MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – Employment and Industrial Relations
10 March 1999
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.58 p.m.)—Australians like the idea of a fair umpire. They understand that employers and employees sometimes have differing interests. They also understand that these differences do not need to be solved by out-and-out conflict; that they can be solved and are best solved by discussion and negotiation. If differences cannot be resolved, then an impartial and fair umpire intervenes and adjudicates the dispute. But the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, who is walking out of the chamber, does not understand this. He does not understand that Australians believe in a fair go. He is the minister for scapegoating. He believes that the role of the government is as a crusader for big business interests. In his own words, he is `on the side of private capital’. He believes the government should take sides in industrial disputes. He believes the government should intervene in Industrial Relations Commission hearings and help employers seek injunctions against industrial action.
We have seen the saga of the Hunter Valley Coalmine No. 1 dispute when he actually promoted a view that the CFMEU and Rio Tinto should just slug it out, regardless of the impact on employment, on the economy and on local living standards. It amazes me that the current minister has not learnt any lessons from the Patrick fiasco of last year. The thousands of ordinary citizens who joined with the MUA at peaceful assemblies around the nation surely should have shown Mr Reith that Australians do not like their government taking a partisan role in industrial relations.
But what did we see? A series of question times in which little by little the information came out. It was like the script of a bad movie: Dubai mercenaries, Army troops being trained, balaclavas, dogs and mace on the wharves. What we saw here was a bad movie with the minister playing the role of a cross between an angry Mr Sheen and Rambo on Viagra charging in on the waterfront on the side of private capital.
This experience surely should have shown Mr Reith the advantages of a well regulated industrial relations system. Instead, what we saw in the minister’s leaked document was a hard-right ideological manifesto secretly delivered to the Prime Minister. Once the document’s contents were revealed, he ended up releasing it to the press gallery himself, complete with attachments. The community division caused by tactics used during the wharf dispute does not worry him. Instead, he presses for the acceleration of labour market deregulation. He wants to further reduce the ability of the Industrial Relations Commission to resolve disputes fairly and peacefully. He wants to pare back the safety net role of awards to a bare minimum and introduce even lower wages for the long-term unemployed and workers in regional areas. What this minister wants is an American style working poor: low wage, low skills, people who are forced to work in two or even three jobs just to have enough money to feed their families.
Mr Reith proposes incentives to employers to hire the long-term unemployed as follows:
Incentives to employers to hire the long-term unemployed could be supplemented by considering the introduction of a discounted wage for the long-term unemployed . . . and by exempting the long-term unemployed for a defined period from the unfair dismissal provisions . . .
It is not enough that the long-term unemployed have suffered so much; they are to be stigmatised. And even when they find a job they are to be standing next to their fellow worker on less pay and with no ability to fight back if they are sacked by an unfair employer. It is saying to the long-term unemployed, `You will be forever second-class citizens.’ And this is all to hide the government’s pathetic effort on long-term unemployment which, despite their saying the economy is going so well, has increased from 28.4 per cent by five per cent up to a January 1999 rate of 33.6 per cent.
Of course, this minister tried to take on the MUA and he did not do too well. So he has decided now to fight it a different way. He could not win against the men of the MUA, so he will fight the boys and girls of Australia. And that is why he has introduced this youth exploitation bill which was rejected in the Senate the other night. In proposing this bill, this government alleged that it was `attempting to protect the competitive position of young people in the labour market’. The reality is that this bill, if reintroduced, will result in low paid young workers who will be exploited by ruthless companies with the assistance of this government. Every time a wage increase is argued for in this country, it is argued against by the forces of capital which Peter Reith represents, on the grounds that it will cost jobs. We heard exactly the same argument against equal pay for women. It is appropriate that in the week in which we have had International Women’s Day those arguments should be confined to the dustbin of history.
Contrary to what this government would like the Australian people to believe, the union movement has taken a mature and sensible approach to the issue of junior rates of pay over the years. This fairness and equity has been achieved in certain industries by moving away from age based wage setting and implementing a competency based or skills acquired system of wage fixation. And what is wrong with that? But the minister’s attitude on this is consistent with the way he continually misleads the Australian public.
Regarding unfair dismissals, when he introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill (No. 2), he said in this House on 26 November 1997:
The exemption applies only to businesses employing 15 or fewer employees. This size of small business was chosen because of the precedent provided by the Employment Protection Act 1982 (NSW), introduced by the Wran government . . .
What nonsense. That legislation was in fact to apply to people who were redundant in the wake of the 1981-82 recession. There is a massive difference. If the minister for industrial relations does not understand the difference between termination and redundancy, then I think he should go and have a look again. It is typical of this minister that in introducing draconian reactionary legislation he tries to blame someone else—in this case, the Wran Labor government, when even the Greiner government and the Fahey government in New South Wales did not try to move down that track.
We see it again with his statement about AWAs. We had the commitment that no worker would be worse off under the Howard government. And we argued against the government’s proposals at the election, because we said that once people changed jobs employers could exploit them by saying, `Either you sign this AWA or you do not get a job and the person behind you in the queue will take it.’ It is becoming standard practice. There is now a test case before the Federal Court to see if this take it or leave it approach indeed amounts to duress. It is quite clear in my mind that it does.
What we see in this minister—whether you look at disputes such as the maritime dispute, whether you look at the issue of youth wages, whether you look at AWAs, whether you look at the unfair dismissal legislation—is one who is partisan and ideologically driven. We see a minister who stands up every time for the interests of private capital. But it is not getting the minister too far, it must be said, because, looking around the chamber here, I am doing a bit better than the minister. Here he is, a challenger for the leadership, and he just got into double figures. If you count the minister himself, there were 10 people in the chamber whilst he debated a matter of public importance which was seriously questioning and condemning his performance.
I believe that there is something else that has got to be said about the youth wages legislation which highlights how partisan this minister is. He talks all the time about these individuals and attempts to reduce what is effectively a structural problem to the relationship between an individual, the young woman on the front page of the Daily Telegraph today, the government and the industrial relations system. I think this partisan minister would be taken a bit more seriously if just once he had something to say about someone like Bob Joss and his package when he walked away.
Mr Mossfield—How much did he get?
Mr ALBANESE—The estimated package over the six-year period in salary and in shares is $45 million. But we do not see anything about that. If you look at salaries at the top end of town, we see increases of 50 per cent in one year for the head of the Macquarie Bank, 40 per cent for the head of the Commonwealth Bank and 54 per cent of the head of ANZ. We see all that, but we have a minister who has nothing to say about it. He talks about young people trying to earn a quid, and we hear rhetoric from these people over here that does not stand up to scrutiny. (Time expired)
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.