Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021


Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading

6:55 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. I cannot support this bill in the form in which it has been presented. I do note that in the last probably three or four minutes One Nation have circulated a number of amendments. What I would say is, even though I'm always open-minded about amendments and will have a look at things, there is no time to look at them properly. That's the tragedy of the way in which the government has managed this legislation. They'd only really secured two crossbench votes this afternoon to the point where amendments had been circulated, giving no-one any time to consider what those amendments do. I know many people have spoken before me on some of the defects in the current bill, and I'm not going to repeat what those defects are because they've been covered quite significantly by other speakers. What I do want to talk about is alternatives.

I'm going to start by talking about the Governor-General's speech on the first day of the 46th Parliament. I'm going to be careful not to breach standing orders, so I'll have to say that the Governor-General's speech is, in fact, the Prime Minister's speech and so I'm not being critical of the Governor-General when I criticise what was said. I will say that that speech was quite uninspiring. It was about carving up the current economic pie, rather than growing it. There could have been a Labor election win and I might have heard the same sorts of things: talk about education, talk about social housing, talk about Defence—a whole range of different portfolio conversations, but none of them inspirational. I found it quite troubling that there was no vision in that particular speech. Then we got hit by a pandemic. We saw threat to life, we saw threat to basic supplies, we saw loss of jobs. But we all came together to get through COVID. Now we're almost out and on the other side of the pandemic, although I won't say we're completely out.

We're almost out and just starting to come back from some of the most dramatic health, economic and social events of recent times, caused by a global pandemic with massive consequences, disruption and dislocation, and what does the coalition do? What's the first item on their agenda? They immediately reach into their bottom drawer, or maybe it's the drawer of the Business Council of Australia, and pull out—surprise, surprise—an industrial relations package, a so-called reform package that would, if enacted in full as originally proposed, be to the very considerable disadvantage of many workers and their families. Instead of learning from COVID, instead of growing the pie, instead of building in resilience, they went back to the traditional battlegrounds that they typically have with the Labor Party. I guess it's a case of 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks' or perhaps, in the case of the Liberal Party, 'old dogs only know one trick'.

When I look at the big picture of what is happening in Australia at the moment, I can see that companies are faring pretty well. Certainly, if the ASX200 index is anything to go by, some of that wellness has been fuelled by taxpayer funded JobKeeper allowances or subsidies that have been used contrary to their legitimate intent. We've seen some businesses behaving quite poorly throughout all of this. On the other side of the ledger, we have seen stagnant wage growth. The wage growth index has been plummeting over the last decade, and that has to be of concern. Now, I'm not a person who says we don't let businesses profit. I actually am a strong believer in those taking a lead in business and taking a risk doing well from that; good on them. But there needs to be some sharing of wealth and prosperity; that's the way it has to be. That does not appear to be happening.

I can listen to people talk about trickle-down economics over and over again, but then I look at the data and it's not working. So I think to myself, 'Where are the policies that talk about how we assist business to grow?' Rather than trying to take the current pie that we have and carve it up in a different way, how do we make this pie bigger? How do we make it tastier? That's missing. There are a number of things we could do. Government procurement is an example. We could give some emphasis to Australian businesses in government procurement. I remember that one of the first things we did as we were dealing with COVID was to give our COVIDSafe application to a foreign entity. Rather than injecting that money into a local capability that would help retain jobs, we put ourselves in a situation where we gave it to an overseas entity. Indeed, that created some problems because of the US CLOUD Act. But when you do that, when you don't support Australian industry, not only do you give the foreign entity money, which they then reinvest in their own company to be better able to compete against Australian companies; you end up giving a double negative whammy to Australian companies.

We need to think about the way in which we do procurement. Clause 4.7 of the Commonwealth Procurement Rules allows government officials to take account of the economic benefit of contracting with a particular party. That doesn't mean it has to be an Australian party, but you look at the party and you say, 'How many jobs are they creating? What capital investment are they making? What's the supply chain effect of the procurement?' We can use that to inject government money back into our own economy, stimulating jobs, helping with the wealth that we want to see here in Australia and doing other things like helping in relation to national resilience—something that, as a result of the pandemic, we have learnt we need to have regard of.

Now, the government says we can't do this. There's a whole bunch of people who are fanatics in relation to free trade and they say, 'Well, we've got to have free trade,' and I get that we're a trading nation. I'm not discouraging us from being a trade nation, but when we procure things we can't look at a foreign entity and try to compare them with the Australian entity, because the Australian entity may have to pay minimum wages, they may have to pay a leave loading, they may have to pay long service leave, they may have to comply with occupational health and safety requirements and they may have to comply with environmental requirements. All of those are good things, but they drive up the cost of the business. The government basically mandates those things, but then doesn't recognise it when it compares a product that comes from another jurisdiction where they don't have all of those things that make our society what it is today. So the government needs to stop pretending that there is a level playing field or that it likes to have a level playing field in procurement, because it simply doesn't. There is no level playing field.

Where are the plans to support value-adding? We need to stop just exporting our rocks. We need to stop just exporting lithium and, rather, export batteries. Where's the government's plan on doing that? Where's the legislation that has been brought forward that allows and permits us to do that sort of activity? Don't just export iron ore; export steel. Value-add. Grow the jobs. Develop intellectual property. That's what happens when you do that value-adding. Again, the government doesn't want to do it, because they think they're going to skew the market. Well, let's look at what's happening in Whyalla at the moment. Because we're not backing Australian companies, Australian industry, we've got the situation where Whyalla may well face a company going into administration. I don't blame the government for that, but having the policies that enable us to stand up and support our industries is extremely important. Again, it's growing the pie, not carving up the existing pie.

With respect to infrastructure policies: we had a $10 billion boost in infrastructure programs, but what most people don't understand is that the government places requirements on infrastructure contractors that mean only tier 1s can get the big jobs. Here's the sad news: there are no Australian tier 1s. We actually have a policy, implemented by this government, that mandates the use of foreign companies. Those foreign companies, of course, subcontract here in Australia because the work has to be done here, but they squeeze the supply chain. They squeeze the profit out and it goes back to the head company. They get rid of it overseas, by way of transfer pricing, licensing—a whole range of different accounting tricks—to low-tax jurisdictions. Why aren't we fixing that?

Indeed, while I'm on tax, we know there are so many companies that are paying no tax at all, not contributing. It's money that could come into consolidated revenue and be employed to assist small businesses, doing much more than this legislation would do, but it's all missing. As some senators will be aware, together with Senator Lambie I have circulated amendments to the bill which effectively block almost everything in the bill, except for the wage theft and enforcement provisions. Those would remedy situations where we have wage theft, and we do have to deal with that wage theft. Will my amendments be acceptable to government? I don't know. I don't think so. Unfortunately, the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations is still on leave, so we probably won't have any authoritative response from him in respect of whether or not the amendments are palatable. Again, I don't think they will be, because they really do gut the bill. But it's the only way that I can see that the bill can be supported at this point in time.

It is clear that One Nation are on board. We've now had Senator Roberts circulate amendments, so one presumes that they are on board. Again, they're very late and it's almost impossible to do the analysis to work out whether or not you can support them. We also don't know how those amendments might interact with the other player who's left, Centre Alliance's Senator Griff. I won't speak for Senator Lambie but, noting that she has co-sponsored my amendments, we're in a situation where ultimately this will come down to Senator Griff—informed, of course, by his colleague in the other place, Ms Rebekha Sharkie. They have all the cards. The government have time pressure here because they want to deal with this between now and tomorrow, so Centre Alliance are in the box seat. They'd better use that position well. They'd better use it to get some really good amendments that strike the right balance between business and workers, because right now the bill doesn't do that.

Unfortunately, we don't actually know what Senator Griff is doing and what Ms Sharkie's views are because Senator Griff is not on the speakers list. That, to me, is in some sense disrespectful. He has the casting vote on this but is not prepared to come into the chamber and explain to the people of South Australia, whom he represents, exactly what his position is. In all of the bills I get involved in where there's controversy and I might have a casting vote or a significant say in what happens, I stand in this chamber and tell people what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I think that needs to happen. In closing, my message to Senator Griff is: come into the chamber and explain yourself. You clearly feel a particular way about this bill, but you need to stand up in the second reading debate and explain to the people of South Australia what your position is and why.


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