Apr 11, 2006

The Future of Industrial Relations – Speech by Kim Beazley

The Future of Industrial Relations

LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

THE HON KIM C BEAZLEY MP

14TH ANNUAL KINGSLEY LAFFER MEMORIAL LECTURE

UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY

11 APRIL 2006

“I will rip up these laws – and I will build a new system based on Australian values”

Thank you, Professor Lansbury and John McCarthy, and thank you all for the opportunity to speak tonight. This is my second opportunity to address a Sydney University audience in the past month – if I keep going at this rate, I’ll be eligible for an honorary doctorate by speechwork.

Tonight I want to make some announcements about how a Labor Government will protect employees from being unfairly sacked.

Second, I want to torpedo once and for all the absurd claim that the Howard Government’s industrial relations changes offer greater choice or flexibility.

I also want to make some announcements about how under Labor’s system employees and employers will have real choice and flexibility in agreement making.

And finally, I want to outline some key elements of Labor’s industrial relations plan for working Australians, which I will set out in a policy Blueprint in the coming months – a plan that will deliver:

· Proper rights for Australian workers who are unfairly dismissed;

· A strong safety net of minimum awards and conditions;

· An independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions, and to settle disputes:

· The right for employees to bargain collectively for decent wages and conditions:

· The right for workers to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions, and undermine collective bargaining and union representation; and

· The right to join a union and be represented by a union.

Of course there are some things that we can’t talk about tonight with any certainty. We don’t know what the High Court is going to say about the federal structure of the industrial relations system and the corporations power in the Constitution. We can’t have a final view on this until the High Court has ruled.

But I can say this – a fair dinkum national system can only be created if we work with the States – only through a referral of powers, uniform Commonwealth/State legislation or harmonisation. You don’t build a workable national system by Canberra firing a 2,000 page legal missile at the States and then telling the High Court to sort out the mess. The only sensible way forward is to work with the States and build consensus – and that’s what I will do.

But tonight I want to focus on the issues that matter to ordinary Australian working people – the most important part of an industrial relations system.

Last year I stood on the back of a ute and promised to more than half a million Australians watching and listening in the big city streets, town halls and leagues clubs across our land:

When Labor wins government, I am going to rip up these laws.

I stand by those words.

These laws are divisive, extreme, unfair and un-Australian.

I will rip up these laws. I will build a new system based on Australian values. I will restore basic rights and decent protections for working people.

Make no mistake. I have been in public life for almost three decades. And I have fought many battles.

But this is the most important battle I’ve ever fought.

It’s a battle for basic Australian values and the fundamental rights of working families.

Because like the overwhelming majority of Australians, I reject John Howard’s one-sided agenda to take rights away from working people and skew all the rules in favour of unrestrained corporate interests.

I will not have Australian set against Australian in a divisive system of dog-eat-dog individual contracts.

I will not let my country become like the worst parts of America.

I will not allow a permanent underclass to develop in Australia – an army of hard working Australians, forced to hold down two, three or four insecure jobs, working night and day to keep their heads above water, and never getting ahead.

I haven’t spent my life in politics to see the rights that working Australians have fought and won over successive generations, taken away – and worse, taken away by a Prime Minister who didn’t even have the decency to tell us before the last election that he planned to destroy the Australian way.

So this is my message to every Australian worker who fears the loss of their basic rights and entitlements:

I will stand up and fight for you.

This is the Americanisation of Australians’ working lives.

John Howard’s laws mean less job security, a loss of basic entitlements for working people, and a bigger gap between the well-off and the battlers.

These laws give employers the power to take away basic rights of Australian workers like penalty rates, overtime, and redundancy pay.

They take away all unfair dismissal rights from four million Australian workers.

These laws are loaded with one-sided, anti-employee provisions.

And while they take away basic rights from workers, they give just one Government Minister, Kevin Andrews, absolute power over what can be included in a workplace agreement.

I know that for many of you in this audience have expert knowledge of our industrial relations system, and I will discuss some specific aspects of the system tonight.

But let’s remember, it’s not the system that counts.

It’s the people it protects. It’s the family life it helps to build. It’s the kind of society it helps create.

Those are the things that really matter.

Most Australians couldn’t give you chapter and verse about the industrial relations system. They mightn’t even know much about what’s in their workplace agreement or award.

But I’ll tell you what they do know:

They understand the values of fairness and decency. And they know when they’re being ripped off, and when John Howard isn’t talking straight with them.

They know that until now, it’s been the Australian way to give battling Australian workers a fair go with decent wages, decent living standards, and decent rights.

They know that when employees don’t have rights, they can be trampled on by much more powerful managers and employers.

They know they won’t get a fair deal when their boss can pick off workers one by one and force them to sign individual contracts that cut their pay and conditions.

They know it’s wrong that a manager can sack someone with just a text message on their mobile phone.

And they hate the idea that Australia has become a country whose laws help a business to sack its workers one day, just so it can hire them back a day later with a $180 a week pay cut.

This is not a debate about federalism and states’ rights.

And it’s more than an academic debate about labour market institutions and productivity growth.

It’s more than just a textbook discussion of backwards bending labour supply curves.

Those things are important.

But above all, this is a debate about basic Australian values, and the lives of working families.

It’s about the kind of Australia we want our kids to grow up in.

It’s about how mums and dads manage the collision of work and family life.

It’s about whether we believe that being Australian still means respecting and valuing every person in the country – no matter if they’re a kitchen hand, a nurse, a panel beater or a sales rep.

John Howard has forgotten that it’s those people who drive a strong economy. A political party that forgets ordinary working people and their kids has forgotten about the very people who’ve worked hard to build this nation into what it is.

For more than one hundred years the Australian Labor Party has fought for the basic rights of working people – rights to a living wage, penalty rates, holidays, overtime and a fair go at work.

I thought that Australians had won those battles.

I never thought we’d have to fight those battles all over again.

But we must again fight for those rights, because John Howard’s laws have wound back rights that we won generations ago.

And this generation will fight to win back those rights!

Because we know those rights are not incompatible with a strong economy.

They are the foundation of decent living standards and a strong economy that delivers a good life for working people.

John Howard thinks that it’s good for our economy if managers and supervisors can hire and fire on a whim, and force workers to sign contracts that cut their pay and take away their rights.

John Howard is using the system of individual contracts to strip away rights and entitlements that have been hard-won through years of collective action. This is the wrong path for Australia.

It’s collective bargaining that has delivered these rights and entitlements, and it’s only collective bargaining that can continue to deliver for working Australians in the future.

Working Australians have not spent the past two decades building a strong economy, just to find their basic rights taken off them so that all the benefits can flow unfairly to just one group in our society.

I will fight for mums and dads to be able to take holidays with their family. We will fight for their right to leave work at a reasonable hour so they can be at the dinner table with their kids.

I will fight for ordinary Australian workers like Rhonda Walke – a part time receptionist who has worked for the same company for over 20 years, and who got the sack last week with no reason. The day before she was given just 24 hours to sign a new contract that changed her job from permanent to casual. And she was told she now had to work at different locations and she was put on a one month probationary period – after 20 years of working there! She was told to sign it on the spot. She said wanted to discuss the new contract the next day, but didn’t even get a chance before she was pushed out the door.

I won’t forget Rhonda.

I want Rhonda to have her job back!

And I will fight for Mila Kent, a hotel housekeeper on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Last year Mila moved from a job as a housekeeper at the Sheraton Hotel at Noosa that she’d held for 16 years, to a job at the newly opened Ramada Pelican Waters at Caloundra. She signed up to an AWA that gave her weekly pay of just $495, but last week, with John Howard’s laws now in place, she was sacked from her full time job – and now she’s been put on to the hotel’s roster as a casual.

Mila is devastated. She says she can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she’s sick in the stomach. Mila and her husband, a taxi driver, have a 13 year old to support and a mortgage to pay, and she doesn’t know how she’s going to do it. She’s lost all her full time entitlements and now she’s got no guarantee of regular hours.

That’s grossly unfair, and totally un-Australian.

I say to John Howard, it’s your law that has removed all unfair dismissal rights for nearly four million working Australians.

It’s your law that now says big businesses can sack anyone they like for any so-called “operational reason”.

It’s your law that took away Mila’s rights and her job.

And I say to John Howard, you should repeal your laws and give Mila her job back!

Unfair Dismissal Laws

Friends, I give you this pledge: when I am voted into office, I will rip up John Howard’s one-sided unfair dismissal laws.

And I will put in place a decent law that protects all Australians from the threat of unfair dismissal.

Losing your job – or being threatened with losing it – is one of the greatest traumas that any of us can face. It can rip your guts out. It can be devastating financially and emotionally. It can stretch family relationships to breaking point. It can trigger or deepen depression and mental illness.

Working people are human beings. They deserve respect. They are the people who build a strong economy. They should have basic rights.

That’s why almost every other western country provides safeguards to protect individual workers from being dismissed without cause. Other nations know that protecting ordinary workers from unfair dismissal is a basic feature of a decent, civilised society.

Abolishing unfair dismissal laws rewards lazy and bad management practices. It’s no good thing for a government to give supervisors and bosses a green light to sack a worker for any reason or for no reason at all.

Nobody questions that employers should not be forced to hold on to workers who are dishonest, lazy or who don’t do their job.

But John Howard’s IR laws give employers unrestrained power to sack a worker when they’ve done nothing wrong – even if it’s just because they ask a question about their terms and conditions, or because they stand up for a kid who is getting rough treatment at the hands of a supervisor, or even because they work so hard that a supervisor thinks they might take his job.

Since John Howard’s laws came into effect, we’ve already seen employers use them to sack a workforce one day, then offer them jobs the next – with their wages and conditions slashed.

This is precisely the reason why we need unfair dismissal laws – to protect working families from such disgraceful behaviour.

But the effect of these changes goes far beyond those workers who actually get sacked. There’s another impact that will be slower, more subtle and more insidious.

It’s how these laws will change the unwritten rules of how Australians relate to each other at work.

One of the greatest things about Australia’s way of life is the great egalitarian tradition. We don’t believe people should have to lick the boss’s boots or kow-tow to their supervisor.

But these laws send a message to bosses and supervisors: It’s okay to do or say just about whatever you like to workers – you have no responsibility to working people – they’re just another business cost, an expendable input of labour.

And they send a message to workers: you’d better butter up your boss, because if you step out of line you’re on your own.

These laws are based on a mean-spirited mindset that I thought we’d left behind a hundred years ago – like the brutal view of workers expressed by Henry Ford early last century when he said, “Why is it when I hire a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?”

Of course John Howard will say this is all just exaggeration and fear mongering.

But workplace experts are already talking about the serious problem of bullying and intimidation in many workplaces – with bullies often targeting women and kids who don’t have the confidence to stand up for themselves.

And these laws will cultivate a culture of workplace bullying and intimidation. They will give managers and supervisors the power to push working people around. These laws have emboldened employers who can now stare down any worker who questions or challenges them and just say, “And what can you do about it? You know I can sack you anytime I like. So do you want your job, or not?”

A Prime Minister who says these laws won’t encourage workplace bullying and intimidation is just totally out of touch.

The debate about unfair dismissal laws is not a debate about whether employers are good or bad. Most Australians act in good faith, whether they’re employers or employees.

But some don’t. That’s why you have sensible standards in law – because they deal with rogue behaviour. And workplaces can have both rogue employers, and rogue employees.

That’s why we need balanced laws to protect both employers and employees from rogue behaviour – not one-sided rules that give employers all power over their workers.

John Howard says we need to have one-sided laws that favour employers, because that’ll make employers more likely to hire more workers.

But no independent body has ever found evidence of a link between Australia’s employment protection laws and employers hiring more staff.

The Full Federal Court looked at this issue in 2001 and concluded there simply is no evidence to support the Government’s claim that abolishing unfair dismissal laws would create jobs.

Even last year, before John Howard abolished the unfair dismissal rights of four million working Australians, the OECD noted that Australia had among the least restrictive employment protection legislation of any rich country.

John Howard says we need to get rid of unfair dismissal laws because sometimes employees who deserve the sack end up taking their employer to court.

But getting rid of employees’ rights against unfair dismissal is not the answer to the problem of some rogue employees abusing those laws.

Insurance companies don’t throw all their insurance claims in a bin just because they sometimes have to deal with false ones.

It doesn’t make sense to get rid of one injustice by creating the conditions that will foster another.

You simply need a system that throws out the false claims, and doesn’t tie the parties up with expensive lawyers.

That’s why Labor believes in putting some balance back into our unfair dismissal laws, with a system that gives a fair go to both employers and employees.

Tonight, I announce that I will establish an Unfair Dismissal Tribunal within the Industrial Relations Commission, along similar lines to the small claims tribunals and residential tenancy tribunals that operate successfully at a State level.

I will restore a right to remedies when an employee’s job is terminated unfairly. The Tribunal will focus on reinstatement as the chief remedy, not compensation – unless the employee’s position has become untenable.

This system will be simple and efficient. And it won’t create barriers to job creation.

It will allow both parties to be heard, while discouraging expensive lawyers, prohibiting contingency fees and filtering out ambit claims – a process that focuses on the substantial issues of fairness, not legalistic issues of process.

The Tribunal will be required to fast-track hearings, and use simpler processes that minimise business disruption – including using worksite visits for small businesses.

The Tribunal will be required to resolve 90 per cent of claims within 90 days of lodgement.

The Tribunal will have a presence in every State, including in some regional centres.

Labor’s plan will provide a sensible balance. It will not create barriers to hiring new workers. Employers will be able to get to know new employees with a three month qualifying period during which they would not be able to lodge unfair dismissal claims. That’s a reasonable community standard that is fair for employers and employees.

And claims for unfair dismissal will need to be made within 21 days of a worker losing their job.

Labor’s unfair dismissal plan is friendly for small business:

· We will require the Tribunal to conduct conciliation conferences at the convenience of small businesses;

· We will encourage the use of telephone conferencing to assist small businesses that have difficulty attending hearings in person;

· We will allow the Tribunal to order costs against applicants who pursue speculative or vexatious claims;

· We will legislate an indicative time frame within which the Tribunal should deal with unfair dismissal applications to ensure that 90 per cent of claims are resolved within 90 days;

· We will take lawyers and contingency fees out of the system; and

· We will make better information available to small businesses to assist them to understand their obligations about termination of employment.

Labor’s plan will balance the interests of employers and employees. It deals with the problems in both the old system and the new one.

It looks after the interests of the Australians who are in the lunchroom, not just those who are in the boardroom.

And it will be simple and fair, demanding fair play from both bosses and workers.

The truth about Howard’s IR laws

The second issue I want to address goes to the heart of the debate we’ve had in the past year about the future of industrial relations in Australia.

The problem with the way the Government has approached this debate is that they won’t actually talk about what’s in their legislation, or why these changes are needed.

Of course, we hear platitudes about productivity and flexibility – arguments that have everything to do with why we needed to change our industrial relations laws in 1993, but nothing to do with why they should be changed in 2006.

And so the Government pretends this is an argument about going forward or going backwards, when it’s really an argument between a sensible system that recognises basic legal rights, and a system drenched in ideology, with the rules all skewed in one group’s favour.

I ask you, does Labor oppose a wage system that’s focused on employers and employees determining pay and conditions in their individual enterprises?

No. Labor created that system – with the shift to productivity-based enterprise bargaining that took effect in 1994.

Do we oppose a system where the primary responsibility for resolving disputes rests with the parties to the dispute – the employer and the employees, or whoever they choose to represent them?

No. Labor created that system, with the establishment of the stream of Certified Agreements and Enterprise Flexibility Agreements in 1994.

Do we oppose a wage system where adjustments to minimum wage rates are set by an independent body on the basis of the best economic and social evidence placed before them, and which considers the impact of such adjustments on fairness, unemployment, inflation, productivity and living standards?

No. Labor created that system, with the establishment of the annual Safety Net Wage Case hearing in 1994.

Do we oppose reforms to unfair dismissal laws that would crack down on abuse and ambulance chasing lawyers?

No. Labor has argued for just such changes, but the Government has always wanted to go to the extreme of taking away employees’ rights altogether.

Labor does not oppose flexibility, and that’s why we created a flexible industrial relations system that let employers and working people negotiate wage outcomes with a decent safety net back in 1993, and that’s why Australia enjoyed the fastest productivity growth in its history in the years that followed.

But flexibility must be underpinned by fairness. That’s why we legislated a no disadvantage test – so that workplace agreements could not be used to reduce the living standards of working Australians.

Labor created a flexible industrial relations system with the right incentives – incentives for employers to find productivity gains, and for employees to win better pay and conditions. We specifically set up a system that did not – I repeat, did not – give employers any incentives to reduce wages or take away entitlements.

John Howard’s extreme IR changes are not the “next stage” of Labor’s reforms. They are not an “evolution” of the system we built. They are a fundamental repudiation of Labor’s reforms.

The WorkChoices legislation aims to destroy the central principles that made Labor’s system flexible and fair: a set of decent minimum standards, embodied in the Award system; the no disadvantage test; collective bargaining and getting all the parties to focus on productivity gains.

What John Howard has now done, is to create an industrial relations system with all the wrong incentives – employers have been given the incentive to reduce wages and take away entitlements, as the quickest way of boosting their profits – instead of finding ways to lift productivity and reward employees.

Few things are more galling than to see John Howard now claiming credit for the strong growth in real wages that has been achieved over the past 15 years.

That growth has been achieved on the back of the extensive reforms that we made before 1996 – including the establishment of a flexible and fair – I repeat, fair – industrial relations system.

But John Howard now claims credit for the successes of that system – and in the next breath says we should abolish it!

John Howard’s laws do not create greater workplace flexibility – except to sack workers, remove award conditions and cut wages.

Of course John Howard tells us that these changes will create simplicity, flexibility and choice.

He has continued to argue that as he released his 1,252 pages of legislation and legal explanation last November. And he’s still arguing it now after releasing a further 592 pages of regulations at the end of March.

No wonder Kevin Andrews’ Department of Workplace Relations didn’t have the ability to rewrite the Workplace Relations Act. No wonder they had to hire not one, two, three or four, but eleven law firms to write it for them – all at our expense.

They say it creates flexibility, yet this is a lawyer’s picnic. The Minister cannot even tell us what the legislation allows or doesn’t allow when it comes to basic issues like an employer sacking his workers one day and then rehiring them the next, with huge wage cuts.

We can’t even get a straight answer about whether or not Australians are still entitled to public holidays, like Good Friday, Easter Monday or Anzac Day. The legislation says that if they’re told to work on a public holiday, employees must have “reasonable grounds” to refuse. When you ask what “reasonable grounds” actually means, you just get another torrent of legalese – Kevin Andrews seems to think it’s quite normal that workers should consult their lawyer if they want to take their holiday break!

And on the substantial issues of flexibility – allowing employers and employees to negotiate flexible terms and work arrangements – these laws actually remove the flexibility that once existed.

Just have a look at the list of so-called “prohibited content” in the Regulations. No wonder the head of the H.R. Nicholls Society has said these laws create a “Soviet system of command and control”.

Kevin Andrews sits atop this extraordinary legislation with the power of a Soviet-era Works Minister to interfere in every workplace in Australia, with control over every single wage agreement in Australia.

He has the power to declare anything he likes to be ‘prohibited content’ and have it struck out of an agreement.

And once he’s declared something is prohibited content, the Liberal Party Minister can slap huge fines on anyone who tries to put that item into an agreement.

Already they have implemented regulations that can fine an employer $33,000 just for including protections from unfair dismissal in her workplace agreements.

What kind of choice is that? How ridiculous that this legislation was called “WorkChoices”, when it takes away choice from both employees and employers.

Tell me, why can’t an employer choose to give her employees better job security? What sort of government threatens to slap fines on her if she chooses to make things better for her staff?

And they can fine an employer $33,000 for saying in an agreement that he won’t sign workers on to Australian Workplace Agreements.

How does that create flexibility?

They can fine a union $33,000 for asking for a commitment to collective bargaining, and fine an employer $33,000 for making a commitment to stick with collective agreements.

Is that what they describe as a work “choice”?

And if a union representative tries to negotiate training for employee health and safety representatives that’s provided by a union, they could cop a $33,000 fine.

And it’s a very risky business for employees and employers to negotiate family-friendly provisions into their agreements – because if employers and employees get it wrong and agree on anything outside a narrow definition of the “employment relationship” they can face heavy fines.

Even if employers are sympathetic to employees’ outside life, they may be reluctant to commit to child care and family-friendly terms of employment in writing, out of fear of prosecution.

These extreme changes will deter Australian workers and employers from negotiating flexibility.

If you want real flexibility, the system must allow employers and employees to enter into agreements covering whatever suits their own interests.

Tonight I announce that under my new industrial relations system, I will give employers and employees real flexibility to negotiate and agree on whatever terms and conditions they want in their agreements.

I will abolish punitive sanctions on employers and employees for choosing to negotiate the terms and conditions they want.

And I announce that I will get rid of the Minister’s high-handed powers to shackle employers and employees from making an agreement that suits their own interests.

Employees should be able to make flexible arrangements when they enter into agreements with employers.

That could mean practical provisions to help them with family life – like:

· Working from home when childcare is not available;

· Moving to a work location closer to school or childcare; and

· Assistance with locating childcare, out of school care and elder care.

And employers need to be able to enter into agreements with flexible provisions that suit their interests, without having to read the latest High Court judgment to work out what they can and can’t do.

That could mean things like:

· Teamwork and continuous improvement through collective agreements;

· Staff participation in union education and training programs; and

· Tailored unfair dismissal provisions that will build staff loyalty.

This is what will deliver true flexibility.

John Howard’s promises that his laws will result in better pay is no more credible than the assurances of greater flexibility.

There is nothing in these laws that make it easier to increase pay than it was before.

But there are lots of changes in these laws that make it easier to cut take-home pay, by taking the award system to bits and destroying the ‘no disadvantage test’ that set a floor for enterprise agreements.

Let’s stop the pretence that the aim of these laws is to increase flexibility, productivity or pay, or to achieve economic reform. These laws don’t achieve any of those aims.

They are an ideologically-driven plan to re-draw the relationship between Australian workers and employers heavily in favour of the employee.

Let’s understand very clearly. The Howard Government has never been able to give any evidence that these laws will increase productivity.

They even muzzled their own Treasury research when it didn’t support their arguments.

This is not about economic reform or the national interest. It is about one man having the power to impose an ugly, extremist ideology on Australians.

It massively skews power in favour of unrestrained corporate interests over working people.

That’s why we now have militias of lawyers and expensive IR consultants flanking out across the nation spruiking every devious new trick in Howard’s new laws to take away employee entitlements and cut labour costs.

In the process, John Howard has created a massively confusing and over-regulated system.

They say they’ve created a single national system, but hundreds of thousands of employees still remain outside John Howard’s national system – workers in small businesses that aren’t incorporated, or in State government jobs.

Many more are left in a confusing no-man’s land between their State award or agreement and Kevin Andrews’ bewildering new arrangements.

The fact is, John Howard has never been interested in creating a genuine national system. He just wants to use every instrument of power he lays his hands on to clamp his ideology on to the working lives of Australians.

Two thousand pages oozing with confusion, deception and dishonesty.

Let me take just one final example, because it’s a fundamentally important one. These laws have abolished annual wage increases made by the Industrial Relations Commission, and they’ve handed that power to a new body.

They call it the Fair Pay Commission, but it’s not even allowed to take fairness into account when it makes its decision.

In fact while the IRC had to take fairness into account in the past, under section 23 of the new Act the Government has specifically removed “fairness” from the criteria that the new Commission must follow for future wage decisions.

And all along they’ve refuse to admit what every independent commentator has said, including the head of the Industrial Relations Commission: the purpose for their new arrangements is to reduce wages growth.

And tonight I announce that under my new industrial relations system we will make fairness one of the criteria for decisions to increase minimum wage rates. Fairness will be at the very heart of our new system!

Labor’s industrial relations plan for working Australians

Friends, I will rip up these extreme and unfair laws.

And I will build a new system, based on Australian values, that will provide decent protections for the working conditions and living standards of Australian families.

Labor will build a fair and productive industrial relations system, that’s consistent with what it means to be an Australian, and what we need to make Australia competitive again.

And together, we will build a strong economy, on the solid foundation of a highly skilled and innovative Australian workforce.

As I have said before, my new industrial relations system will be based on these six principles:

· Proper rights for Australian workers who are unfairly dismissed, as I have discussed tonight;

· A strong safety net of minimum awards and conditions;

· An independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions, and to settle disputes;

· The right for employees to bargain collectively for decent wages and conditions;

· The right for workers to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions, and undermine collective bargaining and union representation; and

· The right to join a union and be represented by a union.

This system will give employers and employees the flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions that encourage healthy business activity and secure, well-paid jobs.

That means employers and employees can negotiate without the threat of prosecution from ridiculously restrictive laws.

Our system will be modern and flexible, a new industrial relations system based on a genuine respect for the rights of working people.

And it will work hand-in-glove with our commitment to invest in Australian workers and lift the skills and education of our workforce.

I will invest in the greatest asset in our economy, the skills of the Australian people. My Government will give priority to training Australian workers, and training them now.

I will ensure that Australian workers can compete from a position of strength – on the basis of their skills, creativity and innovation – not from a position of weakness, on the basis of low wages.

Under John Howard, Australia has become the only industrialised nation in the world to reduce its public investment in its working people – through TAFE and university – since 1995.

On average, all other countries have increased their education investment by 38 per cent. But John Howard has taken Australia backwards, actually reducing Australia’s government investment by 8 per cent.

This is a disgrace.

No wonder since 1998 300,000 Australians have been turned away from the gates of our TAFE colleges.

John Howard has dumped 2,000 pages of extreme IR laws on Australians – but there’s not a single page that provides any new incentive to invest in training or build the skills of working Australians.

If we don’t invest in the skills of Australian workers, the only way we will be able to compete is by cutting pay and fostering a competitive auction for low-skill, low-wage, insecure jobs.

That’s the road the Liberal Party is taking us down – as if Australian workers can compete against the low wages of Chinese and Indian workers!

We can’t compete by going down the low skill, low productivity, low wage road, cutting minimum wages.

Australian workers can take on the world’s best with their ingenuity, productivity and innovation. But they cannot win a race to the bottom with lower wages.

We must take the road to a high-skill economy, with decent pay and rewarding work.

My labour market policy will have at its heart a comprehensive plan for training and skilling Australian workers.

That’s why I’ve already announced that Labor will give every Australian school student the choice of a first-rate specialist trades or technology high school.

It’s why I’ve made black and white, fully costed commitments to expanding school-based apprenticeships, and rewarding apprentices with a bonus when they stick with their training.

And it’s why Labor will get rid of up-front TAFE fees for traditional trades apprentices through a practical and innovative system of ‘Skills Accounts’, giving apprentices an $800 government deposit to pay course fees.

Because as every piece of economic research demonstrates, the most powerful way to lift a nation’s productivity is to invest in the skills and education of its workforce.

You don’t lift productivity by cutting pay.

You lift productivity by investing in your people – in every classroom, every workshop, every workplace, every lab and every lecture hall.

Conclusion

Friends, John Howard’s industrial relations changes are the most savage attack on the values of Australian society and the security of working families that I’ve seen in more than 25 years in the Australian Parliament.

I believe his legislation will have a terrible effect on working families.

I believe it will change the character of our workplaces and our society.

I believe it will undermine basic aspects of the Australian way of life.

But I said from the time John Howard announced his legislation, I don’t believe this will happen overnight.

The effect of these laws will be a slow burn.

Like a nest of termites that is slowly eating away at the foundations of the security and living standards of working families.

Quietly, slowly, agreement by agreement, workplace by workplace, taking away long-standing rights and entitlements.

The full impacts of these laws will become clearer as the months and years go by.

In the short term, people with stronger bargaining power and skills that are in demand won’t see much of the effects of these laws.

But things will change when the economy next hits turbulence.

Because for most working Australians, our industrial relations laws are their safety net. And it’s when things get a bit rough that you most need that safety net.

With these laws in place, it’s working people who will get tossed about. And the impact will be brutal. Many workers will no longer even have the cushion of a right to redundancy pay when they are retrenched, and no workers will have the protection of the ‘no disadvantage test’ when their employer announces wage cuts.

And with these laws, we’ve got every reason to wonder what things will be like for our children, and our grandchildren.

It’s now clear that no matter how far these extreme changes have gone, the Howard Government wants to go further.

That’s what we found out when one of the Prime Minister’s closest henchmen, Senator Nick Minchin, went off to his friends at the H.R. Nicholls Society a few weeks ago and spoke a few honest words, something he’d never do if he thought the Australian people were listening.

Senator Minchin told his friends that Australians:

“…violently disagree with what we’re proposing”.

He confessed that:

"Poll after poll demonstrated that the Australian people don’t agree at all with anything we’re doing on this – we have minority support for what we’re doing".

But regardless of what Australians think, Nick Michin thinks the Government hasn’t yet gone far enough. And so, not knowing that the tape recorder was rolling, Senator Minchin confided with his mates in the H.R. Nicholls Society that after the next election, the Government must go further still.

Of course the Prime Minister tried to smother his henchman’s remarks. But no matter what they say, we know they want even more power to be given to unrestrained corporate interests, and even more rights taken away from working Australians.

Friends, I know that as I fight these laws, there are powerful interests stacked against us. John Howard has absolute control of the Parliament now, and he thinks he can get away with anything. He doesn’t think he can be voted out.

He has already taken $55 million of our money and given it to the Liberal Party’s advertising agency to spin out lies about his extreme IR laws. No doubt he will take more and spend more.

And as we approach next year’s election, he will do everything he can to divert people’s attention away from these laws and their effects.

But I agree with him on one point – there is nothing he will do that will have a greater effect on Australians’ living standards than these laws.

So let me make one more challenge to the Prime Minister tonight.

I challenge John Howard to stand up in public and debate me on his IR changes.

I have been asking him for months for a public debate and he refuses to front up.

If this legislation is as historic and important as he claims – the culmination of his three decades in parliament – then let’s get the facts out and let Australians decide on whether John Howard’s industrial relations system belongs in the 21st century – or the 19th century, when it was first thought up.

Australians will have a choice at next year’s election. Do they want a new industrial relations system that protects their rights and guarantees working families decent living standards? Or do they want a one-sided system that undermines the rights, freedoms, living standards and security of all Australian workers?

I do not want to see my kids and their kids growing up in an Australia that doesn’t reward every working man and woman for their part in building our nation.

That’s why I am committed to fight against these changes every day through to the next election.

Then all Australians can make their own judgment about which political party will stand up for their interests and what kind of nation they want Australia to be.