Industrial relations: government policy

I note the words of this matter of public importance (MPI):

That this house strongly supports an industrial relations system operating in Victoria which provides opportunities for jobs and investment for Victorians, improves productivity and is governed by respect for the rule of law.

It is interesting to note those words because while this MPI urges the house to do a range of things, it is this government that is so miserably failing in its many obligations to provide opportunity for jobs and investment in Victoria, which is seeing this state slipping behind so many indicators which were once a source of pride.

The submitter of this MPI, the member for Box Hill, who is also the Attorney-General, and the other members of the major party to which he belongs subscribe to a view of industrial relations that strangles opportunities for Victorians, celebrates a race to the bottom and rewards those who have already been handsomely rewarded and whose rule of law inevitably involves lower standards and conditions of work, greater capacity for discrimination to flourish and diminished compensation for injured workers.

The submitter of this matter has the hide to include a reference to productivity when the government’s own passion, commitment and output are being questioned on a daily basis across every section of the community.

This is a lazy MPI from a lazy government. It is another smokescreen that has been concocted, seeped in ideological hatred, designed to cover up the fact that this government does not have its hands on the wheel. Government members have cozied up in the back of their limousines with their thumbs in their mouths. When all else fails — and, believe us, all else is failing with this mob — this government reverts to type. It bashes the unions, and it bashes the working people.

It pretends that all the woes encompassing Victoria, so many of which are the result of this government’s inertia, are the fault of those in society who are doing most of the heavy lifting with limited rewards; it pretends that there is a magic bullet to solve everything, which happens to be inscribed with the hard-fought terms and conditions of employment of the bulk of Victoria’s working people; and it pretends that pursuing a WorkChoices agenda is the key to turning the state around and that the only ingredient in better productivity is low wages and lessened conditions for those at the bottom.

This is the same old same old. It is the playbook from Jeff Kennett, it is the song sheet from John Howard and it is a script written by the H. R. Nicholls Society. We have all seen where this ends. It ended with the abolition of common-law rights for injured workers under the Kennett regime. It ended with the introduction of the most draconian and unbalanced set of workplace laws when former Prime Minister Howard finally got control of the Senate, and it is playing out here in Victoria for all of us to see.

Let us just highlight a few of this government’s approaches to workers and industrial relations in this state: announcing the sacking of thousands of public sector workers in the dead of night, drawing the ire of the workers’ representatives and contributing to deep concern and anxiety in the affected workers and their families; undermining local procurement arrangements that are so important to workers in this state; and conducting botched and arrogant negotiations for enterprise bargaining agreements which are littered with broken promises and which have seen unprecedented numbers of nurses, teachers and other key workers taking to the streets.

Coalition members, along with their conservative mates in the other states, are leading the charge to bring back WorkChoices. We only have to look at the government’s submission to the Fair Work Act 2009 review, replete with its references to flexibility and individual arrangements, to see that.

As reported in the Australian of 18 August, the Victorian Treasurer called the Fair Work Act ‘unworkable’ and urged the federal Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, to subscribe to a more liberal industrial relations framework.

As late as yesterday, the conservative government in Queensland was repeating these calls and supporting comments made by the architect of WorkChoices, John Howard, in a recent public address. The Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, is reported in the Brisbane Times as saying:

Tony Abbott is obviously concerned about being branded as somebody who’s going to go after people’s pay and conditions and I guess that’s why he’s taken the stance he has.
But the bottom line is that if we want to help small business there probably needs to be more flexibility in the IR arrangements …

These comments come on top of a long line of public statements from members of the Victorian government supporting WorkChoices, attacking workers’ rights and belittling those who find themselves injured at work and relying on compensation for them and their families to survive.

As someone who worked as an industrial relations and discrimination lawyer during the Howard years, I know firsthand what WorkChoices did to people’s rights, to their dignity and to their capacity to achieve a fair outcome in what is such a dominating facet of one’s life — the workplace. With the stroke of a pen, millions of workers were left without protections, were forced into individual agreements that smashed their terms and conditions of employment and were left vulnerable and alone. It was the union movement, in conjunction with Labor, that fought those laws, that highlighted the damaging restructuring of a longstanding system and that stood by the workers affected.

It is the union movement that every day builds on its history of fighting for a better society and that argues for better terms and conditions of employment, not just for its members but for all workers.

Every time a pay increase is negotiated by a union at the enterprise level, it flows to all workers. Every time the Australian Council of Trade Unions stands up and argues for a better minimum wage, it flows to all workers. It is the work of the union movement over many decades that has radically transformed occupational health and safety laws and practices and which has saved countless lives. It is the work of the union movement that has led to antidiscrimination laws and advances in pay equity and women’s rights, advances that this government at every turn has been determined to hack into.

Here we are again — lining up for the almost weekly union and worker bashing exercise to cover up this government’s multitude of failures.

These failures include its comprehensive and widely condemned failure to act on jobs. It has sat by while this state has been bleeding jobs: 40 000 jobs have been lost since this government came to power. One can compare that with what happened under the former Labor government: 100 000 jobs were created in its last 12 months. We did not do this by getting stuck into workers.

The failures also include the coalition government’s complete and utter failure to invest in and to attract investment in infrastructure for this state; its ongoing lame and ridiculous mantra which implies a narrow, ideological view of productivity and flexibility which is focused almost entirely on taking money out of the pockets of those who can least afford it; and its deliberate and confounding failure to support and enhance training and skills, which is reflected in its slashing of funding for TAFE, the Victorian certificate of applied learning and apprenticeships. These are but four major attacks on investment and jobs in Victoria.

They are the inert actions of a government that is not interested in looking after the rights or advancing the conditions of working people and that is not interested in providing the most fundamental aspect that will advance people’s lives — a job.

This is a government that has stood by while this state has been bleeding jobs, and now once again it is blaming the union movement and workers for its own failures. This union and worker bashing is being taken up by those this government is choosing to appoint. It is astounding that the new and somewhat colourful head of Victoria’s building watchdog saw fit to share a range of very serious and salacious allegations about Victoria’s building industry, not with the police, where you think they would have been raised if he was so very concerned, but in an exclusive interview with the Herald Sun.

This government is proving yet again that it is not interested in stepping up and governing for all Victorians, not interested in doing the hard yards, not interested in committing to a vision of a proud and prosperous state and not interested in making our community the pride of the nation. This government is interested in a race to the bottom. This is a reversion to type that is tired and old. This government is letting this state down and it is letting down those within this state who rely on an innovative, bold and hardworking government to thrive. This government could be doing so much more to protect jobs, to attract investment and to make this state a vibrant place where people want to do business and where jobs are created. These actions should be taken not on the backs of working people but in conjunction with working people, and not in spite of working people but to advance working people.

The government needs to take a long, hard look at itself and at matters of public importance like this — the constant union bashing and worker bashing — and start governing for the whole of the state. It should start standing up for working people and start caring about their jobs. It should start to care about making their lives better, improving their terms and conditions and improving their living standards. It should make this state what it was before. The government is letting everybody down.

Hansard, 2012