House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Workplace Relations

3:25 pm

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

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Watson proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The Government's industrial relations changes that will cut wages.

I call upon those 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 Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

We set a really simple test when the government said they were going to change industrial relations laws: it had to deliver secure jobs with decent pay. What they've come back with are changes that make work less secure and deliver a pay cut. They are trying to get away with this under cover of the pandemic. Under cover of the pandemic, when people are terrified for their health and terrified for their jobs, the government are not even willing to make the case for what they're doing; they're just pretending that what is in black and white in their own legislation, introduced here and now onto the floor of this parliament, doesn't exist. That is their response—their own laws don't exist. The Attorney-General was today presented with a letter of his about starting this work. Apparently that doesn't exist either.

I will tell you what does exist. What does exist is Australian workers having gone through eight years of flatlining wages. We support JobKeeper; we called for the government to introduce JobKeeper, when they didn't want to. But that does mean that during this time a whole lot of people have gone from what they would ordinarily earn down to the JobKeeper rate, even if they've held a job. Workers have had eight years of flatlining wages and 12 months of going back to just above the minimum wage. After 12 months of putting off bills, of negotiating with the bank to delay mortgage payments, as the economy starts to improve, they get told, 'Now is the time you get a pay cut.'

It's not a new idea; this has happened before. They told us that what John Howard did to wages was dead, buried and cremated. Those three things were always in an odd order, but dead, buried and created is what we were told was the view of those opposite. What John Howard did was get rid of the no-disadvantage test and what they're wanting to do is get rid of the better off overall test. The impact is the same. If you've got a test that's designed to make sure people don't go backwards in their wages and you get rid of it, what do you reckon is going to happen? If you've got a safety net and you get rid of it, what do you think will happen to people?

This government is deliberately designing something they have always wanted to do and have believed in for more than a decade, which is design a pathway for wages to be cut. We heard grand speeches about the heroes of the pandemic—the shop assistants, the cleaners, the health workers, the caring economy, the people in warehouses keeping goods moving, the transport workers and delivery drivers. All of those people who we were meant to be joining together on and treating as heroes of the pandemic now discover that it's this side that wants to make sure they get paid and that side that wants to deliver them a pay cut. That's the thankyou after the 12 months those workers have been through. When the government want to cut JobKeeper and JobSeeker, the reason they give us is that the economy's doing so well. Then we get told, in the next breath, 'But the economy's doing so badly, we need to cut wages.' You can't have it both ways. Let me give you some figures.

The better off overall test protects take-home pay. The government wants to make it so that the only thing that is protected is the ordinary hourly rate. So every penalty rate, every overtime rate and every shift allowance can go and the agreement can still get approved by the Fair Work Commission. What does that mean? Let's ignore the overtime part of it. Let's not count any overtime. Let's just take a few people on part-time hours where they work weekend or night shifts. What would that mean for a part-time aged-care worker? A pay cut of $12,000. What would that mean for a part-time parking attendant? A $12,000 a year pay cut. What would that mean for a disability home-care worker? A $14,000 pay cut. Even a hairdresser would have a $3,000 pay cut.

People are protected from these pay cuts right now because of the better off overall test, and that's what the government want to get rid of. They'll say that they're only getting rid of it for a couple of years. There are still to this day Work Choices agreements. To this day, more than a decade later, Work Choices agreements are still around. The decisions that are made in this parliament about the pay cut the government want to proceed with will determine people's pay for more than a decade into the future.

The government first denied it's in the legislation and then they denied it was in a letter, but now they'll say: 'But the Fair Work Commission will fix it. The Fair Work Commission would never let anything through.' I have faith in the Fair Work Commission as an institution, but I have no faith at all in the way the government make appointments to it. It used to be the case that you had an even-handed approach to appointments to the Fair Work Commission. There were those who had a background representing employees and those who had a background representing employers. In terms of appointments to the Fair Work Commission, there are now 12 with a history of employee representation and 28 with a history of employer representation and, of the presidential members and commissioners, six have a history of representing employees and 14 have a history of representing employers.

One of those is Commissioner Boyce. With the sorts of people they are now putting in to run the commission and decide if you're going to be okay it's a game of Russian roulette for workers. I do not lie. This guy was turning up to work in his office with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump. This guy, who is meant to be an impartial observer, was using his social media posts to promote the government. Let's take two of his decisions that were overturned—the BHP one and the Hungry Jacks decision. Why were they overturned? Guess what he didn't consider? Penalty rates, overtime or allowances on the BHP decision. It was the same with the Hungry Jacks decision. Even now he is trying to find ways to not apply the better off overall test when it's in the legislation. Do you really think that we're not going to have a situation where if you get the wrong commissioner these pay cuts will go straight through?

Think of how it works. It starts with one labour hire company with very few employees. The company might have a relationship with the employees and it gets the agreement through. That company can then undercut all of its competitors and will grow and expand across the market. Then its competitors say, 'We're losing business,' and go to their workforce and say, 'Unless you agree to this you're all going to lose your jobs.' The race to the bottom happens quickly, but the starting gun gets fired here by this government.

Secure work determines what it's like for the worker, for the business and for the economy. You might not have a secure job and pay that's reliable, but your bills will be reliable and your mortgage or rent payments will be reliable. If you're a business, you don't have security of income as a business unless your customers have security of income to pay you. There has never been a time in our recent history—certainly in our postwar history—where Australia is more dependent on domestic demand. You have some people facing a pay cut and everybody else knowing that they're at risk of one. What do you think that's going to do to domestic demand?

I say to those opposite: if you believe this, defend it. The only thing they say about the pay cut that they are legislating for is, 'Oh, no, it's not there.' The only thing the Prime Minister says when confronted with real examples is, 'Oh, no, that's not true.' When the Attorney-General was challenged with the pay cuts that would apply if this legislation went through he said, 'They didn't happen last Christmas.' Well, the legislation wasn't through. He's meant to know something about the law. He's in charge of it for the nation. All of this comes down to one point: this government is punishing the people who did the right thing by us for the last 12 months. It's unfair to them, it's unfair to business and it's unfair to the Australian economy.

3:35 pm

Photo of Ben MortonBen Morton (Tangney, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) Share this | | Hansard source

The government's proposed workplace relations changes are a set of modest and sensible reforms aimed at putting more Australians into jobs. Since December last year, Labor and the ACTU have been in lockstep in their efforts to misrepresent the government's workplace relations reforms. This week, with parliament's resumption, we're seeing Labor, the unions and their left-wing fellow travellers overreach on a baseless scare campaign; a campaign that, if successful, will frustrate the COVID economic recovery.

So let's make no mistake, here today we have the Labor Party putting perceived political advantage ahead of reforms that will help this country recover economically from the COVID pandemic. As we've shown throughout the pandemic, the government are constructive and pragmatic when it comes to industrial relations policy. We focused on measures to regrow jobs, boost wages, enhance productivity, doing so in the same cooperative spirit the country so successfully embraced in our approach to the pandemic. We have done this through extensive consultation with unions and with industry, aiming to bring people together rather than to divide them.

What the country doesn't need is more attempts by the Labor Party to turn workplaces into battlegrounds for their own political advantage. We'd hoped that 2021 would see the Labor Party adopt a more mature approach to industrial relations. The government's IR reform package addresses known problems with our industrial relations system and Labor's Fair Work Act. These reforms will not only support wage growth and help regrow the jobs lost in the pandemic, they will tackle broader issues like underemployment, job security, underpayment of wages and the failure of Labor's enterprise bargaining system to drive wages on productivity growth. Even Paul Keating has reflected on the need for changes to the industrial relations system.

In opposing the government's entire IR reform bill, Labor is against tougher civil and new criminal penalties to stamp out wage theft. Does Labor want underpaying employers to continue without criminal penalties? Is Labor against a quicker way to recover underpayments where they occur? On ABC radio in December last year, the member for Watson said vulnerable workers getting their money back quickly has to be the highest priority. Now, in opposing the entire bill, Labor doesn't want to make it easier to recover unpaid wages—so much for that being the highest priority. Is Labor against a quicker enterprise agreement approval process through the Fair Work Commission to help deliver pay rises more quickly? Back in May, the member for Watson said, 'Bargaining is much harder at the moment and taking much longer than it should. Policies that get bargaining moving again are going to be really important. You know, I don't think anyone says every rule that's there at the moment should remain unchanged.' Well, now it's Labor saying 'block everything and change nothing'. Would Labor prefer we continue to see 100-day-plus delays before agreements and pay rises take effect? Is Labor against the opportunity for more hours of work for the almost 30 per cent of part-time employees in the retail sector and the about 40 per cent of the part-time employees in the accommodation and food services sector who want more hours but aren't getting them? Stronger conversion rights for casual employees who want to become full-time or part-time employees are part of these reforms that Labor is going to block in their entirety. By blocking this legislation, Labor is saying that it wants casual workers to remain casual, even if they'd prefer permanent roles. Is Labor against more job opportunities by providing certainty for mega job-creating projects on greenfield sites?

The Morrison government's supporting Australia's jobs and economic recovery package will give businesses the confidence to get back to growing and creating jobs and will provide the tools to help employers and employees work together in a post-COVID Australia. These vital reforms to the industrial relations system build on the various economic supports provided by the government during the pandemic. We're driven by one simple goal: breaking down barriers to jobs growth so that we can get more Australians back into the workforce. These reforms were developed after extensive consultation with employer and employee groups who sat down with the government for more than 120 hours to find innovative solutions to support struggling businesses as well as protect and enhance the rights of workers. The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 is the end of this process. Much of our industrial relations system has been built on pitting one group against the other. This pandemic has taught us that we can achieve far more by working together. When we make the move from conflict to cooperation, we are able to solve the complex problems that we must solve to see more jobs, better-paying jobs and higher wages. That's exactly what the Morrison government's industrial relations reforms will aim to achieve.

All parties in the parliament must put the interests of Australian workers first, ahead of their traditional, ideological positions. But we're seeing false claims by those opposite. Labor are prepared to say anything in order to get some traction in a policy area where they believe they have some equity. In question time yesterday, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition claimed that retailers had cited the government's workplace changes when making a proposal he claimed would lead to workers earning more than $57,000 losing penalty rates and overtime. The National Retail Association yesterday slammed these claims, stating in a media release:

NRA CEO … said it was very disappointing to see numerous federal Labor frontbenchers, including Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, blatantly misrepresent retailers in a bid to land a political blow against the government.

The media release further states:

"Our exemption rate proposal is entirely opt-in and allows employers and workers to mutually agree on a wage 25 per cent higher than the weekly minimum wage. In exchange for the higher wage—


would see exemptions to complex rostering rules with accompanying safeguards. Rather than a paycut, this arrangement would see most managers receive a pay rise of $13,000 per annum.

Further, the National Retail Association confirms:

"Should the FWC grant the proposal, it will be because it views it in accordance with the industrial standards set down by the Rudd-Gillard Government of which Mr Albanese was a senior Cabinet Minister."

But will those opposite withdraw their false and misleading allegations? I wouldn't hold your breath.

Today's MPI also coincides with the release of a briefing paper by the Greens front, that production line of bogus research, the Australia Institute. It's no surprise. This briefing paper argues that the government's changes will accelerate the making of non-union enterprise agreements, further suppressing wage growth. The author of this briefing paper is senior economist at the Australia Institute's Centre for Future Work, Alison Pennington. Before joining the left-wing Australia Institute, Ms Pennington worked as a national organiser for the Community and Public Sector Union. Ms Pennington's briefing paper is not some rarefied academic analysis. She's out there on Twitter trying to create a storm, trying to scare workers. No doubt we can look forward to some typically non-objective advertising from the Australia Institute to follow as well, to push these false claims, further eroding their credibility, if that's possible.

It's not just the Australia Institute; the union movement have laid the groundwork for this overreach that we're now seeing from those opposite. The Stop the Bus Campaign from the Electrical Trades Union and the CFMEU shows Prime Minister Scott Morrison driving a speeding bus towards a group of workers. The Australian Chamber of Commerce has blasted the ad. It's reprehensible and irresponsible. The unions' latest attack ad on the government's IR bill is not only contrary to community standards but also entirely misleading. Political debate is one thing, but the unions putting out ads of buses running over workers is reprehensible. Having such imagery shown on television in an era when we know vehicles are used by terrorists to run down and mass murder innocent civilians is truly shameful. But, doubling down in a joint statement, the unions have failed to recognise this and they will not pull these ads. So, while Labor rails against modest, sensible reforms which will help build jobs, we will continue to help the economy grow jobs so that more Australians can benefit from that.

3:45 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

I have spent a career standing up for workers' rights, from the time I was a job rep as a young nurse at the local public hospital. I led the nurses union and I had the great privilege of being the president of that great institution, the ACTU. I can tell you that right through all of those years—I'm getting on now!—I have, time after time, seen Liberal governments do nothing but attack the take-home pay, the wages, of hardworking Australians.

So this bill is absolutely no surprise. I could say it's deja vu, but it's not, because it's been a constant attack for eight years. Who would have thunk it—a Liberal government cutting the wages and conditions of workers? It couldn't be, could it? We all know and Australians know that cutting workers' pay and conditions is in the Liberal government's DNA, whether it was Work Choices—remember that?—or whether it was cutting low-paid people's penalty rates; whether it was the weasel-word titled 'ensuring integrity bill', which tried to cut the right to organise to maintain pay and conditions; whether it was leaving workers in key industries out of JobKeeper; or whether it was cutting superannuation. And that's just a shortlist. I could go on forever, but I've only got a few minutes.

We know that this new bill drafted by those opposite has again failed one very simple test: will it deliver secure jobs and decent pay? It won't. It has failed. It will allow wages to be cut and it will not effectively fix the scourge of insecure work. Asking for a decent job is not a big ask. A job is not a job if it doesn't give you the dignity of a decent wage and the security of a pay cheque coming in week after week that you can rely on. It means you can pay the mortgage or you can pay the rent. You might even have the joy of a holiday with the kids at the end of the year. It means you can actually go to the bank and get a car loan, because you have proof of ongoing employment and income. It means you can plan for life's unexpected events and it certainly means you don't have to work three jobs all at once just to get by.

The Attorney-General stands in this House and denies this bill will indeed do the things that we say it's going to do. This is extraordinary. We know the employers know what this will do. They know what they'll be able to do. They're getting ready—don't you worry about that. We had the shadow minister outline very, very well exactly what this bill will do, so I don't need to go through it. But, if the Attorney-General is denying it will do any of this, why have clauses in this legislation that mean they can cut the better-off-overall test? Why would you not want a better-off-overall test if you don't want people not to be better off? It makes absolute sense: get rid of that bit if you don't want that to happen. Why allow an employer to negotiate with their workers that they can lose penalty rates, lose shift allowances and lose entitlements? Why have something in there if you don't want them to lose that? It's because they do actually want workers' pay to go backwards. The Attorney-General knows that and the Prime Minister knows that. They talk about flexibility. Well, I know that workers say that flexibility is the other F-word, because whenever they hear that they know it's going to be easier to sack them, it's going to stop them organising for better wages and conditions, and it means their wages will be cut.

We know wages have been flatlining since before COVID. We know that it was a deliberate strategy of this government to keep wages low; it was admitted by their very own. Yet, this is at a time when everybody, from the Reserve Bank to any economist you would like to name, has been saying the country needs a pay rise. The government can't bring themselves to do that. The thought of raising wages for working people is absolutely beyond them. They want to keep it low. This is despite the fact that, as the shadow IR minister says, increasing people's wages and putting more money in their pockets is the best thing that could happen to our economy.

This bill will hurt so many people, including the essential workers who kept us going during the pandemic, who kept us alive, who kept the economy moving. We had a perfect example from my friend and colleague the member for Dobell about a disability worker who could lose up to $14,000 a year. What type of government would introduce legislation that could see that happen to some of the lowest paid and yet most important workers in our economy? I'll tell you what sort of government, Deputy Speaker. It's this government, a Liberal government, where cutting wages is in their pay. It's a prime minister and a Liberal government who simply do not care. They don't care about workers. They never have.

3:50 pm

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I thank the member for Watson, the member for Cowper and the member for Tangney for their contributions to this matter of public importance. It always concerns me deeply that the Labor Party can never seem to get its head out of the donors' trough that they have put it into. They can never seem to put what matters to ordinary workers above that of their mates and their donors in the union movement and in industry super. They have no concern for ordinary Australians. Their only concern has always been for ensuring that unions are first and foremost in our industrial relations system and that the IR club, which has hurt workers for more than a century, is maintained and enhanced.

During the lockdown, because I found it difficult to get to sleep some nights, I took up the task of reading 'Forward with Fairness'. I know those opposite don't like to remember the Gillard-Rudd years, but it was written by Julia Gillard. It envisioned a nation of enterprise agreements, individual contracts and small businesses not under the yolk and the threat of unfair dismissal laws. It imagined an industrial relations system of peace and harmony. So what went wrong? What did we get instead? Under the Fair Work Act we got lower productivity, we got lower wage growth, we got wage theft, we got higher unemployment, we got lower participation and we got workplace violence and bullying. We've seen 28 enterprise agreements certified by the Fair Work Commission since the Fair Work Act, in 10 years, and we've seen no individual contract, at all, certified by the Fair Work Commission.

In other words, this government agrees with everything that the opposition is saying. The difference is: we want to fix it; they want to make sure their mates are looked after. Time's up on this shake-down in the industrial relations system. Maybe the reason that Julia Gillard wasn't able to realise her vision of peaceful Australian industrial relations is that, when the time came to draft the legislation, she gave in to her biggest donors. She made sure that unions had right of entry, which no-one had imagined they could possibly have. Unions have the capacity to walk into workplaces all over this country, even when there isn't a single member of the workforce who's a member of that union! But it's alright. She put in place some safeguards. She said that you first had to be able to get signed off as a fit and proper person to be a union organiser. During the union royal commission, what did we find out? We found out that one organiser at a union had done over 100 of those exams on behalf of union organisers. So appalled were the Labor Party by this misuse and unlawful behaviour, they made that person a senator. Of course, having said that, they also made Kristina Keneally a senator—so, you know! They were ensuring unions have access to agreements where they don't have a single member represented in that workplace.

So what the member for Watson just said was absolutely untrue. He imagined this labour hire company being able to do some sort of inside deal. What he failed to tell the House is that that would have to be certified by the Fair Work Commission. That labour hire company would have to notify every single union that may or may not be able to have coverage of that hire company. So apparently under all of those safeguards, under their act, they'd still be able to get something approved.

This opposition is absolutely pathetic, because it will say and do anything to bring Australians and ordinary workers further under the yoke of union membership, even when they don't want to be members of a union. They get a Fair Work Commission, headed by Ian Ross, a former senior member of the ACTU, inventor of the industry superannuation system, as documented in Bad Egg, written by Senator Andrew Bragg. The BOOT test in Forward with Fairness and under the Fair Work Act is very specific that it is not meant to apply to every single person. But Ian Ross said, 'Because the act doesn't specifically stop me from doing it, I will now apply it to workers who don't even exist, who are hypothetical.' That is how bad the BOOT test has become. (Time expired)

3:56 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Welcome back, members! I know the summer break has given people time to spend a bit of time not only with their families but talking about families in their electorates. No doubt they will know what we know. If you talk to those families, what are they concerned about? Wage stagnation. They're talking about the cost of living skyrocketing and household debt being at record levels. They're talking about job insecurity, about the amount of casualisation in the workforce. It may not be for a mum and dad, but it may be for their kids or grandkids. That is a concern to families right across the spectrum represented by this parliament. Those opposite know that. Under pressure, the Liberals have a tendency to go straight back to industrial relations. It's their stock in trade; it's really in their DNA.

Looking around, I know I've probably got the greyest hair in this parliament, but I was here when they introduced Work Choices. I was here when member after member on the other side got up and said: 'There won't be any wage cutting. Jobs won't disappear. Wage flexibility doesn't mean less money in the pay packet.' You know what? In Work Choices, for the very first time in our history, this parliament made it legal to pay people under the award rate of pay. The view of those opposite was 'it will never happen', but it did happen. Maybe they didn't cut the pay, but they introduced the mechanism by which employers could do it, and employers did it. By the way, John Howard not only lost his prime ministership over that very thing, he lost his seat. People know this. It's not going to disappear. It reminds me of the story about when the scorpion asked the frog to give him a lift across the river. The frog was very afraid, because he didn't want to be stung. The scorpion said, 'Trust me, because it's not in our mutual interest.' The frog agreed. They got halfway across the stream, and the scorpion did indeed sting the frog. The frog asked the scorpion: 'Why'd you do that?' The scorpion said, 'Because it's in my nature.' That is precisely what they're reverting to now. The moral of that little story is that Australian workers should be aware of the coalition's nature when it comes to industrial relations and particularly of its track record. It's not all that old. You don't have to go back much further than Work Choices to see that.

What we're talking about in this debate is our frontline workers. We had our police and our doctors and nurses and ambulance officers doing wonderful things throughout the pandemic, but our frontline workers were also the shop attendants, the cleaners, the truck drivers—the people who made sure our economy ticked over and households could continue to do what they do and look after their families. They are the people at the sharp end of this piece of legislation which the government wants to proceed with. They're not well-paid workers. They have little bargaining power, and what those opposite want to do is remove the better off overall test. The better off overall test means just that. It's a mechanism for preventing people from being exploited.

I know a series of attempts have been made to remove it, but I also know what the president of the Fair Work Commission, Justice Ross, said when one attempt was made and litigated. He said that the changing of the test might reduce the cost for employers and increase profits. He went on to say:

It is less clear how such a change would increase productivity.

So this is not about a productivity mechanism over the next two years; this is about changing the cost structure for employers. But, don't forget, we've just had the JobKeeper scenario presented. We saw what happened when robodebt was out there and how people were being pursued for debts they didn't incur. Yet, when it comes to things such as JobKeeper and the fact that employers have used it to fund executive bonuses, they're not trying to chase that and put it back in the public coffers. That's seen as fair because, although employers used it in a way that wasn't intended, they're not going to pursue it in any way. In closing, you don't have to look much further than Work Choices to see the motivation of this government. Just like the frog, don't trust this scorpion. (Time expired)

4:01 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think there's nothing more important in the social compact that we have in this country—in fact, in any society—than to make sure that our economic growth is shared between capital and labour; that is to say, as our economy is growing, wages are growing as much as profits are increasing. That's fundamental in this country. Members on this side of the House and, hopefully, all of us in this House agree that we want to see wages growing and we want them to be growing because the economy's growing. Equally, we obviously want return on investment and profit to grow. So the fundamental principles of IR reform should always be that we're doing everything we can so employers and employees can work together to improve the businesses that they are equally involved in, that employees are achieving wage growth because of their part and that, at the same time, business owners and investors are achieving higher profits. That's really going to come through fundamental principles of growing productivity and flexibility.

What this government wants to do is exactly that: increase productivity in our economy at the business level and economy-wide, and also increase flexibility and live in the 21st century and provide more flexibility to workers. One of the previous contributors to this discussion, a member on the opposite side of the chamber, indicated that flexibility was the other F-word. I haven't met too many new mothers who would like more flexibility and the ability to negotiate with their employer to change the existing structure of their hours et cetera in the business where they work to accommodate new family arrangements. There are many other examples that I can think of. I know that, as a member of parliament, I come across examples of people seeking that all the time. Productivity and flexibility combined is good for both employers and employees. The problem is that it also leads to simplicity, and something simplicity is not good for is the union movement. The union movement basically exists to make things as complicated as possible so that things are so confusing that workers are convinced and required to give part of their salary to the union movement to help them navigate the extreme complexity of the current system.

The only thing that would be achieved by introducing simplicity, of course, would be to break the business model of the union movement. That would also destroy the capital lifeline to the Labor Party, which is opposing this kind of reform that brings flexibility, productivity and simplicity and allows good employers and good employees to work together to talk about the kinds of conditions they may find mutually beneficial in the future. The Labor Party aren't engaging in this debate at all. They're not putting up alternatives to reform. They're not talking with us or talking about their alternative position, because they're not about reform. They're about the politics and running a scare campaign, because in frightening workers they see there could be potential to create a political advantage for themselves. How disgusting! How absolutely disgusting to think that your political objectives are more important than the interests of working people in this country and an opportunity for reform that will actually provide benefit to working people in this country. But this is nothing new when it comes to the Labor Party. Frankly, we know it's the union movement that is telling the Labor Party what they need to do on this topic anyway.

We need reform, and I think the COVID pandemic in the last 12 months have shown that we have a system that needs to be brought into the 21st century. I agree that there are new categories of work that have almost no security whatsoever. They weren't envisaged decades ago when some of the structures that we operate under right now were first developed. The fact that Labor don't want to talk about reform and engage in reform is appalling to people in the categories that actually need reform. They deserve to be captured in the enterprise system, in this country's industrial relations system, like anyone else. There's an opportunity for that here. There's an opportunity to empower businesses to work with their employees, to talk together about how they jointly want to help grow the business. That's going to lead to wages growth, it's going to improve the profitability of businesses and it's going to grow our economy. That simplicity, flexibility and productivity would be great for employees and great for employers. It would take this country forward of course; it would bring us into the 21st century. But we won't get support from those opposite, because it makes the overly burdensome model of the union movement completely redundant. That's why they won't support it.

4:06 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The previous speaker just outlined exactly what employers argue. How often do we hear big business and employers talk about wanting to bring in these reforms for flexibility? What that usually means for a lot of workers is: 'We're going to cut your pay.' Quite often the term 'flexibility' is used to cover up. It's HR-speak, employer-speak, big-business-speak for cutting wages. I'm actually quite shocked that the government continue to pretend that the bill they've put before the House doesn't cut wages. It's like they think that if they say it into the mirror enough times then maybe the mirror will say: 'Yes, you're right. It's true.' They think that if they say it enough the Australian people will start to believe them. They won't, because many on the government frontbench, when they were advisers, have form.

What examples are there in the legislation before the parliament of the government actually trying to cut wages? First of all, there are the changes to the BOOT. It's called the better off overall test for a reason. When you negotiate an agreement in good faith, that agreement must not undercut or be lower than the minimum award rate. It's as simple as that. Guess what it means if you pause the BOOT, scrap the BOOT, weaken the BOOT or give an employer the opportunity to opt out of that minimum floor? It means you are cutting wages. This proposal by the government is so radical it actually goes further than what a previous coalition government did with WorkChoices. It says that you don't have to compensate in any way. You can just do it if you can claim you were somehow affected by the pandemic. Can I remind the government that they have one person on their frontbench saying: 'Everything is good; let's get back to work. Conditions are good. Business is booming.' That's the Treasurer. That's why they can scrap JobKeeper and force people on JobSeeker back onto the Newstart rate. On the other hand, they say businesses are doing it so tough that they should be allowed to lower wages below the minimum standard. That's pay cut example No. 1.

Pay cut example No. 2 will come as a surprise to a lot of workers who are on an award. Not only do they want to force you to work for rates below the award if you're on an agreement; they also want to see your wages cut in modern awards if you pick up extra work. Flexible part time is something that is negotiated. Voluntary overtime is something that is negotiated and is in a lot of agreements. However, these agreements are negotiated in good faith between employers and employees, and in these cases the workers are on higher wages—they bargain up. What this proposal does is to allow bargaining down. It allows employers to offer extra shifts to their existing workers who are part time at the same rate. That's not the overtime rate but the same ordinary rate. There's no compensation. There's no ability for these workers to get extra. What is being proposed by this government is a straight-out pay cut, and it has done it before. Let's not forget the cuts to penalty rates that occurred under this government—a straight cut to the award, where we saw workers in hospitality and other industries lose money. Those pay cuts mean that those workers today are earning less than they did for doing the exact same work.

Let's also not forget that it is the government that is trying to support business with the casual rate rorts. The unions won the case against casual rate rorts, where workers doing a permanent roster weren't being paid the proper full-time rates; they were being paid the casual rates. They weren't being paid their proper entitlements; they were being paid the casual rates so that companies could pay them less. Unions took the case to court, won the case and now, retrospectively, the government is trying to change the rules to claw back that money, to give these workers another pay cut. This government has form when it comes to industrial relations. Its bill and this matter of public importance are about the fact that all the government really cares about is cutting wages. Not only is it economically dumb; it will also see thousands of workers forced to live on less money, making our recovery even— (Time expired)

4:11 pm

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The fact is that Labor and its union financiers should be ashamed of their misinformation campaign against meaningful IR reforms that have been developed with some of the most intensive and inclusive consultation in recent years. The Attorney-General's industrial relations working groups brought together business, industry and union representatives to work collaboratively and in good faith to understand the needs of businesses and workers and to help Australia recover from the global COVID pandemic. Much of our industrial relations system has been built on pitting one group against another in the past. However, the working groups aim to change that status quo, to achieve more by working together. These groups worked, negotiated, debated and delivered the industrial relations reform which will go before the Senate committee. It is an absolute betrayal of that good faith to see those opposite not only so heavily backtrack on agreed reforms but also support an aggressive misinformation campaign by the ACTU. As Australia recovers from this global pandemic, as unemployment drops and as our economy gets back on track, it is somewhat disappointing to see Labor start in 2021 where it left off in 2020: misleading Australians.

The Morrison government's industrial relations reforms aim to put the interests of Australian workers ahead of traditional ideological positions. What a shame those opposite failed to reciprocate. Labor has its head stuck in an ideological rear view mirror. It claims to be on the side of workers but clearly it is not. Those opposite are not on the side of employees who want stronger protections against wage underpayment. They are not on the side of casual workers who want to convert to permanent employment. They are not on the side of part-time retail and hospitality workers who want more hours and can't get them. They are not on the side of employees and employers who want to negotiate higher wages and productivity gains more quickly through a better enterprising bargaining process.

The fact is Labor is not on the side of economic recovery, of jobs, of lower unemployment and of wage growth. After good faith working groups, it is in bad faith that Labor is not doing what all Australians' best interests are during COVID, which is working cooperatively to save lives and livelihoods. As per usual, Labor seems more focused on appeasing unions by running unbelievable untruths about what are very modest and much needed reforms. We will not let Labor's misinformation campaign stop us from delivering a commonsense package of reforms with one goal: to help protect and create more jobs as we move out of the COVID pandemic. We will not let Labor's misinformation campaign stop us from helping casual workers convert to permanent employment. We will not let it stop us from providing mechanisms to address the decline in enterprise bargaining, a key driver of higher wages. And we will not let it stop us from providing part-time workers with the ability to increase their hours.

The fact is that the Morrison government's IR reforms will make it easier for businesses to create better paid and more secure jobs for Australians. It will help people to grow their careers and support families as they get back on their feet and aspire to start their family, buy a house, book a holiday or even start planning their retirement.

4:14 pm

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I guess the shortness of time just confirms that the government's message is that bad they can't even sustain a full period of time. The simple fact is this: the government's industrial relations will lead to cut wages and worse working conditions. Nothing can be more simple than that. That is exactly what is happening with this legislation, and it's happening at a time when we're living through the worst pandemic and, because of the recession caused by this government, we're seeing the toughest economic conditions that we have had to face. We've learnt a whole new definition of what an essential worker is. It is not only our nurses, our doctors, our teachers and our emergency service workers that we are so familiar with but the new breed, the breed we have come to rely on: the truck drivers, the supermarket workers, the delivery based workers and the cleaners. These are the people who have helped keep this country running and have protected our lives during this COVID-19 pandemic.

They serve the people who are scared, anxious and, sometimes, even angry and violent. That reminds me that no-one deserves a serve, and we've seen that with retail workers. They work to help get us through this situation, and we owe them a debt of thanks. But we actually owe them a lot more. What we don't owe them is a pay cut. I find it interesting that those opposite sit there and say that this is Labor and the unions' move to get workers more—they're against workers getting more money. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is this side of the House and it is the union movement that has always fought to get better wages and conditions for workers. You only have to go through every single industrial relations case that has happened in the last 40 years to see that it's not the employers and it is not the Liberal and National parties that are standing up and supporting workers to get better pay and conditions; it is the labour movement. The labour movement, driven by unions and the Labor Party, has supported better working conditions and better pay and conditions for workers across this nation.

You have to sit there—

Government Member:

A government member interjecting

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Don't interrupt, because you are a silly, silly man. It's interesting, we have an assistant minister sitting there who wants to interject at a time when we're talking about protecting wages and conditions. This is a bloke who comes in and cries when someone interrupts him. So how about we treat him the same.

An honourable member: He's on 15 per cent super.

Yes, he's enjoying his 15 per cent super while he's stopping other workers in this nation getting a similar sort of thing. It's an absolute disgrace. When you sit there and look at this Liberal-National coalition, you see it's them first, them second, them last. That is all they ever think about. If they're going to sit there and say that this legislation will make pay and conditions better for workers then pull out the removal of the better off overall test. If those on the other side of the House are so confident that what they're doing is right then remove it. There's no need to have an amendment in legislation that removes the better off overall test if they're not going to touch it. The fact of the matter is that they know they're going to touch it. That is exactly what their big mates want. They want to remove it.

We heard the previous contributor to this discussion talk about heading from casual to permanent employment. I'll tell you about a real, living example of this. I'm currently going through this at the moment with constituents who have been casual for 18 months and want to go permanent. What did their employer do? The employer cut their hours. The biggest single issue we have faced in COVID has been insecure work. It is people working as security guards and cleaners and so on in quarantine hotels and the like who have had to go and earn money to pay the bills and put food on the table by doing two, three or four jobs. When those people get impacted, that puts a lot of work on the track-and-trace system. It creates far more work. Insecure workforces are the scourge of this society today.

We need to ensure that workers are given proper pay and conditions and the protections to ensure that they aren't worse off. That should be the key goal for any person who comes into this place and says that they're here for the people of Australia, because that's what is needed. Insecure work and casualisation of the workforce has done nothing but deliver more and more financial, physical and mental stress to Australian workers. It's time the government was honest with the Australian people and said what this legislation does. We've seen example after example of workers losing pay and conditions.

Mr Drum interjecting

Today—and I know you're probably asleep, but if you woke up once in a while you might find out some things—it's quite—

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member will direct his comments through the chair.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Certainly, Deputy Speaker. Perhaps you are able to speak in the language of Mr Drum, the member for— (Time expired)

4:20 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That was a typical contribution from our previous speaker. It was all about the fear and scaremongering that's going on and, again, not about facts. When asked for examples, those opposite are simply unable to produce them, starting with the statement that the current economic problems are somehow or other caused by the government. I think most people in Australia, irrespective of the side of politics they're on, would acknowledge that the government has done a pretty good job when it comes to keeping the economy together and keeping income coming into the family unit to enable them to maintain throughout the pandemic the standard of living they had.

But looking beyond the pandemic is where the government has been able to have the conversations with unions, employers and employee groups in relation to what we are going to do on the way out that's going to encourage greater productivity and the ability of our workers to earn more money. This is where, in the Australian labour situation at the moment, flexibility is so much needed. It is where we have to go and where we want to go. The measures that are in the reform package are going to address some of the known problems with our industrial relations and the Fair Work Act. The reforms will not only support wage growth and help regrow the jobs that have been lost during the pandemic but also tackle the broader issues: underemployment, job security, underpayment, wages and the failure of enterprise bargaining agreements to drive wages and productivity growth. That is something that we all thought might happen, but it hasn't happened.

Every time I go out into the industries and larger companies around the Goulburn Valley, there is a call for flexibility. There is a view that many workers who are currently on casual rates want to go across to permanency, but there doesn't seem to be a pathway across to permanency. I know from talking to the Parmalat workers striking two years ago that this was one of their biggest issues—there was no pathway across to permanency. It's very difficult to go to a bank and ask for a loan if you can't move across. So I think this will give us an opportunity to move forward. There is nothing more frustrating than when you go out to a farm, walk into the packing sheds and find a situation where the workers and the farmers both wish they had more flexibility, with the farmers being able to pay their workers more money for longer hours worked. It is quite an interesting situation.

We know that almost 30 per cent of part-time employees in the retail sector and around 40 per cent of part-time employees in the accommodation and food sector want to work more hours but aren't getting them at the moment. We are pushing as hard as we possibly can to make sure that those workers will no longer be underemployed going forward into the future. We've got a situation where around 80 per cent of all jobs in Australia are in the private sector, so we have to give businesses optimism. To have growth we have to give them the opportunities they need to invest in their businesses, to create more jobs, to take the risks that they take day in, day out. This is something that is paramount. In Australia, as we push to get out of the pandemic, we have to be able to give our businesses the opportunity to grow their business even more than they currently are.

This is going to take innovation and it's going to take us having an understanding of struggling businesses. And we've got to make sure, right at the very core of this, that we always protect and enhance the rights of workers. It is absolutely critical that, as we move forward and we find that pathway to full-time work, at every stage we enhance and protect the rights of workers. It's just disingenuous for the opposition to claim that these reforms are going to do anything but that.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is concluded.