ACTU President, Jennie George on the kind of Australia we want in the new millennium and how we, as a community, are prepared for the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead in the next century.
I want to talk to you about the real issues for working people and their families in this election.
First, let me assure you that this election is not just about taxes.
It is about the kind of Australia we want in the new millennium and how we, as a community, are prepared for the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead in the next century.
It is about the future – our economic future and our social future.
It is about the sort of society we want to live in and what we want for our children. Finally, it is about the standing of this country on the world stage.
What sort of society are we? What have we become, in the last two years under a Coalition government?
And what are the real issues that need to be addressed in this election?
I believe the most important issues are:
- Jobs And Unemployment: which have been ignored by the current Government that believes a new tax – a G.S.T. – will fix everything;
- Job Security And Working Conditions: which have been ripped away, and which are under threat again;
- A Fairer Industrial System: to reward workers, and to solve disputes without loading the dice in favor of employers;
- Affordable Health, Aged Care, Education And Childcare: which have been all slashed by this Government;
- A Better Tax System With No GST;
- Keeping Telstra In Public Hands.
Jobs And Unemployment
First, let’s talk about jobs. At the last election, John Howard promised to provide more jobs than the Labor Party.
On any count, he has failed. The Coalition has given up on jobs.
Unemployment remains critical, with 8.3% of the Australian workforce without a job – that is 770,000 workers.
Job programs for unemployed Australians have been slashed.
The numbers of long-term unemployed are now greater. 144,500 workers have been unemployed for more than two years. 250,000 have been out of work for more than one year.
The Government’s only major employment initiative – the privatisation of the CES and the setting up of 310 private job agencies – has been a complete debacle.
We have major companies such as Franklins supermarkets boycotting the new system. Employers are putting signs in windows instead of using job agencies.
And all this, in an environment where corporate downsizing continues unabated, with massive job losses continuing across most industries.
In the banking industry, there have been 40,000 jobs lost from the four major banks alone in the last four years.
We have seen mining communities decimated by mine closures, and 77,400 jobs have been lost from the public sector.
Most recently, we have seen Telstra announce another 2,000 retrenchments making it 27,000 jobs shed in the past five years.
In this climate, we should be looking at more, not less, support for people looking for jobs.
But what is this Government doing? Making it harder for people to get benefits when they need them.
The Howard Government has created a human and social crisis of enormous proportions. It has removed billions from job creation programs while reducing public services and public sector jobs in pursuit of economic rationalism.
In this sort of environment, it is little wonder that workers are concerned about job security and about hanging on to hard-won conditions?
John Howard promised workers at the last election that they would not be worse off under his Government.
He failed to deliver that promise – perhaps it was not a ‘core promise’ – that interesting distinction he made after the election.
Now we know, Australian workers are worse off, and they are certainly more insecure because of John Howard and Peter Reith’s changes to our industrial laws.
They are worse off because workers’ bargaining power has been eroded and the role of the Industrial Relations Commission as an umpire in disputes has been severely cut back.
The Workplace Relations Act allows and encourages employers to have workers put on individual contracts – called AWAs – instead of awards or collective agreements.
These AWAs were designed to be more ‘flexible’, but in reality they allow workers to be forced onto unfair contracts of employment which make you work more hours for less money. Employers can demand you start and finish work to suit production requirements without any concern about the actual needs of yourselves or your families.
This is particularly unfair on working women who often shoulder the double burden of being a breadwinner and a child carer.
There is little to stop an employer deciding to reduce conditions of employment through the use of individual contracts. Whether they succeed depends on whether workers are able to maintain their solidarity through their unions.
This happened in the Victorian company Leggo’s, where all of the workers (members of the AMWU) were threatened with the sack and the ‘outsourcing’ of their jobs if they did not accept their employers’ demands. They had a long strike and eventually prevailed.
It is just one example of the brave new world of industrial relations under Howard and Reith – insecurity, conflict and strikes, just to hold on to what you’ve got.
There is nothing agreeable about Howard and Reith’s so-called workplace agreements.
They are not subject to scrutiny by the Industrial Relations Commission except in very limited circumstances.
That is the way John Howard and Peter Reith like it – secretive, unworkable employment contracts, and absolutely no job security. And that is the way they want to continue.
John Howard has also tried to strip back awards to cover only basic wages and conditions. Award conditions which were once guaranteed have been taken away, such as:
- minimum hours for part-timers;
- health and safety;
- protective clothing requirements;
- amenities provisions and consultation about redundancy.
The ACTU has opposed government and employer attempts in the Commission to remove penalty rates from awards;
- abolish all limits on hours of work;
- get rid of rostered days off;
- abolish make-up pay for workers injured at work.
But Howard and Reith have vowed to continue stripping away workers’ rights by:
- preventing the Commission testing whether contracts are fair (at the moment it only does so if the Employment Advocate deems it necessary);
- removing penalty rates, rosters, meal breaks, superannuation and other conditions out of awards;
- removing tallies from awards;
- stopping the Commission awarding across-the-board safety net increases;
- allowing employers the right to set hours of work and wages even if this leaves workers much worse off.
Unions have been able, with some assistance from the Commission, to save the major award protections. Workers cannot afford a second wave of award stripping. Any further attacks on awards will cut even deeper into people’s pay packets and leave entitlements.
The Industrial Relations Commission
Workers are worse off under this Government because of the changes it has made to the Industrial Relations Commission which have radically reduced the historic role of this important Australian institution.
The Commission has operated as an independent umpire in industrial disputes since the beginning of this century. During the last election, John Howard promised to respect and preserve it. Instead, his government has sought to undermine the Commission from day one.
It has done this by restricting the matters that the Commission can put in awards. It has also sought to restrict the circumstances in which the Commission can arbitrate to settle industrial disputes.
It is notable that in the Maritime dispute this year the Commission played no role at all. Employers and the Government first tried to beat the MUA by smuggling non-union labour onto the wharves in the dead of night. When that failed, they tried using an army of lawyers in the courts.
The maritime dispute showed workers that the way of the future under Howard and Reith’s laws is through bitter conflict and confrontation without scrutiny from the Commission.
There can be no doubt that if the Coalition is re-elected, the Commission’s role will be marginal at best.
The Government’s position contrasts greatly with the Labor Party’s plan to restore all of the powers that have been cut from the Commission.
Labor will stop award stripping and empower the Commission to restore all award protections.
It will have the power to deal with all industrial disputes.
The Labor Party has also pledged to:
- give priority to collective bargaining over insecure, individual contracts;
- introduce wage guarantee laws ensuring workers employed by insolvent companies will have all their entitlements protected; · introduce employment security laws to ensure corporate manipulation can not be used to avoid employers’ responsibilities;
- provide right of entry to allow workers proper access to their union.
In Queensland, the new Beattie Labor Government has already attempted to do away with the most obnoxious parts of the Queensland Workplace Relations Act introduced by the previous National Government that mirrored Howard and Reith’s laws.
It has succeeded in stopping award stripping and has restricted the use of contracts.
It should be noted that Pauline Hanson supported the original Howard/Reith legislation in its entirety in the Federal Parliament.
And the Queensland One Nation voted as a block to oppose all of the reform proposals put forward by the Beattie Labor Government.
A Fairer Industrial System
Before the last election, John Howard claimed that workers would be free to join unions and that he wanted to ensure more choice for workers.
The lie to that was given comprehensively by the Government’s conspiracy against the MUA.
The Government’s role in the maritime dispute has now been comprehensively, publicly revealed. It’s clear objective was to destroy the MUA.
The Government used a PR strategy to demonise the union and its members. It specifically planned to manufacture a dispute and then blame the union for striking.
As we all saw, the Government organised a non-union workforce to replace union members forcibly removed from their workplaces with dogs and security guards.
Even conservative commentators were outraged. Robert Manne, writing in the Melbourne Age on 31/8/98 stated: “Secret plans between government and business to destroy a trade union do not define the kind of Australia in which I hope to live”.
I think this is a view shared by many Australians who gave unprecedented public support to the MUA and the union movement during that historic dispute, and continue to do so.
Now, employers are once again demanding from the Howard Government even tougher sanctions against unlawful industrial action.
Peter Reith is on the public record as saying the building and meat industries need the same sort of attention.
It is obvious that this Government does not respect the role of trade unions in our democratic society. It is prepared to go to any lengths to obstruct unions in representing working Australians.
Health, Aged Care, Education, Childcare
As I said, this election is about more than just tax. The Howard Government has ripped the heart out of health, aged care, education and childcare services which contribute so much to our way of life.
Since the Howard Government came to office in 1996, it has:
- slashed $600 million from public hospital funding and closed 44 Medicare offices;
- slashed $500 million from aged care;
- asked elderly Australians to pay more for nursing home care;
- cut $1.8 billion from universities and TAFE colleges and allowed up-front fees;
- promised lower health fund premiums, but three times they have gone up.
- slashed $1.3 billion from childcare, increasing childcare costs, forcing centres to close, and making it harder for families to get in.
Instead of properly funding the public health system, the Howard Government has spent $1.7 billion propping up an ailing private health system with massive rebates for private health insurance.
At the same time, the Government has reduced accountability of public funds in nursing homes and removed requirements that funds be spent on nursing care.
The number of university applications has dropped 4% a year for the past two years, mainly among mature-aged students, women and part-timers who can no longer afford to study.
Fees in community-based childcare centres have increased by an average of $15 to $20 with many families paying an extra $30 per child per week.
Women have been forced out of the workforce as a result, childcare workers have lost their jobs, and the quality of childcare has been reduced.
These measures have had a massive impact on ordinary Australians.
But, it obvious that this Government doesn’t care about working communities. All it seems to care about is introducing a new tax – the G.S.T. – regardless of the consequences.
More Than Just A Tax
This takes me back to where I began, to the fact that this election is about far more than tax.
Certainly, we should have a better tax system, one that generates the types of services that we as members of the Australian community want living in a civilised society.
The ACTU supports the Labor package – essentially for two reasons. One, that it is fair. Secondly, it delivers the most benefits to those most in need.
Labor’s tax cuts will go to about 1.6 million families. And there is no GST, no new tax on everything from food and drinks to books, school uniforms, entertainment, even football tickets.
Labor’s tax cuts will help people on less than average weekly earnings and those families with incomes of up to $55,000 who have been hardest hit by the Howard Government’s attacks on health, education and childcare.
John Howard’s so-called ‘plan’, on the other hand, is to help the rich get richer. The top 20% of income earners will get more than half of the tax cut dollars under the Liberals’ tax cuts.
ACOSS has described the Coalition’s tax package as ‘unworkable, unsustainable, and unfair’.
Howard’s plan is based solely around a new tax; it is not a plan for Australia.
The GST is based on a false assumption that it will somehow magically create jobs and spur economic growth. The Government acknowledges the tax is unfair because it provides compensation. But the compensation is totally inadequate.
The only certainties of a GST are that once it is in, it will stay in, and it will rise. History has shown that, time and time again across the world.
In Denmark, it started at 10% and is now 25%; in the UK it started at 10% and is now 17.5%; in New Zealand it was 10% and is now 12.5%.
And there are no jobs in a GST.
The Government also assumes everyone spends the same proportion of their income on food – estimated at 18%.
This shows just how shaky Howard’s ‘plan’ really is, because people don’t spend the same amount on the same sorts of goods and services. Low income earners spend more of their income on the essentials of life. For instance, it is estimated that pensioners spend 27% of their income on food.
Finally, John Howard and Peter Costello say a 10% GST will only increase prices of goods and services by an average of 1.9%. But that claim is not credible, it doesn’t make sense, because, how can the Government control how price reductions will be passed on to consumers?
Put simply, the Government package is unworkable and regressive. It shifts the tax burden from income to consumption, from business to consumers, from direct to indirect tax, and most seriously, from higher income to lower income workers.
Our Community And How We Want To Live
The policies of the current Coalition Government have been among the most divisive in history.
Unemployment remains too high and those lucky enough to have a job can no longer feel secure.
Rural and regional Australians are particularly angry by the Government’s plans to sell the remaining two-thirds of Telstra, a plan which the ACTU will continue to oppose.
Australians from diverse ethnic backgrounds feel insecure in their local communities and in their workplaces.
Women are concerned about the Government’s lack of support for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Many women feel they are being forced back into a narrowly defined role of home-maker.
The Aboriginal community feels a deep sense of betrayal over the Government’s handling of the Wik issue and the Stolen Children Report.
So, it is important in this election that we reject divisive politics. We must carefully consider the issues that affect us across the spectrum. This election is not just about tax.
It is about our community, how we respect each other and, ultimately, how we want to live and work.
ACTU President, Jennie George