Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017; Second Reading
This is a government that has declared war on the working men and women of Australia. Under this Liberal government, Australian wage earners suffer pay cuts and tax rises, while corporations enjoy record profits and tax cuts—tax rises for wage earners, tax cuts for corporations and millionaires. But that's not enough for this government. This government also wants to squash the ability of Australians to act in their own interests in the workplace. It does not want to negotiate fairly with Australian wage earners over pay and conditions. Instead, it wants to give itself and its corporate friends the whip hand, using the power of legislation, the blunt instrument of legislation, to permanently handicap wage earners' negotiating position.
This is a government enacting laws to entrench control in the hands of a corporate elite that believes it is born to rule. The Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 before the House today is a case in point: 80 pages of legislation, introduced to the parliament six days ago, rushed through this place in under a month in order to evade the usual scrutiny. There's been no consultation with the people and organisations most affected by this bill. What we know about this bill is bad enough. But who knows what forensic probing might uncover if the parliament was given the opportunity to examine it properly. It is disappointing that Senator Xenophon, in one of his last acts as a senator in this place, for one reason or another has used his crossbench influence to diminish rather than enhance the ability of the parliament and particularly the Senate to scrutiny the legislation. He has allowed this bill to be fast-tracked through the Senate and he should be condemned for it.
What we know about this bill is that it seeks to hobble the ability of unions to cooperate with employers. It establishes a raft of unnecessary new regulations around workers' entitlement funds, including prohibitions. Unions and employers have for many years jointly created funds that enable things like training, safety courses, bereavement payments, mental health counselling and so on. These are things that help create safer, better, more caring and more harmonious workplaces. So, of course, these things do not fit this government's agenda. The last thing this government wants is unions and employers working together. Industrial peace does not fit the Liberal script. For this government's political agenda to work, unions must be cast as bad, corrupt, evil things to be hated and demonised. It is only by fomenting hate that this government can galvanise its forces. Harmony and cooperation do not work for this government. It needs fear and division, and that is clear in nearly everything this government does and everything this government says on nearly all policy agendas before this parliament.
So, rather than congratulating unions and employers on working together for the common good, and in doing so contributing to historically long levels of industrial peace in Australia, the minister defames these arrangements as 'cosy deals'. No mind that they are transparent and that they are subject to rigorous scrutiny and regulation. No. Just throw out a lazy smear and hope it will be picked up by the tame poodles and minions in the Murdoch press. Never mind that this minister, always so ready to smear unions, had at her right side for a year a man who actually broke the law, and she did nothing. She didn't call in the police. There was no raid on her office, to send him away, shackled and handcuffed. No: she knew for a year he had broken the law, and she left him there—Nigel Hadgkiss, the so-called tough cop on the beat, who broke the law that he was meant to uphold. This minister will go off her rocker in the Senate if a union member so much as jaywalks, but she stayed silent for a year about the head of the ABCC breaking the law when it's his job to uphold it. It is absolute, abject hypocrisy.
This employment minister has done nothing to protect the workers of 7-Eleven and the raft of other rip-off merchants. This employment minister has done nothing to call in the authorities to deal with phoenix companies that go bankrupt rather than pay workers their entitlements. This employment minister has done nothing but smear unions and union members while 28 construction workers died at work this year alone; 28 men and women have died at worksites in Australia this year so far, and what are this employment minister's words? What are this employment minister's actions? Zero—nothing, nada. That is because this minister does not really see herself as an employment minister. She is the anti-unions minister. She doesn't see it as her job to ensure that employers pay their workers fairly or that employers keep their superannuation payments up to date or that employers ensure that worksites are safe. No: she sees it as her job to destroy unions, because they are just so damned inconvenient when it comes to this government's agenda of abolishing secure, permanent work and higher wages.
On that note, I note that the member for Gorton has moved an amendment to this bill on penalty rates. I just can't believe—I still shake my head—that this year we have seen this government back in a decision to actually cut penalty rates—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 11 : 07 to 11 : 19
On the issue of penalty rates, we've had the extraordinary situation this year of this government backing a cut in workers' pay. I never thought I'd see the day when a government would rejoice in Australian wage earners having less money to take home to pay the bills. Jannette Armstrong, who heads up the United Voice union in Tasmania, a union that represents hospitality workers, who are very affected by these penalty rate cuts, says this is just the beginning—and we know that's true. She says:
Yes, this is many students, but this is also many, many families who rely on these penalty rates to pay the rent, put food on the table, put petrol in the car and it’s just going to make life so much harder.
We’ve had members and delegates in tears, we’ve had people calling us asking us when it starts, how are they going to go home and tell their families this afternoon that Mum just got a massive pay cut?
It won't be long before other industries and more workers are affected by cuts to penalty rates if we let these cuts stand, and that is why Labor is committed to rolling them back. Families are doing it tough already under this government, and things don't need to be made any tougher. Penalty rates need to be restored.
From the outset, I should say that I oppose this Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 but that I support the member for Gorton's amendment. In doing so, I want to talk a little about penalty rates. I know they have taken up a fair bit of airtime in this parliament this year, with the decision of the Fair Work Commission to move to cut penalty rates, effectively for some 700,000 low-paid workers in the hospitality and retail industry.
Unlike in the United States—fortunately, we haven't gone down that path of having to rely on tips—these are people who work for a wage and who work on Sundays. For most of us who can afford to go out and enjoy ourselves on a Sunday or go to a restaurant, we don't even mind paying the Sunday surcharge. By the way—the restaurants I've been to lately still have the Sunday surcharge on even though they have cut penalty rates for their employees under the award. This government had the opportunity to join with the opposition in the private member's bill from the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Maribyrnong, to prevent that from occurring.
It's not just what these workers have had their wages cut by this year; it's going to be what they have their wages cut by again in 2019 and then in 2020. Effectively, these workers will not get a pay rise for some four years. Now, they're not the sorts of workers enjoying the same benefits as we do in this parliament. They don't have a parliamentary allowance and they don't have many other things. They are working on minimum wages; this decision only applies to those workers on minimum wage agreements, therefore, the cut in penalty rates for them is very real. It's what makes the difference for many in being able to put food on the table and it's those little benefits for those who are supporting families and catering for kids in school activities. These are the things that make a difference. People don't just work on Sunday because they feel like they want to work on Sunday or because they've got nothing else to do! They work on Sunday because they know it's the industry and they know they have to do it.
And we know it doesn't stop there. This was the start in enterprise negotiations around the country. Employers are starting to lock on to this; they see this as a negotiable area to try to have workers trade off penalty rates. This was the green light given to them by this government that it's fair game now to try to negotiate with your workers to give away penalty rates.
It's a slippery slope. Working conditions were struck to ensure that workers had a fair and equitable outcome—that they were able to maintain a reasonable standard of living, clearly not to get rich under, for the labour they put in. And yet this government salivated at the notion that we could see a cut in penalty rates and, effectively, a real cut in wages as a consequence. This comes at a time when we have record low growth in wages. It's probably the lowest growth in living memory in wage growth. It has flatlined, it has plateaued: it's not moving—that is, for those at the lower end of the scale.
For those at the top end, we see what is written in the Fairfax media about what happens in the Murdoch press, and we see in the Murdoch press what's happening in the Fairfax media. We know that at the top end of the scale they're getting big contracts. The top five per cent of our workers are doing pretty healthily. They are commanding huge salaries. They're not being held back by restraint. Also, this government is going to give them more through tax breaks. I would have thought it was important for those of us on both sides to look after those who have a pretty constrained voice—people who work for only award rates of pay, people who actually do it tough out there. I think that what goes with the privilege of being in this parliament is the responsibility of looking after people at the lower end of the spectrum.
I know the big attack by this government is on the construction industry. It doesn't take much to get the Prime Minister to rattle off the acronym CFMEU. I accept there can be excesses, and we don't rail against having proper regulation covering both registered unions and registered employer organisations. There is no question about that, as long as it's appropriate. But the construction industry is one of the most dangerous industries in the country. I've got three kids. My eldest, my daughter, is a high-school teacher. My two sons, Nicholas and Jonathan, both work in the construction industry. I know—and it's not what gets spoken about in crib sheds or toolbox meetings—what happens on various job sites.
A couple of years ago my son Nicholas was working in a fly-in fly-out operation in Western Australia. I got a call from him late at night to say, 'Dad, I'm coming home.' The bloke he was working with had been crushed to death. I'm not asserting that anything was associated with that other than a workplace accident, but I thought at the time that if there had been another set of eyes looking at safety—if I had been that man's family, I would have been pretty keen to see that everyone was focused on safety, including those in the union movement that are paid for by employer and employee funds to have occupational health and safety inspectors on site. I know what sort of impact that had on my son, who is an electrician. This man was working with my son and having morning tea with him, but he wasn't around at lunch time. There is a touch of irony to it in that two weeks ago I was talking to Nicholas, who was working on another job, this time in New South Wales, and one of the formworkers fell through the formwork. He was working with his father, who found him unconscious. A couple of weeks later, the kid's still in a coma.
These things happen; they're not just things that you trot out in parliament when you need something to augment an argument. We know these things are real. Those on the other side know they're real. It's not just us in Labor representing blue-collar workers—God knows those opposite have a lot of blue-collar workers in their electorates—who depend on us to make decisions for their welfare. I can't understand how those opposite have locked themselves into a position based on trickle-down economics.
Like many in this place, the other day I attended the launch of a publication by NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organisation, entitled An Economy that Works for All. Its introduction is by Frank Brennan and it is authored by Joe Zabar. I thought I should read it if I have time. Its introduction refers to the social justice statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference entitled Everyone's Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy. The Catholic Bishops Conference focused on the distribution of wealth and not only its creation but its use in our economy. I thought it was interesting, because trickle-down economics got a mention. The Catholic Bishops Conference agreed with Pope Francis that trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world have not been proven. That seems to be echoed by many credible economists. They go on to say that, in the 26 years since the last statement they made on this issue, economic growth has been insufficient to assume that the poorest Australians can enjoy a dignified and at least frugal existence. They're talking about the people we should be representing—people at the lower end of the scale; people who do not have bargaining positions; people who are price takers, not price makers. The price makers are the CEOs up the top on multi-million-dollar salaries. These are the people on the bottom earning very low rates of pay, minimum wages, who rely on things called penalty rates.
It's not surprising, I suppose, that this bill is being advanced by the same people who brought us Work Choices. I know, when I look around the room, that not everyone here was in the parliament when Work Choices was introduced under the Howard government. Work Choices was very significant and will go down in Australian history as the first time in Australia that it was legal to pay people below the award rates of pay. Those of us who were around know there were many debates about this. But it wasn't until after the 2007 election, which John Howard lost to the Rudd government, that members opposite who were around at that stage said: 'Chris, we always thought that you guys were just playing a union line. We just didn't think it was true or that it was possible.' It wasn't until they started getting knocked-up and harangued in their own electorates, not simply by blue-collar trade unionists or CFMEU officials but by mums and dads and grandparents who were concerned about what was happening to their kids, that they started taking it seriously. It was no longer just playing with ideology; it was playing with the future of families. People railed against it and they threw a government out because of it.
There is a track record here. This is the same government that abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Significantly, the tribunal was about setting rates of pay so truck drivers weren't doctoring their log books and cutting corners but taking their rests, with the genuine view of cutting accidents on our roads and protecting our communities. The government railed against the tribunal and abolished it, and the only reason was that they got a decision they didn't like. They've shown that, even if it's an independent tribunal that does something they don't like, they've got the answer: 'We'll abolish it.' That's precisely what they did.
The government's notion of mounting attacks on the trade union movement doesn't do them any good. They've got to understand that unions are not businesses. Unions are creatures of culture. They're in existence to do one thing—look after workers and workers' conditions. If we didn't have to look after workers' conditions, there probably wouldn't be unions here. But that's why they're here—to prosecute issues on behalf of workers. We're here in this Commonwealth parliament effectively as a union, a union in this parliament. We're here to look after the welfare of mums and dads out there. We're here to look after the interests of all in this country, not simply the corporates, who the government have rushed to give a $65 billion tax cut to in the vague belief that trickle-down economics will have people enjoying unrestrained wealth in this country. There is a concept that pigs might fly. I wouldn't suggest you believe in it, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, but obviously your Prime Minister does.
Why is the attack always on the lowest paid; the people at the most vulnerable end of the scale; the people who do not have a great bargaining position; the people who look to us in this parliament to defend them, defend their families and defend their way of life? What the government are putting through with their raft of anti-union legislation doesn't behove even a Liberal government; as a matter of fact, it makes a sham of the name 'Liberal', quite frankly. And this is at a time when in the United States, according to TheAustralian Financial Review, Donald Trump—and he's a person I don't often quote in this place—is talking about tax hikes for the rich, saying they might have to pay more and, if they do, they will. That's not the notion of trickle-down economics. He's going in a slightly different direction, whereas your position is to tax the low-paid and give tax cuts to the rich. It might be different if we were all relying on shares or corporate handouts. If we're going to do our jobs—and we intend to—we will always look after workers and workers' rights, and we will support those organisations that make that their core activity as well.
Today I'm very proud to rise in support of the amendment moved to the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 by Brendan O'Connor, the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations. We cannot tackle inequality or build a better future unless Australia has a workplace relations system that is productive and fair. I emphasise 'fair'.
I am proud of my union membership. I belong to the oldest union in this country. A nefarious ideology, writ large when it comes to reducing union power, is to be shouted down at every opportunity. There has been an abuse of power, the use of regulatory bodies for political gain and a bid to stifle legitimate organisations and their right to act and protect their members. As the member for Fowler just indicated, their interests have been trampled on and stifled, and they have been bullied. This lot on the other side hate unions because they stand up for normal, everyday, hardworking Australians who weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths and who don't pay for private education or private health insurance—everyday working Australian people going about their daily business and trying to earn a living. It is absolutely deplorable that those on the other side seek to reduce the union membership in this country, which protects workers.
Such are the actions of this government, and they include the introduction of this bill last Thursday in an attempt to rush its passage through the parliament. This sets almost impossible time lines for stakeholders to prepare submissions and present evidence. It begs the question: what have the government got to hide and why are they in such a hurry? Where is the proper scrutiny and due process for consideration and consultation on this bill? This is yet another attack by the government on unions. These attacks are relentless. Once again, they are attacking Australian workers and their entitlements. The outcome of this proposed change will limit legitimate activities of unions. Those on the other side of the House attempt to gain, again and again.
Further, the outcome of the proposed changes will limit legitimate sources of income for unions. The Liberals have always been anti worker. The member for Fowler just spoke about the 'Your Rights at Work' campaign. I wasn't around for that—I think I was still in high school—but I am often reminded, out on the streets, when I talk to our union members and our Labor Party members, of how hard won that campaign was. We thought we saw that off, but all we've seen since is Liberal government after Liberal government attacking workers. They are happy to put their hands up for the big end of town, be a massive cheer squad for them and give them a handout, rather than give everyday Australian workers a fair go.
Living standards are what makes this country great—make no mistake. Now they are under significant attack. The government wants to attack workers and their entitlements by making cuts to penalty rates, cuts to holiday pay and cuts to working rights. For the life of me, I cannot understand why low-paid workers are always in the firing line when it comes to this cruel Liberal government. This is how out of touch they are with the lives of middle- and working-class people, the people I represent: the Prime Minister gives millionaires a $16,400 tax cut and gives a $65 billion tax break to big business, yet inequality is at a 75-year high. We wonder why. Actually, we on this side don't wonder why; we know exactly why. We look at it every single day that we are here.
For the benefit of people on the other side, inequality is not peeking over the back fence, looking at jet skis and realising you don't have one. There is stagnant wages growth, and 'wages growth' is an oxymoron when we haven't had any. I'd like to see 'wages non-growth' adopted as your three-word slogan at the next election, perhaps. They want to further undermine workers and their unions, and they have already cut the take-home pay of people across this country. Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, these workers are people who I represent and, I dare say, people who those on the other side, including you, probably have the opportunity to represent in this place. Considering wages in this country have been stagnant ever since this government was elected, its decision is a kick in the guts to working people who are already struggling to get by. Pay and conditions are not supposed to stagnate or go backwards. We see productivity going up and up and up, and wages just flatlining.
The Prime Minister's press release claims that, through cosy deals with big business, unions have become a big business in their own right and are more focused on making profits than representing people. I don't know about him, but he obviously hasn't attended any union functions lately or he'd know that we are not big business and that the unions do not represent or look anything like a big business. They represent hardworking people and are out defending working rights every single day, not turning it up at silver-spoon lunches and ritzy dinners. After the Federal Court's decision on cutting penalty rates, the minister said:
… Federal Court decision once again highlights the hypocrisy of the Labor Party and the unions.
It is beyond comprehension! We keep hearing about workers being ripped off—7-Eleven and Domino's Pizza. Over the 12 months from June 2015 to July 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered more than $27 million owed to 11,000 workers for almost 30,000 allegations of Fair Work Act breaches. Who do you think stood up for those people? It wasn't the big end of town that this government seeks to give tax cuts to. It wasn't those people who got a handout and tax relief of $16,400. The union movement was standing up for those people. The astronomical numbers represent only those instances of underpayment and exploitation of workers that were reported to the ombudsman. We hear anecdotally on the street every day about such instances, and my office has certainly been regularly contacted by people who make such claims. We need to stand up for working people and their communities. We need to listen to business concerns, of course, and we need to stand up for a fairer, more equitable, inclusive and prosperous Australia.
Just how out of touch can this government get? The retail trade industry is the second-largest employment category in Australia. It employs 1.2 million people, or one in nine Australians, and 52 per cent of those workers have no post-school qualification. When it comes to my electorate of Lindsay, that equates to over 12,000 people. It is the second-highest employer in my community. The penalty rate cuts are just another milestone in this government's cruel attempts to hurt workers. Labor will never support undermining workers' rights and avoiding workers' entitlements. In fact, we will do the opposite. We will always stand up and fight for them. People need penalty rates to make ends meet. For many people every cent counts, but, if you've never been affected by it, that might be hard to understand. The government has effectively delivered a $77-a-week pay cut to all of those people. For the government, this has been a business decision, but, for the people in my electorate, this is personal. Worker entitlement funds provide for employee long service leave, sick leave and redundancy payments. They provide important services for workers, such as counselling, which we as members of this House also have access to; training; and safe workplaces. All people want is what is fair.
What is even more worrying is that women will bear the brunt of these devastating cuts. We often hear Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, refer to his lovely wife, Lucy, in terms of 'women hold up half the sky'. I would just like that 'half' to include equal pay for women in this country, not the absolutely shocking wage gap that exists now and the even greater gap that this decision makes. Women are most likely to be working on weekends and covering public holiday shifts. This is not through choice. It is not like they put their hand up and say, 'I'm happy to go to work on a Sunday, miss my kid's birthday, miss the family lunch, miss the family picnic, miss the opportunity to catch up with my kids who are at school during the week.' They do those shifts on the weekend because their families and their lives dictate that it is the only time when they can have the help and support that they need for their children, because, as we all know, child care is out of the reach of many people in this country. Cutting the pay of workers in industries such as retail and hospitality is the worst thing this government can do to worsen the gender pay gap. We know that, when local workers have less money in their pockets to spend, it actually hurts the local economies as well.
When I was at university I had four part-time jobs, two of which paid me penalty rates. I was the first of my generation in my family to go to university. I relied on every single cent from those four part-time jobs—which were all insecure, casual work—to run my car, pay my bills, pay my rent and buy my textbooks. Many people do more than four jobs; many people do more than one job. Without those penalty rates and those extra payments for those unsociable hours that I had to work just to get by, I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I did. From my story, I think it is absolutely important and vital to protect and stand up for people who are relying on those penalty rates every single day.
This government cannot deliver. The proof of the pudding is in the eating—their track record on the NBN; the issues with the Yarra III that we had; the citizenship debacle that we're now waiting on the results of; the robo-debt with Centrelink; the Bureau of Statistics bungle last year in trying to get our census together, which I had almost forgotten to mention; the energy crisis that we've had no movement on for five years; and their failing to do anything at all about alleviating the cost of housing and the unaffordability for so many Australians. Now they're cutting penalty rates. They've just wasted $122 million on a postal poll on equality and people's rights. If this were a report card, this government would be getting a F for fat failure.
Yet now, again, they are coming after the lowest-paid workers. The Turnbull government has no idea about how hard things are for people. From Point Piper over to Penrith is a big distance. I know the Prime Minister knows how to get there during an election campaign by train, but I haven't seen him since. I haven't seen him turn up on the doorsteps of those workers who he seeks to cut money from to say how much he supports and loves Western Sydney, which is a shame. Point Piper is not actually that far in distance, although some people do think they need their passport to come out to visit us, but it is a world away from the different standards of living that those people he represents enjoy compared with the people that I represent.
All this government is focused on is looking after the rich end of town and trusting that it will trickle down. Well, it doesn't. It absolutely doesn't. Trickle-down economics has been myth-busted and fact-checked, and all the experts and economists around the world have said, 'This does not work.' So why are we in here with a government so obsessed with trickle-down economics? We know that more must be done to reduce the gender pay gap, to make industrial relations more user friendly for small businesses, to make the Fair Work Commission easier to access, to create jobs pathways for people with disabilities or people who are marginalised, to tackle discrimination against older workers so they stay in the work force, and to help younger people.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 11:47 to 11:59
Cutting the pay of workers in any industry is the worst thing this government could do to the gender pay gap. The government cannot deliver, and so much proof is already in the pudding—their track record on the NBN, the citizenship debacle, robo-debt, and the energy crisis they are failing to do anything about after five years in power. They are also failing to do anything about housing affordability. And there was the recent $122 million waste of taxpayers' money on a survey. If the government had a report card, they would fail. Now we are seeing them come after the lowest paid workers.
We need to be doing more to help younger people enter work in the first place. We need to be doing more to reduce the gender pay gap. We need to be doing more to make industrial relations more user-friendly for small business and make the Fair Work Commission much easier to access. We need to create jobs pathways for people with a disability and those people who might be marginalised, and we need to tackle discrimination of older workers so they stay in the workforce for much longer and continue their contributions. We need to create a future for work, not continue to cut away at workers' rights.
This government isn't focused on helping workers at all. They are too busy saving their own jobs. We saw that at the last election, with the Prime Minister pouring in millions of his own money to protect his own job. The government are desperately trying to distract the public from the fact they have no agenda to address wage stagnation, underemployment, rising inequality or anything else, for that matter. They are failing the average Australian every single day they come into this place. The government are not meeting the challenges of low wages growth, rising inequality and job insecurity.
It is completely unsurprising, then, that, under this government, wages are falling in real terms while cost-of-living pressures are rising and workers are struggling to make ends meet. In my own electorate of Lindsay, we have a three per cent higher cost of living than those people Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister of this country, represents in his electorate of Wentworth. According to the latest data, wages growth in enterprise agreements approved in the quarter fell to 2.6 per cent from 2.7 per cent, a 26-year low. This government has refused to stand up for working people time and time again, despite the many opportunities it's been given. It could not be bothered to lift a finger to assist our lowest paid workers.
Over the last 10 years, real labour productivity grew by 20 per cent and real wages growth grew only six per cent. Wages share of GDP is well below the average of the last 50 years. This country deserves better than a government which puts corporate profits above people's wellbeing. They are arrogant and out of touch. They would rather hand tax cuts to big business than stand up for working people and their hard-won and well-earned pay and conditions. We are very, very concerned that the Turnbull government are incapable, unable and unwilling to address consistently flat wages growth. In fact, they are making things worse by cutting the penalty rates of Australia's lowest paid workers. My constituents are concerned because penalty rates make a real difference to how they live. They ensure that those families who earn them can afford the extra things they pay for out of those penalty rates. They now face pay cuts as a result of this government. They were worried about how they were going to afford fuel to get to work. This means cutting back on their already tight spending habits. I know how tough some working people in my community in my electorate of Lindsay have had it. They've had a gutful of this government's bad decisions.
I rise to oppose the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 because this is fundamentally an attack on working people in this country. It is an attack on working people's ability to bargain for improved conditions. This represents the latest round of this government's misguided ideological crusade against the union movement. This is a government that has been relentless in its campaign against the union movement and working-class people from day one, while giving out huge tax cuts to the top end of town and refusing to go after the big banks.
The tragedy of this unfair and misguided approach is that the real cost of it is inflicted on working people. This proposal to axe entitlement funds typifies this by aiming to cut essential services such as suicide prevention, OH&S and training schemes simply because they are provided for and protected by unions. These entitlement funds are bargained for by companies and workers in good faith, and they both make sacrifices to fund them. Whether they be suicide prevention programs, training schemes or safety officers, these are crucial aspects of providing safe workplaces and they are under attack in this misguided bill. These funds not only protect those who need it most but boost productivity by improving workplace conditions and worker satisfaction. To cut these programs based on an ideological vendetta with no evidence is callous and ill thought through.
It is no wonder this government do not understand how these changes will affect average Australian workers, because they have consistently ignored opportunities for inquiry and consultation. As has become an all too familiar trademark of legislation under this government, we have seen an unwillingness to consult widely and openly in an attempt to rush this bill through parliament before anyone can pull them up on it. Labor is meeting with these Australians, Labor is listening and the sentiment is crystal clear. This is a shoddy deal for workers and everyone knows it.
These entitlements are helping Australians across a number of industries, with programs that save lives and support families. For example, some of the most successful and well-known products of these entitlements funds are the MATES in Construction and MATES in Mining initiatives, funded by a trust set up by the CFMEU. These initiatives have seen thousands of people in these industries trained to assist in suicide prevention. This organisation, which is a product of good-faith bargaining between employers, trade unions and the workforce, raises awareness and runs programs that target the huge problems of suicide amongst workers in the construction and mining industries. These industries are very male dominated. They are industries that have high workplace fatalities—and I will return to that in a minute. As I said, these industries are male dominated, and blokes typically don't talk about their mental health. That is just a characteristic of most men. So these programs, which train their fellow workers to raise these issues with them, are very, very effective. I recently met with key participants in the MATES in Mining program and they are gravely concerned about the future of this lifesaving program under this legislation. Research into MATES in Construction has found it to be one of the most successful programs of its kind and found that it recoups investment many times over in community benefit.
Other funds also protect workers from redundancy, both financially and through training and professional development, and secure entitlements such as long service leave for ordinary Australians. Why the government would want to attack the providers of such vital services is beyond me. Coupled with the concessions to big banks, multinational corporations and the highest-income earners in Australia, it just reflects how out of touch this government is with the majority of Australians.
Safety is of paramount importance on our work sites. Every Australian and every worker in the world has a fundamental human right to go to work and return safely each day. In the construction industry, almost one worker a week dies on the job. In the mining industry, in the northern coalfields of New South Wales—the Hunter region, which I proudly represent—1,803 miners have lost their lives since coalmining began in 1803. Over the last nine years we have averaged one death a year. This is a disgraceful statistic, and this bill weakens efforts to stop these statistics. This bill weakens the ability to bargain for safety officers on workplaces. This bill undermines the safety of those work sites. This bill hurts safety and impinges on the human rights of Australians to go to work and come back safely.
I know this will be seen as potentially going over the top, but this bill represents an attack on safety in our work sites. Ultimately, the government have to be held responsible for this. The government have blood on their hands. The government have blood on their hands because they are undermining safety in workplaces right now. Members opposite can roll their eyes and can interject all they want, but look at the facts: every bill that impinges on the ability to employ safety officers, every bill that undermines the ability of workers to preserve safety in their workplaces and every bill that impinges on the right of unions to enter workplaces on safety complaints endangers safety in these industries. I proudly state, and I state accurately, that this government has blood on its hands when it undertakes such actions. So I am proudly opposed to this bill, because it hurts safety, like so many other bills this government puts forward.
A second part of their blind persecution of the union movement is their attack on wages in this country. We have international organisations such as the IMF and OECD citing declining union density and collective bargaining as major factors in the stagnation of wages and the growth of inequality around the world. In Australia, this is being experienced right now. The latest data on EBA pay rises found that in the last quarter EBA pay rises rose by 2.6 per cent, the lowest on record since the EBA system was put in place. We have flat or declining real wages, we have workers who are struggling to meet the costs of living because their wages are going backwards, and we have insidious actions by companies, such as the widespread attack on enterprise agreements, assisted by terminating agreements willy-nilly. It is no wonder workers are finding it difficult to bargain for wage rises, if there is a very real danger their EBA will be terminated and they will suffer a 40 per cent pay cut. We are seeing a systematic attack on wages and conditions in this country through a concerted push to de-unionise, and this bill is the latest example of that.
Another example of this is penalty rates. We have seen this government's cheer squad cheering on and refusing to do anything to stop the cuts to penalty rates that have now been put in place. Cuts to penalty rates have hit hundreds of thousands of the lowest paid workers in this country. It is the worst example of trickle-down economics—an example that was totally discredited in the Great Depression—where if you cut wages you suddenly boost economic activity and, somehow, businesses will employ thousands more Australians. This theory, based on Say's law, was discredited in the 1930s, where we saw a 25 per cent across-the-board cut in workers' wages and it didn't improve employment and put Australians back in work. It actually led to more unemployment because it reduced aggregate demand dramatically. When penalty rates for workers are cut, it means they have less money to spend in shops in Australia. The lowest paid Australians have the greatest propensity to consume and the least ability to save, and are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, so they spend basically every dollar they earn. If you attack them by cutting their wages, you are attacking consumption directly, and this is what the cut to penalty rates has done. So, not only is it hurting those workers individually but it is actually hurting our economy by suppressing aggregate demand in the economy and, thereby, employment.
We have also heard the government say that it only affects hospitality and retail workers and doesn't affect anyone else. Well, that's the thin end of the wedge. It will lead, no doubt, to attacking workers in other sectors of the economy.
My electorate is home to a significant hospital, Belmont Hospital. We are right on the border with the John Hunter Hospital, which is the largest hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. It is the third-largest in the state and is the only tertiary-level hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. If you get seriously sick north of the Hawkesbury River, that's where you are sent. Without penalty rates, John Hunter Hospital, and Belmont Hospital in fact, will close at five o'clock on a Friday night and won't open until 9 am on a Monday. Penalty rates are the only reason those hospitals stay open, because it is the only compensation for the nurses and support staff who keep the hospitals running. An attack on penalty rates for hospitality workers will no doubt lead to a subsequent attack on penalty rates for nurses and for support staff such as orderlies, thereby imperilling our health system.
This bill is another attack on the wages and conditions of Australians. It's all about weakening the union movement. This government's raison d'etre is to destroy the labour movement. They figure that if they can destroy the labour movement they can destroy the Labor Party as an effective opposition in this country. This playbook is classic John Howard. He tried it in 1998. He thought that if he could destroy the MUA, one of the most militant, democratic and progressive unions in this country, the rest of the union movement would follow. We saw the lockout by Patrick and a government conspiring to sack a workforce. They conspired to unfairly dismiss an entire workforce to break the MUA—and they failed. They failed not just because of the union movement but because the broad swathe of the Australian community said, 'No, we support progressive causes, we support trade unions in this country and we will take part in community pickets to protect the MUA and its members.' We've seen them attack the MUA and we are seeing the current attacks on the CFMEU that are contained in this bill. You just have to listen to question time every day to hear these attacks. I dare those people who are leading these attacks to go to the memorial day for miners in Cessnock each year—which commemorates the 1,803 miners who have lost their lives in the northern minefields—and look those families in the eye and say, 'I'm improving the safety of your workplaces by attacking the CFMEU.' I can assure you, without the mine workers federation, safety in those coalmines would be a lot weaker.
I can say without fear of contradiction that, if you deunionise the construction sector, you won't see improved safety; you will see fatalities rise. Almost one worker each week in the construction sector dies. So this is not just an attack on the labour movement; it is an attack on the wages and conditions of Australian workers and an attack on the safety of Australian workers. It represents an ideological crusade that takes no prisoners. It is an ideological crusade to deunionise this country, to weaken the labour movement and thereby weaken the Labor Party, and to maximise profits for some of their corporate mates.
Quite frankly, most employers don't want this. Most employers are genuine, decent people who just want to employ Australians, make a profit and support their family. Most of the employers I talk to want a level playing field. They want fair industrial relations, which means they're not competing with the workplace down the road on wages; they're competing on innovation and productivity. Anything like this that invites more shonks into the business, anything that makes it easier for shonks to set up and rip off their workers by not paying long service leave into portable funds, and anything that allows more repeats of the 7-Eleven fiasco hurts legitimate, caring, responsible employers who aren't it in for the quick buck for six months but are in it for decades.
So, like all my Labor colleagues, I am proud to reject this legislation, because we've also charted the middle course. We've always condemned inappropriate behaviour on worksites, whether it's by employers or unions, and that's why the question time behaviour by various ministers is farcical, because we're not out there defending criminal behaviour; we're saying everyone should respect the rule of law in workplaces, but the rule of law has to be fair. It has to not tilt the playing field towards one particular group. It has to allow Australians to bargain collectively to have their rights at work respected, to bargain collectively for decent pay rises to support their families and to bargain collectively to improve the safety of their workplaces so that they preserve the ultimate human right, which is to return home safely from work each day. I proudly condemn this legislation as another egregious attack on working people in this country and, like all my Labor colleagues, I stand opposed to it.
The Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 once again demonstrates a bitter irony when it comes to this government's approach to changes in the world of work. We know, as Australian workers know and as their representative organisations—unions and the ACTU—know, that it's time to change the rules which govern power at work. But the government is determined to change the rules to reinforce inequality and inequity, not to address it. At the core of Labor's agenda is confidence in Australians, confidence in Australians' capacity to do more, particularly at work. This government is bereft of that confidence and is further determined to constrain the capacity of Australians in the workplace and around the workplace when it comes to skills, when it comes to schools and when it comes to university.
What this bill demonstrates is that, once again, this government is prepared to put forward its ideological obsession with constraining the rights of individual workers, and in particular the rights of unions to represent workers in workplaces, in defiance of the evidence. On this side, we understand—as international bodies like the IMF and the OECD have made very, very clear—that increasing inequality is a constraint on economic growth. It hurts all of us as well as individual workers, and this bill is just another demonstration of this preference, this determination on the part of the government, to continue to tilt the playing field in workplaces in favour of employers and against working people and their representatives.
So I am very pleased to join my Labor colleagues, and, in particular, the shadow minister, in opposing this legislation and supporting the amendment which deals with a small but very significant aspect of this debate. At the moment, we understand that wages growth continues to be at a record low and the wage share of the economy continues to be in consistent decline. I think this is the problem, and I think we should all take stock of a couple of facts that characterise the Australian economy today. We all congratulate ourselves on 26 years of consecutive economic growth, and that is a significant achievement, but focusing simply on this ignores some deep realities that shape the lives of too many Australians. At the moment, we have record company profits at a time of record low wage growth. This is a gap that we, as lawmakers, should be trying to close, but the government is determined to exacerbate that gap. We see it most obviously in the insane giveaway of an increased push for more corporate tax cuts, and we see it in the continued insistence on further seeking to diminish the rights of workers in their workplaces to bargain.
Today we find that growth is at a 26-year low, the same time span as that period of continuous economic growth for the economy as a whole. That demonstrates, again, why we need to change the rules in the opposite direction from that which is contended by this government and exemplified by this legislation. Wages, real wages, for too many Australians are simply going backwards. Of course, this is wage growth in the formal economy. It doesn't account for those Australians pushed into informal and even more insecure forms of work. Living standards for these people aren't simply under pressure; they are being squeezed. And that's why it's more than a little bit rich to hear the government talk about cost-of-living savings when they talk about their National Energy Guarantee—or national energy aspiration, as it probably should be called—because the big issue with the living costs of Australian working people and working families is this anaemic wages growth. The cost of living isn't just what you have to pay for things; it's the money you have at bank to be able to pay for things, and it is extraordinary that the government continues to ignore this pretty fundamental fact. We need to change the rules to give workers and their representatives more power in workplaces, not less.
I mentioned briefly the amendment on penalty rates. The government's consistent attack on penalty rates is simply abhorrent, and it doesn't reflect the choices that are being forced on too many working Australians: to work antisocial hours and to discount their life to maintain their income. A pretty fundamental proposition that Australian governments of all sides of politics have accepted is that penalty rates are fair compensation for a drag away from time with family and time with friends—the ability to engage in social life and cultural amenity. This government talks blithely, through the Prime Minister, about a 24-hour economy, but has no regard for those forced to pay the price, because there isn't a 24-hour society, is there? People's capacity to engage with family and friends is constrained by working patterns that don't reflect the Prime Minister's confident view of how the economy should work.
In supporting the amendment of the shadow minister, the member for Gorton, I want to make very clear that I'm standing in solidarity with 700,000 Australians who are having their penalty rates cut, having their standard of living cut and having their sense of dignity and sense of agency cut. But I also stand in solidarity with those many, many more Australians who aren't directly affected by the current decision, but whose penalty rates are affected. I know that many nurses, in particular, and other shift workers in my electorate are deeply concerned by the signal that has been sent by an unfortunate decision of the commission and an abhorrent refusal of the government to remedy it. I guess the crux of the problem is this: we have a government that talks about the cost-of-living issues in energy and flicks the problem off to the states, whilst claiming to have fixed the issue, but, in an area of direct legislative competence of the Commonwealth parliament, it does nothing—or, in this case, it does less than nothing.
I think it is worth touching on some particular features of the bill that is before us now. This bill is a product of the Heydon royal commission—although, as is always the case with this government's law-making, it is important to be careful and test the claims. The claim here about it being a response to the royal commission is one that I think will be found wanting and, I suspect, is one of the reasons for the appalling failure of process which governs the introduction of this piece of legislation. The bill before us deals with matters that are quite technical—matters that actually do require this government, if it were serious, to attend to a problem. Perhaps we can come back and ask what problem this legislation is intended to solve. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be assisted by government member contributions to this debate, which is of itself rather telling. This bill would make very significant technical changes to entitlement funds, which play a very significant role in many industries. These are issues which, if there were matters to be addressed, should be properly ventilated through a Senate inquiry process. Instead, here we are in the Federation Chamber debating a bill—or perhaps not debating a bill but putting on the record—
Ms Bird interjecting—
Yes, as the member for Cunningham says, there isn't a debate here. It is disappointing that, once again, government members aren't here to show the courage of their convictions, are they? So we are putting on the record our concerns about this bill, and we do so at two levels. When we look at the government's broad attitude, there is its failure to respond to fundamental changes in the world of work which are disadvantaging workers, at a time when corporate profits are at a record high and at a time when the Treasurer adds insult to injury by mouthing words like 'inclusive growth'. If you want inclusive growth, how about looking to workers? How about looking at recasting the distribution of the national pie? How about paying some attention to those levers available to the federal government which can redress the imbalance of power and which are not only constraining the ability of individuals to earn an income but also constraining our wider prospects of economic growth and, with it, doing untold damage to communities and to our society?
This bill imposes a range of additional restrictions on the governance of entitlement funds and imposes further restrictions on bargaining, which is precisely the opposite of the approach that we should be undertaking. I hope that members opposite, if they're not going to participate in this debate, would have regard to the contribution of the member for Gorton at the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago, where he looked squarely at the questions that confront Australian workplaces and the Australian economy and set out some proposals that would address the problems. The member for Gorton was very frank in doing so, because he conceded that in our last period in government, in responding to the aggressive, antiworker, anti-union, anti-democratic Right agenda of the Howard government, we didn't pay sufficient regard to the changing nature of work in Australia—in particular, how a model of bargaining which initially served all Australians pretty well in the 1990s was losing pace with the demands of the modern economy, particularly the changes in the structure of work. The member for Gorton accepted that. He pointed to some examples, and some of those were around termination of agreements—in particular, at Murdoch University. There we have an attack on working people that not only is the government simply ignoring but the Minister for Education is encouraging other employers in the sector to follow. It's pretty clear that that is no way to deal with slow wage growth—quite the reverse. It's going to further depress wage growth, to no-one's benefit.
So here we have a bill that is all about imposing further prescriptions, a series of red-tape obligations, on important bodies. Again I recall at the start of the last parliament the great excitement that government members put on about their red-tape reduction exercise. Well, it's interesting: when it comes to their other ideological hobbyhorses, too much red tape is barely enough. Every week we get an amendment to the Migration Act and every week we get an amendment to the Fair Work Act. Those amendments are really all about doing one thing, which is constraining workers' ability to collectively exercise their rights and secure themselves decent outcomes.
I was really pleased to be in the chamber for the contribution of my friend the member for Shortland. He dealt with a critical aspect of this debate that is too often ignored in the wider commentary, and that is the impact of these imbalances of power that are being codified in legislation on workers' safety. I would have thought it a pretty unexceptional statement, for anyone who's concerned for their fellow Australians, to set out the proposition that anyone who goes to work is entitled to return home safely. It is simply appalling that this government is determined to strip away the capacity of workers to attend to that on their own behalf and on behalf of their colleagues and comrades in workplaces.
But no, this legislation is simply a reheat of tired ideological obsessions. They've found another device whereby unions have been able to offer some protection to workers in difficult times and have done the right thing to redress particular imbalances of power. But, again, the response isn't to recognise this or to look at how it might have broader application to deal with this fundamental problem that's characterising the Australian workforce and the Australian economy at the moment. It's simply to carry on down this blinkered ideological path of further constraining workers' rights and doing everything they can to deny unions their legitimate, democratic capacity to carry on their roles on behalf of their members.
Coming to the end of my contribution, I want to again raise this fundamental point: what is the problem that this bill is responding to? I thought members opposite were interested in leaving things alone from government, but instead they seem to simply want to interfere. We on this side of the House know that the time has more than passed to address some of these imbalances of power in the labour market. We do need to change the rules, but we need to change the rules to do the right thing by workers, to strengthen the capacity of unions democratically to work for them—not the reverse.
Time after time I find myself frustrated, bemused and quite often angry about the range of legislation that comes before this chamber when those opposite are in government. I spent my first term at the end of the Howard era among the infamous industrial relations changes around Work Choices. Quite rightly, there was not only a union driven campaign but also a community supported campaign rejecting that dog-eat-dog view of how industrial relations should be managed and regulated in this country. But we now see, under both the Abbott and Turnbull prime ministerships, continuing, ongoing—time and time again—pieces of legislation that, at their heart, are about one thing, and that is destroying the capacity of workers to unite through a formalised union in order to raise issues in a workplace where they don't have the balance of power.
At the heart of it is what sits at the heart of the Liberal and Nationals parties: a belief that only those who can break through that dog-eat-dog world and make good for themselves are deserving of decent pay conditions and a decent lifestyle and that if somehow you can't do it on your own then that's a reflection of you individually, rather than having an understanding of the way our society is structured. It often means that power is enormously twisted to one side of the equation. We have known for generations that those who own the workplaces, those who are putting the money into those workplaces, have an enormously stronger capacity for power than the workers who work in those workplaces.
It's a very simple function of a decent society that those workers are able to organise, to elect union representatives to represent them and to work in a concerted, united manner not only to improve their pay and conditions but on issues such as health and safety. We supposedly don't have a conservative party in the Liberal Party. They're supposed to be a 'liberal' party. They're not supposed to be out there on the far-right-wing fringes of the political spectrum. But on some of these issues—to be honest, on so many issues in general in recent times—they're taking themselves off to that far-right wing.
Like many of my colleagues, I meet regularly with my local unions. I meet regularly with the South Coast Labor Council. I also meet with my business chamber. I meet with other peak bodies around the electorate that represent a variety of views. I would be very surprised if any of those opposite had regular meetings with trade unions in their local area. I would never consider ignoring the views and issues of my local business chambers. I wouldn't even consider it. I wouldn't consider spending all my time in this place attacking their right to be peak groups representing the views of their memberships. Yet so often those opposite do exactly that with the trade union movement. Of course we'll have policy differences. We are born out of the trade union movement; we were born out of the fact that trade unions realised they had to have a political voice as well as an industrial voice. Those opposite, according to how often they say, 'Put your hand up if you've been in business,' have obviously been born out of the view that the business and investment sectors need a voice in parliament too. That's fine. But if those opposite want to be effective they should make sure they're engaging with and respecting the role of all those institutions in our society.
We are seeing growing inequality. We are seeing stagnant wages. We are seeing greater exploitation in the workplace. We are seeing an increasing number of deaths in workplaces. There are real challenges for us in what's going on in our economy and in the workplaces of Australia. If we were serious about creating a society that shared wealth fairly, that understood that the people not getting their fair share weren't just workers but also consumers—and that's what our great social experiment in Australia for over 100 years has been about; we've built up a middle class who have gained the capacity to be effective consumers because they've had good pay and conditions and safe workplaces, and these things complement each other—we would be addressing these issues. We would be looking at why these things are going astray in our current environment. But, no, we're back here with another bill that's about micromanaging the unions, about trying to put handcuffs not only on their capacity to represent, advocate and negotiate and be political but even, in this case, on their capacity to work cooperatively with employers on the sorts of things one would think they both had a common interest in. Employers obviously think they've got a common interest in these areas, because they've often jointly funded, with the unions, things like counselling, preventing suicide in workplaces, and the health and wellbeing of workers. I'm absolutely bemused by the ideology of those opposite—that they could go to this level of attack on unions simply to handcuff their capacity to work effectively on behalf of working people, and, in this case, as I said, in a type of activity that unions undertake in partnership with employers because both see the value in these sorts of programs.
In the Minister for Employment's press release on this bill, what did she say? She said:
Through cosy deals with big businesses, unions have become a big business in their own right, more focussed on making profits than representing people.
If I ever believed she was the least bit interested in unions' capacity to represent people, I might have some sympathy for what she was trying to say. She doesn't. She never does. She has no respect for the trade union movement's capacity to represent people. It is a constant ongoing attack. I can't even imagine what those opposite would be doing. They certainly wouldn't be completely absent from the debating list, as is the case with this debate. Other than the minister's speech, I think there have been hardly any contributions from those opposite.
But I can imagine what would be happening in this place if we were in government and introducing bill after bill like this but trying to hobble the capacity of peak employer organisations to prosecute a case, run campaigns, implement programs and raise funding in order to progress the wellbeing of their members. Forget calling us socialists—they'd be calling us communists and dictators. That's the sort of reality we'd be facing if we tried this sort of stunt on people who form organisations and peak bodies in order to advocate and represent employers, whether they're big business, like the Business Council of Australia; particular industry sectors, like the Australian Industry Group; or small businesses, like COSBOA. If we were trying this sort of stunt and treating those organisations with the arrogance and disrespect that this government shows to the trade union movement, there would be a riot on the other side of this place. I personally am sick and tired of the double standards that this government has about the capacity of people in our civil society to form membership based organisations and advocate on their own behalf. They would not tolerate it if we did that sort of thing, nor will we tolerate it when they decide they're going to do it to trade unions.
The other problem I have with this bill before us, as is too often the case, is that it appeared last Thursday on the list. It's an extensive piece of legislation—five schedules going to 80 pages. It will amend five different pieces of legislation. One would think that something this significant should be given the respect of a proper and considered debate in this place. It has very significant implications, as I've outlined, not only for unions but, as I indicated, also for employer groups. You would think they would want to be able to have some say and some input into this process.
I actually think that the sort of work that this bill attacks is some of the best stuff that I've seen in workplaces. I've spent time with things like MATES in Construction—a fantastic organisation that works with unions and employers around suicide prevention. Some of the best things that happen in our workplaces are the things that employers and unions do together, because often they're going to the heart of very challenging social issues, things we're facing as a society, that are coming into workplaces and really seriously need addressing. That's often when employers and unions come together and say, 'We have a common interest in this so let's jointly fund, organise and run these sorts of programs.'
It is true, sadly, that mental health challenges are a serious matter for workplaces now. I remember talking to a peak body of hairdressers when we were in government and I had responsibility for skills. The one big issue hairdressers wanted to talk to me about was mental health—young apprentices coming in with complex anxiety and depression issues. This is not a one-off. It's a really common challenge for this generation. As employers they were not just worried about that as a productivity issue, about how it was impacting on the work in their workplace and about that young person's capacity to finish their apprenticeship but also, like the vast majority of employers, deeply concerned about these young people and wanted to know what they could do as an employer to help in those circumstances.
This is the reality of workplaces in the modern world. These sorts of programs should be supported. Employers who engage in them should be lauded for doing that; unions that engage in them should be lauded for doing that. It is astonishing to me that the government is so hidebound in its hatred of unions that it can adopt the sorts of measures that we see before us in this bill, and do so in a rushed and hurried manner without proper consideration. I'm very disappointed that the Nick Xenophon Team didn't support our proposal to have a Senate committee inquiry, because I think these really important issues should be teased out and considered.
In the couple minutes I've got left to speak, I want to touch on some of the matters that are playing out in my local area that, if the government were really interested in workplaces, they could be spending a lot more time on. I want to touch firstly on the issue of penalty rates. It has been a big issue in my electorate. I recently surveyed my electorate on issues of importance to them and had a very strong response back on the issue of penalty rates. While the vast majority of people who responded to my survey didn't actually work in an environment where they received penalty rates, 80 per cent of them supported people getting Sunday penalty rates. Even people who weren't getting these rates themselves saw fairness and justice in people who lose their Sundays being recompensed, getting that additional support, yet the government flat out refused to take any action to ensure that people continued to get decent pay—even though, apparently, they've now discovered there is a problem with pays and incomes and perhaps we should have higher pay rates.
Finally, I want to give an example of why unions are so important at the local level. In my area, the South Coast Labour Council for quite a while has been running a campaign around the exploitation of young workers. A young woman from the University of Wollongong had put up a post on her Facebook about a very exploitative experience she'd had in the workplace and was just blown away by the massive number of young people who went on her Facebook and commented, having had very similar experiences—not being paid, being underpaid, being exploited in terms of their work conditions. It was quite shocking. The South Coast Labour Council became aware of this and then worked with these young people—Ashleigh Mounser was the young woman from the university—to start a campaign to raise awareness. It is true that some of the employers didn't intentionally get things wrong, but it was so unregulated and so unchecked that terrible exploitation went on. If the government wants to spend its time on something useful, I suggest it could spend it in this space.
This is getting quite ridiculous. It seems every second day I'm up on my feet in parliament speaking against a government attack on workers and on the trade union movement. It is bordering on ridiculous. But pathetic attacks like these are all that a pretty desperate government seems to have up its sleeves. They have no vision; they have no plan. It seems that this is what we're stuck with—attack after attack on workers or the trade union movement. There certainly is no action or policy that will help move Australia forward. If we don't hear, 'Blame Labor, it's Labor's fault', we hear, 'Let's blame the trade union movement, let's blame workers.' This blame game has to stop. It's a game the Liberals keep playing; it's getting quite tiring and it has to stop. I know I've had enough of it, and I think Australia's has had enough too. I think you'd be hard pressed to find an Australian who wouldn't rather have their government just stand up and govern. People are sick and tired of this. I think they want their government to stand up, take a little bit of responsibility and show a little bit of integrity. That would go a long way. But, with this government, even that appears to be too much to ask.
Despite having led the country for some years—five years is not a short amount of time—the mess they've created seems to be somebody else's fault. Apparently even the failed NBN, their failed NBN, is Labor's fault. Can you believe that? The second-rate copper NBN, which the coalition fought tooth and nail to implement over our superior policy, is somehow Labor's fault! It's outrageous. They are fooling nobody, but this is what they continue to parrot about.
How about this week in the Federation Chamber? I'm glad the member for Boothby is here. She attempted to lay the blame for the collapse of the Australian automotive industry on the trade union movement. Here was a government member again blaming the trade union movement for something. It was truly, truly ridiculous. What a blatant attempt by the member for Boothby to distance herself from the failings of her government. It's pretty common knowledge right across Australia that the collapse of the Australian automotive industry can be directly linked to the actions of the Liberal government. In true Liberal fashion, rather than showing some integrity, she sought to blame—guess who?—the unions. She sought to blame the unions, the very people who fought against the Abbott government's foolish mismanagement of the manufacturing industry, the very people who fought to keep this industry alive and who fight to keep many industries alive. They are the very people who fought for and won annual leave, sick leave, long service leave, pensions, Medicare, superannuation—where shall I stop? I say to the member for Boothby and to the government: I'm sure the trade union movement would welcome and accept a letter of thanks for all of those things that I'm sure the member for Boothby and other government members have enjoyed themselves and which their constituents as workers of this country enjoy every single day. I'm sure they'll look forward to that letter.
But, instead, we've got a government in crisis mode, a government that are going down and that will stop at nothing to drag everyone down with them. The government's actions are so desperate. The government are demonstrating an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money. But it's clear to see why they're doing it, of course. They're doing it in an absolutely pathetic attempt to shift the blame from their misdoings and at the same time malign the unions who stand up to them when they attack workers. With a government so determined to undermine the rights that Australians—their constituents and my constituents—have worked so hard for, it seems that unions have to stand up to them pretty regularly.
It really comes as no surprise that we're here again today—as I said, this is bordering on ridiculous—debating yet another bill that this government has introduced in yet another desperate attempt to undermine workers in the trade union movement. This bill, the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017, is not just an attack on unions; it is an attack on every worker in this country. This bill has very significant implications for anyone who benefits from their entitlements being protected through a worker entitlement fund and anyone who benefits from the counselling, training, OH&S and other support services that those funds invest in. A worker entitlement fund is a fund which is for the purpose of paying out worker entitlements and death benefits, like leave payments, payments in lieu of leave, payments in relation to termination of employment—any payments that contracts, awards or agreements provide for an employer to make to an employee. This bill puts additional requirements on those funds.
From a party that once claimed it wanted to cut red tape and government intervention, this looks a lot like a government intervening and actually adding red tape. That's what it looks like to me. The coalition really doesn't care about any of the outcomes of this bill except that it wants to be an inconvenience to unions. That's why it's so foolhardily rushing this bill through. Why else would it so carelessly deny proper scrutiny, proper discussion and transparency with stakeholders before introducing this into parliament?
When you think about this rushing the bill through, it's pretty clear that—with the support of their ever-faithful crossbench comrades, Senator Xenophon and his team—the Liberals have denied calls to conduct a thorough Senate employment committee inquiry into this legislation. Instead of carefully considering the implications of this bill and what effects it would have on workers, what effects it would have on business and what effects it would have on the Commonwealth; instead of looking at this through a really clear lens and actually scrutinising it, they have imposed a reporting date of 10 November 2017. That's just over two weeks away. There are 80 pages to scrutinise and we've been given two weeks.
In typical Liberal fashion, they are blinded by union-hating rage. It's typical. 'Cover your ears and put your blinkers on.' That's what we have come to expect from this government. How can stakeholders and any affected business or employer groups properly prepare a submission and evidence with a deadline of just two weeks? Eighty pages in two weeks? How can you properly do that? The simple answer is you just can't. You can't possibly do that. But that's exactly what this government wants, isn't it? They don't want the opportunity for this to happen properly. They don't want any interjections and they don't want anyone disparaging their plans, whether that's justified or not. It appears that this government just don't like being told what is wrong and they just don't like being held to account.
Accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of good governance. They are the foundations of a respectable parliament. But it appears to me, again, that the Turnbull government wants none of that. It appears—it is very evident, actually—that the government's intention with this bill is to undermine and erode the rights of all of Australia's workforce. This is a government for the top end of town, not for ordinary Australians like those who live in my electorate of Longman and who will be affected by this bill. This government is not for the ordinary people of Longman, who have been attacked time after time after time by reckless legislation that only benefits those who actually don't need it. I'd love to hear any member of this government try to explain to the vulnerable people of low-income Australia just what they're doing to help them in any way, shape or form. I'd love to hear it, but I suspect it would be a pretty short list.
Yes, a 50c list—if that. In comparison, Labor's list is pretty long. Labor's list is comprehensive. It's fleshed out and has been fleshed out for a long time. This government has been in power for four years and is now in its fifth year, and it still hasn't formulated any strong policies that will benefit all of Australia. You will remember that Labor went to the last election with 100 positive policies. We showed Australia that we weren't just here to fight in parliament. We showed Australia we were listening to ordinary people all around Australia, to Australians from all walks of life, because everyone deserves a say. We heard from people—and we continue to—and we formulated strong policies that we took to the election. Since then, we've continued to build upon them. We know what Australian people want, and it's not what this government is offering. It's not huge cuts to the taxation rates of millionaires and it's not throwing billions of dollars at corporations or banks. It's policies that protect ordinary, everyday Australians. That is what Australian people want. It's policies that protect workers in Australia, the people who are the backbone of this nation.
Australians are sick of the wars that the coalition keep waging on workers. They are sick of them. They know that they serve no benefit to the Commonwealth and they serve no benefit to the Australian people. Australians know that cuts to the take-home pay of ordinary Australians is a terrible idea. These are cuts to the take-home pay of people who work weekends and nights, people who work unfavourable hours, and give up time with their families. Australians know that you don't cut the take-home pay of those workers. You'll remember the member for Gilmore saying this was a gift to young people. A gift—to cut their take-home pay? She can keep that gift, that's for sure. She might have called it a gift; I reckon it's a lump of coal. We know that those opposite have a real affinity for black coal! But the people of Australia would rather have the money they so badly need and that they work really hard for. It is money that puts food on the table.
On the same note, and to pick up on another area, the Australian people also know that PaTH internship placements make absolutely zero sense. They see straight through that as well. They know that if a business wants to employ someone—you know what?—it goes ahead and employs them. If you've got a job vacant and you want to employ someone, go ahead and employ them. This government doesn't need to throw thousands of dollars at businesses just so they can get free labour.
People know that tax cuts for big businesses are an absolutely terrible idea. The national debt is sitting in such a terrible position, thanks to this government's economic mismanagement. How could anyone in their right minds justify $65 billion worth of cuts to big business? What an absolutely ridiculous idea. The more I talk about it, the more I realise just how strongly this government have taken a side. They have turned their backs on workers and they're staring up at big business, and that just isn't right. It's not right. From this government, in bill after bill and motion after motion, there is never any reprieve. It's attack after attack on Australian workers and handout after handout to big business. I oppose this bill. It is, plain and simple, an attack on the services that unions provide to workers. Workers don't deserve this. They deserve more, and I will be standing up every single day opposing this bill.
Sitting suspended from 13:02 to 15 : 58
The Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 is another coalition attack on workers and unions. Coalition governments have never been friends of unions—or workers, for that matter—but their attempt, since 1996, to destroy unions has been unprecedented. It began with the waterfront episode in the late nineties involving the Patrick Corporation and Howard government minister Peter Reith. Then there was a royal commission into the building and construction industry, otherwise known as the Cole royal commission. That was followed by an interim building industry task force, which, by 2005, had become the Australian Building and Construction Commission. But that was not sufficient for the coalition. So Work Choices was created, with its real objective being to weaken workers' rights, drive down wages and, most importantly, cripple unions.
The Howard government underestimated the Australian people, and John Howard not only lost government; he also lost his own seat in parliament. I think he was the second Prime Minister that that ever happened to. Again, that is a good example, just like the Patrick Corporation fiasco, of how Australian people will not be fooled. They can see politics when it's being played by whichever side of politics is playing it. They can also see unfairness when it's being perpetrated on the wider community, again regardless of who is perpetrating it. Most people understand common sense, decency and fairness. If that wasn't enough, in the aftermath of the 2007 federal election, as opposition leader, the member for Warringah said Work Choices was 'dead, buried and cremated'. The member for Warringah may well have been right in his reference to the term 'Work Choices', but the coalition ideology of being anti-union is as strong as it ever was.
When Labor was elected in 2007 it put an end to Work Choices and it abolished the ABCC. By contrast, after being elected in 2013 the coalition government's agenda of priorities was to set up another anti-union royal commission—they had had one only a decade earlier, but they needed another one—and to reinstate the ABCC. But that was not all. Every opportunity the Abbott-Turnbull government has had since to weaken unions, it has run with. We saw examples of that with respect to the use of 457 visa holders working in Australia without labour market testing. That was nothing less than an attempt to undermine Australian workers. We saw foreign-flagged ships being allowed to work in Australian waters—we have legislation before the parliament right now to do just that. The real purpose of that is again to weaken Australian workers in the industry and, by weakening them, to weaken the unions. We've seen the use of backdoor methods, such as the registered organisations legislation, to control unions as well. There are examples of that happening right now, as I speak.
Still not satisfied, the coalition now has this legislation before the House. It is simply another attempt to strangle unions. The government claims it is implementing recommendations of the Heydon royal commission—a royal commission that was set up by this government for a very specific purpose, and we know what that purpose was. The real objective of this legislation and of every other anti-union move of the Turnbull government is to weaken the Labor Party by weakening the unions. That is their real objective. Their philosophy is: if we can weaken the unions, we will in turn weaken the Labor Party, who are our strongest opposition on the political landscape.
Indeed, I suspect the car-making industry was killed off by this coalition government because it was a major source of union membership. Killing off the car-making industry, with 200,000 workers across Australia—mainly union members—is a severe blow to the unions in this country. I don't for one moment discount the real motive behind that, because no logical scenario would have you believe that this coalition government couldn't see the economic stupidity of bringing down the car-making industry. In fact, a former minister in their own government, Nick Minchin, strongly advocated for the car industry and believed that the decision of this government to turn its back on the industry was a foolish one. I agree with him. That was a person who was putting the national interest first and not ideology. I have no doubt that the previous minister for industry in this place, Ian Macfarlane, also understood the value of that industry. That's why I believe—I have no evidence—from my analysis of comments he made and my discussions with him, that he was, indeed, supportive of the industry. But it is not to be.
This legislation, as I said, is another attempt to control unions. The minister, in his second reading speech, said, 'The bill implements 10 recommendations of the royal commission aimed at stopping corruption, coercion and financial mismanagement,' and, 'There is no place for this sort of bullying and coercion in the workplace.' Labor do not condone bullying, coercion, corruption and financial mismanagement. We never have, and we never will. But we believe there are already mechanisms available to authorities to ensure that, where bullying, coercion, corruption and financial mismanagement occur, actions can be taken against those who deserve to be investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted.
In fact, only yesterday in question time the Prime Minister, in response to a question, boasted about the number of cases currently before the courts in which union members are being prosecuted for breaches. The list is quite long. There are quite a number of cases, and they were reported widely in the media as well. All of those prosecutions, charges or alleged misconduct matters were brought to the court under existing laws, and there is ample scope, whether through our police forces, through the ABCC or through the Registered Organisations Commission, to take action if they believe action is warranted. So we do have the ability to deal with the matters that the minister, in his second reading speech, says this legislation is seeking to address.
My view is that this is simply another way of saying: 'Well, we have all these other mechanisms available to us, but they are not sufficient'—because, quite frankly, in most cases the charges and accusations are frivolous—'so we need to find other ways of stopping this. If we can control the way they manage their funds, that will also serve our purpose, because then obviously we will control their activities. And if we control their activities, they will not continue to be a thorn in our side,' which is what this is all about. It's not about justice or a need to do anything.
This legislation was referred to a committee for inquiry. I understand that the inquiry is meant to report on 10 November. Given that we are now almost at the end of October, that doesn't give the committee a great deal of time to seek submissions and listen to representations and then report back to parliament. But, with the support of the Nick Xenophon Team, the inquiry is now scheduled to report on 10 November. Again, one would have to question why the government wants to rush this. Why is there a need to rush it? What would another couple of weeks have mattered, other than to have given people who want to make a submission more time to do so? I suspect it would have made very little difference. But one difference is that it enables the government to keep talking about unions and accusing unions of wrongdoing without evidence to back up their claims.
As the member for Gorton has quite rightly pointed out, there are other matters that need to be addressed and that the government could be focusing on that are much more important. The member for Gorton has moved an amendment that goes to the heart of the abolition of penalty rates or the winding down of penalty rates in this country. When penalty rates were wound down, several independent, objective commentators made it clear that it would hurt a lot of vulnerable Australians—and hurt them hard. Indeed, the people who are likely to be receiving penalty rates are those who do the out-of-hours work, and the only reason they do the out-of-hours work is that they are in a desperate situation in which they need to do whatever work is on offer. So they not only work out of hours but they generally work for a lower hourly rate, and I will come to that in just a moment. As soon as the penalty rates decision was handed down, the St Vincent de Paul Society said, in a public statement they put out:
Cutting penalty rates will not create jobs but it will build inequality.
… … …
This cut will disproportionately affect women, young people and people who already carry the burden of inequality. The rights of workers should take priority over the maximisation of profits.
They couldn't have said it better. That sums up exactly what the cut to penalty rates is all about. It is about profits over giving workers a fair income.
I just want to talk about the hourly rates of some of these people because this is a point that is often missed. Quite often the talk simply centres around saying that penalty rates are 175 per cent, 150 per cent, 125 per cent or whatever they may be, but the real dollar figures are rarely mentioned. Let me give you a case study. For a fast-food worker, the current 150 per cent loading means they get $29.16 an hour working out of hours. With the cut, it will be down to $24.30. The minimum wage hourly rate is $18.29. That is the minimum. The average weekly wage hourly rate is around $35. So what we're saying to these people is, 'You can work Saturday or Sunday nights or throughout the night,' as many fast-food workers do, 'and you'll get paid $24.30 for your work,' when someone on the average weekly wage—and this is not a high wage but the average weekly wage—is on $35 an hour. So you're paying those people considerably less than the average weekly wage for doing out-of-hours work. It is simply not right and simply not fair.
Not surprisingly, the unions are standing up for those low-paid workers and trying to have that decision reversed. That is what the government should be trying to do if it genuinely cares about people who are struggling in this country, people who are now being made even more worse off than they already were. Again, this is making the gap between rich and poor in Australia even wider. Those are the issues that the government could be addressing and should be addressing rather than attacking the unions, who are the very organisations that are standing up for those low-paid workers who are struggling to make ends meet. When people can't make ends meet, there are two things that happen: they turn to the government for help, which means the government now has to pay out more money, or they turn to organisations like St Vincent de Paul. So it's not like the community doesn't pick up the cost. It does.
Worst of all for the government itself, which is trying to balance its budget, the foolishness of cutting penalty rates undoubtedly will create another hit to the tax income stream of the government. So what does the government then do? It turns on lower paid workers even more, as we have seen with the legislation we were debating in the House only yesterday, to do with NDIS, where the government wants to tax people on lower incomes even more in order to make up for the lost revenue that it has incurred as a result of making decisions which are not in the national interest. (Time expired)
I really feel privileged to be able to add my voice to that of my colleague the member for Makin in this debate, because this is a serious issue. We have seen a pattern of behaviour emerging now for some time where, when a coalition government gets confronted with rejections by the public of policy proposals such as Work Choices or the destruction of Medicare, there is always some alternative door it tries to go through—or it has a plan for death by a thousand cuts to attempt to bring down these structures that have served the purpose of providing not only universal health care for our community but protection of workers' conditions and rights. This, again, is disturbing in the context of the way we've seen policy development entered into without a substantive policy process.
There used to be a tradition in serious policymaking in this country where you would go through green and white papers, draft legislation and consultation, but this legislation is another example of the rush in which things get done now. I guess a lot of the internal dynamics of this government support that, because any proper consultation or development process, even within the party room, leaves itself open to being leaked, to being attacked, by the insurgents within the party room.
We have here a major piece of legislation, with five schedules in 80 pages, amending five other pieces of legislation. It should have been dealt with by a Senate employment committee inquiry going thoroughly through it. I am privileged to serve on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in an extremely bipartisan way, with a good group of people from both sides of politics. Inevitably, and always as a matter of course, we are presented with legislation that is in the national security space. Every piece of legislation that ever gets submitted to that committee always emerges at the other end of that process the better for it. It is a thoroughgoing process. We have public inquiries. We have closed-door inquiries. We're open to public submissions. This results in good policy. So I have a major objection to the way policies like this are being handled in this space in particular.
There are again real concerns about the agenda, following on from what we saw with Work Choices—that this legislation is just another way to destroy the union movement. We saw that philosophy writ large under the member for Warringah's jurisdiction as the former Prime Minister, and there were effectively two strands to his attack in that space. One was to roll over on any of the free trade agreement negotiations which we were involved in. It is apparent that the Korean free trade agreement was the death knell for our car industry. It was effectively the last straw for our car manufacturers. As my colleague said, no-one in the government was interested in defending that industry, because it was a unionised workforce.
Then Prime Minister Abbott compounded that approach by destroying all of the hard work that had been done during the time of the Labor government to put us on track to become a shipbuilding nation, particularly and initially in the national security space in terms of our maritime capabilities. We had developed the Future Submarine Industry Skills Plan, which was going to set us up not only to become a shipbuilding nation in that maritime naval space but also to potentially branch that out into commercial shipbuilding. But he made some massive strategic errors in that process, and they put us behind the eight ball in having a timely delivery of our future submarines. He and his government initially attempted to go to the Japanese. Again, it looked like it was being done in the context of promoting a free trade agreement with the Japanese for a vessel that would never have suited any of the capabilities which we needed it for and that certainly wouldn't have been built in Australia. They gave away our supply vessel construction. I had advice from the Department of Defence that it not only could have been built here but should have been. I still have that advice to this day. It specifically spelled out how we would have avoided the valley of death. This saw the bleeding-out of our workforce, which, while in government, we had spent a billion dollars on rehabilitating and restoring capacity to. So those jobs were being lost. Again, it seemed that the approach of the former Prime Minister, the member for Warringah, was simply to destroy any industry that was unionised. It seemed that he had a philosophy of directing his efforts so as to create an economy that was services based, where we would no longer make anything serious.
That's not our view. Certainly I am pleased to see that the rhetoric has changed since the advent of Prime Minister Turnbull, but we are yet to see flesh on the bones of how we will deliver those workforces for our shipbuilding industry. But this bill obviously seeks to target arrangements that unions enter into with employers and that benefit employees in a range of ways. A lot of the worker entitlement funds that we are talking about here not only protect and ensure workers' entitlements but provide important services to them, such as training, safety training in particular; counselling support and suicide prevention; and the funding of OH&S officers.
At the same time—and I salute the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for doing this—these issues have been well-recognised at last in the Defence workplace in relation to the ex-Defence members. These are the sorts of measures we are trying to ensure are in place so that we can prevent Defence member and veteran suicide, and we should be no less promoting these measures in the workplace in general. So anything that attempts to undermine that should be opposed. We have deep suspicions about where this will go. We simply need to probe that more carefully and that's why this legislation needs much greater forensic examination.
We are also deeply concerned about how much discretion it places in the minister, through regulation capability. That is of deep concern because the minister does not give us any confidence in their ability to ensure that the interests of workers are looked after in this process. So, from all perspectives, it looks to us that this is another attempt to erode, to destroy, the ability of workers to negotiate for good outcomes to look after their people. Really it reflects a philosophy that workers are widgets, that they are factors in the production process, but not something to be celebrated as part of the free market process of negotiation and bargaining. That collective bargaining regime has led to enormous gains in productivity in our workforce. If you look at the statistics on productivity, labour productivity gains have been enormous. We need to look, obviously, at continuing improvements in capital productivity, which is a job for the employers, but labour productivity has been outstanding. Notwithstanding that, we've seen a record decline in wages.
That is manifest in the situation of so many workers in Eden-Monaro who are crying out to me—they seriously are. This it is not a rhetorical point. I know this deeply from my personal contact with them. Also I am never left in any doubt about what people think in Eden-Monaro because, being a bellwether seat, it is surveyed to within an inch of its life. ReachTEL polls that have been published in the media have indicated that nearly 60 per cent of my constituents are really angry about cuts to penalty rates. When you get to Queanbeyan the rate goes up to about 79 per cent. So there is no question about the attitude of my community. No wonder! The McKell Institute's study on the impact of penalty rate cuts in rural and regional Australia indicated how heavily that burden would land on them. We have seen, in particular, that the retail and hospitality sectors account for something like 18 per cent of rural and regional workers. So when penalty rates are cut in rural and regional areas it has a particularly severe impact.
We know that the average income earned by workers in retail and hospitality is the lowest of any industry. The compounding effect is that, if you partially abolish penalty rates in retail and hospitality, then rural Australia loses somewhere between $370 million and $691 million per annum, and there is a loss of disposable income of between $174 million and $343 million, as modelled by the McKell Institute. In New South Wales that figure is between $118 million and $220 million. So that loss of disposable income has been enormous. I have seen estimates that just in the Monaro region $16 million is being ripped out of our local economy.
When we were in government and were being hit by the GFC, the advice of Ken Henry and the experts was: we've learnt from previous mistakes in dealing with recessions. What you have to do is go hard, go early, go households, because household income and consumption is somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent of the whole GDP story, the economic story, in this country. When you smash the ability of households to spend, particularly in the retail sector, you are going to do the economy a massive amount of damage. This was highlighted in an open letter written to the government by 78 expert economists. In that letter they spelt out that the penalty rate cuts in those particular industries, where they don't have enterprise bargaining agreements in which these things could be traded off against some other benefit, simply would not create new jobs. It just simply would not. The letter stated:
While it is doubtful that lower penalty rates will result in any measureable increase in total employment in the retail and hospitality industries, there is no doubt that this decision will reduce incomes for some of the most insecure and poorly-paid workers in the economy. Statistical data confirm that the retail and hospitality workforce is disproportionately reliant on women, immigrants, and youth …
Just the other day, when I was at the National Museum here on a Sunday, having lunch with my wife, one of the young workers there who lives across the border, in Queanbeyan, recognised me, singled me out and said: 'Thank you so much for fighting for our penalty rates. It was the only way I was going to be able to stay at university and now I'm really struggling.' This is having a big effect on people in my community, as they raise with me directly.
Those 78 economists highlighted that. That is the expert evidence. In addition, that's been borne out by statistics that have been revealed in just the last couple of weeks. I guess it's a situation of 'I told you so' from these economists, because we had an incredibly weak retail sales result. It was described as 'a shocker'. It was almost the worst for the period of August in 4½ years. We saw a downward revision to July's numbers and a 0.2 per cent fall in expenditure in that sector. That was spread across the country, with sales in every state falling. The biggest declines were a 1.8 per cent slump in the previously booming restaurant and cafe sector and a one per cent drop in household goods sales. It coincided exactly with the introduction of these penalty rate cuts.
When you look at it from the point of view of people's ability to go and spend money on a coffee or a doughnut, or on household goods, and put it in the context of the other major issue of Australia's household-debt-to-income ratio, which hit another record of 194 per cent, with more than two-thirds tied up in home loans, you can see the double-whammy pressure that's hit these people. In my region, of course, it's exacerbated by the fact that we have a highly casualised workforce. If you're working only two or three days a week or a few hours a week, those penalty rates were putting food on the table or a roof over your head. That's just the simple mathematics of it.
In the context of wages growth continuing to flatline at 1.9 per cent, the lowest since the last recession, from 1 July thousands of retail and hospitality workers have lost their penalty rates. If you cut people's take-home pay, they'll reduce their spending on discretionary items, such as household goods and pleasurable things like going out to cafes and restaurants. So a massive hit is being delivered to the economy and a hit is being delivered to workers through an undermining of their ability to represent themselves. It is to undermine the union movement and prevent it from entering into enterprise bargaining agreements with employers where a penalty rate could be traded off in exchange for a benefit which is actually in the interests of the economy. The collective bargaining regime has always been of benefit to the economy. The Hawke-Keating government delivered us an industrial relations regime that has seen great productivity growth and benefit to the economy. Taking that equation out of the economy will only result in further recession and a downward-spiralling economy. That is the simple fact of it. That is what the economists have highlighted.
All of these measures together are not in the interests of the country, not in the interests of the economy and not in the interests of our struggling low- and middle-income workers out there, who are crying out to us to defend them against these savage attacks on their pay and conditions and their safety standards.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017. Any time you see a title like that the red flag goes up. It takes you back to 2004, when there was a piece of legislation called Work Choices that didn't actually deliver any choices to the workers. Whenever you see an Orwellian title like that—a 'doubleplusgood' sort of title—being trotted out by the Turnbull government, you know to pay attention, because it is going to be something that attacks workers and attacks low- and middle-income groups in Australia.
This bill is another part of the Turnbull government's relentless attack on Australia as seen through its attack on unions. Not only is it an attack on unions; it is an attack on the workers who form unions for protection, the workers who voluntarily joined unions and paid their fees because they believed in unions and the benefits that come from unions. The Turnbull government is attempting to ram this bill through the parliament without proper consultation and scrutiny. Labor wanted this bill to go through the proper committee process, to be thoroughly examined by the Senate Education and Employment Committee. Instead, this Orwellian-titled piece of legislation is being rushed through that process with a reporting date of 10 November, making it almost impossible for stakeholders to prepare detailed submissions and to give any considered, useful or meaningful evidence to the committee. People like Jorgen Gullestrup from the plumbers union, who is in the chamber, would have a lot to contribute if they had time to prepare submissions to the Senate committee. He and the plumbers union were a great help to my campaign to win Moreton for the Labor Party.
This bill increases the governance requirements and the financial reporting and disclosure requirements of worker entitlement funds. The purpose of worker entitlement funds is to ensure that the entitlements owed to workers are protected and to provide services to workers like training, which is crucial in the plumbing, the electrical trades and the construction industries. We know so many deaths are linked to workers not receiving proper training before they go onto the worksite. We also know the benefits of counselling support, and I know that Jorgen has a great role in that side of the industry. There is suicide prevention and the funding of occupational health and safety officers, a role that has saved thousands and thousands of lives over the years.
This bill proposes to prohibit enterprise agreements from allowing contributions to any fund other than a superannuation fund, a registered worker entitlement fund or a registered charity. So forget about things like suicide prevention and the like. It would prohibit enterprise agreements from allowing employee contributions to a union election fund, even though we have so often stated the benefits that come from the political arm of the trade union movement, which is the Australian Labor Party.
This legislation would prohibit the coercion of employers to pay amounts to a specific worker entitlement fund, superannuation fund, training fund, welfare fund or employee insurance fund. I notice the term they use is 'coercion'. Obviously coercion would not be legal in any event, but I am aware that many employers and employees agree on certain superannuation funds and training funds. It would also mean that you would put additional financial management and disclosure obligations on registered organisations, and this Turnbull legislation would introduce new penalties for non-compliance by registered organisations with those financial management, disclosure and reporting requirements.
It is crucial that worker entitlement funds are able to continue to provide safety, training and wellbeing services such as suicide prevention. I can't believe that the government would be attacking that process, not to mention mental health and drug and alcohol counselling. It is an important role of unions to provide these types of services to their worker members, particularly in the construction industry where, sadly, we see higher rates of suicide, health issues and drug and alcohol abuse because of the nature of much of the work.
It would be alarming if the Turnbull government intended to stop unions from providing these services to their members. It would be alarming but not surprising. This Turnbull government has an ideological obsession with attacking unions. Week after week in this House the government produces yet another piece of legislation solely aimed at attacking unions. It has been relentless in this parliament, the 45th Parliament. The Prime Minister really needs to see a counsellor, I think—maybe one of those could be provided from those funds that the unions have contacts with—because he is quite obsessed. We saw the coalition government call a royal commission to further their pursuit of trade unions, and we saw what the results were: nowhere near the results of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the number of convictions that have been sent off. It was a completely different approach.
This is an out-of-touch government. It's hard to believe that, at a time when wages are growing at record lows, in some cases even going backwards, and Australian households are facing cost-of-living crunches due to record levels of debt and rising energy costs, at a time when Australian workers are facing financial stress and when even the Reserve Bank Governor—not exactly a well-known leftie—is promoting the benefits of trade union enterprise bargaining, the government, in spite of all of that information, is relentlessly attacking the very organisations that are trying to give ordinary workers a fair go, and that is unions. I should declare that I have been a member of many unions but I've also worked for a union and have done enterprise bargaining. I have sat down with only two or three members in a workplace of 100 people and negotiated. I know what it's like to negotiate from positions of power, and I know what it's like to negotiate from positions where you have only one or two members in a workplace. That is not an experience that many on the government side of the chamber understand. They do not understand what the modern union movement is about.
The government's policy agenda, which has seen the establishment of the ABCC and the Registered Organisations Commission, is shifting the balance of power in a workplace where Australians are already suffering. This is an agenda that saw the Australian public at the double-dissolution election boot out a dozen coalition MPs. There was hardly a ringing endorsement for this agenda at the double-dissolution election. Look at Tasmania—not a single coalition MP, yet we have the Turnbull government trying to roll out its agenda there. In Western Australia quite a few Liberal MPs were booted out. We saw that across the nation, with the Australian people saying, 'We do not agree with this government's double-dissolution agenda.' Yet the Turnbull government seems to be obsessed with attacking unions despite the great role they play in keeping the Australian fabric together. Sadly, the Turnbull government is allowing unscrupulous employers to engage in practices that avoid Fair Work Act obligation, like sham contracts and dodgy labour hire companies. We haven't seen a great investigation of 7-Eleven, the Myer cleaners or some of the other dodgy practices that are taking place around Australia. This is unfair. Sadly, it is entrenching the already increasing inequality in this country.
Labor have moved a second reading amendment to this bill. We have done this to make it abundantly clear to this coalition government that Labor will always stand up for workers. We'll stand up for all Australian workers but in particular the 700,000 workers who are going to see their wages fall in real terms as a result of the penalty rates decision where the Turnbull government was silent and complicit in these cuts. Workers in the retail and hospitality industries—not exactly an overpaid part of the community—have already had their wages cut from 1 July this year. The Turnbull government supported those cuts and has backed the decision to cut penalty rates by its silence and inaction. The Turnbull government has refused to support the private member's bill moved by the Leader of the Opposition that would have prevented those cuts.
When we talk about tackling inequality we can't ignore the fact that this coalition government, under Prime Minister Turnbull, is prepared to allow the real wages of the lowest-paid workers in the country to be cut at the same time as it is delivering a $65 billion bonus to the top end of town. We can't ignore the fact that this government supports cutting penalty rates which, sadly, will disproportionately affect women. We can't ignore the fact that this government supports cutting penalty rates which will see regional communities, the bush, suffering because people in the regions will have less money to spend in their economies.
This Turnbull government is completely out of touch but Labor will not stand by and watch ordinary Australians be treated so unfairly. Labor will not stand by and watch inequality in this country get even worse. Workers in the retail, pharmacy and fast-food industries have already had their take-home pay cut—the penalty rate cuts that took effect from 1 July. The next group of workers to be hit will be those working in the hair and beauty industry. We all know people who work in that industry. Obviously I don't spend a lot of time at the hairdresser's, but I will give a shout out to Pete the barber who runs Franco's at Moorooka. We know the people in that industry are not super well paid. We all get our hair cut somewhere, or most of us; some might even get our nails done and others might get that healthy youthful orange glow through a spray tan—if you go in for that sort of thing, that's up to you; I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that at all, and I'm not mentioning any MPs on the opposite side of the chamber.
What would you notice most about workers in the hair and beauty industry—putting aside Pete? Statistically, they are most likely to be young and female. It is a familiar pattern from the Turnbull government: constantly attacking the vulnerable minorities. They are in their fifth year of government, and I have lost count of the number of times their legislation has adversely targeted a minority group—young people, women and migrants. What heroes they are in this government! All those minority groups have been unfairly targeted in legislation put forward by the Turnbull-Abbott government.
Sadly, this is at a time when, in Australia, inequality is going through the roof. Inequality is at a 75-year high. Young people are being continually attacked by this government's policies, such as: making them wait five weeks before they can access Newstart; putting 22- to 24-year-olds on the lower paid youth allowance, meaning a cut of about $48 per week, which they can't afford; making young students pay up to $100,000 for their degrees; forcing students to take on bigger debt and then making them pay back that debt even sooner; and doing nothing about housing affordability so that many young people have little hope of ever owning a home—or getting NBN connected to it. We have a Prime Minister who just said, 'Why don't you move to an area where there is NBN?' Where's that? New Zealand?
As a society we should be nurturing our young people and bringing them on. They are our future. We should be encouraging them to get the best education they can. We should be doing everything we can to help them succeed and not give up in despair, because they'll be looking after us before too long. We should make sure our young people can have the same dream that many Australians enjoy: the dream of one day having a home of their own to raise a family in. I believe in fairness. That's why I joined the Labor Party. It is not fair to cut the take-home pay of low-paid workers, especially when many of those people are young and are women. That is fundamentally unfair and un-Australian.
I know people care about penalty rates, and I know people in my electorate of Moreton care about penalty rates. I hold street stalls every month across my electorate, and I talk to people about that exact issue. We had street stalls in 10 locations. I spoke about penalty rates in Acacia Ridge, Annerley, Fairfield, Moorooka, Rocklea, Runcorn, Salisbury, Sherwood and Sunnybank. Volunteers came out in force, generously giving up their own weekend to support the weekends of others and the take-home pay of our lowest-paid workers. So many signed my petition to protect penalty rates that we ran out of paper at some of the stalls. Southside locals care about penalty rates. Thanks to the Turnbull government, one in six local workers in Moreton have had their pay slashed this year.
Labor will not sit back and do nothing to protect vulnerable workers. We have already presented a private member's bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017, which would have stopped the cuts to penalty rates. The Turnbull government, sadly, chose not to support it. And there is more than just the immediate effect of that decision; there is also 2018, 2019 and 2020. Because the Turnbull government did not stand up for our lowest-paid workers who rely on penalty rates to pay their bills, those workers will not get a pay increase for four years. We should not be surprised. The Prime Minister and many others in his government support cuts to penalty rates. How do we know? Because they've told us many times. The Prime Minister even said, way back in 2005, that he believes there should be a free market so that the cost of labour will be as low as possible. How un-Australian and out of touch is that?
In 2014, on ABC Radio, the Prime Minister said it was nuts that cafes and restaurants closed on weekends because penalty rates were so high. The Minister for Employment, Senator Cash, said on Sky News in 2015 that, in many industries in Australia, the seven days of the week are now basically the same day. Senator Cash also said we need to cut penalty rates to be globally competitive. They are not the only ones. Senator James Paterson, the member for Grey, the member for Mallee and the member for Hasluck have all made comments supporting cuts to penalty rates.
Sadly, the Turnbull government support scrapping penalty rates. They do not support low-paid vulnerable workers keeping their take-home pay. Inequality is at a 75-year high, wages growth is at a historic low and underemployment is at a record low. Inequality needs to be tackled, and only Labor will do that.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017. Looking at the speakers list on this bill, despite the minister and the government claiming this is a critical and important issue, the fact is that no government members—not one—have the courage of their convictions to speak on this bill today. No member of the government wants to front up to this parliament and explain to working people right across this country why they are enforcing some of the most regressive working laws that we have seen in this country.
In my opinion, this is part of an ongoing, systematic campaign run by an ideologically extreme government—not a government focused on delivering outcomes, not a government focused on the people we are charged to represent, but a government more focused on political outcomes, on making political amendments to working conditions for men and women of Australia. We know that the bill contains five schedules over 80 pages. So, there is an amount of technical detail in the bill. It will amend the Fair Work Act, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act, the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act, the Income Tax Assessment Act and the Taxation Administration Act. Disappointingly, as we've heard from speakers on this side of the chamber, the Nick Xenophon Team once again have sold out their principles and sold out workers, in one of Senator Xenophon's last acts before he runs away from this parliament. They've blocked our attempt to have proper legislative scrutiny of this bill. And I've got to ask the question: if there is demonstrated need for this piece of legislation, if there is evidence to be provided, why not have proper process? Why not have proper scrutiny of this legislation?
The minister has rushed this legislation through without any real explanation, imposing a deadline for reporting that does not allow a reasonable period of time for stakeholders to make submissions. That not only shows contempt for the process but also shows contempt for the organisations and representatives that this bill will have an impact on. In my opinion, this bill shows no understanding of what worker entitlement funds do. Worker entitlement funds are established in most cases jointly between unions, employer bodies and employers. They provide services such as training, counselling support and suicide prevention, which I will address in some detail in my speech to the parliament tonight. This bill also makes clear whether funds can invest in safety initiatives or continue to subsidise insurance for accidents, ambulance, portable sick leave and income protection. Even the royal commissioner, Dyson Heydon, said that training funds, for example, provide an important public good. When it comes to legislation, in my short time in this parliament I have come to the conclusion that the government cannot be trusted to introduce legislation without consultation. When that happens, bad legislation is enacted. But, more importantly, bad outcomes occur.
This bill gives the power to the minister to, at the stroke of her pen, deem a fund a workers' entitlement fund under the new legislation. This creates significant uncertainty in the sector. If this bill is passed in its current form it will mean that organisations and charities such as MATES in Construction will see their funding drastically cut. Members who are present in the chamber today need to understand the full consequences of this legislation passing. It will mean that organisations who do outstanding work—like MATES in Construction, which I am a proud supporter of—will see funding drastically cut. And tonight I want to acknowledge Jorgen Gullestrup, who's in the chamber tonight, who is the CEO of MATES in Construction.
I want to explain exactly how this will occur. In the first instance, it will impact the way redundancy trusts are able to donate to charities. Secondly, proposed section 329LD(2) states:
A payment is a training or welfare payment covered by this subsection if:
(a) the payment is made for the sole purpose of providing training or welfare services to either or both of the following:
(i) participants or former participants in any industry in which fund members participate;
(ii) spouses or dependants of such participants or former participants; and
(b) if the services are not provided by the operator of the fund:
(i) the services are provided at market value and on commercial terms …
This will negatively impact on an organisation that provides services free of charge and in a manner that cannot calculate the market value. The government think only in black and white. The government think any legislation they put forward and hang their hat on to go back to their communities, to the Liberal Party branch members or to the Liberal Party preselectors and say, 'This week I got tough on unions,' is somehow good for them, for their own political, personal careers.
But let me be very clear: this is not good for the organisations that do outstanding work in areas like suicide prevention, like MATES in Construction. Not only is it hard to measure the work that MATES in Construction does to prevent suicide but also, since proving a suicide was prevented is incredibly hard, the value of saving a life and of saving that person's family and community from pain and hardship is equally incalculable. From talking to people involved with the industry and people who have benefitted from this training, I know exactly what it means. The suicide rate for construction workers is 71 per cent higher than the rate for other employed men in Australia. Every year 191 construction workers take their own lives—tragically, one every second day. A construction worker is six times more likely to die by suicide than by an accident at work. Around 5,500 construction workers will attempt suicide each year. Of those, around 970 will be permanently disabled after a suicide attempt.
For example, the fund MATES in Construction is a multimodal program, establishing a local care program on construction sites where mates look out for mates. The program has trained more than 120,000 workers, and we know that there is a network of around 10,000 volunteer connection points on sites across Australia. The organisation also provides case management services, being the missing middle link between a worker in crisis and the right level of care. More importantly, the service provides a 24/7 helpline. I'm proud that MATES in Construction was established in my home state of Queensland. It was established in March 2008 in response to a report, commissioned and funded in part by the Building Employees Redundancy Trust, establishing suicide to be a significant problem in the industry.
Research has shown MATES in Construction to have a return on investment, particularly to the Commonwealth government, of $4.60 per dollar invested. Suicide rates in the Queensland construction industry fell by 7.9 per cent over the first five years of the program against an increasing trend amongst Queensland men generally. The risk ratio has decreased continually in Queensland since the introduction of the program, from an almost 100 per cent elevated risk to 'only' a 22 per cent elevated risk. A conservative estimate is that up to 30 lives have been saved so far. Being industry led has allowed MATES in Construction to further develop the mental health agenda for the industry. We know that MATES in Construction has broad industry support and has worked hard at getting a broad funding base. The funding from worker entitlement funds is important to the stability and sustainability of MATES in Construction.
I want to be very clear about the impact of the bill that this government, under Minister Michaelia Cash, is asking this parliament to approve. Putting it very clearly: if the government expects that we, as representatives of this parliament, are going to vote for a bill that will dramatically decrease the funding for MATES in Construction and make it harder for them to operate, they have another think coming. If they think we are going to put up with their continual attacks on the rights of people to be members of unions, they have another think coming. The cynic in me says that the government are in deep, deep trouble. For 21 Newspolls in a row, they have been slipping further and further behind. The government are bereft of ideas and a narrative.
In my time in the parliament, I've noticed a couple of things. First of all, there is no area of union bashing this government won't go. There is no area where this government, when it comes to people on low incomes and fixed incomes, won't try and dismantle safety nets. From speaking to residents involved in the construction sector, and people in hospitality or retail or people working in the service industry, I know what they have seen over the last 12 month—since I've been elected. They've seen a couple of things. They've seen a government not really interested in helping people get ahead. They've seen a government not really focused on wanting people to get ahead. They haven't seen policy development which would allow middle- and low-income earners to come forward and say, 'This is great news for our family. We are better off.'
Time and time again we stand up in this parliament—as I stand up in this parliament just about every day and every week—to ask the government to rethink its strategy around dealing with people on low and fixed incomes. I listened to my friend the member for Moreton, who has been an outstanding advocate in this space for almost 10 years in this parliament, and I want to publicly acknowledge that tonight for the first time. He is a true champion of people who need a hand and who have slipped through the cracks. I know that from witnessing his work during my time as a Brisbane city councillor, and from admiring the work he does as a champion for the south side of Brisbane. In particular, when it comes to people who rely on services from government, he speaks the truth, just as he did when speaking about the mobile offices, the street corners and the consultations that he does week in, week out. What I've learnt from following that fine example is that people expect this government, or any government, no matter its political persuasion, to make sure that, first of all, it is listening to them; and, second, it is shaping and creating a nation where, if you need assistance, that assistance is there for you. That's exactly what MATES in Construction does.
This may be a great headline for Minister Cash to do one of her sound bites, or perhaps to go on to a shock-jock radio program and talk about how he she's tough on unions. I get that. That's the government's narrative. They've run out of ideas and they've run out of puff. When in doubt, attack people on social welfare or people who choose to be members of trade unions. It has consequences. It has impacts. When laws like this are passed, it impacts on people. This law in particular will negatively impact on wonderful organisations like MATES in Construction.
I'll finish on this point. I want someone from the government, now, tonight, before this bill is passed, to get up on their feet and say that what I'm saying is incorrect. I want someone to get up and provide evidence and data and show cause that what I'm saying here in this chamber tonight is somehow inaccurate. If they do, I'll come back into this place and acknowledge that someone has done the time and done the work. If they don't, I'll continue to highlight the fact that, when it comes to workers' rights, workers' protection and workers' entitlements, this government cannot be trusted. For as long as I am the member for Oxley, I will come to this place to serve and make sure that working men and women in my community are looked after.
As we've heard from my colleagues all afternoon, the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 was introduced in the House last Thursday. Last Thursday! It's not even a week old. It is a significant bill. It has five schedules. It has 80 pages. It amends five different pieces of legislation. They are: the Fair Work Act 2009, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986, the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 and the Tax Administration Act 1953. It has significant implications for employers and unions. When it comes to scrutiny, this government, with the help of the Nick Xenophon Team in the Senate, prevented any attempt to have a thorough Senate employment committee inquiry into this bill. Any attempts were knocked back, even though the ink is barely dry on this bill, even though it's less than a week since the bill's introduction into the House.
Instead, what did the government do? It imposed a reporting date of 10 November. That is in 16 days time—16 days for stakeholders to prepare submissions, for people to get their fingers tapping away on submissions, in response to a bill that has five schedules and a significant impact on five different pieces of legislation, a bill that is 80 pages long. People have 16 days to go through all of those five pieces of legislation and make submissions, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz. We have 16 days for stakeholders to present evidence on this bill. It is absolutely outrageous.
The Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee has an impossible time line for reporting on this bill, but that was the government's whole intention in introducing the bill last Thursday and having the debate on it now, with no opportunity for the committee to go into the detail of what is very complex legislation that will have a significant impact on five other pieces of legislation. The government set this ridiculous time line, this ridiculous deadline, because it didn't want any scrutiny of this bill at all. And who can blame the government, when the purpose of the bill is actually brought to light? The government's intention, its purpose with this bill, is to limit unions' legitimate activities and sources of income. We know what the government's attitude to unions is because we've seen it so often. We've seen it year after year: union bashing and no attempt to acknowledge the fundamental role that unions play in our community in protecting workers' rights and fighting for workers' rights. Everything we hear from this government is negative, negative, negative towards unions. It has a pathological hatred of unions—particularly the Abbott government but also the Turnbull government.
As someone who comes from what I have dubbed a working-class matriarchy—my great-grandmother worked her fingers to the bone as a cleaner all her life; my grandmother worked her fingers to the bone, in three jobs, as a cleaner; and my mother, after my dad left, worked her fingers to the bone as a cleaner, ultimately in her 70s—I understand the importance of unions. I understand how those who are disempowered—those who do not have a high level of education, those who have no choice in their life, those who have very little skill in their life—can be completely and utterly exploited. I know because I'm related to people like that. I'm related to women who had no education. I'm related to women who left school at 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15. I'm related to women who were completely disempowered. I'm related to women who were unskilled. I'm related to women who, all their lives, lived in fear of not being able to put food on the table or of having their children taken away by the state because they were poor. They lived in fear because basically they had no choice. They had to put up with their lot. They had to put up with whatever the boss was prepared to pay them. And that is the type of system that this government holds up, a system that was operating in this country in the mid-1900s.
We're still getting it now in the exploitation of those workers, particularly foreign workers, who work for chains and franchises. The Domino's, the Pizza Huts and the 7-Elevens have engaged in absolutely outrageous exploitation of people who are vulnerable, like my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother. Those people are quite often here in a precarious position in terms of visas, and so they are vulnerable to being exploited. It is basically a case of: 'Take $10, sleep outside where you work,' or 'Take $10 an hour or less and accept it, cash in hand, or else you'll get deported.' These people live in this horrible, fearful environment all the time that they're here. As I said, my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother lived in a fearful state because of that disempowerment, lack of education, lack of skill and lack of choice. This is why I am a very, very strong supporter of unions.
I'm a proud member of a union, and I have been ever since I began my working life. I was a proud president of the RMIT student union for a year, which is where, in many ways, I cut my teeth politically. When I was president of the union, I proudly set up the first Labor club at the oldest workers college in the world. As I said, I am a proud member of the union and have been ever since I started work. I am also a proud former workplace delegate. I'm proud to have negotiated the first enterprise bargaining agreement in the Commonwealth, when I was at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was a huge job because we were in the vanguard, there was no template, and so that was a real challenge. I was proudly involved as my union's workplace delegate in negotiating that deal.
I'm proud of what the union movement has achieved for this country. I'm proud of the fact that the union movement achieved an eight-hour day. One of my favourite statues in the country is the eight-hour-day orb, which is located behind the Emily McPherson training centre. It is just over the road from the Victorian Trades Hall, which looks like something straight out of Dickens, with its crazy Victorian bluestone, as only Victoria can do. Right across from it is the orb. I always love to visit it when I'm in Melbourne. The eight-hour-day orb represents eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours sleep. This was a huge achievement in terms of decent working conditions for workers.
We tend to forget about this: workers' rights did not fall from the sky. Each and every right that we enjoy today in our workplaces was hard fought for by thousands and thousands and thousands of working men and women over the last 150 or so years. These rights have not fallen from the sky. They have come from struggle, which is why, on this side of the chamber, we are the ones who are defending workers; we always have done and we always will. Defending workers' rights and defending workers' entitlements is part of our DNA. We were born of the union movement, which is why we will fight, and fight any attempt by this government or any other government—the Abbott government was particularly appalling—to denude the unions of their ability to protect the rights of workers: to protect their security, to protect their safety and to protect the conditions for which we have fought long and hard over more than 150 years. We will fight against that. Just think about it: workers' rights did not fall from the sky. They did not come about as a result of the benevolence of some employer. They did not come about as a result of an employer waking up one morning and thinking, 'Do you know what we need? We need to allow our workers to have annual leave for four weeks each year.' This right was hard fought for by the union movement.
What else was hard fought for by the union movement? Safe workplaces. Again, we take that for granted. We take OH&S for granted. But, again, it's been the union movement that has fought long and hard for every Australian worker to be able to go home at the end of their working day, for every Australian worker to be safe in their work environment, for every Australian worker to have an environment where they're protected, physically and emotionally—because it's not just about physical protection; it's also about emotional protection. It's the union movement that fought for that. It's the union movement that fought for paid parental leave, and Labor delivered that. But, again, it's not something that fell from the sky. It's not as though an employer woke up one day and thought, 'Oh, I'd better introduce a paid parental leave scheme.' It was fought for by the union movement. It was fought for by Labor. These rights haven't fallen from the sky.
Sick pay, again, was hard fought for by the union movement, hard fought for by Labor, as well as annual leave. And of course we've got decent pay and conditions—the fundamentals that allow Australians to live with dignity, that allow Australians to contribute in a meaningful way to their community so that they're not the working poor, who we see around the world. You hear of workers, particularly in the US, living in their cars because they can't afford a house. The union movement has delivered decent pay conditions—the union movement that those opposite deride and demonise, day in and day out, and they're doing it with this bill.
This bill was introduced last Thursday—less than a week ago—and you're expecting it to be finalised, all wrapped up with a big bow around it, in 16 days time. That is 16 days for people to make submissions and give evidence. It's appalling. We are talking here about five pieces of legislation that people have to go through, and they've got 16 days to not only read all that but also contemplate it, think about it, consult on it and then get their submission in. The government does not want any scrutiny of this bill. That is absolutely obvious from the time frame the government has given for the preparation of submissions and from the reporting date of 10 November.
This government continue to constantly demonise and deride unions. They constantly demonise and deride workers. Obviously they have no respect for workers, based on the fact they have cut the penalty rates of people right throughout Australia who rely on them. In my community alone, 13,289 Canberrans are getting a pay cut as a result of this government. That's a lot of people, and a lot of them are women because the cuts to penalty rates by this government disproportionately target women. Women currently account for 46.2 per cent of all employees in Australia, and of that number almost half are working part time. Many of them are working in the retail, hospitality and fast-food industries that will be directly affected.
Dr Jim Stanford, Director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, said that these are the workers who are already in relatively low-wage jobs, with insecure and irregular schedules. These are the people this government targets—those like my great-grandmother, those like my grandmother, those like my mother—low-income workers who are vulnerable, who are in need of assistance, who are in need of support. But, no, what does this government do? It just kicks them in the teeth. It kicked them in the teeth in 2014, it kicked them in the teeth in 2015, it kicked them in the teeth in 2016 and it's kicking them in the teeth in 2017. It has no respect, no regard, no concern for Australian workers. This bill is just further evidence of that, and it's absolutely appalling.
There is in this country, unfortunately, a history of corporate collapses, and when a firm goes into liquidation for insolvency then obviously there's a distribution to creditors of any remaining moneys. Secured creditors, usually the banks, get their money first. Employees have priority over other unsecured creditors, but often there is nothing left for the employees because all the money has been used to pay down, often not completely, the debts owed to secured creditors. Having priority over other unsecured creditors doesn't necessarily mean the employees get any of the money owed to them by their employer. Obviously we had what used to be called GEERS, now the Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme, which has waxed and waned over a long period of time. Probably the first government payment for employee entitlements that should have been paid by an employer was back under the Howard government, but it has been maintained in a bipartisan fashion since then. So there are some public moneys that can be devoted to paying out employee entitlements, but that is just socialising the losses. It just means that, instead of the employer paying the employees' entitlements, the public purse pays for those entitlements in the event that the employer is wound up in insolvency.
Over many years unions, organisations of employees, have looked at ways they could protect employees, their members, in the event of a corporate insolvency leading to redundancy of the workforce. Obviously, in parallel with the creation and establishment of redundancy severance entitlements—which is an entitlement that is of itself a creation of the union movement and union movement advocacy, bargaining and activism—there has been an increasing focus on trying to make sure that people can actually get the benefit of those redundancy and severance entitlements. An entitlement is not much use if you don't get it. They have looked at a range of things, and one of the options is to have the employer make special provision in its own accounts to ensure that it is keeping the money on hand that it would need in the event of redundancy—so, basically, a contingency fund. That is no use in the event of corporate insolvency because that money, like all of the other money that would be on hand for the employer, would be paid out to creditors, according to the Corporations Act provisions, which, as I said, means that the secured creditors—the banks—would get the money first and probably there would not be much left over, if anything, for employees.
Another alternative that unions have looked at is the establishment of worker entitlement funds, for example redundancy funds. In the course of negotiating a collective agreement, using whatever enterprise bargaining provisions exist at the time, one of the provisions that you include in the enterprise bargaining agreement is a provision that says that, each week or each quarter or over whatever period, the employer will make a payment in respect of the employee into a redundancy trust fund. These redundancy trust funds have by and large been set up in a relationship between the relevant industry unions and the relevant industry organisations of employers. So a group of employers might form what is effectively an employers union, and they are recognised in the same way under industrial law; at the same time you have groups of employees that form unions. Those unions and employer associations can then join together to establish a trust fund into which moneys can be paid. So if there is a corporate insolvency, if you're an employee who has been working your whole life for a firm and that firm goes broke, goes belly up, you get redundancy payments out of the trust fund that have been held in trust for you as a member of the fund, because those moneys don't get used to pay off the big banks. They're not part of the pool of funds that can be distributed to the creditors of the employer; these are moneys that have been held in trust for employees.
These are really important funds for two reasons. First, they avoid the socialisation of losses; they avoid having to dip into the pockets of the public to pay for worker entitlements that employers should have been able to pay. Second, much more importantly, people aren't left destitute when the employer they work for goes belly up. Of course, these aren't the only sorts of entitlement funds, but I'd say redundancy trusts are a very important form of entitlement fund.
Another form of entitlement fund is a fund that provides income protection insurance or income protection payments, not necessarily insurance, to workers. Again, often it forms part of enterprise bargaining, where a union, on behalf of its members, and an employer will put into the terms of an enterprise agreement a provision that the employer will make payments into the income protection fund. Then, if something calamitous happens to a union member—or other employees, for that matter, because employees who aren't members of unions can have the benefit of these things as well; you can't discriminate under our present laws—such as being diagnosed with lung cancer and not being able to work, there is a source of income protection through that entitlement fund.
We know all too well that sometimes when you have an illness or injury you're not covered by your ordinary insurer because you've got a pre-existing condition. It happened to my own father when his melanoma metastasised. His insurance didn't cover the year he had off work on chemo, because it was a melanoma he had had before he joined that particular super fund with that particular insurance. So there certainly are times when people don't get income protection through their ordinary insurer. These entitlement funds that can provide an additional source of income protection can be really important.
There is another example. We have redundancy funds, we have income protection funds and there might be portable long service leave funds. If you work in an industry where it is uncommon to work for a decade for the same employer but you might work in the same industry for a decade—perhaps it's the construction industry, where you have a range of contractors and they have a pool of subcontractors and you might move from subcontractor to subcontractor and the subcontractor might move from principal contractor to principal contractor—and, because of the nature of the industry, it is really hard to rack up a decade of working for the same firm. But these guys are working very hard, doing physical jobs, and they deserve their long service leave as much as anyone. So you might see a fund where people agree, again through enterprise bargaining, that there will be payments made into a long service leave fund that will benefit people who have stayed in the same industry but have moved from employer to employer.
These worker entitlement funds are a really sensible response to problems that face working people. It is absolutely true to say that they generate income streams—of course they do. Moneys are put in and they're invested wisely. It is also absolutely true to say that those income streams are usually reinvested back into the industry for the benefit of the industry—and I say 'industry', not just employees. As you can gather from what I have said about the way these funds are ordinarily set up, they usually have unions and employers on their boards and they use their money for the benefit of the industry. It might be training. One of the big issues we face as a society is the collapse of apprenticeships and traineeships. It might be that those funds can be used to promote the idea of getting into an apprenticeship or traineeship. It might be that those funds that are generated from these worker entitlement funds, the additional moneys, can be used for occupational health and safety work, for going in and providing additional support and training of delegates so that they understand occupational health and safety, and training of managers so that they understand. It might be that these funds go to support colleges or vocational education providers that might be set up in a particular industry.
So it is absolutely true to say that there are income streams generated from these funds, and isn't it a good thing? It means sustainable revenue sources for institutions and programs that provide a public benefit, but without having to tap the public purse. I think that's a very positive thing. When you hear some of the florid rhetoric we get from the government in relation to the matters that are the subject of the present legislation we are debating, you really do forget the importance of these funds. I think that's partly because they have this almost irrational hatred of the Australian union movement. It's quite hard to understand. I know that, in politics, sometimes you look at the people who back the other side and you think you don't really like them, but we're not just talking here about personalities or individuals. We're talking about an institution in our society. Just as corporations are institutions in our society and unions of employers are institutions in our society, so too unions of employees are institutions within our society.
The fact is that this particular institution, the labour movement, has been getting weaker. People aren't joining like they used to. What's the consequence of that? We have a regulatory structure that privileges bargaining ahead of centralised wage fixing, and I support that. But, for bargaining to work, people have to feel like they have the power to bargain. If bargaining is just a euphemism for the unilateral imposition by employers of, 'This is what it's going to be; take it or leave it,' then that doesn't work for anyone, ultimately. It certainly doesn't work for the employees themselves, because bargaining takes power, we all know that. And we're seeing the erosion of power that has been happening as a consequence of the erosion of union membership, directly translating into very poor wage outcomes for working people. So you see things like public sector employees going four years without a new deal and a new enterprise agreement, and therefore four years without a pay rise. You see things like private sector firms having low rates of unionisation and, therefore, long periods going by without pay rises and without deals. That then flows onto other sectors of the economy, because wages growth overall is quite flat. Then you get what we have now: record low wages growth and stagnant wages. That is a direct consequence of the erosion of unionisation in this country.
I understand some members opposite may not like unions and may see them as too close to the Labor Party. They may not like some of the individuals and some of the personalities in the Australian union movement, but that should not be conflated with seeking to undermine and delegitimise the institution of the union movement in this country. Because, when those wages stay flat, what happens to the economy? It has an impact on household consumption. In other words, it has an impact on GDP growth, and we are seeing that now. What else happens? Low wages growth means an impact on government revenue, and an impact on government revenue means an impact on government spending. Again, this directly affects GDP growth in this country. We need to be really careful when we talk about wages, because wages drive so many other things. I encourage those members opposite: by all means take issue with individual personalities in the union movement and take issue with policies, ideas and programs. But delegitimising and undermining the union movement itself is not just wrong; it's deeply irresponsible for our economy and for our nation.
It's interesting to be debating this particular bill in relation to worker entitlements funds when we've just recently had a change in the law in relation to the duty of directors to prevent insolvent trading. The Productivity Commission recommended that there be a safe-harbour defence for directors to allow them to take more risk and to trade out of trouble, and I support that. I support the proposal of the Productivity Commission for a defence. Of course, the government, not content with doing something that could have bipartisan support, went even further and created an entire exemption from insolvent trading laws, effectively rendering the civil prohibition on insolvent trading useless. The difficulty that I have with what's happening, the reason it's so incongruous, is that, at the same time this government gave a blank cheque to directors to behave in a more risky way that puts firms more at risk of winding up in insolvency, it is simultaneously attacking the worker entitlement funds aimed at protecting the interests of working people. It really is quite revealing of the priorities of the government and of where the government's interests in this matter lie. As I say, I supported the idea of the defence, but I do make the observation that weakening protections against insolvent trading and then attacking workers' entitlements is incongruent, at best.
( It's Wednesday so the government must be attacking unions again. I'm astonished at this approach by this government, at this time of at all times. Between 1997 and 2012 wage growth averaged around 3.6 per cent a year. Since 2012 wage growth has slowed right down to average just 1.9 per cent a year. This is the lowest wage price index data since the data has been collected. Corporate profits are at an all-time high and wage growth is at an all-time low. Wages are more than what a person takes home at the end of their work day; they're also what they spend in the business next door. While I've heard some businesses argue for cuts in the wages of their workers, I have never yet heard a business argue for cuts in the wages of their customers. Yet, when wages fall, that's exactly what happens. When the cost of living rises higher than wages, the spending capacity of people is lower and lower, and we see what we're seeing in our community right now, which is entirely predictable: the slow decline of retail. Retailers are keeping all their fingers crossed and hoping for a great Christmas because they so desperately need it, yet wage growth is at an all-time low.
Under those circumstances, when we need to start finding ways to drive wages up, it is not the time that you start bagging out and trying to destroy the union movement. The union movement is one of the mechanisms that argue for that levelling off between corporate profit and wage growth. The moment wage growth is low and corporate profit is high, usually unions are the ones in the middle starting to argue for a fairer share of the pie. Don't let anyone tell you that wages aren't growing because productivity hasn't grown—because it actually has. Real labour productivity has gone up by 20 per cent in the last 10 years. Yet real wages grew by just six per cent. Over the last four decades, real wages for the top 10 per cent of income earners have grown 72 per cent, but for average earners they have grown only six per cent—an extraordinary moving of wealth from working people and middle-income people up to the higher echelons of our society.
Unions have an extraordinary role to play in this. The IMF—hardly a bastion of progressive or radical thinking—has recently been saying that the impact of declining unionisation is felt across the entire income spectrum. They find not only that the trend reduces the welfare of the lower income worker but that in fact it makes the rich richer. The IMF state, 'The decline in unionisation appears to be a key contributor to the rise of top income shares.' They say that the decline of union power has increased income inequality. Because of the government's ideological—I will use the Prime Minister's way of pronouncing the word; usually he uses 'iddeological' for us and 'eyedeoligical' for them, but I'm going to fold it back on him—obsession and hatred for unions, they are attacking one of the very mechanisms that would help this country address rising inequality and the stagnation of wages. This is an extraordinarily poorly thought-through strategy by the government.
In Parramatta we really need the government to start addressing wage growth decline and cost of living and the way the two issues intersect. In Parramatta, rents have risen much faster than wages. The median house price in Parramatta is now $1.2 million. Median rents are now sitting at well over $400 a week. We've just had a toll put back on the M4, which is going to rip $80 a week from a commuter's pay packet if they drive to the city every day. If you drive your kids to the soccer on Saturday, it's going to take $13 out of your pocket. Honestly, it's extraordinary. In Parramatta 12,300 people, or one in six workers, in the retail, food and accommodation industries are affected by the cuts to penalty rates. Again, that is something that the Turnbull government are more than happy to see happen. They're more than happy to see up to $70 a week ripped out of people's pay packets through these cuts to penalty rates, and they're happy to see that roll across the rest of the workforce as enterprise agreements are renegotiated. They're happy to see wages not just not grow fast enough but actively be cut. In Parramatta we are seeing up to one in six workers losing up to $77 a week in penalty rates, an additional $80 a week for the tolls, rents well over $400 and new Medicare levies coming in for lower-income workers as well.
They are a government that seem intent on driving down wages and, in doing so, driving down the wages of businesses' customers, because that's how main street works—people earn a living and they spend it in a business. The workers in that business who earn a living spend it and the money circulates. Take the money out and business slows down. We can see it already happening.
As the member for Lindsay says, then jobs go. Of course they do. That's even fewer people to spend et cetera. This is a cycle that this government seems very happy to turbocharge with the policies it is bringing into this parliament.
This particular bill is an interesting case study. The government went to a double-dissolution election some time ago now because they had such urgency to deal with the union movement under their ideological obsession and hatred. This bill comes, according to the government, from recommendations from the Heydon royal commission, which was quite some time ago. So it sat somewhere on the backburner in spite of this urgency the government had when it went to a double dissolution. It was introduced into the parliament on Thursday last week, 19 October, and we're debating it today. It's not usual for bills to be presented in the parliament on the Thursday and debated the following week. Usually they hang around for a couple of weeks because it's important that stakeholders can actually give some feedback. Even if there isn't an official inquiry, it's important that members of parliament can actually know what they're voting on.
This bill has five schedules, runs to 80 pages and amends five pieces of legislation. It amends the Fair Work Act of 2009, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act of 1986, the Income Tax Assessment Act of 1997 and the Taxation Administration Act of 1953. If anyone who is listening to this has never seen what these sorts of amendments look like, they say things like, 'In section 3.6, remove this and replace this.' You can't just read them. They require an incredible amount of effort to work out exactly what is going on. On this side of the House we've had Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday—as most of us work the weekends—Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and here we are debating it today. Actually we started debating it yesterday. So suddenly there is a level of urgency about this that makes it more important than all of the other things sitting on the table for this government—more important than cost of living and more important than doing anything about stopping cuts to penalty rates. The private member's bill on that has been sitting on the table for a long time. We could debate that. There is the rising cost of housing, the extraordinary lack of affordability of housing and the fact that young people are being completely priced out of the market. Unemployment rates for young people have gone through the roof. There are the effects of climate change, for example, on our health and wellbeing and eventually on the economy. That doesn't seem to be a priority.
This seems to be a government that can let the important things slide because the most important thing to it is this ideological obsession with and hatred for the union movement. This is quite absurd. I would love to be able to go through the 10 recommendations from the Heydon royal commission and match them up with what this government says this bill does. I actually care about this. I don't come from the union movement, by the way. I don't. I was a union member for 15 years before I joined the Labor Party because I think you kind of need to be and because I came from an industry that had never been industrialised. We were the original gig economy in the arts. So we needed unions to take care of us when we worked in pubs because it was so easy for workers to be ripped off. The businesses that required artists to do well needed unions to do that as well. Record companies needed their artists to earn an appropriate living for the work they did when they weren't working for them. The whole sector needed this voice to speak for all of us as individuals who were out there doing our gigs. We needed unions. So I've been a member since I was about 15 when I first started working in the sector.
But I've never worked for a union. In fact, my professional work was on the other side. I managed a trade association. I managed an employer association. I have been an employer virtually all my life. So I come from the other side. But this is actually an important matter because, as the rest of the workforce moves towards the gig economy, you can see the loss of full-time work and the increasing use of subcontractors. You can already see it in industries like construction. They're starting to move into what I call the gig economy, where they do this job and that job; they don't get holiday pay and they don't get sick benefits, because they're subcontractors and they don't have any of that. What you start seeing in industries like that, right around the world, is various organisations finding ways to assemble those workers in some form of mutual cooperation.
In Belgium you see SMart, which is a commercial organisation that does the invoicing and collection of payments for artists—about 80,000 of them. It essentially pays artists a regular wage; it does all of the invoicing, collects all their money, averages it out and pays them a regular wage. You can see Broodfonds, which collect groups of 50 sole traders together to insure each other against illness. You get these kinds of ways that people assemble themselves to provide the protections that full-time workers get.
My staff get a lot of these things these enterprise funds provide. My staff get counselling and assistance with difficult clients. They get all sorts of things that these sorts of enterprise funds provide. They get them because they're employed full time in big companies. But, if you're in the gig economy or you're a subcontractor, that's not the case. We would expect, at this time in the history of the change to workplaces, that you would find unions that care about their workers trying to find ways to cushion workers with the kinds of mechanisms they had when they were fully employed. So you find these funds that cover sickness benefits, termination benefits and death benefits. You find these funds like MATES in Construction that assist people in their worst times. Members contribute to them and they are there when a person needs them, because they're injured, suffering from mental illness or whatever it is. You'd expect those things to happen.
I want to have a look at this because I want to see whether these enterprise funds, as they're called, are actually starting to do the kinds of things that we will need our communities to do as the workforce changes. These are forerunners of something that should grow, not be banned. It's actually a forerunner of something that fills an incredibly important role, a role that we've just got used to having because we had full-time work. But remember that full-time work wasn't dignified when it was first invented. When it was first invented at the beginning of the industrial age, it was hell. Six-year-olds did it; they worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. That was civilised. The entire full-time work was civilised by the union movement. As we move out of full-time work, past casualisation into the gig economy, we are going to need our union movement to civilise that too. That is what these funds actually do. They attempt to replace some of the things, the safety nets, that you take for granted if you're in full-time work. They replace them with these funds for casuals and subcontractors.
It's the beginning of something that should grow. I would like the opportunity in this place to actually have time to look at this bill and see its detail to see whether it genuinely is stopping something incredibly important from happening.
The question is that the amendment moved by the member for Gorton be agreed to. All of those in favour say aye, to the contrary no. I think the noes have it.
Honourable members: The ayes have it.
As it is necessary to resolve this question to enable further questions to be considered in relation to this bill, in accordance with standing order 195 the bill will be returned to the House for further consideration.