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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1112

Senator MILNE (8:18 PM) —I rise this evening to comment on the Fair Work Bill 2008 and to express the Greens’ support for getting rid of Work Choices. It was very clear at the 2007 election that the Australian community wanted an end to Work Choices because Work Choices reduced the wages and conditions of Australian employees and many more lost protections from being unfairly dismissed. The federal election was a very clear vote on Work Choices. I have to say that the people who were the face of Work Choices, former Prime Minister John Howard and former Treasurer, still the member for Higgins, Peter Costello, remain the faces of Work Choices. I have to say—

Senator Brandis —Costello is the face of the prosperity we have now forgotten!

Senator MILNE —I am delighted to hear Senator Brandis say that the member for Higgins, Mr Costello, was the face of the boom, because no government was more irresponsible in failing to establish an industry policy for this country that protected the jobs of workers in the long term. They celebrated hollowing out the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing left the country; jobs left the country. They distorted the tax system so that income tax was reduced for the rich and we became totally dependent on profit income from mining companies, from the quarry. We became absolutely—

Senator Brandis —Reduced for the rich and eliminated for the poor!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Carol Brown)—Senator Brandis! Senator Milne, I ask that you direct your comments through the chair.

Senator MILNE —Thank you for the reminder. I certainly will do so. I was pointing out that the distortion in the tax system which occurred under the member for Higgins, the former Treasurer, was such that he shifted the tax away from income and onto company profits dependent upon Australia remaining a quarry where we dig things up, cut them down and ship them overseas, and we hollow out the manufacturing sector; we do not invest in education and training, we do not invest in innovation, we do not invest in research and development. We made the country totally vulnerable to a collapse in the mining boom and that is what has occurred.

Look around the country and see which jobs are going. It is not because workers are not productive; it is because the former government failed to recognise the sectors that were uncompetitive into the future. Here was the former Treasurer, the member for Higgins, Mr Costello, giving $62 million to Ford to build six-cylinder cars in Australia when it was very clear that nobody wanted to buy them and that $62 million was not tied to energy efficient design. It was not tied to vehicle fuel efficiency standards. The result is that workers have been put out of work because those companies are no longer competitive. Whilst they were no longer competitive, their bosses were skirting off with massive exit payments that were grossly unfair. So not only did they take the profits but also they undermined the capacity of workers to have work in the long term. By setting low standards and failing to see the trends of the future, they condemned their workforce to unemployment as countries like China set high vehicle fuel efficiency standards, establishing themselves a competitive advantage in the global marketplace, and now they continue to make cars, whereas Ford is going out the back door.

The car industry is a classic case of our complete failure to have an industry policy for this country. If we had recognised that the trend was to move to addressing long-term security in employment by shifting to a low-carbon economy, we would now have factories in Australia that were producing photovoltaic panels, for example. We would have factories in Australia producing wind turbines. We would have factories producing all manner of things in Australia, and we would have a workforce that had been helped to make the transition. There would have been investment in research and development, commercialisation and training. There would have been rollouts on a mass scale, and we would have those jobs in Australia today. My biggest criticism of the Howard government was the vulnerability that they left the Australian economy in while celebrating rivers of gold and manna from heaven as they gave out tax cuts hand over fist. They failed to invest in infrastructure, health and education. They failed to invest in economically productive infrastructure.

Senator Brandis interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Carol Brown)—Senator Brandis, I have asked you to stop interjecting.

Senator MILNE —Where was the investment in the future anywhere in the country? The other thing that I am most critical about, especially in terms of Work Choices, is that it was totally based on the false premise that individual employees were able to bargain fairly with their employers. Of course, everybody knows that that was simply not the case. It never has been the case, and the experiment demonstrated that absolutely. AWAs were one of the most pernicious aspects of Work Choices and were used to undermine the safety net for workers. That is very clear, and it is a good thing that we are finally getting rid of AWAs.

The workers who were most affected by Work Choices and who were the most vulnerable because of the power that was given to employers in those circumstances were women workers in low-paid jobs and workers from non-English-speaking backgrounds. I hear the current members of the opposition talking about the employees in the textile industry who are now losing their jobs. These people were most adversely impacted by Work Choices, but at that time I did not hear any empathy from the opposition or even any pretence that they understood the circumstances in which those people were put. The Greens opposed Work Choices in the Senate. We campaigned vigorously against the laws at the time they were announced and put through this parliament. The policy that we took to the last election was explicit in calling for the complete abolition of Work Choices, and we are still campaigning for that.

We are disappointed that the government has not carried through on its promise to totally rip up Work Choices. Rather than the government ripping up Work Choices, its Fair Work Bill builds on some of its key elements, such as not providing a fair dispute resolution process and consolidating the shift made under Work Choices from the conciliation and arbitration power to the corporations power under our Constitution. Also, the bill maintains restrictions on matters that can be agreed to in enterprise agreements. Matters relating to the environment or climate change initiatives will not be allowed in agreements under the bill. I think that is most unfortunate because, as I will indicate in a minute, some of the best ideas actually come from the workplace, where people come up with innovative ways of addressing issues. To disallow these ideas I think suggests that we do not have the whole-of-government approach that we are being told we have on climate change. Another issue is that, while the government is keeping a type of individual agreement that has more protections than AWAs, it will continue to have the potential to exploit workers. Also, the current bill maintains severe restrictions on employees taking industrial action.

The Greens have been trying to negotiate some amendments to the legislation. I take this opportunity to congratulate my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert on her work on this bill and on the amendments that she has crafted to try to address the concerns of the Greens and those of many workers. We want this bill to provide the protections, rights and responsibilities of a fair, just and sustainable society. Our amendments include giving Fair Work Australia the power to resolve general workplace disputes. Without this amendment workers have no means of resolving disputes, except by going to court to enforce their rights. We also want to remove restrictions on the matters parties can agree to in enterprise agreements. We also require more transparency to individual flexibility arrangements so we will know whether they are being used properly or whether they are being abused. That is a matter that my colleagues are trying to negotiate with the government.

We need to get rid of Work Choices and replace it with a fair, just and sustainable law for the workplace. We need to build resilience in our community, and fair employment laws are an important part of doing that. We want to ensure a framework that provides for genuine flexible working hours, paid parental leave and workplace democracy. I want to talk about those for a few minutes. On genuine flexible working hours, now is the opportunity to explore what optimum conditions we can provide, because the certainties of the old order are over. We have a global financial crisis, a climate crisis and a peak oil crisis. All the old certainties are gone. When you ask people ‘What do you want more of?’ they say that they want more time. They are sick of working seven days a week and very long hours. They are tired of being forced into a situation where they very often have to put their children in care for longer hours than they would like to. Very often families would like to do things together at the weekends and they simply cannot because of their working arrangements. There are also issues in relation to people with children with disabilities, people looking after aged parents or other people in the community and so on. People say: ‘I would just really like more time. I would like greater flexibility.’ Now is the opportunity to offer that.

We need paid parental leave. That is very clear. It is one thing which would improve the productivity in the workplace. Right now, we need that productivity in the workplace, and we need it especially from those women who have had years of training and experience. We need those people to stay on in the workplace. They are not necessarily going to do that unless they can get paid parental leave. I think this is absolutely critical. If we want to keep people with the right skills in the workplace for the long term and not disrupt their career patterns then we have to be very focused on that.

I just want to mention workplace democracy for a minute or two, because if you think about an individual workplace you can extrapolate those principles to the country. If you go to people and ask, ‘What makes a happy and satisfied employee?’ they will tell you that it is not just about the wages they receive. They will talk about being appreciated and having the person who employs them appreciate the fact that they are there and appreciate the contribution they make. Employees also appreciate people thinking about their training needs and the opportunities they might have for career advancement whilst working in a particular company. They talk about democracy in the workplace. They talk about whether there is fairness and inclusion or whether the boss, who owns the company, gets all the perks while the workers generate the profits for the company but never share in the perks or the benefits of that work.

Employees talk about communication—the need for people to be honest with their employees, tell them what the situation is, take them into their confidence and actually discuss with them creative solutions to the problems that the company might be having or the opportunities that the company might have. Very often the people on the factory floor and the people in small businesses have been thinking about ways to improve the business for a long time and they have never actually been asked or had the opportunity to feed in their ideas without fear or favour and have those ideas tested.

Employees also talk about bosses who lead by example. If you want to have loyalty and satisfaction from your staff then you have to have the same values in your leadership role as you are expecting of the employees in the organisation. You do not want negativity in the workplace undermining people there. You have to remember that people in the workplace have lives outside work. Just because you own the company or you run the business you may want to work in it 24 hours a day seven days a week but the people who work with you have families. They have other responsibilities and community concerns and want to be engaged in the community.

If you extrapolate these ideas to the nation you find that that means instead of this nasty dog-eat-dog, really hostile workplace that was set up under the Work Choices regime you move to—

Senator Brandis —Which government created more jobs than any other government in Australian history?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, if you have not already made a contribution you will be able to make a contribution in the debate. Please stop interjecting.

Senator MILNE —I am very pleased that a point has been made about the number of jobs and participation in the work force because that was something I had not recalled that I wanted to speak about, but now I will. The Howard government boasted about the number of people in employment but failed to talk about the casualisation that occurred in the work force under the Howard government and the fact that you were deemed to have a job if you only worked a few hours. So the statistics lie about the numbers of people who had jobs with which they were satisfied and in which they could earn a decent income. So you may brag all you like, those former members of the Howard government who are so proud of their role in Work Choices, but let me tell you that out there in the streets people are disgusted about the fact that they were included in the statistics as having a job when they only worked for a few hours. Let us have a look at actual participation in the work force and then you will find quite a different position than just a raw statistic on what constitutes a job.

As I was saying before, you can extrapolate the ideas that I have just talked about with respect to the workplace, where you see that you get the best productivity from the people you work with if you create an inclusive environment which is trusting, has honest communication with employees, and which offers appropriate investment in research, training and career opportunities. And if you offer appropriate flexibility in hours and parental leave you will have a work force that is satisfied, works harder and generates greater productivity. As a nation we will be able to survive the financial crisis, climate crisis and peak oil crisis much better with that work force than if we have a work force where people feel that there is a lack of trust, that they are not valued, and that they are not given equality of opportunity—where that whole inclusiveness is missing.

That is where I think we need to start using this opportunity of the financial crisis, where all the old certainties are gone, to ask: what is it in Australia that will give us what we need—a fair workplace, a just workplace, a workplace where sustainability is on the agenda, where people know that they are going to be respected, where their dignity is respected and they are encouraged to have a broader involvement in the future of the businesses in which they work and in the productivity of the nation?

There is a story that I remember, and that I often reflect on, about three people who worked in a quarry. They were all asked what they did for a job. The first one said that he just worked in a quarry cutting stones. The second one said that he prepared building materials, and the third one said, ‘I build cathedrals.’ We want workplaces in Australia where everybody in this nation feels as if they are building cathedrals—that they are contributing, no matter what they do, to the bigger picture.

Senator Brandis —Pretty good, coming from an atheist!

Senator MILNE —It just demonstrates the mentality that we have in the chamber that you cannot follow this notional view. The issue here is about the fact that people should feel as if the contribution they are making is to a better nation—to a better society and to a fairer, more just, happier, satisfied community. What we need to do after a decade of this dog-eat-dog individualism—versus a collective community view—is to rebuild community in Australia. We know that it is there just under the surface. Every time there is a tragedy in Australia we see what happens when the community comes together. People give what they can in the national interest. People do what they can in the national interest. We have not seen that in the broader sense; people do it on an emergency basis.

We are now facing a global emergency with the coming together of these three crises. I want to see the end of Work Choices. I want to see a new view of workplace relations that sees every worker in Australia think about, believe in and want to contribute to a national vision going forward to a more socially just, inclusive, fair, thoughtful and creative Australia which is resilient and which has good quality jobs and workplaces. That is the kind of Australia we want to see, and we want to end forever the faces and the remnants of Work Choices in this society.