Tuesday, 2 February 2021
Today I rise to speak on a matter of great concern to working families across Bean and more broadly to millions of workers across Australia. Before entering this House, I worked as the director of Professionals Australia, advocating for and representing science and engineering workers for more than a decade. Prior to this, I managed industrial relations at the Australian Federal Police Association during the Work Choices era. My experience with both of these unions tells me that this government's approach to industrial relations change is wrong.
Labor's simple test for the government's approach to industrial relations reform is how they deliver secure jobs with decent pay for Australian workers. Instead, what we have is an approach that enables the cutting of wages and conditions. This really shouldn't be a surprise coming from the party of the HR Nicholls Society, the party of Work Choices. The government has had two months to change their approach. They've had two months to say that they're not going to go ahead with it. And what have they done? They've left their approach exactly as it is. It is a slap in the face to many workers, including those that have worked so hard throughout the coronavirus in essential industries.
The government's approach will allow for the cancellation of billions of dollars of back pay that without their legislation would have been owed to miscategorised casuals. Furthermore, the government's continued extension of simplified additional hours increases the threat of part-time work casualisation into the future. They are looking to normalise decreased job security, with these simplified additional hours enabling hours to be topped up without appropriate compensation. Most critically, they will see the removal of the better off overall test. It speaks volumes that the government see value in workers' new agreements not meeting the better off overall test and that, as we move out of the pandemic that so many have suffered through, they see benefit in allowing pay and conditions to go backwards.
Even before COVID-19 the growth in insecure work and wage stagnation were major issues for Australian workers and for our economy. The pandemic exposed the fact that too many people in this country work in low-paid, insecure employment—casuals, contractors, freelancers, labour hire workers and gig workers. These vulnerable workers, the ones who can least afford it, were the first hit and the hardest hit. Rather than taking this opportunity to learn the lessons from COVID-19 and deal with the twin problems of insecure work and flatlining wages, some of the measures contained in the proposed new laws do the opposite. If passed by parliament, they would give business a green light to cut wages and conditions by allowing agreements to cut penalty rates, shift allowances and other entitlements.
This approach is the answer from the Liberal-National government to the problem of insecure and low-paid work. This is the thank you to the workers who got us through the pandemic. Cleaners, supermarket workers, truck drivers, childcare workers, aged-care staff and many other essential workers on the front line put themselves at risk to keep the economy going and Australians safe, but under the proposed new laws they could end up taking a pay cut. When the government facilitated cuts to penalty rates for retail, fast-food, pharmacy and hospitality workers, they failed to deliver a single extra job, but now we're expected to believe that cutting more penalty rates, cutting overtime, cutting shift loading and cutting allowances will create jobs.
Australian workers know they cannot trust a Liberal-National government with their wages and conditions. We've seen it before. It's what they always do. It's what they are doing now. Cuts to pay and conditions are bad for workers and bad for the economy. For Australia to recover from the recession, we need people with money and the confidence to spend. In decades past, Australian Labor governments took global upheavals as a chance to reset and recalibrate the national direction. Prime Ministers Chifley, Hawke, Keating and Rudd chose to reform elements of the nation for the better. This stands in stark contrast to the opportunistic attempt to weaken the workplace, pay and conditions for working Australians, many of whom have been the real heroes of the pandemic.
If you want a real insight into the motivations of this government, consider how they treat their own workforce. Many in this House won't be surprised by the government's approach given the way they bargained with their own hardworking staff and the broader public service, including Federal Police employees. Way back at the end of 2019, our staff sat down with the Department of Finance to start the bargaining process for their new enterprise agreement. Despite a bargaining policy that limited any real bargaining, staff across all sides did their best to find improvements until bargaining was suspended due to the pandemic. This suspension was agreed to by all staff around the table. I would like to thank the staff of MPs and senators right across the country who worked hard to support their communities during the pandemic. Bargaining did resume eventually, with Finance encouraged back to the table, and they put their final offer forward. Despite staff from all sides seeking some modest improvements and the rejection of a pay freeze, these simple requests were rejected and the draft EA was put to a vote late in December 2020. Not only was this a cynical attempt to push a vote through just before Christmas, given how hard our staff had worked, but the offer itself was a disgrace.
Fundamentally, the EA froze wages for all staff for another six months, after pandemic delays, and tied salary increases to the private sector wage price index, an index that could lead to an actual wage cut. The vote on the EA was expected to be tight—after all, an agreement had not been voted down since 2003—but the result was anything but. Close to 60 per cent of the staff voted down the agreement. The result indicated that not only did Labor, Green and Independent staff reject the offer but so did many coalition staff. Also, they know what is in their employer's DNA. Frankly, the offer was an insult to the hard work our staff do across every office, and I call on the government to take note of this result and return to the table with a better offer.
As I mentioned at the start of this grievance debate, I also once represented our Federal Police through the Australian Federal Police Association, and, like our staff, they too are negotiating a new agreement. Their current agreement is in need of reform. At the moment, situations arise where operations are extended beyond five days and officers have to be rostered out. Some officers have found themselves on effectively a 36-hour continuous shift. Our officers are some of the lowest paid in the country. There lies within the agreement a perverse incentive to stay on the front line or in higher risk areas for longer. Attracting expertise to the AFP is becoming increasingly difficult. The AFPA know this and have offered an olive branch to try to address some of these issues. Federal Labor recognises that the varied roles and responsibilities of the AFP will require a flexible enterprise arrangement, one which ensures that the important work of the AFP is done safely. Unfortunately, instead of taking this offer of genuine engagement, the government has locked the Australian Federal Police into the same constrained bargaining policy with clauses that make it almost impossible to trade off the difficult measures I mentioned for productivity improvements and fair pay, and it locks staff into the same floating WPI index. It's disappointing that, after years of declining wages growth from this government's mismanagement of the economy, they are now asking AFP members to pay the price through lower wage increases.
I'm also concerned by the apparent lack of consultation that went into this new policy with key public sector unions, including the AFP Association. Members of the association have written to me outlining their concern about where they think the government is heading with their bargaining policy. I want to assure them that I get their frustration and will be advocating in their corner to get this poor bargaining policy off the table. It's essential that all AFP employees, especially those in high-volume and complex portfolios, are adequately recognised and compensated for the important work they do. It's also important that the AFP has competitive industrial conditions to not only attract the right talent but also remain a premier law enforcement agency.
Finally, as I said, in a previous life I also spent time working with scientists, engineers and medical professionals, including many of the dedicated staff of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. One of the main grievances these great professionals had was the lack of commitment of some in political life to evidence based decision-making. In a year when we have seen the differing consequences of either respecting and acting upon expertise or not, it is not just sad but also irresponsible that the Prime Minister continues to not rein in the member for Hughes.