November 09, 2005

I am absolutely opposed to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Any member of this place who genuinely supports working Australians from all walks of life, from all industries and occupations, and any member who genuinely supports Australian families must oppose this bill.

This is a bill that hardworking Australians who understand what the government’s real agenda is have been waiting for with a mixture of fear and concern. They have nervously awaited this bill because the government has now detailed its plans while hiding behind the sweeping statements of what must be considered probably the largest advertising campaign in this country’s history—at least for a government.

They have been dreading the day, ever since 26 May, because they knew that what the government was intending to do was turn Australian workplaces on their heads. Australian people knew it would mean for them that their relative bargaining power on the job was about to be slashed.

Now they have the details, and I have to say that they are worse than expected. With more than 1,200 pages of the bill and explanatory notes tabled 24 hours before the commencement of this debate nobody has had a realistic opportunity to consider its complexities. Nor will they get the opportunity to have their say on the bill through a proper Senate inquiry, because the government has decided to ram it through the parliament before Christmas, skipping any sort of due process and proper scrutiny. What a great Christmas present that is going to make for many Australian families.

On top of the advertisements they have already paid for, working Australians and their families will have the rug pulled out from under them and they will have the shadow of uncertainty cast upon them.

Members opposite have invariably trotted out their horror stories of how unions have allegedly interfered with business in their electorate and their stories of how no employer they know would ever take advantage of these laws.

We have heard and will continue to hear that these reforms are necessary, to secure Australia’s ongoing prosperity, to secure higher wages and to create more jobs in the future. I say to those members opposite: do not believe your own propaganda.

I doubt very much that the government will be so bold as to admit that its true agenda is to create a system governing employment relationships that will place the majority of power overwhelmingly in the hands of employers, while seeking to undercut the functioning system for establishing wages and conditions.

I doubt the government will be so bold as to ever admit that this bill is aimed at destroying the union movement and making sure that the profit share of the national income continues to rise while reductions in the minimum wage mean that the unit cost of labour will continue to fall. They may not admit it—I note they have not admitted it so far—but make no mistake: these are the objects of this bill.

I do not come to this debate without some experience in industrial relations. The government often cites the fact that, among the ranks of the opposition, there are a number of members who were once trade union officials. I am one of them. I also operated a business that assisted employers and employees negotiate with a view to reaching mutually acceptable outcomes. I understand both sides of the employment relationship. I doubt any members of the government can make such a claim.

I spent many years representing the interests of working men and women, negotiating on their behalf and appearing before various state and Commonwealth industrial tribunals. As a union official I honestly believe that I played a significant role in assisting various Australian businesses address both domestic and international competitiveness while delivering job security and better pay and conditions for their employees. That is what unions do.

The union movement understands that a business needs to operate, because they create the jobs for its members. However, what a union does object to is their members being exploited.

Any captain of industry will tell you that there is always going to be a certain level of workplace dispute. That is inevitable, given the different drivers, needs and outlooks between those running businesses and those who work for the enterprise solely to provide for a family.

A businessman reports to his shareholders and his financiers, while a worker’s economic responsibility is to his or her family. Therefore, industrial relations is more than just another economic model. It must be responsive to the everyday needs and preoccupations of people. Workers are more than just a resource, more than just another business input. They are people and they are members of our community.

Our industrial laws were established to temper the excesses of different views, brought together through employment relationships so that the differences could be resolved quickly and cooperatively. The parties had access to an independent umpire, who had power to assist in the resolution of disputes based on the principles of fairness and equity. This bill throws all that out in favour of introducing market forces into employment relationships.

My experience from a long-term and direct involvement in the field gives me a unique insight into the interaction and interplay between those on both sides of the employment equation. I know for a fact that the changes we have before us today will not make Australia a better place and will not create the great economic utopia that this government claims they will.

Despite the claims of the government, and the $55 million already splashed out on advertising, the reason the government is embarking on this so-called article of faith is not to produce a fairer or better industrial relations system; it is about realising a dream. It is to realise a dream that has been around since HR Nicholls himself: the dream of ridding the workplace of social justice.

For more than a century we have had an industrial relations system that has treated people as more than a mere unit of production, and rightly so. Justice Higgins, in the Harvester case in 1907, determined the minimum wage for Australian workers would be based on a person’s ability to provide a reasonable standard of living for himself and his family.

Our system then established a sound guiding principle: it would consider the value of people not simply as elements of production but as providers for families. A standard was set and a system was founded on the key principles of fairness, decency, equity and social justice.

This bill before us today wipes all of those principles away and replaces them with another set of principles that encourage division, deceit, manipulation and exploitation.

I cannot help but think that the Prime Minister, fuelled by a desire to be all things American, will now go on to encourage us to take phrases like, ‘Let’s kick some butt’ or ‘break some heads’—or, his favourite, possibly: ‘you’re fired’—straight from the Hollywood scripts and into Australian workplaces.

This sort of attitude is certainly not the attitude that encourages the great Australian tradition of mateship that the Prime Minister claims he so admires.

It will no longer be a case of looking after your workmate; it will be a case of out-negotiating your mate.

Nice guys will finish last in a world where workers will be faced with the employer’s way or the highway.

‘Work Choices’ simply means no choice for working Australians.

I am not sure that Australian workers and their families will have the same love affair with the American culture when they understand what it is like to work for tips. The United States may have their George W, but let me assure you that we very much have our very own John W, who is clearly just as destructive and just as divisive.

But of course the Labor Party and the unions are not the only ones who have been critical of the government’s agenda when it comes to industrial relations. The long delay since the changes were floated in May has led to many community leaders and representatives expressing their concerns about the changes.

Cardinal George Pell, shepherd to Australia’s five million Catholics, has expressed his deep concerns saying:

“Some of these trans-national corporations are very, very powerful indeed and l think we need strong and effective and humane and altruistic unions to continue a dialogue with these people. I am certainly not supportive of a radical rethink of the unions. I think that’s gone far enough; you might even argue it’s gone a bit too far.”

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, has also contributed. He said:

“It seems at this point that the proposals shift the differential of power in favour of employers, who can have a propensity to mistreat workers in the interests of business.”

Reverend Dr Dean Drayton, of the Uniting Church, commented:

“Workers are not commodities in the service of greater profits—they are people trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families.”

These community leaders are concerned about the government’s view that the only means by which we can compete is by cutting Australian wages to levels on par with those of China, India and Indonesia. The community leaders understand the impact that that will have on society, families and individuals.

When church leaders outlined their concern, how did the Prime Minister respond?

Did he allay their concerns by guaranteeing that no-one will be worse off?

No. He simply responded by saying that churches do not have a monopoly on moral thought—an example of the extreme, arrogant and out-of-touch attitude of this Prime Minister and his government, which is reflected in this bill.

The most interesting thing about this bill is that it uses the corporations power of the Commonwealth to introduce uniform laws in all the states. The collective wisdom of multiple law firms—and thousands upon thousands of billable hours—has been used to draft legislation. The government has gone to great lengths to find loopholes to allow it to achieve its objective, which is to gazump the industrial relations powers of the Australian Constitution.

The appropriateness of this approach matters little—the government is concerned with only one thing: the result. Nothing will get in the way of the conservative dream.

In my first speech in this place, I said I had grave concerns that this government’s industrial relations agenda would go beyond the intended goal of weakening the trade union movement.

I have been involved in industrial relations from all perspectives, including being a member of an industrial tribunal, and I believe that these changes will profoundly weaken the position of individual workers in relation to their employers.

Does the government seriously think that people will believe that, by stripping the power of the industrial umpire and forcing workers to go head to head with their bosses, that wages will be higher, working conditions better and life generally will improve?

According to the government’s rose-coloured-glasses view of the world, altruism alone will cause employers, businesses, international corporations and indeed corporate raiders to treat employees fairly and equitably in a balanced employment relationship. Clearly this must be the case, because the government is exempting near on 98 per cent of businesses from the application of the unfair dismissal laws.

The government is giving power to sack at will and it seriously believes that no-one will abuse it! How stupid does the government think people are?

I wonder whether the same companies should also be exempted from the ACCC oversight and from other forms of corporate policing because they are such good corporate citizens.

I wonder too whether the actions of companies that have already been subject to criticism by the courts for acting harshly, unjustly, unconscionably, as well as exploiting and taking unfair advantage of the young, low paid and largely unrepresented workers will also receive this government’s tick of approval. If employees no longer need protection because businesses have proved they can be trusted so absolutely, surely the government can dispense with the services of Graeme Samuel and his team of corporate regulators. I think not.

The government believes that curtailing the excesses of the corporate world in some business dealings is necessary but that there is no need to curb their excesses when it comes to their dealings with employees. In fact, this government encourages it.

Let us consider some of the provisions of the bill and see exactly what is in store for working Australians.

Under section 7J, fairness will no longer be considered in the wage-setting process of the Fair Pay Commission.

Under section 91C, the 38-hour week will be retained but can be averaged over 12 months. Hence, overtime will effectively be obsolete.

Under section 96D, employers will be able to make their own greenfields agreements, unilaterally setting the terms and conditions of a site. Hence, any chance of negotiation is gone.

Under section 104(6), duress does not apply when an employee is required to enter into an AWA—that is, you will be forced to enter into an individual contract.

Under section 112, the minister can terminate a bargaining period at the stroke of a pen. Fighting for your rights will be denied.

Under section 170CEE, employees can be excluded from the remaining unfair dismissal provisions if the dismissal is for operational reasons. Hence, nobody will be protected from unfair dismissal.

Under section 100A, regardless of whether there is a collective agreement in place, an employer is free to pursue individual contracts with employees.

Under section 99B, there will be no scrutiny of AWAs except for prohibited content, which is yet to be determined by this minister.

The requirement to bargain in good faith has been removed and collective bargaining will be at the discretion of the employer. As a consequence, you can be forced onto an individual contract.

The no-disadvantage test has been removed. You will be worse off.

The provisions of the bill also mean that, on the expiry of an agreement, everything automatically defaults to the five minimum conditions.

This means people will always be negotiating from the minimum just to keep the wages and conditions they already enjoy.

This is not reform; this is a weapon of mass destruction aimed at working Australians and their families.

But the most arrogant thing that the government has done is to flatly refuse to give a commitment to working Australians that nobody will be worse off.

It surprises me that the Prime Minister is so reluctant to give this guarantee, because the member for Macarthur certainly has not been. An article entitled ‘Workers will not suffer, MP says’, which appeared in the Macarthur Chronicle on 6 September this year, said:

“... every worker in the Macarthur area will be better off in a federal industrial system Macarthur Federal Liberal MP Pat Farmer has promised.”

If the member for Macarthur is so willing to promise that his constituents will not be worse off, why won’t the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister will not do it because he knows that it is simply not true.

The Prime Minister has ducked and weaved for months when confronted with this question and has continually cited his record as his guarantee. I can assure the Prime Minister that the people of south-west Sydney know his record when it comes to looking after their interests and consider it to be cold comfort when it comes to the future of their wages and working conditions.

There is no doubt that Australia has to continue the process of reform to build on its successes, but the narrowness of this government’s productivity agenda is astounding.

Previous Labor governments have shown that you do not need to attack unions or hold the threat of dismissal over workers’ heads to achieve economic success and productivity gains.

Australia needs an industrial relations system that is based on fairness and the fundamental principles that provide for a proper safety net of minimum conditions, an independent umpire, the right to associate, the right to collective bargain, the right to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions, and protection from exploitation and unfair dismissal.

This bill is poles apart from this goal. No matter how much money the government spends on advertising, the Australian public will not believe that they are better off being forced to be pitted against their boss to negotiate the terms of one of the most significant relationships they are involved in.

In concluding my comments today I congratulate the ACTU and Unions NSW for their efforts to bring to the attention of the community the true nature of the government’s agenda.

I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the members of Unions Macarthur.

I make the commitment to every police officer, teacher, nurse, ambulance officer, fire fighter, factory worker, shop assistant, hairdresser, dental nurse, office worker, child-care worker, bricklayer, builder, electrician, plumber, hospitality worker—in fact, every worker in my electorate—that I will continue to fight against these changes and will continue to stand up for their rights at work.

I support Labor’s amendment, and I absolutely oppose this bill. Members opposite who really believe in fairness, decency and family values must also oppose this bill.