|Issue No 106||10 August 2001|
A National Disgrace
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis gives his take on the workers entitlements issue and its mismanagement by the Howard Government.
The last few weeks have demonstrated conclusively to the Australian people a few things about this minister and this government. They remember his comments a month ago on Four Corners, when he told the world that people who are in poverty are there by choice. He said:
But we can't abolish poverty because poverty in part is a function of individual behaviour.
His view expressed to the Australian people was: when you find yourself in poverty, remember that you made the choices. He then went on and enumerated some of them.
The Australian people found that out in the last month. But there is another thing they found out in the last week. As workers in this land, they want to have their rights protected. They want to know that their entitlements are going to be there if the company goes belly-up. They know that they now have two choices: they can have Stan Howard running the company, or they can have Kim Beazley as Prime Minister. Australian workers now know that that is the only way their wages are going to be secure if the company becomes insolvent. To date, the only people in Australia who have had their entitlements fully protected are the workers at National Textiles-the special 'Stan-alone' top-up; the one-off payment to Stan Howard's employees. The government have dodged questions about that all week.
Unlike the minister at the table and the former minister, on a number of occasions I went to National Textiles and visited the workers and spoke to them and their families. They were not statistics, they were people. Many of them had worked in that industry and for that company all their lives. Their total life savings were their accrued long-service leave, annual leave and redundancy pay and the very modest house that they lived in. Those were their total life savings. If they had been able to get only the payment of this government's employee scheme, those workers would have got well under one-third of the entitlement that was due to them. Their life savings were evaporating in front of their eyes.
Another thing that the past couple of weeks have demonstrated to us all is that the minister has a lot of trouble telling the truth. He has a lot of trouble telling the truth in this chamber, and he seems to have greater difficulty with it outside the chamber. Let me remind people of one of the comments he made a little while ago here in the chamber at question time when dealing with Australian workplace agreements. The minister was at pains to tell the parliament that if you are on an AWA, you are actually better off. 'You get more money on an AWA,' he said.
Of course, in the next question he immediately found out the truth of the matter, which was that the average Australian worker on an AWA today earns $55.10 a week less than they would if they were on a union agreement. If the minister cannot tell the truth here at question time, in answer to a Dorothy Dix question that was prepared in his office, what hope is there that he is able to adhere to the facts or to tell the truth when issues like TriStar come along?
Not telling the truth would have been bad enough, but the minister set out to fuel the fire. At every opportunity over the last week, this minister has simply opened his mouth to change feet-from one disaster to the next. He attacked those workers as being guilty of treason. The headline in the Australian was 'Car strike treason to spread'. The minister alleges that those people are guilty of treason-for what? It is because they were on strike. They were stopping the operations of that company and, the minister would say, causing problems in other parts of the car industry. He knows, even with his limited knowledge of industrial relations, that those workers were taking totally lawful action in accordance with his legislation. More than that, they were taking action not only in accordance with his industry legislation but also in accordance with what he said they should do to protect their entitlements.
The minister might remember this document, Protection of employee entitlements on employer insolvency. It is subtitled 'A rebuttal of Labor's supposed alternatives'. It took them 18 months, with the whole government bureaucracy behind them, to produce a critique of our policy, which the minister knows is not ManuSafe. He knows that to be the case, and throughout question time today he made comments to the contrary. In the document that he released, knowing that their scheme is flawed and to try and cover himself, he said:
"The government scheme is a safety net scheme and does not preclude the adoption of additional measures by particular employees and employers."
That is precisely what those workers did. They took this government's advice: 'If you want to protect your entitlements above our shoddy little bargain basement scheme, this so-called safety net, you've got to go out there and negotiate it company by company'. And do you know what? You cannot get it arbitrated. Under this government's industrial relations laws, the Industrial Relations Commission cannot make a decision.
Here is the rub: the government give you a second rate scheme which, for most people, gives them a small percentage of what was all theirs to begin with. That is what they give you for your entitlements, and then they say, 'But if you want more, go and negotiate it'. But then they put in place an industrial relations system that does not allow the umpire to give it to you. The only way you can get it is to exercise your rights to collective action. That is exactly what the workers at TriStar did, in accordance with the law that this government put down. For their trouble in taking this minister's advice earlier this year, following the legislation that the government had put down, they were charged with treason and told they were traitors.
The minister might like to make a journey up to TriStar next week and have a talk with the workers. I will tell him what sort of reception he will get. I know what they said about him when they met last weekend. He thought he was going to fix the problem by threatening them. The response of the workers at their meeting on the weekend was anger towards this minister. His behaviour towards them was as inflammatory in the dispute as the issue that caused it in the first place-and his failure to apologise to them is a disgrace.
I suggest that the minister test my veracity on this to see whether I am telling the truth. Go up there next week, Minister. Go up there and confront those workers at TriStar. I will come with you. You and I together can go and talk to the workers up there. I am sure that management will not object. I am sure Dougie Cameron will not object. The minister and I can go up to TriStar next week and let us see what the workers say to this minister about the way he has conducted himself.
In fact, let us see what management says about the way he conducted himself. Not content with inflaming the situation by telling these people that they are guilty of treason, he then turned around and said to the company, 'Don't negotiate. Don't compromise'. Now, there is a novel approach for a minister trying to solve a dispute-'Don't negotiate'. I cannot think of a precedent of a minister, supposedly acting as the honest broker in a dispute, telling one side of the argument, 'Look, don't talk to them. Don't compromise'. He then tells the other side, 'The only way this is going to be solved is if you back down and give up on what you want'.
If the company had taken the minister's advice, we would still have the dispute today and the workers would still have no protection. That is what the situation would be today. I suggest that next week the minister and I find time in our diaries and make that trip. It will be an education for you, and you need it, because you rightly referred to the fact a minute ago that there are many people in this parliament who know more about industrial relations than you do. And there are.
Probably everyone in this parliament knows more about industrial relations than does the minister. However, the minister's approach to the job is novel. It is a novel approach to the job to commence your presentations to audiences of business executives by telling them that they all know more about the subject than you do. Your message has got through. They actually understand that. If they did not understand it before this week, they sure do now. However, I think that the message got through before this week. In the recess, I visited a great many business functions and organisations, at which business executives were in attendance, to talk about industrial relations.
At one of those gatherings, which I am happy to say was sold out two weeks before the event occurred, they were at pains to point out to me that many more people had come along to listen to me than came to listen to you at a similar function. That might have something to do with the fact that you stand up in front of them and tell them that you haven't got a clue what you are talking about. I was a little surprised at one of the gatherings when one of the senior executives said, 'You know, I was at a thing about two or three weeks ago and he still started out by saying, "Everyone in this room knows more about industrial relations than me," to which people shook their heads and asked, "Why is he in the job?",' Minister, that is a question all workers in Australia are entitled to ask, and the answer is that you should not be in the job.
This is not just a critique from the Labor Party or the trade unions about your behaviour. Let us have a look at the behaviour of the minister as reported in an editorial in the Age earlier this week which was headed 'Tony Abbott and his entitlements'. It said: "Mr Abbott seems to believe that all industrial action is wrong, even though his laws allow it, and that no union is capable of acting decently. He appears to see his role as being the nation's chief union basher."
That editorial of the Melbourne Age got you in one. The editorial went on
to talk about the issue in dispute and said: "The government's proposed scheme, which caps payouts at $20,000 and hands the bill to the taxpayers, seems inadequate and the Labor states are probably right not to sign up to it."
Dead right. They had made the correct decision on that. The Financial Review also found it amusing that you should rail the way you have at workers doing no more than following your laws and your plan for how they should secure their entitlements. It said: "Tony Abbott, the self-confessed new boy of workplace relations, may call it a crime against the national interest or industrial and economic treason, but the strike which has shut down Australia's car making industry is entirely consistent with the law and logic of our enterprise bargaining system."
If the journalists understood that law, it is a fair request that the minister should understand it as well, but you have exhibited no evidence that you understand any of it.
Let us turn to the issue of the protection of those workers' entitlements. As I said, you put out a report on the various options. I assume you read your report. So you know that your claims in question time today were totally false. The report talks about Labor's scheme and I felt like we had been flogged with the proverbial wet lettuce after I had read it. After 18 months, you have not been able to find any hole in the scheme.
I was heartened in that context to see what the Australian newspaper said in the middle of this dispute in their editorial on 4 August 2001. Having described the problems in the industry, the government's half-baked scheme and the claim by the union for ManuSafe, they said: "Against this background, Labor's proposal to levy a 0.1 per cent surcharge on the existing Superannuation Guarantee system looks more and more attractive. At a minimal cost to employers, it would create a scheme that is simple and can use existing administrative infrastructure. It would offer most workers comprehensive protection that existing schemes lack."
The editorial writer in the Australian understands where the protection is for ordinary Australian workers. As you cannot understand the legislation, Minister, you might at least try reading some of the newspapers; you could pick up a few clues.
The government have urged on these workers a system that is divisive and disruptive. That is your system. You have urged on the company a practice where they should not negotiate, even though under your system we supposedly have a negotiations framework. What has been the result of that? As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, the company, under pressure from this government, decided they would not sign up to ManuSafe. Had they signed up to ManuSafe, they would have had to pay out $174,000. That is the manufacturing workers scheme; it is not our scheme. It is a trust fund model, which is a legitimate model.
Indeed, there are other trust funds that operate in a range of industries, and there is nothing wrong with that model. Instead of doing that, they signed up to an insurance bond. So it is not a trust; it is simply an insurance bond. At least in the trust fund model, the money is there to come back out, but this is an insurance bond. Instead of paying $174,000 a year, they are going to pay $700,000 a year. Of course, if we were in government, they would have a national scheme, and they would pay $11,600.
I think this is no contest. I say to the minister and to those opposite that, as the weeks and months unfold and as employers understand that your system requires this to be replicated not just in the manufacturing sector but in every company in the land, they will very quickly come to understand what the editorial in the Australian said. The future for Australian workers to have their entitlements protected is with a Beazley led government, which will legislate to fix this mess, and it will do it early
in the next term.
This is a transcript of a censure motion against Tony Abbott moved in Federal parliament this week
Interview: In Exile
Burmese's government in exile's Minister for Justice U Thein Oo talks about a struggle for democracy that has become a test of international solidarity.
Politics: A National Disgrace
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis gives his take on the workers entitlements issue and its mismanagement by the Howard Government.
E-Change: 2.2 The Information Organisation
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at how network technologies will change the way organizations operate in the Information Age.
Media: The Fine Print
Mark Hebblewhite looks at how the major dailies handled the Tri-Star dispute and finds that the story really does depend on the telling.
Human Rights: A People Besieged
Labor MLC Janelle Saffin, an active supporter of the pro-Democracy movement in Burma, sets out the issues behind the ILO sanctions.
International: Postcard From Brazil
The CFMEU’s Phil Davey reports on a rural movement that puts our National Farmers Federation to shame.
History: Indonesia Calling
They needed no resolutions. Soldiers and workers who did not know one another moved together, the black ban started to reach out across the harbour from the noisy, smoke-filled room.
Solidarity: On the Frontline
Australian trade unionists are providing practical help for the Burmese through projects funded by APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad.
Satire: Skase 'Too Ill' to Fly Home for Burial
Spanish authorities have deemed Christopher Skase too ill to return to Australia for his own funeral.
Review: Living Silence
In these extracts from her new book, Christina Fink goes inside Burma to find a world where military repression is slowly crushing a people.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005