Workplace Changes Not Family Friendly: Beazley

Kim BeazleyThe Federal Government’s proposed changes to industrial relations laws are not about choice but about cutting wages and reducing conditions, according to the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley.

Addressing a press conference in Canberra, Beazley derided the notion of employees negotiating with employers: “You know that an 18 year old with a few skills, sitting down with the boss, is not going to negotiate with the boss on an equal basis.”

The Labor leader also attacked the government’s use of public money to promote its proposals. “If John Howard was confident in this legislation he would not be spending $100 million worth of taxpayers’ funds – effectively an open-ended cheque – in order to mislead absolutely everybody.”

The government’s proposals, characterised as “WorkChoices”, were announced yesterday. An advertising blitz began immediately. The legislation for the changes is not yet available.

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This is the transcript of the press conference held by the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, and the Shadow Minister for Industry, Infrastructre and Industrial Relations, Stephen Smith.

BEAZLEY: Well, thanks very much for coming this morning. This morning I read the newspapers and as a parent, I’m very concerned. John Howard calls it WorkChoices. Every Australian knows that that is simply a joke. There is no choice under John Howard’s extreme industrial relations system for many workers, young workers in particular.

I’m deeply concerned about the next generation of Australian workers. Australian parents know that their young people have no choice. You know that an 18 year old with a few skills, sitting down with the boss, is not going to negotiate with the boss on an equal basis. It’s not possible. You know that a 20 year old youngster who maybe has just completed their skills training and had done very well at it, terribly anxious to start a job, they’re not going to bargain on an equal basis with the boss. They’re going to do exactly what the boss wants so they can get a start in life.

Most people in this country remember back to when they were young and how hard it was to get the first job. I don’t think John Howard remembers that but most people do remember how when they were young, how difficult it was to get their first job. They know how impossible it would be for them, not protected by collective agreements or awards, to come to any sort of conclusion with a person you want to employ you and who sits there holding all the cards in the negotiations with you.

Well, parents in this country want their kids to get decent jobs. That’s what they want. They want their kids to have decent and promising future and to be reasonably rewarded – and they simply won’t be. No parent wants to see their young people exploited and under this legislation that John Howard proposes, it’s as clear as night follows day that young people, among others, will be exploited.

John Howard, for four years, has said that he’s been looking for a barbeque stopper in the legislation that he’s put forward. Well, John Howard has found the weekend barbeque stopper. Those weekend barbeques will stop as workers are obliged to negotiate away their weekends, their hours, their penalty rates under the legislation that he’s put forward. This is very family unfriendly legislation that John Howard is proposing.

You know darn well when you’re trying to sell a piece of completely unacceptable legislation that you’re going to try and sell it with the maximum use of taxpayers’ dollars. If John Howard was confident in this legislation he would not be spending $100 million worth of taxpayers’ funds – effectively an open-ended cheque – in order to mislead absolutely everybody. If he was selling something easy he wouldn’t be after $100 million worth of taxpayers’ funds.

But think about that $100 million. It comes on top of more than $900 million spent so far by this Government on advertising – over $1 billion. Think of the hospitals, think of the schools, think of the training programs, think of the security that that would buy us if we were putting in place around our regional airports proper surveillance, proper surveillance of baggage – that $1 billion down the drain for the Liberal Party to sell the completely unacceptable. Now this is $100 million on top of that, $100 million that should be going to skilling our young Australians.

Now, if John Howard wants to compete with India and China by slashing wages in a period of time when our cost of living is going up as a result of petrol prices, as a result of increased health costs, child care costs and the like, in a period of time when our cost of living is going up, he wants to push our wages down. This is about slashing wages; make absolutely no mistake about that. It’s not about productivity, it’s about cutting wages. Productivity comes from skills, the labour market changes that we need now to increase the skills of the Australian labour market. You compete with India and China not on wages, but on being able to do things very well because you are skilled to do them.

The Labor Party’s alternative to this is our skills package about which I’ve had a great deal to say recently and will have a great deal more between now and the next election. Australian workers must have better skills than their regional counterparts and that’ll be the objective of the Australian Labor Party.

So, to conclude my remarks here, this is not about choice. That is just totally and completely misleading. It’s about cutting wages. It’s about cutting wages, reducing conditions. It will have an immediate impact on young people entering the workforce. It will have a substantial impact on those in a weak bargaining position in the workforce, particularly women and the semi-skilled, and of course in an economic downturn it will have a major impact on everybody. Over to you.

JOURNALIST: Would you be more specific, would you wind back, if and when Labor is elected, if Labor’s elected?

BEAZLEY: I’m not satisfied with the industrial relations system as it now stands. I don’t think it allows sufficient powers for the Industrial Relations Commission to ensure fair bargaining, to ensure good faith bargaining. I don’t think the disadvantage test works effectively either. So, irrespective of what John Howard was doing, I’d be going to the next election with propositions for change. What we’ll do when we finally see what the Parliament passes, is work out precisely the rights that we need to see restored to ordinary Australian workers so they have some capacity to bargain with their employers in the workplace.

JOURNALIST: But now we know more about the AWAs, would you retain individual contracts?

BEAZLEY: We would eliminate the capacity of individual contracts to undermine award conditions and undermine collective bargaining. Frankly, whether it be AWAs, individual contracts that are the so-called common law contracts, whatever, if they’re not in a position to slash people’s wages, by and large employers don’t use them. By and large they don’t use them because that’s their purpose. The purpose of AWAs and individual contracts in the main, not exclusively but in the main, is to slash wages and conditions. You eliminate their capacity to slash wages and conditions then you restore basically employers are not interested in pursuing them.

JOURNALIST: On that point of individual contracts, do you have facts and figures to back up your assertion that they’ve been used to slash wages? And secondly, by the time you became Prime Minister the Fair Pay Commission would be up and running, would you get rid of that again and restore that wage fixing power to the IRC?

BEAZLEY: Let me take your last question first. Absolutely. That Fair Pay Commission will go and we will put in place that power in the hands of the Industrial Relations Commission to be exercised publicly and independently of government. That is an absolute rolled-gold guarantee as far as we’re concerned.

Now, do I have evidence? I’m a Western Australian politician. That has been the pilot scheme for John Howard’s legislation. I have actually sat in my office in Brand and have had people bring individual contracts into me that their young people have been presented with under Western Australian legislation. When, both in that legislation and in the Queensland legislation, the Labor Government came in and ended the capacity of AWAs under their system to undermine conditions and to basically exploit the workers concerned, they just disappeared. They just stopped signing them up. So, do I have evidence? Absolutely.

SMITH: If you look at the ABS data which traditionally makes a division, or a distinction, between what it describes as those people in managerial positions and those people in non-managerial positions, and for the purposes of AWAs the managerial positions are, in the main, mining company highly paid employees or managers and senior public servants. The managerial positions, the ABS data shows, that they do quite well, but non-managerial positions, the ABS data shows, that they do quite badly.

JOURNALIST: Against what benchmark?

SMITH: Against the benchmark of people on either awards or collective agreements. I’m happy to stand corrected on the detail but I think the most recent set of ABS data, for example, says that for non-managerial positions they work six per cent longer hours for five per cent worse pay.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, in terms of what you’d wind back and what you wouldn’t, what about unfair dismissals? Do you think small businesses (inaudible) than the 100 employee rule need greater flexibility? What would you do to those changes if you were elected?

BEAZLEY: You simply cannot wholesale make people easier to sack. I mean, what you’ve got here is a three-pronged approach: weaken the capacity of people to bargain for decent wages and conditions; weaken the independent umpire; make people easier to sack. The three of these things working together mean that you’ve got no power, no weight, no capacity to negotiate in the system. That’s the whole point of this exercise that the Government is going through.

So, for unfair dismissals which is part of that process, we think that we have put forward reasonably alternatives to it. The reasonable alternative would mean that unfair dismissal cases would be taken at the place of work so the bosses didn’t have to shut down the workplace for the course of the hearing of that before the IRC and would have the IRC come to them, if you like, rather than them have to go to the IRC. We’ve said, too, that lawyers would not be permitted to take these cases on the basis of a success outcome for a fee. They’d actually have to charge a fee. Now, you do those things. You eliminate the capacity by and large of unjust things being taken against the employer by a recalcitrant employee. But this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

JOURNALIST: So, would a Beazley Labor Government commit to repealing legislation that would exempt businesses with up to 100 employees from unfair dismissal laws?

BEAZLEY: We would go through wholesale change in this legislation, wholesale change to its basis. We don’t agree with this law at all. And in relation to unfair dismissals, we would put in place the things that we believed, not the things that the Government believes.

JOURNALIST: You did promise some years ago massive changes, or substantial changes, to the Government’s tax reforms and in practice once that was bedded down that became an impractical concept of the election after that. Isn’t there a danger that the same thing will happen with the industrial relations changes?

BEAZLEY: Absolutely none. This is very different. What you say about things like the GST is quite true. When, ultimately, if they succeed in selling Telstra, it’ll be true about that as well. Yes, governments can create – that’s why you don’t want to elect governments you don’t like – but governments can create in all practical terms, situations which are irreversible.

But the battle for decent and fair working conditions is a battle which has lasted since the day the Labor Party was founded. We were founded for these reasons: to protect ordinary Australians in the workplace, that’s why we were founded. Sometimes we’ve succeeded when we’ve been in office and sometimes our opponents have come in and pared back the things that we have done. So, this is part of an ongoing struggle by the Labor Party. If this legislation is passed in the Parliament, as I expect it will, it’ll be another episode in the Labor Party’s century-old struggle for decency for ordinary Australian families. We will have absolutely no compunction about walking into the next election campaign with a wholesale series of changes to this to protect the rights of our people.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister says that these laws will (inaudible) higher wages and even more jobs and in a healthy economy he’s got a point, hasn’t he?

BEAZLEY: No, the Prime Minister is not telling the truth. We do have a healthy economy now and the fact of the matter is for those who are workers who are on individual contracts, their experience is not as good as the experience of those on awards and those on collective agreements. That’s the economy now. Because even though the economy is good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all people have equal bargaining positions in the economy. If you’re a very skilled worker, in most circumstances, you’ve got good bargaining positions. But if you’re a person whereby your family is immobilised because you’ve got a house, you’ve got a district in which you live, you’ve got other obligations, if you’re a young person, if you’re a woman entering the workforce, if you’re a casual worker, even in today’s good economy your bargaining is very weak. And that’s been seen already with the laws as now exists, or the problems with the laws that now exist that will be repeated massively if we enter into a period of downturn.

The Prime Minister is not telling the truth about this. The reason the Prime Minister is not telling the truth about this is that this has got nothing to do with something good for the Australian economy or something good for the Australian people. This is his Liberal Party ideology writ large. It is appearing before us for one reason and one reason only – they now have the votes in the Senate to get it through. There was nothing about this in the last election campaign. If they didn’t have the votes in the Senate we wouldn’t be standing before you today.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it’s his swansong?

BEAZLEY: That’s only a question he can answer but I certainly think this: if it is his swansong, it is an extraordinarily damaging one to the people of this nation who have done him the honour of electing him to lead them for a decade.

JOURNALIST: As the population ages and Australians are looking down the barrel of shortage of workers, isn’t there a danger that a wages break-out could come to pass and that could feed into inflation and interest rates, so couldn’t these reform actually shift the balance and, in that way, protect the economy? And secondly, would a Beazley Labor Government also commit to rolling back the essential services provisions? Would you roll back those Ministerial powers that they’re talking about?

BEAZLEY: Firstly to take that first question. There is an answer – and it’s absolute – that there is a danger of wages break-outs in this country that is a result of this Government neglecting skills for 10 years. The simple fact of the matter is we’ve gone backwards in our training agenda, backwards in the number of people in the workforce with skills. If you’ve got skills, got the skills we need, we’ve got the economic competitiveness we need. It’s not just Kim Beazley and Stephen Smith saying this. That’s what the OECD said. That’s what the Reserve Bank has said. That’s what the IMF has said. They’ve all said Australia has a problem regarding the skilling of their workforce.

Now, on the essential services thing, yes I would roll that back. I would change that. I would eliminate that and the reasons are simply this – and I will not use that phrase, I must say, in connection with these, so I’ve amended it immediately, I’ve amended it immediately because this is not the exercise that we’re engaged in. We have a different tact from the Government on this activity. There is essential services legislation in every State administration, every State authority, that is true, but that is exercised within a framework of rights and an independent umpire of great strength and an awards system and all the rest of it – an independent umpire of great strength. Now, in a situation where there is no strength in the bargaining position of the workforce, none whatsoever, the possibilities of abuse here in emergency provisions is very great. Unlike the situation at the State level, it is very great. Therefore, whatever they put in place on that we would substantially modify.

JOURNALIST: But could you see a situation (inaudible) in times where the essential services, or whatever you want to call it, (inaudible) for example, a war effort or the fight against terrorism, that you would like to retain some powers in a future Beazley Government (inaudible) under those powers to eliminate them entirely?

BEAZLEY: We go into a declared war – all the sorts of things that happened in World War II would happen here, there’s not question about that. So, read back over your history of the Curtin Government and the war you’ll find, yes, there were war powers, emergency legislation in that context. But this is not a situation for all time.

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