HIGHER EDUCATION SUPPORT AMENDMENT BILL 2008

I rise today to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (Removal of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements and National Governance Protocols Requirements and Other Matters) Bill 2008. This bill is an important step in overturning the regressive and mean-spirited agenda of the previous government. The introduction of the higher education workplace relations requirements and the national governance protocols themselves represented very directly one of the worst elements of the former government’s policies. They represented the ideological commitment to what was, in reality, an unfair workplace relations system. They represented unwarranted interference in the running of important national institutions and they represented very directly the willingness of the former government to use every Commonwealth power to further the government’s ideological attacks on perceived or imagined opponents, which, in this case, were universities and trade unions.

I rise today to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (Removal of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements and National Governance Protocols Requirements and Other Matters) Bill 2008. This bill is an important step in overturning the regressive and mean-spirited agenda of the previous government. The introduction of the higher education workplace relations requirements and the national governance protocols themselves represented very directly one of the worst elements of the former government’s policies. They represented the ideological commitment to what was, in reality, an unfair workplace relations system. They represented unwarranted interference in the running of important national institutions and they represented very directly the willingness of the former government to use every Commonwealth power to further the government’s ideological attacks on perceived or imagined opponents, which, in this case, were universities and trade unions.

Work Choices was part of a broader attack by the former government on the rights of workers. The higher education workplace relations requirements were a harsh, related measure, which this government is bringing to an end. Regardless of how the opposition is going to vote on this bill, there should be no mistaking the fact that the Liberal Party remains committed to undermining the rights of employees in the workplace. We have heard echoes of this just now from the member for Herbert, who spoke of choice but really demonstrated that the Liberal Party remains committed to the illusion of choice, which—Australian workers learned in no uncertain terms under the Work Choices legislation—is no choice at all.

In government, the Liberal Party used every mechanism at its disposal to further its extreme industrial relations agenda. The government used legislation which directly undermined workers’ rights. It used Commonwealth funding to undermine workers’ rights and used government procurement and purchasing policies to undermine workers’ rights. The casualties of these mechanisms and devices were ordinary working Australians and their families, who had to bear the brunt of this Liberal Party agenda through the loss of collective bargaining, diminished working conditions and the reduction—not the expansion—of choice within the workplace.

The new system which Labor is introducing restores balance in the workplace, including within higher education institutions—which is what the present bill is concerned with. The Rudd government does not believe that employees in the higher education system should be treated differently from employees in other sectors of the economy.

Australia has had 100 years of a largely fair and balanced industrial relations system. By the early 1990s, it needed reform to keep pace with the changing nature of what is an increasingly globalised economy. Those changes were made by the Keating government in introducing enterprise bargaining and moving away from previous centralisation, providing a basis for linking wage increases with productivity improvements. This bill and the Forward with Fairness plan that the government has committed to will build on the progress made with the industrial relations system by the Keating government in a way which is fair to workers and promotes economic growth. As promised at the last election, Labor has abolished Australian workplace agreements. We know that, even after the introduction of the previous government’s so-called fairness test, employment conditions continued to be removed from employees. These were the primary tools used to shift the balance of power in the workplace dramatically away from employees.

Australian workers were told that AWAs would not affect the conditions under which they worked, that they would be better off under Australian workplace agreements, but the evidence was to the contrary. Eighty-nine per cent of AWAs cut at least one protected award condition, 83 per cent of AWAs removed two protected award conditions and 52 per cent of AWAs removed more than half of the protected award conditions. There was a reason that so many Australians opposed the former government’s workplace agenda. It was because they understood that, when you shift the balance of power in the workplace, conditions will be cut, rights will be removed and choice will be diminished and not enhanced.

Through the introduction of individual transitional employment agreements, we have provided transitional arrangements for employees on AWAs. Importantly, the Forward with Fairness plan allows for the creation of new modern awards to ensure a minimum safety net for all employees, which of course comprises the 10 National Employment Standards covering maximum weekly hours of work, requests by parents for flexible working arrangements, annual leave, personal and carers leave and compassionate leave, community service leave, long service leave, public holidays, parental leave and other entitlements, notice of termination and redundancy, and fair work information statements. Enterprise bargaining will remain the central foundation of Australia’s modern workplace relations system. This provides for collective bargaining with the greatest possible flexibility.

Work Choices was perhaps the best example of how out of touch with the Australian people the Liberal Party had become—or perhaps I should say ‘has’ become. We had a spectacular demonstration of this with the comments made by the member for North Sydney on the Four Corners program back in March. He said:

Quite frankly, when I took over the job—

he meant as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—

I don’t think many ministers in cabinet were aware that you could be worse off under Work Choices and that you could actually have certain conditions taken away without compensation …

Once I started to raise those issues with colleagues and they became more informed of the impact of Work Choices, we introduced the fairness test.

That is an extraordinary statement for the member for North Sydney to have made. It is an admission that the former government introduced legislation, as we know, almost without consultation and, as we definitely know, without proper debate. And it would appear that it was introduced without even a proper understanding of what the implications of the legislation were.

The people of my electorate of Isaacs were in no doubt, unlike the member for North Sydney, that you could be worse off under Work Choices. People in Carrum Downs, Dandenong South, Springvale, Keysborough, Chelsea, Carrum and right throughout my electorate made it clear to me as I campaigned through last year that they understood that the Howard government’s Work Choices laws had made them or were going to make them worse off. These were people who I met in my electorate at thousands of doors of thousands of homes, outside shopping centres, at community events and at train stations. People told me over and over again how directly and clearly they understood that the Howard government’s Work Choices had made them worse off. What I heard from people all through last year was that they did not want the kind of workplace that the Howard government’s laws were creating. They did not want the kind of society that the Howard government’s laws were creating.

Many people told me they had been directly affected by the Work Choices legislation. These included older people trying to re-enter the workforce, 16- and 17-year-old kids trying to negotiate their first employment agreements with large corporations and mothers in part-time work trying to earn an additional income for their families. Apart from all those people who were directly affected, many people told me of others—their children, grandchildren, friends and associates—who had been directly affected even when they themselves had not been.

The people of my electorate understood very well that these so-called industrial relations reforms were not designed as genuine economic reforms. They were not designed to improve government purchasing outcomes and, in the case of the matters which this bill is intending to deal with, they certainly were not designed to improve our higher education system. People in my electorate and indeed across Australia knew that the Work Choices laws, including within them these devices designed to further the objectives of the Work Choices laws in the higher education system, were the outcome of an ideological fixation of the Liberal Party on changing the balance of power in the Australian workplace. It was a shameful act of the previous government to use the Higher Education Support Act to impose their industrial relations agenda on higher education institutions. Choice and diversity were not expanded in universities; they were in fact diminished by this device.

Australian universities understood this very well and I note that the peak body, Universities Australia, has welcomed and supported the removal of the higher education workplace relations requirements as a legislative condition for funding universities. Indeed the predecessor organisation of Universities Australia, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, made it very clear in 2005 that they were directly opposed to the imposition of these higher education workplace requirements. I note that the member for Charlton has already read this quote in his speech to the House, but it is worth repeating. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee back in 2005 said that the introduction of these requirements was:

… very intrusive in terms of universities’ capacity to manage their internal affairs. The HEWRRs proposal constitutes a ‘one size fits all’ approach, whereas the AVCC takes the view that the focus should be on desired outcomes, rather than specific industrial processes and particular industrial instruments.

The Howard government, of course, was not listening to what the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee had to say any more than the Howard government was listening to anything that the trade union movement had to say or indeed what anyone else had to say in opposition to the Work Choices legislation. They ploughed on. They continued not to listen.

It is a cruel irony that, having presided over a massive decline in public investment in tertiary education, the Howard government sought to impose its harsh industrial relations agenda on our universities. As we have just heard from the member for Charlton, other OECD countries in the 10 years from 1995 increased public investment in tertiary education by an average of 48 per cent. The Howard government in the same period cut public investment by seven per cent. Australia was the only OECD country to cut public investment in tertiary education in that period. We aim to reverse that situation.