House debates

Monday, 21 November 2022

Private Members' Business

Workplace Relations

5:16 pm

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) Australia's unemployment rate sits at the lowest level since 1974 at 3.4 per cent;

(b) large sectors of the economy are facing jobs and skills shortages due to the tight labour market;

(c) the record low unemployment rate is not translating to significant and strong wages growth in line with inflation and real wages have declined as a consequence; and

(d) the gender pay gap has remained high and has increased in the past 6 months to 14.1 per cent;

(2) acknowledges that:

(a) the gender pay gap is a major concern socially and economically;

(b) the Government's Jobs and Skills Summit worked collaboratively with all stakeholders—unions, business, and advocacy groups to find solutions to skill shortages and close the gender pay gap;

(c) the Jobs and Skills Summit has identified 36 initiatives that can be taken immediately to alleviate skills shortages;

(d) areas of reform in the industrial relations system have been identified to spur wages growth for workers; and

(e) the sectors that will benefit the most from industrial relations reform are undervalued areas such as childcare, aged care and disability support, which are female-dominated sectors and are less likely to collectively bargain;

(3) supports further consultation with all groups to solve Australia's economic issues and to set Australia up for further decades of economic and social growth; and

(4) expresses concern over the increase in the gender pay gap and the decline of real wages and supports any efforts to alleviate these issues.

Australians are currently facing a cost-of-living crisis and have had to face the highest levels of inflation in more than 30 years whilst also suffering from a decade of wage stagnation. The inflation crisis we are experiencing has wiped any wage growth in the last eight years. Australians are now grappling with the consequences of real wages going backwards. One in four Australians is struggling to get by, according to a recent ANU survey. Workers are enduring a cut in pay, despite the same survey noting that the average for hours worked has increased over that time. Real wages are now back to where they were in 2012.

Despite the fact that unemployment has been consistently low and has not been seen at these levels since 1974, Australians are not reaping the benefits. It has not translated into wages growth, which points to an industrial relations system that has been undermined and is no longer working. Of course, this is due in part to a previous government's strategy of low wages growth as a feature of its economic policy. At every corner, Australian workers have seen their conditions degrade, with working environments becoming less safe, job security disappearing and inadequate pay for their labour. Nothing has highlighted this more than the pandemic. We saw essential workers thanked yet not paid fairly. We saw unfair dismissal of thousands of workers, and we saw that many workers could not take a single day off without serious financial consequences. This is just not good enough.

Our government convened the Jobs and Skills Summit, bringing together industry, unions and stakeholders to identify areas of reform and improve how the economy works for all Australians. The summit agreed that getting the economy working for female participation was a must. Women tend to be undervalued and underpaid, yet they work in some of the most important areas of our economy, from child care to aged care. Ensuring that these predominantly female workers can fight for better pay and conditions is a key element of the Albanese government's economic agenda. A key proposal raised at the Jobs and Skills Summit was to extend paid parental leave. Labor introduced paid parental leave, and it was Labor that strengthened it in its recent budget. This will boost women's participation and encourage more dads to take parental leave.

The government has also supported a raise to the minimum wage in line with inflation because that increase would directly impact the sectors where workers have been most affected by low wage growth. Additionally, we're committed to funding the outcomes of the aged-care workers case that was before the Fair Work Commission, which recently announced an interim decision to lift the minimum wage of aged-care workers by 15 per cent. The Albanese government will also be reducing the cost of child care for over 1.2 million Australian families because we know that a significant barrier for women going back into the workforce or picking up extra shifts is the cost of child care.

The economy is suffering a skills shortage that needs to be addressed in many ways. Offering women the option to work extra hours—that work for them and their family—is just one way of tackling this problem. The government also acknowledges that training Australians is crucial to alleviating these skills shortage. The $1 billion national skills agreement with the states and territories is also important. It will provide 180,000 fee-free TAFE and vocational education places in 2023.

The absence of planning and the lack of coordinated response to the skills and labour shortage over the last 10 years has contributed to the current crisis. According to the National Skills Commission priority list, shortages have nearly doubled in the past year from 156 to 286 occupations. The budget also supports the TAFE Technology Fund in building a clean energy workforce and supports Jobs and Skills Australia.

It is time to get wages moving again and to get Australians trained for the jobs of the future. It's time for the industrial relations systems to change, and for the lowest-paid workers and female dominated sectors to be at the heart of the reforms. That's what the Albanese government seeks to do in order to improve the situation for all Australians. All Australians will benefit when all sectors and all workers have extra wages to spend in our economy.

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

Is the motion seconded?

Gordon Reid (Robertson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

5:21 pm

Allegra Spender (Wentworth, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Werriwa for proposing this motion. My contribution today will focus primarily on the gender pay gap, and I agree entirely with the member for Werriwa that it is a major social and economic concern. But, while the gender pay gap may originate as a financial issue, it doesn't stop there. It flows to girls' and women's sense of self-worth and confidence, our mental health and our ability to care for ourselves and our families.

According to KPMG, almost a quarter of the gender pay gap is explained by the types of jobs that women do. This is critical, and I commend the government for trying to address some of this through the low-wage stream of their recent industrial relations bill. I absolutely support the recent 15 per cent pay increase for aged-care workers. While I support elements of the bill that just went through, I believe that we should have addressed the gender pay gap through other awards as well, such as childcare awards, to make a real difference to workers today. I also want to acknowledge that, while the government, I believe, is genuinely trying to address this, there are real concerns from the business community about elements of the bill, which we need to address and consider very carefully.

Going back to the gender pay gap, there is still much more to do despite the work that I think the government is genuinely trying to do here. We need to ensure that the government, businesses and community don't ignore the other drivers of the pay gap, particularly including gender discrimination, care and family obligations. It is astonishing that gender discrimination persists in Australia and that it is the largest driver of the gender pay gap, accounting for 36 per cent of the total. That's right: the persistence of gender discrimination is the biggest driver of the gender pay gap.

There are a variety of drivers of this discrimination, but it includes greater scrutiny of female workers, fewer opportunities for social-capital formation and different standards in relation to recruitment and pay negotiations. We, as a community, need to work doggedly and systematically to identify and resolve these barriers to female equality and success. Other important drivers are care and family responsibilities, particularly career interruptions around parenthood. This is very close to my heart and very close to the hearts of many families in Wentworth.

A recent Treasury report estimates that women's earnings fall 55 per cent in the five years after they become a parent, which is what they call 'the motherhood penalty'—as if late, sleepless nights weren't quite enough! This is driven by lower participation in paid work, fewer hours worked by those who choose work and lower hourly pay. Treasury's work shows that it's the mothers who suffer this penalty, rather than the parents. The fatherhood penalty is virtually non-existent. This is corroborated by Grattan Institute research, based on OECD data, which shows that men account for just two per cent of primary-carer parental leave in Australia. The OECD average is around 17 per cent, which just shows how far behind we are. It also shows that the reform needed is particularly cultural reform.

We have a problem in Australia in that we automatically expect mothers to be the primary carers. Many families spend a lot of time thinking about whether to have children and how many to have, but they don't spend as much time thinking about how the parenting workload will be split up, who the primary carer will be and what the social and economic implications of that decision will be. These decisions matter. It's a conversation that couples should be having before they become parents. It is also a conversation in which we need to redress the balance and accept that this should be a very open conversation rather than one which has assumed roles built in.

My hope is that the proposed reforms to paid parental leave will help encourage couples to have this conversation. I very much support the government's choice to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks, but for me it is absolutely crucial that at least six of those weeks are held as 'use it or lose it' for the second parent, because we need to change the culture for raising our children. We already have two weeks of paid second-parent leave at the moment, but it just doesn't get taken up and it doesn't change the culture. We need to change the culture so that men—and it is typically men who are second parents—are involved with caring from the beginning, because this makes a difference to the gender pay gap, but it also makes a difference for male mental health, for male connection to children and for children's development. It's absolutely crucial, and we must change the culture for raising our children in this country.

This could make a real difference in the gap and to the lives of women right around the country. It's no silver bullet. There's a lot more that needs to be done, but it's an important and practical reform which we can and should deliver and support in the new year.

5:26 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd first like to thank my very good friend the member for Werriwa for raising this very important motion. I do know very sincerely how importantly the member for Werriwa takes this issue, particularly gender pay equity, as well as the importance of equal sharing of parenthood, and I totally agree. I am very proud to be part of a government that's actively working towards growing wages and improving the quality of life for all Australians, especially those in low-paid sectors that are largely female dominated. As the parent of three boys and three daughters, I can say that my wife and I didn't raise our children with any expectation that they would be treated differently in the workforce or that they would, if they were female, have to accept lower pay than their brothers. I certainly think the world has changed, and we must persevere in our efforts to make equity in pay and equity in work important for all of us across the entire political spectrum.

My own professional field of paediatrics has had gender equity and equity of pay for many, many years and I've been very proud to work with some incredible women in paediatrics: my friend Professor Elizabeth Elliott from the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Professor Kathryn North from the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Professor Ingrid Scheffer in Melbourne and, of course, the most famous paediatrician in Australia, Professor Fiona Stanley. They all worked in my field of paediatrics and all worked in a field that treated them equitably, and I hope this will continue in following generations.

An example of our government's view on this is our submission to the Fair Work Commission's annual wage review, which argued that workers who are the lowest paid in our country must have their wages increased. For too long these workers have seen their wages remain stagnant, harming their ability to keep up with ever-increasing costs of living; yet executive positions, which are mostly male dominated, have had astounding increases in their pay in the last couple of decades. This has impacted many, many families in both the electorate of Werriwa and, of course, my electorate of Macarthur, which are adjoining electorates, and I was very pleased when our government's argument won the day. Not only that; all Australians won as a result of the approval of a 15 per cent increase in wages for those in the lowest-paid categories. The commission agreed with our submission. As a result, 2.7 million Australian workers benefited, with a 5.2 per cent increase in the national minimum wage and a 4.6 per cent increase for all other award wages. We made another submission arguing for a pay increase for all aged-care workers to the Fair Work Commission. Aged-care workers that I know work incredibly hard. They do some of the hardest work in our communities. You only have to watch them work in an aged-care setting to realise how difficult their work is, both emotionally and physically. Of course, during the pandemic they were on the frontline fighting against the virus to protect our elderly citizens and our most vulnerable. This, again, resulted in a win for these workers, with a verdict delivering a 15 per cent pay rise to aged-care workers, with a possibility of a further increase. Minister Burke summed it up well when he said that this result was the first step in our fight for increased wages and gender pay equity, particularly in industries that are low paid and female dominated.

It has been widely reported recently that we're struggling to fill job vacancies in many industries. This is only going to get worse until we get gender pay equity and fair wages for fair work, and work conditions to attract and retain our workers. We have to fight for fair minimum standards for workers in this nation, particularly those working in the gig economy. Those entering employment by labour hire companies are particularly at risk, and some increases in pay for these workers are urgently needed. I appreciate the collaborative approach taken by the Prime Minister during the Jobs and Skills Summit and the wonderful results of that Jobs and Skills Summit. One of the finest achievements thus far is the expansion of paid parental leave, which will be of enormous benefit not only to my family but to many of the families in Macarthur. As a paediatrician and a parent, I applaud these changes as a sign of a new world coming in fair pay for Australian workers.

I thank Ms Stanley, the member for Werriwa, for this motion. I think it's very timely and I think the rest of the parliament will follow her lead in advocating for gender pay equity across the community. Thank you.

5:31 pm

Photo of Terry YoungTerry Young (Longman, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's my pleasure to rise, today, to speak on jobs and skills. This topic, jobs and skills, has always been one of my greatest passions. The reason I am so passionate about these subjects is that, rightly or wrongly, people derive their self-worth from what they do, so when they do nothing they feel like they are worth nothing and they act accordingly. People getting into jobs not only changes their life, it changes the life of their entire community. The data tells us that when unemployment rates go down, so do crime rates, drug use rates and domestic violence rates. When people get a job that they love, that's a whole other level.

I was pleased to see that this government was going to attempt to maintain the momentum created by the last coalition government in the jobs and training sectors. We saw the lowest unemployment rate in half a century obtained recently, and the benefit from the last government's policies and management will continue, I will say, until the middle of next year. This is when the fruits, healthy or rotten, of the new government will be tasted. I am pleased that this government has announced it will continue the 15,000 new places for aged-care training that the coalition announced in its last term, although I am concerned that they have announced that all funding will go to public providers only. The reason this concerns me is that private RTOs have been providing 70 to 80 per cent of training across our VET sector, and according to Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia, or ITECA, 79 per cent of women are trained through private RTOs. I am absolutely for TAFE, but I am also a big fan of private RTOs.

Competition is crucial in any industry, including the VET sector. People need options and flexibility when selecting who they do their training with. Whether their challenge be geographical or flexibility with time, due to family or work commitments, they simply need more than nine to five, Monday to Friday providers. I would love to go a step further and see funding for all RTOs, private and public, tied to outcomes. Sadly, I know that is just a pipe dream. There is also an indication that this government may cut skills funding for apprentices. The last time Labor did this the number of people in training fell by 111,000 between June 2012 and June 2013. We simply cannot afford for this to happen again. When speaking with employers, apprentices and group training organisations, they tell me the coalition's apprentice wage subsidy program was a godsend. It encouraged employers who wouldn't normally have put on an apprentice, to give one a go. This was great news for everyone, and especially for those in such sectors as the residential building sector, where there is a massive shortage of tradies. This scheme resulted in record numbers of apprentices, and for the first time in our nation's history we hit over 220,000 apprentices. It would be a great pity if the scheme was not continued. It was also great to see under the coalition in the last term that women's employment rose by 41,000 and that we were able to reduce the gender pay gap by four percentage points from when we took over government from Labor in 2013. The NSC, or National Skills Commission, was another jewel in the coalition government's crown, with the organisation identifying where skills shortages actually were. After all, what is the point of training people for jobs that don't exist?

When I'm visiting businesses in my electorate of Longman, the No. 1 complaint I get from employers is that they simply cannot get workers to fill available jobs. Then I speak to constituents who are unemployed, and they say they can't get a job. I was puzzled by this, so my team and I decided to run a jobseeker expo. We invited jobactive providers, group-training organisations and disability employment services, as well as employers who had actual jobs going on the day. I'm so pleased to say that I was out at one of those employers, Rockpool aged care, for their residents' art exhibition, and they excitedly shared with me that they had employed three people who attended the expo. That's three lives changed and an employer that is able to continue to offer its elderly residents the standard of care and service they deserve.

While we had this skills shortage, the coalition just before the last election developed a policy to double the income credit for age pensioners from $7,800 to $15,600 to engage those in our community who have retired and would still be willing to work but don't want to lose their pension. This government has increased the threshold to $11,800, which is a start, although short of our policy of doubling it. I sincerely hope that any new initiatives and programs developed and implemented by this government achieve outcomes that we as a society all crave—that is, lower unemployment and workers obtaining the skills they need to develop their dream career.

5:36 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Werriwa for this motion on industrial relations. I am really glad that we are getting to speak on it, because in the last sitting we weren't able to. I'm really glad that it has come up again.

Whilst I don't usually point out the weaknesses of the previous government, because they are clear to all, they were in office for almost 10 years and the gender pay gap hardly moved. Notwithstanding that, it was a deliberate strategy of the former federal government, whether it was under Abbott, Turnbull or Morrison, the member for Cook, to keep wages low. What we and Australians have seen in the six months of our government under the Prime Minister and member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese, is the smart turning around of that.

According to the OECD, Australia is experiencing the second-most severe labour shortage in the developed world. That has been exacerbated by COVID 19 and those 10 long years of policy neglect. As honourable members will know, Australian businesses are crying out for workers. The migrants who have made or want to make Australia home have been trapped mostly in an administrative limbo for years. It's no secret that the cost of living has always been higher in places like the one that I represent in northern Australia. In the regions generally in Australia we pay a bit more for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that it is difficult to attract workers, and there is an insufficient focus on training so that Aussie kids and, in my example, Territory kids have the skills. That's where fee-free TAFE and more federally funded university places come in.

I continually speak with businesses and industry groups in my electorate about the challenges they're facing. The worker shortage is by far the biggest concern up in our neck of the woods. The member for Gorton, the Minister for Skills and Training, recently came to Darwin, and we met with a broad cross-section of industry. They all told him the same thing, that a lack of skilled workers, whether they be from overseas or through us training our own is adding to the increased cost of living and it is affecting productivity. It is acute.

Unfortunately the previous government left our migration system and education and training sectors in crisis. They did not support either group when COVID hit, and migrants were understandably choosing other nations ahead of Australia because they found that their systems were simpler, quicker and cheaper to navigate. They did not want to sit around waiting for years for us to decide whether we could use their skills or not. Just imagine the productivity and the growth that would have occurred if we had supported people to stay. They've moved on and now we are caught short.

The migration system needs review, and that is what we are doing. Businesses are finding it exceedingly difficult to hire staff. The processing times for visas means businesses are waiting much too long—many months, often years—for an application to be processed, and that is why we've put more staff into the processing of those applications. The feedback I have had from Hospitality NT and other industry stakeholders is that restaurants in Darwin and Palmerston in my electorate are finding it incredibly difficult to find chefs and floor staff, and sometimes they are having to close midweek, or they are only opening a few nights a week or having to close the kitchen early when they do open.

A call out to any young Territorians and young Australians: come up to the north if you want some work. We have some work in our hospo industry. Some of our hospitality businesses are finding it so difficult with fewer openings and less revenue. Their leases and overhead costs are no lower, so it is a very difficult time for them. The biggest thing that I think we have seen from this government is support of workers on lower wages, and that is something I am very proud of.

5:42 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the motion by the member for Werriwa concerning the skills shortages in the Australian workforce, the means to address it and, sadly, the lingering and increasing gender pay gap that really has not been the focus of government for too long. The Jobs and Skills Summit highlighted the importance of unlocking all the skills already in the country and developing more comprehensive workforce planning to address both the immediate labour market issues and skills shortages in some areas, and also the long-term plan. In the time that I attended the Jobs and Skills Summit I was surprised at how little talk there was about education. There were a lot of other issues raised, but not sufficient discussion when it came to education.

There was a lot of talk in terms of immigration. In some areas we have high unemployment or underemployment, and we have a critical shortage of workers. This is true in regions and also in the cities. In my electorate of Warringah businesses, especially in hospitality and retail, are crying out for workers. They are unable to open full hours or are having to reduce some of their hours of operation because they simply can't put on a full contingent of staff. Yet in the electorate of Fowler, just on the other side of the city, there is over 10 per cent unemployment. So we have to understand: why is that happening? We need to look at ways to breach the barriers to relocating for work and the affordability of transport to better connect workers with jobs available in different communities.

This motion refers to the gender pay gap, and I welcome the movements by the government to increase the affordability of childcare and improve the ability of women to participate in the workforce. I also welcome the commitment to increase access to paid parental leave, although I'd argue that 2026 for full implementation of this measure is simply too late; it's taking too long. We know that these measures will unlock skills and have a positive economic dividend, so I would ask: why delay the implementation? This should be accelerated. There is further room for improvement in this space. We know that it is more often than not women who take time out for caring responsibilities. It is not always just a childcare issue; it is caring for elderly parents as we have an aging population. I have requested the women's economic equality committee work on a proposal, and I will be working with it, to ensure that there is better equity for men and women who take time out from their paid employment for caring roles, so that when they return to work there is some process of compensation, essentially, for that time and for the loss of income-earning capacity and of superannuation. That's through a system of income averaging, which is a system I was familiar with during my time as a professional athlete, but it is a system we have in other professions. I think it is a way in which we could start to recalibrate and to better value and provide assistance to those taking that time out.

When we talk jobs and skills shortages, immigration is a very important lever for improving skills in Australia, and it was very much the focus of the Jobs and Skills Summit. We have to remember that education is a huge export industry for Australia, but unfortunately, many of those we educate here then leave. They take their skills elsewhere. We need to find ways to keep those who are educated here and who have the skills we need in the country so they contribute to and build Australian businesses. We need a strong campaign to encourage the transitory workforce to return. As we come into summer months, we need backpackers and students to come back in droves to work in our hospitality and tourism sectors. Businesses in Warringah and Manly in particular are still crying out for staff.

But we need better long-term planning for a future workforce that not only addresses the key labour market challenges of decarbonisation, ageing population, participation rates for women and First Nations people, and digitisation. We need to co-ordinate all of this. We know young people will not have one job for life. We cannot even imagine the jobs of the future, so we need to implement an adaptive and dynamic process to ensure Australia thrives. So developing the skills required in advance of the jobs and skills—two-thirds of Australia's top 50 economists said that education and skills was the top issue that needed to be addressed at the summit. The government needs to set the guidelines of what our industries are and provide the necessary incentives for investment to congregate around those skills, research and development. I certainly welcomed the inclusion recently of additional professions of the fashions and textiles industry into apprenticeship programs, but we can and should do more.

5:47 pm

Dan Repacholi (Hunter, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support the motion on industrial relations that was moved by member for Werriwa. I will start by emphasising the importance of the issue raised in this motion, particularly wage growth, or the lack of it, and the gender pay gap.

These issues impact most Australians are issues that were neglected by and, in the view of many, were caused by the former government. In the Hunter people are going to work and, at the end of every week, are realising their pay buys them less than it did the week before, unfortunately. They aren't working less. Their jobs aren't any easier. Why is their pay buying them less and less? This isn't a new issue. It's just more serious now than ever before. This is a real issue that impacts real people.

I take great pride in being part of the only government in the last decade to care about workers and their wages. I'm honoured to speak here today about our government's plan to address the gender pay gap, but at the same time, I'm disappointed that the previous government sat back and did nothing for a decade. We should not be here fixing the mess left by those who came before us, but nonetheless here we are. We have got straight on with the job. We didn't waste any time in getting wages moving. In our first week, we made a submission to the annual wage review and argued wages of low-paid workers shouldn't be going backwards. As a result of this we had a 5.2 per cent increase to the national minimum wage and a 4.6 per cent increase for all other award wages. Because we are a government that prioritises people, we helped to raise the wages of up to 2.7 million employees, making their life just a little bit easier, making the burden of an increasing cost of living just a little bit less.

It is a fact that women play an equally important role in the workforce as men, so it makes sense the gender pay gap is addressed. It should not and cannot be ignored. On average, women earn $263.90 less than a man each week. There is no reason why this should be the case, and there is no reason why we can't fix it. That's why our government is taking steps to address this issue by making gender equity an object of the Fair Work Act and strengthening the Fair Work Commission's ability to order pay increases for workers in low-paid female-dominated industries.

It must be embarrassing for those opposite to know that our government has achieved more for workers, and specifically women, in the country in only six months than they did in nearly a decade. Yet, still, there will be some who rise today to tell us that the issues we're addressing are the fault of our government while at the same time overlooking and disregarding their decade of incompetence and warped priorities that led us to the current decisions.

The fact that they continue to stand in this place and have the audacity to tell us that the economic issues facing this country just popped in over the last six months shows how petty and politically minded they are. I would need a magnifying glass to find some logic in the arguments of those opposite, and I still doubt I would find any. All I would find is self-interest and blame shifting. They are here for political pointscoring, but our government is here for all Australians, making sure no-one is held back and no-one gets left behind.

I'm here standing up for the Hunter. I'm making sure that women in my electorate get the pay they deserve, equal to their male colleagues. I'm fighting to make sure that, when the lives of people in the Hunter become more expensive, their wages rise to help them afford the things they need to get by in life. Once again, I thank you, Member for Werriwa, for getting this going and your very good work.

5:51 pm

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

In rising to speak on this motion, the first thing I'd say is that it's really important in the social compact that we have in this country that there is a share in the growth of our wealth between profit and wages. It's very important that, if the economy's growing, investors and their capital get a fair return, and, equally, as the economy's growing, that wages are increasing in real terms. The devastating reality right now is that wages are going backwards at the worst rate they have this millennium, effectively. With inflation at 7.3 per cent and the latest wage growth figure at 3.1 per cent, we've never seen wages going backwards as much as they are right now.

What's worse, the budget that Labor handed down a few weeks ago says inflation is going to increase to eight per cent. So, unless wage growth is dramatically growing from its current 3.1 per cent, in real terms, workers will go backwards under Labor to the tune of about five per cent, which is absolutely devastating for them. It's an urgent crisis that needs to be addressed. Frankly, it shouldn't be addressed by increasing wages by eight per cent; we have to get inflation down from eight per cent.

If wages are outstripping inflation at that rate, we will have the terrible circumstances that we have seen before, particularly in the 1970s. This is why it's so regrettable that, in the spectre of that horrendous impact on some of the most vulnerable, lowest-earning people in our economy, we have a government that wants to take the industrial relations system back to the era that destroyed their wages in that way by having inflation and wages chase each other into the double digits. It's a frightening time for Australian workers, with that prospect looking at them straight down the barrel.

We in the opposition are desperately hoping that some sense will be seen when it comes to the risk and what it will mean to working people in this country if we take the industrial relations system back to the 1970s. People like Paul Keating know this all too well. He would be privately—and maybe not so privately, at times—despairing at the attitude in the government to effectively take us back to a situation where, instead of having the enterprise bargaining apparatus that he established, which was working very well, we have the Gillard-Rudd system that was put in place, which effectively destroyed enterprise bargaining. We know that from the data and statistics. That industrial relations apparatus that Labor themselves put in place is the one that they're now criticising and attacking. It has led to a decade of the Fair Work Act, or 13 years in fact, given that the Fair Work Act was legislated in 2009. I don't mind accepting it hasn't been successful. It was Labor's concoction. But, in terms of the solution that they're proposing, I think the medicine will be even worse than the shortcomings of the system that they put in place. If they have failed and if the Fair Work Act of the Gillard-Rudd era has been a failure, what we should be doing is improving it, but what is being proposed is nothing like that whatsoever.

We have a large crossbench in the parliament, so at times they can be an interesting barometer. There is slim support from the crossbench. The Greens are on board. That says it all: the Greens are on board. You've got the Greens and the Labor Party. Whenever the Greens are in favour of something, be very, very wary. There were some in the Labor Party who used to know to be very wary when the Greens are liking what you're looking to do. People like Paul Keating who designed a modern system that we should be returning to—we should be improving the BOOT test and improving the ability at the enterprise level to negotiate agreements and have, at the core of that, business productivity that is shared between profit and wage growth. That's the kind of system that we could be embarking on to fix all the problems in the Gillard-Rudd workplace relations system that we currently operate under.

That is not what's being proposed, regrettably. As inflation is heading towards eight per cent and wages growth is at 3.1 per cent—so wages are, under Labor, deteriorating in real terms by about five per cent—now is the time to very seriously reconsider where you're heading, focus on getting inflation down and focus on real wages growth driven at the enterprise level between businesses and employees.

5:56 pm

Matt Burnell (Spence, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to this debate in support of the motion moved by my colleague the member for Werriwa, and I thank her for moving this motion. It is important to speak about the economic circumstances that the Albanese Labor government inherited when it took office, particularly concerning the state of the labour market and wages, the gender wage gap and the efforts that government has undertaken to get things back on track by way of the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022 and the establishment of Jobs and Skills Australia.

When the Albanese Labor government took office, it inherited what can only be diplomatically described as a mixed economic bag, especially when our gaze turns towards the labour market and real wages. On one hand, we have an unemployment rate of 3.4 per cent and a tight labour market, but, if you look beyond the headline figure and dig a little bit deeper, you'll see a very different story. The story you'll see, when you pair the wage price index alongside the consumer price index, is that real wages are going backwards. How could unemployment be so low? Employers are crying out for vacancies to be filled, yet wages still stagnate. Now we have identified some key ingredients that were baked into our economy by those opposite. When I hear rhetoric from the other side of the chamber about what a strong set of economic fundamentals were left to the Albanese Labor government by those opposite, I'll call a spade a spade and call that nothing but economic gaslighting. Those opposite likely refer to this flaw as a 'design feature', depending on the audience they have at the time.

Coupled with stagnating wages and going backward in real terms, we also have a gender pay gap sitting at 14.1 per cent. From the latest figures across all industries, women are earning $263 less than men every week. It adds up, particularly when it comes to someone's ability to save, pay down debt and, most importantly, grow their superannuation. We have heard, as part of this debate, that it has sat stubbornly between 14 and 19 per cent for 20 years—a problem of governments of both persuasions—and it's the Albanese Labor government that feels persuaded to tackle this problem head on.

I vividly remember the final leaders debate during the election campaign. As a candidate at the time, I was watching intently. It was a watershed moment, especially for those out there in the community who felt there was really no difference between the two major parties of government. What you had was our Prime Minister up against the former Prime Minister—the former minister for most things, as we discovered later—the member for Cook. During that debate, our Prime Minister was asked if he backed an increase to the minimum wage in line with inflation. The answer was simple, yes. This was met with derision from the member for Cook and sections of the media. Within days of the dust settling from the election, the government stood up for the lowest paid workers and made a submission to the annual wage review, bringing about a win for workers who needed it the most. Low wages won't just fix themselves when the system is stacked against workers.

Lastly, I'd like to touch on another part of the member for Werriwa's motion concerning the Jobs and Skills Summit that was held in early September this year. The summit was something our country sorely needed in order to hit the reset button on some of the factory settings that are holding us all back. In the lead-up to the summit, I held a roundtable in my electorate of Spence. I know that many others in this place did the same. Many of the key findings at the end relate to getting wages moving. Other findings involved the need to expand educational opportunities.

This is why I'm extremely pleased to see the Albanese Labor government sign a skills agreement with the South Australian Malinauskas Labor government as the first cab off the rank. The agreement will see around 12½ thousand fee-free TAFE and vocational education places open up in 2023. Many of these places involve industries of high need, such as the care, hospitality and agricultural sectors, to name a few. As we know, we can upskill people into these industries, but we also need to make joining these industries a worthy endeavour. Having a government that is committed to increasing wages, improving industrial relations settings and boosting conditions, particularly for highly feminised industries and for some of our lowest paid, goes a long way to unwinding the industrial malaise of the previous government.

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will made an order of the day for the next sitting.