Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Workplace Relations

3:04 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Jobs and Innovation (Senator Cash) to a question without notice asked by Senator Cameron today relating to the annual wage review undertaken by the Fair Work Commission.

Today I had the fortune to listen to the secretary of the ACTU, Sally McManus, and the misfortune to listen to the discredited Minister Cash, an absolutely discredited minister, a minister who should do the right thing and simply resign from the frontbench. This is a minister who presided over an absolute mess in her previous portfolios. This is a minister who does not care about the wages, conditions and rights of ordinary working families in this country. This is a minister who sets out constantly to attack working people, attack workers' wages and attack penalty rates. It's an outrageous position supported by every one of the rabble that sits across this place—every one of them. It is an absolute rabble of a government, a government who would rather give $65 billion worth of tax cuts to their mates in the banks than look after the penalty rates and the working conditions of ordinary workers in this country. They are an absolute disgrace.

But it's not just these sorts of attacks that we see taking place; we also see this government and this discredited Minister Cash using her agencies to attack the trade union movement and to run political attacks on her political opponents. We have seen that happen constantly with this minister. The other night I saw a BBC Panorama program called Taking on Putin. The BBC reporter was John Sweeney. He was showing the use by the Putin government of government agencies to attack their political opponents. Well, what you see here with Minister Cash is the agency that she set up, the ROC, being used to attack her political opponents. We also see the Fair Work Ombudsman and the ABCC being used to attack her political opponents. This government would sit nicely with the Putin administration in the USSR. They would be lovely there with the Russians, because they would fit in nicely. Using government agencies to attack your political opponents is just outrageous.

Minister Cash is completely discredited due to her failure to deal with any of the questions that were asked of her today. We asked her whether she would make a submission to the Fair Work Commission to defend workers in the hair and beauty industry who rely on penalty rates. She just wouldn't answer the question. She wouldn't answer the question, because she's not capable of answering the question or to have a submission prepared to actually support workers that are doing it tough. Yet we've got these organisations going in arguing for cutbacks to workers' wages, workers' penalty rates and workers' conditions, supported by this rabble of a government that is on its last legs. It is a decaying, dying government with a weak Prime Minister and ministers in this place that would use agencies to attack working people and working people's wages and conditions.

It's an outrageous proposition that a minister can't come in here and be honest and accurate in terms of the questions asked. She was asked again: 'Is the government's only plan to help struggling Australian workers this $65 billion tax cut?' They are relying on trickle-down economics that haven't worked anywhere else in the world. We heard the report from the President about the cleaners in this place, who do a great job and who deserve decent rates of pay and decent conditions. What was one of this government's first acts? To cut the wages of some of the lowest paid people in this place: the cleaners. They cut the wages of the cleaners—and I bet they'll do it again, because they don't care about workers, they don't care about the rights of workers and they don't care about workers' living standards. They are a disgrace. (Time expired)

3:09 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is what you can expect from Senator Cameron, with that diatribe of misinformation, accusations and political attacks against one of the most successful ministers this parliament has seen for a long time, who just happens to be a woman. It's interesting with Senator Cameron and a couple of other Labor senators that the vicious political attacks always seem to be on successful women ministers such as Senator Cash, Senator Payne and Senator Fierravanti-Wells. I just wonder why that is.

Senator Cash doesn't need me to defend or protect her. She's more than capable of doing that, and she has done that against vicious personal attacks by the likes of Senator Cameron over many, many months now. Why are Senator Cameron and the union movement so determined to attack Senator Cash and try to bring her down? It's because they know she is successful at her job, she understands the portfolio brilliantly and she can identify the rorts and rabble that pass as the union movement in Australia at the moment. No wonder only nine per cent of workers in the private industry in Australia choose to belong to a union movement.

I'd like to ask Senator Cameron—and also Senator Ketter, who I see here but who I might say takes a much more reasonable approach to policy debate—to explain to us how the superannuation industry is going to deal with Labor's policy on slashing the income of lower paid pensioners and older people with their dividend imputation approach? Both of those senators that I mentioned have been directors of large superannuation companies. I'm not quite sure of Senator Ketter's case, but I know in Senator Cameron's case as the director of one of Australia's biggest superannuation funds he was dragging in a salary of $150,000. He should understand just what the impact will be of Labor's policies on the superannuation holdings of people on very, very limited income. I challenge Senator Cameron to actually explain to this parliament just what impact the Australian Labor Party's policy will have on retirees and pensioners if their imputation policy goes ahead.

I want to quickly turn to the penalty rates that were the subject of the question and of Senator Cameron's diatribe. In passing, I say it is typical of Senator Cameron to accuse the government of doing something with cleaners' wages. He knows we all love the cleaners. As the President explained just previously, this is an independent process, quite removed from the government, and no decision's yet been made. Yet that doesn't stop Senator Cameron making these false and vile accusations on behalf of a group who we all love.

On penalty rates, I just reiterate again what Senator Cash said so well in answers given in question time. These penalty rates are determined by the Fair Work Commission. Who set up the Fair Work Commission? It was the Australian Labor Party in government and, in particular, Mr Bill Shorten. Who made the decisions on penalty rates? It was that Fair Work Commission set up by the Labor Party, the chairman and most of the members of which were appointed by the Australian Labor Party in government. I make no comment about that. I think they carefully looked at the issues and came to the decision. But it wasn't a government decision. In spite of Senator Cameron continually misinforming the parliament and anyone who might be listening to this debate about that fact, those decisions on penalty rates were made by the Labor set up and appointed Fair Work Commission, the independent umpire that Labor at one stage used to support.

If you want to talk about penalty rates, just have a look at the example Senator Cash gave about Mr Bill Shorten in his time as a union leader in giving away the penalty rates of lower paid workers. Senator Cameron should understand the truth of these matters. (Time expired)

3:14 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to also take note of the answers given by our Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Senator Cash, to Senator Cameron's question on the unwillingness of the government, and indeed Senator Cash's own role, in being prepared to protect the penalty rates of Australian workers, specifically hair and beauty workers across our country. I must say, despite Senator Cash's impressive attempts to try and avoid answering these targeted questions, her message was, nevertheless, fairly clear. It is clear this government will not stand up for the 85,000 workers in the beauty industry who are at risk of losing their penalty rates, after the hair and beauty employers made their submission to the Fair Work Commission this week. They have called for cuts to the penalty rates of workers in this industry.

The minister's answers show us that this government is simply not prepared to stand up for these workers. These workers are not well paid, as anyone who talks to their hairdresser knows. I have to say I certainly hope that Senator Cash does not get her hair or her nails done on a weekend, because she doesn't think her hairdresser deserves to be paid for working on the weekend. No-one should have to put up with that. These 84,000 workers now join an ever-growing number of workers who are at risk of losing their penalty rates—penalty rates on which they very much depend to make ends meet week after week.

We know that last July penalty rate cuts kicked in for 700,000 workers in the retail, hospitality, fast food and pharmacy sectors. Is it any coincidence that wage growth is stagnating in this country? You only need to look at these kinds of figures to see where wages in this country are going. It seems to me that it's likely that this government wants to see hair and beauty workers be next. Who after that? We know, importantly, that aged-care workers are specifically also very worried about their penalty rates. We know that cost of living is rising and wage growth has hit record lows, but we continue to see these attacks on the wages of workers. It's all very well for those opposite to talk about their trickle-down economics of company tax cuts. The simple fact is: why can't you stand up for the penalty rates of workers who work on the weekends for some of these very big corporations? Your failure to do so shows me very clearly that I don't have any confidence in your expectation, your argument, that company tax cuts will eventually benefit workers. Under this government, we see life just getting harder and harder for ordinary Australians. When will you stand up and support these workers?

On the other hand, we are steadfastly clear in our opposition to penalty rate cuts. We want to see this parliament legislate on this question. Those opposite have done nothing to stand up to this issue. Penalty rates are not a luxury for workers in our country. Millions of Australians and their families rely on them every day. However, we have a Prime Minister that is too busy looking after the big end of town, looking after his friends in the top tax brackets, giving millionaires more than $16,000 a year in tax cuts and handing out tax cuts to big business while taking away from hardworking, low-paid Australians. It is absolutely deplorable that this government fails to stand up to protect Australian workers, and Minister Cash's answer shows this. (Time expired)

3:19 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the answers given. I want to start off by reflecting on the fact that penalty rates are based on a wage, the wage that is set and the percentages on top of that, but the starting point, surely, therefore is that you have to have a job in order to have a wage. One of the things that is really important for this chamber to remember, as we debate, this week, legislation looking at the implementation of some of the government's policies, is that the government's policies, in terms of engaging and encouraging business to create jobs and to invest in their workplaces, have been working.

At the start of this year, we were able to reflect on 2017 and see that the government's policies had set the environment where jobs growth across the nation was over 403,000, the majority—around three-quarters—of which were full-time jobs. In December alone, some 34,700 jobs were created. Contrast that with those opposite in their last year of government. They created only 89,000 jobs. Well, they didn't create them, but their policies put a lid on business's willingness to invest in their workforce and their workplaces such that only 89,000 jobs were created, and the majority of those were part time. Under this government's policy settings, the confidence of business has been such that they are employing, and the participation rate is now the highest it's been in seven years. In fact, since September 2013, over 950,000 jobs have been created. I think back to the promise made by then-Prime Minister Abbott of the target of the coalition in terms of jobs, and we're getting pretty close to the target he set in terms of the number of jobs created.

The starting point, when we talk about people working and receiving a wage or penalty rates, is that they need jobs. As people in this chamber consider whether or not they will support government policies, they should keep in mind what we have achieved since 2013, what we achieved just last year and what we achieved in the last month of last year and compare that to the policies and approaches of those opposite and the outcomes for Australia. What is important, if we're going to create jobs, is that businesses are competitive, and they need to be competitive for two things: they need to be competitive for capital—for the ability to attract funds to invest in the business, to recapitalise, to grow, to create opportunity and to pay more to attract workers to their business—and they need to be competitive for customers. If businesses price themselves out of the market, customers will go elsewhere, and we see that in Australia. We see that in the restaurant trade, for example, when businesses can't open on the weekend necessarily because they are not making money, when business owners can't employ staff and run the businesses themselves and when customers say, 'The prices are too high; we don't like the surcharges you're having to put on to cover penalty rates,' and choose to go elsewhere. So businesses need to be competitive, and that brings us back to things like the taxation policy that we are debating at the moment, which is going to be good for Australians because it creates the investment and it creates the opportunities for businesses to grow more jobs, to give people that starting point and to pay them more.

When it comes to the penalty rates discussion, it's important to understand that the Fair Work Commission is there to provide independent arbitration around getting the balance right between the needs of workers and the needs of businesses in the economy at the time. People listening to this debate, when they hear the Labor Party going on about this, should remember that it was the Labor Party who set up the Fair Work Commission. It's the Labor Party who didn't object to rulings of the Fair Work Commission at times in the past but are objecting now because it's politically opportune for them to do so. If they were consistent—and we had members opposite in this debate today talk about the fast food industry—they would look at some of the outcomes that have been delivered for workers in the fast food industry as a result of agreements that were negotiated by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten. This government is the government that is creating opportunity, jobs and, eventually, higher wages for people. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of Minister Cash's answer to the question from Senator Cameron during question time. It was a pretty straightforward question, and it may surprise listeners that it's not unusual for a government to take a position in a case before the industrial relations commission. It's not unusual for a government to put a position in respect of a minimum wage outcome or a significant change. The question went to the heart of the matter: what is this government going to say to the Fair Work Commission? And the resounding answer was: nothing. This government is not going to step up and even have a view about this matter. If you'd listened to the three contributions to this debate from the other side—or was it two contributions?

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They were so good, it seemed like there were three!

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Only two—you nearly got me; there were only two. I thought they were good enough for three, they were that misleading. The independence of the Fair Work Commission was raised in both contributions. Let's have a look at the independence of it. The last three appointees have been described by employers as 'bringing it back to balance'. There have been quite a number of appointees to the Fair Work Commission since 2016-17, and really all of those appointees have moved it away from the old-fashioned principle of balance—one representative from the employer side and one from the union side. Increasingly now, we see the appointments all being swung towards the employer side of representation, with people from the Farmers' Federation, ACCI and the like. There's a place for those people in that august organisation, but there should be some balance. Workers should be able to go to the Fair Work Commission, present their case and expect to be heard in a fair and just manner.

Senator Fawcett made the comment, 'We've created lots of jobs.' What unions do—and it may surprise him—is create better jobs out of those fundamental jobs. They create better jobs. They set a span of hours within which you can work your eight hours, and, if you've worked eight hours and you do another two, you get time and a half. Then, if you do any more time after 10 hours, you get double time. Surprise, surprise—after 10 hours work you get a little kick along to encourage you to keep putting your shoulder to the wheel in that job. By necessity, a lot of the jobs in the economy are not all that invigorating. They're hard-work jobs and there needs to be a penalty rate to get people to work beyond the ordinary hours. Heaven forbid, if people have to work on a Saturday or Saturday night, that they might get time and a half! They might even get into double time if they're lucky. On one day of the week, Sunday, they get double time.

I do know people who own and operate restaurants. One said to me, 'Alex, it's too expensive to bring in the kitchen hand on a Sunday.' I said, 'So what do you do?' He said, 'We don't open.' I said, 'Well, you've made a business decision. That's your business decision, but I can go into Darling Harbour on a Sunday night and there will be 10,000 people waiting to get a feed. So you made that decision in one part of the country; in other parts of the country they don't necessarily make that decision.'

Penalty rates are not the root of all evil. Penalty rates are the way that decent, hardworking Australian workers—whether they are members of a union or not—students, backpackers and the like go about sustaining themselves. They don't go around banking bloody $300 or $400 a week. The penalty rates are what pay the electricity, the rent and the going out, if they're fortunate enough to be able to do that. They sustain their necessities of life. If penalty rates are not there, it means that people will get less take-home pay. There will be less to share in families who are not doing very well. Cutting penalty rates is a ferocious attack on the lowest earners in the community, the people who are not at the top. As Keating always said, we've always got to be on the side of the angels—on the side of those who need a leg-up—not on the side of people in positions of privilege, where most of those on the other side come from, including Senator McGrath, who is grinning away. My bet is he's never worked a day in his life. He never, ever had to work for penalty rates or meal money, or worked past nine o'clock on a Saturday night or got up at five o'clock in the morning to earn some penalties.

Senator McGrath interjecting

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

But he'll be over there campaigning as hard as he can for power, position and privilege. On this side, we're on the side of those who need a leg-up—not a handout but a leg-up.

Senator McGrath interjecting

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Penalty rates are one of those areas where workers should enjoy the fruits of their labour. It's a fair process that was fought for for over 100 years, and you lot will not be able to get rid of it.

Question agreed to.