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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7248


Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (11:39): I too would like to contribute to this debate about the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. I would like to highlight to the chamber that what we have witnessed here this morning is once again the spectacle of the coalition government filibustering one of their own bills. Presumably they are trying to get the support of the crossbenchers for their bill, but, by the amount of filibustering that has been going on, they have not done that. The reason they have not been able to do that is, I presume, because this is such a bad bill.

The bill has been to the appropriate Senate committee, and I draw attention to the Labor senators' dissenting report tabled with the committee report and accurately describing this bill as a return to Work Choices by stealth. The Labor senators also pointed out that, if this bill is passed in its current form, it will have a detrimental impact on Australian workers and their families. I agree with those findings of the Labor senators on the committee, and for that reason I and all other Labor senators oppose this bill.

As has been said by previous speakers, Labor in government commissioned a review of the Fair Work Act 2009 in 2010. The Fair Work Act, of course, replaced the former coalition government's Work Choices legislation, which was by anyone's standards a dreadful piece of legislation by an antiworker, anti-union, antifairness Howard government. The review of the Fair Work Act that Labor commissioned made 53 recommendations that were to encourage productivity growth, to enhance equity in the workplace and to correct anomalies that had been detected in the Fair Work Act. Many of those recommendations have already been implemented. They were uncontentious.

This bill allegedly deals with remaining recommendations from that review. Of course, in typical coalition style, it goes too far and is another example of the coalition seizing every opportunity it possibly can to return to its ideological nirvana of Work Choices. The bill addresses three main areas in particular. They are regulation of greenfields agreements, right-of-entry provisions for unions and individual flexibility arrangements, including the better-off-overall test. Labor has concerns about all of the proposed amendments to the Fair Work Act that deal with those provisions. They are the parts of this bill that we see as the continuation of the government's crusade against Australian working people, against their working conditions and against the unions who legitimately represent them at the workplace. The previous coalition speaker clearly belled the cat about what the actual intention of this coalition government bill is: the usual union-bashing, antiworker, antifairness, 'give all the power in the workplace to rogue employers' type of legislation that we are so used to.

This bill is here despite the government promises before the 2013 election—and who can forget then Prime Minister Tony Abbott promising that Work Choices was dead, buried and cremated—but here it is back again, very much alive. We can only hope that the new Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, might have a better attitude toward the working conditions of Australians and might be a more conciliatory and less hardline prime minister when it comes to what happens in the workplace. Unfortunately, I do not think that is going to be the case. We might have a new man at the top, but I do not think the policies are going to change at all. There has been no evidence that the workplace relations policies are going to change. Just last week we saw the new Treasurer, Mr Scott Morrison, confirm that the Turnbull Liberal government is just as intent on slashing penalty rates as was the Abbott government.

The Treasurer joined a chorus of coalition members and senators trying to deceive people with the argument that somehow if penalty rates are cut more people will get work—more people with disabilities will get jobs, more young people will get jobs and more single parents will get jobs. There has been investigation after investigation, but there is no evidence that points to the creation of jobs by cutting or reducing penalty rates. All you do by reducing penalty rates is make people poorer. We do not want people to be poorer in Australia. We do not need to cut penalty rates.

Further suggestions by the Treasurer last week included that penalty rates could be traded off for tax credits. That is an interesting concept. Is the new Turnbull government seriously suggesting that they would introduce tax credits to compensate people who work on the weekend so that now the taxpayer funds the penalty rates? I would not have thought that was a serious suggestion—but, anyway, it is on the table. On this side of the chamber we do not have those flights of fancy. We know that, no matter how you work it, cuts to penalty rates mean that workers are worse off.

Australia is already facing the lowest wages growth in 25 years, and still we hear from the new Prime Minister about cutting the income of low-paid workers. When I say 'low-paid workers', I am talking about people who work in hospitality, people who work in the retail industry, people who work in aged care and people who work in disability care. They are the low-payed workers who rely on penalty rates that they get for working what we call unsociable hours on weekends. They rely on those penalty rates, not for frippery but for the basic needs of life. They cannot afford to live without their penalty rates. Most of those people who work in those low-paid industries are women, who are already at a disadvantage in terms of pay equity because of their gender. The proposals to deal with penalty rates that are being rolled out by the new Turnbull-led government will directly affect women in low paid jobs.

We do not join the race to the bottom with the coalition. Labor believes that the government should focus on creating jobs and creating economic growth through investing in skills, training, infrastructure, innovation and entrepreneurship. Why does this government not turn its attention to those important areas? I have to question what other remnants of the Abbott era Prime Minister Turnbull is holding onto. We know that he is going to ditch fairness at work, just as he has ditched any commitment to meaningful environmental policies that he might have had before he became Prime Minister. He has ditched his commitment to marriage equality—again, something that he supported before he became Prime Minister—and he has ditched his republican credentials as well.

Just as he has traded off those commitments that he had before, I presume he is going to trade off fairness at work—as he is going to trade off the management of our precious water resources. I am speaking as a South Australian passionate about the future of the River Murray. Already we have seen management of that given to Mr Barnaby Joyce, whose view about water management is that people in South Australia should up stumps and move to the wet northern parts of Australia if they were going to continue to complain about mismanagement of the river system. We know that Mr Turnbull will be forever indebted to the far right of his party, who gave him his new job. So any serious change in coalition government policy in any area is unlikely. As I said, new Prime Minister; same old, same old, same old policies.

The Fair Work Amendment Bill that we are debating today does give the new Prime Minister the opportunity to backtrack away from that ideological war on workers that was waged by former Prime Minister Abbott and, of course, the former Minister for Employment, Senator Eric Abetz. You would hope that the government, under its new leadership, might pay less attention to undermining the job security of people at work and pay more attention to the 800,000 people out of work in Australia. You would think that they would want to spend more time dealing with the unemployment rate, which is at an unacceptable level of around six per cent. You would think that the coalition would focus on those issues instead of focusing on this legislation which makes it easier for bad employers to cut working conditions in unfair industrial flexibility agreements, for instance. You would hope that, instead of this legislation, the Prime Minister would spend some time legislating to protect employees whose job security will be threatened by refusing to address the job security measures in the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

There are so many examples of how the coalition have already attacked working conditions and job security of Australians in the two short years—but, really, they have been two very long years—of the coalition government. They failed to support automotive industry jobs in my home state of South Australia. They failed to commit to building Australia's 12 new submarines, despite promising to do so in my home state of South Australia—and we are still waiting to hear about that. We heard from speakers, in the debate on this bill in the last sitting period, about attempts to deregulate Australians shipping industry so that people could work on Third World wages while in Australian waters. I think you may have spoken about that yourself, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle. We know that under Senator Abetz's former ministerial responsibilities the government cut the pay of the cleaners who work in this place and in other government offices. So, let us face it: the government's record on jobs and working conditions is appalling. This bill is simply more of the same and that is why Labor is so concerned about it.

One of the most contentious aspects of this legislation is the changes to individual flexibility arrangements, which are a provision of the Fair Work Act put in by Labor, understanding that there does need to be some flexibility in the workplace. What is proposed here, as I said, is a return to Work Choices and a new iteration of Australian workplace agreements that were the hallmark of the Howard government. We know that ended very well for the Howard government—not! I hope Prime Minister Turnbull remembers that. I also hope the crossbench senators in this place, when they are deliberating about what they are going to do in regard to amendments to this bill, remember how unpalatable it was for the Australian community to have Work Choices and individual agreements, AWAs, foisted upon them. It did not go well for the coalition then and it will not go well for the coalition this time either.

The bill removes a key safeguard from what can be traded away under an IFA. As the Labor senators' dissenting report notes, the expert panel that reviewed the act said that if a non-monetary benefit is being traded away for a monetary benefit, the value of the money forgone has to be relatively insignificant and the value of the non-monetary benefit has to be proportionate. Despite that clear prescription in the review—what is relative insignificance and proportion?—both terms are missing from this bill so, basically, anything goes under this bell. We are talking about individual flexibility arrangements which were agreed between an individual employee and an employer.

If you had listened to the previous speaker, you would think everything in the workplace is always sweetness and light. Thankfully it mostly is, but there are rogue employers out there who will use the changes proposed in this bill to put the hard word on individual workers, saying, 'Here you go. You've got to sign this genuine needs statement which says you are happy with the trade-offs being proposed.' What will happen down the track is that the employer, under this legislation will be able to rely on that genuine needs statement to say, 'As far as I knew, the worker was happy with what is being proposed.' The outcome of that will be that the employer will avoid prosecution and will be protected from having to pay compensation for what would otherwise have been a breach of the award under which the IFA is made.

I am not saying that all employers do this. Of course they do not, but there are employers who do do this. If you need an example of rogue employers who treat employees badly, you only have to look at what has happened in the 7-Eleven retail stores in Australia. What a scandal: low-paid workers in vulnerable situations, low-paid workers who mostly do not union representation who are being ripped off by rogue employers. And this legislation will facilitate more of that kind of behaviour by rogue employers who will take every opportunity to profit out of low-paid workers.

The way to avoid that happening is to facilitate union representation in workplaces and the coalition knows that. They know that unions will stand up to that kind of behaviour from rogue employers but this legislation, with its right of entry provisions, is directly targeted at making sure that unions cannot get into workplaces to attempt to represent workers who are being ripped off by rogue employers. Once again, this legislation, as coalition industrial workplace legislation always does, tilts the balance further in favour of employers. The same applies in the provisions in this bill about greenfield agreements. Basically, it means employers can get away with whatever they want in greenfield agreements. Labor has put forward a number of amendments to the bill to ensure that that does not happen, that employers are genuinely negotiating what should apply in an enterprise agreement for a new work site or a new workplace—genuinely negotiating, not putting something on the table and saying, 'Take it or leave it! Take this or get out!' Otherwise, that is what employers will do under this proposed legislation. 'Here are your working conditions. If you don't like them, don't take the job.' That is not the Australian way.

We need to have standards, we need to have benchmarks and we need to have fairness in the workplace. There is no need to drag us back into some arcane kind of industrial relations system—children working in mines—where rogue employers have all the power in the workplace, but that is precisely what this legislation will do if it passes in its current form.

Once again, I appeal in particular to the Senate crossbenchers. Some of you have a reasonable record on workplace relations; some of you have an appalling record. When you ae considering how you are going to vote, not just on this bill but on the amendments that are being moved by Senator Cameron's opposition amendments, please think about the people you purport to represent. Please think about the women, the low-paid workers, the people in vulnerable situations who need their jobs but need them to be well paid and who need to have union representation to help them secure those jobs and those conditions. I urge the crossbench senators not just to do what the coalition tells them to, not just to trade off important workplace conditions for some other deal they are doing with the government to get something else that they want. This is fundamental to fairness in Australia. This legislation deserves strident opposition and I hope we hear it from the crossbenchers.