Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
It is quite a simple question that we need to ask ourselves when we look at this Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020: will it give Australians stable work and fair pay? It's a very simple question and, unfortunately, the answer is no, it doesn't. Right now, in 2021, a year into a global pandemic and in a recession with almost two million Australians on JobKeeper—that is, until it gets cut next month—this simple question is more important than ever. Will it give Australians stable work with fair pay?
The answer is no. Make no mistake: the bill represents the most egregious fundamental attack on the rights of workers that we have seen in this place for many years, and it is as tone deaf and unnecessary as the Work Choices laws brought in by the Howard government. The reality is there is no pressing need or economic justification for these changes. Our economy will not recover more quickly because we legislate to cut the pay of workers. We will not help create a single job by making employment less secure for workers. It comes as an attack on workers when they are most vulnerable and when they look to their government for support. Australia's working people have sacrificed the most and paid the highest price as a result of the pandemic. Over 900,000 are unemployed and 1.1 million are underemployed. Many have exhausted their sick leave, their annual leave and their long service leave. Three point three million people have raided their super accounts, with thousands of young people reducing their balances to zero. This has happened while corporate profits have continued to grow and Australia's richest people have become even richer.
Before I reflect on why this legislation has been introduced, let's consider why this is a remarkably bad bill. It attacks the basic foundations of our industrial relations system. I don't propose to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the bill. My colleagues have made outstanding contributions to this debate already, and I'll not repeat them here. I will, however, highlight a few specific things which are wrong with this bill. The bill proposes to prevent the Fair Work Commission from making recommendations in conciliation that would guide parties to a fast and effective outcome. Conciliation is one of the most effective tools the commission has. It works, as an effort by the commission, to bring parties in disputation together to try and find a solution. If applied properly, conciliation can prevent further issues such as industrial action or legal proceedings, saving money, trouble and wasted energy for all concerned. The cornerstone of conciliation is guidance by the commission to each party to find an outcome. This bill will take that right away. This is just one proposed attack on the commission and its ability to do its job.
Australia has long experienced a crisis in job casualisation. The bill does not address Australia's most pressing labour market problem—the extent to which jobs are casual and insecure. Over half a million casuals lost their jobs at the outset of this pandemic, and 60 per cent of new jobs created since May 2020 have been casual. The government's changes will not help solve this problem. It will make it easier for employers to casualise permanent jobs and pay workers less than the award safety net. The bill shifts more power to employers, which will exacerbate inequality, low wage growth and job insecurity. The current laws have overseen record low wage growth and record high job insecurity. Instead of remedying them to rebalance the system, the bill will make these three serious issues much worse.
In debates on industrial relations like this one, those opposite like to talk about the need for flexibility. The 2020 COVID responses prove that the current system is extremely flexible, flexible enough to make rapid changes where they are necessary as well as fair. Australian workers and their unions worked rapidly with employers to make temporary changes to awards across whole industries to cope with shutdowns, social distancing rules, reduced hours and working from home. Debating proposed legislation can often seem abstract, but this bill will hurt workers across Australia, nowhere more than in my electorate. The proposal in the bill for additional hours agreements will cause great pain to workers in Darwin and Palmerston. An adult part-time worker in one of our shopping centres, such as Casuarina Square, Gateway or the Palmerston Shopping Centre, may lose out on the payments they were once entitled to. A retail worker on a 16-hour part-time contract who works four hours of overtime a month may lose around $650 in overtime wages under this bill. That's less money for their families and for the basic necessities of life. Similarly, a student at Charles Darwin University who works at one of the pubs on Mitchell Street to make ends meet will also lose out. If they pick up three hours of overtime a month, they might find themselves losing around $500. Casualisation and insecure work are among the biggest problems that workers in the Territory face today. You can't heal our economy by hurting these workers, by cutting their pay or making their work more insecure. For the last decade the government has been beating its chest and making many noises about developing the Territory and unleashing the potential of northern Australia. But, without the simple guarantee of secure employment, how can such a lofty goal ever be realised?
Let's also not forget that this bill originally contained the outrageous proposition of suspension of the better off overall test, the BOOT, for two years. That's right. This government wanted to remove the very thing that ensured that no Australian worker was left worse off under a new negotiated EBA. Getting rid of the BOOT was so utterly outrageous that the government have excised it from this bill. But the fact that it was included at all gives us a real insight into the intent and the thinking behind this bad bill. Of course, it's the actions that we should be looking at, not the words, particularly when it comes to those opposite and industrial relations.
Two questions must be asked: Why this legislation? And why this legislation now? The answer to the first question is simple. They have chosen this legislation because it reflects exactly what they believe in. Labour market deregulation is the ideological Holy Grail of those opposite, and at the end of the day that is what this is all about. It's about ideology. The living standards of Australian families are being slashed, all because of an ideological obsession. The answer to the second question is equally simple. They have chosen this moment to move the legislation because they believe that the timing suits them. 'Scotty from Marketing' is on the job. Political expediency and political circumstances have had a greater role in shaping their approach to this than the state of the economy or the living conditions of Australian workers.