House debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:00 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise again to finish my contribution on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. As has been already said by members, including the member for Watson, we have grave concerns with this bill. I will come back to them in a second. I want to make the point that we start this new sitting week again with debate on this fair work amendment bill. We start again and resume debate just as we finished last week. I tell you what bill we're not debating, though—the Clean Energy Finance Corporation bill. The member for New England brought in an amendment to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation bill that was meant to be on last week's schedule. That then forced the government to pull that bill, which forced them to then bring this bill back onto the schedule. We should have been debating the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Bill, but we're not, because the wreckers in the National Party put forward their amendment which clearly the government doesn't want to debate. Clearly the government doesn't want to talk about—

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Under the standing orders, you have to restrict your issues to the bill before the House.

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand. I appreciate that. Because of those reasons, we are now coming back to the fair work amendment bill. I remember at the start of the pandemic we had a conciliatory federal government. We had a federal government that set up national processes, like the national cabinet, to work with the state and territory governments. That was, of course, before the federal government started issuing snarky press statements about the restrictions enacted and decisions made by the Victorian government during the pandemic—but I digress. We had a federal government that was collaborative with other governments and even collaborative with the union movement. We were promised by this Attorney-General that we were going to see a modern-day, accords-style collaboration with businesses and unions, bringing them all together because the times demanded it, because COVID demanded that business, government and the unions work together.

What did this Attorney-General do? He brought everyone into the same room. He brought business into the same room. He sent some text messages to the ACTU. But of course he ignored all of the suggestions that the ACTU put on the table. This Attorney-General has nothing on the accords of the eighties. This Attorney-General is not bringing businesses and unions together and finding common ground. This Attorney-General is doing everything based on appearances and then ignoring the very concerns and requests of working Australians.

What do we see as a result? We see this bill. We see this fair work amendment bill that is going to weaken bargaining agreements, cut wages and force workers to be in a weaker negotiating position when bargaining their enterprise agreements. The other thing it's going to do is override already strong wage theft laws that exist in specific jurisdictions, including Victoria and Queensland. This bill is going to override the wage theft laws that currently exist in those states after those state governments introduced and passed hard-fought-for legislation to help make sure that businesses couldn't rob workers of the entitlements they are due. This bill is going to override those pieces of legislation and introduce a weakened framework.

We on this side of the House say no. We're not about making it harder for workers to negotiate, to be protected in the workplace and to be protected at the bargaining table. We on this side of the House believe that those workers who have been in casual and insecure work throughout this pandemic, forced to go back to work even in risky circumstances, have been the heroes of this pandemic. It doesn't matter whether they're stacking supermarket shelves, driving food or working in one of our care and services industries; these people are Australian heroes. They are doing good and noble work. We want an industrial framework to keep up with the evolution of the Australian economy. We want to make sure Australian workers are protected by strong industrial relations frameworks in their workplaces that are going to make sure they have a seat at the table, good bargaining power and a right to negotiate to protect themselves against the wage theft we've seen from some big corporations and big public figures.

We on this side of the House understand that your job and your job security are crucial, but we've seen stagnating wages, we've seen a rise in casualisation, we've seen a rise in insecure work, and under this government's watch we've seen exactly what has been replicated by these accords: a lot of marketing, a lot of spin, a lot of 'bringing people to the table' and then a lot of ignoring the requests of working Australians, working families in our economy. We say on this side of the House: don't just remove the better off overall test; remove the bill. Remove the bill and actually, in good faith, return to the negotiating table with unions, with business. Take inspiration from the accords of Bob Hawke. Take inspiration from bringing together the shared ambitions of Australian workers and Australian businesses to live in a prosperous and successful Australian economy, and don't present the antiworker, anti-secure-job legislation that is currently before the House.

12:06 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we go again. Here is another chapter in our political history where the current government, a conservative Liberal government, has nothing else to offer the Australian public but to water down workers' rights. If you look at this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, it does nothing but reinforce what I and many others on this side have been saying for a very long time. The Liberal government, cannot help themselves. They cannot help themselves, because it's within their DNA to water down workers' rights, to diminish workers' ability to bargain, to diminish the ability to engage in workplace agreements. This is what they are pushing for. As I said, it's in their DNA to water down workers' rights that have been hard fought for and hard won over generations to make us one of the best places in the world. They can't help it.

When I say it's in their DNA, there is a long history of this. If you look at the history of our nation and industrial relations in this place, we know that the conservative Liberal Party or conservative LNP or whatever they decide to call themselves every few years—the Country Party, a whole range of things—were formed on that side of the political sphere to combat labour. When I say 'labour', I mean labour with an 'our'. That was their foundation. That's why they got together to combat the labour forces that were getting together, had created a political party, were winning workers' rights and were making sure that this nation was on the right projection of equality for workers—one of the best in the world. Of course, the Liberal government and the history of Liberal governments show that they did not like this. That is a vast comparison, a very different reason for being a government. You have one side that was formed, and it has always been in their DNA, to water down workers' rights and to combat labour. Not the Labor Party, which they also do, but labour with an 'our'. They're continuing it today, after 200 years in this nation. They just can't help themselves.

The question we must ask ourselves over and over during this industrial relations debate is: will this bill create secure jobs with decent pay for Australians? That is the one question. When you look into this bill, and you do the research and you understand it, the answer is a resounding, no, it will not create secure jobs with decent pay for Australian working families and working people. But even without this, the bill represents a fundamental attack on the rights of workers that we haven't seen since John Howard's Work Choices. This is no different. This looks at diminishing the rights, the ability to bargain and a whole range of other things. The government's proposed changes to Australia's industrial relations laws will leave working people in this nation worse off. It will leave people with lower pay, fewer hours and a whole range of things, in a casualised workforce. It's going to result in cuts to take-home pay and conditions, fewer rights and far less job security for workers in Australia. What's being proposed is going to make it much easier to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent, and it makes bargaining for better pay and conditions—something that we've enjoyed for many years here—more difficult than it already is. Worst of all, it will allow for wage cuts. How can this leave Australian workers better off? It takes rights off tradies on big projects, for example, and it weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft was already deemed a criminal act.

It's already self-defeating when you look at all the ins and outs of this particular bill. Without measures to create more secure jobs with the prospect of wage rises, workers will have less capacity and confidence to spend. This is typical of this government. They've always had this attitude of the trickle-down formula—in other words, 'We can cut, we can trickle down whatever's left over and that should help the economy.' Well, that's wrong. It's totally wrong. The increased wages mean people have more money in their pockets and are more likely to go out and spend, and they're more likely to spend it on essentials and things that they need immediately—and that's what this government should be looking at: putting money into the economy. This bill will do nothing but take money out of the economy, because many workers will have lower wages, will have less money to spend, will be spending less in their local businesses et cetera.

Let's have a look at the other issue: wage theft. We know it's a growing problem. We've seen multinational chains in the news on a regular basis. It's a growing problem that recently made the news again in my own electorate of Adelaide, with a shocking incident which was on social media. It showed a cafe worker being physically abused because she allegedly asked to be paid the wages that she was entitled to under our laws. This specific matter is still under investigation, but it highlights how widespread wage theft is in this nation. But, instead of making it easier for the victims of wage theft to get justice, we have a bill before this House that will make it harder for people who have been duped by wage theft to get justice, just like this woman in my electorate a couple of weeks ago. The bill inserts a definition of 'dishonest' which includes two tests to prove whether the employer's been dishonest:

(a) dishonest according to the standards of ordinary people; and

(b) known by the defendant to be dishonest according to the standards of ordinary people.

What does that mean? Does it mean that, if you conduct wage theft, you say: 'I was unaware of it. I didn't know it was illegal. I wasn't aware of my paperwork. I wasn't up to date with the laws'? You could use a million excuses to get away under that second definition. That second point sets the bar very high for someone to get justice, because trying to prove a level of intent is going to be extremely difficult for the victims of wage theft.

What this government should be doing is making it easier for those victims to get justice. Victorian legislation, for example, only includes the first of those two points I made. But, because this bill overrides existing state and territory laws for the national system, it weakens employee protections in some states. It does so by removing a very important avenue to recover the costs involved in taking an employer to court. All of the items in this bill make it harder for workers.

In Australia, the casualisation of work is another growing issue. Casual jobs account for about 60 per cent of all wage jobs created since May, according to the Centre for Future Work. In fact, this research found that, between May and November 2020, casual employment grew by 400,000, by far the biggest expansion of casual employment in Australia. That's fine for people that want casual employment, but the majority of those people want full-time, secure jobs. By having a full-time, secure job, you can go to a bank and tell them your job is secure and it is full-time, and you can access a loan. If you're a casual employee, most banks are going to say 'No, we don't know what your future holds'. If you want to take out a personal loan when you're a casual employee, again, the banks and the financial institutions will give you the same answer. Even simple things like accessing a credit card become difficult when you're in the casualised workforce. This bill does nothing but diminish workers' abilities and workers' rights to have secure, well-paid jobs.

Part-time work also grew strongly during the past year. Given the COVID crisis and future uncertainty, this is understandable. For some people casual and part-time work fits their choice of lifestyle, but I'm really worried about the underemployment of Australian workers, about those people who want permanent work and can't find it. I speak to people regularly who are juggling two or three part-time jobs, have no job security and have no ability to take out a loan. The impact of the measures in this bill relating to part-time work and simplified additional hours, as they call it, will allow employers to reduce part-time work to a 16-hour weekly minimum with future hours on a casual basis, effectively making these jobs casual. In addition, the permanent addition of flexible work directions is proof that diluting workers' rights is in this government's DNA; it is actually proof. It sounds a bit like Work Choices, but it doesn't only sound like Work Choices; it is Work Choices mark 2. These changes to the Fair Work Act were originally introduced as temporary as part of the JobKeeper program and were limited to employers receiving the wage subsidy. However, since then, it's continued and expanded its application well beyond its original intent.

As with the rest of this bill, the danger is in the detail—for example, the changes to the enterprise agreements. Taken as a whole these changes mean less obligation on employers and less scrutiny. This will also deliver wage cuts. The government should be looking at productivity and increases in wages. We've seen one of the lowest wage growths in this nation under this government, productivity is down and a whole range of other things are down. Yet they find it in their time, with everything that's taking place in Australia at the moment—with the uncertainty of our future, with the downturn in the economy and with COVID—that the most important thing to do is to water down workers' rights. They think this will be the panacea for them. It's wrong. It's totally wrong. We should be strengthening these laws. We should be ensuring that we put laws in place that give us good productivity and good wage growth so there's more money in the economy for workers to spend in the economy and get us out of the economic crisis that we find ourselves in at the moment due to the unforeseen times.

I'd like to say that Labor is on the side of working families as we always were from the very foundations of the Labor party, which was formed by trade unions to protect workers' rights, to enhance workers' rights and to ensure they had justice and equality at the workplace, unlike the Liberal government and the conservative side of politics, which was formed to combat labour. And I say labour with the o-u-r. That's why I say it's still in their DNA, and proof of it is what we see continuously in the bills that they are producing. The history of the conservative side of politics in this country has had at its forefront and as its focus the diminishing of workers' rights, unlike Labor governments. Look at the Hawke-Keating era and the accord, where then Prime Minister Bob Hawke sat down with all the unions and industry and mapped out a vision for Australian industrial relations. That era saw one of the biggest periods of economic prosperity, through the laying of the foundations of the accord. This government looks at one thing only: the ideology of cutting wages. They think that some sort of trickle-down effect will take place and people will be better off. That's wrong, and they know that working people will be worse off under this bill.

As I said, Labor is on the side of working families. We're committed to coming out of this pandemic with a plan that's focused on good, secure jobs and decent pay for workers. Only this side of the House will fight for good, secure jobs with fair pay and conditions. Only we will ensure that we start to make things right again in this country and support local jobs. We will also ensure that no-one is held back and no-one is left behind—unlike what this bill proposes to do to workers in Australia and to our nation.

12:21 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Next week marks 25 years since the election of the Howard government. While some Liberals may celebrate this milestone, others will be reminded of the Work Choices debacle and how it led to the demise of an increasingly arrogant and out-of-touch Howard government. Regrettably, the bill before us today, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, shows us that those opposite have learnt nothing in the intervening years. A quarter of a century after the Liberals suffered a humiliating rejection by the Australian people, which saw the government dumped and the leader lose his own seat after going after workers' pay and conditions, they're at it again.

Many of us had hoped that the experience of COVID had led the Morrison government to have an epiphany and finally turn their backs on their core business of attacking working Australians. Indeed, there was great optimism last year when the Prime Minister yielded to Labor's calls for wage subsidies to protect jobs and to keep money flowing through to local economies. The creation of JobKeeper even led some to think that the Liberals had finally kicked their longstanding habit of responding to every economic challenge by going after workers' pay and conditions. Some even dared to hope that a fundamental truth may have dawned on the Liberal Party—that when working Australians are doing well, the whole country benefits. The optimism grew when the government announced that it was going to lay down its weapons and work in genuine partnership with employers and unions to come together with an industrial relations reform agenda that would actually benefit workers. Well, I never! What a radical idea!

Labor approached the legislation with an open mind. The legislation just had to answer one question: would it create secure jobs with decent pay for Australian workers? Sadly, in this case, the answer was a resounding no. Indeed, the legislation was going to deliver a pay cut for people on every single award in Australia. Under this legislation, employers would be permitted to violate the better off overall test, a critical safeguard which, as the name implies, protects workers by prohibiting agreements that would leave them worse off. This cruel plan would allow new agreements to get rid of any penalty rates or shift penalties, costing workers as much as $11,000 a year. Employers could take advantage of this option if they were affected by COVID-19, but, under the government's definition, it would be hard to find an employer that would not fall into this category. While the government argued that it was a temporary measure, the reality is that it runs for at least two years for the making of agreements that will then last for years themselves. In the firing line were some of the lowest paid people in the workforce. These include cleaners, supermarket workers, cooks, truck drivers, childcare workers and aged-care staff—indeed, the very people who have already sacrificed so much during this global pandemic. This is shameful. After a terrible pandemic year—indeed, using COVID-19 as a cover—the government quickly returned to form, trying to slash the pay and conditions of some of the lowest paid workers in Australia. To think that only a few months ago, the Prime Minister was insisting that we were 'all in this together'! It is unbelievable.

Thankfully, but unsurprisingly, the crossbench senators agreed with Labor and refused to sign up to this unconscionable attack on workers, so we now know that the government will be forced to pass amendments to dump the suspension of the better off overall test. This is good, but don't be fooled. It doesn't make this bill good—not by a long shot. It failed Labor's test of creating the conditions for secure jobs with decent pay in December, and it won't deliver secure jobs with decent pay today. In some cases, it directly levies pay cuts. It also changes the bargaining rules, which will make it harder for workers to negotiate, and it removes other measures that are designed to protect workers.

We know there is a massive problem in Australia with permanent, ongoing jobs being billed as casual jobs to deny workers the security and leave protections that they deserve. Indeed, the percentage of casual workers had grown from 23.5 per cent to 25.1 per cent of the workforce before COVID took hold in 2020, and casual jobs comprise a massive 60 per cent of all wage jobs created since May of last year. This rampant problem was recently put to the test in the courts when the CFMEU challenged the 'permanent casual' rort. This was a landmark case which found that work that is regular, ongoing and permanent in nature cannot be defined as casual. This bill essentially overrules that Federal Court decision. It endorses the shameful rorting that has been going on for years, denying workers the security and entitlements that permanent work offers.

The government argues that everything's fine because there's a casual loading. Well, we know from a recent Griffith University report by Professor Peetz that more than half of Australia's casual workers actually don't get any casual loading at all. For these workers, being casual doesn't equal flexibility. It means fewer rights, no sick pay, no holiday pay, no ability to get a home loan and no casual loading to help compensate for the lack of benefits that are enjoyed by permanent employees. What we're looking at now is a unilateral move to nullify the rights of workers who find themselves in this situation. This is yet another unconscionable attack on job security.

Next I'd like to talk about the changes that the bill makes to enterprise bargaining—changes that are permanent and almost always in favour of the employer. Take this, for example: employers can now go through the bargaining process for four weeks before they even tell workers that bargaining has started and that they have the right to be represented. Similarly, unions are no longer able to scrutinise non-union agreements if they fall short of the standards. And Fair Work will be limited in what it can consider when determining if workers are indeed better off through an agreement. There is also a change which actually allows illegal clauses in agreements—clauses that don't comply with the National Employment Standards. This undermining of the National Employment Standards is appalling and will make it nearly impossible for workers to get a fair deal.

The government has consistently used the excuse of COVID-19 as a cover to justify attacking workers' rights, to argue that the system is skewed and that more flexibility is needed. Of course, we know that flexibility, when used by the Morrison Liberal government, is in fact code for removing industrial protections from Australian workers. The government is right; there is an imbalance in industrial relations. But it's certainly not in favour of the workers. We only need to look at how the workers' share of the national pie is declining. In Australia the total share of income paid to workers through wages and salaries has been declining since the 1970s. At the same time there has been an accompanying growth in the share of national income that is going to capital owners in terms of profit. This isn't good. It is not proportionate and it's not fair.

We can also see this imbalance demonstrated starkly through our wage growth statistics. Indeed, in the most recent quarterly wage price index, which was released in November last year, wages grew by just 0.1 per cent for the private sector and 0.2 per cent for the public sector. This is the lowest quarterly rise since records began 23 years ago. The annual growth rate fell from its previous record low of 1.8 per cent in the year to the June quarter to just 1.4 per cent. Record low wage growth is the Liberals' legacy for working Australians. Let's never forget that shameful fact. This bill shows us that the Morrison government is not yet finished.

Let's be clear: the Morrison government has dumped its changes to the better off overall test not because it has realised how egregious they were but so it can still have a chance to progress through the Senate other parts of the bill that attack workers' pay and conditions. This means one thing: the Morrison Liberal government has learnt nothing from its past mistakes, it hasn't seen the evil of its ways and it will try again at the first opportunity. This is why Labor has launched a national campaign to put pressure on the Morrison government to dump this toxic bill in full, in its entirety. The last thing our nation needs right now is a war on workers' pay and conditions. It's not a war we would ever want to see in this nation. At a time when we are seeking to recover from an economic crisis in the wake of a global pandemic, this is a shameless and reckless plan for our nation.

This bill is nothing short of economic vandalism. Frankly, government members should feel deeply ashamed to be part of this ongoing attack on the millions of people they have been elected to represent. The Morrison Liberal government members might like to tell themselves that it is somehow for the greater good for workers to take a hit, because businesses and the economy will flourish. But the sad reality that the Liberals have never seemed to wrap their heads around is: when workers suffer, business suffers too. By attacking workers, this bill attacks the Australian economy and, indeed, our nation as a whole. This bill will only serve to further reduce people's disposable income, ripping precious dollars out of workers' pockets and, indeed, our local communities—communities like Newcastle—at the worst possible time. If workers don't have any money, business is bad. If business is bad, jobs aren't created. It is really that simple. Just as the Prime Minister's decision to slash penalty rates for millions of Australians did not create a single job, this legislation will do nothing but make it harder for working Australians to make a decent living.

It is gravely disappointing to see the Morrison government return to the Liberals' old strategy of attacking workers again and again. Have they learnt nothing from the pandemic or the past? Surely it's now time to acknowledge that slashing wages and conditions isn't going to help anybody. Let's not hinder our economic recovery, Mr Morrison, with a stubborn adherence to Liberal Party ideology and time-worn strategies of going after workers at every opportunity.

Abandoning plans to scrap the better off overall test is a good start, but it sure as hell is not enough. The industrial relations imbalance between workers and business remains very skewed in this nation. We recognise the power imbalance in that relationship and the need for government to continuously seek to redress that imbalance. It's time for the government to dump this toxic bill in full and to focus instead on ensuring that workers get their fair share of the national pie. That's why Labor's message to all working Australian men and women is that we're on your side. We're here to ensure you get a fair deal and we'll be holding this government to account every single day.

12:36 pm

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. This bill really highlights the massive difference between those in the Morrison government and those of us in Labor. Over there, we have the Liberals and Nationals. They're cutting JobKeeper, cutting JobSeeker, cutting superannuation and now cutting wages and conditions. When this industrial relations bill was introduced, Labor set a really simple test. We made it clear we would oppose it if it cut workers' pay and cut job security. That's exactly what this bill does.

The government might have removed the most extreme part of the bill regarding the better off overall test, but they did that under much pressure, of course. But even without it, the bill still represents a fundamental attack on the rights of workers, an attack that we have not seen since Work Choices. We see them dropping these changes to the better off overall test, but the fact is that they still want to pursue changes like that. We know it and all Australians know it. Even with it taken out, this still makes workers worse off. This legislation still makes it easier for businesses to employ people as casuals, even when they work just the same as permanent workers. The fact is that no-one believes this government when it comes to pay and working conditions. People won't forget this government's attempts to cut their pay again. Particularly people in regional and rural Australia won't forget. As I often say, National Party choices hurt, and they really hurt people in the regions. Here they are yet again trying to cut the pay and conditions of those hardworking people in regional Australia.

The government said the better off overall test provisions detracted from the rest of the bill, so now we can focus on the rest of the bill. Let's do that. It's still bad. It's still very, very bad. The bill will still make jobs more insecure and lead to pay cuts. Let's have a look at the summary of the bill. First of all, it makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is. It allows wage cuts. It takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where it was already deemed a criminal act.

We all remember when this government last cut penalty rates for retail, fast food, pharmacy and hospitality workers. At the time the government very falsely claimed it would create new jobs. Well, it created none—not a single extra job. Even business groups now admit that. Now the government expects us to believe that cutting penalties rates more, cutting overtime, cutting shift loading and cutting allowances will actually create jobs. They're spinning the same story again. We don't believe them. That's why we will always keep fighting against cuts to workers' conditions. We will do that because this bill leaves Australian workers much worse off by cutting the wages, conditions and rights of Australian workers. Make no mistake about what the agenda of this government is.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 are 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 hit first and hit the very hardest by the impacts of the pandemic. The fact is that working people either have been the essential workers supporting the country during the pandemic or have suffered the most from the economic impacts of the pandemic, and now the government is punishing these very hardworking Australians. The bill still includes changes to part-time work that will effectively end up casualising it. Australian workers know they cannot trust a Liberal-National government with their wages and conditions. In its current form, the bill represents a failure to protect the interests of those essential workers who really carried us through the pandemic. As I've said, this bill will lead to a reduction in workers' rights across the country, and its impacts will be greatly felt, particularly in regional areas like my electorate on the New South Wales North Coast. As we look to an economic recovery from the pandemic, these cuts in workers' rights and pay represent a present and real danger to our very fragile economic recovery.

The fact is that workers, those whom we've really relied on to keep us safe during the pandemic, need the protection of good workplace laws. The working people of our country have already sacrificed the most and have paid the highest price: almost a million people unemployed and 1.25 million underemployed. And, of course many workers have already used their sick leave, annual leave and long service leave. When the pandemic hit we saw such a huge economic impact, of course—over two million Australians now either out of work or looking for more work. We know that casualisation is at record highs. Nearly a third of Australian workers are in insecure work. There are also four million workers who are engaged as casuals, on short-term contracts, through labour hire or as independent contractors. It is wrong that two workers doing the same job are being paid different rates. That's just not fair. As I've told the House before, when this pandemic hit, the effects upon regions like mine were very extreme, and I continue to see many locals and businesses in my community under extreme pressure. Some businesses have been forced to close permanently for extended periods due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Many of our frontline essential workers who put themselves at risk just by showing up for work in the pandemic are still doing this today, and I thank them.

Of course, other workers have managed to get by with the help of JobKeeper, a wage subsidy that Labor called for very early on in the pandemic. As we know, at the end of March JobKeeper stops and the JobSeeker subsidy will be slashed. This will have severe economic impacts. We've always said that any support in the economy should be tailored and responsive to what's actually happening in those local economies, and I've consistently called for specific assistance for regions like mine. We know that some parts of the Australian economy are recovering, but many communities and many industries are still struggling and shouldn't be left behind when the government cuts JobKeeper and also cuts the JobSeeker subsidy in March. The government should be looking at and considering options to provide targeted support beyond March for the workers, small businesses, industries and communities which are still doing it tough. Indeed some of the hardest-hit industries are those that were disproportionately excluded from JobKeeper, with many casuals in retail, hospitality and tourism.

On the New South Wales North Coast, we were one of the hardest-hit areas, with massive increases in the number of recipients receiving income support payments such as JobSeeker and youth allowance. Locally in my area, we know that the entertainment, music and creative industries, the tourism sector and university staff from Southern Cross were all unable to access JobKeeper and the vital support that they needed. They were all left behind, especially those casuals in so many industries. Figures from last December show that in my electorate there were approximately 9,000 local businesses and organisations that were accessing JobKeeper support. That is a massive number.

In response to all this, what do we see? Now we see the Morrison government, rather than extending JobKeeper subsidies for suffering businesses, actually introduce legislation that will make workers worse off. It's really hard to believe that in the middle of a pandemic, when workers are struggling to make ends meet, the government would actually move to cut people's pay and conditions. It is consistent though with the Morrison government's approach to workers in general. Eight years of flatlining wages growth is directly linked to eight years of this Liberal-National government. Now, in the toughest of times, they're looking to cut pay and conditions.

These proposed cuts are unfair. They are not only detrimental for workers but also bad for the economy now, especially regional economies. For the regions to recover we need people earning decent wages and spending that money in our regional economies. When wages are cut, our local economies suffer and our regional economies suffer. But this government wants to make work less secure and wants to cut the take-home pay of Australians. As I said, last year was a very tough year for so many people in our regions with the COVID-19 crisis. With the job losses and the overall economic situation we're now in I will continue to call for that necessary targeted assistance for our regional economies.

The pandemic has exposed the risks to workers and to the national economy of insecure work. When the pandemic began, casuals, who account for about a quarter of the workforce, lost their jobs eight times faster than those in more secure forms of employment. One million casual workers were excluded from JobKeeper, forcing so many of them onto Centrelink queues. When you add all those other forms of insecure work, so many people were impacted. We know too that, if you're a woman, young or from a migrant background, you're more likely to be employed in insecure work. Here we have this government, just like with Work Choices before, pushing so hard to lessen job security.

In contrast to the Morrison government's harsh laws that will weaken job security and cut pay, under Labor's workplace policies more workers will be able to plan for their futures with so much more certainty. Under a Labor government, Australian workers will benefit from more job security, better pay and a fairer industrial relations system. Being in secure work is so incredibly important. It means people can access a bank loan to buy a home or start a business. It means they can take leave when they're sick or look after their loved ones without putting their jobs at risk. It means they can have the confidence to spend money in our local regional economies, which boosts growth and creates more local jobs. Under Labor's workplace policies, more workers will be able to plan for their future with certainty. People in regions like mine continually tell me that they cannot plan because their work is insecure. They need that certainty. Labor's plan for more secure jobs with better pay does stand in very stark contrast to the Morrison government's changes, which would just make it a lot worse for workers.

I also take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank our incredible frontline workers, particularly our healthcare workers, aged-care workers and disability-care workers, who have been working so hard to protect our communities through these challenging times through the pandemic. We are all incredibly appreciative of the great work you've done supporting some of the most vulnerable in our community. I also especially thank our police and emergency service workers for continuing to protect us all in these incredibly difficult times.

I say to all those workers: 'Labor are on your side. We stand with you and we thank you for your incredible work during the pandemic in these immensely challenging times. Labor will, as we always have, continue to fight for your rights at work—for fair conditions and for a fair day's wage for a fair day's work.' It's what we did in fighting the Howard government's Work Choices. Here we are yet again seeing similar circumstances. We are fighting yet again on behalf of the community and on behalf of workers. This is something that we will always fight for, because we understand how important it is for individuals to have access to decent pay and conditions, for their families, for our communities and for our economies, particularly our regional economies.

As I said, it's so important to have people earning a decent wage so that they can then spend in those regional economies. When we see any cuts or any threats to wages, whether it be penalty rates or cuts to base wages, it means that in the regions we just don't see people spending in our economies and we see the impact straightaway. The harsh policies the Liberals and Nationals put forward not only impact an individual's capacity to earn money and provide for themselves and their families but also are really detrimental to those regional economies.

As I've said many times before, in the regions we blame the National Party for these cuts. National Party choices really do hurt. At the core of this, it's hurting those regional communities by cutting pay and cutting the economic activity in our regional economies. People in regional and rural Australia know that it's the National Party that is not on their side; it is Labor that is on their side in the regions and in rural Australia. A long time ago, the National Party walked away from rural Australia, and I think that this bill really highlights that. Fancy them coming here and defending cutting the pay of workers in our country and regional areas—people who depend on that pay and who need to have decent working conditions. It's shameful that the National Party continues to line up here and talk about cutting the pay of those really important workers.

Whether it's in rural or regional Australia, in our cities or, indeed, right across the country, Labor is on people's side. We're standing up for their rights at work, for decent pay and conditions, for having a fairer system and for ensuring that more people can get into permanent work. It is always Labor who is on the side of the workers and we know that it's the Liberals and Nationals who are not on the side of hardworking Australians. We in Labor will champion in particular all of our workers. As I said, to those in regional Australia: Labor is on your side and we will always fight for better pay and better conditions for you and your family.

12:51 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.

When I think about the Liberals and the principles which lie beneath their approach to workers' pay and conditions, I think about what I saw when Work Choices came in. One of the most powerful examples that remains with me is the contract my then 16-year-old daughter was asked to sign as part of a before-ballet-school job, working for a couple of hours on a couple of mornings a week at a food retailer with an outdoor store. Not only was it pitiful pay but also she was required to wear a uniform, which she paid for, including a woollen jumper. She had to pay for that uniform out of a very small pay packet, or pay for it up-front, and she was then required to agree to return that woollen jumper to the business when she left, even though she had paid for it.

This was just a tiny example of a whole raft of conditions that were put on employees. I certainly heard stories of what I considered to be absolute exploitation of young workers in their very first jobs. These are the jobs where the power relationship which they felt and experienced was one where they had absolutely no power. These kids wanted to get into the workforce—they wanted to get up at sparrows' start, head in and do a few hours work before going and doing a full eight-hour day at ballet school. It was a physically demanding day. They wanted to work, yet they were taken advantage of.

There were many situations that were just so much more profound in terms of the impact that they had on families during that Work Choices regime, which, obviously, was ultimately the downfall of the Howard government. I saw Work Choices undermine work that I'd seen happen decades earlier by the Hawke government. As a journalist reporting on that government, I saw changes that seemed to be much more about strengthening the relationships between employers and employees—working together, making it a more respectful relationship—and where agreements could be reached which worked for both parties. We saw a government wanting to have a hand in making that happen. Bob Hawke chose the path of consensus. The Prices and Incomes Accord saw unions agree to restrict wage demands in return for a government pledge to minimise inflation and implement social services. This was a three-way pact and it had the effect of lifting this country up and not pushing people down.

That, and the other industrial relations policies of the Hawke and Keating governments, involved award restructuring and the introduction of enterprise bargaining. These, and all the other reforms, led to a much more genuine partnership and good outcomes for workers and bosses, which was really part of setting up this nation for nearly 30 years of consecutive growth. What I saw the Howard government do, with Work Choices, was break that trust between employees and employers. Young workers' first experience of the workforce was of an us-and-them mentality, and that went right through the whole system of employment. It's hard to rebuild trust when it wasn't there in the first place, and that's where this legislation is coming from for people in their 30s, whose first experience of the workforce was under Work Choices. I say all of this because the mentality that drove Work Choices to its extraordinary heights, as I see it, underpins everything that we've seen the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government do when it comes to workers. It reveals who they really are.

The latest example that we see of this, outside this legislation, is buried not too far below the surface of the JobMaker program. It's one that we on this side warned of. The government ignored our warnings, but it turns out that Treasury also warned that one of the things embedded in JobMaker was that employers could sack a full-time worker on $75,000 a year and replace him or her with three part-time staff on wages between $22,500 and $30,000 a year while still remaining in front, financially, thanks to the JobMaker hiring credit. It would lead to figures looking good for the government, as they could claim jobs growth. It would work for the employer because they would get three subsidies for those workers. It might even work for some of the part-time employees, but it doesn't deliver long-term, secure, full-time jobs. I don't have any qualms about wanting that as a goal for this nation. Secure work with enough hours to pay the bills that an individual or a family has is an absolute necessity for a productive, healthy and hopeful society.

Too many part-timers and casuals tell me that they need more hours. They're grateful for what they've got, but it isn't enough to relieve the stress of trying to cover their living costs. With COVID, we've seen that exacerbated with the reductions in JobKeeper: as JobKeeper has come down, so have the hours. The good employers really want to keep their workers on, and workers have agreed to the reduction in hours as a temporary measure, but the danger is that it becomes permanent. When JobKeeper ends, as it does in a little over 30 days, the real danger is that the staff who've hung in there for their workplace will lose their jobs. It is obvious to me, as the daughter of a small-business owner and having run by own business for 25 years, and having talked to my local businesses, that many people are more likely to spend money when they've got a secure income, when they know the amount that's going to come in the door in the next month or even the next week. They feel much more free to spend money in shops, salons and cafes. Without measures to create more secure jobs with a prospect of wage rises, workers have less capacity and less confidence to spend, which will in turn dull demand and continue to hurt our domestic economy. We were already seeing this before COVID. We were already seeing an incredibly lacklustre economy. We saw it in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury. There were no wage rises and no pressure for wage rises, and there was not a lot of confidence.

As I mention JobKeeper, I should also add that, as we move into a different COVID phase, the problem is not just the failure of this government to support workers in the arts and entertainment sectors by allowing them to access JobKeeper. They made it so hard for those workers, and I've spoken to many actors and musicians who, because of the unusual sorts of contracts and arrangements they have, just couldn't access JobKeeper. University workers were also left out, and my electorate has many university workers. They missed out completely. But those who did get JobKeeper and are still relying on it are all the travel agents. Every single travel agent who sees no prospect of the borders opening in time for their businesses to kick back in in fewer than 30 days needs JobKeeper to continue. For tourism operators and those reliant on international tourism, like the Upper Blue Mountains in particular in my electorate, right across the top of the mountains going over to Bells Line of Road, international visitors are key. And then there are performers and workers in the arts sector. They all need JobKeeper to continue. That's outside what this legislation is trying to do.

I should add on the warnings by Treasury about the JobMaker program that there would be more part-time, not full-time, work generated that it took freedom-of-information requests by the ABC to even get that Treasury advice revealed and made public. As it does so often, this government chose to bury that and keep it buried and hidden. We've seen again that same pattern this morning in the revelations that the government knew that a fibre NBN rollout would be $15 billion cheaper than it said publicly. I think what people deserve is transparency about employment matters, about the spending of this government and about the basis on which it makes decisions.

On this legislation, workers are already telling me that they feel like they have a minimal voice in speaking out about unfair practices in their workplaces. Under the cover of COVID, a whole lot of things have happened and employees feel vulnerable. As I say, they say to me that they are grateful that are still working even if it isn't enough hours to pay the bills. But this legislation would weaken those voices even further. Our test for this legislation was whether it would create secure jobs with decent pay or not. From what I've said, it's little wonder that I have little trust and confidence in this government to lift a finger to help create good, secure jobs. This legislation certainly doesn't go anywhere near doing that. Even with removal by the government of the most extreme part of the bill, the suspension of the two-year better off overall test, known as the BOOT test, this bill is a fundamental attack on the rights of workers unlike anything we've seen since Work Choices. It will make work less secure and it will lead to pay cuts.

Even though the BOOT test change has been removed, I want to make really clear why it's been removed. The Attorney-General in his statement made it very clear they're not ditching their plan to scrap the better off overall test because they don't think it's the right thing to have in there. It's very clear they still think that the change to the better off overall test should be in this legislation. The only reason it's not there is that they've conceded that they cannot get it through the parliament. It's not because they recognise it's unfair. In his actual statement, Mr Porter said he still believes the change which basically removes any safety net for workers and gives employers vastly expanded power to cut pay is a sensible and proportionate clause to have in this legislation. So the retreat is purely because of politics. It's purely because they can see we will fight it, as we will so many aspects of this bill. This entire legislation is about reducing the security of work, allowing for pay cuts and taking away the safety net. It's pretty clear that, if they're given the chance, if they're given an opportunity, they will bring this change in. There's no doubt that this is what they'd like to do. At this point, they just realise that they can't get it through in this piece of legislation. But even without the BOOT change this is still a bad piece of legislation.

I want to talk about the key reasons for us being opposed to this bill and making amendments to it. One is that it makes it easy for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. I've just talked through why permanent work—permanent full time and permanent part time—is so important not just for workers but for local economies like mine in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury.

This bill also makes bargaining for better pay and conditions much more difficult than it already is. When you have workers already feeling that their voice isn't able to be heard than the last thing they need is to feel they have no power and that they're unable to access support from unions and delegates to help them to argue their case for a pay rise. I just think it's an absolute joke when those on the other side say, 'Oh well, people can just go and ask for a pay rise.' I was doorknocking in Bligh Park the other day and I spoke to a worker who is pretty sure that he is being dudded—that he and a whole lot of other people are being dudded on their award. But they are too fearful of losing jobs to want to make a fuss because they know that the first people to be let go will be the people who have stood up for themselves. To have a system which further entrenches that is absolutely shameful.

This bill allows wage cuts. It takes rights from blue-collar workers on big projects. And when an employer does do something that is illegal this bill actually weakens the wage-theft punishments, even in jurisdictions where it's already deemed a criminal act. As it's in their DNA for the Liberals to want to push workers down, to make sure that they get less and that they have less voice, that's what we're seeing in this piece of legislation.

1:06 pm

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, before us today, demonstrates how the Prime Minister and his government want to use the current pandemic situation as a cover to allow employers to cut the pay of Australian workers—workers who got us through, and who continue to get us through, this pandemic. These are workers doing insecure but very honourable work: stacking supermarket shelves; deep cleaning, something that's never been more important than it is now; our essential truckies, moving things across the nation and getting through the important controls which have also been keeping us safe; our childcare workers; and our teachers. It's about so many different workers in so many different areas, like our aged-care workers. So many of them are some of the lowest paid in the nation and so many of them are already in vulnerable employment situations. Far from thanking them and far from giving them that which they deserve, this legislation would actually leave them worse off.

The bill before us today is no way to thank these people for the hard work that they have undertaken for all of us. But I'm not just going to stand here and sprout thanks for the work that they've done. I'm going to stand here to fight against this legislation which this government is proposing and which is about undercutting the employment conditions of these people who we should be thanking. It's not about tokens of gratitude; this is about standing up for their rights, for their employment and for their capacity and ability to look after their families and to put food on the table for them.

Labor is on the side of working families. We know that the way to achieve national reconstruction after a pandemic like this is to focus on jobs. That's not just the raw number of jobs, but good, secure jobs—jobs that have fair pay and conditions, and jobs that make sure people are able to do what they want to do, which is to look after their families. We're on the side of the delivery drivers, the shelf stackers, the cleaners, the aged-care workers, the early childhood workers and all those people working in our hospitals. We know how important all of them are and they will not be forgotten for the work that they have done for our nation. We know how important it is to support local jobs. That means enabling business to employ people and to support those employees to have stability—to know that they have a good job to go to and an income that will put food on the table.

Australians deserve a government that is on their side, and we here are on the side of the underdog against this government. The Morrison government doesn't care, clearly, about these ordinary working Australians. On their watch, we've heard countless broken promises, from sports rorts, dodgy deals and a dud NBN to trillions of dollars of debt. It's on their watch that we have seen wages stagnate and, under this legislation, wages cut and, of course, economic supports which have been needed so desperately, and are still needed, being withdrawn. At the end of March, this Morrison government will leave hundreds of thousands of Australians behind by ending wage subsidies. Currently 1.3 million Australians rely on those wage subsidies. The Treasury department of this government says that 100,000 of those people will lose their jobs as soon as the JobKeeper subsidy is withdrawn.

If the legislation before us passes, as the government wishes it to, there will be no security for the work of these hundreds of thousands—indeed, millions—of Australians. Entire sectors, including tourism and hospitality, will be denied essential support, and job losses will be inevitable. That's why it's important that we talk about the concept of job security and that we understand how important it is. It's why Labor wants to make sure that we have employment legislation that provides security to workers in their workplace and that we're able to ensure that we see wage growth happen in this country, as opposed to the stagnation that we have seen under the government's approach—an official policy of this government, I might add, to suppress wages in this country. But it's not just about the pay cheque; it's about what that enables. It's about helping people to be able to buy their first home or maybe to buy that upgraded home, so that they can fit their expanding family, and so they can put food on the table, provide security and make the decisions that their family need—an opportunity which they don't get when placed in insecure work. It's about providing the confidence to Australian families to spend their hard-earned income which will create growth in our economy, because this government's policy of wage suppression is actively undermining the economic recovery which we all so desperately need and which this government likes to talk about but is not doing anything practical to deliver.

The Minister for Industrial Relations likes to say that the legislation before us is a result of the consultation and broad discussions that were held with the business community and with the union movement. It might be true that this legislation comes after those conversations were held, but it is very clear that this legislation is not a result of any agreement reached or consensus position coming out of those consultations that the government arranged. It is clearly not the case that this legislation is some sort of mutual understanding for economic benefit for all Australians and Australian workers to benefit business and workers. That is not what we have here, as much as the government may try to gild the lily to make it look that way. The most obvious part of that and the most obvious way in which that is demonstrated was the government's decision to include in the legislation, as it was presented to parliament, its changes to the better off overall test.

The better off overall test, or the BOOT, as people like to call it, is a fundamentally essential part of our industrial relations system because it is what enables the flexibility that exists in the system, while making sure that people don't go backwards in providing that flexibility. It's part of what really underlines the idea of enterprise bargaining. You should be able to bargain. We should be able to find true flexibility in our employment relations between workers and employers, to make sure we can deliver the best, most productive outcomes for those businesses and for those workers, but you can't do that if there's a risk that your working rights can be undermined, and that is the purpose of the better off overall test. Yet the government wanted to extend the undermining of this better off overall test for two years through this legislation, once again showing how it is all about undermining wage growth and undermining workers' conditions. The government has said, 'We're going to give the BOOT changes the boot.' They're going to withdraw that component of the bill. And of course that is welcome, but it's still pretty telling. It's still something that all Australian workers should be fundamentally concerned about with this government.

John Howard tried 40 times to remove the unfair dismissal protections from Australian law, and eventually he did it. The government is telegraphing something to Australians in the way they introduce this legislation. They're making it pretty clear. They don't want to talk about it. They try to hide it, but what they're saying here is that this government is more than happy for the term and the concept of 'flexibility in employment' to include undermining fundamental rights of Australians working here. It is completely ridiculous to think that the system will work if you take away those fundamental protections. That's why we are happy that the government has withdrawn it, but we are ever vigilant about what this government is trying to do. It's important that we're vigilant. Look at the rest of this bill and what it is trying to do. They say they're trying to create better protections for casual workers and for bosses by making it clearer what a casual worker is. But, when we look at what they're making clear, they're not making the current law clear. They're not making clear what is and what is not a casual worker, as it is clearly understood in Australia law. No, they're not clarifying. They are fundamentally and substantially changing the definition of 'casual worker' here, making it at the whim of the employer, with no relationship necessarily to how the work is conducted or how rostering is performed. It is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a casual employee that the government is proposing in this legislation. That is something to be guarded against.

What we are seeing, as we have seen throughout the term of this government and indeed before, is the increasing casualisation of our workforce. Employers are not putting on permanent full-time or permanent part-time workers; instead, they are putting on more and more casual workers. The thing is that it's so counterproductive, when we look at it as a whole. Henry Ford understood one fundamental thing in his business proposition: the idea that his own workers should be able to afford to buy the car that they made. The point is that, if you undermine people's working conditions, take away their job security and make them casual instead of permanent part-time, their capacity to spend is reduced. Their capacity to buy not only the fruits of their labour but the product of the employers is less. Economic growth is less. The capacity for our economy to be strong is fundamentally undermined when we make people less secure in their work, and that is what this bill is proposing to do.

The bill has also produced some changes to the way in which bargaining occurs on large greenfield projects. There is certainly something to be said for the concept of providing greater security and certainty to the proponents of these large-scale projects, which can extend for a medium-term length of time, in terms of how their cost structures are going to be affected over the length of an agreement. There is an argument to be made for that, and there is certainly discussion and engagement to be had with the union movement and Australian workers about how we can de-risk those projects. But this legislation does not do that. The idea of having a nominal increase in wages over the length of a long-term agreement, an agreement that could be negotiated with a handful of workers and leave an entire industry's workers undercut and undermined, is not the way to go about doing this. Again, it highlights how this legislation, which the government likes to talk about as being fair, is not about fairness at all.

Then we have wage theft. The government likes to harp on about this. The government likes to say: 'Oh, this legislation is fantastic! You, the Labor Party, should be supporting this legislation because it deals with wage theft.' Well, news for you, government: the wage theft provisions in this bill actively undermine the existing wage theft provisions in some of the states. Yes, it's important to have a national regime, but if you were serious about actually protecting against wage theft then you wouldn't set about doing it in a way that undermines existing protections against wage theft. That's fundamentally important. We have lots of other criminal laws in this country that coexist at a federal and state level. This is not some new invention; we've been doing it for over 100 years. There's no reason we can't get this right. Instead the government has found a way of overriding existing protections in state law by introducing a lower level of protection in the federal law.

It's pretty clear that none of the things that the government is looking to do in this legislation are going to protect Australian workers, provide more secure employment or lead to growth in wages or growth in our economy. That demonstrates the fact that this legislation that the government is putting through is a ruse. The Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations likes to say: 'This is about working better with working Australians. We've come to a great deal after discussing it with the unions. This is about protecting workers.' He might say that in his answers in question time, but, when you look at the content—and I know detail is a bit of a problem for the Minister for Industrial Relations—and at what he's proposed and the way in which he's gone about doing it, he's not delivering on these very important outcomes. That has to be taken in the broader context.

This government likes to walk around and say, 'Oh, but it's going to make it easier to create more jobs.' More jobs that don't afford any additional security to people don't do the job that is needed to be done here. Yes, we need to get more people back into work; that is absolutely the case. There are many people who have been left unemployed because of the pandemic we face. Yet, when we unpick what the government have done, as I mentioned at the beginning of my comments here, they're also proposing to pull the JobKeeper rug out from under Australian small business and the 1.3 million Australians who rely on it to keep their jobs. Treasury says 100,000 people are going to lose their jobs at the end of March because this government is going to remove JobKeeper.

The government like to throw a few breadcrumbs to Australians and say: 'Oh, we're looking at it. We might have something that comes after March.' Well, who for? How does a small business in Australia plan if they don't know whether or not they are going to be eligible for what the government may or may not produce to come in at the end of March? How does a small business plan? Lots of small businesses are planning to have to put their employees on the scrap heap, to wind up their businesses, to let go of staff. How does that help the economy grow? This government owes small business and those 1.3 million workers a better answer than this legislation or removing JobKeeper. (Time expired)

1:21 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. From the beginning of this pandemic Labor has tried to be constructive, to work cooperatively and in a bipartisan way with the government both on the health elements of the pandemic and on the economic reconstruction that will be required as we come out of this recession. We haven't opposed legislation just for the sake of it. We've suggested things in good faith, and some of those have actually been criticised by the government and later adopted by the government. But we haven't said, 'That was our idea; you can't have it.' We have tried to be constructive the whole way through. Like every Australian, we want this country to emerge from the pandemic both healthy and prosperous. We need to get the health response right and we need to make sure that our economy is in a strong position to grow, that we have jobs and prosperity on the other side of this recession.

When it comes to industrial relations, there was absolute goodwill on this side to work constructively with the government. We said that if legislation improved job security and made it possible for Australians to get a pay rise then we would be all for it. The only thing we said we wouldn't be up for was pay cuts and increased insecurity. Sadly, what we see with this legislation is a government determined to go back to its old song sheet when it comes to industrial relations.

We've got before us a bill that would make our recovery slower and more painful than it needs to be. This is something that Labor can never support, because we will always oppose pay cuts and we will always oppose measures to make work less secure in this country. The problem with those opposite is that their plan for after the pandemic is exactly the same as their plan for before the pandemic—lower pay, less job security and less money in retirement. If you were a cynic, you might think that the Prime Minister is using COVID as cover to do all the things he's always wanted to do, as if the pandemic was an excuse to push through the Liberal Party's dream agenda. Look at what's actually been presented here: allowing businesses to sign new enterprise agreements which leave workers worse off than they were before. Of course the government said, 'Okay, we tried to slide that one through but we've been pinged on that, so we're up for negotiation on this one.' Hang on a minute! So we've got a proposal where the government was trying to argue that we should back legislation in this parliament that allowed workers, after negotiating with their employers, to be actually worse off or no better off after signing their new agreement. It is extraordinary to even think that they tried to get away with the proposal that would get rid of the better off overall test in legislation.

Basically, those opposite have one prescription when it comes to industrial relations. It's always the same answer, and that's wage cuts. That is a disaster for the people who are actually subject to those wage cuts. It's terrible. If you're being asked to work longer hours for the same money, if you're being asked to give up penalty rates, if you're being asked to negotiate a new contract that doesn't leave you better off, that's a disaster for you and for your family. Family budgets, we know, are already under a great deal of pressure. People are struggling. People have been struggling for years to make ends meet at a time of historic low wages growth that is impacting every family budget around Australia.

Don't forget: the very people who would be worst impacted by this are the people the Prime Minister last year was calling heroes. They're the transport workers, the shelf stackers, the hospital cleaners, the people who've been on the frontline of this pandemic. Their reward, according to those opposite, is likely to be a pay cut. They're the ones who kept our economy running and our society safe, and those opposite propose that we reward that heroism with a pay cut. This legislation will make their lives more stressful and their bills that much harder to pay.

This bill is bad for families, but it's also bad for our economy as a whole. We know that while wages are stagnant our whole economy suffers. Unless people have a few dollars in their pocket, they're not going to buy a cup of coffee on the way to work and they're not going to take the kids out for pizza on the weekend. They're not going to create work for other Australians while they are uncertain about their income and uncertain that they'll have a job next week or next month or next year. They're going to keep that money in their pocket. That's bad for demand and confidence in our economy. They're less likely to spend money in their local businesses. They're less likely to spend the money that will mean those local businesses put on more staff and create jobs for other people.

The Liberal Party has this basic notion that if we cut wages enough then eventually employers will put on more people. The problem is that there's no actual evidence that it works this way. Every time those opposite have been responsible for pay cuts for Australians, they've said it will create more work and create more jobs. It just hasn't happened in practice. They've been trying this strategy for years, and for eight years we've seen stagnant wages. When those opposite allowed the cuts to penalty rates in 2017, they said that that would create more jobs, but no-one can point to those jobs having been created. There's no reason to think that this time would be any different.

This is where we have the most fundamental disagreement between us and those opposite. We think that a strong economy depends on good wages and confidence. Those opposite think if you cut wages enough, if you make work as insecure as possible, that will drive economic growth. They ignore the impact of confidence, particularly consumer confidence, on the economy. Good, strong wages are the precondition for economic growth. They are the precondition for confidence. They're not a distant end result of trickle-down economics, as those opposite believe.

I notice that we are very close to having to pause debate on this legislation until after question time. I seek leave to continue my remarks after that time.

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

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.