Parliamentary speeches

Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

February 22, 2021

I'm pleased to rise to join in the debate with my colleagues in opposition to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 and in support of the second amendment by the shadow minister, the member for Watson. This bill needs to be seen for exactly what it is: both a deeply cynical exercise and a profoundly ideological one. Despite its title, it will do nothing to support Australian jobs or economic recovery. I think we need to focus on both of these things. The cynicism, both in the process leading to the bill coming before the place and in its substance—and these are things that the member for Ballarat touched upon very effectively a moment ago—but also the underlying ideological fixation that animates members opposite. The Prime Minister likes to market himself as a pragmatic decision-maker, but time and time again we see that for what it is. It's a mask, and this bill demonstrates that quite clearly.

When it comes to industrial relations, this government has a long line of form—cutting wages through penalty rates changes and attacking job security. Indeed, we all remember the former finance minister describing low wages as a deliberate design feature of the architecture. In this bill, despite the process, despite the ostensible justification and, most importantly, despite what we've learnt through the pandemic about the danger that insecure work poses not just to individual workers but to our entire community, we see this government's determination to entrench casualised, insecure forms of work and the gig economy as permanent design features of the workplace relations architecture. On this side of the House, we stand squarely against that.

We've heard a lot from the Minister for Industrial Relations, also the Attorney-General, on these issues in question time over the last week. One thing that really strikes me is that he's very fond of referring back to provisions that were inserted into this act in 2009. As with almost everything he says at the dispatch box—this is a Leader of the House who I'm not sure has ever make a point of order successfully, which is why his only successful speeches are the short ones, bringing matters to a close—he talks about this as if it's a winning argument that provisions here resemble those by the former Labor government in 2009. What's striking is that he hasn't noticed some profound changes in the world of work in the last decade and a bit. An enormous increase in casualisation is something that has been noted by pretty much every observer but seems unremarkable to him, and there's the explosion in the gig economy, which he seems to treat as a matter that's beneath him.

In this place today, we've heard a number of quite extraordinary exchanges, exchanges which he seems quite pleased with but which really bell the cat on this issue. The minister says, in response to his characterisation of positions expressed by the Labor Party, that it's complicated—as if that's an excuse, as if the complicated nature of the world of work today means that government can't effectively regulate it. I think that is appalling and embarrassing in equal measure. Of course changes in the world of work change the regulatory task, but this is something that a government should be up for, particularly a government that committed to a deep process of consultation. Again, this betrays the cynicism that lies at the heart of this government. The working groups that were established, which we took a close interest in, failed to deliver a product that had consensus. Again, I think we see here the process as being a mask for an ideological agenda. Never has so much consultation achieved so little for the vast majority of those who were the subject of the consultation. And, at the end of it, this bill before the House—noting that some of the more egregious elements of changes to the better off overall test have been withdrawn—is still a recipe for cutting wages, for shifting the power balance in Australian workplaces away from those who do the work and towards those who benefit from the work and for deepening the incidence of insecure forms of work, whether it's through employment or otherwise.

I guess it makes us wonder exactly what problem this bill is designed to solve, from government members' point of view. What is it intended to do? It's no pathway to the secure jobs that are going to sustain a good society. It's no pathway to introducing a greater capacity for lower paid workers to consume and get the economy up and running in that regard. It's no way to increase the wage share of the economy, which is at a record low. It's no way to address the scourge that is insecure work, in all its manifestations. That may be a complicated challenge, but it's a challenge that we on this side of the House are up for, because we regard it as fundamental to building a good society and a functioning economy. We're not alone in saying that. Pretty much every economist agrees with us, not only those who are traditionally inclined towards the left side of politics. Perhaps, as the member for Ballarat so effectively set out in her contribution, that is because the wider consequences have been exposed—the wider consequences and also, I think, the morality. Through the pandemic, Australians have seen a large number of people's work for what it has always been. They've seen the value in work that has been undervalued economically, because it has kept our society going. We in our communities have been forced to confront that, even if, like some members opposite, it wasn't something we were inclined to do. Surely now, in this place, it's time to treat these people as the heroes that government ministers often describe them as being and to really value the work they do by supporting their capacity to be fairly rewarded for it. Surely it's time to recognise the power imbalances that so often characterise these vital forms of work, whether it is in retail, in logistics or in aspects of the caring economy. Yet these are the workers who will be pushed further behind should this bad bill be enacted into law.

We're putting before Australians a very stark choice when it comes to work: this road to nowhere, this race to the bottom that members opposite seem so keen on accelerating us towards, or the plan that the Leader of the Labor Party has started to articulate. It's a plan that puts secure work once again at the centre of the Australian settlement, at the centre of a new social compact that recognises the dignity of work and the threat it's under. It recognises how central work is to all of us and how we need to reinforce that. It also recognises, as I would hope that some thinking members opposite would, that there is a wider economic imperative here to build cooperative workplaces, to recognise that boosting cooperation in our workplaces is the key to productivity growth and to sustained and sustainable economic growth. But there seems to be no interest in that from members opposite. It's just the same old ideological fixation with taking power away from workers and those who represent them at so many levels through this, with no heed for the wider consequences—the individual moral consequences, which animate those of us on this side, but also the wider economic and social consequences, which should be a concern to anyone who has the privilege to have a voice and a vote in this place. These are concerns that I would hope members opposite would have regard to.

The process of establishing these working groups has really only delivered a wish list to some employers. It's a wish list to continue down the road to workplaces characterised by flexibility only on the terms of the employer and to workplaces which are increasingly uncertain. Of course, there are major issues we have to confront with the system of enterprise bargaining, too, none of which are being addressed. We acknowledge that, in the face of sustained criticism from the Labor team in this place, from the trade union movement and from so many ordinary Australians, the awful changes to the better off overall test have been taken out of this bill. But problems remain, and there's no inclination from members opposite to fix them. Going back to some of those workers who have sustained our entire society through the last year, I think it is particularly concerning that some of their interests are going to be the most affected here. The ability of unions to effectively engage in the bargaining process on behalf of groups of workers, particularly younger workers and workers who aren't from English-speaking backgrounds, is something that I am particularly concerned about. The provisions relating to greenfield sites, touched upon by the shadow minister for infrastructure, are also a great concern.

We've also heard a lot about the provisions around casual workers and casual conversion in recent days. Briefly, I want to put on the record some concerns I have. First, I note that the government that fought casual conversion so aggressively in the courts seeks congratulation for very modest and, frankly, unworkable provisions, in terms of enforcement mechanisms that once again don't understand the realities of power in workplaces or, worse—going back to the cynicism I've been speaking of—mechanisms that do understand it but seek again to put forward something that looks, on the face of it, like an improvement but is of no practical significance to low-paid workers who don't have the capacity, in this case, to seek to enforce a right on paper through the Federal Court. I don't think you need to have thought about this too deeply in order to know how impractical that is for the vast majority of workers. And of course the retrospective application of the broader provisions here come at a great cost to too many workers, as has been highlighted by many of my colleagues.

The provisions around award simplification are also of concern, because here we have another proposal that could well lead to very significant cuts in remuneration. If this is an unintended consequence of the drafting that's been put forward then of course we will see this exposed as we explore it through the Senate committee process. But we see here no interest, no engagement from the minister or his colleagues as to whether these issues can be explored through any process. All the consultation that has taken place today appears to have been a complete sham. The only thing the government will listen to in this—because it is so cynical, so driven by its ideological fixations—is the force of public opinion against changes that are unwarranted and unnecessary and will drag Australians back, in workplaces and across our entire society.

The provisions around wage theft also demonstrate the cynicism of this minister and the government. We see a provision that won't be pulled out from the rest of the bill—a 'take it or leave it' proposal—that is the opposite of the sort of cooperative approach one would imagine that a government intent on an economic recovery that's all about secure jobs would engage in. More fundamentally, the manner in which the provision has been drafted—which is very different from similar provisions in other states, including our own state of Victoria—would make the capacity of individuals who've been the subject of wage theft to make their claims. This is lessening a right when, again, we should be trying to raise the bar.

We have an opportunity here to put in place a different vision of Australian workplaces, a fair vision that's founded on job security, fairness at work and a government recognising the need and the obligation to address those power imbalances that are at the heart of so many employment relationships, as well as those relationships that have not been regarded as employment relationships but that we need to think harder about in terms of their impact on our society. In that regard it was very disappointing to see how dismissive the minister was of the implications of the very recent decision of the UK Supreme Court regarding drivers associated with the Uber platform. These are things that require very serious consideration by any government that's on the side of the Australian people and on the side of Australian working people.

In conclusion, this bill demonstrates that the government has not been listening to Australians through the pandemic—that they have not paid the slightest attention to what has been revealed in our workplaces and how the functioning of those workplaces shapes our society. We need a government that has a different approach to work in Australia and that will focus on secure work, not a cut and race to the bottom.