House debates

Monday, 8 February 2016

Grievance Debate


5:33 pm

Photo of Nick ChampionNick Champion (Wakefield, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a great pleasure to be outside today at the jobs embassy with members of the MUA and from the MV Portland. I certainly sympathise with them in the struggle for their jobs because in my home state of South Australia, of course, so many union members and non-union members are struggling with their jobs. We only need to look at the shipbuilding industry and construction in South Australia, and of course we only need to look at Holdens.

We all know there is going to be an election this year. The timing bounces around a bit. Obviously all the major parties and the minor parties are preselecting their candidates. I was interested to read an article in the Plains Producer. It is a very good paper, a paper that I have talked about before, which looks after the areas of Balaklava, Owen and Two Wells and places on the Adelaide Plains. We see that a Clare Valley woman, Kathleen Bourne, has stepped up for preselection for the Liberal Party. I would not normally comment on would-be preselection candidates, except for the fact that in comments to the Plains Producer they point out that Wakefield is the 'victim of significant deindustrialisation, with, for example, the impending closure of Holden'.

I was surprised to read that a preselection candidate for the Liberal Party would point out Holden. However, given the fact that the famous headline 'Hockey dares GM to leave' from 11 December 2013, you would be surprised that the people who perpetrated the deindustrialisation of the car industry in South Australia were out there saying that that was an issue for the electorate and that people should vote against the Labor Party, because of the coalition government's actions. It is an extraordinary proposition to put to the people of Wakefield.

But to add insult to injury, Ms Bourne then goes on to talk about the coalition's naval shipbuilding program and, given all of the issues that have been around submarines in my state, you almost fall over with the audacity of this sort of commentary about it. We now have a Liberal Party candidate in Wakefield who is running, in effect, against the government's policies and the consequences of government's policies. It is a truly extraordinary time.

I think candidates need to be aware of the importance of consistency in these debates—you cannot just waltz into a place, state your policy position then change it or blame other people for it. So it is interesting when we come to the Nick Xenophon Team candidate—I am sure I will get one eventually; it is in the pipeline. But I did see the The Advertiser on Saturday talked a bit about—I think the headline was 'Let's sink Nick'—the major parties attitudes to the Nick Xenophon Team running in the election. It talks about, in Labor's case, the campaign against cuts to penalty rates. I think we have a right to question the Nick Xenophon Team's policy on penalty rates. But I found it interesting, because when this was raised with Senator Xenophon—who I presume is the leader of the Nick Xenophon Team party—he said:

We are not anti-penalty rates for nurses, doctors, or any other shift worker, or any employee that works overtime or non-standard hours … The NXT position, modified after much consultation, is to support the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission.

That confuses me a little, because on 27 January on ABC 891 in an interview in which I was participating on a panel, this issue came up, and I said:

We were just talking about penalty rates, Nick talks about letting the Fair Work Commission decide but as I understand it he introduced a Senate bill which would strip hospitality and retail workers, thousands of people in my electorate, of their penalty rates.

To which Senator Xenophon replied, 'And I made a mistake.' I then replied, 'So now you're retreating?' Then he said, 'No, I'm saying that when penalty rates went from 150 to 200 per cent that actually cost a lot of people their jobs,' to which I said that was 'nonsense.' So that was the position on 27 January this year.

If you go back in time to 1 October 2014 in the Senate Hansard on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 and Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014, Senator Xenophon told the parliament:

I know my friends in the ALP and the Greens oppose me on this, but I think we need to have some flexibility on penalty rates for small businesses with 20 employees or fewer in the retail and hospitality industries.

Then in his Fair Work Amendment (Small Business – Penalty Rate Exemption) Bill 2012 on 16 February 2015—or that might have been one of the government's bills, he said:

I do not want my position on penalty rates to be misunderstood or misinterpreted, as it has been, particularly in the heat of an election campaign. I think that there is a special case, only for small businesses with 20 full-time equivalent employees or fewer and only in the hospitality and retail sectors, to look at a more flexible working arrangement where you do not have penalty rates of 175 or 200 per cent, which has been a job killer.

Further to that we have, in The Australian, Sarah Martin reporting on 7 September 2013: 'Xenophon flags support for cuts to penalty rates under Coalition.' It talks about his lead Senate candidate, Mr Griff, who is a former head of the state's retail association, who 'supported reduced penalty rates for small business in the retail or hospitality sectors'. Senator Xenophon said:

His view on penalty rates is the same as mine, which is small business are particularly vulnerable and there has to be greater flexibility.

The story then goes on to reiterate that he introduced legislation last year to scrap penalty rates for employers with fewer than 20 staff, and that it is still before the Senate. In that interview, Mr Griff described penalty rates as:

… "a noose" around the neck of small business.

And on and on it goes. Of course, there is Michelle Grattan's article in The Age of 14 August 2012, 'Penalty rates bills to put Coalition on the spot'. The tenor of this story seems to suggest that Senator Xenophon was putting pressure on the government to cut penalty rates. So I went to the Nick Xenophon Team website and had a look at what their policy is. It says:

Penalty rates are an integral part of the industrial relations system and any variance to rates and conditions must be dealt with by the appropriate workplace relations tribunal (currently Fair Work Commission). The unique challenges of small business should always be considered.

It gives two dot points:

•Fair Work Commission should remain the independent umpire

•Small business* and the potential for increased youth employment should always be considered in any determination of weekend penalty rates.

The asterisk indicates fewer than 20 employees.

So the question is: what exactly is the Nick Xenophon Team's position on penalty rates for retail and hospitality workers? On one hand they seem to be endorsing a straight cut and on the other they seem to be leaving it to the Fair Work Commission. And when you question the leader of the Nick Xenophon Team party—it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it, that you have to call him the leader. But anyway, there it is—you get this, 'I made a mistake'. In which case, which part of this policy is a mistake?

Now, if you vote for the Nick Xenophon Team will his candidates, when elected, always vote for Nick? This is in the 'frequently asked questions' part of the Nick Xenophon Team website—

An opposition member: The Palmer experience!

As my colleague points out—the Palmer experience! It says:

So yes, candidates and Nick will work as one team and their vote will be guided by the spelt out policy principles. On issues not covered in our policy statements, we’ll work together to achieve a fair, like minded consensus.

Which brings up the question: will Mr Griff, who is the lead candidate on the Senate ticket, be free to vote to cut penalty rates or will he not be free to cut penalty rates?

We all know that Senator Xenophon is very good at the 'spinathon'. He is out there in the news every single day on every single issue. But what voters in South Australia cannot afford is a spinathon on their penalty rates, or a spinathon on important public policy questions. These are things which must be crystal clear to the public of South Australia and, indeed, to the public around Australia in other states, because it is important. We have learnt this, as my colleague said, with other minor parties. We have learnt that this experiment can be very dangerous—that what people think they are voting for and what they actually get are two entirely different things.