Nov 6, 2020

SPEECH – HARVESTER ORATION – FRIDAY, 6 NOVEMBER 2020

 

ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY

 

HARVESTER ORATION NOVEMBER 6, 2020

 

Introduction

 

We are virtually gathered to honour one of the great foundation stones of the fair go.

 

The Harvester Judgment saw workers as humans, not just organic machines to be put to work until they were spent.

 

As Bob Hawke put it:

 

“The philosophy was so right and so in tune with the Australian ethos that it spread. … I think it is impossible to overstate the significance of both the judgment and its author, Henry Bournes Higgins.”

 

Higgins was driven by the desire to meet what he described as:

 

“…the normal needs of an average employee, regarded as a human being in a civilised community.”

 

His was a desire to strengthen the foundations of society, the very thing Josh Frydenberg’s hero Margaret Thatcher insisted did not exist.

 

It was a recognition that an economy should work for people, not the other way around.

 

A determination to sever the anchor chain of destiny that once meant the arc of your life was determined by the circumstances of your birth.

 

Higgins called for “fair and reasonable remuneration for the employees” that would allow them “a condition of frugal comfort estimated by current human standards.”

 

It was a crucial first step.

 

To lift people above the reach of desperation is to give them opportunity.

 

That opportunity that gives us the greatest chance of the equality we strive for as a nation for what remains the most Australian desire of all: the fair go.

 

It is what drives us and energises us as the great labour movement – Labor Party and unions together.

 

Opportunity. Equality. Dignity.

 

Of course, we are a very different nation to when the Harvester Judgment was handed down in 1907.

 

Back then, your options were a lot more plentiful if you were white and male – so the Harvester Judgment wasn’t totally free of the flaws of the era.

 

Nevertheless, the glow that it cast let us see the path ahead more clearly.

 

And right now, we need all the light we can get.

 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought us to a crossroads. We are faced with both a challenge — and an opportunity.

 

We may be comforted by the idea of simply going back to the way things were. But the pandemic has shown us we can aim higher than that.

 

We have a once-in-a-generation chance to rebuild our economy and our country for the better.

 

To reset, to refresh and to renew.

 

To launch a recovery that delivers a stronger, fairer and more secure future, for all Australians.

 

That’s the path we are on, and it’s a path that began with the Harvester judgment.

 

 

A Government entrenching unfairness

 

It’s a path most of the nation is on – with the glaring exception of this Government’s front bench.

 

The tone was set early. Shortly after he appointed his first Cabinet, Tony Abbott spoke like a man who’d surprised himself. He said:

 

“I’m obviously disappointed that there aren’t more women in Cabinet.”

 

Is it in any wonder that seven years later, the party of Abbott managed to construct a Budget that created a trillion dollars of debt – but managed to overlook half the population?

 

This is a party that places all its faith in that important but conscience-free force we call the market.

 

A party that clings to trickle-down economics, which rains down misery on working people.

 

A party that is incapable of planning ahead, only reacting to events as they are already unfolding.

 

Before the pandemic ever reached our shores, Australia was sliding backwards.

 

The Coalition had already doubled debt.

 

Economic growth was already below trend.

 

Wages were stagnant.

 

Productivity was going backwards.

 

Business investment was in decline.

 

Household debt was at record levels.

 

Manufacturing was struggling.

 

And for many workers, even that promise of frugal comfort was slipping out of reach.

 

 

The war on manufacturing

 

Under normal circumstances, we would have been together in Sunshine, once home to the Sunshine Harvester Works, which gave rise to the Harvester Judgment.

 

At its peak, it was the largest manufacturing plant in Australia and employed nearly 3000 people.

 

All that’s left is the gate.

 

It’s a sobering symbol, one that is in danger of being replicated in too many locations.

 

The pandemic has exposed the terrible damage seven years of Liberal Government has done to Australian manufacturing.

 

On their watch, Australia has lost 76,000 manufacturing jobs.

 

Look at Gellibrand, the electorate so ably represented by our host, Tim Watts.

 

When the naval dockyard at Williamstown was mothballed in 2015, so was a workforce of 1,100.

 

When Toyota put the brakes on its production line at Altona West, 2,500 people lost their jobs.

 

The ripples from every one of those lost jobs spreads through communities.

 

The threat of job cuts also looms over the Qenos plant in Altona.

 

The biggest plastics manufacturer in Australia, Qenos is being pummelled by the high gas prices from the Government’s failure to deliver a workable energy policy.

 

In Western Australia last week, BP announced plans to shut its Kwinana Refinery. It renders hollow every vow Scott Morrison has made about ensuring our sovereign fuel security.

 

As usual, he’s all talk, no delivery.

 

And in the depths of recession, it will rob 650 workers and AWU members of their livelihoods and everything that is tied up in having a job.

 

It’s not enough for the Prime Minister to say he’s disappointed. He has to show leadership.

 

And he has to make sure a similar fate doesn’t await the Mobil Altona Refinery.

 

This Government cannot let chemical manufacturing in Melbourne’s West go the way of ship building and car manufacturing.

 

When industry is not being damaged by policy paralysis or driven offshore, it is being thrown away.

 

When I visited Varley engineering in Newcastle last month, AMWU delegate Dave summed it up:

 

“(The NSW) Premier sends all our jobs overseas with our tax money paying for them – while we can make it here. And then she insults all of us by saying we haven’t got the skills to build it here.”

 

Instead, we see railway rolling stock imported from overseas – only for our skilled local railworkers left with the job of making them fit for purpose.

 

If we built them here, we could get it right first time, create Australian jobs and build Australian skills.

 

Thanks to the Andrews Government, we see the benefit in Dandenong, Bendigo and Ballarat.

 

 

Insecure work

 

The pandemic has also exposed the deficiencies of our existing regime of workplace protection, not least the growing insecurity of work.

 

This has had especially tragic consequences in the aged care sector, with staff who are low-paid and undervalued, even though they are providing the most intimate care to the most vulnerable people.

 

I’ve heard the stories directly from aged-care workers. HSU members such as carers Annie and Virginia, co-ordination officer Eric, and recreational activities officer Sanu.

 

Many workers in the sector have had to juggle multiple jobs at multiple sites. The danger that represents in a pandemic has become only too clear.

 

The loss of life in aged care homes in Melbourne’s West – particularly in the seats of Gellibrand, Lalor and Fraser – has been tragic. What deepens the sense of tragedy is just how avoidable it all was.

 

Among the many people we lost was the great Paddy Garritty – unionist, seaman, a friend of the arts and the worker alike. May his spirit live on.

 

While we mourn Paddy and so many others, we are grateful to every unionised workplace that has slowed the spread of coronavirus by demanding more COVID-safe conditions.

 

The UWU has done a lot of important work in this area, and it hasn’t always been welcomed.

 

You can see how the alternative plays out.

 

Look at the casual workers, gig workers, contractors, freelancers and labour hire workers who lack even the basic protection of sick pay, who’ve had to choose between getting tested for COVID-19 then self-isolating without pay – or ignoring their symptoms and going to work.

 

We’ve seen the growth in gig work. It can be a good option for those who want the flexibility this work can provide, but it must be just that: an option.

 

When casual or gig work becomes the only resort for workers who find themselves with no choice, we are only adding to the numbers of vulnerable workers painted into a corner, trapped in insecure work.

 

The daily reality for these Australians stands in stark contrast to the glib mantras offered up by a smug Prime Minister:

 

“If you have a go, you’ll get a go”;

 

and

 

“If you’re good at your job, you’ll get a job.”

 

These are just hollow slogans.

 

Fewer Australians can access the basic entitlements and protections earlier generations took for granted.

 

A third of today’s labour force are in arrangements with unpredictable, fluctuating hours and pay, and few or no protections such as sick or holiday leave or superannuation benefits.

 

While many entered these working arrangements voluntarily for lifestyle or other reasons, others have little choice and, compelled by financial necessity, agree to an arrangement with few upsides, but many downsides.

 

Let’s put security back into work so that people don’t have to choose between their bank account and their health — and the health of others.

 

The Harvester Judgment tilted the balance that little bit more in favour of workers. We cannot stand by idly as the balance is tilted back.

 

 

Not even miners are safe

 

But that is what is happening. We are witnessing the growing casualisation of the workforce and the slow, systematic stripping of the protections so hard won over decades by the union movement.

 

Even in the mining industry.

 

What’s happening was laid bare in a report commissioned by the Mining and Energy Union – a report which I had the honour to launch in March in Mackay, in the company of coal mine workers.

 

What the report told us was that over the past five years, there has been a sharp decline in direct, permanent employment by mining companies and a sharp increase in use of labour hire contractors to provide mineworkers.

 

Casual labour hire has grown out of control in the coal mining industry.

 

In many Queensland coal mines, more than half the workforce is made up of casual workers.

 

LNP senator Matt Canavan doesn’t talk about that much when he’s out there playing Hi-Vis dress-ups.

 

This costs regional mining communities hundreds of millions of dollars in lost wages and economic activity.

 

If you’re working for a labour hire company, chances are you are getting up to 40 per cent less than a permanent worker – even if that permanent worker is someone you work alongside doing the same job.

 

Even if it’s a permanent worker with the same skills and qualifications. The same dedication to the job. The same hours. The same risks.

 

We have two classes of worker.

 

If you’re a casual you don’t have annual leave. You don’t have sick leave. You don’t have job security. And that’s even counting those casuals who are performing specialist roles.

 

For Labor, the equation is simple: same work, same pay. That’s it.

 

What’s going on in the mining industry is both a microcosm, and a warning.

 

We are seeing the consequences of the weakness in our current workplace  laws that companies use outsourcing strategies to bypass union-negotiated enterprise agreements.

 

But it’s not all losses. In 2018, the miners union had an important victory in the Federal Court.

 

The Court found that Union member Paul Skene could not properly be considered a casual under the Fair Work Act due to the regular and continuous nature of his work on a fixed roster.

 

As a consequence, Paul was entitled to receive accrued annual leave pay on termination of his employment.

 

So many of the mining industry’s casuals are in the same situation.

 

So, what has been the Federal Government’s response to this moment of justice?

 

It has spent more than $420,000 of taxpayers’ money in the Rossato Case, a phony case set up by labour hire company WorkPac with the intention of overturning the Skene decision.

 

Nothing could more starkly illustrate their priorities.

 

This is after all a Government that expended so much energy trying to ram through the Ensuring Integrity Bill, an unjust, undemocratic law that would have singled out the union movement for draconian treatment.

 

A Government that has spent close to $1.5 million of taxpayers’ money on court costs related to the illegal Australian Federal Police raid on the Australian Workers Union.

 

Yet when it comes to a National Integrity Commission that would shine a light on the Government’s own activities, there’s been delay after delay.

 

If you are a worker they will put you under a microscope.  But when they pay $30 million to a Liberal Party donor for land at Badgerys Creek worth
$3 million, they call it a bargain.

 

The many recent revelations coming out of Senate Estimates should give you a strong hint as to why they are so reticent about an integrity commission.

 

They are either looking after themselves or looking after mates.

 

Scott Morrison is less Prime Minister and more First Mate.

 

He just doesn’t want to face the sort of scrutiny he demands of you.

 

 

Childcare

 

This Government’s mantras about jobs are at odds with their actions.

 

Take childcare.

 

Right around Australia, instead of childcare supporting families where both parents want or need to work…the costs – and the tax system – actively discourage this.

 

Working mums are copping the worst of it – yet again.

 

For millions of working women, it’s simply not worth working more than three days a week.

 

This derails careers, it deprives working women of opportunities they’ve earned. And it costs workplaces – not just day-to-day productivity but years of valuable experience and knowledge and skills.

 

There was no mention of this from the Government in its budget that left women behind.

 

When this was raised, they showed how out of touch they are by asserting women could drive on roads too.

 

The fact is women have been more vulnerable to the negative financial effects of the pandemic.

 

And they have been more at risk health wise, with jobs on the coronavirus frontline dominated by women.

 

And yet, as the SDA so aptly put it, faced with a pink recession, the Government has focused on a blue recovery.

 

It’s another economic opportunity fumbled.

 

This will not happen on Labor’s watch.

 

As I announced in my Budget Reply, a Labor Government will remove the annual cap on the childcare subsidy, eliminating the disincentive to work more hours.

 

We will increase the maximum childcare subsidy to 90 per cent – cutting costs for 97 per cent of all families in the system.

 

This will boost women’s workforce participation, boost productivity and get Australia working again.

 

Building a childcare system that works for families will turbocharge productivity in workplaces, delivering a much-needed boost in economic growth of up to $4 billion a year.

 

Early education is vital for our children’s future. And childcare is an essential service for families – and for the economy.

 

This will allow families to decide their own work/home balance.

 

 

Superannuation

 

During the pandemic, the Government has moved with lightning speed to encourage Australians to conduct a mass ramraid on their own superannuation.

 

By the end of October, $35 billion had been withdrawn.

 

For the Liberal Party it was the realisation of long-held dream.

 

The people hit hardest by this ideological fantasy have been casual workers and women.  Left with no alternative they have taken the one choice they felt they had been left with.

 

Now 600,000 Australians have no super left at all.

 

The shadow of this act of economic vandalism will be so long, it will darken future generations.

 

This calamity wasn’t just allowed to happen, it was actively encouragedfor no purpose other than to plug the gap left by the Government’s own shortcomings.

 

Even before the pandemic, women were on average retiring with super balances half that of men.

 

Last year, I had a meeting with members from the ASU, the ANMF and the SDA – women who have slogged away serving the community as local government workers, nurses, and retail staff.

 

They made it clear the superannuation situation for women was unjust — and unjustifiable.

 

We’ve seen the ongoing attacks against the 12 per cent legislated increase in superannuation, even though it is not only in the interests of those in the workforce, but also in our national interest.

 

We must repel those attacks and support the legislated increase to 12 per cent.

 

The $3 trillion in superannuation has provided a ballast for our economy and a major source of infrastructure investment.

 

 

Labor values

 

When the Government has got it right during the pandemic, it’s because their actions have been based on Labor values.

 

But in so many instances, the Government said no before they said yes.

 

When Labor first proposed that the Government consider wage subsidies, the Prime Minister initially rejected it, complaining that it would be “very dangerous’’.

 

Then he adopted it.

 

We saw the pattern repeated with support for renters. An eviction moratorium. Paid pandemic leave. Medicare rebates for Telehealth. Mental healthcare.

 

But even when they finally responded, they often failed on implementation.

 

JobKeeper was poorly targeted, and so many have missed out.

 

I listened to stories from workers at Sydney’s legendary Enmore Theatre in my own electorate – Fiona, a production designer, and Scott, a theatre lighting technician.

 

Both are proud MEAA members. Both talented workers who enhance the lives of their fellow Australians. Both were left behind by the government. All they have is a promise that’s worth no more than an IOU scribbled on a Post It note.

 

I’ve talked with hospitality workers and UWU members left in limbo by JobSeeker uncertainty, or left out altogether because they’re casuals, or because of their visa status.

 

I’ve visited them in person, or when COVID-19 restrictions made that impossible, we met on Zoom.

 

I heard from Tiff, a chef of 10 years experience – left in the lurch by the Government because of her visa status.

 

I heard from JP, a casual at the SA Jockey Club. He was deemed ineligible for JobKeeper and has had to turn to JobSeeker while not only raising his two children on his own, but his sister’s four children as well.

 

I met with Virgin Australia employees Kara, Flynn, Scott and Ken—cabin crew, customer service, maintenance staff. All members of the TWU and ASU/USU. They have all been left to fend for themselves by a Government that prefers to subsidise Clive Palmer’s private jet.

 

It’s so hard for so many Australians. For many, it’s getting harder.

 

We have a Government that is even willing to cut JobKeeper and JobSeeker – in a city still in lockdown. Try as I might, I can’t think of a polite way to describe an act that low.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way. And just as Henry Bournes Higgins did 113 years ago, we can take what we have and create something better.

 

 

A future of jobs, jobs and more jobs

 

Despite the challenges of the present, I am optimistic about the future.

 

A year ago, I delivered my first Vision Statement in Perth. It was titled Jobs & the Future of Work, and one of the subjects it covered was how our road to a clean energy future is paved with jobs.

 

It’s a theme I’ve stuck with. A theme that has many backers across the political spectrum.

 

Last week, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to impress upon Scott Morrison the positive truth of tackling climate change.

 

According to the official Downing Street account of the phone call, Johnson said that “…the UK’s experience demonstrates that driving economic growth and reducing emissions can go hand in hand”.

 

Scott Morrison didn’t listen and deleted the reference in their own records in an act of Orwellian deceit.

 

But reality isn’t waiting for Scott Morrison’s approval.

 

Reality is marching ahead in Altona. The site of the Toyota plant is to be converted into a renewable energy hub producing green hydrogen for transport.

 

Eventually, it could even become part of the hydrogen export industry, which Chief Scientist Alan Finkel says could become a $1.7 billion industry within a decade.

 

And while the Liberal Government in NSW dismisses the talents of locals and looks overseas, it is state Labor governments that are showing faith in Australian workers and their skills.

 

It’s happening in Queensland and in Western Australia — and here in Victoria.

 

I’d be happy to introduce the NSW Premier to the rail manufacturing workers I’ve met.

 

She should go see those workers at the Bombardier factory in Dandenong and contemplate just how significant it is every time they put a “Made in Victoria” sticker on a new carriage.

 

Or she could go to Newport — home to a museum that shows our rail history, and the High Capacity Metro Trains project, which, thanks to the clearheaded vision of the Andrews Government, shows us its future.

 

And that’s what the annual Harvester Oration is about. Revisiting those moments in the past when we really got it right and using it to create a better future.

 

We can make this once-in-a-century crisis the beginning of a new era of Australian prosperity and Australian fairness.

 

A future made in Australia.

 

A future in which no one is held back, no one is left behind.

 

A future that takes the promise of Harvester and builds something even greater.