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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2317

Ms GILLARD (12:23 PM) —Having heard the contribution from the other side, it is time to get some rationality back into this debate on the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 . On the final sitting day of last year, during the matter of public importance debate, I said:

. . . at the end of 1998, we can, unhappily, say that we are seeing the birth of the Howard generation—out of higher education, out of work, and out of hope.

Clearly not content with creating a generation lacking genuine and fair access to opportunity, this government now wants to go further. This government now wants to make sure that those of the Howard generation who, against the odds, find work will be forced to accept low junior pay rates, irrespective of the skills they bring to the job.

The bill before the House is another example of the sort of bad public policy this government is hell-bent on pursuing in the industrial relations area. It is bad public policy for four reasons: it entrenches discrimination and moves away from international labour regulation standards; it will reduce the wages of working young people; it usurps the proper role of the industrial umpire; and it will do nothing to address the real causes of youth unemployment.

Let us look at each of these reasons in turn. First, let me deal with the move away from international labour regulation. In 1958 the International Labour Organisation established the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention. The ILO has a proud history as a specialised United Nations agency which seeks to promote social justice and human and labour rights. Founded in 1919, it is the only surviving major creation of the Treaty of Versailles which brought the League of Nations into being, and it became the first specialised agency of the UN in 1946. Within the UN system, the ILO has a tripartite structure which is unique and brings together workers and employers participating as equal partners with governments. It was, at its creation, an organisation truly before its time. Let me briefly quote from the preamble to the ILO's constitution. It states:

Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice;

And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required.

And the preamble later continues:

Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries;

The High Contracting Parties, moved by sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world, and with a view to attaining the objectives set forth in this Preamble, agree to the following Constitution of the International Labour Organisation.

Stripped of the quaint language, the purpose of the ILO is clear. In an era before `globalisation' was a word in everyday parlance, the founders of the ILO understood that allowing the oppression of working people in one nation must ultimately lead to the undermining of the conditions of workers in another nation. The ILO's founders, almost 80 years ago, understood something that this government does not—that international labour regulation is good for working people.

In ratifying and legislating on the basis of the discrimination convention and a number of other ILO conventions, the then Labor government understood something this government clearly does not—that one of the keys to the future for work forces like Australia's lies in the spread to every nation of appropriate labour regulation. Australians need the battle for global competitiveness to be played out on a field that increasingly has at its foundation some form of basic security for working people. We want to enjoy that security and, by helping others enjoy it as well, we will be taking a significant step in ensuring such security is not lost in a global competition downwards about the wages, conditions and security of working people.

If our government had the wit to grasp this point it would be promoting the adoption of ILO standards worldwide and leading by example by ensuring that Australia's laws complied with ILO conventions. Instead, this short-sighted government answers the clear call by Australian working people for increased security and workplace fairness as they face increased global pressures with yet another fundamental shift away from ILO standards—a bill that entrenches age discrimination.

In 1999, I would hope that even the members opposite would say it is completely unacceptable to discriminate in employment against a woman, just because she is a woman, or against an Aboriginal person, just because of that person's race. To any such proposition I trust we would hear, even from the other side, cries of shame. And yet this bill entrenches the ability to discriminate against a young person, a so-called junior, simply because of his or her age. The very essence of discrimination is that you impute to a class of persons characteristics you believe to be true of that class; that you languish in the intellectual bankruptcy of saying `All women are like this' or `All Aboriginal people are like that'; that you avoid the intellectual rigour of dealing with individuals and situations on their merits free of prejudice. That intellectual bankruptcy is precisely what this legislation is founded on. This legislation is founded on the belief that young people, simply because of their youth, are worse workers, less productive and less motivated than their adult counterparts. The intellectual task of dealing with competency levels, skills assessment and training questions is avoided.

For that very reason, and for the very reason that it entrenches discrimination and accepts prejudice against the young, this legislation should be rejected. For the very reason that it entrenches another move away from ILO standards and a regime of international labour regulation, this legislation should be rejected. Indeed, so blatant is the prejudice against young people inherit in this legislation that this bill permits the wages of young people who are already employed to be reduced. This bill contemplates that, for no other reason than age, the wages of a young person currently in employment could be cut. To take one example, the introduction of junior rates in the National Metal and Engineering On-Site Construction Award 1989 could result in weekly wage cuts of up to $274.67 per week.

The justification advanced by the government and its failed minister for workplace relations is that, unless junior rates are entrenched and indeed extended into awards which do not currently contain such rates, the wages of youth will rise and youth unemployment will worsen. Both of the assumptions inherent in this argument are flawed.

If this bill were consigned to the dustbin, where it belongs, what would happen is that the industrial umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, would be free to complete its inquiry into junior rates. If you take the time to study the material that has been placed before the commission by both employers and the union movement, it is immediately apparent that the industrial players and the commission itself are dealing with the issues in a sophisticated and considered way. No-one is putting forward the proposition that you simply abolish current junior rates, pay all currently employed juniors adult rates and then stand back and watch what happens.

The simplistic and insulting conclusion of the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business that the commission is mad, that the industrial parties are stupid and that you cannot trust them to do anything other than unrealistically bump up wages for young people should be rejected by this House by rejecting this bill. We should let the industrial umpire do its job rather than intervene on the basis of flawed assumptions, in particular the very flawed assumption that the Australian Industrial Relations Commis sion will do its job badly. So part 1 of the minister's justification for this bill falls away because there is no reason to assume that we must act to stop a pay explosion for young Australians.

Part 2 of the minister's argument, that without this bill youth unemployment will rise, is equally absurd. Indeed, in the second reading speech for this legislation, the minister showed how completely devoid he is of ideas on how to deal with youth unemployment when he said:

Quite frankly, this parliament should be dealing with policy issues designed to put more unemployed young people in jobs—such as the coalition's unfair dismissal reforms. . .

This is a minister who believes that the answer to youth unemployment is to make young people easier to sack and, through this bill, to try to cut their wages. Isn't it time that the minister woke up and realised that in 1999 we require more from him than cheap posturing on the republic? It is time to recognise that the real cause of youth unemployment in our society is the complete restructuring of our economy as a result of technological change and globalisation.

We no longer live in an age of secure employment in large enterprises that choose to offer young labour entrants low skill positions with a view to giving them a start on the road to a lifetime career. The days of the 16- or 17-year-old bank teller who goes on to become the bank manager, or the copy boy or girl who goes on to become the newspaper editor, are gone. Many of these entry level positions have been replaced as a result of technological change. The shape of our labour market has changed as a result of outsourcing, with employment increasingly with smaller specialist entities. The swing of employment to the service sector, the rise of new technology and the adoption of `just in time' work systems have all contributed to the creation of part-time, casual and occasional work.

The skill requirements of our economy and the need for lifelong education are changing the way we view the intersection between work and schooling. In this changed and changing world, the answer to youth unem ployment is not a wage system of the 1950s coupled with laws that sanction unfair dismissals. The answer is much harder. Australia needs a better resourced and more flexible education system that meets the needs of our young people and promotes higher retention rates. The fact that in my home state since 1992 the retention rate to year 12 has fallen from 77.9 per cent to 69 per cent is a disgrace.

Let me reiterate those figures in case you have not understood the importance of that move. We have seen an 8.9 per cent reduction in retention rates to year 12 in the period in which we have had the Kennett government in Victoria—that is, from 1992 on. When our competitors, particularly our Asian economic competitors, are increasingly focusing on schooling and looking at their retention rates to the completion of undergraduate qualifications as being the viable statistic for determining the efficacy of their education system—in the way in which Singapore, for example, can boast very high retention rates to the completion of an undergraduate qualification—we in Australia are going the other way. We are watching our school retention rates fall as more and more young Australians and, in the case of my home state, young Victorians are consigned to a future out of work and out of hope because they have not been able, in a properly resourced education sector, to complete the very basic step of secondary school.

The crisis in rural Victoria on the question of retention rates is even worse than that in metropolitan Melbourne. Indeed, in some rural areas like Gippsland, which have struggled with drought and other natural calamities, retention rates have plummeted as far as 57 per cent. Almost one in two young Australians is not completing secondary school. Against a backdrop like that, this government will try to tell us that the answer to youth unemployment lies in cutting wages and making young Australians easier to sack. It really is a very offensive conclusion given the magnitude of those statistics and the problems that we face in keeping young Australians and young Victorians in schools to give them some opportunity of a start in life.

Clearly, the answer to youth unemployment does not lie in this government's simplistic conclusions and posturing on the question of youth wages. It lies in part in sophisticated regional policy and in part in a better resourced education system. If we look at the question of sophisticated regional policy, we need to look at analysing the needs of not only rural and regional Australia but the varying regions within our cities.

Throughout my home state of Victoria youth unemployment, as measured by the number of 15- to 19-year-olds looking for full-time work, is too high at 31.2 per cent in the 12 months to December 1998. Within this generally dismal result, and it is truly a dismal result, there is a clear geographic pattern. Youth unemployment in every country region is higher than the city rate, peaking at 47.3 per cent in the Barwon-Western District. Youth unemployment in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, including my electorate, is higher in all cases than the youth unemployment rate recorded amongst the more affluent and educated populations of Melbourne's inner suburbs, particularly the inner eastern suburbs.

In my electorate we have a youth unemployment rate of 34.3 per cent, the third worst result of Melbourne's nine regions. It should be noted that the second worst youth unemployment rate is in the region adjacent to the one in which my electorate lies. This spatial distribution shows the fallacy of making a neoclassical economic assumption that fixing youth unemployment is about creating wage rates low enough so that the market will clear. The 15- to 19-year-old kids from Werribee in my electorate or from a country town like Hamilton are not participating in the same employment market as the kids from Toorak.

The needs of each area are very different. Sophisticated and detailed regional education and jobs strategies are required if we are to seriously address the youth unemployment problem. On those very basic issues this government has not even made a start. Its answers have been—as we have noted today—to try to get lower wages for young people, to try to make them easier to sack and, on all occasions, to underresource our education and higher education sectors, with higher education in particular having been the subject of the government's most vicious round of cuts in its last period of government.

At the outset, I said this bill was bad public policy and ought to be rejected. I urge the members on the other side of the House to seriously consider what on earth this bill is aimed at achieving, apart from a cheap headline for the minister on the question of youth wage rates. We should be rejecting this bill or perhaps having it withdrawn. We should allow the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to complete the task which it has been assigned, the task of inquiring fully and in a sophisticated fashion into the question of junior wage rates and how we can restructure the system to remove age discrimination but still have a system which addresses competency, skills and training issues. We should allow the commission to complete that task and, when it has completed that task, to make the decisions operative through industrial awards and agreements.

We should not accept a piece of legislation in 1999 which entrenches a discrimination as basic as age discrimination. We should not allow the government to get away with the sham of suggesting that this is in any way an answer to youth unemployment. We should move on from debating this very bad piece of public policy to dealing, hopefully, with the real issues that I have raised which are affecting the employment of young Australians as we stand here today.