As previous speakers on this side of the chamber have stated, the Bracks government is serious about protecting Victorian workers and their families from WorkChoices wherever constitutionally possible. This bill will make it unlawful to discriminate against an employee who has raised his or her concerns about pay or conditions and it will enable workers to ask questions about their employment without fear. Those are the two things that I would like to talk about today — fear and fairness.
If we turn to the first concept, unfortunately fear is something I became closely acquainted with in the lead-up to the implementation of the WorkChoices legislation and have remained acquainted with since. I received many calls in the union office prior to the last state election in my capacity as state secretary of the Vehicle Builders Union. But it was not just me; the clerical staff, the organisers and the research staff were constantly on the phone taking calls from ordinary workers who were really worried about their situation.
They were scared to ask about basic things in their workplace, such as how much they should be getting paid and what their entitlements were. Members might think that this is all a bit ridiculous, but I can assure them it is not, because as I live and breathe, it is out there.
Unfortunately the type of society that has been created by that legislation is one in which ordinary men and women cannot sit down at the tea table, look their kids in the eye and say to them, ‘We will have jobs this year and next year, and there will continue to be tea on this table’. We have lost that — and we will not get it back as long as that legislation is in place.
What would happen with those phone calls to the union office was that it would take a long time to build up trust and rapport with the people who would ring in. You did not know anything about them and you would have to talk to them more and more until they felt comfortable with having a face-to-face meeting. Those face-to-face meetings often happened in places like car parks and often at night. They took place at McDonald’s, at the back of meeting rooms and in sporting clubs and hotels. This is the sort of secret society based on fear that people in this country are now living in.
Whilst no legislation can force people to genuinely communicate, what we have now is federal legislation that engenders a my-way-or-the-highway approach and leaves very little room whatsoever for families, particularly families in rural areas. Such families do not have too many choices because for them choosing the highway means having to go and find a job in another town up the road. They have to find another school, another house and do everything else, and that places enormous emotional and financial stress on families. I cannot fathom why there is opposition to the amendment in this bill. It might be a situation where people are trying to hide behind technicalities or are coming up with some hypothetical scenario so that they cannot be seen to be giving up on their mates in Canberra. I do not know. Maybe it is just that people on that side of the chamber are completely out of touch. All I can say to them is: you have really got to get out more. Because I do not know one person who either has not been personally affected by the federal legislation or does not know someone very close to them who has been negatively affected by it.
The Australian public deserves something much better than the cosmetic changes that keep on coming up from those in Canberra. Trickery and underestimating the intelligence of the public unfortunately seem to be the name of the game. Surely as a group of mature adults, people should be sitting back, reflecting, listening to others and saying, ‘Maybe we have got it wrong. Let us just admit that we have got it wrong on WorkChoices’ and starting to rectify the situation instead of making name changes or coming up with some other brain twisters that are now called ‘fairness tests’.
I would like to bring the chamber into my confidence: we actually tested out the new fairness tests early this week. People at the union that I am a member of, the vehicle builders union, tested the system. They rang the help line. Unfortunately they did not get too much help, but I think it is worth taking the chamber through the course of events. They asked a number of questions. Leading on from Ms Pennicuik’s contribution earlier in this debate, one of the questions was, ‘My boss is giving me an Australian workplace agreement that cancels my penalty rates. I am not getting any more money, but the boss is going to asphalt the car park in exchange. Can he do that?’. The answer from the hotline was, ‘To give up protected conditions, monetary or non-monetary, compensation must be given’. The caller asked, ‘So, is that fair?’. The hotline operator said, ‘If monetary or non-monetary compensation is provided’. The caller then asked, ‘What if I start riding my bike and don’t use the car park?’. The operator said, ‘Well, I’m not sure’.
The next question was, ‘Does that mean it’s fair? Do you have a definition for fairness?’. The operator said, ‘No. It’s all very new’. Our person said, ‘How do I know what’s fair if the government doesn’t know what is fair?’. The operator said, ‘Well, it’s all a bit hard’. The caller said, ‘It’s not fair on you either, is it?’. And the operator said, ‘No, it’s not’. The caller was then forced to ask another question. That question was, ‘So if my boss gives me a plastic, one-eyed spaghetti monster and says that it is of non-monetary value, could that be fair?’. The answer was, ‘I suppose. I would have to speak to my supervisor. I’m not sure here, I’m not sure I could give you the correct advice’.
So nothing has changed. WorkChoices might have a new name but it is still the law and it is still unfair — and the federal government has not figured out even in the last week what is fair.
All I can say about the issues before us is that there is no argument whatsoever, given the experiences and the opportunities I have had, for not just talking with workers and their families about what is happening to them in their day-to-day lives. There is no other option but to support the amendments in the bill.
I have to say that being newly elected to this chamber, I have been surprised by the fact that the fairly constant comments from members on the other side of the chamber tend to be quite anti-union. As recently as just before lunch today the implication was they are anti-shop steward — and indeed, I think, anti-worker — because I have not heard one comment that leads me to believe they accept that people are living with issues in their workplaces and their homes as a result of the legislation.
Where I come from we respect the right of employers to have employer organisations such as the Australian Industry Group, Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a plethora of other organisations. We might not like their positions on many things, but we acknowledge that they are legitimate institutions speaking on behalf of their members. Why is it so difficult for those on the other side of the chamber to acknowledge that the members of many Australian working families are also members of unions? Their voices should and must be heard without the ranting interjections of individuals who still believe that we are in the cold war and that unionists have got some pro-Peking or pro-Moscow line. Members opposite should stop looking under their beds for ghosts. They should go out and have a conversation with real people. They should not denigrate what they do not know about, and they should understand the needs of people who deserve to be protected in the workplace. Those people will be protected as result of this amendment.