Address By Hon. Laurie Brereton, MP To ACTU Congress 1995

Address By Hon. Laurie Brereton, MP To ACTU Congress 1995

The no-disadvantgage test, Industralian Relations Reform Act, together with the Accord and independent processes of the Commission, to protect fundamental community standards. Hon. Laurie Brereton, MP. Address to ACTU Congress 1995.

Martin Ferguson, Bill Kelty, President-elect Jennie George, delegates, observers. Thank you for the opportunity to address Congress today.

 

To address a Congress which comes at a critical time for our movement, a movement that has led Australia through one of the most significant periods in our nation's history. Indeed just as the 1890's heralded major political and economic change, republicanism and internationalisation will make the 1990's a defining moment for Australia.

 

Through eight successive Accords, the relationship between the industrial and political wings has exhibited a remarkable and enduring ability to adjust to this change. The Australian people have acknowledged as much in five different elections. I believe they will do so again.

 

Yet as we look at an economic environment of 16 straight quarters of economic growth, increasing real wages, universal superannuation, 2.3% underlying inflation, an improving current account, lower unemployment, growing employment (680,000 jobs since April 1993), and retard lows in industrial disputes, our Conservative opponents think they can sneak into office on the back of your members' achievements.

 

It was significant that at the time Accord VIII was released, rather than focus on industrial peace, low inflation and employment growth, the Opposition tried to link the Accord to the Current Account deficit. By implication, they were blaming working men and women for Australia's external deficit.

 

More recently they have shamelessly implied that all working people are liable for a foreign debt that overwhelmingly belongs to the private sector.

Maybe it isn't said often enough, but unlike the Coalition, the Government is enormously appreciative of the contribution organised labour, and ordinary working men and women have made to Australia's economic recovery. By embracing enterprise bargaining at the Federal level, embracing it to the tune of some 5,500 enterprise agreements covering 60% of Federal Award employees, Australian workers have improved both our national competitiveness and productivity. As a result more of our fellow Australians are in work today and the country has finally freed itself of the yoke of high inflation.

 

We're doubly grateful for this effort, because we know that the shift from the centralised system to enterprise bargaining has not been easy, not for the individual worker, and certainly not for overstretched union officials. Our Government's own comprehensive report into enterprise bargaining has told us that. While enterprise bargaining was ultimately the correct path to take, and the positive economic results are there to see, workers have certainly earned their rewards. The same cannot be said for many executives, whose salary increases bear no relation to profitability or productivity. That never seems to stop them preaching wage restraint.

 

What we also know from our report, and indeed from our own experience, is that enterprise bargaining is more successful where employees enjoy comprehensive protection, as they do in the Federal System. The opposite is the case in the Conservative States where the embrace of enterprise bargaining has been abysmal. Furthermore, the report told us that where agreements had been negotiated under these Conservative State models, workers received lower wage increases, were much less positive about the outcome, and felt they did not have a fair say in the process. And as if to hammer the final nail in the Conservative approach, managers concluded that Federal Agreements also delivered better economic and productive outcomes.

 

What this underlines is that in an enterprise bargaining world, the most important thing we can do is guarantee protection through a comprehensive award and always ensure that the most vulnerable don't miss out on wage increases. In other words, do what we have been doing through the Accord and the Industrial Relations Reform Act. We're armed with the knowledge that it's not only a fairer approach, but a better approach for the economy.

 

There is always more we can do to protect the industrially weak. Our enterprise bargaining report emphasised the need for ongoing vigilance where women and non-english speaking workers are concerned. The impact of shift arrangements on women with family responsibilities was raised as a specific matter of concern.

 

The plight of outworkers is another concern, one the Government has committed resources to in the past. My Department is now looking at further initiatives to pursue unscrupulous employers of this industrially . vulnerable group.

 

The fight against exploitation by no means stops at Australia's borders. Through the ILO and other international bodies, the ACTU have put Australia at the vanguard of the battle for worker rights.

 

In the Asia-Pacific region our Government is promoting a number of highly effective aid projects, including projects targeted at child labour. I am particularly pleased to announce today that the Government will provide $100,000 for an ILO project in Nepal on the prevention of bonded child labour. This is a major Australian initiative to support the ILO's International Program for the Elimination of Child Labour. It says in clear terms to the world, that Australia cares about the problem of child labour.

 

We care about exploitation wherever it occurs, but here in Australia we can do the most to prevent it. Through the processes of the Commission and our annual parliamentary reports on enterprise bargaining, we are determined to address each area in need of attention. After all; it will only be a Labor Government that has the determination to do these things.

 

While there will always be those who don't like enterprise bargaining in any form, no one can be in any doubt about our determination to make it the fairest bargaining system possible. Nor can they deny our movement's ongoing Accord achievements, achievements we should trumpet long, trumpet loud.

 

Not just the 66% drop in industrial disputes compared to the Fraser period, not just the low inflation, not just the 680,000 jobs since 1993 - but Medicare and the social wage, the right to strike, the removal of Section 45d and 45e from the Trade Practices Act, the strengthening of the award safety net, superannuation, the maternity allowance, bereavement leave and most importantly of all, national standards covering minimum wages, parental leave, equal pay for work of equal value and unfair dismissal

 

It must not be forgotten that thanks to our Industrial Relations Reform Act nearly two million Federal Award workers have unfair dismissal protection for the first time. Millions more State workers enjoy conditions that the Conservatives sought to strip from them. Indeed close to half a million of them have escaped the clutches of Conservative Governments by shifting to Federal Awards, and in the process faced vindictive attacks from the likes of Kierath and Gude.

 

In the face of such mean spirited State Governments, we've used the Accord to support Australia's nurses and teachers in their quest for AMC arbitration when the bargaining process is destroyed by the Conservatives. Now our Government is supporting the Nursing Federation's "special case application for relevant public and private sector awards in Conservative run states. Peter Reith criticised us for doing so. Little wonder when the same Peter Reith advocates a policy that would see a part-time nurse lose shift penalties worth $176.36 per week, or 38.5% of his or her weekly wages.

 

The Federal Government is proud of all these Accord initiatives and achievements. I know that as our partner, the unions are just as proud. We have done it together for ordinary Australians and in the process overcome the opposition of the Coalition and employers. An Opposition led by none other than J.W. Howard.

 

Ultimately it's these sort of achievements that keep faith with our supporters, that keep faith with those reliant upon us. And with the flood of workers into the Federal System since the last election, the number who depend on us has increased. This raises the stakes for the most vulnerable in the coming election. If we go, so goes the safety net of all Federal Award Workers and indeed State Award workers in the Conservative States. It's for that reason, we must rally like never before to stop the Howard led Coalition.

 

To do so our political and industrial wings must work in unison, just as we did in 1993. The threat is no less now than it was then.

 

Some delegates today may never have experienced an ACTU Congress that wasn't addressed by a Labor Prime Minister and a Labor I.R. Minister. In those circumstances perhaps it's harder to visualise the dangers of a Coalition Government. None of us can let this become an excuse for industrial complacency. Australian workers just can't afford that luxury.

 

Fortunately for the nation, but unfortunately for the States concerned, the Governments of Kennett, Brown and Court have given working people a taste of Coalition I.R. policies. Kennett's policies gave tangible meaning to our warnings in 1993 and continue to do so today. But now Court, Kierath and his "second wave" are doing the same in Western Australia. And they're doing it with the blessing of John Howard who is on the record saying Western Australia is his model. A system with an annual minimum wage of less than $16,500 is his model.

 

Even though we know the truth, the Federal Coalition will still try to obfuscate their I.R. policies in the run up to polling day. Where last time they promised a big bang, they will this time opt for a big blur. A blur of shallow rhetoric, selective detail and borrowed terminology.

 

It will be up to us to point out the gap between rhetoric and reality. Up to us to emphasise the detail, which is in nearly all respects, the same as it was in 1993.

 

Whilever Howard hangs on to Jobsback, he can't deny this is the case. And he will, for just as John Hewson was nothing without Fightback, John Howard is nothing without Jobsback. It is after all, his template.

 

When it comes to the fundamental beliefs and the prejudices of the Liberal Party, nothing has changed in the last two years. Their beliefs were in every sense, encapsulated by Fightback and Jobsback. Just look at their frontbench. It’s Hewson’s team plus Browyn Bishop!

 

What has changed in the interim is not the Opposition’s policies, but their view of policies. They now know that they can’t win truthfully, they can’t win honestly. They can’t win by saying what they really stand for.

 

Consequently John Howard seeks election under false pretences. Pretences like being a friend of battlers, like being in favour of “no disadvantages tests”, like being the answer to foreign debt owed by Australian corporations.

 

Well, he can deny what he stands for, but he can’t deny his track record. And what a record it is? As a Treasurer it was a quinella of double-digit inflation and unemployment. As a policy maker it was Section 45-D. As a two time Opposition Leader it was, and still is, Jobsback with its 4 miserly minimum standards. And as a Shadow Minister it was leading the charge against all the pro-employee features of the Industrial Relations Reform Act. With such a track record, it takes breathtaking hypocrisy to claim you’re a friend of battlers.

 

Let’s not forget the rest of his “battler friendly” team. There’s the co-author of Fightback, Peter Reith, who believed in both the GST and no dole after nine months. There’s the Dollar Sweet’s man, Peter Costello. Or the Muginberri man. Ian McLachlan. Suddenly, we’re supposed to believe all these sworn hardliners, these founding fathers of the HR Nicholls Society, have become industrial marshmallows. Well it just doesn’t wash.

 

Even if the Opposition say the Government’s running a scare campaign, workers are smart enough to see that this combination of people and policy add up to but one thing, an attack upon workers’ conditions. And that’s a very scary prospect for a lot of ordinary Australians.

 

It’s particularly scary when you see the Opposition backing the cashing out of sick leave, as both Howard and Reith have in the Tweed Valley EFA. Sick leave was supposed to be one of the 4 minimum standards in the Liberals Jobsback, now the Liberals say it’s up for grabs. It’s a case of one minimum down – 3 to go.

 

It certainly puts their “no disadvantage test” in perspective. Now that sick leave is negotiable under them, the benchmark for their test is 12 months unpaid maternity leave, a minimum hourly wage and 4 weeks annual leave. Peter Reith holds out the prospect of more, but if you were to ask him what that means, he’d make you feel like Oliver Twist.

 

Compare that with the no-disadvantage test in the Industrial Relations Reform Act – there is no comparison. The benchmark for our test is all existing award and legislative entitlements, not some miserly minima. Sure we allow scope for flexibility as long as workers are not worse off compare to their award, but our approach does not allow fundamental community standards to be eroded.

 

On this point, our bona fides have been on display in the Tweed Valley case. In the same case so have the bona fides of the Opposition. Or in truth, the lack of them. They’re on the record supporting the erosion of basic standards like sick leave.

 

There’s nothing new about this Coalition position, it just exposes their recent rhetoric. Our Government has, by contrast, been absolutely consistent on the concept of no-disadvantage. In both the second reducing speech introducing the no-disadvantage test in 1992, and later in the second reading speech for the Industrial Relations Reform Act we’ve made clear, it’s no disadvantage against the whole award.

 

Ultimately we have faith in the ability of this test along with other features of the I.R. Reform Act, together with the Accord and the independent processes of the Commission, to protect workers, to protect fundamental community standards. Within those confines there is ample scope for flexibility. But there is no scope to exploit workers.

 

Contrast that with an Opposition whose been waxing lyrical about Tweed Valley. Even ACCI wasn’t prepared to support that sham agreement, yet Reith and Howard did. By doing so they’ve not only committed themselves to undermining sick leave, they’ve condoned alleged coercion.

 

They’ve supported an agreement where the Herald Sun quotes the employer’s view in these words, “if you can’t have people gainfully employed in their jobs they will go and fund another one. “They’ve endorsed this outrage where employees are saying “I voted for it at the show of hands after the employer talked to us.... I was too scared not to.”

 

This is the sort of enterprise bargaining the Coalition wants writ large. This is what the Coalition believes should be the industrial model for Australia in 1996.

 

They justify this with statements on the need for “greater flexibility and greater choice”. But who makes the choices under their policy? Certainly, not the workers. It’s the Opposition and the likes of ACCI who decide which of your conditions is sacrosanct. It’s they who decide what can be traded away in the name of Opposition style “flexibility”.

 

Yet what they label a barrier to flexibility, is really a workers barrier against exploitation. By undermining the Award system they deny such protection. In that situation the only remaining choice is “take the contract or take the sack”.

 

That’s the choice they promised last time, and the Australian people wouldn’t buy it. They said so at the ballot box, and they say so in every poll on who is better at managing industrial relations. Thousands of State Award workers are now making the same statement, voting with their feet.

 

It’s a matter of pride to this movement that after twelve years, millions of ordinary Australian workers are protected from these people by Federal Labor’s industrial relations policies. It’s testimony to the strength, the track record an the versatility of our Accord partnership. It’s not always been easy to keep the faith, but our track record and the underlying fairness of our policies have stood the test of time.

 

Ultimately that’s because Awards and Accords are what we stand for. They are fundamental to the Labor way. The Opposition hate both and are committed to wrecking both. I’m confident that Australians won’t let that happen and look forward to working with you to ensure that’s the case. Thank you.

 

Hon. Laurie Brereton, MP. Address To The ACTU Congress Melbourne - Friday 29 September, 1995