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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 41

Senator FORSHAW (3:22 PM) —One of the phrases that often gets thrown around in debates like this is the ‘gender gap’, particularly in relation to issues to do with wage levels. One of the other gaps that is relevant to this debate is the gap between the rhetoric and the reality—the rhetoric of the government, which we have just heard two of the speakers from the government engage in, and the reality of what is facing workers in this country, particularly those who are low paid, those who are under awards and those who are relying on the minimum wage. In many of those cases they are women workers.

Senator Payne rattled off statistics about what this government has supposedly done to assist women to rejoin the work force as a matter of choice. The reality is that for many women it is not a matter of choice; it has become a matter of absolute necessity. In some cases they have had to return to the work force earlier than they would have otherwise wanted to because of the economic pressure, the financial pressure, on their families. Clearly, we all support choice, but it should be a choice that is able to be entered into freely, not one that is forced upon families, as we have increasingly seen under this government. The government talks about low interest rates. What it fails to mention is that if you look at the proportion of household income that has to be paid today on a home loan you will see that it has gone up substantially. That is also the case if you look at levels of credit card debt and at the pressures on families right across the board.

Senator Payne referred to what the government has done with the payment of the $600 baby bonus and the other announcements that were made prior to the election last year—the election bribery that it engaged in. What we know is that there are thousands and thousands of families across this country who have been hit with debts from Centrelink for the last two or three years because of the policies followed by this government. Many cases were drawn to my attention and to the attention of other members of parliament. Mothers were ringing up our offices saying, ‘I’ve just got this bill from Centrelink to repay a large amount of the family allowance.’ Those women were not ringing up to give plaudits to the government for their supposed assistance to them. They were very critical of the extreme financial pressure that they were facing.

I want to turn to one critical aspect of this whole debate, and that is the role of the minimum wage and this government’s approach. We have heard in recent times Minister Andrews, the Prime Minister and others talking up how, once they get control of this chamber, they are going to ram through their industrial relations policies, such as getting rid of the unfair dismissal laws. When you have a work force in this country, many of them women, who are in low-paid jobs, in casual employment—the vast majority are in casual employment—one of the only protections they have under the industrial relations system in this country is against unfair dismissal. That is going to disappear under this government after July.

One of the other protections they have is the right to an award rate of pay, a minimum rate of pay. I have had some experience of this, as have my colleagues Senator George Campbell and Senator Sherry in previous careers: going before the Industrial Relations Commission, the independent umpire, and arguing for national wage increases, for increases in the minimum wage, for workers under awards. What I recall is that time after time, for year after year, the conservatives, the coalition parties, opposed every single one of those national wage increases. I recall the Treasurer, Mr Costello, then an advocate for the National Farmers Federation, getting up and opposing superannuation for award workers in this country, for many of the women and men on basic award rates of pay. He said that they were not entitled to superannuation, and now we hear this government trying to take the credit for increased superannuation coverage for workers. It was a Labor government that introduced it and it was coalition governments in the states and federally under Malcolm Fraser and subsequently under John Howard that opposed that time and time again. (Time expired)