Senate debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Excise Tariff Amendment (Cost of Living Support) Bill 2022, Customs Tariff Amendment (Cost of Living Support) Bill 2022; Second Reading

7:20 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Excise Tariff Amendment (Cost of Living Support) Bill 2022 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Cost of Living Support) Bill 2022.

If the government is defeated in May, its parting gift to all Australians is an increase in petrol prices in September and, of course, not keeping up with prices, a trillion dollars in debt and rising interest rates. Under this government we could see petrol prices and cost of living skyrocketing, and we're going to see working families falling further behind. We should also consider that before the Ukrainian-Russian war, before all the horrors that have been occurring in Ukraine, petrol prices were going up under this government.

When we start looking at dealing with the cost of living, particularly with the fuel excise, we start looking at my old industry, which I'll get to in a moment, the old transport industry, which I still take a deep interest in. There are some great companies, some wonderful owner-drivers and great employees which make that industry. Of course, I'm proud to say, as a union official, that I also represented the largest small business organisation in this country: the Transport Workers Union. They represent many, many thousands of owner-drivers across this economy. In actual fact, I think it's the largest small business organisation, even when you put all the other groups together.

What really strikes me when we start looking at what this excise tariff means for those drivers is that it costs $1,000 to fill up their tank and that the money they'll get back, approximately, is $88. That's $1,000 to fill their tank and they'll only get $88. How has this government helped the cost of living for small business? Firstly, they got rid of the right for owner-drivers to negotiate collectively for agreements—that was only a number of years ago under this government. Then they said they would put something in place to make sure that there wasn't devastation across the industry. Of course—surprise, surprise!—nothing has been put in place at all to effectively give rights back to those owner-drivers, those small business people, which were stolen by this government.

What's particularly galling when we start looking at the exploitation that's happening in that cost-of-living question for owner-drivers as small business people is the consequences of the death and injury rates. When you're in a supply chain—and this is a bit of a lesson for them—you have the employer at the top, reaping all the benefit and contracting out, and contracting out and contracting out what is fundamentally the same work. The people at the bottom, who are often those hardworking owner-drivers, are the ones who are forced to take the price they're given. They're not price-makers, they're price-takers.

This is the exact same thing when you look at Uber, when you look at the gig economy in transport. These people, these hard workers, are not price-makers, they're price-takers. They don't have the capacity to bargain collectively. And what are the consequences? Five people dead across the eastern seaboard from delivering food. And those are the ones which have been reported. In further reports as a result of forensic pursuit by the Labor Party in New South Wales, there were hundreds upon hundreds of injured workers each year who were not identified to WorkCover in New South Wales. So there are hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of serious injuries across the gig industry in food delivery for one company, Uber—the one they defend, because, don't forget, they reckon that those Uber workers can negotiate. If they don't like it, they can just take their labour somewhere else. When you've only got the option of starvation wages and starvation, then you take starvation wages.

This government simply and fundamentally does not care. And for those who do care, there is a solution. For those who are in this chamber, in the Senate, there are solutions. The solution isn't $88 to those owner-drivers; the solution is about having a plan, not a one-off payment. It isn't necessary for us to turn around and make sure that we have proper regulation to equalise bargaining rights between employers and those supply chains; to make sure we deal with the cost-of-living pressures; to make sure that we actually have a plan to make sure small businesses aren't being done over; and to make sure those people who are in the most exploited industries have rights, the rights that we all enjoy, because we actually don't have the will to turn around and give legislative protections.

This government needs to turn around and decide that the Oliver Twist approach to wages is no policy at all—going to the governor with your bowl and saying, 'Please, can I have some more?' Surprise, surprise, the governor says, 'No.' And what do you do? You go back to your seat. Well, that's not the sort of country that we should have here. We should have rights for working people to be able to argue for decent wages. This is not an anti-company position; it's actually supporting good business. Because there are lots of good businesses out there, including in the gig industry, that want further regulation; however, they can't do it unless there's proper competition, proper regulation and fairness in the market.

The Oliver Twist approach by this government just does not work. As recently as 22 March, Ben Butler in a report—and this was reported in a number of other places as well—on the Reserve Bank said:

Real wages have been stagnant in Australia for almost a decade, frustrating Lowe, who said he would 'like to see some bigger increases'.

And what's the government's plan for that? No plan. No strategy. No way to make sure the middle-class are putting workers, small business people and its employees in jobs that are vital. All they can think of is, 'Gee, I tell you what: wages are really going up for the executives in those finance companies. They're really going up for some sections of the market. They're really going up for that top one per cent, but they are not going up for everybody else across this economy.' They've got more job insecurity, they've got lower wages and, under this government's plan, they'll have even lower wages.


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