an organisation called the Fair Pay Commission and then instruct it to do anything but provide fairness in its deliberations. The Yes, Minister doctrine is alive and well under this deceitful government. In fact, you would be forgiven for assuming that the scriptwriters for the Yes, Minister series drafted this legislation. Remember Sir Humphrey Appleby’s famous advice to the minister: if you want to implement some legislation that contains some obnoxious parts and nasties, put the nasties in the detail within the bill and then give it a title that reflects precisely the opposite of the intention in that small print. Only the Howard government would be arrogant and cruel enough to deliberately legislate against fairness.

If this Prime Minister were any drier, he would shatter into a million pieces. The removal of the award safety net will clear the way for radical reductions to the pay and conditions of working Australians over time. This will not happen overnight, but mark my words: it will happen. The government claims that employees can take a third party into negotiations with employers, and the minister suggests that they take their accountants.

Let us take Mary as an example, a 16-year-old school leaver applying for her first job as a supermarket checkout clerk. She is expected to retain the services of an accountant to negotiate her terms and conditions. Just how far out of touch with reality is this government? If Mary wants to receive fair wages and conditions, I would suggest that the only way this will be achieved will be if she takes Chopper Reid in to do her negotiating for her. I am reminded of that well-known phrase which is always the truth: it is when the trade union movement is needed most that the call for its destruction is the loudest.

These radical changes are not justified by any economic need. They will not create jobs or aid productivity. The Prime Minister gave a more honest assessment of the industrial relations plans when he said to the coalition party room that they are an article of faith for the coalition parties. Just in case anyone has any doubts about the government’s intentions or motivation for this bill, they should consider these words expressed by the former minister for workplace relations Peter Reith when he said:

Never forget the history of politics. Never forget which side we’re on. We’re on the side of making profits. We are on the side of people owning private capital.

This is classic coalition legislation or Tory legislation. No-one is against the ownership of capital, but when accumulating capital is achieved by stripping away workers’ wages, entitlements, protection and job security, we on this side of the House will fight every inch of the way to protect Australian workers’ hard-won wages and conditions.

If the government was at all genuine about its ‘choice’ rhetoric, it would legislate to give employees the real democratic choice to decide whether or not they want their conditions of work to be covered by a collective agreement. The right to bargain collectively with your employer is a right that workers have in other developed countries like the UK and Canada.

The average unemployment rate in Bendigo is currently at around nine per cent, an increase of 1.8 per cent from June 2004 to June 2005 and around four per cent higher than the national average. It fluctuates across the region; in Maryborough in the Central Goldfields Shire it is up as high as 14 per cent. Australia’s regions will be the biggest losers under the Howard government’s arrogant and extreme changes. Workers in areas of high unemployment like Bendigo, Castlemaine, Maryborough and Heathcote will be the first victims of the Howard government’s arrogant and extreme agenda.

Under the government’s plan, unemployed workers will face a stark choice—an unfair work contract or a permanent place at the end of a long unemployment queue. The government’s taxpayer funded propaganda highlighted Billy—an unemployed person forced to accept unfair work conditions in exchange for a job. Mr Howard says this is fair because Australia is a workers’ market. The reality is that an unemployed Billy in the region where I come from will be ripe for exploitation because Mr Howard’s ‘workers’ market’ exists only in his imagination. The government is killing off collective bargaining in favour of individual work contracts, but every worker in central Victoria knows that an individual against the boss is not a fair match.

Additionally, workers employed in businesses of 100 people or less will lose their protection from unfair dismissal. The legislation allows businesses with more than 100 people to dismiss workers without fear of unfair dismissal proceedings if it can be shown that the dismissals are for operational reasons. If a job disappears for economic, technological or structural reasons, employees will have no legal basis for claiming unfair dismissal.

Just imagine how a company like Telstra will exploit that particular loophole. Bendigo Telstra employees will be forced to work on Bendigo Cup Day for the first time as a result of Telstra’s national management decision to prematurely adopt the Howard government’s workplace relations changes even though they are yet to pass through both houses of parliament. Telstra’s Bendigo employees were previously always given the option to either work or claim the public holiday as their current enterprise bargaining agreement and award provisions allow. The Howard government’s extreme workplace relations changes have already encouraged Telstra to step outside the legally binding current system even though the changes have not been passed by this parliament. No doubt Telstra’s new management team will be standing on the sidelines cheering the Howard government on as it systematically sets about ripping away workers’ wages and conditions.

Since last year’s election the people of Bendigo and central Victoria have been forced to cop broken promises on interest rates and the Medicare safety net, and they have been forced to pay the highest petrol prices Australia has ever known. Now the Howard government is preparing to implement an extreme industrial relations agenda that will leave the people of this region more vulnerable than most other Australians due to high and rising unemployment.

The Howard and Costello government have consistently refused to guarantee that penalty rates will be retained if these new laws are implemented. In fact, coalition senators have voted down a motion to commission a Senate inquiry into the abolition of penalty rates in Australian awards. A motion by Family First Senator Steve Fielding calling for a Senate inquiry into the removal of penalty rates was supported by Labor, the Greens and the Australian Democrats, but was lost because the Liberal and National senators voted against it, resulting in the motion being defeated.

Penalty rates are an important part of the annual wages of a significant number of employees in a wide range of industry sectors. The Howard government’s refusal to allow an inquiry signalled that the current penalty rate system was doomed under these new workplace reforms that we are debating today. Central Victoria’s economy will be gutted if the Howard government’s attack on workers’ penalty rates becomes law. These workplace relations reforms will see the abolition of workers’ penalty rates totalling up towards $80 million in central Victoria alone. Central Victoria stands to lose the economic equivalent of between 2,100 and 3,400 jobs every year through this attack on workers’ pay packets.

Research using ABS statistics and applied to an economic modelling software framework illustrates that a dramatic reduction in disposable income would be injected into the central Victoria’s economy if the Howard government’s abolition of penalty rates became law. These statistics show a massive reduction of up to $80 million in direct disposable income each year across all our industry sectors throughout the central Victorian economy. When you factor in the flow-on effects the figure jumps to a whopping $136 million. Think about that. Assuming the workers of our region get the median weekly family wage, this is equivalent to losing more than 2,100 jobs based on the direct loss of disposable income, or an even more heart-wrenching 3,400 jobs based on the flow-on losses.

It is nice for the Prime Minister to sit in Canberra and talk in waffly bureaucratic terms about his policies, but where I live, in the real world, this is what the impact will be. It means a huge reduction in wages being spent in the local economy and small business in the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors would be hit the hardest. And the figures do not include the abolition of overtime, which is also being abolished by the Howard government’s proposals.

Wage earners who have a penalty rate component as part of their annual income are already among the lowest paid workers throughout Australia and usually spend their entire pay packet each pay period on necessities. Small business might gain a reduction in their wages bill if penalty rates are abolished but those gains would soon disappear through a substantial reduction in cash flow into those businesses. In fact, the impact in our community will be even worse because in Bendigo our average wage is lower than most of the rest of Australia.

In Bendigo and central Victoria we already have one of the lowest median weekly family income levels, at $736 per week. If the Howard government’s workplace relations reforms are implemented, this already low figure will become even lower. These forecasts are terrifying, and if the government has any more encouraging data then I would like to see it. The Prime Minister and his colleagues keep referring to Australia being a workers paradise. I am reminded of the last words in one of my favourite Eagles tunes, which go: ‘When you call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye’. You will be pleased to know that I will dispense with the falsetto bits.