Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 December 2017


Workplace Relations

7:30 pm

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

As the parliamentary year draws to a close we all feel tension rising and tempers fraying, but there are important issues at play in this place. The differences between Labor and the coalition are quite stark on the issue of workers' rights. There are a range of issues that hang off that. We on this side of the chamber stand up for the dignity and the rights of workers to get a fair go. The great legacy of the Australian Labor Party in this country—over more than 100 years of institutionalising the concept of a fair go into our systems across the board—is to even up the bargaining position between workers and employers, which is part of the framework that we're very proud to stand behind; to have opportunities for collective bargaining so that workers can get a fair rate of pay for the work that they perform; to have appropriate compensation for time spent working away from families on weekends; and to have a superannuation system that continues to afford dignity and quality of life in retirement. Those are the sorts of issues that we on this side of the chamber have been fighting for recently.

When it comes to the coalition's position, it's quite clear they do not support workers' rights; in fact, they seek to erode them at every turn. On the issue of penalty rates—and we know what's happened there—this government is happy to stand by and do nothing while cuts to penalty rates occur. Going back some time, I think the coalition will stand forever condemned for introducing Work Choices. That will be an indelible stain on the industrial relations record of the coalition. More recently we've seen the Heydon royal commission. They jumped at the chance to investigate unions through that royal commission but then ran a protection racket for the last few years over the big banks. The coalition is all about creating an easy-to-hire, easy-to-fire-type of culture.

I am a proud unionist. The Labor Party—being created, of course, by the union movement—shares many objectives of the union movement, none more important than fair rights for workers. That is fundamentally where we're coming from. That's what's motivated me throughout my working life, in my former role with the SDA and now in this place. I will always stand up for workers' rights through my work as a senator for Queensland and through my work on the Standing Committee on Economics as well as other committees.

This week we stood up again for workers on the issue of superannuation and penalty rates. Firstly, on the issue of superannuation: what started out as a clandestine secret government war on the trade union movement, worker outcomes and superannuation became a full-throttled attack through bills introduced in the Senate. Labor called the government out and eventually the crossbench caught on, and we appreciate the support we've received there. Then we saw the government spit the dummy when it was clear that they couldn't pass the bills—because they had an ideological agenda, not a policy agenda.

Government is disappointed that the trade union royal commission didn't destroy the union movement, as they had hoped. It does disappoint me on a regular basis to see, particularly, Senator Cash's attack on the union movement through the ABCC and the Registered Organisations Commission. But I also note that those attacks have backfired spectacularly with former ABCC boss Nigel Hadgkiss being found guilty of breaching the Fair Work Act and with the Federal Police investigation over the AWU raids.

When the government failed in these areas, they tried another angle. They started to attack the union movement on the battleground of superannuation. But Labor won the battle, with the withdrawal of the superannuation bills from the debate. These bills would have seen the successful employer-employee representation on industry boards disrupted. They could have removed the need for that equal representation on boards, a system of governance which has served the occupational superannuation industry extremely well, and, most particularly, the members of those industry superannuation funds have benefitted from the governance arrangements. These bills would have increased the regulatory burden on MySuper products while giving those offering choice products—often the big banks—a leave pass. These bills would have done little to address the issue of nonpayment of the superannuation guarantee while disrupting collective decision-making about superannuation fund selection.

When it comes to superannuation, workers can rely on Labor to deliver for them. It's Labor and the union movement that have established the superannuation sector, with $2.3 trillion in assets now across the industry. Labor and the union movement have a proud history of establishing industry, or profit-to-member, funds. We see capital and labour at the same table, working together to get the best outcomes for workers. It's no wonder, when the coalition see that cooperation and collaboration, they want to disrupt it. It's something they see as being untenable. Labor will continue to stand up on those issues.

I also make reference to the issue of corporate tax, another area this year where we've been able to stand up for workers. Let's be clear: when multinationals don't pay their fair share of tax, the tax burden falls on ordinary workers, who pay that price through increased taxes and through decreased government spending on health and education. We know this government is increasing the tax burden on ordinary Australians. The PBO's recent report, Changes in average personal income tax rates: distributional impacts, shows that the average tax rate for individuals in every quintile is set to increase from 2017-18 to 2021-22. The largest increase in average tax rates is expected for people in the middle-income quintile earning just $46,000. Average tax rates on middle-income earners are expected to rise to 20-plus-year highs. We also know that, despite the government's recent comments proposing an income tax cut before the next election—another thought bubble—they have legislation to increase the Medicare levy and they dropped the budget repair levy, giving tax cuts to millionaires while increasing the tax burden for ordinary income earners.

What we really need from this government is action on multinational tax avoidance. As Chair of the Senate Economics References Committee, I can advise that we are inquiring into the issue. The committee recently extended the reporting date on that inquiry, and there has been agreement to examine ExxonMobil's arrangements. We know that Exxon is using the Fair Work Act to cut the conditions of workers, but we need to know what it's doing in the corporate tax space as well. I have been particularly concerned to learn that the new agreement that UGL is attempting to strike cuts wages by 30 per cent or more, cuts annual leave entitlements, cuts allowances, cuts workers' shift loadings and introduces new standdown clauses that would see employees at work but unpaid. Now that we see reports Exxon is using tax havens such as the Bahamas and has corporate arrangements in the Netherlands, that's another area of concern. We know that Exxon is not paying corporate tax at a time of record gas prices in Australia. That troubles me and I'd like to get to the bottom of it.

We're seeing reports that the ATO has not approved Exxon's tax filings for over a decade. We'll see what the stakeholders have to say on this matter during our further hearing, but let me be clear: it's important that corporate tax avoidance is dealt with wherever it is found. We'll stand up to the government on corporate tax to make sure that workers no longer foot the bill for the big business protection racket. This week we stood up for penalty rates as well, and I was so proud to see that our amendment to reverse the cuts to penalty rates and to protect penalty rates in the future successfully passed the Senate. But it's no surprise that the government voted against protecting penalty rates, because they support wage cuts for 700,000 workers. At a time when wage growth is flatlining and even the Treasurer understands that low-wage growth is the greatest single threat to the economy, we need to see the protection of workers' entitlements rather than further attacks on workers' entitlements. Inequality is at a 75-year high. Australia is at the crossroads as to how it uses government policy, and the differences between Labor and the coalition couldn't be clearer.