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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1067

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (4:23 PM) —Senator Rachel Siewert has already made it clear that the Greens support legislation to extract at least some of the gangrenous teeth of the so-called Work Choices legislation, which removed choices for workers. That legislation, which is now in power, was passed during the nefarious years of the Howard government when it had control of both houses of parliament. It is a tribute to the common sense of the people of Australia that they voted to return the duty of watchdog for the people to the Senate. Had the Howard government not got control of the Senate, as it did between 2004 and 2007, this legislation would not have passed into law in Australia and, indeed, there would have been a much better chance that Prime Minister Howard would not have been so unceremoniously kicked out of the seat of prime ministership and out of his own seat of Bennelong. That is now a matter of history, and we are dealing with the reality of the so-called Work Choices legislation and the harm it has done to the rights of workers in this country.

The Greens are taking the strongest stand in this place for working families and workers in Australia. We do so because we are a party that is devoted to equal rights and a fair go in a country where, under the Howard government, previous governments and also this government, the gap between rich and poor has become far too great. I will come to some of the particular matters that we want to address in trying to close that gap and make this country a fairer place. JP Morgan, the great robber baron of the United States, said some 100 years ago that the right balance was a boss getting about 20 times the average wage of workers in the enterprise from which he—because it always was a ‘he’ in those days—was making a fortune. We are out of kilter with that now. The latest figures from the United States indicate that some CEOs are getting 400 times the income of hardworking workers in such industries as manufacturing. It is a credit to the lowness of human avarice and greed that that has happened. It is also an appalling indictment of democracy that it has been so bought by the captains of industry, the wealthy and their lobbyists that we have not had governments with the gumption to stand up for the hard fought for principles of a fair world in which poverty, excessive consumptive and over-the-top greed are attacked where they manifest themselves.

In fact, the planet would be in far safer hands if we had governments who were able to stand up to the power of the super wealthy, which is arguably the greatest bulwark against a fairer world which is able to deal with such onrushing issues as catastrophic climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of species and the blighting of the hopes of future generations to be able to live on this planet in a way that is comfortable and secure and has the prospect of happiness. That is a bigger debate that we are no doubt going to have later this year when it comes to the need for urgent, serious and sensible legislation to make Australia a leader in tackling the cataclysm of climate change which is bearing down upon us.

The Greens have evaluated the Fair Work Bill 2008 on its merit, and I pay tribute to Senator Siewert and the enormous amount of work she has done, particularly for people who have been unfairly treated under the Howard government legislation. Through amendments, we are going to aim to make the bill a fairer piece of legislation. We think the Rudd Labor government has drifted from its commitment to ensuring that not only the worst but also the discreditable parts of Work Choices are taken away. We see a failure on a wide front to take this opportunity to bring proper fairness into the workplace for workers right across this country. One of the things you would do if you were going to redress this imbalance is make sure that there was a strong umpire to defend the interests of both employers and employees. The Greens want the legislation strengthened so that it is better able to see the arbitration of workplace disputes. In the bill, Fair Work Australia, which is an authority set up to oversee provisions of this bill, has only limited powers in relation to the bargaining of disputes and no general powers to finally determine other workplace disputes outside a very limited aegis, leaving workers and employers no option if they are being wronged but to go to the courts.

That brings me to the second point, which is about collective bargaining freedom. The Greens believe that both employers and employees should be able to bargain over any matters—including, for example, the environmental health and wellbeing of the place in which they work. We are in the extraordinary situation here where it cannot be left to workers and their employers to get together to build an agreement on matters that are outside the confines of this legislation. Certainly there is no-one to arbitrate if they do. Under this bill the parties are restricted in what they can bargain about. It is quite extraordinary that the opposition, which would stand for unrestricted freedom of commerce in ideas and agreements, want to see that restriction made even tighter.

The Greens would want to see this legislation include, across the board, the right to take industrial action as a fundamental and internationally recognised right. Australian history demonstrates powerful examples of workers exercising that right to progress important human rights issues—for example, against apartheid in faraway South Africa or, to bring it right home, the green bans which have protected so much of the wellbeing of societies from Sydney to Hobart and Perth. I remember well the ‘ships of shame’ action by the maritime unions here in Australia to try and help people who were being robbed of their wages, housed in filthy, unsanitary conditions and who in some cases were being starved aboard ships coming into ports. They are now unable to take industrial action because it would breach both Work Choices and, effectively, this legislation.

You have to ask: would the unions, who have flagged action against Pacific Brands to ensure that taxpayer funded machinery is not shipped offshore, be dealt with and charged under this legislation if they were to take such action? If other unions in a similar situation were to take such action I think they would be found to be acting against the law because this legislation does not fundamentally recognise the right to strike. I do not think you will hear too many other people even use that term in this place, but it is a basic and fundamental right written into international labour laws, and it should be recognised as a right in a wider set of circumstances than the very constricted set that this Labor government is allowing for workers in this country.

There should be better rights for workers to request and negotiate their individual flexibility arrangements. The Greens want to see further protections for those arrangements so that they cannot be used to exploit workers as Australian Workplace Agreements were used under the Howard laws. For example, we want to ensure that the bill guarantees protections for carers and for people with sick children or people with children with special needs so that they can negotiate work arrangements that meet their specific needs, secure in the knowledge that this will not put their jobs at risk. Is that too much to ask? Why is that not in this legislation? Why should a mother or a father who is contributing to this country but who has a special needs child not be able to insist that they get 20 minutes to drop that child in a caring place of a morning if the employer decides they are not going to allow for that? Where is the reasonable dispute mechanism—the circuit breaker—for people in those circumstances? Surely this Labor government in this great country of ours should be ensuring that people who have such needs have those needs reasonably met and that there is a reasonable umpire to arbitrate in circumstances such as that.

There should be transparency of the individual flexibility arrangements—these agreements that are to be made under this legislation. Employers are required to lodge such arrangements with Fair Work Australia—that is, the overseeing commission—where they will be made publicly available if the Greens have their amendment adopted. This would increase transparency and accountability without infringing on the privacy of the individuals involved, but at least there would be some check to ensure that there had not been exploitation of workers under these agreements. At the moment there is no check in this legislation and there should be.

I spoke earlier about the disparity between the rich and the poor. We are in a country where still, in the last 12 months, some CEOs took $14 million or $16 million home in their pay packets from their corporations. That is money that inevitably comes from average Australians through their purchase of goods and services. And yet, despite repeated statements by our Prime Minister and several other ministers about the obscenity of some of these payments, zero action has been taken—no action whatever! President Obama in the United States has put a half a million dollar cap on the takeaway pay of CEOs in companies which are being supported by the taxpayers through the bailouts that are now being required of governments for corporations which are in trouble because of the current economic downturn. But there is no such move from our Prime Minister, who is, notwithstanding, a Labor Prime Minister.

We will be moving an amendment to this legislation which allows Fair Work Australia, the arbitrator, to look at CEO packages when corporations move to sack hundreds of workers and to see that those packages are not excessive. This is just a fair go. Why should there be CEOs on millions of dollars per annum who are determining, over a period of months or even weeks, that they are going to sack hundreds of their fellow Australians and put them on zero income—with all the hardship that is entailed in that—despite all the commitments of the CEOs, without there being any overview of that behaviour?

We have corporations who want government action to bail them out of their current financial troubles and we have seen legislation in this place to put billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money at the disposal of these same corporations. Why has this government not acted to say the quid pro quo here is that the excessive greed, self-investment and plunder of the public wealth stops? I have moved a number of motions in this place to clip the wings of these corporate robber barons of this decade, and on every occasion the government and the opposition have got together and voted those down. It is totally unfair, it is irresponsible and I would have thought there would be better behaviour and a much stronger defence of the interests of workers, and indeed the purchasers of goods and services, from a Labor Prime Minister and a Labor cabinet in Australia in these particular fiscal circumstances.

Senator Hanson-Young has been strongly advocating the need for paid parental leave, and yet I heard Sharan Burrow from the ACTU leading the retreat on just that matter last week. This is quite extraordinary. We are one of only two countries in the OECD that do not have paid parental leave. The Greens are advocating 26 weeks when a baby arrives to allow the parents to spend the good time, the essential time, the bonding time with that child which is so necessary for that child to be able to maximise their fulfilment, their opportunity and their own wellbeing down the line. But no—we now hear that it is going to be too expensive in these economically dire times. Let me put the figure to you. The Greens amendment—and it will come in the form of a second reading amendment, an appeal to the government, because it has to under constitutional arrangements—would cost less than $1 billion a year, and that is to bring in full parental leave. We are talking about 26 weeks parental leave for less than $1 billion a year.

The tax cuts for the wealthy in this country, for those earning incomes over $75,000, which come into play now under this budget, supported by both sides, are costing taxpayers $3.5 billion a year. So what we have is the big parties in this place saying, ‘We grant the already wealthy $3½ billion, effectively, of taxable income, at the same time as we can’t find $1 billion to meet this critical need for parental leave in this great country of a fair go.’ I cannot understand that. But, yet again, when we moved to block those excessive tax cuts, the Greens found themselves on one side of the parliament with the big parties on the other. I appeal to the opposition to look at this move by the Greens for parental leave and to support it, because otherwise we are going to find the government sliding right back from it. At a time when they can find $42 billion for a stimulus package, they are unable to find $1 billion for parental leave just for Australia to catch up with the rest of the world.

We have approached the government to look at funding community employment law services. There are thousands of people in the workplace who are dealt with unfairly each year, and under this legislation the only road for action to redress that unfairness is through the courts. This is not enhancing legislation to look after a fair go in the workplace. It falls way short. My Western Australian colleagues tell me 4,000 people approached legal services in Western Australia alone last year to seek redress for grievances. We believe they are in an unfair situation, as are many employers, but where people do not have the wherewithal, be they employees or employers, they should at least have access to fair legal advice and employment law advice. We will be moving to have the government provide an assurance of funding for those critical legal services.

Finally, there is the matter of the International Labour Organisation. Australia is not only a signatory but a founding and driving force for international labour laws. You all know that. Australia has a long and proud history of ensuring the rights of workers right around the world, including the classic right to strike when there is an injustice being done. We believe this legislation ought to be submitted by the government, and if not the government the ACTU, to the International Labour Organisation for advice as to whether it complies with our international obligations. It is a very simple test. There is no movement by the government or, so far as I know, from the ACTU. There are unions who want to see that test complied with and we will be proposing that it is. (Time expired)

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall)—Senator Brown, you did foreshadow an amendment. Did you intend to move that now?

Senator Bob Brown —No. We will move that further on in the proceedings.