Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Matters of Public Importance
I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 27 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Pratt:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Morrison Government's desire to make it easier for employers to cut workers' pay and conditions.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clocks accordingly.
Let's look at what's been happening with wages in this country, prepandemic and postpandemic. Prepandemic we had wage stagnation under this government—eight years of this government being in power and we've seen year after year of wage stagnation. Now, post-COVID, it's very clear, when we look at reports from economists and the Reserve Bank, that we're facing not only wage stagnation but wage decline. So over eight years wages have stagnated, and over the coming years wages will decline. But don't worry, because not everyone's wages have been suppressed. Reports today are that in the past 12 months the incomes of billionaires have gone up by 56 per cent! So to everybody else out there: your wages have declined but, under this government's watch, billionaires are making more and more money.
Actually, I don't begrudge them that. What I begrudge is the fact that government doesn't understand how trickle-down doesn't work. You actually have to give working people—people in the communities, small businesses that negotiate with those billionaires and quite large businesses that negotiate with those billionaires—power to get a share of the wealth, not leave it to the small clique which they support. The system that they support and they've generated says that billionaires are okay and the rest of us aren't.
Then you go to what the government is doing in the latest drive for a pay cut—scrutiny of enterprise agreements. Well, let's get rid of that! Let's make sure that enterprise agreements don't meet standards; let's make sure that the commission is rushed and required to look at and review agreements before it's had an appropriate time to properly review them, because that's what the government have proposed. But they've actually gone a step further. They've said that appropriate parties, such as unions, can't make applications, as they previously have done, to criticise or highlight those dodgy deals. What happens when those dodgy deals go through? Not only are workers abused; it also destabilises markets. It means that those companies who are doing the right thing are destabilised by the people who are getting away with theft. That's legalised theft. The government have done nothing effective about wage theft, and the latest proposals are a small shadow of what's needed.
What they want to do is actually legalise it. They want to put bad employees in the front seat and put good employees down on the ground. They want to make sure that there is a disproportionate and destabilising effect in the labour market. Because what are they about? Wage decline. Wage decline year after year, and their record proves it.
Now they also want to have non-monetary benefits. They want to expand the non-monetary benefits, which were originally put in acts so that people had protections at the Industrial Relations Commission for benefits they received in negotiated agreements and elsewhere. It wasn't below the NES. But what they propose now is that McDonald's application—rather than paying you wage increases, you can have wage cuts based on getting a packet of fries! What do they say when you go into McDonald's? In this case, it's: 'Here are your pay cuts, and do you want fries with that?' This government is now making it legal for the company store to operate. That was something that was thrown out in the early 1900s in this country and progressively abolished effectively throughout the 1900s and even further. But this government wants to go back to it. They want to go back to it, because they just can't help themselves. They have to say: 'Here's a pandemic; here's a crisis. Who do we really need to do over?' It's those people who have the chance, the opportunity and the desire to express their voice collectively.
I'll have to finish on the gig economy. Bijoy Paul and four others were killed as a result of being in the gig economy. There are tens of thousands of people in the gig economy, and what does this government do? There are no regulations to support them, protect them or give them rights. In fact, if you look at a number of the government's people on the backbench, they're fully supporting those people being exploited.
We've just heard another divisive, old, class-war warrior rhetorical contribution to the Senate. Let's all remember that the workplace relations framework in this country is under the Fair Work Act, heralded by the Australian Labor Party and introduced by the Australian Labor Party. So that independent umpire that sets wages and conditions is now being slagged off by the Australian Labor Party, the very creator of the system. To my friends opposite: you can't have it both ways. You cannot say that you have championed the cause of workers and brought to us the fair work regime, and on the other hand somehow condemn the government for the decisions that are allowed to go through the Fair Work Commission.
A fair day's pay for a fair day's work is a biblical injunction which is embedded at the very heart of coalition policy in this area. No Liberal and no National wants to see workers' pay cut. Instead, we seek to pursue policies to grow not only jobs but also wages. That is why, after a decade of the Howard government, we saw unemployment with a '3' in front of it—unheard of for a long, long time and unheard of since—and, might I add, real wages growing without impacting inflation. That is what good, sound economic management delivers. And why do we pursue good, sound economic management? Because of the social dividend it delivers for the men and women of Australia.
It takes the economic illiteracy of the Labor Party to rip apart those credentials that the Howard government left. Here we are today, grappling with a global pandemic and seeking to restore the Australian economy, Australian jobs and Australian opportunities, and we've got the shamelessness of Labor. Indeed, Senator Sheldon reminded us of dodgy deals, and it triggered something in my mind. Who actually sought enterprise agreements to see workers in the mushroom sector worse off, workers in the cleaning sector worse off and workers in the building sector worse off? It was none other than the now member of parliament and former secretary of the Australian Workers Union Mr Bill Shorten. Let's be very, very clear: there were three areas in which workers were underpaid in circumstances where the agreement was signed off by the Australian Workers Union whilst Mr Shorten was in control. And let's be very clear: there are certain allegations that, in relation to those deals, there were quid pro quos that allowed certain benefits to flow to the member for Maribyrnong. That remains to be seen.
But let's be very clear: why are the Labor Party bringing this up today, and why do they do it from time to time? They do it to try to create a smokescreen to distract attention from their real policy, which is to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission. And why are they so manic about it? Because the Registered Organisations Commission has an active investigation going on, as we speak, into the activities of the Australian Workers Union while Mr Shorten was the secretary of it. The Australian Workers Union documents that have now been filed indicate that over $1 million worth of Australian Workers Union funds have been expended in fruitless and vexatious litigation against the Registered Organisations Commission. Those people opposite who cry crocodile tears for workers have no compunction about signing up to deals that rip off workers and then rip off their union funds.
Why are the Australian Workers Union spending so much money in protecting Mr Shorten? The Australian Workers Union haven't done that for another secretary of the Australian Workers Union—namely, one Cesar Melhem, who is in the Victorian parliament. That issue has seen a $148,000 fine being imposed on the Australian Workers Union. Of what do I speak? I'm talking about the false enrolment of various bogus members without their knowledge or consent, including workers of companies with whom the AWU had enterprise agreements and, most creatively, jockeys who were members of the Australian Jockeys Association and netballers who were members of the Australian Netball Players Association. When these allegations came to the fore, what did the Australian Workers Union do? They raised the white flag. They did not seek to defend. They did not seek to take this matter to court. Given what they did in relation to Mr Shorten, it begs the question: why? And I suppose it begs this question: if it had gone to court, if it had gone to trial, Mr Melhem may have been asked a question such as, 'How long have these rorts been going on and whose idea was it in the first place?'
In the case of the netballers and jockeys rort, the answer to these questions seemed quite clear, because on 13 February 2005 the Australian Workers Union issued a media release entitled 'Netball stars join the AWU', which included the following boast:
The AWU's experience in representing other elite sportspeople such as horse racing jockeys will help us to better represent the interests of some of the most talented women in Australian sport.
Do you know who made that boast? None other than the current member for Maribyrnong. There he was on the public record boasting about these rorted numbers being introduced into the Australian Workers' Union, which in turn, of course, had the impact of being able to impact Labor Party votes and Labor Party preselections. So, there are a number of issues.
I am, Madam Acting Deputy President. It's a robust chamber. We may comment about other people, but Senator Abetz is sailing very close to the wind in the way that he's talking about the member for Maribyrnong. I would ask him to cease reflecting on a member from the other place.
I can understand the sensitively of those opposite to the facts that I have laid out exceptionally carefully. There is no doubt that Mr Melhem and the Australian Workers' Union provided to the court an agreed statement of facts, agreeing that the figures that they had presented were rorted. They were falsified. People's names had been put on the record without their knowledge, courtesy of the enterprise agreements and cooperation from their employers. And the boast that I just read out, which seems to have excited the interjection, was on the public record on 13 February 2005, which can be easily shown to be correct. So, I understand the sensitivity of the Australian Labor Party. When these matters, these dodgy deals, are fully highlighted, one gets to see what really motivates the Australian Labor Party in this. Is there any Australian who genuinely believes that anybody in this place would want to see Australian workers paid less? Of course there isn't. Each and every one of us is dedicated, one would hope, to the service of the Australian people and to wanting the very best for them.
We on this side know that the opportunity of employment enhances somebody's self-esteem, their social interaction, their physical health, their mental health. The social good of employment is there for all to see. That is why it's so important that any policy initiative is designed to ensure that more of our fellow Australians can get onto the ladder of opportunity which is employment. The capacity to be self-reliant, the self-esteem of knowing that you can look after yourself and your fellow family members of the same household, these are the good things that come out of employment. That is why we on this side, we as a government, so unrelentingly pursue not only every single employment opportunity but also good wages and outcomes, always as determined by the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission, established by none other than the Australian Labor Party.
This government is full of the ideological children of John Howard. A fundamental project of the Liberal and National parties is shifting the balance of power from workers to capital. At every turn they will privilege profits of corporations, of billionaires and of rent-seekers over the wellbeing of people and communities. Their policy agenda is the result of laziness, malice and an irrational obsession with free markets and competition. Decades of market-led policy, labour market deregulation and union busting have diminished the quality of work for so many people. It has turbo-charged inequality and worsened the degradation of our environment. This government's version of common sense is that what is good for big business is good for the community. They have no real abiding belief in the value of meaningful work, social labour or care; no real commitment to the rights of workers to be safe, to be happy and respected at work or to be able to work and play and flourish. The only kind of flexibility that this government is interested in is supporting the flexibility of employers to hire and fire workers. Inevitably, favouring flexibility for businesses would mean precarity and powerlessness for workers. COVID-19 has shown us how dangerously precarious employment can be for workers and for society. That the government are trying to use this crisis to further undermine workplace rights, workers' pay and conditions in favour of businesses is cynical, it's despicable and it is staggeringly irresponsible. They have been wanting to do this for a long, long time.
With regards to the anti-worker IR omnibus bill, just removing the appalling measure to suspend the BOOT won't cut it; the bill will still remain appalling. It will still make it harder for most casuals to convert to permanent work, it still effectively casualises part-time workers without any increases in entitlements and it still locks workers and unions out of enterprise bargaining; it needs to be scrapped. Maybe workers' wages and conditions are abstract concepts to this government. Maybe they're so out of touch with working people they don't know how precarity and poverty feel. I lost count of the number of times I have sat right here in this chamber and watched members of the government giggle and gossip as they vote to plunge people into poverty, to take away their rights and dignity and to entrench and worsen inequality. Workers deserve so much more than the cold callous disregard of the Liberals and Nationals.
Everything that this Liberal government do and have done since they came to office in 2013 is to weaken unions and drive wages down. That is the reality of it. No matter what other senators from that side come into this chamber and say, that's exactly what they do. When they took away penalty rates of people in hospitality and retail and promised they would create job after job after job, how many jobs were created? None. None at all. That is actually driving down wages.
Don't come into this chamber and try and rewrite history. We know that it's in the government's DNA. Those opposite want to weaken unions, don't want workers to have representation and have no interest in ensuring wages growth. We have seen stagnant wages year after year under the government's watch. We know there are some 13 million Australians who rely on good government and good working conditions. What we also know in this country is the attack that those opposite are now applying and trying to get through this place will only disadvantage some of the lowest paid workers in this country. If you look at aged care, we know they are some of the most underpaid employees in this country. They don't have the respect they deserve, working to look after the most vulnerable people in this community. We know, with these changes, aged-care workers will lose $12,000 per year. That's what the agenda of those opposite is. That is so wrong.
We on this side will, year after year, day after day, week after week, defend workers' rights and we will do everything that we can to ensure that their pay and conditions are preserved. We don't want to see penalty rates taken away. We don't want to see changes to part-time workers. Because if you do not have a full-time job or a job that has legitimacy so that you can go and apply for a bank loan, you're not helping the economy. The government is stifling people's opportunities to buy their own home.
The day-to-day stress that's placed on so many workers in this country with the casualisation and the underemployment in this country is abuse of these workers. That's not doing anything to actually build our economy. If you want to come out of this COVID-19 pandemic and you want to rebuild the economy and get people back working, that's certainly not the way to go about it. But what we've seen, time and time again, is an attack on the most vulnerable workers. We know, whether you're talking about hospitality, retail, aged care or disability, the majority of those workers are women. So you're hitting women again and again and again.
You don't want to increase superannuation for Australian workers. Once again, who are those in our community that are going to be hardest hit? And you want to change and lower the wages for those sectors that I've outlined already, which means women are again going to be the most disadvantaged, not only in their take-home pay and the amount of hours that they're going to have to work; just as importantly, you're attacking superannuation. We already know the majority of women in this country do not have enough money to retire on. That's your legacy. That's the Liberals' legacy. That's the DNA of the Liberal government, the Liberal coalition. That's what they are about.
If you want to build a strong economy and you want to build a strong, highly skilled workforce, then don't attack workers and try and take money away from them. You should be investing in TAFE, for instance, so we can skill up Australian workers so people can go and retrain when there are changes in their work environment. But what we see, time and time again, is rhetoric by those opposite coming in here. They want to drag up and vilify unions, when in fact every Australian worker needs to be a member of a union, and there's no more important time than right now, because you need their protection.
I'm glad Senator Polley raises the DNA of the Morrison government, because in our DNA is jobs and more of them for all Australians. Our track record speaks to that, with 1.84 million new placements through the jobactive program since its inception in 2015. But the Morrison government will not rest on its laurels. Indeed, we look at the industrial relations bill before this place now that improves enterprise agreements—delivering on average 40 per cent more into the pockets of hardworking Australians—offers the opportunity to grow jobs, increases freedom and flexibility within the labour market and offers new protections for employees in this place.
Why, then, don't Australians already enjoy those benefits? It is because the Labor Party chooses to obstruct more money in the pockets of hardworking Australians. On the flexibility and freedoms afforded to those in the gig economy, the Labor Party are most focused on racing to the bottom, as usual, and talking about a minimum wage. The Victorian Labor government's inquiry into the gig economy found, on average, the mean wage of a gig economy worker is $32.16, which represents a 62 per cent increase on the Australian minimum wage. The Labor Party would rather that Australians not enjoy 62 per cent extra earning capacity because of their ideological attachment to standing between Australians and employers. Thirty per cent of part-time workers in the retail industry and 40 per cent of part-time workers in the accommodation and food services sectors can work extra hours under the modifications and reforms contemplated by the IR omnibus bill. Instead, we see the Labor Party saying no.
We've offered a clear and consistent pathway to convert casual employment to full-time employment for the first time. But, by blocking this legislation, Labor would rather have casual workers remain casual even if they prefer permanency. In opposing these changes, Labor has decided that it is against casual employees and it would rather keep those casual employees as collateral damage in their ongoing class warfare in this country. So much for Labor being on your side!
If you're not a casual who wants permanent work, they will leave you aside.
At the moment the Labor Party are proposing to cut workers' pay and conditions. We've seen with the thought bubble from the Leader of the Opposition last week a $20 billion a year business tax and a cut for casuals equal to, on average, $153 a week. That's right; they would take $153 a week out of your pocket and impose a $20 billion a year tax on Australian business. We've seen this from the ACTU. Which side of this chamber proposes to cut workers' pay? It is those opposite.
When Labor vote against this bill they will also be voting against increased criminal penalties for wage theft. Those who have experienced wage theft or underpayment will be better protected under the reforms proposed by this government. You might think that this would be uncontroversial, but those opposite are too busy playing politics with this bill, to the detriment of hardworking Australians. The tougher civil and new criminal penalties to stamp out wage theft are simply casualties of Labor's class war—collateral damage, like the casual workers they would sooner deny the opportunity of permanent employment. Indeed, a quicker way to recover underpayments where they occur is also included in this bill. Instead, by blocking this bill, Labor have said that they don't want it easier to recover wages for those exploited workers in Australia. So much for the Labor Party being on your side!
In this bill enterprise agreements are said to be more easily implemented, have tighter approval time frames and deliver 40 per cent, on average, higher wages into the pockets of Australians compared to awards, and yet the Labor Party stand in their way. When we consider 2020 we should be doing everything in our power to reduce the red tape, to reduce the restrictions and to reduce the amount of time between employees lawfully reaching an agreement with an employer and the increasing amounts of money in their pay packets. Instead, because of the prevarication of the Labor Party, we see nothing.
Instead, we have seen a proposal for portable entitlements. It should be no surprise to us that Labor has trotted this out. It's an attractive idea at first glance. Stop and take stock of how that would actually be implemented. We see examples already writ large in the Australian economy of the Labor Party doing dodgy deals, as Senator Sheldon referred to, joining forces, taking money from hardworking Australians and putting it away in secretive slush funds that donate money from the unions to the ALP.
What motivates us is the idea that Australians be empowered to control the fruits of their own labour and keep more of their hard-earned money that they earn for themselves and their families. Yet those opposite, under the union control that they seem unable to step away from, in the case of Incolink in Victoria happily take money from working Australians and donate $8½ million to the CFMEU. They take $10 million off Australian workers and give it away in wages in a jobs-for-the-boys scandal that, frankly, Australians should be appalled about.
You tell me who cares about the wellbeing of working Australians and their pay and conditions. It seems to be the Morrison government, with a track record of being focused on job opportunities and job creation. Yet the Morrison government finds itself unable to deliver for those hardworking Australians because of those opposite. You might think that this loss of workers' entitlements would be well-known, but far less well-known is the fact that, having taken money from those hardworking Australians and put it into a slush fund under the guise of portable entitlements, the payment of those entitlements, far from being governed by law, is in fact at the 'absolute discretion' of the trustee. When determining the amount and period of entitlement that the worker shall receive, the decision of the trustee is 'final' and the worker has no right of appeal.
The silence from the Labor Party is deafening when it comes to defending themselves on this matter. In fact, we shouldn't expect anything less from the CFMMEU. Funded by money stolen from workers in this way, building unions break the law more than anyone. Responsible in 90 per cent of Federal Court cases for coercion, right of entry and freedom of association breaches, they're 20 times more likely than all other unions combined to break the law. Indeed, the CFMMEU secretary at the time said, 'If you play by the law, you'll never win.' So it is no wonder that the Labor Party, beholden to these union thugs, has chosen to stand in the way of a proposal to offer Australians new opportunities to convert casual employment to full-time employment to offer flexibility to accommodate family life, caring responsibilities, sport, education and everything else that makes up modern life. Instead they obstinately stick to their union domination, obstructing the government from implementing these important reforms.
I rise this afternoon to make a quick contribution. I want to draw the attention of senators to two graphs that I think are important. The first of these is the ASX 200. It's sitting at about 6,885 points at close of business today. It's actually very close to where it was in February last year, just prior to COVID, when it was in the low 7,000s. That's one graph where we see companies doing well. We see wealth and prosperity in a particular camp. Another graph, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Wage Price Index, goes in the opposite direction. It shows that wage growth has collapsed over the last decade. That is concerning, because, whilst I absolutely respect the idea that those who go into business, invest and take a risk should get a rightful return, it's got to be proportionate and reasonable. Wealth and prosperity need to be shared by all of those involved in economic activity. So these two graphs cause me great trouble. I see workers paying tax. I see companies not paying tax. These are the sorts of differences that I think we need to look at very, very closely. There's lots and lots of focus on the traditional battlegrounds for Labor and Liberal in relation to IR. I get that there is absolutely a need to protect workers' salaries and to look for an increase, but, as I look at this next IR bill, I'll be looking at it through the lens of prosperity for all.
After more than seven years of being in power, the government are absolutely out of ideas to take this country forward. All we've seen in this debate from those opposite are some bizarre conspiracy theories. I don't think there's any other way you could describe them. There are some old attacks from Senator Abetz. He does like the old attack. We know that he's always good for that. We've seen him trot them out over the last couple of years.
What we haven't seen from this government is a plan to actually take the country forward. There is no plan to help workers and their families get ahead and no plan to offer those workers and their families a better future, something to look forward to. We know that they offered none of that before the pandemic, and, since the pandemic hit, as Australians have been looking for a vision of a better future, we have seen nothing from this government but attacks on workers and their conditions. It is absolutely a challenge for working people at the moment. We know that they do want to be optimistic about what the future looks like, but the government are incapable of actually having a vision. They didn't have one before the pandemic and they don't have one now to take the country forward.
So stagnant have the conditions been for working Australians since this government was elected that they've given up trying to look for that better deal with the optimism to seek a solution. No—the only thing they've come up with is that tired old attack on workers and their conditions, and they've trotted out trying to appeal to crossbenchers to back them in that mission. The concerning things for Australians is that the government have been in power for so long that they continue to fall back on this trick—this is the only thing they've got. We see it with working conditions and we see it with the role that they're trying to play at the moment in undermining superannuation and denying working Australians dignity in retirement.
Let's consider what Australians are confronting at the moment. According to the OECD—and we know that those opposite have a lot of faith in the OECD at the moment; I'm sure they're all keeping a close eye on what is going on there—since the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government was elected in 2013, real wages in Australia have declined by 0.7 per cent. This is the government's record: real wages have declined by 0.7 per cent. For wage growth in 2019, Australia was third last out of 35 OECD countries. This is the record of a government that has been in power since 2013. This is what they have delivered for Australian workers. And this is before the pandemic hit. After six years in government, these are the conditions that they left for working people in Australia: real wage growth had declined by 0.7 per cent and in 2019 we were third last out of 35 OECD countries.
We know the underutilisation rate is at 15 per cent, well above pre-pandemic levels, and 2.1 million Australians are unemployed or looking for more work. In Queensland, there is 16 per cent underutilisation, 240,000 people are underemployed and 209,000 people are unemployed. When you look around the country, when you look at what's happening in Queensland, there is such a raw deal for workers. We know that the Liberals and Nationals have dropped their pursuit of the better off overall test, but they only did that because it wouldn't pass the parliament. Since then, the Attorney-General, the minister responsible, when he announced he wouldn't pursue it, called those changes 'sensible and proportionate'. This is the minister that is pursuing these changes—or was pursuing these changes—still saying these changes are sensible and proportionate.
What the Australian working people need to know and what their families need to know is that the government will not stop their pursuit of working people and their conditions. We know it becomes an ideological obsession for them, but they actually have no plan that is going to offer those workers a better deal. They have no plan that's going to give those people something to look forward to over the horizon—not tougher conditions when it comes to working people and the way they are dealt with at work. Now, after seven years, it is too late for this government to offer up that vision for the Australian people. It's really important that Labor start to identify that, and we saw elements of that in Queensland last week, where federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese started to outline some of his vision for working people in Australia, and that is important.
Too many times I hear Labor take a very ordinary position, but today's statement is a new low. This Labor MPI demonstrates the counterproductive, antibusiness, antifamily and, in fact, anti-employee position. The politics of Labor is class war, and in this war the casualties are the very people that they are purporting to stand for. The worker who desires the flexibility to earn as much as possible, while balancing commitments to family, school hours and events, should not be locked into some draconian system that forces them and their employer into an unfavourable work plan, dreamed up by a union hack convinced that a class war is not only imminent but required. The world is changing, and the unions are struggling to keep up. A couple of months ago, I heard evidence at an inquiry where a union told me that employees did not want to work from home and, in fact, they had not asked them that. Yet, we know that since the pandemic the world has changed very rapidly indeed.
This position demonstrates the fantasy world that Labor live in, where jobs are magically created, and their lack of understanding of what it means to mortgage your home, to work all hours, to build a business, carefully budgeting to add another staff member, and to deal with the paperwork, the changing awards, the complexity of payments. All they want to talk about is stolen wages. I can tell you, as a small-business operator, as one of the people who provide 60 per cent of jobs in Australia, that this is not a responsibility that is taken lightly. The relationship that you have with your staff is so important. The position Labor have taken can only be reached by people who've never employed someone else, who've never sweated over paying creditors and wages and hopefully leaving something in the tin for your family. It is a position based on a lie.
My experience was quite the reverse. When I came into that business, I offered casual workers permanent roles. While some were pleased to take on a permanent role, there were others who absolutely did not want to. They enjoyed the additional 25 per cent payment in lieu of holiday pay and sick leave. They liked the flexibility of being able to manage their family life. They liked to be able to start at hours that suited them and me. This belief that employers are just out to exploit workers and stamp on the throat of the little guy is rooted in the Dark Ages. It bears no relevance to today. They don't understand that there is already a condition in place that allows casuals to be offered permanency and in fact converts casuals to permanency. But many casuals do not want that. They want the flexibility of home life and work. If we mandate that casuals must become permanent or that employers must alter the working hours of casual people every week in order to comply with that requirement, how is that good for employees? How is that good for families? It is just, again, a lack of understanding of what it is like in the world of small business.
We should be protecting those people who want more flexible working arrangements and who want to be able to negotiate with their employer wages and conditions that are mutually beneficial. The coalition's industrial relations reforms achieve balance. They make it easier for workers and employers to get the job done with minimal fuss, less red tape and more flexibility. Again, I cannot emphasise enough the role of small-business people in Australia. They employ anywhere from one to 100 additional people, and they do not create jobs from some magical fairy dust, as Labor would have you believe, but they create these jobs out of blood, sweat and sacrifice from their families. So I want to welcome Labor and the unions to join the 21st century and to listen to what workers actually want, instead of simply channelling Karl Marx to dictate old-fashioned employment practices.
In serving the people of Queensland and Australia, I note that Senator Pratt is fixated on a problem, not the solution. Yesterday the government took the first step in recognising One Nation's legitimate concerns for employees and employers. It booted out the BOOT. Australians need and deserve genuine improvement to our broken industrial relations system. Firstly, casual workers are being abused and exploited. Secondly, the needs of small business have been ignored by everyone except One Nation. The new bill's definition of 'casual' is complex. It suggests that the employer's intention expressed at the time of commencement of employment is the only factor. It's not. The definition also refers to 'no firm advance commitment', yet many casuals have a firm advance commitment and many have a regular pattern of hours, because it suits both the worker and the business.
My second concern is with the proposed right to conversion. It burdens many small businesses and puts the casual loading at risk for workers who enjoy the benefit of a casual loading. The answer is to reduce red tape and complexity for small business and, likewise, to widen the window of opportunity for workers to apply for conversion.
My third and overriding concern is offsetting claims, section 545A. I do not support double dipping on entitlements, yet I will fight to protect workers legal and moral entitlements, just as I have done relentlessly in the Hunter Valley for 20 months. Recently the CFMMEU's mining division agreed that their union has ignored casuals for many years, and its national legal director, Mr Bukarica, had the courage and integrity to acknowledge the Hunter Valley division has caused and enabled exploitation of casual workers. Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon ignored abused casuals in the Hunter and hid their core problems. One Nation stands for the ignored workers that Labor ignores. We're ready to work together with the government and with all parties to improve this bill for employers and for employees.
I am pleased to speak on today's matter of public importance on workplace relations, because it represents one of the most critical issues currently before this parliament—an issue of the utmost importance to many millions of Australian wage earners and indeed for the broader Australian economy.
It is clear that no matter the circumstances in the economy the Morrison Liberal government is hell-bent on making it easier to cut workers' pay and conditions. This will of course come as no surprise to hardworking, wage-earning Australians, but it certainly does seem a strange way to try and rebuild our economy and improve the lives of working Australians. It seems strange because pretty much every economic commentator, including the Reserve Bank, has said that lifting stagnant wage growth poses one of the most significant challenges to Australia's short-, medium- and long-term economic success; and strange because wages, already flatlining and already struggling for many years under this government have really taken a tumble in the past year. In fact, just yesterday, the latest weekly payroll figures from the ABS, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, showed that since 14 March last year wages for men in my state of Tasmania have fallen 5.6 per cent—fallen by more than five per cent, a real cut to the take home pay of tens of thousands of working people and their families. Mr Morrison and his Liberal government want to see those pay packets cut further. It's ideological, not to mention economic, lunacy and it's been noticed in the community.
Just today in the Hobart newspaper The Mercury, an eminent Tasmanian barrister, Fabiano Cangelosi, after analysing the Morrison government's industrial relations omnibus bill, wrote:
The bill seeks to replicate the Howard government's WorkChoices legislation by unbalancing the beneficial value of the economy against working Australians.
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The omnibus Bill amounts to an attempt at capitalising on COVID-19 disruption to wreak lasting change on the industrial relations landscape.
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If passed into law, the overall effect will be a workforce reduced to the level of a mere exploitable resource for big business.
The omnibus Bill repudiates the core constitutional role of the federal government: to make law for the common good.
These are apt descriptions of the government's bill and their intent.
Just yesterday, the Morrison government again confirmed it still wants to cut workers' take-home pay. The Attorney-General and the Prime Minister were quite clear: they are only prepared to remove from their bill their plan to scrap the better off overall test because they do not have the votes in this place to secure passage. They're not prepared to drop that component because they have suddenly realised that it is unfair, and they're not prepared to drop it because they've accepted that enabling the further erosion of the pay of hardworking Australians is not in the national economic interest, no; they just can't get it through the Senate.
In fact, in his statement yesterday, the Attorney-General stated he still believed the changes to the BOOT are 'sensible and proportionate'—not quite the description I would use for a change that would remove the safety net for workers and give employers significantly more power to cut pay and reduce entitlements, but we know that they are merely retreating on this occasion for the sake of political expediency because they know that the remaining components of their omnibus bill will continue to work towards their aim of making it easier to cut workers' take-home pay, and we know that, given the opportunity, they will rapidly bring back changes proposed to BOOT.
Labor has always set a very simple test when it comes to any changes to industrial relations. We would support the legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. The government's legislation still fails that test. Labor has always made it clear that, while the BOOT change was the most egregious attack on job security and workers' pay in the government's bill, it certainly was not the only one. The new laws will continue to make it easier for businesses to employ people as casuals, even when they work like permanent workers. This will only result in more insecure work—and insecure work, over time, always means lower pay and fewer conditions. What is crystal clear is that the Morrison government is not on the side of working families, and it never delivers. (Time expired)
The Greens could not agree more with this MPI on workplace relations. But it's clear that not only does the government want to allow employers to cut wages; it—that is, the government—is actually leading the charge to suppress wages in this country.
One of the biggest levers the government has to change wages across our society and across our economy is its setting of public sector wages, and it is using that lever ruthlessly to depress wages as quickly as it can. Public sector wage caps have helped ensure that wage growth for private sector workers has been flat for years. There has been no pressure on private employers to lift wages. The government's official policy is, and I'll quote from government documents, 'that Commonwealth public sector wage rises can no longer exceed wage rises in the private sector'. This policy locks in low wages and low wage growth for all workers in the country—public and private sector workers. By increasing wages to public sector employees, the private sector would have to follow and most workers would end up better off. But that's not what this government has chosen to do. We know that big businesses are pocketing more and more of their profits, and their servants in the Liberal Party want to keep it that way, and one of the ways they are doing that is by gutting protections in the already weak Fair Work Act.
Make no mistake, there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country, and the Liberals are working to widen that gap at every opportunity. Colleagues, the combined wealth of Australia's billionaires rose by more than 50 per cent in the last 12 months, in the middle of a global pandemic, turbocharging the gap between the superwealthy and the not so well off in Australia. And that gap is still growing, because, while the billionaires get evermore obscenely rich, wage growth is flatlining and millions of Australians remain unemployed or underemployed. The Liberals want to keep wages low and they want to make sure house prices keep soaring. That's all well and good if you're a wealthy landowner or the CEO of a major corporation or a billionaire, but, if you're a renter and a worker, you're left to fight for the scraps; and, if you're currently out of work or underemployed, you've been left completely high and dry by this government.
We need to make sure that income supports rise in this country and we need to make sure that billionaires and the big corporations, particularly the big polluting fossil fuel corporations, pay their fair share of tax so we can fund quality public services in Australia. (Time expired)
This week the Morrison government have confirmed two things: (1) they can't get their nasty plan to get rid of the better off overall test through this parliament; and (2) they are still determined to cut your pay. In the words of Christine, a cleaner and United Workers Union member:
There will always be bad bosses. We do not aim to make it easier for them to cut wages and change the limited working conditions we already have.
Christine is one of my heroes this week because she had the courage to speak out publicly about the government's plan to cut workers' pay. She, along with thousands of Australian workers, has sent a strong message to all of us in this place, and that message is to completely reject the government's nasty industrial relations bill. Today, along with Christine, I want to recognise the courage of Karen.
Karen is the registered nurse and ANMF member who came to testify at public hearings on the government's plan. Despite turning up to the hearings on time, prepared and ready, Karen was denied the opportunity to speak. She was denied the opportunity to tell her story, so I will tell her story here. This is what she wants to tell Scott Morrison and everyone in this place: 'We are the backbone and the forefront of our healthcare system. We are the ones who know our patients. We are the ones who keep our patients comfortable and safe. We're the ones that reassure our patients and their families. We are the ones that care for them at night, all night, when most other people are tucked up in bed. We are the ones who work weekends, doing what we always do, missing out on kids' sports and family functions. We are the ones who cheerily spend Christmas Day with our patients, while missing out on our own.' And she says: 'To allow the possibility of removing the protection of EBA standards is a slap in the face of myself and all the other nurses in the country who, without question, sacrificed so much for our community.'
So Australians should not be fooled: the government's backflip on the better off overall test this week will not protect Australians from being worse off under this bill. Jules is a hospo worker and a member of the Hospo Voice union. She sees right through the government's spin. Jules says: 'The government has worded and spun the bill in a way that sounds like it's friendly to workers. After all, increasing flexibility and ending the confusion of casualisation sound pretty good, right? Wrong. When you get into the nuts and bolts, workers end up getting less.' She is right. There are wholesale changes in the government's bill that will mean more low-wage and non-union agreements, exactly when Australians need a pay rise to keep their heads above water. And there are wholesale changes in the government's bill that will make more workers casual, exactly when Australians are crying out for more job security. There are wholesale changes in this bill—this nasty plan—to make part-time work casual, exactly hurting our essential workers, who need regular, secure hours to make ends meet and to care for their own families.
The experts have spoken on this bill, and I'm talking about the workers, like Christine, Karen and Jules, who have spoken out about this government's nasty plan. They already work hard for wages that are, at best, modest. They are the people we've called on again and again in this pandemic to keep us safe and to keep our community moving. Cleaners, nurses, hospo workers—these are the people who fought for us during the pandemic. They should not have to fight a pay cut that is being inflicted by their own government. But today I stand with them and I congratulate them for having the courage to stand up and do just that.