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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1117

Senator FEENEY (8:37 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise in support of the Fair Work Bill 2008. It gives all of us on this side great pleasure to see this bill finally in this place. This bill is the product of many months of consultation, negotiation and drafting by the Deputy Prime Minister, her team and her department. I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on her enormous energy, commitment and hard work in bringing this bill together, winning the support of all the key stakeholders and securing its passage in the House of Representatives.

Along with the stimulus package bills which we passed in the last session and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme bill, which is still to come, I believe this is the most important bill that we will debate in the Senate during this parliament. The Prime Minister and all members of the Labor Party who went to the last election pledged to tear up the Howard government’s unfair and extreme Work Choices legislation. It was the central plank of our platform. It was the key issue we put before the Australian people. In his policy speech, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, devoted more time to workplace relations than to any other single issue.

The 2007 election campaign was, of course, the culmination of two years of campaigning against Work Choices by the Labor Party and the wider labour movement, of which we are proud to be a part. I pay tribute to the Your Rights at Work campaign run by the ACTU under the leadership of Sharan Burrow and Greg Combet, a campaign which did so much to mobilise public opposition to Work Choices. I pay tribute to Kim Beazley, who insisted that the right response to Work Choices was a firm promise to scrap it, to tear it up and to stake our future as a party on that pledge.

Senator Parry —What about Gough?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Carol Brown)—Senator Parry, you should know better.

Senator FEENEY —I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd—

Senator Brandis —He didn’t pay tribute to you during the reshuffle.

Senator FEENEY —who took that pledge to the Australian people in 2007, campaigned on it and won a historic history—a historic victory that Senator Brandis still struggles with. It is time to give the Australian people what they voted for: a new industrial relations system, one based on fairness in the workplace, security for working families and flexibility for business.

The fact that the economic circumstances we now face are very different to those we faced in 2007 does not in any way lessen our responsibility to give the Australian working families the benefits contained in this bill. Our current economic circumstances in fact increase our commitment to that responsibility, because imagine the position of Australian workers and their families if they had had to face the current economic downturn with a federal government in office which believed in the Thatcherite doctrine of survival of the fittest. Imagine if they were dealing with a government who put every man, woman and child at the disposal of a philosophy that says: fend for yourself at the mercy of blind market forces. Imagine what the position of Australian workers and their families would be now if we still had a government that believed that all employees should be put on individual contracts and deprived of virtually all legal protection in terms of their wages and conditions—including, as the Prime Minister noted this afternoon, redundancy provisions—at a time when so many jobs are at risk through this downturn. Imagine the spectacle at Pacific Brands if that company had had the legislative opportunity to continue its strategy of implementing AWAs.

Now more than ever, Australian workers and their families need an industrial relations system which protects their rights. Now more than ever, Australian businesses need an industrial relations system which ensures flexibility and prevents industrial conflict. Now more than ever Australia needs an industrial relations system which encourages and in fact requires employers and employees to negotiate in good faith to reach binding agreements. Now more than ever Australia needs clear workplace rules which both sides accept as fair and balanced. Now more than ever Australia needs an independent workplace umpire to resolve disputes before they lead to costly and disruptive industrial action.

The bill before us does all of these things. It is true that not everyone in the union movement is happy with every provision of this bill. It is true that not everyone in the business community is happy with every provision of this bill. Such is the nature of striking a balanced piece of legislation. But both unions and business recognise that this bill is vastly superior, vastly preferable, to what went before it—the arbitrary, unfair, extreme, unbalanced and ultimately ideological document that was Work Choices, a set of laws that virtually guaranteed to set employee against employer, a set of laws designed to foment industrial disputation, harm productivity and undermine the living standards of Australian families.

When considering the fact that business itself often found Work Choices completely unworkable, I am reminded of the events at Spotlight, a company that did implement AWAs but finally abandoned them in sheer despair as they discovered that over and over again they were forced to comply with ever-changing, ever-moving regulations—a regulatory regime which ultimately led them to prefer a non-AWA solution. Even in their ideological extreme, they could not develop a workable system.

If ever a government had a mandate for a piece of legislation, the Rudd government has a mandate for the Fair Work Bill. Both sides agree that this was the central issue of the 2007 election. Mr Howard, Mr Costello, Mr Turnbull, Mr Hockey and Ms Bishop as well as every sitting member opposite fought tooth and nail in defence of Work Choices laws. Who can forget the months of scaremongering advertising denouncing union bosses and warning of the terrible disasters that would follow if Work Choices was scrapped?

Senator Abetz complained in his speech earlier this afternoon about the cost of the trade unions’ campaign opposing Work Choices, but context is everything. Senator Abetz failed to mention the huge cost of the coalition’s dishonest scare campaign in support of Work Choices. We on this side remember that it was an avalanche of government advertising and an avalanche of government communications—sheer propaganda which would do the Romanian and North Korean governments proud. They were avalanches of propaganda designed to change, to subvert and to distort the opinions of ordinary Australians.

Do I need to remind the Senate that the Howard government spent more than $120 million of taxpayers’ money promoting the Work Choices bills, bills for which they had no mandate? That was on top of the $420 million of taxpayers’ money they spent promoting the GST. That was all part of a total spend, estimated by Jason Koutsoukis of the Age on 2 September 2007, representing over $2 billion of taxpayers’ money promoting Howard government legislation. It was in that context that the union movement mobilised and it was in that context that the Your Rights at Work campaign occurred. It was in the context of there being a government that was prepared to put literally billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money at the service of their own ideological and political electioneering.

What was the result of all these moneys spent on promoting Work Choices in the lead-up to the 2007 election? Labor polled 52.7 per cent of the two-party preferred vote and thereby proved that old adage that nothing kills a bad product like good advertising. So clear was the mandate that Labor won on the issue of scrapping Work Choices that even those opposite are forced to understand it and recognise it. In November 2008, when the Deputy Prime Minister introduced this bill into the House of Representatives, Mr Turnbull said:

The Coalition accepts that the Rudd Government has a mandate for workplace relations change as proposed in their election policy last year.

The Coalition accepts Work Choices is dead. The Australian people have spoken.

…            …            …

The Coalition acknowledges that industry stakeholders support key elements of the Bill.

…            …            …

The Coalition will not oppose the Government’s Fair Work Bill 2008 in the House of Representatives—

and I interpose here that Mr Turnbull did give himself an escape hatch in this formula when he said—

but we reserve our right to propose amendments to improve the operation of the Bill following the Senate Committee process without seeking to frustrate the Government’s election commitment to implement its ‘Forward with Fairness’ election policy.

It was an escape hatch, but it was a very small one. Nevertheless, Mr Turnbull and those opposite are now trying to wriggle their way through it. At today’s coalition party meeting, it was decided that the coalition would after all introduce major amendments. This is typical of what we have come to understand as the Turnbull three-step. The Turnbull three-step is a formula we have now seen on many occasions. Step 1: Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party announce that they are supporting a government initiative and proudly wrap themselves with the bipartisan flag. Step 1 generally lasts for about 24 hours. Then we come to step 2. Step 2: Malcolm Turnbull talks about doubt; there is great doubt. He tries to strike a Churchillian pose and tries to strike doubt into his bipartisan wonder of the day before. Finally, we come to step 3: opposition. The other side reverts to type, forgets the rhetoric of day 1 and finally opposes the Labor initiative. We have seen the Turnbull three-step on the stimulus package. We have seen the Turnbull three-step on emissions trading. We have seen it on payments to pensioners. Now we are watching the Turnbull three-step on industrial relations. It has now become an old trick and we can all see it.

And why is Mr Turnbull doing this desperate three-step? Because he is feeling the heat from the self-appointed messiah of the Liberal Party, Peter Costello—and, Senator Brandis, I see you veritably bloom with enthusiasm for the subject. Last week Mr Costello said that the coalition should oppose the government’s bill regardless of the clearly expressed will of the Australian people. Mr Costello said it ‘might have been OK in times of good growth’ but it will ‘affect jobs in a downturn’. He said:

It will make manufacturing in this country more difficult and I think the Government has now got to reconsider that. It has to reconsider its proposals in relation to industrial relations.

Of course Mr Costello said on three occasions on Q&A ‘this is my policy’. He does not have too much trouble with his policy being different from what you say is your policy. So alarmed is Mr Turnbull by the continued presence—that looming omnipresence—of Mr Costello on the back bench—

Senator Brandis —He’s certainly not alarmed to have you on the back bench.

Senator FEENEY —Well, I am pleased that I have provoked you into comment. Senator Brandis, the last time you interposed you probably got another two minutes out of Senator Milne and I fear you might achieve the same with me. Mr Costello called for Mr Turnbull to renege on his commitment made in November, and Mr Turnbull has now complied. Only four months ago Mr Turnbull gave a clear commitment that the coalition would not oppose the substance of this bill—and yet here you are doing that. None of us on this side are surprised by this humiliating backdown. The Liberal Party room is full of what the Prime Minister today called the ‘Work Choices addicts’. They dominate the positions on the front bench in the Senate. Senator Minchin, Senator Abetz, Senator Coonan, Senator Ronaldson, Senator Brandis and Senator Johnson all nailed their colours to the Work Choices mast in 2006, and it is clear to all of us looking on that they are squirming as the legislation comes into this place. You all believed in Work Choices then and you all believe in it now. Your leader asked you to die in a ditch for this policy in 2007 and it would appear that you are now being asked to die in a ditch for this policy a second time. I say that because those opposite are ideological fantasists on the issue of industrial relations. Senator Fisher said only moments ago that business has been seduced into silence, that the government has cleverly invited business in and on that basis business remains mute. You imagine yourselves sitting at the top of an ideological vanguard representing the thousands of silent antiunionists when, of course, it all exists only in your imaginations.

Senators opposite need to recognise that the tide of opinion has turned against their radical, neoliberal views on deregulating the labour market, not just in Australia but around the world. In the United States, Barack Obama was a sponsor in the Senate of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would restore workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions without employer harassment. He continues to support that bill today as President of the United States. President Obama said recently:

In this country, we believe that if the majority of workers in a company want a union, they should get a union.

Whether we look at the United States or the European Union, those opposite are alone and isolated, out on an ideological limb. Their only ally in denying the basic rights of employees is the Chinese Communist Party, and I hope they enjoy the company.

It will be very interesting to see what amendments those opposite intend putting before the Senate. Mr Turnbull is trying to wriggle out of his commitment by claiming that the bill now before us goes beyond the mandate that the government was given in 2007, that we are somehow pulling a swifty on the Australian people by bringing in a bill that gives more to the unions and less to business than we promised. He hopes this allegation will give him the pretext he needs for opposing the bill, or at least a pretext for proposing wrecking amendments—amendments that go to the substance of the bill and not merely to the operation of the bill.

It takes a fair amount of gall for those opposite to accuse us of bringing in major pieces of legislation without a mandate. What mandate did the Howard government have for the 2006 Work Choices legislation? None whatever. They made no mention at the 2004 election of their secret plan to strip away workers’ rights and force all Australian workers onto individual contracts. They deceived the Australian electorate, just as they did in 1996 when Mr Howard said he would never ever introduce a GST. In contrast we have an absolutely cast iron mandate for this bill. This bill does not go beyond that mandate. The Deputy Prime Minister has been adamant that the bill will reflect the policy we took to the election, no more and no less.

Let me be specific about some of the provisions of the bill. Firstly, the bill does not reintroduce pattern bargaining. It is curious that those opposite should claim that it does. I thought those opposite were in favour of pattern bargaining. Why did I think this? Because under Work Choices, hundreds if not thousands of workers in various industries were presented with identical AWAs and told to sign them if they wanted to keep their jobs. The pretence that these agreements represented a unique interplay between the employer and the individual and that each agreement was tailored to individual circumstances is a fantasy. The reality is that each of those AWAs was a carbon copy of the next. This was pattern bargaining and the real supporters of pattern bargaining sit opposite.

Secondly, this bill does not allow the charging of bargaining fees to nonunion members—despite the claims of those opposite. Once again, there is a curious line of questioning from those opposite. Bargaining fees operate on the principle of user pays. This is a principle that those opposite have been happy to apply to almost every other circumstance they have encountered, whether it be VSU legislation or other issues of government services. So as far as those opposite are concerned, whether user pays is a good thing or not depends on who is paying whom for what service.

Thirdly, the bill does not return to the past on the issue of union right of entry to workplaces, which Senator Abetz pontificated about earlier today. In 2007 Labor promised that we would strike a balance between the right of employees to be represented by unions and the right of employers to run their businesses. We have delivered on that commitment. To gain access to a workplace, union representatives will have to hold a permit and give 24 hours notice. There are other conditions there that are important and that apply and will continue to apply and which are consistent with the commitments of the party and the Deputy Prime Minister.

The great majority of Australian trade unionists, like the great majority of Australian businesses, know that this bill represents a fair compromise between the conflicting interests that exist in the world of industrial relations. This bill was not designed to give either trade unions or business organisations everything they wanted. It was designed to enable Australian workers and Australian businesses to resolve workplace issues through good faith negotiations, and to come to legally binding agreements. Where an issue cannot be resolved, the bill creates an independent umpire, Fair Work Australia.

This bill provides fairness and security to Australian workers and their families, and flexibility to Australian businesses. It conforms absolutely to the mandate which we were given by the Australian people in 2007. Those opposite have no excuse, no pretext, no mandate to oppose this bill or to introduce wrecking amendments. Mr Turnbull recognised this in November when he gave his pledge not to oppose this bill. Now Mr Turnbull and those opposite want to wriggle out of that pledge, but they have no grounds for doing so, and the Australian people will judge them harshly if they block or obstruct this bill.