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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7100


Senator McKIM (Tasmania) (11:19): We debate the Fair Work Amendment (Penalty Rates Exemption for Small Businesses) Bill 2015 at a time in our country when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is too big, at a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is continuing to grow. We now have a bill before us that will further accelerate the growth of the gap between the haves and have-nots in this country. Penalty rates have been around for over 100 years in this country. They are in place for a very good reason. They are in place to recognise and compensate people for working unsocial hours that the majority of Australians have free. Most Australians are free during these unsocial hours that are worked by some to play sport, to go out and have a few beers, to spend time with their family, to do some volunteering in their community, to do some gardening—to do many of the things that mean so much to so many Australians. Yet some Australians spend an awful lot of their lives working while many of the rest of their fellow countrypeople are free to enjoy some of the benefits of living in this country.

Penalty rates recognise and compensate people for the impact that working unsocial hours has on their lives and the lives of their families and the impact that working unsocial hours has on their personal health and on their sleep patterns. That is why penalty rates have been around for so long in Australia. According to United Voice, about 1.5 million Australian workers receive penalty rates; 48.1 per cent of the workforce are entitled to penalty rates for a public holiday; and 4.2 million, about 44 per cent of the workforce, are entitled to penalty rates for a weekend if they work then. There are about 870,000 Australians who usually work on Sundays in their main job. It is true that not all of those workers would receive penalty rates, but for many the Sunday shift provides the boost financially that they need to make ends meet.

A reasonable question to put to the Senate is: how many of us who are elected to this place have had to regularly work the unsocial hours that currently attract penalty rates? How many of us have had to choose between putting food on the table and paying the rent, paying the school levies and the range of other pressures on ordinary Australians? I think the answer is that some of us have had to face those challenges in our lives but many, many have not.

Overwhelmingly, this legislation would impact on young people, students, low-income workers and people with insecure casual work. Those are the kinds of people who most depend on penalty rates to make ends meet. In our country the majority of casual workers are women. So many Australian women and their families depend on penalty rates and would be financially devastated if penalty rates are cut. This bill would hurt tens of thousands of women—nurses, cleaners, hospitality staff—who work unsocial hours and are rightly compensated for it. And any cuts to penalty rates would be a body blow for young people across this country—including students, who often study full time during the day and work in the hospitality sector at night to make ends meet.

We currently have very high housing prices. Housing affordability is one of the key issues facing our country. We have wages growing slowly. We have many tens of thousands of young people working in retail and hospitality who depend on penalty rates to support themselves and their aspirations for the future. This bill would undermine one of the fundamentals of the Australian way of life, and that is 'the fair go'. We as a country have always supported the fair go, and this bill seeks to chip away at the margins of that ethos. It is hard not to be persuaded by Senator Cameron's arguments around some of the motivations behind introducing this legislation. It is hard not to see Senator Leyonhjelm as someone who has allowed himself to be persuaded to stick his head above the parapet to see if it gets blown off or someone who has potentially allowed the Prime Minister's office to lower him into a coalmine in a canary's cage to see whether he falls silent.

As our member in the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, has said, the Greens will always fight any attack on penalty rates, the minimum wage and rights at work. He has also said that the Liberals can expect to fight another election on penalty rates and Australians rights at work. We will defend penalty rates and we will be very happy to campaign on it at the next election.

Let's look at a case study by United Voice that was released last year. An adult waitress at a cafe or restaurant is paid only $16.85 an hour for her work from Monday to Friday. But if she works one of her ordinary shifts on a Sunday she makes $25.28 an hour instead. If her Sunday penalty rates are scrapped, her weekly wage would drop from just over $695 a week before tax to $640.20—a wage cut of just under $55 a week or $2,862 over a full year. A cut of just under three grand to what is already an extremely low salary is going to have a massive impact on this adult waitress's capacity to support herself, to invest in the future of her children and to have aspirations for a better life—to properly educate her kids through to higher education opportunities and to follow some of the dreams that we in this country hold so dear.

This bill is framed as having an intention of taking some off the pressure of small businesses. There is a very strong argument that we need to do more to take pressure off small business in this country. But this legislation is not the answer. It goes about its intention in entirely the wrong way. There are many, many ways that we can take the pressure off small business without having to erode rights and penalty rates for workers. That is why the Greens want to support lower tax rates for small business, that is why we voted in parliament to support the government's 1.5 per cent reduction in taxes for small business. But we would go further than the government did in that policy area. We want to expand tax breaks for small business and provide extra funding and legislative powers for the National Small Business Commissioner. We also want to introduce an effects test, which would assist small business and provide them with a more level playing field on which to compete with big business and the top end of town.

I also want to reflect on something else that Senator Cameron said in his contribution that is very hard to argue against. In fact, I would strongly support Senator Cameron's contention that the introduction of this legislation may end up costing Australia more than it delivers in productivity gains. That is because, as Senator Cameron pointed out, if you cut the wages and conditions of some of Australia's lowest-income earners, they are going to put more pressure on essential public services—you can expect to see a blow-out in government costs in areas like our health system, mental health support, family support, our justice systems and our correction systems, just to name a few. This is something that we all need to consider. So not only are there strong moral and social arguments against this legislation there are also extremely strong fiscal and economic arguments against it.

The Australian Greens have been proud to support penalty rates. We have always fought to protect penalty rates from attacks that are generally led by the conservative side of politics and often at the behest of their big business mates at the top end of town. The Greens have led the Senate in calling on the Abbott government to exclude penalty rates and the minimum wage from the Productivity Commission report because we feared they would use it as an excuse to resurrect attacks on the pay and conditions for Australians at work, and we repeat that call for the new Turnbull government. Unfortunately, the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, ignored the Senate's call, and there is a real fear now, and a real possibility, that the dead, buried and cremated Work Choices legislation is set to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes with a brand-new salesman—this time in Australia's new Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull.

Australians deserve some clarity from the Liberal Party on this issue. Is Work Choices still dead, buried and cremated, or are there the stirrings of life in the ashes? That is a fundamental question that is yet to be answered by our new Prime Minister. Anyone hoping to cut penalty rates in this country can expect to have to fight hard as we move towards the next election. Anyone hoping to cut fundamental rights at work for Australians can expect to have to fight hard at the upcoming federal election. We are not going to have any part of this legislation. We will proudly retain our strong defence of penalty rates in this country because we understand that, overwhelmingly, the people who get penalty rates in Australia are people who are overwhelmingly struggling to make ends meet. They are people who work hard. They are people who make sacrifices to work unsociable hours. They are people who sacrifice opportunities for leisure, opportunities to spend time with their family and opportunities to play a stronger role in their communities.

They sacrifice those opportunities because they have a financial imperative to do so—because they want to be able to aspire to a better life for themselves, they want to be able to aspire to a better life for their families and they want to be able to aspire to a better life for their children. The sacrifices they make by working unsociable hours are made so that they can dare to dream of a better life for themselves and so that they can meet some of the pressures that come onto every low-income worker in this country, whether those be paying the school levies, paying the rent or paying the mortgage—or it may be as simple as putting a decent feed on the table every night for their families. Those are the day-to-day struggles of so many people in this country. Their capacity to deliver on those imperatives and to deliver on those aspirations would be put at significant risk and, in fact, would ultimately be undermined by legislation of this kind.

The Greens are part of a vital line of defence against attacks on penalty rates. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone else in this place who is prepared to be part of that line of defence. We say to all Australians: we always have and we always will fight any attack on penalty rates. This legislation fits very squarely into that category as an attack on penalty rates. Even the sponsors of the legislation, I think, would not argue against that characterisation. As I said, we will not have any part of it. We have not had any part of it in the past. We will not have any part of it today. We will not have any part of it going forward.

It is a significant factor in the future of this country that inequity is growing. I encourage those amongst us who take an interest in history to have a look through historic civilisational decline. You will find two common factors around civilisational decline in human history. You will find ecological collapse and you will find a large and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. We are facing both of those challenges. We are facing ecological disruption on a planetary scale and, in many jurisdictions in the world, we are facing a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Today, I do not have time to go into what some of the social and security ramifications of those trends might be, but it is writ large in the history books that, as legislators and as leaders, we will ignore those at our peril.

So we will not have any part of this legislation. We think it is punitive in effect. We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone else in this place who is prepared to be part of the line of defence against this kind of attack on some of the most disadvantaged, marginalised and hardworking people in our country.