Senate debates

Thursday, 30 March 2006

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Work Choices

3:00 pm

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation (Senator Abetz) to questions without notice asked today relating to changes to industrial relations.

The Howard government Work Choices legislation is a systematic attack on the values of the Australian people. This legislation deserves to be torn up and comprehensively rewritten. That is not just the view of the Labor Party or members in this house; it is also the view and the lesson learned from the election in South Australia. The Howard government Work Choices legislation is an extremely unpopular piece of legislation, as we on this side of the house have learned from our candidates during the South Australian election—

Photo of Ian CampbellIan Campbell (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Mr Deputy President. I am genuinely trying to be helpful here. The senator needs to move a motion that the Senate takes note. She has moved that she takes note. She should move a motion that the Senate take note of answers and she can then obviously speak to it. It would be useful if we could get the form right.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I hear what you are saying, Senator Campbell, but I think that would have been the way it would have been recorded in the Journals of the Senate. You have made your point.

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I will continue my remarks about the lessons that the Labor Party has learned from the South Australian election and from our candidates being regularly out there talking to ordinary people at their doors. The lesson is that industrial relations is a big issue.

For example, one of our candidates doorknocked an ex-serviceman who is over 80. He had never before voted for the Labor Party. He had always voted Liberal. He was going to vote Labor for the first time in the next federal election because of the industrial relations changes. He said that they were not what he had fought for during the war. They were not what he fought for, because he fought for Australian values. He fought for a fair go for all Australians. He did not fight for a society where there is no equality between Australians from all walks of life. He wanted equality in Australian society.

He did not want the kind of society where people in workplaces are subject to the whim of their employer as to whether they stay on in their job or go. He did not fight for a society where individuals have to go cap in hand to the boss to argue that they have done a decent job and deserve decent pay. He believed in collective bargaining. He believed in a society where employees are not pitted against each other for pay and conditions in a race down to the bottom.

This is the kind of example we have from the Liberal Party—where people in workplaces are set against each other: is one employee more lazy than another? Is another employee not doing the job? Is another employee not sucking up to the boss properly? Can you get better pay and conditions at the expense of some other employee who might be sacked or put in a casual position? This is the kind of encouragement we have from the current Howard government. They want employees to fight against each other and to have the employer benefit from that through lower pay and conditions.

This is the kind of society that the Howard government want. Howard’s economy is in favour of big business and big employers and is out of touch with ordinary people. Ordinary people say that that is not the kind of economy they want. They want the kind of economy where there are protections for employees—where, if they choose, employees can go to their unions to bargain collectively and to get protection.

Photo of Julian McGauranJulian McGauran (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They do. A system still exists if they choose.

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Certainly. In the system that existed up till now if employees wanted the protection of the union they joined one and could ask for collective bargaining. What the Howard government has put in place is a system of individual workplace agreements where unions are excluded from the workplace in many instances. That is not the kind of economy that ordinary people in Australia want. It is not the legacy that that ex-serviceman or most Australians want to leave to their children. It is an Americanisation of the workforce, and people know enough about the American industrial system to not want it. That is a system where the employer has great leverage and the employee does not. You only have to look at Wal-Mart in the United States, the largest food retailer there, employing over a million workers. Wal-Mart workers receive lower wages than other retail workers and have to be heavily subsidised by the state in terms of benefits for health care, housing and so on. (Time expired)

3:07 pm

Photo of David JohnstonDavid Johnston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

One has to wonder about how much sincerity the opposition brings to this debate. We see that Mr Combet and Ms Burrow maintain that there will be a fresh round of campaigns against the Work Choices legislation. This Labor opposition is bought and sold by the trade union movement of this country. Not only do they provide the money for the Australian Labor Party to survive; they provide the positions for union hacks to fill in this parliament. They are all from the trade union movement. What independent parliamentary contribution can they possibly make in those circumstances? They are the worst example of people hostage to a minority pressure group in our great country. They are bought and sold by the Australian trade union council. They have received $50 million from unions since 1996.

The facts are that under 13 years of Labor real wages for working men—their union membership; their constituency—went up 1.2 per cent, and Mr Keating proclaimed that as a wonderful thing; 1.2 per cent. Senator Campbell’s answer, if I can anticipate, will be: ‘It’s a lie.’ What else could he say when confronted by the facts. Real wages under the Howard government since 1996 have gone up 16.8 per cent for workers, for union members, for blue-collar workers in our great country. The Howard government has created 1.7 million new jobs since March 1996.

I want to take a moment to look at the mining industry in Western Australia. We produce world-class minerals and mineral processed products in Western Australia in iron ore, base metals, precious metals and rare earth minerals because every one of those companies has Australian workplace agreements. They are efficient. They are effective and—guess what?—the workers have never received so much in wages. Of course, this absolutely irks the Australian Labor Party and the union movement. They like the collective bargaining scheme that is straight out of Moscow. That is the way they like things. One size fits all—it does not matter how good you are, you get the same pay as the dill next door to you.

The essence of their message in all of this is: we do not want productivity; we want uniformity. Work Choices and the new reforms in the workplace brought to us by Minister Andrews mean that—and I have seen this first-hand, for senators’ benefit—we have got rid of the ‘go away money’ mentality in terms of unfair dismissal for small business. Let us take an example that I saw: a drycleaner has a person who is negligent and causes him to carry a number of claims on his insurance to the point of making the business almost not viable, so he dismisses the person who is not doing the job properly. You go along to the Industrial Arbitration Commission and the first thing a union advocate says is: ‘I want five grand, 10 grand, and we’ll walk away.’ That is outrageous in this country. That is an abuse of power. That is the sort of thing that the opposition in this place want to protect and want to facilitate. I say: enough is enough. If you cannot do the job properly, you do not deserve the job and there are other people who will step in, do the right thing, appreciate the job and earn a decent living.

3:12 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Abetz during question time today. For months and months in this place Senator Abetz and his colleagues have claimed the unions and the Labor Party are Chicken Littles. They have claimed we are Chicken Littles running around prophesying doom now that the new industrial laws, the Prime Minister’s lifelong political dream, have passed this parliament. Senators opposite, aren’t the chickens coming home to roost? For that matter, Senator Abetz, a fair percentage of them are roosting on your doorstep in Tasmania.

Let us look at some of the reported incidents that have emerged since 27 March, three days ago. The Financial Review today reports in a break-out on page 7:

A Tasmanian sports club manager was dismissed on Monday after 10 years’ service. The worker was sacked at a disciplinary meeting ...

The meeting, we are told, was rescheduled from last Thursday to Monday, the day these laws came into force. A company called Triangle Cables sacked nine employees on Tuesday for no specified reason. The Melbourne company, InstallEx sacked the workers as permanent employees and offered them their own jobs back as casuals or independent contractors. Two people who worked in a photo lab in Sydney were sacked, one a permanent employee aged 65. A maritime worker from Cairns was sacked following a disciplinary meeting on 14 March. He did not hear a thing about it until 27 March, the day after these laws commenced.

During the year, those on the other side constantly argued that we needed to catch up with New Zealand and other countries around the world who have tried this workplace experiment. They implied that somehow we were missing out on something special that these countries had. As I said a few months ago, the irony is that they are actually right. But, while they were pretending that we were missing out on a positive world of workplace happiness and personal wealth aplenty for workers, the reality is now only too clear: we were missing out on a world of unnecessary hardship and unfairness—one of lower pay and poorer conditions for the hardworking men and women of this great country.

That is what these stories of hardship and unfairness tell us, and that is what Work Choices was always about. It was never about choice, flexibility or higher wages. It was about handing the limited power and rights that workers enjoyed to their employers. John White, owner of the Tasmanian firm Delta Hydraulics, which I am sure Senator Abetz is well acquainted with, put it best today on the front page of the Australian. As Brad Norrington reported:

The Howard Government’s new industrial relations laws have given John White the legal ammunition he has wanted for many years to sack 10 per cent of his workforce.

“The gun’s been removed from the employee’s hand,” Mr White said yesterday.

The article went on to point out that, with 98 staff, John White’s company falls under the exemption from unfair dismissal for businesses employing fewer than 100 workers. While he claims that he will not be moving to sack workers overnight, it is a bitter time ahead for the Delta Hydraulics workforce, with White giving notice that he will be looking again in three months to see what productivity is like. This is exactly the kind of fear and intimidatory workplace practice that Labor feared under these divisive laws. It was always going to be this way under Work Choices and it is a national disgrace.

Again today in question time we found a government that is not prepared to address important questions about the demonstrated impact of these laws. Rather, we found a government hiding behind rhetoric, obfuscating and attempting to avoid at all costs questions of any kind. Question time is a quest for transparency and accountability. That quest for transparency should see ministers in this parliament and those who represent them in this chamber prepared to address the questions asked of them, especially on such a serious and important issue as the impact of the new industrial relations laws. But this government is turning a blind eye.

To see this we need only look at Telstra, a company that, for the moment, is still owned in large part by the Australian people and is subject to government control. On 28 March it was reported in News Ltd papers that Telstra was seizing on the commencement of these laws to ban union officials from some of its work sites. It was one of the first cabs off the rank once these changes came in. As we have seen, it is not alone now, a few days later. The sad fact is that this government refuses to tell the parliament anything, but its ministers are prepared to say all sorts of things to the right audience behind closed doors. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

Photo of Julian McGauranJulian McGauran (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The former speaker, Senator Carol Brown, is absolutely right: industrial relations reform is a very serious matter and ought to be scrutinised. Its results ought to be looked at, because this deals with the working life and living standards of every worker and their family. We are happy to open up this industrial relations package, as we have with previous reforms, to scrutiny. You conveniently come in here and avoid putting the former industrial relations reforms to the test. The results are in. You know they are. You skirt around it with your exaggerated stories, with your misrepresentations. You are simply scavenging around for a single case, an exception, putting a bit of spin on it, putting a bit of exaggeration on it and misrepresenting it, hoping that it will prove your point.

But the point has already been proved when it comes to choices for workers. They have the choice to accept the collective system, with union representation—which has not been ruled out—or the choice to take up individual Australian workplace agreements. Those choices have been in place since 1996. What are the results? The results are that we have the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years or more. The results are that we have real wage increases of some 16.8 per cent. The results are that long-term unemployment—and that is a great test—has come down. Time does not permit me to read the figures on long-term unemployment, but it would be lost on no-one here that when you start digging into the statistics on people who have been unemployed for 12 months to two years you see that they are finding jobs. You know that the system really is working.

On top of that, some 1.7 million jobs have been created in 10 years. They are new jobs. That is the result of the first tranche of our industrial relations reforms—and you came in here and said the sky was going to fall in. When those reforms were tested down at the waterfront, you said it could not be done. Look at the waterfront. Has anyone heard of any strikes happening down at the waterfront lately? Have you noticed that the rates for lifting containers by crane are at world record levels? They are averaging 28 per hour and 42 on a good day in Melbourne. They are the results. They are in.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Would you work for less for doing the same job?

Photo of Julian McGauranJulian McGauran (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There will be no working for less. Senator Sterle interrupted from the other side to say that wages will be cut. In real terms, wages have increased by some 16.8 per cent. In your time in government, there were 13 years under the centralised, fixed system, where all bargaining was collective and was controlled by the unions. It was a centralised industrial relations system that locked out individual workers’ choices and simply had the bosses and their lawyers tramping off to the Industrial Relations Commission to make deals with the unions and their lawyers. What were the results of that? Even Paul Keating, in the dying days of his prime ministership, was ready to reject that sort of system. The results were clear: in 13 years real wages increased by 1.3 per cent. That is a pitiful result for the people whom you purport to represent. What was the unemployment rate? Do you think the centralised system helped those workers during a recession? No, it did not. There were one million unemployed—a record in this country. It is a disgraceful record.

But I can tell you what did protect those workers during the Asian downturn and other economic bumps this government has seen during in its 10 years in office: a very flexible industrial relations system and a government that is disciplined in its economic management. All of these reforms tie into each other, and Australian workers are not going to fall for your old GST stunts that failed or your first industrial relations reform stunts that failed. When are you going to learn? Are you just going to settle into opposition and run the same old tactics on every major reform, knowing that they are in the national interest but rejecting them for opposition’s sake? You are in opposition for opposition’s sake. You are getting far too comfortable across there. You are coming in here, running pathetic little scare campaigns. You must know by now that the Australian people are awake up to them. You are finished! (Time expired)

3:23 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given today by the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. It is clear to me, having listened to the answers given today by the minister, that there may be some truth in the allegations made by the President of the HR Nicholls Society about the Howard government.

If you believe the President of the HR Nicholls Society, the Howard government is engaged in a Soviet-style attack on the freedom of Australians. This is ironic because, just yesterday, Senator Abetz accused Senator Marshall of asking a question containing a notion of the old Marxist concept of class conflict. The Howard government likes to talk about how its so-called Work Choices regime is ‘simple, flexible and fair’. But when you look at the detail of the regulations the government released yesterday, you can see why the HR Nicholls Society is so convinced that Work Choices is a Soviet-style sham.

I know that Senator Abetz would not like to take my word for it, so I have some references for him. On 26 March 2006, on the Inside Business program on the ABC, Ray Evans, President of the HR Nicholls Society, said this about the government’s so-called Work Choices regime—and I am sure that Senator Brandis will be tickled pink to hear it:

It’s rather like going back to the old Soviet system of command and control where every economic decision has to go back to some central authority and get ticked off.

He went on to say:

I don’t believe the Howard Government is really that keen on freedom. This new legislation is all about regulation.

How about that? According to the President of the HR Nicholls Society, the Howard government is obsessed with regulation, opposes freedom, and wants to instil a Soviet system of command and control in Australian society.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I am somewhat confused. I detected that I heard Senator Sterle refer to yesterday’s answer by Senator Abetz, when we are supposed to be taking note of today’s answers by Senator Abetz. I wonder whether you could draw him back to today’s answer.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ferguson, I think that your hearing is not exactly spot-on. At one stage he did refer to something that was said yesterday, but it was in the context of taking note of what was answered today. I call on Senator Sterle to continue his contribution.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And to think that Senator Brandis has been looking for reds under his bed all these years. If you believe the HR Nicholls Society, Senator Brandis would be better off looking for reds in the cabinet room.

Why would the HR Nicholls Society be so convinced of the Soviet-style inadequacies of the Work Choices legislation? In a speech on 13 December 2005, Ray Evans blamed ‘the government’s continuing acceptance of the Marxist dogmas’. That is heavy stuff. No wonder the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Minchin, went off grovelling to the HR Nicholls Society on 3 March to do a bit of damage control. But no matter how much grovelling, crawling and backsliding Senator Minchin might have done—

Photo of Nick MinchinNick Minchin (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance and Administration) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. Surely such outrageous language—describing me as grovelling and various other things—is outrageous. I ask you to rule that as unparliamentary language.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Minchin, that was a good try on a Thursday afternoon. Senator Sterle, I bring you back to your comments on the answers of the minister today.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Ray Evans was right to call the government on the contradiction between the Howard government’s propaganda and its actions, just as Des Moore, the Director of the Institute for Private Enterprise, was right when, in a speech on 3 December 2005, he said:

This new legislation is shot full of contradictions that, on the one hand, purport to “allow Australia’s employers and employees the freedom and the choice to sit down and work out the arrangements that best suit them” but, on the other hand, continues to severely constrain that freedom.

The Work Choices regulations contain a list of prohibited content. Apparently, Australian companies need to be protected from the possibility that they might want to make an agreement with their workers on some matters. The regulations prohibit the provision of payroll deduction facilities for union dues. The regulations prohibit leave to attend training provided by a trade union. I did not realise that Australian companies needed the Howard government to legislate to protect them from the possibility that they might want to agree to provide their workforces with payroll deductions for union dues. I did not realise that Australian companies needed the Howard government to legislate to prevent them from agreeing to send their workforce to union training.

The CFMEU, in my home state of Western Australia, set up the Construction Skills Training Centre in Welshpool, which is very highly regarded by its clients and provides quality training to workers. But apparently Australian companies need to be protected from themselves, just in case they might have the strange idea that training centres, like the Construction Skills Training Centre in Welshpool, might assist their workforce to be safer and more productive.

The Howard government have sent a clear message to the companies of Australia: ‘You can choose to bargain but only on our terms. You can choose to bargain on those issues we want you to bargain on, but you cannot choose to bargain about issues we prohibit.’ General Secretary Stalin would have been proud of the Howard government—even if the HR Nicholls Society is not.

Question agreed to.