February 23, 2021

What a listless performance from the member for Wentworth! His heart really wasn't in it, nor was logic, reason or an understanding of Australia's industrial relations system. But he's a good fellow, despite those key failings.

I'm keen to make a contribution to the so-called Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. You have to start with the title, which is intentionally misleading by this Orwellian government. I guarantee you that, if a slogan like 'supporting Australia's jobs and economic recovery' is in the title of a bill introduced by this government, it is intending to do the opposite. That is what this bill does; it achieves the opposite. It is about further undermining Australia's industrial relations system and further undermining the ability of workers in this country to bargain collectively to achieve an outcome that's good for workers and their employer, and that should really be at the heart of Australia's industrial relations system. Instead, this package of IR amendments tilts the playing field even further towards employers. It gives the employers unprecedented power to impose what they want in the workplace, rather than providing for equal negotiations. This really is turning the industrial relations system back to Work Choices in many respects.

Before I go to the details of the bill, I think it's important to reflect on the economic climate that this bill goes to and the economic context for the debate around this bill. We are in a recession of unprecedented proportions—unprecedented since the Great Depression. We're in economic circumstances where more than two million of our fellow Australians are looking for work or are looking for more hours at work. We are in circumstances where, for example, due to the government's cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker, we're seeing huge demand for foodbanks and shelters. I visited the five largest foodbanks in my electorate in November last year, and they told me that, when JobKeeper and JobSeeker were cut in late September, they saw a tripling of demand for their service, particularly for food assistance. This is the context. I revisited one of the largest foodbanks in my electorate only two weeks ago, and, unfortunately, they reported that, when JobKeeper and JobSeeker were cut again in early January, demand again doubled. So foodbanks on the ground whose job is to provide urgent food assistance to families in danger of starvation and who also provide homelessness assistance are reporting a 600 per cent increase in demand for their services since JobKeeper and JobSeeker were cut. That is the economic context for what we're talking about now. The other context for this legislation is that the biggest cohort on Newstart, or JobSeeker, as it is now called, is unemployed women over the age of 45. They are not new jobseekers. They are people who have lost their jobs and are trying to find new ones.

We have a desperate shortage of demand in our economy at the moment. We've got businesses that are crying out for more customers. What's the best way of getting more customers? It's by people having more money in their pockets. The solution from this government is to cut their pay. How do they do that through this bill? This bill makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is. It allows wage cuts. It takes rights off workers on big projects. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft is already deemed a criminal act, such as Victoria.

That is what this bill seeks to do. It seeks to do this by attacking the conditions of many of the frontline workers who have got us through COVID so far, and I want to pay tribute to those workers—frontline workers such as nurses and support staff in hospitals, aged-care workers, transport workers. These are the people who weren't able to work from home when we had the various lockdowns. These are the people who had to go to work every day and risk their lives to keep our society afloat. I had the privilege of thanking retail workers. I got to walk around and thank retail workers at the large supermarkets and department stores in my electorate, who stocked the shelves and made sure that everyone had all that they needed during the COVID lockdown. They're the workers who are under attack now. Their bargaining rights are under attack. Their employment status is under attack. Their penalty rates are under attack. I'm confident that I speak on behalf of the vast majority of the people of Shortland when I say that we should not accept this attack on the frontline workers who kept us going during the COVID crisis.

One of the most pernicious ways that this bill attacks their rights is by allowing the employer to define who is a casual worker. This overturns decades of common law rulings, which have recently been confirmed by the Federal Court in a couple of coalmining cases that I'll turn to in a minute. Giving the employer the ability to define who is a casual worker is a draconian solution. It means that it doesn't matter what the actual circumstances of that worker are. They could be a permanent part-time worker under every common law test, but the employer could define them as a casual with a stroke of a pen. That overturns their rights. It overturns their rights to entitlements such as long service leave, sick pay and annual leave—the things that are really at the heart of our industrial relations system. These are the entitlements that you should receive, as a permanent employee, so you can live a balanced life—time off when you're sick and time off for recreation, and long service leave when you've done enough years at that workplace. Those are the things that are being overturned by this legislation.

Other things that are being overturned are the landmark Federal Court cases I alluded to, which really tried to fix up the huge problems we've got in the coalmining industry around false casualisation and false labour hire. These are cases like the WorkPac case, where the Federal Court ruled that if an employee has a predictable schedule—if they're receiving their shifts up to a year in advance, as they were in one case—they're not a casual worker. They're not on call. They don't find out tomorrow what hours they're going to work; they know what shifts they are going to work a year in advance. Because of the cancer of labour hire in the coalmining industry, these workers have all the obligations of permanent workers—for example, they have to turn up in three months time to do a certain shift—but none of the benefits in terms of entitlements like long service leave, annual leave and sick pay.

To make matters worse, these workers don't even get higher pay, which some people claim casual workers would get in these circumstances. In the coalmining industry, we've got labour hire workers working on predictable shifts, often a year in advance, next to permanent coalminers employed directly by the coalmining company. They're both doing exactly the same job, but the labour hire workers receive pay which is often half that of the permanent worker and they don't get long service leave, annual leave or sick leave.

These workers are hugely discriminated against in the workplace. These workers are really being undermined in their conditions, and it's a cancer that is destroying good-paying jobs in the coalmining industry in my region, the Hunter Valley, and in the Bowen Basin in Queensland.

This is what I find most galling about the culture war being engaged in by members of the coalition—people like the member for New England, the member for Dawson and the rest of their ilk—who profess a love for coalminers. They don't love coalminers; they love coalmining companies. If they loved coalminers, they'd be voting against this legislation. If they loved coalminers, they'd be talking about the scourge of black lung returning to the coalmining industry. If they loved coalminers, they'd be with me and my Labor colleagues every year at the miners memorial day at Cessnock, which commemorates the over 1,800 men, women and children—some as young as 11 and some as old as their mid-80s—who have died mining coal in this country. That is how you demonstrate a commitment to coalminers in this country: by fighting to improve their conditions, by commemorating their sacrifice and by fighting to improve safety in the workplace for those workers.

Instead, those on the other side—particularly the member for New England, who prides himself on his virtual love affair for coalminers—don't care about that. All the member for New England cares about is maximising the profits for his mates in the coalmining industry: companies like Whitehaven Coal, where Mark Vaile, a former Leader of the National Party, is very prominent, and that of Gina Rinehart, who happened to take the member for New England to a lovely wedding in India on her private jet. Anyway, I digress by talking about the member for New England's love affair with coalmining companies and not coalminers, but that demonstrates the inconsistency and the empty rhetoric of those opposite.

Another poor aspect of this bill is what it does to casuals on the right to convert to permanent part-time work. We've got a number of industrial awards, through great efforts by workers and their unions, who have secured rights to convert, where a casual worker might be having regular and predictable shifts for a certain amount of time or have been employed for a length of time, and they are able to convert to permanent part-time work if they would like to. This bill claims to do that, but the only obligation on an employer is that they have to consider it. They might have a casual worker who has done a year as a casual and meets all the other criteria within this bill, and all the employer has to do is consider the request by the casual worker.

What happens if the employer decides to turn down that request? Normally, in most other instruments in the industrial relations system, the casual worker, or the union that represents them, would then go to the Fair Work Commission. I've had the privilege of representing workers in that forum in a previous role. The commission is court-like, but it's not run as a court. You can have representatives that aren't admitted to the bar, that aren't solicitors or barristers. It means it's low cost. The barriers to entry and to achieving a good outcome for all sides are low, and that's the way it should be. Instead, in this legislation, if you're a casual worker—if you're a 16-year-old worker at Coles or Woolworths or Kmart—who wants to exercise your right to convert to permanency, you have to go to the Federal Court. You have to hire a barrister and go to the Federal Court. I confess: I was a checkout operator at Coles for five years. I didn't have the resources to hire a barrister to secure permanency, and I would submit that there would be very few checkout operators around this country who have the financial resources to do that. So this claim in this bill to give casuals the right to convert to permanency is just that: a claim. There is no reality to that claim. That, again, is symbolic of this bill: it's all spin; it's all about claiming one thing but actually achieving another.

What this bill does, if it passes, is cut workers' wages. What this bill does, if it passes, is take away bargaining rights. What this bill does, if it passes, is mean that employers don't even have to show the text of an enterprise agreement to their workers before demanding that workers vote on it. Just imagine that. One of the tenets of democracy and industrial democracy is the right to know what you're voting on.

Some people claim that MPs don't read everything they vote on. We have the right to read it; it's tabled here. The legislation is tabled right here and we can read it, review it and make a decision on it. But if this bill passes we'll see employees forced to vote on enterprise agreements without seeing the text. I can't think of anything more draconian and antidemocratic than that, and that really is the heart of this legislation.

This is legislation that is being sought to be enacted by a government that does not care about workers. It does not care about workers; it uses the worst economic recession in almost 100 years as a cover to cut workers' wages and to undermine their conditions. That's because the government sees that as the best way out of a recession. That was completely destroyed as a credible economic argument in the 1929 recession but they're very keen to keep pursuing it. The best way to get out of a recession is to put money in workers' hands; to lift their wages so that they spend that money in the economy so that companies have more customers and more reason to employ more people.

This legislation does the opposite. It just reflects a narrow, ideological obsession by a government which is attempting a Work-Choices-like reform. This is a government which is woefully out of touch with what's happening on the ground. It is out of touch with the 600 per cent increase in demand for food banks and housing services. It's a government so out of touch that when it gets into trouble it just reverts to its ideological background and underpinnings of cutting workers' wages. It should be opposed and I'm proud that Labor will oppose it. On behalf of the 150,000 residents of Shortland, I'm proud to oppose this draconian legislation.