House debates

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


Workplace Relations

5:12 pm

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to start by saying thank you to my fellow swimming team mates in the ALP swimming relay team today. While, sadly, we lost again, we did put in a wonderful effort in the pool today and all enjoyed it. Congratulations go to the press gallery. I do not know who those last two swimmers were, but at the end they pipped the Liberal team, who were actually doing a fantastic job—until those last two swimmers dived into the pool and took away their victory.

On a very different note of far more serious proportions, I want to talk about jobs and the lack of job security in our community nowadays. I want to talk about this government, who are proclaiming that they are creating a record number of jobs. They are creating more jobs than we can even fill, because they are importing skilled migrants, and nowadays even unskilled migrants, to fill these huge numbers of jobs that we have out in the community! The government are also claiming that the IR reforms taking effect from today will create yet more jobs. I find this a startling claim—that somehow, by being able to sack people more easily, this will create more jobs. I have never been able to see how you can correlate the loss of a job with the creation of a job. It seems slightly iniquitous to me.

We in this community face a challenge. The challenge is the government. It is the biggest threat to Australian workers, their jobs and their job security in this nation’s history. The Howard government’s policies, particularly its extreme industrial relations laws, are turning job security into a thing of the past. They are also turning job creation into a thing of the past. The IR laws slipped in in the dead of night, with 1,800 pages of regulations that the minister slipped in on 19 March 2006—when a real sporting event was happening, the marathon at the Commonwealth Games. That was definitely Kerryn McCann’s day, where coming into the MCG she held off and, lifted by the Australian crowd, pipped the Kenyan runner. It was a thrilling final; it was an amazing piece of athleticism.

Two minutes or so after this wonderful event happened down at the great MCG, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations released a massive pile of detailed regulations and some changes to the laws that we had passed in this parliament already. Admittedly, he had waited until after the state elections in South Australia and Tasmania. Sadly, this obviously did not help his Liberal colleagues in those environments. He waited until that was over and, on that great day of Kerryn McCann’s race and victory, he slipped in legislation so complex, so difficult that people in workplaces across the country, including employers, are going to be ripping their hair out trying to work out how to implement it all.

Yesterday the new IR laws commenced. Families in Chisholm are afraid, and they have good reason to be. One of the first examples of a company trying to use the government’s IR laws to strip wages, rights and entitlements is Dana automotive systems in Clayton, within my electorate of Chisholm. It has presented unions with a 41-point blueprint in its latest EB negotiations which would cut the wages of existing workers by five per cent, put new employees on wages 20 per cent lower than their current rates, abolish rostered days off, cut redundancy and long service leave and force workers to take holidays when their employers want them to. This is the first action that I have seen within my electorate.

It has been revealed that point 2 of the 41-point negotiation is a clause that will in effect turn the collective contracts into individual contracts. The union had simply asked for a rollover of the current EB with a modest pay rise. They asked for no additional entitlements. They just wanted a modest pay rise, in line with the current CPI indexation. Dana had agreed to this and have agreed to this for their employees in New South Wales, but they are not going to provide it to their factory workers in Victoria. Why? We can only think that the workers in Victoria, particularly at the Clayton plant, are predominantly from non-English-speaking backgrounds and are not proficient in English and perhaps Dana think that they will get away with cutting the wages of these employees.

The staff at Clayton have for years used their annual leave when business is slowing down. They have predominantly used up their annual leave because Dana has said to its workers time and again: ‘You help us and we’ll help you.’ In the past, employees have been happy to take their leave in a downturn. Now they are feeling especially hurt and angry at Dana’s proposal. Dana makes suspension and underbody component parts within my electorate. It is part of the manufacturing base that is currently dwindling. As I have said time and again, if I were a regional entity I would probably be getting a rescue package. But, as I am in the burbs and I represent people in the suburbs, very little is being done about the loss of manufacturing jobs within my electorate.

The enterprise bargaining agreement at Dana expires on 1 April. Until that time, no action can be taken. The workers at Dana are feeling very vulnerable. We read today on the front page of the Age that they have discovered a bug, a listening device, in the office of the union delegate at one of Dana’s other plants. In the midst of all this terror and confusion, a bug, a listening device, has been planted in the office of the union delegate. So conversations have been recorded. The police are currently investigating how that device got to be there.

In my electorate, workers are scared, workers are worried, and they have a right to be. It is not just the ALP that has been saying this. Justice Giudice, who is probably not a great friend of the ALP—or we have never thought so in the past—stated on 16 March:

I think one of the most important issues involved with Work Choices is the reduction of the safety net for the purpose of the no disadvantage test for collective and individual agreements.

That could have a significant effect on the incomes of the lowest paid in our community.

I can assure you it’s going to affect our society.

People with low skill levels, low bargaining power, are heading for the Fair Pay and Conditions Standard, which will have an effect on their incomes.

This will be accompanied by a slowdown in the rate of growth of minimum wages—that’s what the Fair Pay Commission is for.

If those things are going to occur, they’ll probably have to be accompanied by a reduction in social welfare, otherwise the incentive to work will reduce.

... I don’t want to leave you in any doubt that these are very significant changes.

He also said that the absence of protection for collective bargaining rights was ‘a potential area of real conflict and real difficulty’. So the current head of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission has real concerns about the Work Choices legislation that has just come into effect.

In my electorate of Chisholm, as I have said, manufacturing is on the decline. I have seen plant after plant close. In many cases it is the government’s lack of policy that has led to severe job losses. The government’s neglect of our manufacturing industry has seen a loss of 145,000 manufacturing jobs since the government came to office. Since the government’s re-election in 2004, more than 60,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector have been axed. With this industrial relations law, the manufacturing sector are going to somehow race to the bottom by ensuring that all manufacturing workers, low-skilled workers, in my electorate are going to be on lower wages. Somehow that will help us compete with India and China. It is a ridiculous statement. Why aren’t we racing to the top? Why aren’t we racing to the top in ensuring that we are skilling up, looking for innovation and high value added products? No, we are racing to the bottom.

The government has failed to come up with a plan to keep our manufacturing sector alive. According to the March quarter Australian Industry Group PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of Australian manufacturing, parts of the manufacturing industry are experiencing a recession. The problem is having a devastating impact in the communities across Australia, including communities in my electorate of Chisholm.

Last November, a few weeks out from Christmas, Silcraft, an automotive component producer at Mount Waverley, axed 460 jobs. For those 460 families, it was the worst Christmas present they could have. The sale of Telstra is going to affect my electorate where 500 jobs at the call centre in Burwood are under threat. I have not been able to get a guarantee from anyone—from the call centre; from the minister—that they will be protected. The National Relay Service in my electorate, which provides a sterling service for the hearing impaired over the phone, is also feeling very nervous not knowing what is happening to its contract renewal. There are 70 people at that service who provide a fantastic job relaying messages to the hearing impaired. They do not know whether their jobs are going to go or be there.

The government has totally neglected the manufacturing sector. This IR legislation is not going to improve it in any way, shape, size or form. And if we listen to the words of Senator Minchin, who was probably recorded unknowingly, this is only the beginning of the end. (Time expired)

5:22 pm

Photo of Michael FergusonMichael Ferguson (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise this evening to bring to your attention and to the attention of the House a dishonest campaign which continues in my electorate of Bass in northern Tasmania, the best electorate in Australia. Yesterday a very unusual advertisement with the title ‘Work Choices’ appeared in Launceston’s daily newspaper, the Examiner. In short, it was a mocked-up Australian workplace agreement with my name on it as a member of the House of Representatives employed by the so-called company ‘Electors of Bass Pty Ltd’.

Interestingly, the premise of the text suggested that I would begin an AWA from that day concluding on the date of the next federal election. It read:

... as of Monday the 27th March 2006, the new industrial relations laws that you voted for come into place. As such we, as your constituents, offer you the following individual contracts—


so that you can lead the way in embracing these new laws that allows employers to strip away workers’ pay and conditions.

It then goes on to list an offer for me, including salary, sick leave, and hours worked. Finally, the ad claimed to make out a list of work related entitlements which all federal politicians receive. The implication was that I would have these taken away from me from the said date.

There are many things I could say about this political advertisement. For a start, even though the ad is intended to be a sarcastic document, it contains many errors. I do not earn anywhere near the stated hourly rate even if I did only work eight hours per day, which I exceed by double incidentally. I am unable to tell you who wrote the ad, who paid for it or who placed it. Interestingly, no-one had seen fit to authorise it or put their name to it at all. But I tell you this: it is just another example of the hysterical, misleading and malicious campaign which is being waged all around Australia by powerful, wealthy unions with vested political interests.

I am sorry to disappoint those who have chosen to become my enemy in my work on behalf of the people of Bass. I will not be reacting to their silly and dishonest tactics. In giving this speech tonight, one thing I do not seek to achieve is a personal defence. This is not about me. The unions’ smear tactics are very disappointing because of the deceit and half-truths that people are being forced to endure.

I feel sad and disappointed at the alarm that has been caused among ordinary, everyday people. I am angry that good, hard-working people in my community are being lied to by unions and ALP politicians who care only about their own existence and their manipulation of public feeling. If I were hearing only this one side of the debate, I too would be worried and anxious. If I were an age pensioner being told that my pension would fall over time, I would be upset. If I were a shift worker who relies on penalty rates for overtime being told that I was about to lose those penalty rates, I would be concerned. If I were a young person at a school being told that I would be bullied into signing away decent working conditions when I entered the workforce, I would be fearful. If I were a trustworthy and hard-working employee in a Launceston bakery being told that I should expect to be sacked for no reason, I too would be very concerned about the direction of this government. The fact is that none of the scenarios that I have described are valid, but we have heard them all from the unions and the ALP.

I have spoken in this place before about the Work Choices bill, which has now become law, and I have talked about the need for reform, the need for more flexibility in the workplace, the need to make it easier for employers to create more jobs, and, importantly, the need for proper minimum conditions in order to protect Australians from being exploited. No-one in any union and no-one in any opposition party has challenged the contents of that speech. No-one has attacked me in the media for saying things that are not true, as could have been expected if I had been less than honest. That speech was given nearly five months ago, with no protest as to my points of view or the good reasons underlying the reforms.

I think that every member of this parliament ought to answer this basic question and then live by their answer: do or do not the Australian people deserve enough respect to be told the truth—the whole truth—about this legislation? I refer to yesterday’s newspaper advertisement and the campaign in general when I say, ‘Judge me on my record and my commitment to the electorate and to the people of Bass.’ Because, without question, and like most of my parliamentary colleagues from all parties, I work long and irregular hours to do the job to the best of my ability. Everywhere that I go, people observe that, in my short time as the member for Bass, I have achieved more in less than a couple of years than the previous member did in six years.

The advertisement says that my AWA will finish at the 2007 federal election. I can only say to that that I absolutely agree. You see, my contract is with the people of Bass and it will end at that time. With good faith, I will ask the people of Bass to renew my contract because I am their hard-working, honest representative whose daily mission is to make life better for people and their families. I am proud about that. Unlike some politicians, I do not regard my position as one that I can or should take for granted; neither do I think that people can, just by clever campaigning and with the effective use of words, win elections forever. You have to work hard, you have to take decisions in good conscience and you have to remain accountable to your community.

This is, of course, not about me, even though the unions are making every effort to make it a very personal smear campaign. This is, in fact, about the collective hysteria that the union movement in this country is using to scare people into believing things that are not true. I could read out a long list of the many statements which have been made about how the sky will fall and how the world will come to an end, but time does not permit me. But I will pick out a couple: there will be more divorce, children will not be able to go on holidays, this issue is bigger than two world wars, living standards will fall and the age pension will decrease. All these assertions are not only wrong, misleading and juvenile but in many cases they are downright offensive. How dare the union movement and the ALP go about scaring people in this way.

The truth is that Work Choices will actually move Australia toward one simple national system of workplace relations. It will mean more job opportunities and greater workplace flexibility. As a matter of fact, Work Choices will be of particular benefit to people living in regional areas like those in my federal electorate of Bass. The unions are targeting and attacking people like me in marginal seats simply because we are marginal seat holders. I say as well that I have a good idea of who is leading the campaign locally and I know them to be quite a dishonest person. I also know that, although they are a paid employee of the unions, they are a former ALP staff member, but I do not propose to name them today. That is not my way. It is not personal; it should be about the issue.

Let me say this: let the future prove these people wrong. My electors are not stupid, and they consistently say that they do not appreciate dishonest scare campaigns as a means of manipulating them at the ballot box. I look forward to the day when the ardent critics of this legislation will have to acknowledge that they were wrong. Australians will now be able to watch the economy grow even further as it benefits from this necessary economic reform—especially regions such as northern Tasmania. When we see the proof of the obvious benefits to the people of Australia, I will be calling these doomsayers to account. I will ask them to explain why they opposed economic growth which results in better living conditions for everyday Australians. I will ask them why they felt the need to frighten Australian families. On behalf of the people of Bass, if given that opportunity, I will be demanding a retraction of their lies and an unconditional apology.

In closing, I simply issue the following challenge. If the union-ALP political partnership—and that is what it is—wants to focus at the next election in 2007 on moral character, honesty, job security and employment growth, I say: bring it on. I am proud of what the Howard government has been able to achieve for Australia, and I am very proud to have been a part of it. I look forward to its response.