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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1109

Senator FISHER (8:03 PM) —This legislation should be about jobs, jobs, jobs. And it is not, not, not. This legislation should be about keeping the Deputy Prime Minister’s promise that the government’s workplace relations reforms will not jeopardise employment. This legislation should be about keeping the Deputy Prime Minister’s promise that any wage increases under the government’s workplace relations reforms will be tied to productivity increases. This legislation is about the government’s broken promises on protecting and creating employment and this legislation is about the government’s broken promises on ensuring that wage increases are linked to increases in productivity, which of course in itself threatens the jobs of the very people that the government would have the Fair Work Bill 2008 masquerade as benefiting.

There is one promise that the government does keep with this bill. The promise was one made largely under the radar, not one made to the Australian people but one made by the government to its union masters, and it is that promise, tragically, that the government is intent on keeping with this legislation. There is a proper role for unions in the workplace and there is a proper role for employer organisations. Workers need access to a collective voice. Workers need to be able to choose their collective voice just as employers need access to a collective voice and need to be able to choose with freedom their collective voice. However, both those sorts of organisations, unions and employer organisations, deserve and should have the opportunity in the workplace to demonstrate their wares and to do so in a way that attracts members to them simply because they are doing the job they should be doing, not because they are given a legislative leg-up.

This bill gives a legislative leg-up to unions in the workplace. It gives a legislative leg-up to membership of unions in the workplace, and it gives a legislative leg-up to membership of unions in the workplace at the cost of the jobs of the very people that they will masquerade as protecting. It is a legislative leg-up at the cost of the rights of the very people that the union movement would masquerade as protecting.

Senator Ludlam talked about a recalibration of legislation in respect of protecting workers. This is a recalibration in respect of ensuring a cement path to membership of the union movement. It is not about giving workers freedom to choose to belong to a union; it is about directing the worker traffic so that they have little choice other than to fall into the arms of the union movement. That is the promise that Labor delivers, unfortunately, with this bill, at the cost of Labor’s other promise that its workplace relations reforms would not threaten employment.

Clearly, if provisions in the bill relating to rights of entry, greenfield agreements, transmission of business and unfair dismissals are implemented in the workplace they will unfold in a job destructive manner. Business knows this and has said some things about it, particularly during the course of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations inquiry, but business has not said enough about it because it has been muted. Business has been seduced, if you like, into silence by a very clever government which has invited business in under the pretence of consulting in advance on the terms of the legislation. But the price of access to that closed group was secrecy and having to sign an agreement that, ‘We shall not speak outside these four walls.’ In that process business has compromised what it might otherwise say about what this legislation really means for Australian workers and Australian workplaces.

And the government is at it again. On the last day of Senate estimates, 26 February, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote a letter, which was tabled during estimates, making it clear that there is a draft transitional bill. On that same day, the consultative Committee on Industrial Legislation, which involves unions and employer groups, amongst others, met to discuss the transitional bill. Until that time, the evidence provided to the Senate committee and the comments made by business groups outside the parliamentary process amounted to: ‘Where is the transitional stuff? Where is the stuff that will help our members work through this once and if the Fair Work Bill becomes law?’ We learnt during estimates that once again, yes, by being invited into the so-called ‘consultative tent’ business will be required to sign up to a confidentiality agreement—seduced into silence in spectacular fashion. Business knows that this legislation will cost jobs in ways that far outweigh what they have been able to put thus far to the Senate committee.

An illustration of the fact that the government itself knows that it cannot keep its promise that its reforms will not cost jobs lies in the award modernisation process, which was part and parcel of round 1 of the workplace relations reforms. The schedule to the first round of workplace relations changes put through by this parliament had instructions to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission that talked about the dual role of the award modernisation process not resulting in a disadvantage to employees and not increasing costs to employers. Not only have various Senate committees had evidence from experts that both goals are not obtainable, the government knows that both promises are unable to be kept. Business, the retail sector and the pharmacy sector are all talking about the numbers of jobs that they are concerned will be lost in their sectors as a result of the award modernisation process and what that means for their industries.

More than that, there is evidence by the Deputy Prime Minister’s own hand that she knows she cannot keep her promise on the protection and creation of jobs. In a letter that she wrote to the chair of the Senate Standing Committee Education, Employment and Workplace Relations on 26 February, tendered during those proceedings, the Deputy Prime Minister outlined some key elements of the transitional and consequential legislation to operate with the Fair Work Bill once enacted. She includes in the key elements of that legislation:

… provisions to ensure that an employee’s take home pay is not reduced as a result of the employee’s transition onto a modern award by allowing for Fair Work Australia to make orders to deal with any such matter;

The Deputy Prime Minister is referring therein to the award modernisation process. There is nothing in her letter that refers equally to ensuring that there is no increase in costs to the employer community through the award modernisation, yet she sees fit to highlight in the transitional bill the necessity to ensure that employees’ take-home pay is not reduced as a part of the award modernisation process. The point is that the government made dual promises through the award modernisation process to protect employees and to protect employers, and this transitional bill, as confirmed by the Deputy Prime Minister’s own hand, is proof of the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister knows those promises cannot be kept—in particular the promise in respect of employees’ take-home pay.

As to productivity, the Deputy Prime Minister about 12 months ago was the self-proclaimed minister for productivity. Unfortunately that is no more. Under questioning during Senate estimates, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations revealed that there were motherhood statements in the Fair Work Bill as to the necessity to ensure productivity increases—little more than lip service. Mr Kovacic explained that, hypothetically:

It is not only the principal object of the act that emphasises the productivity considerations; that part of the bill, in dealing with the bargaining framework, has an explicit reference to productivity considerations.

Under further questioning, Mr Kovacic said:

In essence, at the end of the day, it is a matter for the parties to reach agreement on an agreement.

So the best that the Fair Work Bill can do in terms of linking wage increases with productivity increases is an implied linking; there is no express linking. What had the government promised? On 24 January 2008, Sky News referred to the Deputy Prime Minister as stating:

… our industrial relations system is about productivity … wage increases have to be about productivity gains.

On 8 May 2008, the Deputy Prime Minister was interviewed by the World Today and she said:

We have designed a fair and balanced system which is all about bargaining … That is a system that doesn’t feed into inflation because pay increases are productivity-based …

Show us the section in your bill, Deputy Prime Minister. On 24 January 2008, Samantha Maiden reported the following in the Australian and attributed it to the Deputy Prime Minister:

What we are saying to everyone; to employers, to trade unions, to everyone involved, is that wage increases have to be about productivity gains.

Yes, Deputy Prime Minister, you are saying it and you are saying it, but you are not legislating it. Show us where it is. On 7 May 2008, the editorial in the Australian reported:

Labor has … said it is wedded to productivity trade-offs for higher wage increases.

On 26 November 2008, an article in the Australian Financial Review written by Steven Scott said:

However, Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried yesterday to reassure business about the economic impact of the reforms, saying the changes would ensure wage increases were tied to productivity improvements.

Where, Deputy Prime Minister? Where? It fails to deliver on that promise. In failing to deliver on the promise to not jeopardise jobs, in failing to deliver on the promise to link any wage increases to increases in productivity, yet in spectacularly succeeding to deliver on the government’s promise to pay back the union movement for its diligent job in seeing the Labor Party elected to government, this bill does a significant disservice to working Australians and will contribute to ensuring that more Australians are not working than otherwise would have been.