Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Workplace Relations

3:03 pm

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Government Service Delivery (Senator Arbib) to questions without notice asked by Senator Abetz today, relating to workplace relations.

In the minister’s answer to Senator Abetz’s third question the minister said that there was no government involvement in the deal that has been struck between the MUA and the company Total Marine Services. The minister is wrong; there was government involvement. There may not have been government involvement in the form of actually intervening to take action to stop this type of deal occurring, but the minister is part of the government that changed the workplace relations system in Australia so that this type of abysmal deal can now occur. It is amazing to sit here and listen to the minister defend and promote the actions of the MUA and their extortionate demands which will now see some workers get up to $50,000 extra in their pay packet without any productivity offsets. That is an absolute disgrace.

We see today Paddy Crumlin, the National Secretary of the MUA, positively gloating about the deal that his union has achieved. What does the Australian say? It says:

Maritime union leader Paddy Crumlin has declared massive pay rises won by offshore oil and gas workers were secured without productivity trade-offs, describing employers critical of the deal as “dinosaurs” ...

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Cash! There is far too much audible conversation on my right. Senator Cash, please continue.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

So employers who expect an increase in productivity in exchange for handing over a wage increase are dinosaurs. Under this government’s system, employers have two choices: comply or die. The message is: ‘Comply with the extortionate demands of militant unions like the MUA or die because we will shut you down through strike action.’ This is the system which Minister Gillard was defending but a few days ago as working well. There is escalating strike action in Western Australia, the powerhouse of the national economy, but the system is working well.

Let us be clear about one thing. The minister in this place and the minister in the other place have failed to condemn the actions of the MUA. The fact that they have done the exact opposite—they have welcomed the backdown by Total Marine Services to the MUA’s demands—confirms the quote by Mr Knott of AMMA that ‘acts of virtual piracy’ are now being allowed to occur under Labor’s Fair Work regime.

Under Labor’s IR laws, the government actively encourages companies to cave in to extortionate demands from unions. But what is worse is the utter hypocrisy of those on the other side for taking the stance that they have in relation to the MUA—accepting the wage claim with no productivity offset—whilst at the same time the Prime Minister of this country lauds himself on national television, making grandiose policy statements calling for Australians to work harder and longer, to increase productivity, to raise the living standards of this country. That is utter hypocrisy, and the Prime Minister should be ashamed of himself.

But then again, when unions provide financial backing to the Labor Party, the Labor Party really have no choice but to deliver on their promises to them. In November of last year, Kevin Reynolds, the great militant unionist from the CFMEU in Western Australia, said that the Labor Party:

… makes all sorts of promises to us—

the union—

to get our money.

Quite frankly, we should stop calling them political donations and call them for what they really are, tied grants: ‘We’ll give you some money and, when you get into government, you’d better deliver on your promise.’ Mr Rudd should be supporting the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, who has warned the union bosses that these types of wage demands that the MUA have secured will mean that more construction and more fabrication will go offshore. It is a national disgrace.

3:08 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I recall making some remarks last year about how the Senate component of the parliamentary Liberal Party had gone rogue on the question of climate change. It would appear that the Senate component of the parliamentary Liberal Party is now in danger of going rogue on the question of industrial relations. The senators went a-pirating and ignored the shadow cabinet and Malcolm Turnbull and pressed for an extremist, climate-change-sceptic point of view at the end of last year. Emboldened by their success, it appears they are now taking up the struggle for Work Choices.

Senator Cash has gone a-pirating. In this Senate we have listened to another tirade about the glory days of Work Choices and the terrible sins of bargaining. But when one looks at the case cited—the MUA’s industrial action in the oil and gas industry—and when one looks at the detail of the circumstances there, two things ring true. The first is that not even Senator Cash, not even the coalition, would in all seriousness suggest that the government should easily, swiftly and decisively intervene in industrial action as a matter of course. The second is that not even the previous Work Choices legislation would have enabled Senator Cash to embark upon the course she has tried to advocate today.

It is well known to all that, in constructing the present industrial relations regime, the government consulted very, very widely indeed—not, as you would have it, Senator Cash, simply with the trade unions but very, very widely, with not only the trade union movement but employer representatives, employer organisations and so forth. One issue rings true from those consultations, and that is that all employer representatives—not some, not most, not many but all—said that Fair Work Australia should not be able to arbitrate an outcome except in the most exceptional of circumstances. They said that disputes should remain in the control of those directly affected—employees and employers. If Senator Cash is true to her industrial relations obsession, she would know that the old tirade against the industrial relations club was precisely the accusation that arbitrators overregulated and overinterfered.

Nonetheless, undeterred by precedent or previous ideological belief, Senator Cash has today articulated the notion that the government should freely and swiftly intervene in the agreement-making process between employer and employee parties. Remarkably—notwithstanding the revolution that you are apparently trying to conduct inside the coalition on IR policy—we on this side hold the view that agreement making between the parties should be just that and that outcomes should only be arbitrated in the most exceptional of circumstances.

The government agrees that the test for ending industrial action is based on significant harm to the national economy. That is generally in accord with how that provision read in the previous act and the form in which it has existed since 1993. That test has a very high threshold. An employer’s loss of profit is not enough to trigger it. Employees losing wages in a lockout is not enough to trigger it. There must be significant harm to the national economy. It was open to employers in this particular matter to make an application on that ground, and for various reasons that did not happen. So it is disingenuous for the opposition to claim that, as a minister, the Deputy Prime Minister should have exercised her power to end the action instead. That is to say, they are asking the Deputy Prime Minister to intervene in a dispute when they themselves have not made an application to trigger the intervention on the basis that it was causing significant harm to the national economy. The minister’s office did make an offer to the AMMA to act as a broker to establish a consent arbitration process with the union, but this offer was refused. (Time expired)

3:13 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

One month on from the Fair Work Australia laws coming into effect, one thing is very clear: there is nothing fair about the so-called Fair Work Australia laws—nothing. Events in my home state of Western Australia clearly demonstrate that. What we have got this week—with an indecisive government, with those laws not being properly applied—is a return to the laws of the jungle. We have got the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, like Tarzan and Jane swinging from tree to tree thinking: ‘Everything is fine down there. We’re not going to get involved.’ All the while we have got this dog-eat-dog type arrangement where the government is quite happy for a union to put a gun to the head of a business that, at the end of the day, under the threat of further industrial action, has got no choice but to buckle.

We have got an agreement here where people who are currently on about $130,000 per year—semiskilled and unskilled workers—have just been awarded a $50,000 a year increase. I urge people across Australia who might be listening to this to take this in and consider it very carefully. There has been an increase in wages and allowances from $130,000 per annum to $180,000 per annum—$50,000 in additional wages for those particular workers. It is quite extraordinary, it is staggering, and all of that with no productivity offsets. We have got the Prime Minister out here over the last couple of days talking up the need to improve productivity. He is all talk. Do not believe a word he is saying because he does not mean it and here is just another example.

Deputy Prime Minister Gillard was requested to intervene, as she is empowered to do, and she refused to do so. The Deputy Prime Minister then went out and said, ‘If I had intervened it would have resulted in arbitration.’ That is of course a very misleading statement for her to make because the reason she did not intervene is that arbitration would have led to a much lower outcome than could be forced by union action, as Fair Work Australia would have been required to take into account matters such as productivity offsets. This is not an isolated incident. We have had strikes going on for the last couple of months at the Woodside Pluto project, which is a $12 billion project in my home state of Western Australia. It is a project that will make a significant contribution to the economic prosperity of this nation and it is also a project that will enable this government to benefit from increased tax revenues in the future to pay off the reckless level of spending and debt.

I have another example here where strikes have gone on for months. The Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, under section 431 of the Fair Work Act 2009, had the power to intervene and stop the industrial action and she refused. But guess what? The voice of industrial reason came out the other day. Senator Cameron, who is a former union ‘heavy’ and now the voice of industrial reason, was calling on the workers at Woodside to go back to work. He and Colin Barnett, the Premier of Western Australia, are out there arm in arm saying, ‘Go back to work; do not do this,’ yet we have got the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, being too weak and too indecisive to even use the opportunities in her own Fair Work Australia laws. Here we have got Senator Cameron reported in Canberra today as saying, ‘I think those workers should go back to work.’

What is emerging now is a very serious concern because we have got a combination of legislation with a weak and indecisive government that is not prepared to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between the interests of the economy and the interests of workers. If this continues and if this is allowed to spread across various sectors of the economy, the unions and workers across Australia will be looking at this and thinking, ‘Gee, a $50,000 increase in salaries for those workers at Total Marine Services; why not for us? If it is good for them, why would it not be good for us?’ You watch: over the next six to 12 months there will be other unions across Australia who will be looking at putting a gun to businesses’ heads and it will be against our national interest.

3:19 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in the debate to take note of answers to respond to some of the claims from senators opposite. They are in opposition and will remain in opposition while ever they want to stand up here and debate Work Choices. Senator Arbib is right in saying that this is the first question on this in six months. They want to run away from a debate about this issue. Before I get into putting on the record some facts about this issue, as opposed to Senator Cormann, who is blind to the fact that there are some facts in this story, the track record of the people opposite is to get up and say anything and people will believe whatever mistruths or misgivings you want to espouse as opposed to putting facts on the record. We will correct some of those in a minute, Senator Cormann. I was anticipating having a good debate today on the opposition’s proposed action on climate change, after watching the comical events of Lateline last night and Senator Barnaby Joyce. Perhaps in the MPI this afternoon some of my colleagues will go to that. I have missed my opportunity to make some comments about that farcical performance, but let me go to this farcical performance this afternoon.

The issue is that the people opposite voted for the Fair Work Act. They were involved in the negotiations of the Fair Work Act. What we have before us now is the issue of whether or not to arbitrate. The Fair Work Act does not allow an arbitrated outcome except in the most exceptional circumstances. You voted for that. AWMA, AiG and ACCI all supported us in this chamber and in this parliament to support the changes to the Fair Work Act that allowed an inability to arbitrate unless in exceptional circumstances. And now what you are suggesting is that, where the arbitration is not allowed to apply because of the act, the minister ought to intervene. Let me tell you that the power of the minister to unilaterally declare an end to industrial action on the basis of significant harm to the economy has never been used by any government at all. In fact, the minister’s office made an offer to AMMA to act as a broker to establish consensus and an arbitration process with the union. So the minister did not intervene but offered the services of her office to act as a broker here to a consent arbitration process.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cash interjecting

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Perhaps if my colleagues opposite could stop shouting for five minutes and listen they might hear the truth about this situation. Because guess what? The offer was refused. You have the gall to stand up in this chamber this afternoon and seek to malign the most competent Deputy Prime Minister we have had in this country for a very long time, when the facts show that the offer was made to assist with this dispute and the employer refused. They did not want Fair Work Australia as the independent umpire to rule on the issues in dispute and preferred to continue bargaining. That is what happened. There are new options in the act to help with industrial action, including the ability to end industrial action that is significantly harming both the parties, and new good faith bargaining rules apply. But no application was actually made by AMMA or the employers on those grounds either.

It is quite clear that the minister cannot intervene and will not intervene unless there has been an offer from her office and an acceptance of that offer to participate in such a matter. You cannot get up in this chamber and malign the Deputy Prime Minister and have a go at Fair Work Australia for not doing their jobs if they make the offer to employers and in fact that offer is declined. You cannot make up a story, make an issue or make a case out of something that does not actually apply and has not applied.

I might also say that the MUA has been bargaining with 13 companies in the offshore gas and oil industry. They have claimed a 30 per cent wage increase over three years and they have complied with all the legal requirements for taking industrial action in bargaining, including secret ballots and giving notice. Now, AMMA, ACCI and the Australian Shipowners Association have made representations to the government seeking that the minister terminate the industrial action, but they themselves have indicated that they would not seek to end industrial action. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion moved by my colleague Senator Cash, and her comments as well as those of Senator Cormann, to take note of answers given by Senator Arbib in question time today. It never ceases to amaze me, when it comes to workplace relations, that all we hear from the government are comments about process. All we have heard is why the minister cannot act. All we hear is about various clauses in the legislation. But this is process absent of outcome. Let us put this issue in context: a pay rise of almost average weekly earnings for unskilled labourers who are members of the MUA, which is bargaining on their behalf—not a union with a track record of what you would call good faith bargaining—and all you can say is they complied with the act. The Labor Party does not care about the outcome here.

What we saw 30 years ago in this country was a wage breakout that led to inflation, which destroyed jobs. No-one is better off when we have a wage inflation spiral that leads to job losses. But the Labor Party have never cared about the unemployed in this country, because there is no union for them. The previous government got unemployment in this country down to 3.7 per cent—a level that only 15 years ago we were told would be impossible to ever reach again—at the same time as more and more women were heading into the workforce. But what do the Labor Party do? They re-regulate the labour market. They provide for what they call good faith bargaining, which as anyone knows—the company involved in this matter better than anyone else—is nothing more than a legal fiction. How, on any reading of the English language, does asking for a pay rise of over $100,000 qualify as good faith? It does not. It cannot.

What we see opposite is a government that is focused entirely on procedure and on falling back on process rather than considering outcomes. They throw around the word ‘fair’, when this outcome, if nothing else, will show that these procedures do not lead to fair outcomes. They talk about productivity, yet they are re-regulating the labour market. How on earth does a $50,000 pay rise, representing nearly a one-third increase, assist productivity when there are no productivity trade-offs and the company and union said so? They talk about bargaining, but how is it bargaining when there is a gun at your head? The company made that clear. Apparently you can only have an unfair bargaining position when it is with a preferred supporter of the Labor Party! They do not care about unorganised workers; they only care about workers who are members of their unions. They do not care about people who are losing their jobs because of inflation, people who lose their jobs when costs like this are passed through the supply chains of our economy.

The average wage for a transport worker is just over $55,000. The people in this sector are earning three times that, and they increased that by $50,000 based on the behaviour of a union with a far from stunning track record in fair bargaining and fair behaviour in industrial relations in this country—what was once referred to as a weapon in the arsenal of the Labor movement in this country—and there have been no productivity trade-offs. What we will see is pattern bargaining. But again it will not meet the definition of ‘pattern bargaining’ in the act put up by the Deputy Prime Minister but we know it is pattern bargaining because the same thing happens in various workplaces.

But this government does not seem to care. It does not care about the consequences, because it is only concerned about paying off its union friends and rewarding those who supported it to the tune of $50 million in the last federal election. They must be pretty upset about the 90 per cent drop-off in the last 12 months, with only a $5 million pay-off by the trade union movement to the Labor Party. But I am sure we will see that increase in the next AEC returns.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Special Minister of State and Scrutiny of Government Waste) Share this | | Hansard source

It was $11.5 million.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was $11.5 million; thank you, Senator Ronaldson, for correcting me.

I conclude on this point: the act put in place by the government does not lead to fair outcomes; it does not have a fair process in place for employers; and it does not lead to results that are going to improve the overall economy. Over the next 12 months we are going to see exactly what the consequences of this government’s approach to industrial relations are. This government will carry that weight—it will be lead in its saddlebags—as unemployment increases and a very small number of people benefit. For example, one thing that the government has not mentioned—and maybe we should have asked Senator Arbib about this; we saw a report only today—is that, if you happen to be a teenager or working late at night in the retail sector or in the fast food sector, your wages are being cut under a ruling by Fair Work Australia. It is because you are not a member of the MUA, a preferred constituent of the Labor Party.

Question agreed to.