May 30, 2007

Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007

Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 – Second Reading

30 May 2007

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (1.15 p.m.)—Australians are not afraid of hard work. They are not afraid to put in the hard yards to get ahead. Generally speaking, Australians will do what it takes. They are amongst the hardest working individuals in the world. By their nature, Aussies are also a flexible lot, ready to roll up their sleeves and get on with it. But they also have a good sense of what is fair. Built into the Australian psyche is the notion of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. When women and men choose to work longer hours on weekdays and decide to give up their weekends, they deserve to receive overtime and penalty rates to help pay a bit extra off the mortgage, pay for the kids to be involved in sport and simply have a bit more peace of mind. It is because Australians know what is fair that they can instantly recognise a political quick fix when they see it, especially when it comes from the Howard government wrapped in television and newspaper ads, and badged with the words ‘fairness test’. They know that this is the same government that rode roughshod over their working rights and conditions earlier in the election cycle that is now proposing this so-called test—just months after they were out there proclaiming that these conditions would be guaranteed by law, and now we have a political quick fix just months before an election.

I listened to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, this morning on radio talking about how in the past Australians who signed on to AWAs were worse off—they gave up their conditions without getting proper recompense for them—but now it would be different. The problem with that is that the government, when it passed its Work Choices legislation, said that this would not occur, and it has. Make no mistake: no amount of rebadging, no amount of advertising and no amount of amending the legislation formerly known as Work Choices will restore the balance in our workplaces. This Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 is all about the job of the Prime Minister rather than the jobs of working Australians.

The Labor Party remain totally opposed to the Prime Minister’s unfair Work Choices laws because we are a party created by working people and built on their determination and steadfast belief in the fair go. We remain opposed to laws that were born when the ideology of a single man started to dictate the shape of the nation, when a Senate majority of one provided a temptation so great that the Prime Minister abused the trust Australians placed in him when they returning his government in 2004, when unfettered control of both houses of parliament became an attack on the values of Australian society. It is a government so driven by ideology that it did not hesitate to make draconian changes to the Australian industrial relations system despite never having sought a mandate from the Australian people to do so. For the same reasons, Australians were forced to endure draconian changes to the welfare system, the gagging of important debates like that on the antiterrorism bills, inquiries on important legislative items done and dusted in a matter of days and sometimes hours, the ideological abolition of voluntary student unionism and, indeed, the gagging of this very debate before the parliament today.

How can anyone forget the comments of a government so drunk on power that the chairman of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, Senator Brandis, in August 2005 was reported telling his coalition colleagues that the idea of an inquiry into the Work Choices legislation was ‘stupid’ and that:

There’s nothing in this for us … Senate inquiries are a free kick for the Labor Party, the media never run anything except things that are embarrassing for the Government and it won’t have any public purpose because the detail will be in the legislation for all to see anyway.

For his efforts, for trashing democracy, the Prime Minister saw it fit to reward Senator Brandis with a promotion to the ministry.

These unfair industrial relations laws are driven by a man who has lost touch with the Australian people and what they value: the right to a fair go regardless of what you do for a living, where you live and how much you earn. The changes inflicted on Australian workplaces have turned worker against worker and undermined the security of family life. Salaries have been cut, conditions scrapped, entitlements slashed and minimum standards attacked. The Howard government have gone too far. Rather than governing for all of us, they govern for some of their friends. The Prime Minister said he would keep interest rates low, but we know rates have gone up eight times. He said he would get the economy right, but now he is squandering the opportunities offered by the unprecedented resources boom. He said he would protect us from terror, but instead he has taken Australian troops to war in Iraq and made all Australians feel less safe. He said the Senate majority would not go to his head, but, of course, we know he has gone too far. But there are some things he never said anything about: nothing about his plans to slash wages and smash awards; nothing about scrapping penalty rates, overtime and redundancy pay; nothing about trashing public holidays like Anzac Day; and nothing about giving bosses the right to sack workers whenever they like.

Australians know what is fair when they see it and they know that these amendments to Work Choices will not stop the unfair industrial relations laws continuing to hurt working families. This is because these changes are not motivated by the national interest. These changes are purely motivated by the political interests of the Howard government. The Prime Minister admitted that his hasty Work Choices amendments have been made because of perception and said:

There is this perception in the community that there might be situations where people are vulnerable to having their penalty rates and overtime loadings traded away or taken away without adequate compensation.

Now I don’t want that to happen …

It is too late; it has already happened.

The Work Choices legislation is no perception. Just ask the workers at Spotlight or the long-serving Tristar workers in my electorate who have been cheated out of their entitlements because of the Howard government’s extreme industrial relations laws. These Australians have worked hard to contribute to community life and the economy. They have been thrown on the scrapheap. What they have to do is turn up to work each and every day and clock on when there is no work to do. Why is that occurring? So that when they are laid off they will reduce their redundancy payments. These Tristar workers came to this parliament last year. I asked questions in the parliament last year. They were prepared to meet the government, the Prime Minister, the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, or anyone else from the government. The government ignored their plight. The government sat on their hands. That is not perception; that is the reality. For the government, the employees’ plight became an issue only when Alan Jones and others in the media took an interest. This spurred the government to call the actions of the company immoral and criminal, but it did not drive them to action and to make changes to the Work Choices laws. They sat on their hands for months while Tristar workers were being treated so unfairly day after day.

It is clear the Howard government is not interested in the plight of Australian workers; it is just interested in being re-elected. It has already spent, in a week, $4.1 million of taxpayers’ money on industrial relations advertising in an attempt to achieve that goal. That was, of course, advertising before the legislation was actually introduced into this chamber—contempt for this parliament and for proper legislative processes. That was on top of the $55 million advertising campaign in 2005 to tell hardworking Australians that their award conditions would be protected by law. Of course, we know that that protection is not there. We know because the government itself says it is not there but proclaims that this legislation will fix the problem that it said was never there in the first place. So why should Australian workers trust the government? We could have done a fair bit in employing extra doctors and nurses or putting more money into education and housing with that $60 million, but it is a self-indulgent government that is prepared to spend an unlimited amount of taxpayer funds in order to secure its own political interests.

I would like to turn to the gaping holes in the Work Choices amendments before us. Firstly, there is the argument that there is fair compensation for loss of protected award conditions. The proposed amendment states that, if a workplace agreement modifies or excludes any of the listed protected award conditions, the agreement must provide fair compensation for the loss of the protected award. This raises a number of concerns. Firstly, there does not appear to be any compensation provided for loss of award conditions not subject to the so-called fairness test. These include conditions such as additional leave for certain industries, redundancy pay and rostering protections. Given that the Howard government’s own statistics on AWAs show that 100 per cent of all agreements took away at least one protected award condition, and recently leaked figures show that workers have lost all 11 so-called protected award conditions in 44 per cent of AWAs signed since Work Choices was introduced, it is likely that many employees will still be worse off under an AWA than under an award, despite the government’s proposed amendments.

Secondly, it is unclear what ‘fair compensation’ constitutes and how it might be calculated by the Workplace Authority. This is particularly concerning because the government has always argued there is no methodology that enables proper comparison of the circumstances before and after an AWA. In fact, on 26 March this year, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations stood at the dispatch box opposite. The Deputy Opposition Leader, Julia Gillard, had asked:

Will the minister give the Australian people one reason—just one reason—why his government will not direct the Office of the Employment Advocate to recommence the analysis of Australian workplace agreements and to publicly release it?

The minister, Joe Hockey, replied:

Because, with the introduction of AWAs and the changes made under our laws a year ago, no-one has shown me a formula that allows you to compare apples with apples.

So, what does ‘fair compensation’ exactly constitute? The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations outlined in his second reading speech that ‘a slice of pizza will not constitute non-monetary compensation’. We are grateful for that clarification, but what about an occasional fancy dinner, some frequent flyer points, a discount on grocery items for someone who works in a supermarket or a weekly tank of petrol? I am sure that further clarification would be appreciated not just by workers but also by employers across Australia.

The second argument is that these amendments to the Work Choices legislation are about the issue of consultation with employees. Let us presume for a moment that the Workplace Authority does find a way to calculate the value of lost award conditions. The proposed legislation remains unclear as to whether the Workplace Authority will even consult with the employee to ascertain whether he or she considers the compensation to be a genuine benefit. Also, the legislation appears to make no provision for the employee to appeal the decision if he or she considers it to be insufficient compensation. It seems to me that, despite the government’s rhetoric that the Workplace Authority will consider the ‘industry, location and economic circumstances of the business and the specific employment circumstances or opportunities of the employee’, the fairness test provides an escape route for employers who undercompensate rather than a protection mechanism for employees incurring the loss. It is not surprising really. The Howard government would never have introduced their extreme industrial relations laws if they had the needs of working Australians in mind.

Labor will move amendments in the consideration in detail debate later this afternoon. If the Howard government is genuinely concerned about compensating all workers for the loss of award conditions, it will support our amendments. But let us be clear: Labor remain totally opposed to the Prime Minister’s extreme Work Choices laws. There is nothing in the proposed amendments before us that will stop Labor abolishing Work Choices. They are not about introducing flexibility or fairness into the industrial relations system. They are all about clever politics. Australian employers and employees were expected to comply with changes to the Work Choices legislation from Monday, 7 May, even though the legislation had not been written, let alone released. To add insult to injury, taxpayers’ money was used to advertise the new laws that had not seen the light of day. This is clever and cunning politics before sound policy, and public relations before parliamentary process.

It is clear that the proposed changes to the Work Choices legislation will not fix the lack of balance in Australian workplaces. They will not change the fact that the Prime Minister has lost touch with the needs of working Australians and with the challenges they face when juggling work, family and sudden roster changes. Labor supports the amendment in the hope that it may benefit even one working Australian. But, in government, Australians can rest assured that we will do things differently. Labor supports a real safety net: legislated minimum conditions and modern, simplified awards. We support enterprise level bargaining to drive productivity. Labor introduced enterprise bargaining. Labor supports individual common-law agreements which cannot undercut the safety net. We will ensure that, when minimum wage cases are handed down, pay rates are published to assist employers.

Labor’s system will be overseen by a new, one-stop shop industrial umpire. We will be tough on unlawful industrial action. Above all, Labor’s policy will be fair, balanced and productive. The Prime Minister may be a clever politician, but hardworking Australian families can see that the only job the Prime Minister is worried about is his own.

It is quite extraordinary that the government, which says that this legislation is so important, which has spent so much of taxpayers’ funds on advertising this campaign, which is truncating debate in this House by moving a gag motion, can only find eight members of parliament who are prepared to speak on this legislation. There is not a single frontbencher, besides the minister, who is prepared to put their name on the speakers list to speak on this legislation. It is extraordinary that the government is too embarrassed to actually stand up and support this legislation which, it says, is critical. This is all about the Prime Minister’s past ideological obsessions. It has nothing to do with securing Australia’s future prosperity.