SPEECH – FAIR WORK AMENDMENT, CANBERRA, MONDAY, 22 FEBRUARY 2021

 

FAIR WORK AMENDMENT (SUPPORTING AUSTRALIA’S JOBS AND ECONOMIC RECOVERY) BILL 2020
  
PARLIAMENT HOUSE
CANBERRA

MONDAY, 22 FEBRUARY 2021
 
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It’s a really simple question that we need to ask ourselves when we look at this Bill.

Will it give Australians stable work, with fair pay?

It’s a very simple question.

And unfortunately, the answer is no, it doesn’t.

And right now, in 2021, a year into a global pandemic, in a recession, with almost 2 million Australians on JobKeeper – until it gets cut next month – this simple question is more important than ever.

Will it give Australians stable work, with fair pay?

No.

Make no mistake, this Bill represents the most egregious and fundamental attack on the rights of workers we have seen in this place for many years.

It is as tone deaf and unnecessary as the Work Choices laws brought in by the Howard Government.

The reality is there is no pressing need nor economic justification for these changes.

Our economy will not recover more quickly because we legislate to cut the pay of workers.

We will not help create a single job by making employment less secure for workers.

It comes as an attack on workers when they are most vulnerable, and when they look to their government for support.

Australia’s working people sacrificed the most and have paid the highest price as a result of the pandemic.

Over 900,000 are unemployed and 1.1 million are underemployed, many have exhausted their sick leave, annual leave, and long service leave.

3.3 million people have raided their superannuation account with thousands of young people reducing their balances to zero.

This has happened while corporate profits have continued to grow, and Australia’s richest people have become richer.

Before I reflect on why this legislation has been introduced, let’s consider why this is a remarkably bad Bill.

It attacks the basic foundations of our industrial relations system.

I do not propose to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the Bill.

My colleagues have made outstanding contributions to this debate, and I will not repeat them here.

I will, however, highlight a few things specific things which are wrong with the Bill. 

The Bill proposed to prevent the Fair Work Commission from making recommendations in conciliation that will guide parties to a fast and effective outcome.

Conciliation is one of the most effective tools the Commission has.

It works as an effort by the Commission to bring parties in disputation together to try and find a solution.

If applied properly, conciliation can prevent further issues such as industrial action or legal proceedings, saving money and trouble, for all concerned.

The cornerstone of conciliation is guidance by the Commission to each party to find an outcome.

This bill will take that right away.

This is just one proposed attack on the Commission and its ability to do its job.

Mr Deputy Speaker, Australia has long experienced a crisis in job casualisation.

The Bill does not address Australia’s most pressing labour market problem – the extent to which jobs are casual and insecure.

Over half a million casuals lost their jobs at the outset of the pandemic and 60 per cent of new jobs created since May 2020 have been casual.

The Government’s changes will not help solve this problem – it will make it easier for employers to casualise permanent jobs and pay workers less than the award safety net.

The Bill shifts more power to employers which will exacerbate inequality, low wage growth and job insecurity.

The current laws have overseen record low wage growth and record high job insecurity.

Instead of remedying them to rebalance the system, the Bill will make these three serious issues worse.

In debates on industrial relations like this one, those opposite like to talk about the need for flexibility.

Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, the 2020 COVID responses proved the current system is extremely flexible – flexible enough to make rapid changes that were necessary as well as fair.

Australian workers and their unions worked rapidly with employers to make temporary changes to awards across whole industries to cope with shutdowns, social distancing rules, reduced hours and working from home.

Mr Deputy Speaker, debating proposed legislation can often seem abstract.

But this Bill will hurt workers across Australia, nowhere more than Darwin and Palmerston.

The proposal for additional hours agreements in the Bill will cause great pain to workers in Darwin and Palmerston.

An adult part time worker in one of our shopping centres such as Casuarina Square, Gateway, or the Palmerston Shopping Centre may lose out on the overpayments they were once entitled to.

A retail worker on a 16-hour part time contract who works four hours of overtime a month may lose around $650 in overtime wages under this Bill.

That’s less money for their families, for the basic necessities of life.

Similarly, a student at Charles Darwin University who works at one our pubs on Mitchell Street to make ends meet, will lose out.

If they pick up three hours of overtime a month, they might find themselves losing around $500.

Casualisation, and insecure work, are among the biggest problems that workers in the Territory face today.

You can’t heal our economy by hurting these workers, by cutting their pay or making their work more insecure.

For the last decade the Government has been beating their chests and making many noises about developing the Territory and unleashing the potential of Northern Australia.

But without the simple guarantee of secure employment, how can such a lofty goal ever be realised?

Let’s also not forget, this Bill originally contained the outrageous proposition of suspension of the Better Off Overall Test for two years.

That’s right, this government wanted to removed the very thing that ensured that no Australian worker was left worse off under a new negotiated EBA.

Getting rid of the BOOT test was so utterly outrageous that the government have excised it from this Bill.

The fact that it was included at all gives us a real insight into the intent and thinking behind this bad Bill. 

So two questions must be asked Mr Deputy Speaker: why this legislation, and why this legislation now?

The answer to the first question is simple: they have chosen this legislation because it reflects what they believe in.

Labour market deregulation is the ideological holy grail of those opposite.

And at the end of the day, that is what this is all about: ideology.

The living standards of Australian families being slashed all because of an ideological obsession.

The answer to the second question is equally simple: they have chosen this moment to move the legislation because they believe the time suits them.

Political expediency and political circumstances have had a greater role in shaping their approach to this than state of the economy or the living conditions of Australian workers.

In short, what we are seeing here is nothing more than a cynical attempt by this government to achieve a long held ideological goal.

All of this has come in the wake of what at first appeared to be an open process by this government to work with the union movement to respond to the COVID crisis.

I well remember, when mid-way through last year the government announced the formation of five industrial relations working groups.

These groups, which each consisted of 10 full time members, brought together representatives of unions and employer groups.

This was portrayed as an act of cooperation to help guide the Australian economy out of a crisis.

The Attorney-General, the Member for Pearce, was quoted in a press release from the time saying:

“On top of those who’ve lost their jobs, there are millions more who have seen their work hours and pay-packets reduced due to COVID-19, and we owe it to them to work cooperatively through this process to deliver solutions that will get our country working again.”

Fine words. Fine sentiments. How did it work out?

Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, we are here today debating legislation which is opposed by the union movement.

Legislation which will fundamentally change what it means to have a job in this country.

That is how the working group process worked out.

If you want more evidence of the ideological obsession of this government trumping the needs of the Australian people, look no further than the looming cut to JobKeeper.

The idea behind JobKeeper originated on this side of the house, and it was a great plan: helping businesses stay open and keeping Australians in work.

Lets be clear- JobKeeper has worked.

But cutting JobKeeper prematurely, as those opposite plan to do, is incredibly dangerous.

I am in regular contact with businesses back home in Darwin and Palmerston, and they are telling me that there is a lack of confidence about what comes next after JobKeeper is cut.

In one important industry, tourism, there is a great deal of concern.

A survey of members of Tourism NT reveal deep anxieties: 35 per cent of respondents have said that the JobKeeper cut would likely have to stand down or make redundant their more employees.

A further five per cent of businesses believe that a JobKeeper cut will force their closure.

The challenge for business gets worse when you think about the roll out of vaccines, and a return to something resembling normalcy in the not to distant future.

Australians may resume domestic travel with a passion, but our tourism industry may have already lost its capacity to meet this demand, thanks to a cut to JobKeeper.

Let me be clear: it is too soon to be cutting JobKeeper.

Businesses and workers are depending on it. I will do everything I can to fight this change.

My message to businesses and workers in Darwin and Palmerston is this: I am on your side. Labor is on your side.

This is not the time to be tinkering with the fundamental basis of work and living standards in Australia.

This is not a time for this government to launch an attack driven by its rabid ideological agenda.

This is a time for the government to stand with and lift up the Australian people, to protect workers and protect businesses.

I’ll make one final reflection, Mr Speaker.

I think it is only fair to share one particular note of caution with those opposite.

Industrial relations is an important yet dangerous area in our national politics.

Look through Australia’s history and you will find the political obituaries of Prime Ministers who sought to overturn and refashion the fundamental standards of industrial relations.

Stanley Bruce, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard, just to pick three prominent examples.

All can trace their demises in some form to their meddling in industrial relations.

And, of course, they took their colleagues with them into political oblivion, leaving behind shattered careers and the broken shell of government.

The Australian people, Mr Deputy Speaker, have a finely tuned sense of fairness.

They expect their government to reflect this inclination.

When they fail to do this, the people exact their punishment.

It’s something those opposite should reflect upon and learn from.

It may seem cheap and cynical to warn those opposite that they might lose their jobs because of this Bill.

But then again so much about this government is cheap and cynical, so maybe the language of self-interest will resonate more than any invocation of fairness or common sense. 

In conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker, this is a bad Bill.

It’s bad for our economy, bad for our communities, and bad for our families.

This bill will do nothing to address our problems – it will only make them worse.

It’s a perfect reflection of a government which puts the Australian people last.

Australian workers continue to the heroes of this pandemic crisis.

They have kept this country open and working through their efforts.

They need a government that’s in their corner, not a government seeking to punish them.

I oppose this Bill, and I will never stop fighting for these workers and their families.