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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3946

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (17:01): It is a pleasure to be here and to rise to oppose the bill today. I was very interested to hear the previous speaker refer to 'inflated wages' because that really betrayed, for everyone to hear, the coalition's agenda when it comes to industrial relations laws. They have been after mechanisms to lower everyone's wages for a very, very long time.

I would like to the remind the House what happened back in 1993. It was a very important year for a range of reasons. Weezer's Blue album had been released. You might be too young to remember that, Deputy Speaker Vasta. It was a great album. Twenty years later Weezer did an anniversary tour of the Blue album. It was great. Unfortunately, 20 years later the coalition are still singing the same song about industrial relations that they were singing back in 1993 as well, which is much less pleasing to the ear, unfortunately.

Back in 1993 what was happening in industrial relations is that Paul Keating's visionary government was changing the way that industrial relations was conducted in this country. He brought about reforms where we could see workers and employers negotiating together on pay and conditions in the workplace. These enterprise bargaining reforms were important for our economy here in Australia.

At the same time, what was the coalition doing? John Howard and John Hewson were shopping around Fightback! What was part of the approach of Fightback! to the Australian economy? It was lowering wages. John Howard's agenda was to lower wages. I think it is uncontroversial to say that. Fightback! was so intent on lowering wages that it included a policy whereby young people would get $3 or $4 an hour for work. Clearly there was an agenda back then to lower wages.

I draw the House's attention to some comments made at the time by Professor John Buchanan, who talked about the move to lower paid jobs through the policy settings in Fightback! He said:

Low wages are often associated with low skill jobs. A vicious cycle can develop where low wages subsidise inefficient, low productivity jobs giving management no incentive to increase competition on the basis of quality and overall firm level productivity. Some of the most troubling analysis of the UK experience indicates that this could be one of the lasting legacies of the Conservatives' rule.

It is no less the case here in Australia.

Labor, on the other hand, do not share the coalition's low-wage agenda. We do not want to be in a race to the bottom. We want to have good jobs and decent wages here in Australia for all Australian workers. That is why the right balance was struck in 1993 with enterprise bargaining.

A few short years later as I left high school and voted for the first time in 1996 my vote was not enough to elect a Labor government. That was unfortunate for this country because instead we got a Howard coalition government. The Hon. John Howard, the former Prime Minister, had had an agenda for a very long time to lower wages in this country. He thought he finally had his opportunity. At that time the then Prime Minister wanted to introduce individual agreements that would allow for pay and conditions to be stripped away, undercutting of award conditions, undercutting of collective agreement conditions and lower wages for Australian workers. At the time, because he did not have control of the Senate, he was forced to make some compromises. So he did not get his full agenda up at that time. Instead, he introduced AWAs, Australian workplace agreements. It was a funny name for things that were basically imposed on working people. There was very little 'agreed' about them. But, nonetheless, that was the name they were given. AWAs were agreements in name but not in reality whereby employers could impose lower wages and conditions on working people. But there was what was called a no-disadvantage test. That was administered through an independent tribunal.

That did not quench the thirst of the former Prime Minister and the coalition for lower wages. You will recall that in 2005 the coalition gained control of the Senate. What did we see?

We saw Work Choices. Work Choices took effect in March 2006 and had a clear agenda of lowering wages. It was radical workplace law. I have with me an article from the time by Misha Schubert, a journalist, who described it as 'Howard's workplace revolution'. The lead was:

Millions of Australians will face new conditions of employment as the Prime Minister realises his vision for radical industrial relations reform.

And radical it was. We are talking about laws that changed the face of industrial relations here in this country to take away people's rights to bargain collectively for good, decent and fair wages and to allow the low-wage agenda to be imposed on people through the mechanism of individual agreements. Individual agreements were the most radical component of those Work Choices laws. There is an old saying—and I am sure you have heard of it, Mr Deputy Speaker—'divide and conquer'. That is what individual agreements are for. Those new individual agreements—which are still called AWAs, even though there was nothing really much about them that relied on agreement—did not have the no-disadvantage test, because Mr Howard had never wanted the no-disadvantage test. The coalition had never wanted the no-disadvantage test. They wanted an imaginary world where an employee had equal bargaining power with an employer and could freely negotiate his or her own conditions, without having any safety nets, without having any award system or collective agreements behind them. But, unfortunately for the coalition and fortunately for the Australian people, people were not fooled by the Howard government agenda on Work Choices. People stood up and spoke out.

When we saw situations where people were offered 'take it or leave it' individual so-called agreements that lowered their pay, that lowered their conditions, people fought back—and it was a real fight back, not a John Hewson 1993 Fightback!— through the Your Rights at Work campaign, and it is easy to see why. Those AWAs made under Work Choices made people worse off. It is the same agenda today—the agenda to lower wages, to get rid of penalty rates, to strip away conditions. There was research done and analysis produced from documents released by the coalition government. This research showed that 63 per cent of those AWAs abolished penalty rates; 64 per cent axed leave loadings; 51 per cent cut overtime pay; 46 per cent cut holiday pay; 40 per cent reduced rest breaks; 52 per cent abolished shiftwork loadings; one in six dropped all award conditions, leaving only the five minimum; and one in five provided no pay increase for the life of the agreement, which could last up to five years. So you can see that Mr Howard had got his way. He got his radical industrial relations reforms that would push down wages for a lower wage economy. That is the low road; it is not the high road.

Labor believes in the high road. We want good jobs, with decent wages and conditions. That is why there was such a strong call from Labor at the time to get rid of Work Choices and that is why there was such a strong call from the working people of this nation to get rid of Work Choices. It forced Mr Abbott to refer to Work Choices as 'dead, buried and cremated' in subsequent years. Unfortunately, we are seeing in the bill that we are discussing today clear evidence that those words were inaccurate. Unfortunately, Work Choices is not dead, buried and cremated. What is happening here is that the coalition has learned not to be upfront with the Australian people about their low-wage agenda. The coalition is trying to do this by stealth, and so you are seeing the changes to what are known as individual flexibility agreements being brought about by this bill. This is part of the reason why I am opposing it.

The coalition has never really wanted employees to be able to bargain for their conditions. If you want proof of that, look at the employer greenfields agreements under Work Choices. Never has a document been so misnamed as an 'employer greenfields agreement'. Never before has the law recognised an agreement with oneself, which is what the employer greenfields agreement was. You were talking about a situation where, before a project started, the employer called a meeting with itself. The meeting went something like this: 'Hello, employer. I would like to make an agreement with myself. Certainly, employer. What are your terms? They are these. Let's sign it, then.' It is an agreement with oneself. It was effectively the employer being table to dictate to the new employees what the conditions would be. That was an employer greenfields agreement. This is the coalition's agenda. It is to allow employers to lower wages and place downward pressure on wages. This is not something that Labor will ever stand for, and this is why, as I say, I am so disappointed to see the changes to individual flexibility agreements that are being brought forward through this bill.

Individual flexibility agreements are something that were brought in for genuine flexibility—the flexibility needed to be able to make agreements to go and pick up your kids from school or to discharge caring responsibilities towards an elderly parent or relative. But the changes that are being brought about in this bill will allow individual flexibility agreements to be used to change and alter pay and conditions. We are seeing an attempt to characterise this as the implementation of a recommendation from the Fair Work review panel. But, of course, as my colleague the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations said today in addressing this bill: 'Under the guise of implementing a recommendation of the Fair Work review expert panel, the government is unreasonably proposing that a key safeguard be abandoned when it comes to what can be traded away through an individual flexibility agreement.' The relevant recommendation was that you could trade away money benefits under an agreement for non-money benefits under an individual flexibility agreement. But what the expert panel recommended was that the money that you were trading away had to be relatively insignificant and that the benefit, the non-money benefit, had to be proportionate. Those words, unfortunately, do not appear in the bill. They are not included. Those safeguards are not included. So this is not the implementation of a recommendation from the review panel but something more sinister.

There is a no-disadvantage test in the bill. But what is included in this bill is an attempt to circumvent that no-disadvantage test, to make it basically meaningless by a couple of means. Firstly, there is the ability to trade off money and conditions for non-money benefits, without the safeguards that the money you are trading off has to be relatively insignificant and that the non-money benefit has to be proportionate. The second thing that is being done to help unscrupulous employers—most employers are not, but unfortunately some are in my experience—is imposing difficulties for employees to prove that the agreement is unfair. There is a new requirement that the employee will have to say in the individual flexibility agreement that they believe that it is fair and meets that test. Unfortunately, that assumes that the employee lives in a world where they have as much power as their boss. It is just not my experience. If you are a cleaner and your boss calls you in, hands you an agreement and says, 'If you want those extra shifts, this is the agreement you have to sign,' you may not have the English language skills to clearly understand the effect of what you are signing and, even if you do, you are not going to have any practical choice. You do not have the power to have any practical choice.

When they can circumvent no-disadvantage test and when there are no safeguards in place of the sort that ought to be included to implement the expert panel recommendation that is when people can, for practical purposes, be forced into these individual agreements. As we have already seen, they can cut money benefits and conditions in return for non-money benefits that do not have to be proportionate—and they can be significant money benefits that are cut and traded away in these agreements. I oppose this bill. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the indulgence.