Australia needs a plan for the nation says ACTU President Sharan Burrow. At the heart of this, an industry plan must drive the generation of jobs, demand the skill base necessary for the 21st century, and create the productive wealth on which a cohesive, inclusive and just society can depend.

Thank you for the invitation to speak here today. Renewing the nation’s agenda is a critical discussion for Australia.

Australia needs a plan for the nation. At the heart of this, an industry plan must drive the generation of jobs, demand the skill base necessary for the 21st century, and create the productive wealth on which a cohesive, inclusive and just society can depend.

The Coalition Government has no such plan.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released last month showed business expenditure on research and development fell another 3 per cent in 1999/2000 to $4.05 billion – 15.6 per cent lower than its historic peak in 1995/96 when the Howard Government was first elected. In terms of investment in future industry growth, Australia has slipped down the OECD table to become one of the worst performing nations in the developed world. Taking R&D investment as a proportion of GDP, only Hungary, Italy, Spain and Poland now invest less than us.

Our key competitors including the United States and Japan, and smart countries like Finland, are now investing more than three times as much as Australia, as a proportion of GDP, on future industry growth. Since the Howard Government came to office, Australia has spent between $40 billion and $60 billion less than the OECD average on education and innovation (Chifley Institute 2001). The human consequences are already being felt. In the eight months to May this year, 58,000 full-time jobs disappeared from our economy. The Government’s own leading indicator of employment has shown five consecutive months of decline.

Contrast this picture with the position of the ACTU and unions. We are also vitally interested in jobs and investment, for this guarantees a dignified life for working Australians and their families.

A national plan should include:

  • The public sector investing 5% of GDP in the national education system (compared to 4.3% today) and sustaining investment in education at or above the OECD average in the years 2005 to 2010.
  • Implementing policies that will lift business investment in R&D, other forms of innovation and training to levels that will be at or above the OECD average (as a share of GDP) before 2010
  • Lifting Commonwealth support for science and innovation through the Budget and other measures to at least 1% of GDP during the second half of the next decade (compared to less than 0.7% today)
  • Encouraging the mobilisation of venture capital (from institutions, individuals, companies and Government) to support start up and early stage businesses and the commercialisation of new technology (particularly from the research to the prototype trialing stages of development)
  • Prioritising sector action plans for science and engineering-based industries, including a refocussing of investment promotion activities to ensure the establishment of additional greenfield site capacity in these industries
  • Ensuring Australia develops a world-best practice innovation system with high take-up rates and capabilities for the online economy, commercially driven networks and clusters of firms including those in business incubators and technology parks, as well as strong linkages between public and private sector agencies that drive the innovation system
  • Fostering a socio-political culture that recognises that “manufacturing matters”. We want Australia to establish an international reputation as a world-class location for the production of goods for domestic and global markets. Hand-in-hand must be the promotion to young people that manufacturing is a career path with real prospects
  • Establish a National Manufacturing Authority to support innovation, monitor performance and promote growth and new economy and opportunities


Unions support the ALP’s commitment to a strategic review of manufacturing with a decade-long plan for the industry. This is long overdue.

Not since 1990 when the PCTK Study Team prepared its report “The Global Challenge” have a government and the industry partners sat down to map out a long-term strategy. The ACTU and the unions are committed to this strategic approach because we believe it will best serve our constituents – working people and their families.

Unions are proud to have the interests of working people at the top of our agenda. This underlines the profound differences between our priorities and the priorities of this Government.

John Howard and his Government have presided over a disturbing legacy for working Australians. Having a job is no longer a guarantee of economic survival. One in five poor Australians live in households that depend on wages as the dominant source of income. Australia now has a growing class of people who are recognised as ‘working poor’. The Government knows this. They also know that the GST has imposed an unfair burden on these Australians, yet the maintenance of real wages was opposed in the recent Living Wage hearing.

Working Australians are under more financial pressure than they were five years ago. Consider these three snapshots of the impact of the GST on three households. None of these people received any benefits from the last Federal Budget:

1. A two-income (Note 1) household with two children (Note 2) : total income $60,000 pa
Cost of living increase (Note 3) $55.47 per week
Real tax package payments (Note 4) $15.26 per week
2001 Budget benefits Nil
Worse Off: $40.21 per week

2. A single person on $30,000 pa
Cost of living increase (Note 3) $23.13 per week
Real tax package payments (Note 4) -$7.80 per week
2001 Budget benefits Nil
Worse Off: $30.93 per week

3. A single income couple with two children: total income $25,000 pa
Cost of living increase (Note 3) $32.66 per week
Real tax package payments (Note 4) $15.99 per week
2001 Budget benefits Nil
Worse off: $16.67 per week

1. One income $40, 000 pa and other income $20,000 pa
2. One child under 5 and one child between 5 and 12
3. Assumes 6.0% CPI to 30 June 2001
4. Adjusts tax package payments to take account of bracket creep from 1993 to 30 June 2001

Working families are also struggling with time pressure. Australia works the second-longest hours of all OECD nations: more than 25% of people work hours that would be unlawful in Europe. Decent standards are needed to offset the rising pressure on families and communities.

The casualisation of the workforce has now grown to more than 27% and the majority of these employees are women. This has contributed, along with the undermining of the award system on which twice as many women are dependent, to a weekly pay gap of $167 between women and men.

These are some aspects of John Howard’s legacy. I haven’t touched on the cracks in public education, public health, aged care or the increasing inability of working families to afford childcare. Remember this is the man who promised working Australia that ‘no-one would be worse off’ and that we would all feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’.

In the face of this, Mr Howard last week outlined his priorities for a further term. At the top of the list was a commitment to return surplus dollars to the higher end of the income tax scales. He professes a commitment to choice – a society where individuals manage their ‘extra’ money while our schools and hospitals go begging and our elderly are treated without dignity.

We all want greater investment in industry and infrastructure development but this requires a healthy revenue base. Even the most financially content of this audience should remember that Australia already spends more than $16 billion on corporate welfare (more than half of what we spend on education) and that is still not enough to promote growth.

Everyone in this room will know family or friends affected by at least one of the negative outcomes of Government policies that I have touched upon. Many less fortunate people struggle daily under the impact of a meaner Australia where the capacity to pay forms the base of life opportunity. The impact on Australia will continue to be profound if change is not brought about.

Added to this is a climate of conflict that has been encouraged between industry and unions by a Government that appears to believe that progress can only be brought about through adversarial means.

There was a time when this industry group operated in partnership – albeit with a little healthy tension from time to time – to put forward to Government a cooperative agenda that brought about positive change for the entire sector. A powerful agenda designed to promote and sustain manufacturing growth stands in harsh contrast to Government policies that have fractured relationships and blurred the common vision towards which we once all worked.

I invite you to recall the Manufacturing Council, the ‘best practice initiatives’, the revolution in skilling and multi-skilling driven by the manufacturing industry, the cooperative approach to skill development with the establishment of ANTAR, and the industry partnerships through the ITAB, our joint contribution to employment and training through Netforce.

These are just a few reminders of the power of partnership to address the problems of a nation. This Government failed to recognise the benefits of cooperation, dismissed the role of unions, and promoted individual relationships between employers and employees as the solution. These policies have contributed to the decline in manufacturing.

We face a choice in coming months – continuation of the most aggressive industrial relations system in our history, or a more cooperative environment where industrial realities are at least tempered by a shared agenda for expansion of manufacturing. This would be complemented by re-establishing a capacity for industry authority to complement enterprise bargaining with sensible negotiation of industry frameworks for issues such as health and safety, training and workers entitlements.

Without honest analysis, modelling or debate about how all Australians can benefit from globalisation, and no plan for a sustainable future for manufacturing or jobs, we are all left in a poorer state. Surely business, industry and unions want a more constructive environment than this. Don’t we all want a plan that paints a confident picture of our future?

The absence of such a plan does little to make manufacturing employees feel secure about their future. Add to that the concern that many of those employees feel for the safety of their accumulated entitlements – a valid concern when $9 million of entitlements have been lost in manufacturing alone. Is it any wonder that unions are seeking to secure entitlements? Even less surprising must be the fact that your employees – our union members – are arguing this must be a number one issue.

Let’s look at some of this debate. Business leaders and Minister Abbott claim that workers’ entitlements are working capital. I remember the time when the same arguments were advanced by the public and the private sectors about superannuation as an unfunded liability. Some capacity to plan for the real cost of the business must be advanced in the context of options to secure entitlements.

It has been argued in recent days that the collapse of companies is not the responsibility of the corporate sector but of taxpayers. Unions believe that burden is inappropriate for a nation that is diluting its commitment to fundamental services such schools and hospitals. We do not think that taxpayers want to pick up the losses of the corporate sector, particularly when those losses can come at the hands of directors who are often paid more than employees for just a few days work a month.

Why not sit at the negotiating table, examine the options and attempt to find a solution that benefits all parties. How much more powerful and mature it would be for all of us working in the industry to resolve this issue together, rather than hand power to any Government to impose a scheme.

In summary, priorities for the ACTU will continue to be:


  • A decent Living Wage complemented by appropriate rollback of the GST and taxation relief through tax credits for the low-paid
  • A fairer industrial relations systems which includes the abolition of AWAs, the restoration of powers to the AIRC and the recognition of collective bargaining
  • Stronger rights for casual workers
  • Reasonable working hours
  • Equal pay through making the award system relevant, and the appropriate valuing of women’s contributions
  • A dignified social wage which guarantees free public health and education


These are suitable priorities for a rich nation such as ours. Nation building will only succeed when all in the community can move forward as part of a plan that is built on cooperation.

In the same way, a sustainable plan for manufacturing can only be built on cooperative relationships which respect the contribution of working Australians. Then, when all Australians share a vision of our collective future, we can move forward with confidence to the world stage and benefit as a nation from the reality of globalisation.

This speech was given to the Australian Industry Group National Conference by ACTU President Sharan Burrow, August 6, 2001.


Preliminary research being gathered for the ACTU’s Reasonable Hours test case, being heard in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, provides more evidence of the growing financial and social divide in Australia.

Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Labour Research at Adelaide University, has researched the impact of long working hours on 50 Australian families.

Two case studies
Consider two case studies from our recent research on the impact of unreasonable working hours on family life.

Abe – Public Sector Worker
Firstly, a public sector worker, Abe, who is married to Tricia. They have three young children. Tricia resigned from her senior public sector job just before their third child was born. Abe works 50 hours a week as a supervisor of contract managers. He works at least one Sunday every month. He leaves home at 7am and returns at 7pm. He sees his children for half an hour a day. Tricia says Abe cannot relax and needs to be reminded of family birthdays. The pair argue on weekends, when Abe lacks the energy to do anything except catch up on sleep.

Raphael – Electrician
Another case study looks at the experience of an electrician, Raphael, who works on large building sites. He and his partner Ada have three children under six. Their lives improved significantly when Raphael’s hours were reduced following the introduction of new rosters. Under his previous roster, Raphael worked up to 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Working long hours stopped Raphael from participating in his children’s school activities, or play sport. He and his workmates reported failed marriages, workplace accidents, depression and poor productivity as a result of working longer hours.