Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
Once again the conservative parties in this country reveal the ideological rift between those on this side and those on that side. It's always been thus from the days of the fusion with the Protectionists and the Free Traders back in the early 20th century, when conservative forces and liberal forces combined. One thing united them. One thing united those two disparate groups, and that was to oppose Labor and the trade union movement, which represented the workers of this country. Ever since that fusion, the conservative and liberal forces in this country have, if given the opportunity, passed legislation to make work more insecure and to cut wages. It has always been thus.
What I really can't understand about the National Party here is that they represent some of the poorest parts of this country: places like Rockhampton, Gladstone, Wide Bay and other places like that. They do it tough. If you look at the facts, you see that only my electorate in Queensland rivals those electorates of Wide Bay, Capricornia and Flynn in terms of poverty and disadvantage. Yet National Party people come into this place and vote for this legislation. It's almost like the right-wing ideologues in the Liberal Party, the IPA types, have got some sort of political stranglehold over the National Party such that they will put aside their constituents and the best interests of their constituents and vote for this type of legislation. I can never understand it. I've represented areas where there have been state MPs in Queensland who are National Party people. It's not like they're not decent and honourable people, but they vote for this type of legislation. Given an opportunity like John Howard had in 2004 to bring in Work Choices, they'll take it. The National Party will toggle along, just following the Liberals along to pass this type of legislation against the interests of their constituents. I can't understand it. It's not about security of employment. It's not about better pay and conditions and a decent IR system in this country. It's about the opposite. They link funding organisations, for example, in the higher education sector to the industrial relations schemes that they think up all the time.
Our position has always been that Labor are on the side of security of employment and decent pay and conditions. But this government has used COVID as a cover. They've used COVID as a cover to take an opportunity to bring in their ideological obsessions and their reactionary, conservative obsessions on industrial relations. This bill even fails the government's own test. It leaves workers worse off.
Let's have a look at what the bill is proposing. It is going to make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that otherwise would have been permanent and allow employers to pay workers less than the award safety net. Think about the aged-care sector. Think about that. In the next few decades, we'll need to treble its workforce in this country. Why? Because we will go up from 15 or 16 per cent population being over the age of 65 to about 25 per cent or more. At the moment, in residential aged care, about one in two people are living with dementia. We need more workers in the sector. At a time when migration, which has fuelled the provision of workforce in the sector, has been cut because of what's happening with the coronavirus in international situations and the transport and migration of people, what is this government doing? In the very sector where we've seen the most deaths in this country this government is making it easier for employers—for-profits and not-for-profit organisations—to sack people, cut their wages and casualise their employment.
I can remember when I was a boy my grandmother was the matron of Colthup home in Ipswich. There were people there as I was growing up who were in employment in the workforce in Colthup home and elsewhere across Ipswich in aged-care facilities who were as proud of their jobs as people are today but had security of employment. I used to always tell people when I was a younger fellow—and I often tell people this even now—that, with the age of our population, we were going to need more and more people in the workforce. Whether it's architects, accountants, personal carers, nurses, physiotherapists, OTs or people who work in clerical capacities, we are going to need them. How are we going to encourage them to take up employment if we're going to undertake legislation brought into this chamber that's going to casualise their employment, cut their wages, reduce their bargaining capacities and reduce their safety net? How will that entice people to get into the aged care-workforce?
So it's dumb politics. If you're in favour of employers, as the conservative side of politics always is, how is it that you think that it is good for employers in this sector if they can't get the kind of workforce they need? It makes no sense. Senator Cormann belled the cat when he said that it was a deliberate design feature of this government's industrial relations policies to keep wage growth low. This legislation isn't about wages growth at all; this is about cuts to wages.
One of the reasons that we haven't seen pension rises or growth in employment and one of the reasons that we haven't seen the expenditure that we need in terms of economic vitality in this country is that wages have been too low. Even the Reserve Bank governor has said that wages growth is holding us back in our economic recovery. But what does this government do? It puts aside the advice of the Reserve Bank governor. It puts aside common sense and economic rationality and decides: 'We're going to cut wages. We're going to casualise employment. We're going to make it harder to fill the workforce that we need in the sectors which really need it. We're going to ignore the demographic challenges we have in this country. We're going to do that.' It's all because they've got this ideological affliction which prevents them from thinking logically and rationally when it comes to economics. And they claim they're the party of economic rationalism! The Liberal Party are not.
They're taking security from blue-collar workers, for example, on greenfield sites and big projects. They want economic development; they want to talk about the mining sector and economic development, but they're going to make it more insecure for workers to work there. They're going to make it harder for workers to bargain for better pay and conditions. It's already challenging; we already know how challenging enterprise bargaining is in this country.
In my state of Queensland and in Victoria as well, this legislation will weaken—not strengthen, weaken, believe it or not—wage theft punishments. Those are already deemed a criminal act in my home state of Queensland and also in Victoria, so the legislation is self-defeating. It's not about creating secure employment and it's not about the wage rises which are necessary in this country to stimulate the economy; it's about workers having less capacity and confidence to spend. So I don't understand the thinking of this government, except that it's their conservative ideology that keeps them doing this sort of thing.
We have the situation where about a quarter of our casual workforce has lost jobs. They lost them eight times more quickly than anyone else. We have a million casuals who were totally excluded—totally excluded!—from the security of JobKeeper. There wouldn't be a member in this place who hasn't had someone contact them about that. I agree with what the ACTU has said: this legislation is exactly the opposite of what the country needs. It's at precisely the time when we should be appreciating and thanking those people who work in the retail sector, in logistics, in transport and in aged care, and the people who work for councils, in child care and in the university sector. There were so many people who helped us through this pandemic, but instead of stimulating the economy and engaging in recovery by supporting those people we get platitudinous statements from the Prime Minister and those opposite, and they don't cut it.
Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of this legislation show what they really think about those people. It's not what they've said about them but what they really, really think and what they think the prospects of their future ought to be. If you throw in everything like the gig economy, contractors, freelancers et cetera then close to one in two of our workforce is in that insecure-type of employment. How can they get a mortgage? How can they guarantee the school fees for their kids? How can they guarantee their economic future?
What this government is undertaking is a charade. The idea that somehow they got rid of the most egregious parts of the bill—the BOOT with the suspension of the better off overall test—that little part, and therefore the rest of it's great doesn't cut it. The way they'll go around cutting wages, reducing the capacity to bargain and affecting workers rights in the workplace will be more sneaky. It'll be more surreptitious and more covert. They should not get a pat on the back for this, because they can't go to the crossbench or to us and say, 'Hang on a sec, you should support all this stuff,' when the legislation has a deliberate design feature to cut wages and conditions. That retreat by the minister is simply nonsense.
But do you know what? It's not just that. Can I just say: if this government is supposed to be about helping wages and conditions of workers and being a good employer, look at what it's doing to the Public Service in this country. You have a situation where, for example, 42 per cent of the Department of Veterans' Affairs is labour hired, outsourced or privatised. They're casualising the Public Service. That's an ideological thing. They're not a model employer. They're not a good employer. The government show what they're doing in the Public Service as a model for what they want in the private sector. This government's IR policy is not about helping workers. What they have done to the Public Service is a disgrace. Casualisation, contracting, outsourcing and the use of fixed-term contracts are all becoming entrenched inside government. That's what they want for the private sector as well.
A DVA labour hire worker recently told their union this: 'I have been a casual for five years and now I have to reapply for my job because the company that employs me has lost its contract with DVA. If I don't get employed, I will have no redundancy pay or any leave paid out. If the new contractor employs me, it just shows I'm not a casual. This sort of thing is happening to more of us all the time. We are doing permanent work and should have secure jobs.' Amen to that, brother; you should. He's absolutely right. Combined with the cuts we've seen inflicted by a staffing cap across the public sector, we've seen an explosion of labour hire employment in government departments, including the DVA.
Waiting times for processing applications for entitlements and compensation have been blowing out to enormous amounts. Let me give an illustration: veterans in my electorate have told me it often takes six months or longer to have their cases looked at. That's their waiting time. Sometimes it's nine to 12 months for payments. It's an absolute disgrace. What a great model employer, this conservative government! People are fed up with this. Veterans and ex-services organisations are fed up with the Public Service being cut. They're fed up with the delays, the denial and the dysfunction at DVA. They feel taken for granted. That's what the government expects will happen in the private sector with this legislation.
This is not about improving our prospects as a country and recovering from the pandemic. The government's decision to cut permanent jobs in the public sector has been a deliberate decision by an arbitrary staffing cap. When the government announced these changes, we set, as the member for Watson said, a very simple test: we'd support it if it delivered secure jobs and decent pay. The amendment by the member for Watson is all about the fact that the government has failed those tests. This legislation is not in the best interests of the economic development of this country, not in the best interests of workers and not in the best interests of the Public Service. This government has failed with this legislation and has shown its obsession once again.