Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Workplace Relations

8:14 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I rise to speak about the great Australian fair go and how that manifests itself in our industrial relations system. Before I do so, I would like to say that I was very pleased that I was able to be here earlier this evening to listen to Senator McGrath's rather farcical and yet humorous contribution with respect to his defence of the Newman government in my home state of Queensland. With respect to Senator McGrath, he was defending the indefensible in that case; nevertheless it was a humorous contribution from Senator McGrath. Predictably, in the course of his contribution, Senator McGrath sought to attack trade unions in my home state as part of his defence of the Newman government. I was not going to stray into this territory as part of my contribution tonight, but it does behove me to once again record the important, legitimate and responsible role of trade unions not only in our society but also in the course of the recent state election campaign. The union movement played a very important role in that election, and the issue of asset sales was certainly an issue that the union movement focused on particularly. One must come to the conclusion that the people of Queensland took great note of what was said during the course of that campaign. I say 'well done' to the trade unions in my home state of Queensland, to the many Labor candidates who were successful in that election, and particularly to the thousands of Labor supporters who participated in that election campaign. I am one who is very much looking forward to having a government in Queensland which is prepared to work with the people and with unions rather than castigating them and seeking to pick fights with everybody.

I want to talk about the fair go and the fact that our country prides itself on the fair go: giving everyone a fair go in the workplace and giving people a fair go to enjoy a few days off throughout the working week. The weekend is often the very thing that binds families and friends together. The weekend is a time to relax, a time to catch up with friends, a time to take the kids to football or netball. The weekend represents the principle that Australians do not 'live to work' but rather 'work to live'. However, not all Australians are able to enjoy the weekend as two consecutive days off—Saturday and Sunday. Every weekend across Australia, thousands of hospitality, retail, frontline service and shop assistant staff sacrifice their weekend so that we can enjoy ours. Every Sunday morning, thousands of baristas across Australia sacrifice their Sunday sleep-in so they can serve us our mid-morning coffee on our day of leisure. Australia is a land of fairness that has, for more than half a century, enforced laws that say: if you are working unsociable hours, such as a being a barista on a Sunday or a shop assistant on a Saturday, you should be compensated for your hard work.

For decades, penalty rates—which are part of our fair work system—have compensated those in retail, hospitality and emergency services, for example, for sacrificing their weekend so we can enjoy ours. However, we have seen threats to this system coming with the new government. Since the leaking of the government's politicised Productivity Commission issues paper, Australians now know that our penalty rates system—indeed our whole workplace relations system—is under attack. It is quite clear that this is a government which has an ideological obsession in relation to our national industrial relations system.

One only has to look at one of the very first acts of this government, which was to commission a report of the National Commission of Audit—titled Towards responsible government. Amongst its many recommendations, the commission considered that containing future growth in the minimum wage would improve job opportunities, especially for lower-skilled Australians, and would also ensure that government programs to get people into work are more effective. The commission also recommended that minimum wages be set on a state basis to better reflect local labour market conditions and cost-of-living expenses. There is no better illustration of this government's ideological fixation with our industrial relations system than that so-called independent report.

We know that the Treasurer has been looking at the industrial relations system more closely. We were expecting the terms of reference for the workplace relations inquiry to come out in about April of last year, but for some inexplicable reason those terms of reference have been delayed. Ultimately we did see them on 23 January, but I suppose it just represents the fact that the Treasurer's office is something of a black hole for important reforms. One only has to look at the tax white paper and the Intergenerational report as examples of roadblocks in terms of activity by this government. The terms of reference have now been issued and there is an issues paper out for consultation. It is quite an extensive issues paper and we are expecting the final report to government on 30 November 2015.

We did see an interesting comment from the workplace relations minister on 24 February, when Senator Abetz came out and very much disappointed the business community by indicating that the coalition's position for the next election would be that penalty rates and the minimum wage would continue to be determined by the Fair Work Commission. Senator Abetz was asked about the review by the Productivity Commission and his comments were:

So, the minimum wage and penalty rates came up when that is clearly the bailiwick of the Fair Work Commission. It did surprise me because the government's policy on that is very clear. These are matters for the Fair Work Commission and I just hope that those two issues have not taken away from the other systemic issues that we want examined.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the minister for workplace relations was surprised by this intrusion by the Productivity Commission into this area of penalty rates. At the recent estimates I took the opportunity to ask the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, Mr Harris, why the Productivity Commission was looking into issues such as penalty rates when the relevant minister seemed quite surprised about that. He took me to the terms of reference of this inquiry, which were, as I said, issued by the Treasurer and received on 19 December 2014, and he made reference to the fact that the scope of the inquiry deals with a number of issues and, in particular, it says:

… fair and equitable pay and conditions for employees, including the maintenance of a relevant safety net …

Mr Harris was quite adamant that that part of the terms of reference allowed him to investigate the issue of penalty rates and the minimum wage quite closely.

So we have a government which has been caught out once again on its ideological fixation with workplace relations. We know that there is plenty of evidence out there that the current system is not broken and we have seen a recent report from the Australian Workplace Relations Study which indicates a number of key facts about the current system. For example, wages and salaries account for only a minor portion of sales and services revenue for almost 90 per cent of enterprises that operate for profit and less than a third for 60 per cent. There are a number of other very important findings there which illustrate that there is no real need to change the system. Labor will stand up for penalty rates and for the 4½ million Australian workers who rely on them. The Abbott government speaks a lot about families, but if they really cared for those who actually have to work on weekends, away from their families, then Prime Minister Abbott and Senator Abetz should support penalty rates and our fair work legislation.