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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 82

Dr LAWRENCE (5:43 PM) —Back in February the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said in anticipation of the government’s industrial relations onslaught:

... an emphasis on fairness only leads to regulatory excess and inefficiency.

That is, of course, a view that put him in lock step with the big business lobby. But then, as the time came to electrify Frankenstein’s monster, some bright spark at Colmar Brunton, or perhaps at Jackson Wells Morris, realised that fairness is one of the country’s fundamental values. Now, $150,000 of second-rate propaganda later, which had to be pulped to make way for some first-rate spin, we see the word ‘fairness’—the word, mind you, not the principle, because that is the beauty of spin-doctoring—slapped all over this piece of legislation and filling page after page of newspapers all across the country. Never have so many packets of fish and chips been wrapped in so much obscenely expensive claptrap. I should say that it is hilarious to hear the government justify this obscenely expensive propaganda blitz as a response to the unions’ so-called fear campaign. A fear campaign? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

In a recent interview, the Prime Minister went so far as to blame the huge unpopularity of the government’s IR vendetta on what he called ‘this terrible’—but, I must say, honestly funded and comparatively small—‘fear campaign’. However, a lot of it—indeed, all of it, as far as I can see—has now proved all too accurate. This accusation, it must be said, has come from the ‘High Emperor of Fear Campaigns’, the ‘Grand Vizier of Dog Whistlers’. This is from the same government that told the Australian people that we were to be flooded by refugees who were prepared to throw their children into the ocean and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that were trained in our direction—fear and lies, fear and loathing. Here we are, effectively ambushed by two hugely significant and sensitive pieces of legislation. Funny timing, isn’t it. Here we have terror laws to keep the national security profile nice and high as a form of inoculation against the unpopularity of the government’s IR vendetta. In a year’s time, the media will probably call it an act of political genius—but we know what it is.

As well as dealing with the general provisions of the bill, I want to draw attention to two particular areas of concern: the adverse effects on our system of government and the punishing consequences for women and other low-paid workers. I have to say that this looks like the agenda of a government in decline taking its last opportunity to settle some longstanding ideological scores. Instead of addressing the real problems in our economy, it is pursuing a hit parade of old political targets: student organisations, trade unions, Labor state governments, the Senate and so on. If the Constitution stands in the way, too bad.

Australia should operate under a federal constitutional democracy. I should not have to remind the government or the House that the key elements of such a democracy are federalism, which distributes power and provides a critical balance between the federal government and the governments of the states and territories; the parliamentary check on executive power, which is a system that ought to provide transparency of decision making, freedom of debate and the opportunity to scrutinise the government of the day; and an independent bureaucracy, with departments that do not function as spruikers and war chests for party-political objectives.

Yet, with this bill, we see the Howard government continuing to undermine all these aspects of our democracy—and not for the first time. First, we see departmental funds, on a massive scale and without parliamentary approval, being used to promote the Liberal Party’s policy in advance of the detail of that policy. The fact that the campaign’s overwhelming purpose is propaganda and not the provision of essential information is, of course, proved by the ‘fairness’ fiasco: the pulping of documents.

Second, despite the brief extension of time tonight and tomorrow night, we see debate on this and other bills being rushed, gagged and guillotined—as no doubt it will be. This is occurring despite the fact that the Howard government has a bicameral majority. What is it so afraid of: of debating its own cause? Is it so bad that the government cannot stand to have a fair and open argument about it? The government has already blown $50 million on puffery and the game still is not stacked enough for its liking? I personally think there are more than enough sporting analogies in Australian public debate but, if there were ever a case of rigging a fixed game, here it is.

Finally, and perhaps more seriously, there is the centralist, undemocratic and possibly unconstitutional aspect of the government’s IR proposal. This vendetta—and that is what it is—is not just against unions and the weakest members of the labour market; it is also against the independent powers of state and territory governments. It is an attack on federalism, which is perhaps the single most important structural feature of Australian democracy. It is part of an accelerating centralism that is now characteristic of this administration. It is a ripping up of the Constitution without taking it to a referendum of the people. Why is this happening? As far as I can see, not one of these manoeuvres is in the national interest. How is the national interest served by the unfettered, unexamined ideological obsessions of a decadent and now power-drunk government? It is a good question. Perhaps the people at Colmar Brunton or Jackson Wells Morris could get on to it.

If we were to take the government at its word—and, believe me, this is only hypothetical, for who would?—if we could suspend disbelief for a minute and take the government at its word, we might have expected it to support choice, flexibility and diversity. These are small-l liberal values after all—my own father’s creed. But this legislation is about inflicting a monolithic, inflexible, unaccountable and unfair system on the whole of Australia.

On the question of the IR vendetta, and specifically on the antifederal and undemocratic nature of that vendetta, constitutional lawyer—and genuine conservative—Greg Craven wrote last week:

... however much Canberra may resist the notion, there is not one undifferentiated Australian labour market. Policy and market needs in booming resource-rich Perth may be very different from those in ... Adelaide. Yet the Andrews proposals will ensure that a state government has the same practical capacity to influence the labour market as to set the price of saucers on Neptune.

We know that this government regards ideology as some kind of Latin word for communism, but it is more than passing strange to see it trampling its own ideology in pursuit of its ideological enemies. As Craven says:

Fundamentally, federalism is the philosophy of Liberal conservatism.

I put in brackets: it used to be—

It holds that untrammelled Government power is inherently dangerous. In particular we must not allow large agglomerations of central power to crush local difference, individuality and innovation. To this end, federalism safeguards liberty by dividing power between the commonwealth and the states. It balances power by exposing every significant issue to debate in multiple political arenas and debating chambers.

Well, if you are lucky in Australia in the 21st century. There are very real dangers inherent in the government’s plan to hijack the corporations power for the purposes of its IR proposals when it knows that the existing power contained in the conciliation and arbitration clause simply will not stretch to authorise the radical changes that it has in mind.

While on the issue of the federal government, as a Western Australian member of this parliament I want to draw attention to the experiment that was carried out on the people of Western Australia by another bunch of reactionaries. In Western Australia, some of the madness that the Howard government is proposing was road-tested under the Court government. Indeed, despite the failure of that experiment, this legislation is its ugly progeny.

In a submission to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee, the WA government reported independent research into the effects of the Court government’s failed IR experiment. It examined the impact of individual workplace agreements across four industries that represented a significant proportion of those that had been registered. The key findings of the report with regard to the agreements analysed were that 74 per cent of them provided no weekend penalty rates of pay, 67 per cent provided no overtime rates of pay and 56 per cent provided an ordinary rate of pay below the award rate. These are all things that we have been told are protected by law in this legislation, although it is quite clear that they are not.

The government’s sloganeering for its IR changes includes the claim that they will produce higher wages. Let us check the facts again from Western Australia. Of the individual workplace agreements surveyed in the independent report, 56 per cent paid employees less than the relevant award. A recent ABS report notes that WA employees on individual workplace agreements received $65 per week less than those on certified agreements. What is more, the average weekly earnings for those employees on individual agreements in the last two years of the program declined by $212. That does not sound like higher wages to me. I am sure it does not sound like higher wages to anyone listening. The right-wing commentators, the self-anointed Howard-lovers, accuse those who oppose this legislation as being peddlers of doom. But here is a labour market that has been to the dark side. The facts stare you in the face. The evidence is there. We have had the natural experiment.

Women lost most under this regime in Western Australia, and the gender wage gap really blew out. I want to turn to the specific effects of this legislation on women. Many Australian women’s working lives have become a lot more difficult under this government already and are likely to get much worse under these proposals. Despite opinions to the contrary, the proportion of women in full-time employment actually has not increased in 30 years, and the majority of women still work in a range of low-paid, part-time and precarious jobs. And our participation rate is low by international standards. Over the last decade women, like men, have also experienced a decline in standard hours and a rise in part-time hours. Over the same period there has been a rapid increase in the numbers in casual employment, accounting for 59 per cent of the part-time jobs that women hold, a proportion that has been steadily rising.

Many women in part-time and often casual jobs will testify that the jobs are, to say the least, less than ideal. Despite the fact that part-time work has often been touted as the ideal way of reconciling work and family responsibilities for women, there is a substantial downside to such employment. Many people accept reduced hours because they cannot find suitable full-time employment, in which case it is clearly a form of underemployment. They do not always use the skills that they already have. In other cases, women opt for part-time work because adequate and affordable child care is simply not available—and that problem is getting worse by the day. A lot of part-time and casual work is not structured to meet the family’s needs but rather to suit the employer. That is the case right now. Many women report an increase in unsociable hours, split shifts and the like, adding to their problems rather than diminishing them. These problems will be seriously exacerbated by this legislation.

Even Howard confidante Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward says that the government’s package will lead to worse working conditions for women in already low-paid jobs. She is warning the government of these consequences. They are not, of course, listening. It will inevitably force more women to trade off leave and accept hours and conditions which suit the employer or to lose their job. As several specialists in the tax and IR field have already warned, the net result of these laws and the extortionate marginal tax rates which such workers face might well force a retreat of married women from the labour market altogether. Why, after all, place your family at risk, sacrificing leave and family time, working longer hours for less money?

The government seems to operate on the view that was prevalent when I was growing up: that women’s work is for pin money, so it will not matter if the rate for low-paid workers—mostly women—actually falls. But times have changed—although the Prime Minister appears reluctant to recognise this—and it does matter. The second income is what allows many families to cope financially, keeping them out of poverty. But at the rate the government is going they will be carefully calculating that they may be better off having one partner stay at home—no tax bill, no child-care costs, and generous family tax benefits. Perhaps we will see Howard’s white picket fence after all, and the reduction in the purchase of services, the GDP and the tax base as results that will follow when women do the work for themselves. Of course, at the same time they will ruin their chances at financial independence as they lose contact with the job market. Meanwhile, single parents are to be forced into the labour market, facing severe penalties for failure to find work. As my young friends would say, ‘Go figure.’

We already know that the move away from centralised and collective wage agreements produces poorer outcomes for women. Existing industrial relations policies have actually led to deterioration in the wages of some women. The ABS reported earlier this year that women on individual agreements went backwards. As I said earlier, this was also the experience in Western Australia.

I think we would do well to remember in this place that we are very privileged in the work we do. As Galbraith has often pointed out, much work is repetitive and demeaning. The use of the word ‘work’ by the ‘contented classes’, as he calls them, to describe our highly paid, creative and self-fulfilling activities in the same breath as the low-paid and oppressive chores of the working poor is a fraud of the first order. Galbraith argues that it is in fact the inherently boring and tedious nature of work which seems to many people precisely the reason that one is paid to do it. It is what you definitely would not do if you were not being paid. Sadly, women are still disproportionately represented in sectors of the economy where job satisfaction is low and the pay equally so.

Some of you may have read Elisabeth Wynhausen’s recent account of her experiences in what she called ‘the wrong end’ of the job market. She reminds us that for many Australian women—and men—the work experience is anything but rewarding. Wynhausen took, as she called it, a ‘self-funded sabbatical on the breadline’. Her starting point was an understanding that the view of society you get from newspaper offices—she was a journalist—or indeed from this place, or from Kirribilli, for that matter, ‘is as indistinct as the view of the street from the highest floor of a city building’. She sought to experience first-hand the other side of the so-called miracle economy.

Wynhausen takes us through half a dozen low-paid and so-called unskilled jobs, from working in the dining room of an exclusive Sydney club to packing eggs in rural NSW. She worked in a big retail chain and a nursing home and she cleaned offices. What struck her most, apart from the low pay, was that all the jobs had one thing in common. ‘I no sooner took them on’, she said, ‘than I, like my fellow employees, seemed to be rendered invisible.’ She was no longer consulted about schedules or given explanations about the work to be done and was treated with disrespect.

An atmosphere of intimidation and powerlessness pervaded most of the work environments—and these were selected pretty much at random. Workers believed that if they stood up for themselves they would be sacked—and they were. Working hours and rosters were extended without consultation; agreed days off were simply removed. The high turnover in many of the workplaces meant that there was little satisfying social contact between the workers. The egg-packing factory, Wynhausen found, was grim and rancorous and, as she saw it, no-one appeared to go home feeling they had done a good day’s work. When she asked one of the women whether the people at the factory took pride in what they did, she was bluntly told, ‘You just do it like a robot.’ This is a foretaste of the future for many more Australian workers.

The minister at the table, the member for Parkes, might smile, but he would do well to go into some of these places and actually live the lives that some of these people do, as Elisabeth Wynhausen was prepared to do. That is where the Howard government wants to take the workers of Australia—lower wages, fewer conditions, less security. The ministers on the other side will never see it; they will never know about it. They will maybe see a few statistics but they will not know the experience of these people. At a time of economic growth, the Howard government wants to gouge money and conditions out of Australian workers and transfer them to business owners and shareholders, from wages to profit, although the profit share is already at a historical high. As the WA submission noted:

The Western Australian experience clearly demonstrates that in the absence of an adequate safety net of entitlements in individual agreement making, the door is wide open for employers to substantially reduce wages and conditions.

That is the experience; those are the results. And what has happened since the IR madness of the Court government was repealed? Was there a lagging economy, low productivity or industrial chaos? No—in fact, there was exactly the opposite of this gloomy campaign that we hear from this government. The economy in Western Australia is one of the country’s most robust. The unemployment levels in WA lead the nation.

This government’s proposals are doctrinaire, unfair, divisive and not justified by the evidence. They bring no economic or social benefit. In fact, as I have indicated, in key areas—and many that others will canvass—they do harm. They tear up a longstanding contract with the Australian people, that all should have a fair share in economic growth and prosperity, that they should be protected from unscrupulous and avaricious employers and that the raison d’etre of the arbitration system in Australia is to ameliorate the power imbalance inherent in the individual employment relationship—the idea that they are standing equal in that bargain is ridiculous. Australians believe that they should have a say in their pay and conditions—selling your labour is not like selling soap powder; it is fundamental to human dignity and our sense of worth. Australians also think that they can make use of the services of unions to advance their wellbeing—and that will be made incredibly difficult under this legislation—and that they can work together with other workers to achieve satisfactory outcomes in their workplaces— (Time expired)