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"You only call it class warfare when we fight back"

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 30 Mar 2017

The Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017 prevents the Fair Work Commission decision from coming into effect. I want to be very clear about why the Greens are supporting this bill and why we have led this debate. If I can in the time that I have got, I also want to blow away some of the myths that have been thrown around the chamber rather carelessly this morning. It does not reduce the independence of the umpire. All it does is prevent the commission from reducing people's living standards. It prevents people from being forced to go backwards, it provides a floor underneath penalty rates and it secures them as a safety net for the people who need them the most.

After this bill clears the Senate, the only really significant change that will occur is that some of Australia's most vulnerable workers will not be forced to go backward. The remarkable defence that we have heard of the Fair Work Commission's untimely and extremely unfortunate decision from some of those in the Liberal Party and One Nation—I will just concentrate my thoughts on the Liberals for the time being—have been just extraordinary and expose the psychology of the people who are defending the Fair Work Commission's decision.

Many people—particularly young people and particularly women—across this country rely on penalty rates to survive, to make ends meet. That means paying rent from week to week, putting food on the table or servicing a mortgage, and right now the rules of the Fair Work Commission allow the commission to reduce people's living standards and take them backwards. We think that that is beyond unfortunate, but it is something that this parliament can do something about today.

The politics of the debate are exquisite, and we have seen a caricature of Auspoll 2017 play out around this bill this morning. We have got the one per cent floating around on yachts in Sydney Harbour, tapping out submissions to the Fair Work Commission on why the people who will be serving their coffee and their cocktails when they make landfall should be paid less. That is the perversion here: Tories earning hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year saying that Australia's lowest paid workers are making too much money. They run the same arguments by the same blue bloods around the minimum wage, which is another matter that is obviously front of mind today. So that is your Liberal-National Party: the people on the most precarious forms of employment in the country, earning some of the lowest wages in the country, are making too much money, and that is why this decision should be upheld.

One Nation—goodness only knows. They have had three positions on penalty rates in three days. I have no idea what head or tail to make of Senator Roberts's speech from earlier that circulated amendments which he barely even glanced over. He spent no part of his contribution talking about penalty rates. He went on one of his fevered rants about the evils of the trade union movement. So they are utterly incoherent on this issue. If they end up supporting the bill, that will be great—it is another four votes—but we simply do not trust Pauline Hanson's party to look after the interests of the lowest paid Australians, and the shambles over the last couple of days has been an ample demonstration of why.

The Australian Greens took a commitment to the 2016 election to put a floor under penalty rates. I have got to say it was a bit surprising and disappointing that, at the time, we were mocked for it. I will go into a little bit of detail in a second. Within 24 hours of the Fair Work Commission decision being announced, Mr Adam Bandt, the member for Melbourne, who has led this debate all along, released our bill and wrote to the Labor Party, requesting support. Two days later Labor introduced their own bill. All right, whatever. What happened, though, when in the run-up to the 2016 election we warned that this was going to happen and the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, introduced the bill? Mr Shorten said, 'Oh, you don't need to do that, because, yes, there is a theoretical prospect that the commission may cut penalty rates, but what if alien life makes contact with earth?' Well, earth to Bill: the aliens have made contact, we have heard from a number of them this morning and, yes, a bill such as this is absolutely necessary and warranted.

The reason that we are doing this is that the Australian workforce is increasingly casualised. Many of these people are falling into an underclass. We have heard of the working poor: people working but in poverty, a precarious existence getting by from week to week. These are the people whose lives are on the table and under discussion this morning. There are not that many of them actually present in this debate, quite frankly. Every person who has spoken on this bill this morning is earning something in the realm of $200,000 a year, and I suspect that the people who are speaking in support of the Fair Work Commission's decision have never worked a day in their lives where penalty rates were actually determining whether they could make the rent or whether they would have to sacrifice something else.

It is a quarter of the Australian workforce. It is not an accident. It is a global dynamic to drive wages down and profits up. It is not an unfamiliar dynamic. The ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, who made a blazing speech to the National Press Club this week, pointed out yesterday that wage theft is a business model for too many employers—not all of them, obviously, but many. That is why we need these laws.

Casual workers are defined as those without paid leave entitlements that people in here, many of whom have probably spent their entire lives as a beneficiary, take for granted. This is temporary, part-time and self-employed workers accounting for around a third of all employment in OECD countries, and who are these people? Nearly 70 per cent of them are women. Sixty-nine per cent of all part-time employees in Australia are women, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, and that is probably because for many women with kids casual work is the only option. Women are the majority of accommodation, food service and retail workers. That is who is in here. Not a lot of women have spoken up from the Tory benches this morning, you will notice. Interesting; it has been all blokes—mostly IPA muppets, but we will leave that till later. These people are largely voiceless and unrecognised in these debates.

Because of these inequalities that are already baked into the way that our economy, tax system and politics are structured, cuts to penalty rates are particularly cruel. We should not even be having this debate. This could have been handled in a cross-party way, but instead we have brought it to the Senate today.

As the new ACTU secretary pointed out yesterday, wage theft is a business model for too many employers—many but not all. There are plenty of good examples of businesses who have no interest in exploiting their employees or driving wages and conditions down.

Senator Rhiannon and I looked one up in the run-up to this debate, the Eltham Valley Pantry in Byron Bay, who facebooked the fact that they had no intention of cutting their employees' penalty rates, even though the Fair Work Commission decision would make them legally entitled to do so. They have explained their reasoning for why they are doing that, and it is driving business to them. This is not an attack on employers who want to do the right thing by their employees. We need a safety net. We need a floor, not for the good employers but for those who see their employees as components, as business units, as costs to be cut no matter what. That is why we are legislating this morning. 

You probably wouldn't have noticed it, with the speed with which the Attorney-General chopped through the hours motion a short time ago meant that Senator Rhiannon could not bring this motion forward, but I just want to bring the Senate's attention to it. There was an amendment that Senator Rhiannon had tabled on the motion around our hours of meeting. We are probably going to sit until late into the night, and that is reasonably well understood by everybody in here. But here is the fascinating thing. There are a number of trade union campaigners who, in the wake of the Fair Work Commission decision, visited the premises of those who had argued the most fiercely that Sunday penalty rates should be cut, and guess what they discovered? They visited the hoteliers association, the master grocers, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry—this is mostly in Victoria—Clubs Australia, the Pharmacy Guild, the Australian Industry Group and a whole pile of tory electorate offices on a Sunday, and guess what they found? Their offices were all closed so that those people could spend time with their families and maybe go to a coffee shop, grab a cup of coffee and be served by somebody earning Sunday penalty rates. What Senator Rhiannon's motion did, somewhat cheekily but to the point, was move that we would adjourn without debate at 10.30 pm tonight if the bills listed are not done and the business of this place is yet to be conducted, and that we would reconvene on Sunday, 2 April 2017.

Some employers and people have argued that Sunday penalty rates should be cut, as Senator Paterson did, not that long ago. There is nothing special about Sundays anymore, yet all their electorate offices were closed on a Sunday when these campaigners visited. That is the scale of the seething hypocrisy that we are dealing with. It would be so interesting to take a straw poll, and it is a shame we cannot put it to a vote, as to how many on this side of the chamber would be interested in coming back here and working on a Sunday. I don't think there would be many takers, quite frankly. That is why we pay people a premium to work on Sundays or late into the night. That is what penalty rates are for.

I was waiting with interest—and I had to sit through Senator Roberts's contribution, which is rarely memorable but always a little bit strange—for some amendments that One Nation had circulated for us to consider. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: they appear to be basically cut and pasted from Mr Bandt's Fair Work Amendment (Pay Protection) Bill 2017, which is before the Senate. So thank you for taking the time to cut and paste out of our bill. Therefore, I do not have anything seriously critical to say about it. The bill seeks to protect workers, and I will just fill you in on the nature of Senator Roberts's amendments, because he was too busy slagging off the CFMEU to do so. I will tell you what the One Nation amendments seek to do. They seek to protect workers in the fast food and retail industry. That is great. The Greens have been campaigning to look after the fast food and retail industry workers for a while, and we welcome One Nation's sudden interest in these issues.

Obviously, we will not be supporting the amendments, because blasting amendments through on the same day is really not how business is done in here. These are actually quite complex matters and people's lives and livelihoods are in the balance. We will be referring our bill on these issues, that One Nation have at the last minute cut and pasted from, to a Senate inquiry, and Senator Roberts is very welcome to show up, if he likes, to hear the evidence for and against these amendments. We will be proceeding with them in the way business is normally done in here. Obviously, One Nation senators are welcome to show up at that, but we will not be supporting the amendments in this place today or the rather odd way in which they have been welded on to a tremendously important bill.

As I said at the outset, the politics of the way this debate has been conducted and the contributions of the tories and indeed everybody else in this chamber has provided a rather miserable caricature of the state of the debate around the economy, the purpose of the economy and the way that we support and look after everyone in this country. We should look after them no matter how much they are earning or which private school they may not have been able to get into or their situation of employment.

I find it incredibly galling, revealing and illuminating that the same people who are arguing that Australia's lowest-paid workers deserve a pay cut and that it should not be the business of this parliament to put a floor under those pay and conditions are the same people who argue for the maintenance of capital gains tax so that they can continue amassing property portfolios. They are the same people who argue that negative gearing should stay in place so that they can just tuck away and capitalise their income in multiple property portfolios. They are the same people who argue that superannuation should basically be yet another tax shelter. They are the same people who are demanding tax cuts and actually got them last year for people in the highest tax brackets. They are the same people who later on tonight are going to be arguing for a $50 billion tax cut to corporations. It is a vicious, deliberate double standard in play, and the funny thing is that they only ever call it class warfare when we fight back. Call it what you will, but today we are fighting back, and when this bill is committed to a vote it is very likely to pass. Get used to it.

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