House debates

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Workplace Relations

3:40 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received letters from the honourable member for Gorton and the honourable member for Kennedy proposing that definite matters of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion. As required by standing order 46, I've selected the matter which, in my opinion, is the most urgent and important; that is, that proposed by the honourable member for Gorton, namely:

The government only acting in its own interest and not for the interest of working Australians who are struggling with record low wages growth.

I therefore call on all honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

This is an important matter. It's an important matter that should be debated in this place because, as we know, the government are not focused on the needs of the Australian people and they're not focused on Australian workers, and for that reason we've seen the lowest wage growth in at least 25 years.

What we've had over the last five years is a government that have shown no regard for this major problem. We've seen growing job insecurity, we've seen low wages and we've seen workers seeking to bargain but failing to get a decent outcome. Therefore, I think it's incumbent on the government to answer as to why they don't see this as a priority.

We've heard, throughout question time today and indeed during the procedural debate we just had about suspending standing orders, a government that's entirely focused on their self-interest—a government that is actually acting improperly. There are clearly serious allegations about impropriety involving senior ministers and members of parliament that form the government. That's their focus—whether they can get freebies or free travel and whether they can involve themselves in receiving benefits, at least with the perception that people are benefiting in terms of getting government contracts. These are the things that seem to be involving the government benches.

Meanwhile, I'm happy to say that Labor is focused on issues that matter to the Australian people and, in particular, working Australians. Firstly, we know that we need to see a response to the penalty rates decision by the Fair Work Commission. As we've said now for more than two years, that decision will be felt keenly and harshly amongst retail and hospitality workers—they'll see a real loss in their income. In fact, they've been seeing cuts to their income since 1 July 2017—a cut then, a cut last year and, if we don't see a change of government and a change of the effect of that decision, a further cut for 700,000 hardworking Australians on 1 July this year, because the cuts continue with respect to that decision.

Labor has made clear that, if elected, we will restore penalty rates as they were on 30 June 2017. That's the first thing we should do in a material way—restore penalty rates and provide support for hardworking retail and hospitality workers. That's the first thing we want to do, and we'll seek to do that. In fact, we call upon the government to look to do that, but we don't expect them to be too concerned about it.

We certainly also want to look at removing other forms of exploitation in the labour market. We've seen sham contracting grow as a form of exploitation and abuse in the labour market, where we have workers who are deemed not to be employees being paid sometimes one-third the minimum wage. We have people in the so-called 'gig economy'—really, it's conventional work sold on apps—who are actually being provided with $7 or $8 an hour. As I say, that's almost a third of the minimum wage, and it's going on and it's becoming a prevalent problem in sectors of our economy—something we will deal with by cracking down on sham contracting and ensuring that legitimate independent contracting is permissible but not this ability to avoid industrial obligations by paying people below the minimum wage. We'll attend to that.

We also want to stop the rorts that go on with respect to bargaining. People need to understand that it was indeed Labor that supported collective bargaining. But what's happened in the last 25 or so years is we've seen a decline in bargaining in workplaces. We have employers refusing to bargain effectively and in good faith with their workforce and their unions. What has happened over the last decade is a decline in enterprise bargaining and a greater reliance—in fact a 50 per cent increase in reliance—upon minimum awards. This is one of the reasons why we're seeing the lowest wage growth in a generation: because there are fewer decent outcomes for working people as a result of bargaining. Labor, if elected, will ensure that we have a fairer bargaining system, a system that will disallow employers from trying to unilaterally terminate enterprise agreements, which they've been doing increasingly in sectors of our economy. We will prohibit that behaviour. We will compel them to work with their workers and, indeed, unions, to bargain in good faith. And we will ensure that there'll be other changes to the current laws that will provide opportunities for these decent outcomes.

When you have wages that are flatlining but profits that are rising, when you see productivity in sectors of our economy improving but workers getting none of the fair share of that productivity, you know something is broken. But there is not one policy that this government's enacted that actually goes to whether workers deserve a fair share of that dividend. There's not one announcement by any minister—including, of course, the Prime Minister—to deal with stagnant wage growth, to deal with the fact that they're getting a lower proportion of GDP. The labour share of the GDP is falling. For that reason, we need to attend to that. As I say, through those reforms we'll look to do that.

In the MPI today, I indicated one of the reasons why they failed to do that is that the government are focused on their own interests. In particular, I refer to Senator Cash and other ministers who have failed to act responsibly in dealing with serious matters that are now before the courts.

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Schools) Share this | | Hansard source

You're sounding generous.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I may be sounding generous, but I'll go to the more substantive matters that have occurred this week. What we saw this week in estimates is quite remarkable. On Monday this week, we saw the Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police make very clear that, whilst they sought witness statements from the minister at the table, Minister Keenan, and Minister Cash, neither the Minister for Human Services nor Minister Cash—

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation) Share this | | Hansard source

He's lying! He's lying!

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister will withdraw.

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation) Share this | | Hansard source

Regardless of the facts, I withdraw.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to get onto his behaviour in terms of his failure to respond. This minister was the Minister for Justice when he refused to cooperate with the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police sought a witness statement from the then Minister for Justice and he failed to provide that witness statement. It wasn't only the Minister for Human Services, the then Minister for Justice, but also Minister Cash, who has been involved up to her neck in the unlawful behaviour involving her office, which leaked information about a police raid to the media. The fact is Minister Keenan and Minister Cash were both asked by the Australian Federal Police to provide witness statements. In evidence, on Monday, the Australian Federal Police confirmed that they did not receive witness statements from those ministers. Confirming that evidence was the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, who confirmed that one of the reasons they did not charge anybody in relation to the criminal breach—the unlawful behaviour of Minister Cash's office—was the lack of evidence, a deficiency in evidence. They said, in part, that deficiency went to the failure of people to provide witness statements when they were asked, and they included in that the two ministers—Minister Keenan and Minister Cash.

We have a situation where two cabinet ministers have refused to answer questions of the Australian Federal Police, which resulted in the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions not charging anyone for a criminal offence. It contributed in a failure to charge people. In fact, the minister knows—

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation) Share this | | Hansard source

You're just making stuff up.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

He's sitting at the table now. He wants to keep interjecting. I'll go back to his office.

What came out in the court matter last week was that the former adviser of Minister Cash confirmed under oath that the former adviser of Minister Keenan actually broke the law with the adviser of Minister Cash. You have two advisers—one from Minister Cash's office and one formerly from the Minister for Human Services—both of whom provided information to the media about police raids. That is a criminal offence. That is breaching the criminal statutes, and yet both ministers have failed to cooperate with the Australian Federal Police. This is a cover-up and a conspiracy by the ministers.

But the worst thing of all is this: the Prime Minister has failed to compel these ministers to cooperate fully with the Australian Federal Police. He should be ashamed. It's a cover-up. It's a conspiracy. We'll get to the bottom of this, but, quite frankly, it is a disgraceful act by the minister at the table and Minister Cash.

3:51 pm

Photo of Steve IronsSteve Irons (Swan, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

For the member for Gorton, just before he leaves the chamber—he opened the door—his supposed MPI was on the interests of working Australians who are struggling with record-low wages but definitely strayed well from that to get to this side of the chamber. But, to qualify a document I've got here, which was on 20 April 2018, which goes directly to the member for Gorton's accusations towards the minister sitting at the table here—wild accusations. I'm reading from the document and I'm happy to table the document if the opposition allows me to.

Mr Rob Mitchell interjecting

If the member for McEwen would like to hear it, I'll read it out to him if he'd stop interjecting. I think he was warned during question time too. Anyway, the actual correspondence says: 'Afternoon, Minister.'—addressed to Michael Keenan MP. 'I acknowledge receipt of your statement.' This is on 20 April 2018. 'AFP investigators'—and I hope everyone can hear this. This is from the detective superintendent of the AFP, coordinator, head office investigations, crime operations. I'll start again. On 20 April 2018, addressed to Michael Keenan MP, subject: AFP investigation, unauthorised disclosure of information to media. 'Afternoon, Minister. I acknowledge receipt of your statement. AFP investigators will review the statement and, if we require further clarification, we may reach out to you. Regards.' I seek leave to table this. Is leave granted?

Leave not granted.

What we saw is the subject of the government only acting in its own interest and not for the interest of working Australians, who are struggling with record low wages. The member for Gorton actually said during his statement, while he was focusing on his actual MPI, that that side of the House were focusing on working Australians. Well, this side of the House is focusing on all Australians. We're focusing on unemployed Australians and trying to get them into jobs, and you've seen that from our record jobs over the last five years. We've got over 1.2 million people back into work. I'm happy to not only defend our government's strong record on delivering for hardworking Australians but to remind those opposite just how difficult their attempt at running the country made it for everyday Australians.

On this side of the House we are making decisions every day to ensure every Australian has the opportunity to get ahead in life. As the Prime Minister has said, if you have a go, you will get a go. That's why, as a government, we're committed to keeping our economy strong through lower taxes, supporting small and medium-sized family businesses—and I see the member for Wright. He's here in the chamber and he ran a business. I ran a business. I know the member for Stirling ran a business at one stage as well. Small and medium enterprises are the major employers of people in Australia. They are the ones who actually pay the wages; it is not the people who negotiate them. I'd like to relate a story about a transport company which would have been of a similar size to the member for Wright's. I was working for a national company back in the eighties. During that period of time, the union came to the transport company and said, 'We want to get a $20 a week wage rise for the 150 employees.' The actual company said to the union at the time—the Transport Workers' Union—'We can't afford that. If we do that, we'll go broke.' The union insisted. There were stop-work meetings. They went all the way, and it ended up with the company going broke and 150 transport workers losing their jobs because the unions went hard at them. So, for all the efforts you talk about—getting wage rises and those types of things—you've got to understand that it's the actual businesses who pay them, not you guys who always go ahead and put it on the businesses and small and medium enterprises, who drive the economy in Australia.

We are committed to our stronger economy. Because we are, we can guarantee the essential services Australians rely on. That's really what a stronger economy is for. It continues to deliver Medicare, hospitals, schools, affordable medicines, aged care and support for our veterans. We're so focused on achieving a stronger economy because that's what realises those services.

Today's wages growth results continue to show the importance of this government's economic plan. The wage price index increased by 2.3 per cent over the year to the December quarter 2018. This remains the equal-best result in four years. This wages growth results from a 2.3 per cent increase over the year to the September quarter 2018 and 2.1 per cent in the June quarter 2018. The ACT's recent claim that real wages growth is near record lows is incorrect. The CPI inflation over the year to the December quarter 2018 was 1.8 per cent. This means today's result is a real wage increase of 0.5 per cent, the highest real wage growth since September 2016. Importantly, private sector wage growth picked up 2.3 per cent through the year to the December quarter 2018, from 2.1 per cent in the year to the September quarter 2018. Again, this is the best result in four years, since the December quarter 2014.

The latest data also shows that the total hourly pay rates, including bonuses, are increasing at 2.8 per cent a year, up from 2.7 per cent in the September quarter of 2018, 2.1 per cent in the December quarter 2017 and 1.9 per cent in the December quarter 2016. This further supports the RBA governor's statement just this month, in which he said:

The other important element of the labour market is how fast wages are increasing. For some time, we have been expecting wages growth to pick up, but to do so gradually. The latest data are consistent with this, with a turning point now evident in the wage price index.

We are setting the right conditions for strong economic and jobs growth, with employment growth of 348,000 in the 2017-18 year, the largest increase in a financial year since 2004-05. This is now also translating to better wages growth. As I said before, RBA governor Philip Lowe noted just this month that the gradual pick-up of wages growth is expected to continue, consistent with information from the bank's liaison program and the expectation of a decline in labour market spare capacity. In a point of rebuke of Bill Shorten and Labor's plans to overturn the independent umpire and allow industry-wide strike policies, RBA governor Lowe also recently noted, 'I don't think further intervention is necessary.'

Since the coalition came into government in September 2013, we've created 1,239,200 jobs in the environment we've created. Over the last year, full-time employment has increased strongly, by 162,000, or 1.9 per cent. This is about jobs for people in Australia. We're focusing on those who are unemployed and getting them into jobs. This stands at a record high of 8,678,800 in December 2018.

Ms Madeleine King interjecting

I hear the member for Brand cheering us on for the record of all the jobs we've created since 2013. Unlike those opposite, we know the laws of supply and demand still hold true. Lower unemployment is a key driver of higher wages. For workers, that is why our employment record is so critical. According to the RBA's latest statement of monetary policy, wages growth has increased a little in recent quarters, consistent with a gradually tightening labour market. A recent AI Group economics research paper highlighted that the three key reasons for Australia's recent slow wages growth are weak productivity growth, spare labour capacity and weak inflation. We need to work on the factors we can influence, and that all comes down to creating the economic circumstances for improved productivity growth. This is the focus of this government's attention. Total employment is projected to increase by 886,100, or 7.1 per cent, over the five years to May 2023.

The government also supports workers to keep more of what they earn. Our personal income tax relief, which Labor voted against, allows workers to keep more of their own money and boost their disposable income. Of course, we welcome stronger wage growth. It's important to note that, whether it be over the past one, five or 10 years, wages have outpaced the cost of living, which is different from what those on the other side are saying. It's also important to understand that, when we talk about our wages, we're talking about putting more money in people's pockets. Under the coalition's plan for lower taxes, they will keep more of what they earn, leading to more choices and to more opportunity. Labor, they talk about wage growth but why do they want to hit Australians with a $200 billion in higher taxes? There's a bit of hypocrisy there—hit them with higher taxes and take away the wages growth that you want to give them.

To finish off, I'd just like to say: the best of luck to the member for Jagajaga. She and I have had a long association with redress and the Forgotten Australians over many years. Good luck with your future out of this place. I'm sure you will enjoy it.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The discussion is now concluded.

4:00 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business (House)) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the business of the day be called on.

Question agreed to.