Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
To Australians who are listening to this debate as they're driving somewhere, perhaps, or as they're making the dinner, what we're debating is the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020—the Morrison government's proposal to change the laws which go to conditions in the workplace.
My background is that I'm a very proud member of a union, and I've spent my adult life representing people to try and get fair conditions in the workplace, but always endeavouring to be a moderate union official—trying to get a win-win and trying to ensure that people have agency over their work, that they're fairly remunerated and that they feel that their interests are aligned with those of their employer. The creation of harmony in the workplace is something that, to me, should be taken very seriously. A lot of people don't realise that the federal government can have a direct impact, in the laws it makes, upon the wages and conditions which people receive and the productivity which companies enjoy—the fairness at work. Australia's always had a very proud tradition of going a third way. We've eschewed the excesses of pure capitalism and, of course, we turned our back on the excesses of extreme socialism and communism a hundred years ago. This third way of a safety net underpinning productivity and underpinning wages growth is what I think has kept a middle class intact in this country. At least, it has for many decades.
I think if you look at the difference between the United States and Australia and the circumstances of people who go to work there as opposed to in Australia—for example, you can work in the United States and still be under the poverty line—there's a lot to be said for sensible industrial relations reform. Having said that I believe very much in a fair go for all, I think this legislation is absolutely not serious. When I say that it's not serious, I think that, if it were to be passed, it would be very serious and would be of great harm to Australian workers and, therefore, to the Australian economy and Australian enterprises. But I think this is a government that didn't think they would be elected in May 2019, because they certainly didn't offer anything in industrial relations policy, but now, to keep the conservative base happy—a bit of red meat—they've decided to take a tried-and-true uniter of many aspects of the current coalition: cutting people's wages and conditions and deregulating the workplace. Tonight my remarks will be in several parts. When I look at this legislation, I cannot help but draw the conclusion—and I'll endeavour to do so for people listening in the next 10 or 12 minutes—that this Prime Minister doesn't actually care. He's wasting the nation's time. He'd be happy if he could get these laws through—and a lot of other people such as the workers of Australia would be unhappy—but, in fact, they're not even serious about it. They don't believe in trying to improve productivity in the Australian workplace.
We've gone through COVID. COVID has been a dreadful experience, and it still is a dreadful experience. Obviously, the greatest suffering is that of the families of those who've passed. But many people have lost their jobs and their livelihoods—small businesses and people in certain sectors of the economy—and, of course, workers have lost shifts and literally millions of hours of work. My view is that the Australian people just want life to go back to normal, such as it can after COVID, and I think that there is a responsibility on all of us who are privileged to serve in the Parliament of Australia to help Australians get back to normal, whatever that will look like. This law actually flies in the face of that, and that's my first objection. COVID has been a torrid time for millions of Australians and their families, so why on earth is the government delaying our return to normal by trying it on with the agenda to cut people's wages? I think this is exactly the wrong time. Even if you believe in the coalition's approach of leaving it to the marketplace and weakening the safety net of minimum conditions in Australia—which I surely don't—surely, given the terrible experience that COVID-19 has been and the battering that sectors like tourism, travel agents, live events and international education are taking, this is exactly the wrong time. Even if you believe in deregulating workplace relations—and this is a move towards greater deregulation—this is exactly the wrong time for it.
Not only is it the wrong time; this legislation is bad for the people, bad for the Australian economy and bad for business. In a moment I'll go through some of the specifics as to why this is very poor legislation. It doesn't do anything to assist productivity. It is on this basis that I encourage the Senate and members of parliament to vote this legislation down. It's not what we need in workplace relations, either now or in the future. It's bad for the people, bad for the economy and bad for business.
Some of the specifics in the legislation are so poorly drafted that it beggars belief that this dog's breakfast is even offered up in legislation. I understand the Attorney-General has taken his metaphorical shears to parts of the bill since it was first raised, but we should still say no to this legislation. The bill is still ugly, is still an eyesore and does nothing for Australian workplaces. The Attorney-General has endeavoured to give this otherwise unloved legislation a makeover—a short back and sides—but he hasn't done a very good job. He has done half a job. He has created the legislative equivalent of the mullet. Indeed, that's probably unfair on the mullet. It is less than a mullet. It is a con. It is a try-on. It is a dare. It is half this and half that. It is a mismatched bill. I will go to those specific points in a moment.
It is a thankless piece of legislation. It is thankless for the Australian people who have got us through COVID and just want to go back to normal. There was nothing flagged at the last election about this legislation. It actually undermines enterprise bargaining. This is the classic stereotype where the Liberals and some of their allies in business—and I don't believe all in business want this legislation—declare to the workforce of Australia: 'This is enterprise bargaining. We're the enterprise and you're the bargain.' That's why this legislation should be rejected.
In particular let's look at the job market for people under the age of 30. If you ask them how the job landscape looks, they would say it's pretty grim. If you ask them if they are getting the hours of work they want and if it is easy to find a job, they would say that it's pretty hard. If you ask them if they will ever be able to afford to buy a house, have a family and settle down on the hours of work they're getting, they would say that that's very unlikely. If you ask them if there is job security available for them, they would say, 'No, there is not.' Then if you ask them if they think that the labour market is too deregulated or not deregulated enough, they would most resoundingly say that it's too deregulated.
This bill, even without its BOOT ban, makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise be permanent—that's bad. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is—that's not good. It will allow wage cuts—that's a poor idea. It takes the rights off workers on big projects by effectively eliminating unions out of negotiating greenfield project arrangements. This might well be red meat for some who are critical of the government for lacking any agenda whatsoever. This Prime Minister is better at tearing things down than building things. Take the electric car shemozzle that this government conducted before the election. Now it's going to have to crab walk back to supporting those cars. This government is not very good at building things, and this is not a recipe to build productivity or cooperation in the workplace. It is most certainly bad economics.
Someone famously said, 'It's the economy, Stupid.' I'd like to vary that and say, 'Actually, it's the workers, Stupid.' We need to make sure that workers are getting proper wage rises. Stagnant wages growth diminishes consumer confidence. Stagnant wages growth diminishes the ability of people in the working class to get into the middle class and those in the middle class to stay in the middle class. Stagnant wages growth damages business because the very customers that businesses need to be coming through their doors, shopping and spending money can't do that, because they're simply not making enough to make ends meet.
This bill does not represent the finest traditions of industrial relations reform in this country, which were achieved by consensus. This government has specifically turned its back on a consensus approach and instead is favouring one set of arguments put forward by some employers and their advocates over the interests of others, including the trade union movement and workers. This law is very poorly drafted. Not only was the BOOT test change that the government proposed stupid—and they've dropped that—but the measures it is proposing to help casuals become permanents are an overworked solution to what is a very simple problem. You could always put in the National Employment Standards the opportunity for casuals to become permanent. I'll tell you what I believe has happened here. The government doesn't really understand workplace relations and an employer group—perhaps the Ai Group—has pushed it into an elaborate method of turning casuals into permanents. It's going to create a shemozzle for employers.
The other thing here is that, when the government wanted to amend specific awards for a specific time to allow for COVID measures, they included the opportunity for arbitration. What this now means under the law that they're proposing is that part-timers could be required to work extra hours. Even though they might be permanently on 16 or 20 hours a week and that's in their contract, that could be amended without the agreement of the worker to have them work up to 38 hours with no penalty rates. The weakness is that there's no arbitration. The reality is that this government, when COVID first hit, argued that it wanted flexibility for employers to be able to amend awards, but the safeguard was that there could be arbitration if people didn't agree on the proposal by employers, and quite often people would come to an agreement. But now they've got rid of the arbitration protection, which means that there is no chance for people to speak up if they disagree with what's proposed.
To show how this government doesn't understand the fire it's playing with, I note that the arbitration protection which was put in place initially when COVID started was used only five per cent of the time. Ninety-five per cent of the time, people, unions and the employers could work it out, but five per cent of the time there were disputes notified which were arbitrated. But the government doesn't like it when, even five per cent of the time, there could be notified disputes and there could be arbitration to check the balance of what might be seen to be an unreasonable proposal from an employer, so it's decided that, even at five per cent dispute notification, that's too much, so it will just get rid of it altogether. This is a government that has gone further than it needs to.
We understand the importance of helping businesses through COVID, and there are plenty of sensible ideas to help businesses get through COVID. You could extend JobKeeper in the travel industry and the live event industry. You could extend JobKeeper for businesses that are affected by the closure of international borders. Perhaps you could run a work value case in aged care. Perhaps you could tackle gender inequality in the wages system. Perhaps you could look at gender inequality in TAFE and degree qualified award classifications. Perhaps you could do more for early-year educators. Perhaps you could expand the National Employment Standards. Perhaps there could be greenfields agreements for project life with unions, not without unions in a way that encourages employers into a wages race to the bottom. Perhaps you could look at exploitation in the horticulture industry, with the treatment of international workers coming to Australia. Perhaps you could look at paid domestic violence leave. You could look at how we can rehabilitate injured workers.
As I said at the outset, there is a fertile and productive area of workplace relations which can increase productivity. But has the government looked at any of that? Not at all. It has, in what I think is a fairly slipshod, not-really-that-interested approach, just picked up a few of the chocolates from the right-wing employer lobby and said, 'This is what we're going to do legislatively.' How does that help people? It simply doesn't.
What we need to conclude when we have a look at this legislation is that the real reason why it should be rejected is that the Prime Minister himself doesn't really believe in it. I'd make a sporting bet with any coalition member that by mid-March, if this has all got too hard, ScoMo is going to drop the reforms anyway. This is just a means for the coalition to paper over its divisions and unite its members in an attack on unions and wages and a war cry of deregulating the workplace even further, even though it's already far too deregulated as it is. There's nothing here for productivity. There's nothing here that guarantees wage improvements. It's a hotchpotch. It's a collection of mismatched ideas, none of which are in the interests of working people.
I suspect that deep down the Prime Minister doesn't even care. Oh, he'd love to get it through; let me be clear about that. He'd love to cut the wages of people. But he is, indeed, wasting the time of this nation, and I suspect that by the time of the budget he won't even be talking about workplace relations, because he knows that the people of Australia aren't going to buy into an 'us versus them' set of rhetoric from this government. He knows that, having gone through COVID, people just want to return to normal, and anything which delays a return to normal will not be met with approval by the people of Australia. The Prime Minister assumes that he can talk about the political benefit of being the incumbent leader during COVID, but at the end of the day people will mark this government down if it persists in resisting their return to normal. People who've lost hours of work, companies who've lost income, businesses who've lost customers, young people who can't get a job in the market and older people who are being displaced by the dodgy labour market schemes of this government don't want this legislation. I'm afraid that, at practically the two-year mark of this government, it's missed an opportunity to do something by consensus. Instead, those opposite have just resorted to their deregulatory, let-the-market-rip approach to workplace relations. That's why this legislation should be rejected. It is not in the interests of Australians, it doesn't let us get back to normal and it puts this nation back when we should be moving forward.