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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7330

Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (16:25): I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. It is important to let Australian people know that the Turnbull Liberal government, or coalition—although I think he has cut them out—wants to cut and ultimately abolish penalty rates. This is the latest guise of the Liberals' unrelenting attack on workers' pay and conditions. They could not get away with the wholesale attack on penalty rates and conditions which they called Work Choices, so they have narrowed it down to having an argument over penalty rates, for now.

This is, I think, the first step in their systematic attempt at weakening protections and conditions for workers in this country, and you can hear that in the words they speak, in what the Liberals have said. On 3AW just last week, Mr Turnbull said:

… I think over time you will see a move to a more flexible workplace, the transition to that …

Host Neil Mitchell interjected:

… it's a 7-day economy isn't it?

Mr Turnbull agreed:

Of course it is …

The Treasurer, Mr Morrison, said:

… we need the flexibility in our system to ensure we have this agile and innovative economy.

The new Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia, Mr Frydenberg, said:

Malcolm Turnbull is absolutely right to point to industrial relations as one area where it does cost business and ultimately it does cost jobs.

When he was asked if the government needed to look at cutting penalty rates, he continued:

… this an area we need to look at because if it means more jobs and changing there, that … could be good for the economy.

This is a softening-up by the government. They are softening us up using the guise of flexibility, using the guise of, 'Let's have innovation,' to attack penalty rates and conditions. They failed with Work Choices to convince people, and they will fail again.

As you can tell from these quotes, the coalition are—I will grant them that—more nuanced after the Work Choices fiasco, but it remains the same song. It is an attempt to cut people's wages and conditions, but they remain as determined as ever. Australians should also notice the use of the word 'flexibility'. As I have said, at the top of the coalition government's vocabulary at the moment is 'flexibility'. They use it to try to convince us that flexibility is what is lacking—that, if only you were taking less money home for working on weekends, this would create a jobs bonanza suddenly. Well, it will not. It will not change a thing other than driving wages down. Under Mr Turnbull and the Liberals, 'flexibility' simply means cuts—cuts to youth wages, cuts to penalty rates and cuts to conditions of employment. People's earning less money does not create more jobs; it takes money out of the economy. The attack on penalty rates is just another mutation of the Liberals' extreme industrial relations agenda of completely getting rid of penalty rates for workers.

People depend on penalty rates. If you look at wages growth, it has flatlined and is at about a 20-year low. Unemployment is up to 6.2 per cent, and recently research has shown that, if the incentives provided by penalty rates were removed, people simply would not work the unsociable hours that some of these jobs require. Business confidence is down and consumer confidence is down, not because of penalty rates, not because of the payment to workers but because the Turnbull Liberal government's policies are driving down our economy. We should be encouraging people to get into the labour market, not putting up roadblocks. This is simply an attack on the lowest-paid workers in this country.

The extra money people earn for working on the weekends or on public holidays, which they give up instead of spending time with their families, pays for that after-school sport, pays for the dinner out with the family, pays for going to see a movie and pays for unexpected bills or for child care. The point is that weekends are not the same as weekdays. While it has become more common for many young people especially to work over weekends, that does not mean these hours have become any less unsociable. If it was true that weekends were the same as weekdays then Western Australia would change its trading hours and would allow shops to open on Saturdays and Sundays but the Liberal government over there has remained pretty steadfastly opposed to that for a long time, as you know. While some of these people are working, they miss family birthdays, important occasions, and leisure time with their partners and children. It is completely fair that if you are going to give up this time on the weekend then a penalty rate should be paid for that time. The Liberals simply do not understand the everyday reality of Australian workers and their families.

I think the Liberals live in an ivory tower. They live in this da-da land where they think that people should be paid less, that the economy will boom and that ultimately business will prosper. It is completely untrue. It is an equation that simply does not add up. Cutting the disposable income of Australian workers does not improve our economy, it does not grow the pie and it does not bring about more jobs. We only have to look at the United States to see the driving down of wages, with a minimum wage of $7.25, has not created prosperity; it has in fact created an enormous gap in equality. Using the example of workers in the United States, it is important to note one of them, Mr Gassan, never made it to his son's graduation in the US because he was a manager at Dunkin' Donuts. Gassan was working overtime at Dunkin' Donuts the day his son became a high school graduate. It is about making workers work for seven days, about not giving them opportunity and about driving them into the dirt. This is where the coalition want to go. They do not want to recognise that people should be paid fairly.

Recently President Obama announced that he will be raising the overtime salary threshold from $23,000 to $50,000 because even the United States recognise driving down overtime and penalty rates does not encourage growth in the economy. President Obama said:

If you work longer, you work harder, you should get paid for it.

That is what Labor believes and that is why we will continue to fight for it.

The Turnbull Liberal government is determined to pursue the same old path of unfairness—cruel cuts and attacks on workers which have become a hallmark of the conservative movement—but Labor will not support this attack, the erosion of workers' conditions or, in particular, cuts to penalty rates. You only have to go to that example I gave in the United States where Mr Gassan, a salaried employee not being paid overtime who regularly works 75 hours a week without receiving a dime in overtime payment. His employer would call on him to cover shifts and work extra hours and, unlike the employees on an hourly rate, did not have to pay him overtime because he was a salaried employee. This is where the Liberals want to run.

But what was Mr Gassan's salary? It was $23,600 a year, below which all workers are eligible for overtime. And because he was a manager, his employer classified him as an executive and thus exempted him from overtime payment. He missed his kids' activities, their parent-teacher conferences and their sports games. I think the call on the other side is: let's go there; let's adopt that path, not grow the economy, not improve wages and conditions, not ensure there is true flexibility in the labour market but let's drive it down to give the bosses the flexibility they demand.

Cutting penalty rates does not create more jobs, it does not grow a bigger pie but what it does do is simply put the whip in the boss's hand. What we have in Australia is a well regulated system, a system that provides fairness to those who are employed in it and fairness to those employers who also want to work within it. You only have to look at the example of 7-Eleven— (Time expired)