Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill

"Fair workplace relations should be a priority for the parliament to act on with the urgency that it deserves. This is why we are here. We are a government with an ambitious agenda to transform Australia into a fairer and more sustainable country. The drive for greater fairness is woven into the fabric of our government."

Address to the House of Representatives, Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

I'm pleased to rise to speak in support of this important bill, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022. This bill is why I am here. In my first speech I made it clear that fair workplace relations are at the heart of a healthy social democracy.

Fair workplace relations should be a priority for the parliament to act on with the urgency that it deserves. This is why we are here. We are a government with an ambitious agenda to transform Australia into a fairer and more sustainable country. The drive for greater fairness is woven into the fabric of our government. You can see this right across our legislative program. You can see this right here in this bill. This bill represents a choice for the nation—a choice to get wages moving and dismantle the architecture of deliberate wage suppression; a choice to close the gender pay gap and take long-overdue steps to put gender equity at the heart of our workplace laws; a choice to improve job security; a choice to retire organisations that were established with a political agenda to promote conflict; and a choice to choose fairness.

I come to this debate with real experience of industrial relations in this country. Before coming to this place I spent more than a decade representing working Australians across different jobs, employers and industries in both the public and the private sector. I've represented scientists, police officers, engineers, vets and pharmacists. Before that I spent a decade in government working on industrial relations policy and delivery. I've seen enterprise bargaining in action. Indeed, I've spent thousands of hours in bargaining negotiations—an explanation for the colour of my hair!

I have seen legitimate claims for wage rises, offered in good faith, stymied by red tape and systems that offered next to no path to agreement or effective, timely conciliation and/or arbitration. Over that time, I've seen a move away from secure forms of employment and the damage that that has created in the lives of too many of my constituents and their families. But this is not an experience that I can claim a monopoly over; many of my colleagues on this side have had a similar experience. I'm proud of this. It is an important strength of this government when it comes to industrial relations. We understand it because we have the lived experience of it.

The Leader of the Opposition, the member for Dickson, asked yesterday: how many members of the government have ever run a business? This line has been echoed by nearly every member of the opposition when they have gotten up to make a contribution. Well, I'd like to ask: how many of those opposite have ever worked to get a pay rise for Australian workers, whether that be through wage cases or enterprise bargaining? We know they didn't do it when in government. How many of those opposite are even aware of, or truly care about, the facts on the ground in enterprise bargaining in this country.

Let's look at some facts. Here is a fact: the approval of enterprise agreements is at an all-time low, leaving workers and employers in stasis. Here is another fact: it has never been easier to unilaterally cancel enterprise agreements, leaving Australian workers in limbo and mired in insecurity. And here is another fact: Australian wages have been stagnating for far too long, making life harder for every Australian and biting hard at the heart of the economy. These are indisputable facts that form part of the reality of industrial relations in this country. The reality is that our system is completely and utterly broken, and has been for some time. There is no balance in this system. There is no fairness. It works neither for employers nor for workers.

For the first time in a decade there is a plan on the table to fix this mess. Over the course of this debate we have heard much scaremongering from those opposite. Instead of engaging with the substance of what is on the table here and recognising that within this bill there is part of a pathway to higher wages and fairer working conditions for working Australians, those opposite have resorted to the only tactic they know: fear and division.

The previous government presided over a broken industrial relations system for nearly a decade. They had nearly a decade to do something—anything—to get wages moving for working Australians. But instead they actively made things worse by restricting the ability of working people to negotiate better wages and conditions, and now, when we put forward a plan to end the rot and bring positive change, those opposite are unable to muster any positive contribution. I don't think we need to hear more cheap attempts at a history lesson from the HR Nicholls textbook, although I think it's worth saying that the deliberate absence of conversation around the decade of cooperative industrial relations in the eighties is telling. I say to those opposite: get out of the way and let us get on with bringing fairness back to industrial relations.

This bill should come as no surprise to anyone in this chamber. We on the side have been talking about these problems for years. During the election we made no secret of the fact that we would tackle the crisis with enterprise bargaining and industrial relations if we won the election. We convened the Jobs and Skills Summit here at Parliament House to discuss these issues with unions and employers. That summit was the culmination of a series of smaller summits that were held right across Australia to discuss the challenges and to debate the solutions. Indeed, the federal member for Fenner and I convened a local summit here too, in the Main Committee Room, bringing employers, unions and civil society together.

We have been clear and transparent, and the fact that this debate is unfolding in the way that it is demonstrates a commitment to a more transparent and collaborative process of lawmaking—a process that will continue. It will continue because what is before us is too important and we cannot allow it to get lost in the miasma of some of the contributions that have been on offer.

At its heart, enterprise bargaining, done well, has the potential to lift wages, boost productivity and improve flexibility. Reforms will remove unnecessary limitations from the existing framework. Multi-employer bargaining is already contemplated by the act through three streams. The problem is it isn't working. We're not creating new streams of bargaining; we are varying the existing streams to make them work and to get wages moving. The prohibition already in the act on pattern bargaining will remain.

These changes are critical to help tackle the gender pay gap and promote greater harmony and collaboration between workers and employers. It's a far superior model to the award system. Enterprise bargaining as it stands is not widely available to feminised workforces or to small and medium sized businesses. Where enterprise bargaining is available, workers have few options to secure an above-inflation pay rise with unreachable access to arbitration, employers can't rely on greater productivity or flexibility and the entire experience leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of all involved.

Collective bargaining done right can transform our economy, but left to rot it causes so much damage. Those opposite don't seem to think so. They don't see a problem here. They are beholden to a master-servant conception of the workplace, and that fact should give all of us pause for thought. But despite what they think over there, bargaining is in disrepair. It's holding back wages, productivity and flexibility. It is holding the Australian economy back.

But there is a core principle at stake here, a principle that has been left to wither and rot. It is an indispensable principle that must be rescued and re-established. It is the most Australian of all principles—fairness. That is what's at stake here. Forget the scaremongering, the hand-wringing, the complaints. All this boils down to is bringing fairness back to both workers and employers. We will never have fairness until we fix this broken system. This is why we are here. This is a commitment we made to working families around our nation. I commend the bill to the House.