Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023

Monday, 11 September 2023

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (17:58): It's a sad day to have to rise and oppose this radical legislation the government is proposing in relation to industrial relations. We see a government for the first time, I think in many decades, deliberately attempting to undermine the industrial relations framework, the compact between employer and employee in Australia, by falsely naming this bill the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023 when, in the consultation the government has been speaking about for the last year, every industry and business sector in country without exception said to the government that these are not loopholes. This is a falsely named bill. This is a bill that is empowering unions only, and it's deliberately designed to do so.

When we look through the schedules of this bill and the explanatory memorandum of 500 pages, we learn even more about what the minister and the government are proposing, and it is perhaps the single greatest anti-productivity industrial relations bill in our nation's history. It is the word that cannot be mentioned by the Labor Party, productivity, and while they talk about pushing up wages, wages have to come with productivity or they are simply cost increases for consumers. That's what we're seeing in our economy, and that's what we see with this legislation before us.

There will be an increase in the cost of labour without even a thought about the anti-productivity measures that are contained within this bill. I'm only going to go through a few of them because I only have 15 minutes. The rush from this government to bring in this legislation without consultation and without proper consideration is another sign from the minister that he is not serious about enhancing productivity and lifting wages and increasing the prosperity of our economy. When you think about the economic climate that we're in, with the inflation crisis that the government speaks of every day, how is it timely to increase the cost of labour across the board, reduce productivity substantially from its already low base and have a complete breakdown in the regulatory framework between employer and employee in many critical sectors of the economy?

I'm going to go through just some of the things that this bill proposes to do. The trick, of course, with the minister—I'd ask any Australian to watch carefully what the minister does—is to see his demeanour and his attitude in this House. The minister has been exceptionally angry at the dispatch box for months, screaming. Who's he screaming at? There's nobody in here to scream at. He's talking about how 10-year criminal penalties will come in for everything and employers have got to be on notice. He's screaming about loopholes that are just not loopholes. He's not listening to any single person. Where is his anger coming from? We're talking about businesses that employ people. We're talking about the industrial relations framework of our country, and it's unseemly for a minister to be screaming at the dispatch box every single day, overcome by anger. But there is a source of that anger.

The source of that anger is the union movement, which has been frustrated for many decades now that it is not the dominant part of our labour compact in Australia. It is a diminishing market in the private sector. The strongest part of the union movement is in the public sector. They resent the fact that we have more employment in our economy than ever before that is not unionised. They resent the fact that people don't choose to join a union anymore. This minister and this bill are anti the future of our workforce and workplace in the sectors that have been innovative and creative.

The only sector that has broken off the shackles of a pretty difficult industrial relations system in Australia is the gig economy. Why would a minister for employment be so anti the gig economy? Why would a minister for employment describe the gig economy as a cancer when he was in opposition? The answer is because it can't be unionised and because it's a new form of work which is competing with the current employment system. It's a good form of work. Let's be overwhelmingly clear that the gig economy has provided the opportunity for more people to access more work on their terms than ever before because people can work when they want. They can work for the rate they want. They can choose to come in and come out of the workforce without having to comply with difficult and not suitable arrangements, and they do that by choice.

It's led to a revolution in employment in Australia. It means that, through the pandemic when the government had to shut down society for emergency reasons, we were able to survive because we had this gig economy, whereas, in the past, it would have been a very difficult endeavour. Workers are choosing to work in the gig economy as a second job because our cost of living is so high and because getting a house is priced out of people's reach. People need to access new and different forms of labour. They're not looking for a long-term work contract. They're not looking for conditions with holidays and all those other benefits. The minister is so keen on making one type of employment the only type of employment you're allowed to have, and, if it doesn't suit his needs, it's a loophole; if it doesn't suit his union mates and his union mates' requirements of union membership, then it's somehow illegal.

The gig economy is providing younger people and people from different backgrounds and poorer backgrounds with opportunities to work in ways they want to work, when they want to work, and to innovate in terms of their own employment. The trick here is that the minister is so anti such an innovation in our workforce and the fact that it is providing millions of people with the hours they want, when they want them and at the rates they want and that they're doing very well out of it. He acts like this is the Middle Ages or it's indentured labour. Nothing could be further from the truth. He knows the truth is that people are choosing to do this work because it's for their benefit and because they get the rate of pay that they're seeking and they get to work when they want to work. He understands that, but he acts like the gig economy is somehow engaging in slave labour. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet he stands at that dispatch box screaming at this House as if people are doing the wrong thing with an innovation in the employment market.

There is a real sense here that the Labor Party is actually being the conservative party. They want to take our industrial relations framework back to the 19th and 18th centuries. They want to have the contest between capital and labour that Karl Marx spoke about. That's the kind of thing they want to have, when actually we're looking to the future now. We have new emerging forms of employment, labour and industrial relations that need new frameworks—frameworks that recognise productivity, frameworks that take the opportunity of these new innovations and don't try to shut them down or feel threatened by them because of power based erosion in the union movement but actually recognise that new generations want new and different ways of working and that they should be available for people in new and different contracts. That's the truth of what the Labor Party's objection to the gig economy is. That's the truth, and don't let this government tell any young person in this country that they want you to have rights or to have a minimum standard. That is the moral blackmail in the rhetoric that is the foil behind them being threatened by the fact they cannot unionise these new forms of employment and they cannot gain power from them.

That's the truth behind this bill. It is a poor truth, and it is something that the government should be ashamed to put their name to because gig platforms mean people can create their own businesses faster, can do their own types of work faster and can provide their own benefits and set their own terms and conditions. They're doing it without the need for the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to be involved. They don't need the government to be involved in this part. We have a huge industrial relations framework in this country that provides all the minimum protections. We are one of the most regulated industrial markets in the world. We are the highest wage jurisdiction in the world, and yet the government says they want to artificially put up the prices. That's the reason in this legislation when we see the attached costs at $9 billion in the government's own costings. I don't believe that's correct, and industry is telling us that these costs are conservative because they don't model the changes to independent contractors and other forms of work that the government is proposing in the bill. About the $9 billion in extra wages, the minister has said, 'Well, look, that's only a tiny fraction of the wages in the whole economy.'

This is at a time when we're in a cost-of-living crisis. This is at a time when we have zero productivity growth, although productivity has been the major challenge in our economy for decades. We are not getting any productivity growth, so any increase in the wages bill, especially the $9 billion—and it is a very conservative figure, in anybody's language—is going to pass on costs directly to the consumer. Every good and every service will be more expensive. The cost of living will be more expensive. The inflation crisis will be added to in a very high-cost jurisdiction like Australia. We have very high costs, and we have very high standards. The government is pursuing our increased wage agenda artificially with no conversation about productivity. You couldn't think of a worse thing to do at a worse time for the country's economy and for our future productivity and employment requirements.

Then you factor in the changes to other things that they describe as loopholes, like the casual arrangement that they have been going on about for a long time, first in opposition and now in government. They're threatened by the casual workforce. They have been trying to claim for years that the casualisation rate has increased, but the fact came out before the election, which was very inconvenient for the minister and this Labor Party, that the rate of casualise has maintained a stability. Over 30 years we have had about the same rate of casualisation in the economy, so they dropped that argument. To be fair to them, they're not mentioning it in this debate, but they are still fighting a war against the use of casuals. Why has the use of casuals in the economy come up in recent times? It is because every other avenue through the fair work system of employers and employees working things out has been narrowed down into less and less flexible structures, which means people have to use more casuals.

Casuals are a good thing for the people who take them on. They want to be casuals. That's the truth, and the minister has to acknowledge that. He says, 'I know most people won't take up these things, so there is no problem.' But why change it if it isn't a big problem? Why at six months should you factor in 11 factors—four sections and seven subsections in this legislation—for something that isn't a big problem for most of the workforce? People are going to benefit. They want to be casuals because they want higher rates of pay. The minister knows this, but he acts as if it is a major loophole. He knows it isn't a major loophole. He knows that a fraction of the problem here doesn't warrant the solution he has provided. Again, the agenda is very different.

Reducing the flexibility in our industrial relations systems by the use of casuals in so many sectors right now is going to do one thing—it is going to increase costs for business, which is going to increase costs for all consumers, which is going to have zero productivity benefits with only cost increases. And that's the theme that industry is pointing to across the board—big business organisations, small business organisations. The idea that small business is exempt from this is not accurate. The minister and the government might say it is, but of course small business is going to be impacted by many of the things here and many of the antiproductivity measures that are contained within this bill. Everybody uniformly has come to a view that this bill is going to be retrograde for business, retrograde for productivity, retrograde for the cost of living—and yet the government wanted to ram this through very quickly. Thankfully the Senate has agreed to delay this, and no agreement has yet been reached on the bill.

But I would say to the public: this is one of those issues where a government are using a set of fake arguments as a veneer for the true agenda of what they're trying to do in this bill. You have to look through some of the false claims they're making, such as that this is about safety. This bill is not about safety. Let's be very clear about that. Safety, of course, is an issue. Safety has to be addressed in many pieces of legislation. But the point of this bill, and the reason it's in front of us, has got nothing to do with safety. It is not going to achieve any safety improvements of any substantial benefit. That can be done through OH&S and other workplace relations matters, and it has been, over many, many years, and we have onerous regimes at federal and state level, as everyone in business knows. This is not a safety issue. The moral claims about why we're doing this bill are actually false.

The truth of this bill is that unions are under threat by modern workplaces, and they're unable to gain the cachet they need in the workplaces, and therefore the government, in a whole range of sectors, are going to smash through what they describe as loopholes but which are actually just the way the system has evolved—which is in most cases to the employee's benefit—and they're going to do that on behalf of the union movement. Some people might say that wouldn't matter. He says it's only a $9 billion cost, but actually the truth is that the cost could be two or three times that. It could be much higher when you factor in the changes to independent contractors. The government didn't even model the cost of the changes in many of the parts of this bill that they have put forward. That's why we have to have a close scrutiny of every single measure. They hadn't even modelled these costs, because they just don't care about independent contractors, even though the impact on independent contractors will be substantial under this bill.

Is the real cost going to be two times $9 billion or three times $9 billion? We simply don't know. But everybody agrees that $9 billion is not even a starting figure for the cost to business, without even a single excuse or skerrick of a reason that we're going to improve productivity. The government simply haven't even tried to make that argument, to be fair to them. They're not claiming any productivity improvements out of this bill. They know there are going to be none, and in fact there will be retrograde movement in productivity, which will therefore obviously make it more difficult and costly to employ people across the board.

It is an impossibly complex bill in front of us, and there is no time today to go through all of the different complexities and measures. The House has been given very little time to do so, and I've had very little time with it myself. This is only scratching the surface of the complexity that this bill represents. I support industry in what they're doing to expose the government's agenda, the real agenda that is hidden within this legislation. The minister, instead of shouting at this House, needs to come forward and talk with some reason about what he is up to and how this bill works, because everything that he points to as a loophole is not a loophole. The gig economy is not a loophole; casuals are not a loophole; independent contractors are not a loophole. None of these things are loopholes, and yet all of the measures in this bill tackle significant parts of the structure of our industrial relations framework, with immense cost and very little benefit—no benefit for employers, but no benefit for employees either.

It's a very sad day, because we haven't got the time today to go through all of the different things, but hopefully now, with the Australian people, the industry sectors will apply a lot of scrutiny to the provisions of this bill, because there is so much buried here in this legislation that the government is trying to get away with with this complex and unnecessary legislation. We would urge the government to simply drop this legislation. I just think that now is exactly the wrong time in the economic cycle to be artificially increasing wages through extreme measures against business, with no productivity gains. You couldn't get a worse time, for cost of living and inflation, to do this to the economy.