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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1071

Senator CAMERON (4:43 PM) —I am extremely pleased to support the Fair Work Bill 2008. This is a historic debate. This legislation is the culmination of political, union and community opposition to the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation. I am very pleased that I was part of the union campaign against the legislation. I stood at rallies with workers who said, ‘We cannot accept this legislation.’ I stood at rallies with workers who had walked off the job despite threats from their employer to take legal action under the Work Choices legislation against those workers. Those workers stood up for their rights and they stood up against what they believed was a very bad law. The Australian community said clearly and unequivocally that workers are entitled to respect, to dignity and to rights at work. The Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Labor Party campaign resonated with the community. There is no argument that it was not a major factor in the defeat of the coalition government at the last election. When in opposition, this government campaigned to develop industrial legislation that struck the right balance between an employee’s and an employer’s needs. Significant consultation took place with affected parties and that has resulted in legislation which does balance flexibility with fairness.

Work Choices was the embodiment of the coalition’s political miscalculations. It is interesting to note that in the coalition’s minority committee report on this legislation they claim that the government’s legislation ‘is the latest iteration in a succession of evolutionary changes to the Australian workplace environment’. Well, there was nothing evolutionary about Work Choices. Work Choices was a radical, revolutionary approach to ripping away the conditions of workers in this country. Work Choices was revolutionary and it was radical, and it was designed to disempower ordinary Australians workers in workplaces around the country. It really was about adopting the lowest common denominator and going down the low road on workers’ wages and conditions. It relied on improving productivity and competitiveness by reducing workers’ wages, conditions and rights. This was a flawed approach, an approach rejected by the Australian public. Work Choices was the epitome of the coalition’s hubris and mean-spirited approach to working people. It was radical and flawed, and it was not the proper way to try and get economic progress in this country.

I have often asked myself why this came about. Why did we move from a situation where it was generally agreed that workers should have rights in the workplace? There is no doubt in my mind that it came about because of a neoliberal approach to industrial relations. The neoliberal approach was to take any protection by government out of the community. Workers should be left on their own to negotiate with their employer, with no union rights, with no safety net rights and with no legislative rights to protect them and give them a fair go in the workplace. Workers were left to deal one on one with their employer.

Before, Work Choices individual contracts were available but no-one moved to them. No-one moved to individual contracts, because it was the general view that they were an unfair form of contract for an individual worker with limited access to the capability of negotiating, with a well-resourced employer, a fair and equitable contract. Under Work Choices workers were then left with no access to external support and advice in the face of well-resourced employers. Why should the employer maintain the complete prerogative to determine when a worker works, how a worker works, what access the worker should have to a union and what rights the worker should have on the job? It does not happen in any other advanced country in the world. But Work Choices headed down that path to give all the rights to the employer and to deny the employee any rights to collective bargaining or rights to reasonable conditions on the job.

This approach is a neoliberal approach. It is an approach that was popularised by the HR Nicholls Society, whose members believe that workers should come to work fearful: they should fear coming to work and they should fear the proposition that they would lose their job. That was the HR Nicholls Society’s approach. We all know that senior coalition government ministers went to the HR Nicholls Society and made regular speeches to the society, doffed their cap to this organisation and behaved, in my view, in a sickening and sycophantic manner, promising even more radical industrial legislation. Work Choices was not enough for the HR Nicholls Society, and the coalition were prepared to give them more. Make no bones about it: if Peter Costello comes back as the Leader of the Opposition—

Senator Ronaldson interjecting—

Senator Sherry —He’s the campaign manager!

Senator CAMERON —If his campaign manager over there gets his way and Peter Costello comes back, workers in Australia should be well aware that Peter Costello was one of the first to tread the path to the HR Nicholls Society, that he was one of the first to say that you improve productivity by taking workers’ rights away and that he will be there again as a spear carrier for Work Choices in this country.

Since I have been in this place, three areas of coalition arrogance, hubris and incompetence have stood out for me. The first is their complete miscalculation on Work Choices and their view that Work Choices should come back. The second is the global economic crisis and their attempt to blame every problem in the Australian economy on a Labor government facing a global economic meltdown. The third area is their disbelief that we really do have a major problem with the environment and global warming. These three areas all come together to demonstrate how out of touch the coalition is with the real issues that are required to move this country forward. And what could be more stupid than, in a period of economic boom, to not give workers extra rights, to not give workers a fair go by introducing Work Choices? How could we ever trust a coalition government again? When Australia is enjoying, off the back of the mining boom, massive growth and wealth, what is the neoliberal approach of the coalition? Take away the rights of workers, deny them access to unions, deny them access to collective bargaining, deny them access to respect and dignity on the workshop floor. What would happen if Peter Costello ever became Prime Minister? The Peter Costello fan club want that Work Choices legislation back in place.

If during the boom periods workers are denied their share of prosperity and dignity within this country, then what are they really arguing for in a period when the mining boom has faltered and we are facing a global economic crisis? Some of the employers made no bones about it during the committee hearings. The employers were saying that we are in an economic downturn, that we are facing this great economic crisis, so you should not have values, you should not have principles and you should not have rights for workers. In a period of economic downturn, workers should have no access to decent rights at work. That was the argument we heard from some of the employers. The productivity arguments were not there in terms of where they were coming from. They were still trying to run the lie that was perpetrated by the coalition when in government—that is, if you give workers access to decent rights, if you give them access to unfair dismissal rights, then the economy will come to a grinding halt. Some of that was argued again by the employers, but there is not a serious academic of industrial relations or a serious economist in the country who can prove that point—not one. In fact, all of the analysis that was done proved clearly, in my view, that to provide workers with decent rights at work would improve productivity, would improve dignity on the job, would improve cooperation. Yet what did we get? We had the coalition adopting an approach that set the worker individually against a well-resourced employer.

In the boom times, take away your rights; in the bad times, even more rights have to be taken away. This is just not sustainable. Workers are entitled to have decent rights at work. Workers are entitled to have some understanding that they can go to work and not be treated unfairly, not be dismissed at the whim of the employer, to be only dismissed if there is a fair and reasonable reason to dismiss those workers. They are not entitled to have their dignity stripped away by legislation such as Work Choices. The lowest paid and the most vulnerable workers need rights, support and dignity. They do not need their rights taken away; they do not need Work Choices.

The government believe that we should never forget that if the coalition ever get their hands on the levers of power again then Work Choices is sitting there in the background ready to go. You only have to listen to them in their media interviews: they really want Work Choices. And they really want to suck up to those elements of business that want to individualise the arrangements. And they are still there. You only have to look at the transcript of the Minerals Council to the committee, when they said that they should have the right to determine what unions are on the job and that workers should have the right to negotiate individually. That is the sort of approach from big business that is still there, and the coalition are running down and doffing their cap to big business, doffing their cap to the HR Nicholls Society, ripping away the rights of workers. There is a major test for the coalition: if this is not right, then you will stand up and you will support this legislation that provides workers with a fair go.

That is what this bill does. This bill is the absolute opposite of the Work Choices legislation. This bill confirms the right of working people to collectively bargain with their employer, something that was not there under the coalition. It means that employers will be expected to bargain in good faith with their employees. This is not a revolutionary concept; it is a concept that has been alive in the United States, of all places, for 100 years. This bill confirms the right of working people to secure a comprehensive set of National Employment Standards in law. It is a real safety net—not a Mickey Mouse safety net that the Liberals would have you believe they put in place—that provides some dignity and security for working people. It confirms the right of working people to expect that, if they lose their job because of some petty and malicious reason, then they will have recourse to some support from government. That is appropriate. It confirms the rights of working people to expect that where there are disputes they will not be at the mercy of the law of the jungle.

I was involved in a dispute, before I came here, with a company called Morris McMahon. Workers were on $12 an hour. They wanted to negotiate a collective agreement. Morris McMahon said, ‘No collective agreement; we want individual contracts,’ and those individual contracts would not have given those workers any dignity on the job. They had to go on strike for 12 weeks to get a resolution to that dispute. There was no support for them from the then Howard government. There was no understanding of the issues that were important to them and their families. The government just washed their hands of them and said that they had to continue the dispute. This government wants a fairer, more equitable and more humane approach to industrial relations than that.

Business has argued during the committee hearings that if the economic circumstances change then you should change the legislation. I reject that proposition because you cannot have values, fairness and equity changing every time the economic circumstances change. The government’s legislation is designed to sustain workers in the good times and the bad times. It is about fairness for the employer and fairness for the workers.

Arguments are being put up that unions’ right of entry would be abused. Part of the argument we hear about why there is going to be a massive reduction in productivity is that unions are going to have right of entry. But unions have had right of entry in this country ever since I have been here and long before then, and that right was there to allow unions to ensure compliance so that workers got a fair go in the workplace. In this legislation there is the proposition that unions will have access to the workplace, but with those rights come responsibilities and severe sanctions against any union official who abuses those rights. So with the rights come responsibilities.

Some employers have argued that the bargaining rights go too far and that they should have the right to choose which union sits down and bargains on behalf of their employees. I have never heard so much nonsense as that in my life. The opposition have always argued—I think, with tongue in cheek—that it is about freedom of association; but their freedom of association is the freedom not to join a union. They have no counterbalance and argument for freedom to join a union. That was quite clear when big business came to that committee and argued the proposition that they should have the right to determine which union sits down at the bargaining table. Talk about employer prerogative! I have never heard the likes of that in my life, and that is not what happens in any other country in the world.

This government has a mandate, a clear and unequivocal mandate, for this legislation. We went to the Australian public based on a broad understanding of what should happen to provide fairness and dignity at work. The argument that you should dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before you win government is a nonsense. You cannot expect the election manifesto to extend to legislative detail. There was no mandate for Work Choices. (Time expired)