Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Workplace Relations Regulations
We have just heard 15 minutes of pure humbug about the propositions that we are deliberating on in this place, the regulations that are associated with the Workplace Relations Act. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations talks a lot about going forwards or going backwards. These regulations and the act on which they are based, via a Soviet process of bureaucratisation in terms of centralising power in the hands of the minister, take us back to a 19th century master-servant relationship. We have here a curious mix in these regulations of Soviet-style, line-by-line regulation of the relationships between employers and their employees, with an ultimate, Soviet works minister, power of intervention on the part of the minister to strike out anything that he finds offensive in any agreement, collective or individual, reached anywhere in this country, basically to enforce the precept which underpins this legislation—that we need to get back to the 19th century master-servant relationship.
It is true that, until very recently, in this community we enjoyed a substantial increase in productivity in our workplaces. That productivity has gone off the boil in the last two years. But that surge in productivity coincided with the implementation of the changes to the industrial relations legislation made by the Labor Party in 1994. The enormous expansion that you have seen in the ability of workers, through enterprise agreements, to earn substantial payments above the awards that once existed and to introduce flexibility into the practices under those awards were entirely a product of the negotiated arrangements between the then government, business and the union movement on what we ought to do to improve the productivity in our workplaces by enhancing the capacity of our industrial relations systems to reflect the needs of every workplace. The product of that has been substantial improvement in the living standards of many Australians and, until recently, substantial improvement in productivity.
The minister talked about the remarks made by Mr Smith and me on a number of occasions on the legislation that has been brought down. He identified those remarks with remarks that we made at the time the government had its first go, the first wave of their changes to industrial relations legislation in this country. I remind the minister that there were 230 successful amendments to that legislation. The legislation, when it passed through the parliament, bore no resemblance to the act put into this place by the minister at the time, which was appropriately characterised, by me and others, as attacking the basic living standards, conditions and rights of the ordinary Australian. So there is no point in his defending himself on this occasion by reference to our words then.
The government of the day was not permitted to do what it wanted to do—to recreate 19th century conditions in the Australian workforce. At the time, the act that it was attempting to put in place bore absolutely no resemblance to one aspect of what the government is intending to do here: to assign to the minister of the day such exceptional interventionist powers in every agreement, collectively or individually arrived at by workers and their employers. That was his particular innovation. He took the unfair aspects of the original, unamended, legislation of the first wave, and added to it a level of Soviet bureaucratisation which surprised and took aback those on this side of the House, who had never anticipated that we would have to debate Soviet-style legislation in this country.
The simple point is that ordinary hardworking Australians expect to be rewarded when they work hard. They expect to be able to negotiate hours that sustain decent family life—that they can advance their families, advance their interests and participate as constructive members of the community. They expect to have job security. They expect to know that they can go to their workplace and that, if their employer or supervisor suggests something to them that is untoward, they can express an objection to that without fear of being sacked. They expect to be able to go into their workplace and not be harassed by their employer or supervisor, improperly or in any other way, and they expect that, if they are so harassed, they can raise a complaint and not find that it becomes a pretext, or that some other pretext is used, to sack them. They expect to emerge from the workplace rewarded for effort, with security for their families, and secure in their dignity in this most important aspect of their lives.
The two most important aspects of anyone’s life are their family life and their workplace life. That is where they spend most of their lives; that is where they put all their energy and creativity. And they do not expect, in either place, to live with intimidation, indignity and deprivation. That is what ordinary Australians, middle Australians, expect, and that is what this government intends, in its regulatory arrangements here, to deny.
The member for Perth made a whole lot of relevant points about the extraordinary complexity of this legislation. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs shouted across the table to me, ‘But what about the 4,000 awards?’ I replied, ‘So you actually are going to knock off every award in this country?’ He very quickly came back and said, ‘No, no; it would be merely the simplification of those awards.’ So what we are going to have is this legislation, plus 4,000 awards that we are going to fight over. That, apparently, is their view of what a simplified system would be.
What we actually have here, as was pointed out by Mr Smith, is a massive bureaucratisation of the workplace process. As with the so-called reform of the tax act through the GST, we now have an act instead of regulations that we can take around this country, and, as we denounce them before we rip them up, we can use them as a soapbox from which we can speak. Even the shortest members of the opposition will be capable of being seen when they stand upon these regulations and this act in order to denounce them.
I want to go into what has been the practical effect of the new arrangements so far. The intention here is absolutely clear. The intention of this government is to make it easy to rip away penalty rates, which are the principal mechanism by which employees in this country are rewarded for their decision to work overtime, on difficult shifts or in holidays. The intention is to use these regulations to rip away all those payments.
Everybody who knows anything about family life in this country, particularly in areas where people are heavily mortgaged, knows that the way in which ordinary Australian families organise their financial affairs to withstand the consequences of high mortgage payments is for one or both spouses to work a great deal of time at penalty rates. That is simply the case for most Australian families, at least for a substantial period of their lives. You could not cut to the heart of family life and family stability more quickly and more atrociously than to produce a set of regulations that produced the conditions these ones do.
Let us not kid ourselves here. The new arrangements have had an immediate impact. This act is impacting on ordinary working life in this country much faster than I anticipated it would. When we were debating the original legislation in this chamber, I used the analogy of an infestation of termites. From what we have seen so far, I have to say that they are a very hungry bunch of termites indeed. They are chomping away very solidly.
We have the example of 100 victims of Work Choices—garbage collectors employed by local councils on the New South Wales Central Coast. They stand to lose up to $340 a week after their jobs were put out to tender in a form that meant that if they took those jobs back they would effectively lose their penalty rates. We saw another impact in the negotiations currently occurring with child-care workers in New South Wales. They have been offered contracts that slash between $138 and $313 from their wages and reduce or remove sick pay entitlements, rest breaks, annual leave loadings and overtime payments.
In a school in recent times we saw another way in which the regulations permit these matters to be dealt with in a negotiation. The employees in all positions at that school—the teachers and all the other workers at the school—had it pointed out to them that their jobs are now up for grabs. They can reapply for those jobs, but they will have to reapply on the basis of a very substantial reduction in their earning capacities and other rights.
There is the situation of the Cowra abattoir workers—sacked one day and offered their jobs back the next, all with slashed pay packets and reduced conditions. The minister panicked when he saw what the employers had done at Cowra and ensured that there was intervention. He proudly boasted of that. But what was the one question he could not answer at the press conference he conducted subsequently, when the journalists were wise enough to say, ‘Okay, the employers have backed off for the moment, but was what they did legal? Was what they did legal under the laws that you have put in place?’ The minister could not answer that question—not because he did not know the answer to it but because he knew that the answer would embarrass him grossly. He knew that he would have to say: ‘Well, what they did was not opportune, but it was legal. They embarrassed us by acting too fast, not by acting illegally.’ We have had that case.
We have had another case in Ballarat where 39 local workers were sacked while their company continued to rely on employing Chinese workers. We are seeing more and more examples of this around the country now. People are brought into this country on temporary working visas. These are not long-term skilled migrants who are part of the process of building this nation, enhancing our long-term wealth and improving the character of our community by bringing into it new and interesting ideas and cultures. They are not that section of skilled workers. These are people brought into this country explicitly and specifically to undermine the working conditions of Australians. When an employer decides—on the basis of what they are permitted to do under these massively complex regulations—to mount an attack on the living standards of modestly well-paid Australian workers, there is somebody else there to do the work. They have to be put out on the grass by the employer while they go through the process of negotiating their conditions down.
On other occasions in this place we have had occasion to mention practices such as bringing in foreign youngsters to replace our young Australians as apprentices—all of these things to do with the provision of temporary work visas. Every aspect of these regulations and all aspects of that act—we are simply going to rip them up. They are malevolent and evil in their intent, absolutely unnecessary in the workforce that we have and un-Australian. These have not been Australian practices at any time since the 19th century. There is no saving any aspect of them.
We will put a fair system in place in this country, a system with the flexibilities that will ensure that people are able to bargain in good faith and produce the decent sorts of outcomes that we have been capable of producing in this country and that we continue to be capable of producing in this country. (Time expired)