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Wednesday, 21 June 1995
Page: 1599


Senator JACINTA COLLINS (5.00 p.m.) —It gives me great pleasure to enter this place at this time when the government is forging a refined national identity, for I am of a generation which has long questioned the relevance of the constitutional monarchy.

  Firstly, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Senator Olive Zakharov. Coming from different sections of the Victorian Labor movement, I did not have a personal acquaintance with Olive, but her work towards achieving social justice for several disadvantaged groups was well known and well respected. Olive did not seek reward in high profile other than in pursuing the issues she saw as important to Australians. She was, however, well known, liked and respected amongst the many people associated with this place and within the Australian Labor Party. Not a day has gone by in recent times without my receiving a reminder of the challenge I face in following her work.

  I, too, adopt the Labor tradition of an overriding concern towards achieving greater social justice. There are three areas upon which I will focus on this occasion—that is, income distribution, industrial relations policy and the position of women in our society.

  Recent commentary on income distribution has focused upon the extent of inequality within Australian society. Most recently, the opposition appears to believe it can gain the confidence of the Aussie battler as representing their interests towards a more just society. But let us look at the facts. As indicated in the Economic Planning Advisory Council income distribution survey released recently—and I quote:

Changes in the distribution of earnings in the 1980s and into the 1990s have been a concern both in Australia and overseas, with an increase in measured inequality in most developed countries.

Nevertheless, despite the increase in inequality shown by the figures, the dispersion in earnings in Australia has not been marked by international standards.

Recent studies have demonstrated that this government's policies are having the desired impact of reducing inequality amongst Australian families. The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has confirmed that the distributional impact of social wage measures significantly narrows the gap between rich and poor.

  This government has improved the social wage, with measures such as: a 12 per cent increase in the real value of the base pension; a doubling in the real value of family payments to low income families and an extension to low income working families; the introduction and the maintenance of Medicare; a doubling in the proportion of the population with superannuation coverage; an enormous increase in child-care provision; child maintenance measures through the Child Support Agency; expanded labour market programs; more than doubling the proportion of young people completing secondary education; and expanded assistance with housing and rental assistance.

  Such measures mean that the average incomes of the top 20 per cent of Australian families fall from 13 times to only four times those in the bottom 20 per cent once the benefits of government expenditure on social wage are included. But the government has not viewed these indications as grounds for complacency. As indicated in the EPAC report:

The extent of income disparities are such that questions arise whether the social and economic needs of the disadvantaged are being met and whether the economy is operating as efficiently and as equitably as it might.

Recent initiatives have focused on ensuring that these issues continue to be addressed—for instance, those under the government's employment white paper, Working Nation, last year, that is, the jobs compact, the parenting allowance due to operate from 1 July this year, and also the current budget initiatives of the maternity allowance, expanded child-care initiatives and increases in the guardians allowance and rental assistance.

  Non-cash benefits are strongly redistributive and act to reduce income inequality. Increases in the social wage strongly suggest that focusing on cash incomes only exaggerates the extent of inequality. Yet the opposition would focus upon cash incomes. For the conservatives, equality and social justice seem secondary to the efficiency of the free marketplace. Their promises of tax cuts would be funded by cuts to government spending in those very areas which make Australia a more equitable place in which to live.

  The opposition has played up some recent reports on the level of inequality in Australia in a bid to attract the vote of the Aussie battler. But, as pointed out in the Weekend Australian of 3 June, an Australian underclass is a myth, and Australian voters deserve more respect on these issues. They knew at the last election that the GST would impact unfairly on the Aussie battler. They knew the importance of access to health care and the likely impact of proposals to end bulk billing. The Aussie battler knew what ending unemployment provisions after nine months would mean.

  Australian voters made a different choice from New Zealanders in their choice of federal government. In New Zealand, which seems to be the opposition's model, the only income group better off over the period March 1981 to March 1994 were the top 20 per cent. My commitment is to work to ensure that this does not occur in Australia; to work to maintain systems which lead to improvements in living standards for all Australians; to ensure that the level of growth is fairly distributed between all income levels.

  Industrial relations reforms were a significant component of the conservative government's changes in New Zealand leading to a decline in living standards for all but the top 20 per cent income group. As the EPAC report noted:

The growing number of "working poor" has been a concern in a number of countries. In Australia, the effect of award and minimum wage arrangements have set a floor for wages for most workers but there are concerns that moves to less centralised wage bargaining would give rise to very low wages for some workers.

Once again, the Aussie battler knew this at the last election. She still knows that the opposition policy of emphasising wage increases solely through productivity based enterprise bargaining would apply only to a privileged few. The opposition has retained its Jobsback policy which leaves workers vulnerable. Many women workers are not in a strong bargaining position. For instance, the 16-year-old casual shop assistant working for a major company like Coles Myer or Woolworths is not in a strong position to bargain.

  Under successive accords the Aussie battler has accepted wage restraint, which has allowed for more distributive improvements to the social wage and workplace reforms under considerable industrial harmony. Despite this, opposition policy would see more deregulation without the protection of adequate social or industrial safety nets.

  Enterprise bargaining opposition style would not involve any no-disadvantage test. The Labor government's record of improvements to the position of the disadvantaged groups within the work force would be laid bare to the free hands of the marketplace. The closing gap between men's and women's wages would be put clearly into reverse.

  The federal opposition proposes minimal, if any, award protection, like the Victorian government, which has succeeded in cutting conditions to the core and which recently sought to reduce centrally fixed wage rates to a single across-the-board $8.60 per hour. Even employer groups, such as the Australian Chamber of Manufacturers, have called for a multi-tier minimum wage system and greater consistency between the state and federal industrial relations systems.

  Victorian style unconstrained individual contracts may not survive in conservative vogue with scandals such as the Smith affair. However, despite the announcement of the honourable member for Flinders (Mr Reith) overnight, the federal opposition has made no significant changes to Jobsback except to specify that the Industrial Relations Commission would be able to set and vary safety net wage rates. But any such rate is likely to be similar to the single across-the-board $8.60 per hour being sought by the Victorian government rather than an adequate safety net.

  The federal opposition has also proposed a flat across-the-board youth wage of $3 per hour. The Aussie battler remembers these things.

  The opposition's agenda is not hidden behind its beat-up against the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness incorporated within the unfair dismissal provisions in the Industrial Relations Act. The total number of unfair dismissal claims has not risen over the last 15 months as evidence of an unfair advantage to workers. Rather, there has simply been a shift from state jurisdictions to the federal level.

  It is important to note that these reforms, along with national minimum entitlements, such as the right to a fair minimum wage, 12 months unpaid parental leave, protection for workers with family responsibilities and equal pay for work of equal value, are based on International Labour Organisation conventions and the use of the external affairs powers, which the opposition will not support.

  Members of the opposition have expressed in my time here on several occasions the view that there are too many unionists represented on the government's benches. I have been privileged to represent Australia internationally, where our record of Labor government and trade union participation is well respected. I am pleased to have been part of the reshaping of the trade union movement in heightening its relevance to young women workers.

  I cannot, and I would not wish to, overlook that I am the sole woman Labor representative from Victoria in this federal parliament. I am confident, though, that this will change significantly after the next federal election. Women comprise a disproportionate level of persons in several disadvantaged groups, for instance, low income earners and sole parents.

  I believe that the government has been heading in the right direction in recent policies and initiatives, such as the parental and the maternity allowances. They acknowledge that women are not an homogenous group but rather that they have varying interests which should be addressed.

  The parental allowance acknowledges the work performed by a parent for children at home. The maternity allowance recognises that women often move in and out of the work force at different stages of their working lives.

  However, the opposition seems to continue to perpetuate division between women in the work force and women at home. It has jumped upon the government's record on superannuation as not encompassing women at home without acknowledging the base from which this government's reform agenda arose. That is, very few women previously had access to superannuation at any stage in their lives.

  Labor can be proud of its record of achievements for women. I am committed to working towards further improvements in the position of women throughout Australian society.

  In closing, there are some people whose support I would like to note. I am happy to acknowledge my background of 15 years within the trade union movement. There are many people who have assisted me within the shop assistants union and the broader industrial and political wings of the Labor movement.

  There is one man in particular I will recognise, as have others from this place in commentaries on the Labor Party. I first met Jim Maher as a 16-year-old shop assistant. His career has demonstrated a strong and selfless commitment to improving the lives of ordinary workers. Jim Maher has been a significant force in the modernisation of the trade union movement. His leadership of the shop assistants union saw it grow manyfold to a membership of over 200,000. His stewardship within the union was well ahead of current initiatives promoting the participation of women and young workers within trade union structures.

  The vast experiences I have had access to from within the union movement commenced, for instance, with an early version of the current ACTU recruitment traineeships. Many of these experiences have been as a consequence of the support of Jim Maher.

  My parents have also been a significant support. Their guidance and friendship have been and will continue to be vital components of my life. Finally, my presence here—or should I say our presence here—would not be possible without the unconditional support of my husband Daryl. My confidence is that we will meet the significant challenges that lie ahead. In conclusion, I look forward to participating in the framing of our nation's future identity to reflect the Australian ethos of a fair go.