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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7096

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (10:58): I rise to indicate that Labor opposes the Fair Work Amendment (Penalty Rates Exemption for Small Businesses) Bill 2015. I have to say: I always find it quite galling that politicians on a base rate of $200,000 stand up in here to tell workers on $30,000 a year that they should not have access to penalty rates. I just find that absolutely galling. Many of the politicians who are in here would not have a clue what it is like to battle to put food on the table. They would not have a clue what it is like to have to depend on penalty rates to be able to pay their mortgage and bills and to get their kids off to school. When you are on $200,000 a year as a base rate, like Senator Leyonhjelm, I suppose it is okay to stand up and deal with penalty rates in a theoretical manner and to say that everyone is going to be better off if they rip penalty rates away from working people.

Penalty rates have been in this country since about 1900. The penalty rates system has been there to do a number of things. Firstly, to provide support for workers and to give workers a financial benefit for working hours outside the normal hours. You will hear arguments from business that there are no 'abnormal' hours, and that it is a 24/7 operation that businesses have to deal with. That might be true, but the problem we have is that penalty rates are so important for so many people that to do what this bill does would probably end up costing the government more than any productivity and improvements that they claim they would get from removing penalty rates, because it would push more low-paid Australians onto government support and government welfare.

Why would you do that? So that some little coffee shop that has a bad business model and is established in an area where they cannot operate effectively can operate seven days a week and exploit working people, not pay an award minimum and not pay a penalty rate. As I came in I heard Senator Williams talking about some business—I did not get the full gist of it—that was operating illegally. If they are operating illegally, I say that Senator Williams should give the name of that business to the Fair Work Commission. We should get it fixed up. We should get the pay fixed up for the workers in that area.

I just do not accept a proposition from well-paid politicians doing the bidding of business in this country that ordinary Australians should lose access to a decent standard of living. This is being treated in here as some academic exercise that would be send off to the Productivity Commission so that the bean counters and the academics of the Productivity Commission, who have never had to rely on penalty rates in their lives and who are well-paid public servants, will make a determination about a waitress in a small restaurant somewhere in the country. They will determine in their theoretical view that if they reduce wages, conditions and penalty rates it will increase the productivity and wealth in the country. I just do not buy it—that some boffins sitting down in the Productivity Commission know everything about everything in this country. They do not. They have no idea what it is like to be a blue collar worker, battling away to send their kids to university. They have no idea what it is like to battle to pay their mortgage. They have no idea—not a clue—what it is like to live off $30,000 a year. They have no idea what it is like to be a cleaner in this parliament and to be told by this awful government—and it does not matter who the leader is—that they should have their pay and conditions cut to clean the toilets of politicians, who earn a $200,000 base rate. It is absolute nonsense from the Productivity Commission. It is absolute nonsense from these appeasers of the business community, sitting across the chamber in this place.

I do not have to go back too far for people to understand what a coalition government is about. A coalition government is about appeasing business. A coalition government always tries to deliver for those people who fund their election campaign coffers and fill their election campaign coffers up. Whether the money is given legally or given in a brown paper bag in the front of a Bentley up in Newcastle, it does not matter. They try to look after that big end of town that looks after the coalition.

So, when you hear them talking about penalty rates, when you hear them talking about more flexibility, when you hear them talking about economic improvement and when you hear them talking about sending things off to the Productivity Commission, let me tell you, Madam Acting Deputy President, what it is all about: it is all about cutting wages and conditions so that the top one per cent can be better off and the bottom 40 per cent can please themselves. That is what this government is all about. It does not matter if they put a smart-looking leader in and get rid of their former leader; they will still be the same. They will still be about cutting wages and conditions of ordinary workers in this country. That is what Work Choices was all about. I do not have to go back that far to when they were saying to workers in Spotlight that for a 2c per hour wage increase an individual agreement should remove their penalty rates, their leave loading and their public holidays. What kind of nonsense is it?

Senator Leyonhjelm comes in here on his $200,000 base rate and flippantly says that there are no implications—no negative implications—for cutting the penalty rates of millions of hardworking Australians. I simply believe that Senator Leyonhjelm is doing what he always does—that is, he basically does the bidding of the Liberal Party on this issue. This is part of it—the push out and getting the debate out there. The Liberal Party are still too scared to say what they actually mean, which is that they want lower wages, poorer conditions and to get rid of penalty rates. We know that because that is what they defended and that is what they did during the Work Choices era. Senator Leyonhjelm has been sent out to run that line.

I cannot understand the attitude of the National Party, who have in their electorates some of the poorest paid people in the country. These are the people who will suffer more than anyone else, but the National Party does some deal to get billions of dollars; they hold the Prime Minister to ransom and say that they will not form a coalition unless he gives them billions of dollars so they can get their snouts in the trough. They do not care about penalty rates getting ripped out of their constituencies. Wouldn't it be better for the National Party to care about some of the poorest people in their electorates now and again—just now and again—and stop being the doormat of the coalition, stop going out there and mouthing all the lines that the Liberal Party feeds them on penalty rates? How can you hold your head up high in your local communities when you do not care about the poorest people there, when you simply go for the economic theory and the economic extremism of the coalition that attack workers' wages and conditions on the basis that the economy, in some theoretical way, will benefit from sending some people into abject poverty? It is unacceptable and they have to be called out on it. And it is not just the National Party—it is a range of coalition MPs in rural and regional Australia who have electorates where some of the poorest people reside; people on award wages who depend on penalty rates to maybe once a year get a week's holiday or send their kids off on a school excursion. This is what it is all about. They are doing this simply to appease their business bankers so they will fund their election war chests.

The most vulnerable people are in that rural and regional area; the most vulnerable people are in the exact area that Senator Leyonhjelm and the coalition want to rip penalty rates away from. People in the service industry, in retail, are really battling. There are people like the cleaners in this place who come in and clean the toilets of the politicians, and then they leave that work in the middle of the night and they are up the next morning to do another job so that they can send their kids to school, put some clothes on their kids' back and put some food on the table. They do this work because they get some penalty rates now and again. What is being pushed here is the economic theory that says with lower wages you will create more jobs and people will be better off. That would not have been the case in my situation when I was a blue-collar worker in the power industry in New South Wales. We had two kids; I was working in regional Australia, in Muswellbrook; and we had one income coming into the family. I needed my penalty rates. I needed penalty rates to pay my mortgage, I needed penalty rates to take my kids for a holiday once a year—a very modest holiday, let me tell you—and I needed penalty rates so we could go to the movies. We never, ever went to a restaurant. A treat for us was to get a pizza. A treat for us was for me to pick up some Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way back from Newcastle to Muswellbrook. That was a treat. That was something I could not afford to do every week. These people over here who argue for cutting penalty rates would never understand that. Maybe one or two of them have done it tough now and again, but they would never systematically through their life have had to survive on 30 grand a year. Senator Brandis pays that for bookshelves and books. He probably spends more on books every year than some poor people earn. That would be right, Senator Brandis, wouldn't it—you spend more on books than the cleaners would earn? Yet they come in here and they vote to take away penalty rates and they vote to take away conditions from workers.

Even the academics have had a look at this, and the analysis that has been done by the University of South Australia into unsocial hours and penalty rates says it all. It says:

If we consider that those who relied on penalty rates for their household expenses were at some financial risk if those rates of pay were not available, there are a range of groups at potential risk. Simply as a function of their greater likelihood of financial reliance on penalty rates, women, workers with combined household incomes below $30,000, and employees—

listen to this, Mr Acting Deputy President Williams—

in rural or regional locations were at greatest risk.

This is not the ACTU saying this; this is not my old union, the AMWU; this is not the Labor Party; this is not the Greens. This is academic analysis undertaken by the University of South Australia Centre for Work+Life. We hear the argument that it is only retail people those people opposite want to take these benefits off, but we know that the coalition want to take penalty rates off every worker in the country. The study says that the people who rely on penalty rates are labourers. They require penalty rates to fund their households, according to the report, as do workers on permanent or ongoing contracts. I am sure Senator Williams will listen to this:

Finally, workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, and in electricity, gas, water and waste services, were likely to have their household finances affected by a removal of penalty rates for working unsocial hours.

There you go. We have had the National Party in here saying, 'Get rid of penalty rates' but it is the people in agriculture and in the forestry and fishing industries who are amongst the most vulnerable to penalty rates being cut.

It beggars belief that these well-off coalition politicians can walk in here and just ignore the social consequences of what they are arguing about. The social consequences are massive. For many workers, when they come under financial strain and are constantly under financial strain, it is not just an issue that they are under financial strain; there are personal relationship issues. It means we see more alcohol abuse and more family violence when people are battling to get a decent life and a decent wage coming in. Yet this mob, this rabble that call themselves a government, simply come in and run the Productivity Commission line, run the bosses' line and say, 'Let's cut the penalty rates' without having an iota of understanding of not only the financial implications but also the social implications of destroying a decent base for families to live on in this country.

So Labor will not have a bar of Senator Leyonhjelm's bill while he is doing the bidding of the coalition. We will not have a bar of a two-tier penalty rate system in this country. We will not have a bar of this rabble of a government trying to cut the rates of pay and conditions of workers in this country. The top one per cent will always be okay. Politicians will be okay: they do not have to worry about penalty rates. But the cleaners, the agricultural workers, the fishery workers, the waitresses, the waiters—they are the ones who would do it tough; they are the ones whose families will be in absolute destitution if they lose their penalty rates. And that is the academic analysis as well as the analysis that I present now.

The new Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, was in a debate about two years ago on the ABC on the issue of penalty rates. The bosses were there saying, 'Cut the penalty rates.' What did our new Prime Minister say? He said, 'Business are making a powerful point.' 'We've got to have a sensible and informed debate', said Mr Turnbull. 'We can't have places closing on the weekend.' We heard the National Party running the same line. 'Maybe rates have to be looked at. Maybe we have to have to have a hard-headed and open-eyed discussion. Maybe we should have some consultation on this. Maybe the penalty rates should not be so high.' I am paraphrasing what our current Prime Minister says. That is code for getting rid of penalty rates—from a multimillionaire who would not understand what it means to an ordinary worker. He is a person who flips his policy positions to suit his personal ambition. The personal ambition this Prime Minister should have is to defend penalty rates in this country and maintain a decent life for ordinary workers, for rural workers, for regional workers and for agricultural workers in this country.