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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 124

Mrs ELLIOT (8:45 PM) —I rise to speak in opposition to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, as I vehemently oppose this bill and the extreme effects it will have on Australian families. These proposals are indeed extreme. They are unfair and they will be very divisive to our society. They bring with them no economic or social benefit. Let us have a look at what these changes will mean.

These changes will strip workers of their rights and conditions. They will slash wages. They will leave the most vulnerable, including the unemployed, the young, the old, single parents and the unskilled, on their own to negotiate their conditions with big bosses and employers who hold all the cards.

These changes not only undermine the living standards of working families; they attack the very heart of what it means to be Australian—very important ideals like everyone deserving a fair go, treating people with civility and dignity, ensuring that safety nets and independent umpires look after those most vulnerable in our society and protecting working conditions so that employment supports the growth and strength of family and community life rather than undermining it.

This extreme reform is not the vision we should have for Australia. It is not the vision we should have for young Australians who are just starting out and entering the work force. It is certainly not the vision I have for the people living in my electorate of Richmond. And I certainly know that it is not the vision of all the local mums and dads, grandparents, teachers, community groups and young people who live there—the people who live in Tweed Heads, Murwillumbah, Kingscliff, Mullumbimby, Byron Bay, Lennox Head, Alstonville and all the other towns, villages, farms and communities in between. What they want for Australians are decent jobs and workplaces that do not exploit them but challenge, reward and protect them.

These unnecessary changes perfectly exemplify the Howard government’s leadership style that we have come to know so well after nine very long years: mean, bullying, short-sighted and out of touch. Everything about these changes, from their conception to delivery—every process, every detail—is steeped in the deceit and propaganda that is so characteristic of this untrustworthy government. What we are seeing is extreme reform being introduced at a breakneck speed without proper time for examination and debate, without proper public and expert scrutiny, without comprehensive economic modelling, without a family impact statement, without evidence of its need or likely effectiveness, with no guarantees that workers will not be worse off—all underpinned by a $55 million propaganda campaign.

After the last election we saw the Howard government gain control of the Senate. At that time we all watched the Prime Minister, with a Cheshire cat grin, assure the Australian people that he would not abuse his control of the Senate—‘Trust me,’ he said to everyone. The Prime Minister has done nothing but exploit his control of the Senate and push through legislation unsupported by the Australian public. If forcing the sale of Telstra when over 70 per cent of people oppose it is not an abuse of power then I do not know what is.

Those same words—‘Trust me’—have been getting an incredible workout recently by the Prime Minister. When asked for a guarantee that no worker will be worse off under the proposed changes, what do we hear? ‘Trust me; trust my record.’ Let us look at that record. The record is that the Howard government has opposed every minimum wage increase since 1996. If the government’s submissions to the Industrial Relations Commission had been agreed to by the commission, the minimum wage since the Howard government came to office would have been $50 a week, or $2,600 a year, less. So, when the Prime Minister says that real wages have risen since his government has been in power, what he does not tell you is that this is despite him, not because of him.

The Howard government refuses to guarantee that no worker will be worse off precisely because that is the policy objective of these changes. The sad and frightening truth is that the Prime Minister wants us to compete with low-wage economies like China and India by reducing the minimum wage in real terms. By abolishing the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, which sets the minimum wage, the government will effectively get through the back door what it has not been able to get through the front door: bringing down real wages.

It is not just the living standards of workers that will be affected by these changes. Aged pensioners are also at risk. The age pension is currently calculated at 25 per cent of total male average weekly earnings. So, if real wages go down, or fail to increase, this will have a flow-on effect on the pension. There are about 13,000 aged pensioners in my electorate, and many of those are just scraping by week by week. They will not be able to afford a cut in their income, nor will they be able to survive if their pensions are not increased as the cost of living goes up.

In relation to wage setting, in the current Workplace Relations Act 1996 we find that the idea of fairness is explicit in section 88B—‘the need to provide fair minimum standards’. In contrast, the government’s legislation, in section 7J on page 29 of the bill, refers to the Fair Pay Commission’s wage-setting parameters—and there is no reference to fairness in that section. The government spent $55 million on an advertising campaign calling their changes ‘fair’, but in actual fact they have specifically taken fairness out of the wage-fixing criteria.

What this government will do is abolish the independent wage umpire and replace it with a non-independent Fair Pay Commission that will happily do the government’s bidding and allow real wages to fall, becoming dangerously unfair for families who are already struggling to make ends meet. The black irony is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—just tell everyone you are doing the exact opposite of what you are actually doing: make unfair changes but call them ‘fair’; replace the independent umpire that sets fair pay with a non-independent body and call it the ‘Fair Pay Commission’; change the legislation to remove workers protections and describe it as ‘protected by law’; take away people’s choices at work and call it ‘Work Choice’.

The truth is that these changes will take away workers’ choices. This can be the only outcome when we give employers the power to unilaterally determine the pay and employment conditions of their employees, free from the input of unions, collective bargaining, awards, industrial tribunals and workers themselves. This can be the only outcome when unfair dismissal protections are removed, leaving millions of people across 98 per cent of workplaces at risk and unprotected. By the time these laws are fully implemented there will be only five minimum conditions of employment underpinning the labour market. To get more than five minimum standards, the government wants people to negotiate individual contracts—AWAs—with their employers. Penalty rates for weekend and shift work, overtime allowances, career structures, public holidays, redundancy pay, meal breaks and a host of other award conditions will be up for grabs. We all know what that means: sacrifice your conditions or sacrifice your job. There is no negotiation. Employees will have no say. New employees can be made to sign an AWA just to get a job. Employees on collective agreements can be paid less or denied promotion or other benefits, in order to force them onto an AWA. It sounds outrageous, and it is outrageous—and the Howard government is going to make it legal!

Under these outrageous new laws, where will the real choice be for a teenager in an area of high youth unemployment? Where will the real choice be for a retrenched 50-year-old who is desperate to get back into the work force? Where will the real choice be for a single mum with limited skills and training who is being forced back into the workplace under the welfare reforms? The Prime Minister has become so out of touch: he says there is a level playing field, and he thinks there is. His defence has been that workers will be protected from exploitation under their AWAs because we are living in a workers’ market. But the Prime Minister’s utopian workers’ market exists only in very privileged electorates like his own. The unemployment rate in my electorate of Richmond has been rising and is currently standing at 9.8 per cent. No local in their right mind would describe the situation in Richmond as a workers’ market.

The reality is that unemployed people will face a choice between an unfair work contract and unemployment, and workers in Richmond will be completely open to exploitation. Since last year’s election the people of Richmond have been forced to cop broken promises on interest rates and the Medicare safety net, and they are now being forced to pay the highest petrol prices Australia has ever known. Now the Howard government is putting the final nail in the coffin for families by introducing an extreme industrial relations package that will slash their wages and take away their conditions.

I am particularly concerned for young Australians as they enter the work force. They will be particularly vulnerable under this new system. Even the out of touch Howard government realises that young people do not have the same bargaining power as employers. Under Work Choices, employees under the age of 18 will need the consent of a parent or guardian before they sign an AWA. The unemployment rate amongst young people in the Richmond electorate is over 30 per cent, so what real choice will young workers and their parents have when it comes to negotiating work conditions?

A recently published survey reveals that young workers are already being exploited at work. The survey found that 44 per cent of the sample had been pressured to work overtime without pay, 51 per cent had been pressured to work while sick and 71 per cent had been pressured to work through meal breaks. The survey also showed that 22 per cent of participants felt they had been fired for reasons they thought were unfair, 17 per cent said that they had been fired or lost shifts after turning a year older and 46 per cent said that they had been bullied at work. Having parents approve AWAs will not protect young people from exploitation. This government clearly has no idea how hard it is for young people to start their careers and get their first jobs, particularly in regional areas like Richmond where youth unemployment is so high—over 30 per cent.

So here we are in the middle of a national skills crisis and this government, which has consistently failed to invest in vocational education and training to skill up young people and which already views young employees as disposable, is now about to bring in extreme changes to our industrial relations system. These are changes that will further disadvantage young Australians as they venture into the workplace for the first time. Is this how we build a bright enthusiastic new generation of workers—by using and exploiting them to increase the profits of a few?

One principle that is germane to life in a democratic society is that when governments want to institute significant change there is an expectation that an economic or social case is made out to explain why such change is necessary in the public and national interest. To date the government has been unable to mount a persuasive economic argument, let alone a compelling social argument, for its proposed changes. All we have from the government is a $55 million propaganda campaign which is not based on any real analysis of whether the proposed changes will benefit Australia economically or socially—in fact evidence from Treasury officials during Senate estimates suggests that secret economic modelling of the government’s IR proposals failed to back up its claims of more jobs and higher wages.

The government has been caught out: through the Senate estimates process we know that economic modelling was prepared on the macroeconomic impacts of the workplace proposal under cabinet consideration. The modelling has not been released publicly and, according to officials, it is not likely ever to be released. The modelling reached few specific conclusions about the effect of the proposals on employment and wages. No modelling has been undertaken since the original cabinet advice was provided. The decision to hide the initial modelling and to not commission further modelling shows a lack of confidence that further modelling would back up the government’s claims. We now know that the Treasurer’s guarantee that improved industrial relations would lead to a stronger economy, producing more jobs and higher wages, is not based on a single shred of evidence from Treasury. Couple this with the independent report card by 17 leading Australian academics, led by the University of Sydney’s Professor Russell Lansbury. It concluded that the government’s changes were likely to have no positive impact on economic productivity or jobs growth.

This is at the national level. We need to also consider potential negative impacts on local economies. My seat of Richmond is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Australia. Every year thousands of holiday-makers travel to enjoy our beautiful beaches—like those at Byron Bay, Brunswick Heads, Kingscliff and Tweed Heads—and the surrounding hinterland. Tourism is one of Richmond’s most important industries, and many local businesses depend upon the tourist dollar. Local businesses are telling me that they are very concerned that, under the Howard government’s new system, people will be forced to trade away their holidays, which will ultimately reduce the annual tourist migration to our area. Work Choices threatens not only the Australian way of life and holidays at the beach with the kids but also our robust and lucrative domestic tourist industry.

We have a government that is willing to take the lazy way of building the economy. It has embraced a plan to deliver extraordinary workplace power to employers and diminish the rights of every Australian employee. By this, it is intended that the market will price labour more efficiently. Is this really the best the government can come up with to boost international competitiveness—to compete with China and India on labour costs?

While there is no evidence to support the claim that Work Choices will create more jobs, we can be sure that the changes will have a negative impact on fairness in our society and in our nation’s workplaces. In fact, just about everyone—other than the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the very stoic Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—is concerned about the impact of these changes. These people include economists, academics and religious leaders and groups including the Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations; the National Council of Churches; His Eminence Cardinal Pell; the new Primate of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Aspinall from Brisbane; and Dr Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. They also include a range of community groups and welfare organisations, including the Australian Council of Social Service. Along with all these other individuals, groups and organisations, I too am very worried about these extreme changes and how they will hurt the people of Richmond. That is why I oppose this bill.

We Australians have an international reputation for being hard workers. We are internationally envied for our way of life, our commitment to family and community and our enjoyment of life. We are loved for our principle of giving people a fair go. These might just be stereotypes, but I think that just about every Australian would say there is an intrinsic truth to them. For over a century, Australians have fought hard for the rights that the Howard government now wants to take away. Australians are right to fear these changes and what they will do to the society that we have forged for ourselves. Australians deserve so much better than a government which views them as workhorses, there to be exploited to build an economy that they will never personally benefit from.

The Howard government is trying to sell this nightmare to us dressed up as the great Australian dream. Instead, Australians deserve a government that believes in strengthening the economy by investing in the skills, education and training of our work force, by being a smart and great trading nation and by investing in infrastructure, innovation, research and development. These are the things that will create a future that is worthy of this great nation: one that is bright, fair and inspirational.