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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12420

Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) (6:34 PM) —It is with great pride that I add my voice to the crescendo of the proud men and women of the class of 2007 that have risen to speak on the Fair Work Bill 2008, joining also my other colleagues who fought the good fight in this place against Work Choices during those dark Howard years. It was this class of 2007 that was effectively swept into this place on the back of the public’s anger and disappointment with the previous government in relation to the Work Choices legislation. They asked us to come into this place and the people of Eden-Monaro asked me to come into this place to put Work Choices to the sword. Madam Deputy Speaker, we have our sword in this Fair Work Bill, our Excalibur, and we are about to wield it and it will be a great day for the country when Work Choices is dead.

The public were angry and there were several reasons why they were angry. Firstly, they were ambushed after the 2004 election, when no mention was made of any proposal to conduct a root and branch reform of our industrial relations system which would completely reverse the advances and progression that had been achieved over many years of struggle and sacrifice on the part of many working men and women of Australia and, of course, the goodwill of employers who recognised that productivity was based upon working as a team.

How did this happen? Effectively over the Howard years we saw an extreme right-wing element—a nasty right-wing element—gradually, creepingly annexing the Liberal Party over those years. Fine men and women, true liberals, were gradually weeded out of the Liberal Party, but it was not until the coalition obtained control of the Senate that that nasty right-wing element was unleashed and we saw the full revelation of its ideological bent. That presence, that ideological bent, is still there today and that is why we need to remain eternally vigilant.

Australians do not like extremes of the right or left and they brought us into this place to restore the balance to a reasonable position on industrial relations, but more than that they want an effective industrial relations system that promotes productivity and the economy as well as a healthy, productive and happy lifestyle for working people.

My predecessor in the seat of Eden-Monaro last year was one of those people who adopted the Work Choices legislation as a tenet of faith. He was a very solid supporter of Mr Howard and his ambitions. What were those ambitions? They were effectively to use Work Choices to destroy the right of working people to organise; to effectively eliminate what is a fundamental human right for working people. We have just been celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is important to point out where these principles reside in the fundamental human rights instruments. Article 23 of the universal declaration makes it very clear. It says:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

That is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that was built on by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its article 22, which once again stressed:

(1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

That provision also referred to the International Labour Organisation convention of 1948, which Australia ratified on 28 February 1973, and that convention said:

Each Member of the International Labour Organisation—

Australia, in this case—

for which this Convention is in force undertakes to take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers and employers may exercise freely the right to organise.

So, effectively, what the previous government was trying to do was destroy fundamental human rights in this country and specifically the basic right for working people to organise.

This was revealed in my campaign in Eden-Monaro when I was conducting a debate on the radio with my predecessor. In the course of that debate he said very clearly, ‘The unions know that if Labor loses the election then their days are numbered.’ That was his ambition. He let the cat out of the bag. Every union member in my electorate and every union member in the country knew that that was the ambition of the Howard government. They made a living out of playing on the worst aspects of human nature over the 12 years they were in government. They tried to use scaremonger tactics, focusing on refugees or whoever they could fix a crosshair on to obtain political advantage. But in the end they settled on their fellow Australians to demonise—the two million fellow Australians who are members of trade unions. They were demonised; they were the bogeymen. They were labelled as criminals and thugs. But it did not work, because the Australian people had had enough of that sort of tactic—of the scaremongering, of the reds under the bed. So for them it was over.

But the worst of this was that the previous government were not going to lie down with their ambitions for Work Choices; they got out there and tried to sell it. My predecessor, as the then Special Minister of State, was responsible for the advertising budget of the previous government. How much money was in that budget? They spent $120 million on the useless paraphernalia that was sprinkled across the country in an effort to sell us a dead dog as a duck. What could my electorate have done with that money? Forty million dollars would have fixed the Tumut hospital, $30 million would have built the Bega bypass, and the Pambula hospital sorely needs money. Where has it gone? It has been wasted. It was utter irresponsibility with public money. That itself was a crime.

The impact on Eden-Monaro of these extreme Work Choices laws was significant. I had a woman on the phone to me crying about the years she and her husband had worked in a roofing company; they had lost the protections of the unfair dismissal legislation. They were in a company that they had built up over many years, but the employer they worked for sacked them for ‘operational reasons’, that magic phrase that permitted all sorts of actions to be taken that could not be overseen or redressed. My predecessor, when confronted by this claim from my constituents, told them: ‘Go to the Workplace Ombudsman. Use the process that we put in place.’ They did, and they were told that there was no remedy because of that magic phrase ‘operational reasons’.

There was also a massive impact on tourism in Eden-Monaro. The feature that we focused on in terms of the impact of AWAs was that 89 per cent of them cut out at least one or more protective conditions. Significantly for my electorate, 68 per cent of them removed annual leave loadings, 61 per cent removed days to be substituted for public holidays, 50 per cent removed public holiday payments and 25 per cent removed declared public holidays. I was confronted with a delegation of hotel and motel owners and others in my electorate who showed me the statistics on the impact that both the murderous interest rates of the previous government and these AWA restrictions were having on their businesses because the south-west Sydney holidaymakers who traditionally would drive into my electorate for their holidays were unable to do so and the bottom was falling out of that market. So businesses were being hurt in my electorate by these extreme laws which were supposed to improve the economy and to make it simpler. But we know that the Work Choices legislation was twice the size of this Fair Work Bill, with which we are now achieving simplicity in our system.

During the worst excesses of the bureaucracy under the former scheme, the backlog of workplace agreements had swollen to nearly 150,000 because the Howard government had hastily cobbled together a fairness test in May before putting in place the legislation and administrative arrangements needed to implement it. The whole scheme was an abortion from start to finish. It was a nightmare for employers and workers. And it did not focus on the key aspect that our economy needs to move forward, which is the building of teamwork under our collective enterprise agreement process, which will now be put in place with the Fair Work Bill. So many of my workers who were benefiting from collective agreements had been worried about the Howard government continuing to try to put them all on AWAs. They included the Carter Holter Harvey timber workers on the south-west slopes, the mill workers, the workers at Batlow Fruit Co-op, Bega Cheese and South East Fibre Exports and those on the state awards that covered the forestry depots. All of these people were concerned about the impact of Work Choices and its continuing, creeping annexation and destruction of their working conditions.

Now we have this new regime that will be put in place which will focus on the essential element of Australian culture: teamwork. It is what built this country and it is a hallmark of not only our daily approach to getting on as communities and in our working lives but also how we advance this country economically. It is often said that the price of peace is eternal vigilance. It may also be said that the price of freedom and prosperity is eternal domestic vigilance over our fundamental human rights. The Howard government insidiously undermined this country’s proud commitment to human rights and fairness and along the way threatened our productivity as a nation. Lying across the other side of this chamber in the darker recesses of the opposition there burns yet a flame for the return of Work Choices. We on this side, and all Australians, must remain eternally vigilant to prevent its return and to extinguish that flame. I proudly commend the bill to the House.