House of Representatives Speech- Fair Work Bill 2008

I speak in support of the Fair Work Bill 2008. Last November the Australian people gave this government a mandate to tear up Work Choices. The laws which demonstrated the arrogance and the hubris of those opposite ultimately brought about their downfall. The coalition insisted that the laws were acceptable, yet they never gave the Australian public a chance to debate the detail of these laws prior to the 2004 election. They never took these laws to the Australian people. Instead they spent $121 million of taxpayers’ money to attempt to con the Australian people into accepting these laws after they were rushed through this parliament. They even stopped using the name of these laws, Work Choices, in government advertising. Work Choices became the law that dared not speak its name.

I speak in support of the Fair Work Bill 2008. Last November the Australian people gave this government a mandate to tear up Work Choices. The laws which demonstrated the arrogance and the hubris of those opposite ultimately brought about their downfall. The coalition insisted that the laws were acceptable, yet they never gave the Australian public a chance to debate the detail of these laws prior to the 2004 election. They never took these laws to the Australian people. Instead they spent $121 million of taxpayers’ money to attempt to con the Australian people into accepting these laws after they were rushed through this parliament. They even stopped using the name of these laws, Work Choices, in government advertising. Work Choices became the law that dared not speak its name.

On this side we were always clear about our policies on industrial relations. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister committed to abolishing Australian workplace agreements when they were elected as leaders of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. During last year we released our workplace relations policy entitled Forward with Fairness and throughout the campaign all last year at supermarket stalls, at railway stations, and while I was doorknocking thousands of homes in my electorate, people told me unprompted that they were appalled by the Work Choices laws. They wanted the government of this country to protect them from unfair dismissal. They wanted the government of this country to protect them from being forced to sign unjust statutory workplace agreements and, if they themselves were not individually exposed, they wanted the government of this country to protect their children or their grandchildren from the effects of the harsh Work Choices laws. Even as every single member on our side of the House campaigned for fairer, more just and more inclusive and democratic workplace relations laws, 150 candidates for the coalition, both sitting members and those seeking to win seats in this House, campaigned for Work Choices, and they remain, as we have seen over the past week or so, the party of Work Choices.

At this time we should reflect on what Work Choices brought to Australia. Work Choices led to four million working Australians losing protection from being unfairly sacked. These included being sacked for ‘operational reasons’ to allow for the hiring of cheaper staff. Workers were forced to negotiate conditions such as overtime, public holidays, penalty rates and annual leave entitlements—matters that had been thought of until the Work Choices laws as being built into the Australian industrial relations system. Young people in particular entering the workforce had immense difficulty in negotiating these matters with their employers. Statutory Australian workplace agreements were forced upon employees in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Workers were sacked and then offered an AWA to do the same job for less pay and poorer conditions. Employers could refuse to bargain collectively and unions had limited access to monitor workers’ occupational health and safety, a task that they have been performing with distinction throughout Australia’s working history.

The member for Higgins, it needs to be said, and his gang at the HR Nicholls Society—aptly described as the ‘industrial wing of the Ku Klux Klan’—had long planned this assault on workers’ rights. The party of Work Choices went to the 2004 election without telling the Australian people what they were going to do and when the Australian people found out what had been done to them and to their working conditions they delivered their verdict on the government which had done this to them.

It is worth remembering that this country has a very long history of developing innovative workplace law. The Harvester judgment delivered in 1907 by Justice Higgins delivered to this country the definition of a fair and reasonable wage as being ‘enough to support the wage earner in reasonable and frugal comfort’, and this was the birth of the modern federal basic wage, a definitive right for all working Australians.

The development of the conciliation and arbitration system was also paramount to ensuring structures were put in place to resolve industrial disputes, and for a hundred years since the introduction of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act this system has protected workers by providing an industry-wide regulator, recognising the role of trade unions as important employee advocates and also recognising the importance of public interest in a specialist tribunal. Work Choices swept this system away.

Labor governments have a long and proud history of supporting international instruments and institutions which deal with workplace laws. I will quote from the renowned labour law academic Professor Ron McCallum of Sydney university to this effect:

... the law of work in Australia is heavily influenced by international legal developments.

We can remember that Australia has been a proud member of the International Labour Organisation since its establishment in 1919. The Chifley Labor government enacted the International Labour Organisation Act in 1947 and the Whitlam Labor government legislatively approved the enactment of the ILO constitution. These were important steps to ensure that international standards apply in Australia.

Conversely, the coalition government in its 11½ years of government downgraded Australia’s role in the ILO by removing a special adviser to the Geneva headquarters, by refraining from seeking re-election to the governing body of the ILO and by reducing the size of the Australian delegation sent to the International Labour Conference. This disdain for the ILO has reflected poorly on Australia’s standing as a good international citizen. It ultimately sends the very powerful message that the previous government was not serious about workplace laws and was willing to alienate international organisations to demonstrate its own irrational ideological agenda in this area.

This bill’s importance is further underlined by the global economic context in which Australia finds itself today. We are in the midst of a global financial crisis which has placed greater pressures on working Australians—Australians who are paying their mortgages, filling up their cars with petrol, buying their groceries and taking their kids to schools and child care. In these uncertain times, confidence is scarce. The big banks and the media talk a lot about the term ‘business confidence’ but, in uncertain times, what about the confidence of working Australians? While those opposite are content with playing political games with programs such as Fuelwatch and luxury car levies, this government is seeking to strengthen the confidence of working Australians. We are looking to provide assurance to working Australians that no longer will we have workplace laws which rip away basic conditions and standards, no longer will the balance be unfairly skewed against working people.

The Deputy Prime Minister and her department have undertaken extensive consultation to ensure that all concerns will be listened to. The statutory Committee on Industrial Legislation, COIL, has painstakingly worked through the draft bill line by line with representatives from business and trade unions to deliver a fair system for employers, a fair system for employees and a fair system for their representatives. This government’s stance on workplace laws is important. It goes to the very heart of the difference between a Rudd Labor government and those sitting opposite. We are proud to stand up for a fair go. We are proud to stand up and protect working Australians. We are proud to stand up to the special interest groups and declare that the very purpose of government is to deliver substantive results to all Australians and not just those who are wealthy and well connected.

Unlike the coalition, the Labor government understands the importance of work. Work creates a sense of self-worth. It provides a sense of identity and dignity for us all. Work gives individuals meaning and purpose they need in their lives. On this side of the House we believe that work is not merely a commodity that can be traded on a market or sold away for extra cash, and nor do we believe that workplace laws can be used as a political football to drive a radical conservative ideological agenda. Work is far more important than that. We believe that work serves a greater purpose than purely being an economic good. Work builds and develops valuable social capital and enriches the cultural fabric of Australian society. Workplaces bring together people from a broad range of backgrounds, countries and educational levels. Work provides individuals with value and a purpose and it allows them to contribute not only to their own lives but to their families, their friends, their colleagues and their communities.

This is the greatest difference between the coalition and the Rudd Labor government—we value work and we seek to develop a balance to ensure that work and productivity can go hand in hand. Unlike those opposite—the majority of whom voted for Work Choices and many of whom still support Work Choices—we are not stuck in an ideological battle. Instead we seek continually to ensure that these laws are fair to all: fair to employers and fair to employees.

I do not have time to talk about the bill in detail. Other members going before me have, and those coming after me will do so. But I cannot sit down without mentioning some of the particularly valuable provisions of this legislation—and I would single out the parts of the bill which deal with freedom of association—confirming the right to join as well as the right not to join a union and supporting that freedom of association with real protection for workers’ rights for the very first time in Australian industrial relations law, including as part of the law of this country a general list of enforceable rights that will be enjoyed by all workers.

I should mention also the right-of-entry provisions, which have attracted some criticism with the false suggestion being made by those opposite that in some way the government has not entirely honoured its commitment that there will be no change in the right of entry laws. There is no change in the right-of-entry laws because we have retained the requirement to obtain a permit and we have retained the requirement that only persons who are suitable will be able to exercise right of entry. We have retained the requirement that there be notice given before entry takes place. What we have done however is give substance to that right of entry to ensure that when representatives of workers enter a workplace they will not be sent to some wholly inappropriate part of the workplace—they will not be sent to a place where the right of entry becomes an illusory right.

There has been a widespread welcoming of this legislation—not just by workers, not just by unions but also by very many employer groups. They welcome this legislation which strikes a fair balance—indeed, a democratic balance. I commend this bill to the House.