Monday, 26 March 2007
As we have heard today, this week marks the first anniversary of the commencement of the government’s extreme industrial relations laws, and I wish to grieve about the state of industrial relations and the rights of workers around this nation. The Howard government calls it Work Choices; we call it no choices for Australian workers who are forced to sign Australian workplace agreements. For the past 12 months, reports of families severely disadvantaged by these extreme laws have appeared on current affairs programs, in the newspapers and on television and radio news programs. For the past 12 months, constituents in all the electorates around Australia have been approaching their members of parliament on both sides of the political divide to bring their stories of their experiences of the unfairness of these extreme laws. The government members know these stories only too well but lack the guts to stand up to their leadership to ensure that industrial relations laws in this country are moderated to ensure fairness for all workers.
The government MPs in marginal seats are particularly concerned and have been speaking privately for some time about their concerns for their own job security because of the level of public disquiet over these extreme laws. This last Saturday, the electors of New South Wales delivered a repudiation of the Howard government’s extreme industrial relations laws. I congratulate the Premier, Morris Iemma, on an excellent campaign that saw the return of his government. While Mr Iemma readily acknowledges that New South Wales voters were unhappy with problems that have occurred over recent times, and also that Labor had been in office for 12 years, any desire to kick the Labor government up the backside was largely tempered by the very legitimate fears over Peter Debnam’s promise to hand responsibility for industrial relations in New South Wales over to John Howard, which would of course have widened the reach of these extreme laws. An exit poll conducted for Saturday’s election showed that 62 per cent of Labor voters had indicated that Work Choices was a significant factor in their decision to support the state Labor government.
The Howard government’s extreme IR laws are unfair and will lead to lower wages and conditions. Australian workers and their families know they tip the balance too far in the favour of employers. Today in question time the Deputy Leader of the Opposition asked the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations on a number of occasions why he and the government would not obtain statistics relating to AWAs from the Office of the Employment Advocate. If AWAs are so good, why does the government refuse to spruik their benefits? The government knows only too well the figures would not be happy reading and would show the truth about AWAs and the conditions and penalty rates that have been ripped away from workers. The Howard government and the minister responsible in particular have showed no honesty when it comes to AWAs and the impact they have on Australian working families.
There remain more than 400 unanswered questions on the Notice Paper about this issue. The failure to answer these questions and to release data from the Office of the Employment Advocate shows that the government is scared of the electoral ramifications of having evidence from its own agencies confirming what most Australian workers already know—that is, that Work Choices and the Howard government’s attacks on workers are having a negative impact on the Australian way of life. In the New South Wales state election, voters showed their anger at John Howard’s extreme industrial relations laws. When the federal election comes around at the end of this year, voters from around the country will have the opportunity to lay the blame directly at the man responsible for this ideological attack on the rights of employees and working Australian families. Peter Debnam took the blame this time for John Howard. The ‘man of steel’ will not have the protection of the weak and feeble New South Wales Liberal-National opposition to blame for the loss. He will have to take full responsibility for the anger that will be expressed at the ballot box by working Australians.
Whilst the government refuses to release its figures on the impact of AWAs and its extreme industrial relations regime, there is a growing body of research work showing that the economic benefits claimed by the government are false. John Buchanan of the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre has produced excellent research which clearly shows that the claims of the Prime Minister and Treasurer that economic benefits were being gained by the IR law changes are not correct. Wages growth and declining industrial action are all the result of long-term trends and forces. Other statistics available concerning AWAs show that every agreement has resulted in the loss of at least one award condition. Sixty per cent of AWAs have seen the loss of penalty rates for Australian workers, and over half of all AWAs have removed shift loadings from their terms. This is the reality for Australian workers. This is not the workers’ utopia promised by the Prime Minister and his millions of dollars of Work Choices advertising spending.
Last week we saw a significant victory for a young woman from the Hunter Valley, who stood up to her unscrupulous employer over the outrageous ‘take it or leave it’ AWA. This so-called agreement stripped Lorissa Stevens of her right to sick leave without providing 12-hours notice, amongst other arduous and completely unreasonable requirements. The company bullied Ms Stevens and threatened her with dismissal if she did not sign the AWA. She was also threatened with the proposition that, if she did not comply with the demands to sign the AWA, she would be ruined and would never work again in a Hunter Valley coalmine. This outrage was redressed last week in a settlement approved by the Federal Court, but it would never have had to come to this if John Howard’s extreme industrial relations laws were not in place.
It is cases like that of Ms Stevens that people like the late Jim Comerford and his comrades fought for over the last century. They fought and died for the rights of workers, and now all that toil and all the tears that were expended in the fight for fair conditions and decent pay for decent work are being quickly wound back by the Work Choices regime. The campaign against these harsh and unfair laws is being spearheaded by Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow of the ACTU and the Labor leader and deputy leader, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The campaign has galvanised the resolve of Australian workers and filled them with hope that the regime of John Howard and his government is not forever. Together we can fight these extreme industrial relations laws and ensure that fairness returns to Australian workplaces. The enormous levels of public support for the Your Rights at Work campaign, and the rallies around Australia, show that ordinary workers and their families are determined not to allow the Howard government to think that it can get away with reducing the conditions and pay of Australian workers.
Although I have made some comments about the state election on the weekend, I do want to say something regarding the state seat of Lake Macquarie. The Lake Macquarie electorate hangs on a knife edge today. The sitting member, my very good friend and colleague Jeff Hunter, is under direct threat from the Lake Macquarie mayor and Independent—not a Liberal, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources at the table would have you believe. We all hope that the preferences, postal votes and prepoll votes that are still to be counted will be directed towards Jeff.
However, at this time I would like to make some comments on Jeff’s tenure as the member for Lake Macquarie. Jeff was elected as the member for Lake Macquarie in 1991. His father, Merv, was the member before him, and his brother, Alan, is a Labor councillor on Lake Macquarie City Council. The Hunter family has served the Lake community well and with commitment, integrity and dedication, reflecting true Labor values of decency, fairness and honesty. Over these years, we have watched our communities grow from lakeside villages to thriving communities with services that all of us deserve. Since I have worked closely with Jeff, I have seen police stations built, school halls built, security fences erected around schools, ambulance and fire stations built, libraries expanded, police, ambulance and firefighter numbers expanded and, most crucially, we have seen the funding flow from the state government for the clean-up of Lake Macquarie which has seen a huge benefit to our local environment.
Two most recent projects that Jeff succeeded in were the building of the Five Islands bridges, alleviating a major bottleneck for commuting constituents, and the proposal of an open-cut mine at Awaba. Along with the community, Jeff resisted this proposal for an open-cut coalmine on the shores of Lake Macquarie, a fight that his father won 20 years earlier. Together with our community, Jeff won the fight and then also succeeded in having the state government declare that there would be no future open-cut mines in western Lake Macquarie.
If the seat of Lake Macquarie is lost, our communities and our constituents will have lost one of the hardest-working, committed parliamentarians in the state parliament, and they will really feel it. I am sure that all of our best wishes go towards Jeff at this time and under these circumstances. Mate, I hope that you hold on; I am sure you will. (Time expired)