Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Answers to Questions

3:02 pm

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked today by opposition senators.

We had quite an interesting question time today, with lots of talk of psychics, spiritual healers, shamans and the like, and I couldn't help but wonder, with all of this talk of seeing into the future, if only the government had had a crystal ball back in May, because then they might've actually foreseen some semblance of an economic plan they could bring to the Australian people to try and solve some of these very difficult problems we currently see before us. Throughout the election campaign we heard on multiple occasions the now Prime Minister, Mr Albanese, and his Labor colleagues tell Australians they'd cut the cost of living. They told everyone that their household costs would come down and their wages would go up. They promised Australians would see a $275 reduction in their power bills—not a subsidy, a concession or a one-off payment; they said that's what your power bills would go down by. Yet in the recent budget Labor itself is forecasting power price rises of more than 30 per cent.

Labor's IR bill will only add to those cost-of-living pressures. Yesterday media outlets reported:

… food manufacturers and distributors … warned the legislation would push up grocery prices and worsen the cost of living crisis.

It is clear that Labor's IR changes will adversely affect hundreds and thousands of Australian businesses, and we know that small businesses are going to be hit the hardest. Instead of thinking about the hardworking Australians who own and operate small businesses around this country and instead of focusing on delivering cost-of-living relief to Australians before Christmas, which we know is on its way, the government's only focus is giving the unions an early Christmas present.

It's quite amazing how quickly Labor's tone changed after they won the election and took office. In the election campaign, it was all about reducing the cost of living, and, as soon as they were elected, all we've heard from the Treasurer is commentary on how bad the global economy is, commentary on how none of it's their fault and a pursuit of the niche issues to appease their union mates. The Labor Party were more than happy to attack the former government for economic conditions right through three years of the worldwide COVID pandemic, but now, after being elected, all we hear is an attempt to set a narrative that nothing is their fault: 'It's the war in Ukraine.' 'It's inflation in the United States and the United Kingdom.' 'It's international supply chains.' Governing is about dealing with these events. Sometimes it is hard, but you have to deal with them. That is your responsibility.

Yet, after waxing lyrical about how they were going to reduce the cost of living, Australians have been left fuming at the lack of action from this government, which is now pursuing legislation in the form of an IR bill that will only deliver higher cost-of-living pressures for Australian families and for Australian businesses. As we heard today, the Albanese government's own regulatory impact statement, if it's to be believed, shows that Labor's legislation will cost small businesses more than $14,600 in bargaining costs including consultancy fees, however calculated. For medium businesses, that cost is going to be more than $75,000, but we know the actual cost could in fact be much higher than that. Let's not forget that according to the government a medium business is defined as having any more than 15 employees.

The question remains: how is the government going to respond to the challenges of the day and deliver on the hard and fast promises they made to cut the cost of living for Australians? Like I said, there was no shortage of promises made by Labor to do so. Australians didn't hear the Labor Party saying, 'We'll cut the cost of living as long as the war in Ukraine ends, as long as the US economy is strong and everything else is well around the world.' They said that they would cut the cost of living, lower your power bills by hundreds of dollars—not raise them by 40 per cent and then, hopefully, take a few dollars off down the track. Australians definitely didn't hear the Prime Minister or Labor proposed these radical industrial relations laws, because they never took this policy to the last election. It amounts to another broken promise from Labor.

Labor's changes will mean a weaker economy. Labor's changes will mean higher cost-of-living pressures for Australian families. Labor's changes will put the interests of union bosses ahead of hard-working Australians and our economy. Labor is more than happy to leave our construction industry and its more than 400,000 small businesses at the mercy of the militant CFMMEU. By abolishing the ABCC, Labor have opened the door for more strikes, fewer jobs and unprecedented access to small business. It will have a devastating impact on our economy, resulting in higher business costs. Addressing the cost-of-living pressures doesn't even register anymore.

3:07 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is fascinating to watch the coalition try and work out their political tactics today in question time, particularly on the secure jobs, better pay bill. They want to use question time and many mechanisms within this chamber to push forward their scare campaign about the industrial relations changes that this government is rightly trying to implement. But as soon as Minister Watt began answering the questions—and, quite rightly, making the comparison between Labor's record and approach to industrial relations and that of the previous government—you could barely keep up with the coalition senators interjecting, popping up and trying to prevent the minister from actually answering the question.

We all know why those opposite don't want us to make this comparison, because it does start to remind the Australian public of their track record, of what they are ashamed about on their industrial relations reforms in this country, and so they should be. For the past 10 years under the previous government, Australia's enterprise bargaining system has been in decline. Around half as many new agreements were made last year as were made in the 2013-14 financial year. The coalition policy of deliberately suppressing wages—their words, not ours—has had a devastating effect on working people. Have they abandoned this policy? Clearly not, because they are not doing everything they can to ensure that the workers get the pay rises that they have been screaming out for for the last decade. That is why the Labor Party, since it has come to government and in the lead up to the last election, has made crystal clear its efforts to get wages moving again.

The coalition cannot even decide what scare campaign they want to run. Some members of the opposition argue that there is no proof that the bill will get wages moving again. But the Leader of the Opposition has been on the record in the other place as saying that he is scared that the bill will start to prompt wages growth above and beyond inflation. It is also important to note that those opposite could also learn a thing or two from the union movement. Because quite frankly, with the experience that a number of Labor members on this side have had, the fact is that the collapse of bargaining over the last 10 years has led directly to the loss of wage growth for the Australian workers. Every incremental increase in bargaining coverage will result in meaningful wage increases according to many researchers but particularly a new study from the Centre for Future Work. The study shows that every percentage point of bargaining coverage lost since 2013 has resulted in a drop in wage growth of around 0.15 per cent. The OECD average for bargaining coverage in countries with enterprise and some limited multi-employer bargaining is around 33 percent. So if this bill that is before the parliament, and once it does come into the Senate for debate, manages to increase bargaining to this level, the level that is seen right across many OECD countries, the report predicts that a corresponding 1.6 per cent increase in wages growth will occur every single year. This increase means $1,473 per pay rise for the average worker in the first year.

I think that is a really good start. That is the whole intent of the Albanese government about trying to not only ensure that there are more secure jobs in this country, but to have jobs that have meaningful wage rises that we have not seen over the last 10 years.

But what we saw when we first came was that the previous government refused to actually put in a submission to the Fair Work Commission that supported meaningful wage rises for workers. So one of our very first acts as a government was to write to the Fair Work Commission advocating for wage rises for the very, very many millions of Australians who are on our award system, the low-paid of this country—the very people who were packing our shelves, working around the clock to ensure that we had toilet paper and tissues at the last minute when we ran out of supply, the people that were on the front line defending our fellow Australians during the COVID pandemic. Remember those people? Those people that we always come in and talk about and say what a great job they're doing, but those opposite refused to ensure that their wages keep growing.

3:12 pm

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

The concern that we have with the bill that the government is putting forward and the way they have responded to the questions is that there seems to be a lack of understanding that it is not so much government and government programs, but it is small business who are the predominant employers of people in Australia. That means that for a business to be able to employ people and to pay good wages, the business has to be profitable, and the business owner, who is often stumping up their own capital, often putting their own house on the line to get the capital to invest in their business, needs to have the confidence that they will have some control and some rapport with their workforce and will be able to set conditions that are good for both the employees and the employer.

One of the problems with what's being proposed here is that this is a massive change to our industrial relations system that strips the small business owner and their direct employees—who they generally have a good relationship with, because they tend to work as a team—it strips that relationship away and puts it in the hands of unions, who are representative bodies who have no relationship often with the actual business and their workforce. One of the concerns with this is that this is a change that takes us back three decades. It undoes some of the very productive reforms that previous Labor governments have put in place.

As we look at the rush here, it's worth remembering that when governments get elected on the basis of a policy position that's been argued and considered and has been put to the Australian public, there is some grounds for them to rush things through if they believe it's really important and the Australian people have given them a mandate. But, in this case, it was not an election commitment; it wasn't discussed before the election. There is no commitment, and even independent media outlets are highlighting the fact that it's reasonable to ask why the rush. In the editorial in the Australian today, it asks: why the rush? And it talks about the evidence of the haste in that the department, in seeking to rush this through and provide an evidence base, has reached out to sources that even the minister has admitted were not wise. In fact, they're quite laughable. The source for how much business could be expected to pay to enter into a multi-employer agreement quoted by the department describes themselves as a 'cross between a business strategist, modern-day spiritual healer and self-development expert'. It's hardly the kind of robust basis on which policy should be developed in Australia.

The editorial in the Australian goes on to highlight the high costs to business, some $14½ thousand to small businesses and up to $75,000 for medium-size businesses. And it asks the question: why the rush? I think that's a valid question, particularly when you look at the feedback that business is giving. In my home state of South Australia, Business SA, which is a representative body, is highlighting the fact that there are a number of red flags for business. Currently, you can have enterprise bargaining where multi-employer bargaining can be done where employees choose to bargain together, but, in the case of this bill, it can force people to bargain, so businesses are at risk of being roped into agreements which are not negotiated at all. In fact, the employees may not want it, but they can be roped in, because unions could reach an agreement with a few employers elsewhere and then extend the agreement to hundreds of other employees.

The issue for business is that the Labor government don't appear to actually understand the impact of costs. We see that even in their Powering Australia plan. Whilst Minister Bowen is saying that sensible economists would support the wind and solar transition that the government is, again, rushing, he ignores the evidence from independent experts, including engineers and economists such as the OECD, which have highlighted, in a report released in April this year, that power prices will only continue to rise, and, in fact, rise exponentially, as we constrain carbon emissions if we insist on relying purely on wind and solar. They have a place, but the OECD has highlighted that wind and solar will not get us to net zero and that we do need to consider other options. Unlike the assertions by Mr Bowen, the OECD and the IEA actually say the cheapest form of electricity is nuclear power.

3:18 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the opposition for their trifecta of questions, served up on our Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill and its regulatory impact statement. And I thank them, of course, for their rigorous examination of the RIS for our bill. I also thank them for making it patently clear, through their behaviour in the chamber today, which can really only be described as frantic and frenzied, that their opposition to our bill has nothing to do with the details of the regulatory impact statement. Their opposition to the bill has nothing to do with what we're trying to achieve as a government for workers and businesses in this country. Their opposition to this bill has everything to do with the coalition's absolute love for low wages in this country.

We all know that the Liberals just love low wages. We all remember that low wages were a deliberate design feature of the previous government's agenda, and that is exactly what we are about to change. When I think about why the secure jobs, better pay bill is so important, some of the people that I'm thinking about are the early childhood educators who have come to this place, year after year, telling us all their story about how hard it is for them to live on the wages that they earn. They come here and tell us that $24 an hour for caring for and educating and nurturing the next generation is an insulting amount of money.

They've been telling us that the money is so low, in this profession, that while they're doing work they absolutely love—educating children—many of them can't even afford to have their own. These workers, 90 per cent of whom are women, need multi-employer bargaining to get their wages moving. When I think about our bill, I'm also thinking about the cleaners, who do absolutely essential work. They go in at night, after everyone else has gone, and clean toilets for a living, and are proud to do that for a job. But what they can't stand is earning wages that are so low they can't support themselves and their families—wages like 20 bucks an hour. This is another group of workers that need multi-employer bargaining to get their wages moving.

The enterprise bargaining system has completely failed all of these workers and failed their families too. What educators and cleaners have in common is not just that they're low paid, it's that they're employed in small workplaces, where the workers and employers don't have the resources to engage in bargaining effectively. If they could use enterprise bargaining, it would literally take decades, enterprise by enterprise, to get wages moving. We can't wait that long. These workers can't wait that long. Australia can't wait that long to get wages moving in this country.

The system as it exists today just doesn't work. Workers know it. Employers know it. Everyone who came to our jobs summit knows that the system we have in place just doesn't work. It's why only 14 per cent of Australians today are covered by enterprise agreements. It's why reform is needed. It's why wages were flatlining for 10 years under the previous government. It's why we need multi-employer bargaining and why we're proud to present it to this parliament. We need to get wages moving in this country after a decade of those opposite. The problem is not that wages are going too far or too high, right now, in Australia. The problem is that they've not been moving at all.

These laws are about redressing the imbalance that has emerged over the past 10 years. The sky won't fall in. Demand for workers won't dry up. It will not be the 1970s again. What will happen is wages will start moving.

3:23 pm

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We hear a lot from this government with their concern for everyday Australians, yet they can't seem to come up with a plan to reduce the cost of living for everyday Australians. Instead, we have a rushed piece of legislation. What does rushed legislation look like? It looks like inaccurate bargaining costs. It looks like a government that cannot demonstrate it is able to produce accurate costings, for small and medium business, using its own formulas. Is it $75,148—already an expensive cost for medium business—or, more accurately, more than $80,000 for medium business?

What else does a rushed legislation look like? It looks like google is a research tool, for relying on shamans to strategists, psychics to sales reps, healers to homemakers, Buddhists to businessmen, and meditators to mediators, to develop its policy on the run, and a minister that is clearly prepared to throw his department under the bus when he's called out for his unreliable research tactics.

We're hearing a lot of accusations of scare campaigns and scare tactics, and terminology such as 'frantic' and 'frenzied'. There are businesspeople out there who are very concerned about what the impacts and the cost of this legislation will be for them. They say this legislation is about supporting workers. Don't we have to support the businesspeople that employ workers to ensure the businesspeople can appropriately support their employees? Otherwise, these individuals may well be without a job in the end. We're hearing from small to medium businessowners that this legislation may impact them to the point where they have to lay off some of their workers or close the doors entirely on their businesses. So yes, there is for concern, and this government have to recognise that this is the case.

This is not an exercise about increasing wages; this is an exercise about handing over workplaces to the unions. The mining industry—which every single one of us rely on everything to do with our everyday lives, not to mention to support the rush towards renewables by this government—is certainly an industry that impacts the people of the Northern Territory, where I come from, in many ways. It needs to be understood that the industry already delivers average annual pay rises of more than the CPI, with some companies increasing salaries of employees by 7.8 per cent above state inflation rates. These proposed workplace changes are a radical shakeup of Australia's industrial relations system.

If we want to look further into what it means for the mining sector, there is concern that this is going to lead to widespread strikes within the mining industry. It has the potential to relate to the similar strikes we saw in the 1970s. It threatens the mining industry, which earns over $413 billion in exports, employs over 277,000 Australians in high-paid jobs and contributes $43.2 billion in taxes—and this was in 2021. This is an industry that supports Australians across the board. In the last 20 years, employment in mining has tripled and wages have doubled, benefiting hundreds of thousands of Australians, especially in regional areas. The mining companies are saying these changes will slow down Australia's energy transformation, which we need for lithium, batteries, more copper for solar panels and more cobalt for electric vehicles. They don't need more uncertainty and risk that will simply chase away investment to our shores.

Question agreed to.