House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Workplace Relations

3:56 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Welcome back, members! I know the summer break has given people time to spend a bit of time not only with their families but talking about families in their electorates. No doubt they will know what we know. If you talk to those families, what are they concerned about? Wage stagnation. They're talking about the cost of living skyrocketing and household debt being at record levels. They're talking about job insecurity, about the amount of casualisation in the workforce. It may not be for a mum and dad, but it may be for their kids or grandkids. That is a concern to families right across the spectrum represented by this parliament. Those opposite know that. Under pressure, the Liberals have a tendency to go straight back to industrial relations. It's their stock in trade; it's really in their DNA.

Looking around, I know I've probably got the greyest hair in this parliament, but I was here when they introduced Work Choices. I was here when member after member on the other side got up and said: 'There won't be any wage cutting. Jobs won't disappear. Wage flexibility doesn't mean less money in the pay packet.' You know what? In Work Choices, for the very first time in our history, this parliament made it legal to pay people under the award rate of pay. The view of those opposite was 'it will never happen', but it did happen. Maybe they didn't cut the pay, but they introduced the mechanism by which employers could do it, and employers did it. By the way, John Howard not only lost his prime ministership over that very thing, he lost his seat. People know this. It's not going to disappear. It reminds me of the story about when the scorpion asked the frog to give him a lift across the river. The frog was very afraid, because he didn't want to be stung. The scorpion said, 'Trust me, because it's not in our mutual interest.' The frog agreed. They got halfway across the stream, and the scorpion did indeed sting the frog. The frog asked the scorpion: 'Why'd you do that?' The scorpion said, 'Because it's in my nature.' That is precisely what they're reverting to now. The moral of that little story is that Australian workers should be aware of the coalition's nature when it comes to industrial relations and particularly of its track record. It's not all that old. You don't have to go back much further than Work Choices to see that.

What we're talking about in this debate is our frontline workers. We had our police and our doctors and nurses and ambulance officers doing wonderful things throughout the pandemic, but our frontline workers were also the shop attendants, the cleaners, the truck drivers—the people who made sure our economy ticked over and households could continue to do what they do and look after their families. They are the people at the sharp end of this piece of legislation which the government wants to proceed with. They're not well-paid workers. They have little bargaining power, and what those opposite want to do is remove the better off overall test. The better off overall test means just that. It's a mechanism for preventing people from being exploited.

I know a series of attempts have been made to remove it, but I also know what the president of the Fair Work Commission, Justice Ross, said when one attempt was made and litigated. He said that the changing of the test might reduce the cost for employers and increase profits. He went on to say:

It is less clear how such a change would increase productivity.

So this is not about a productivity mechanism over the next two years; this is about changing the cost structure for employers. But, don't forget, we've just had the JobKeeper scenario presented. We saw what happened when robodebt was out there and how people were being pursued for debts they didn't incur. Yet, when it comes to things such as JobKeeper and the fact that employers have used it to fund executive bonuses, they're not trying to chase that and put it back in the public coffers. That's seen as fair because, although employers used it in a way that wasn't intended, they're not going to pursue it in any way. In closing, you don't have to look much further than Work Choices to see the motivation of this government. Just like the frog, don't trust this scorpion. (Time expired)


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