PER CAPITA OPENING ADDRESS: PROGRESSIVE ECONOMICS PROGRAM

14 Nov 2017


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
Scott Morrison says there are “better days ahead” - the problem is no one believes him when he says this.
 
I noticed last month, when he released the Productivity Commission report, Mr Morrison started echoing Labor’s rhetoric about inclusive growth.
 
However this doesn’t work if you don’t mean it and your policies don’t reflect it.
 
Giving tax cuts to millionaires and multinationals and tax increases to low and middle income earners is not the path to inclusive growth. This government believes it is. They are deluded.
 
Labor’s  belief in inclusive growth is backed by the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD – the belief that reducing inequality improves economic growth for longer periods.
 
The Turnbull led government’s blind faith in trickle down economics -  the ideological belief that an economy grows more effectively on a narrow base of the highly skilled and the privileged class, whose increased wealth somehow automatically and magically trickles down to everyone else -  is patently wrong.

It bears pausing for a moment to consider that Malcolm Turnbull is prosecuting the repudiated policies of Ronald Regan.  The very trickle down policies that led to a hollowing out of the US middle class, to wage stagnation and disastrous inequality.
That’s the Turnbull government’s response to Australia’s stagnant wages.
Our economy is strongest when it is powered by a skilled, capable and confident working and middle class – our economy is strongest when our society is more equal.
 
I’ve done a series of speeches recently to the Sydney Institute and the National Press Club about inequality and the labour market. Labor has been exploring the issues you will be discussing today and leading the debate about what policies and labour market reforms are needed to stem the flow of insecure work, rising underemployment, low wages growth, and technological disruption.
 
Compare this for a moment with the Turnbull Government. I know many of us get stuck on  WorkChoices as the worst attack on workers’ rights. But honestly, this government takes the cake – they are the most virulent anti worker, anti-union government this country has ever seen.
 
They don’t only want to strip workers of their rights, they want to destroy the institutions responsible for upholding workers’ rights – unions.
 
We tried to warn Senator Nick Xenophon and the cross bench when they passed the ABCC and Registered Organisations Commission bill that this was a purely political move and this is only the beginning of further attacks on unions and workers. Whilst he didn’t believe it at the time, the fact that a fortnight ago it was revealed that Michaelia Cash’s office tipped off the media about the AFP raids on the AWU is proof this government is pursuing nothing more than a witch hunt against its political opponents.
 
We are only at the beginning of pursuing this matter and the fact the Minister misled the Senate five times about her office’s involvement in tipping off the media. Later in the year we will have another estimates hearing where we will continue to question what the Minister and the ROC knew and when (that is if the Minister decides to show). The fact that the person giving media advice to the ROC was about to take up a job in the Minister’s office, but since the raids has decided not to is just one example of the politicisation of these supposedly independent bodies.
 
Putting aside the blatant union bashing from this anti worker government – what is more concerning is that there is absolutely no attempt to try and attend to some of the inequality we are seeing in the labour market. Much less than a solution, there isn’t even a conversation about these issues.
That is why Labor is wasting no time and is addressing these issues now.
 
We are seeing  the tilt in bargaining power swinging too far away from workers and toward employers, which is have a serious effect of the decline of union density. 
 
Despite calls from the Reserve Bank Governor and the Treasurer for workers to just ask for a wage increase, it is really important to acknowledge how hard it is for the average worker – whose livelihood depends on their job - to simply ask for a wage rise. 
 
Particularly for those workers in industries and workplaces where unionism is almost negligible.   Or where there is no collective agreement.
 
In today’s institutional environment, it is absurd to assume low-wage workers, in insecure jobs, can just go to their boss and ask for a pay rise.
 
For the past four years, we’ve seen this Government launch a relentless attack on working people and their representatives.
 
We’ve seen wage growth stall and penalty rates slashed.
 
And we’ve seen this Government actively foster a shifting balance of power in industrial relations, which has emboldened too many employers to avoid their workplace obligations. 
 
Labor has been canvassing these issues for some time. We took a number of policies to the 2016 election and have continued to develop policies since, including:

- Reforming the definition of “casual” work, so that it is used for the purposes for which it was originally intended.
- Increase penalties for employers who systematically underpay workers,
- Make companies responsible for business practices which rely on underpaying workers, and
- Ensure that Australian and temporary overseas workers are not being exploited.
- Making it harder for employers to push their workers into sham contracting arrangements to avoid direct employment of workers, which denies  workers employer contributions to superannuation, sick leave, holiday pay and all the other entitlements while making them pay for their own workers compensation insurance.
- Requiring all company directors to obtain a unique Director Identification Number and increasing penalties associated with phoenix activity, where employers liquidate their companies in order to avoid paying the money they owe their workers.
- Introducing a national licensing scheme to regulate the use of labour hire companies, where labour hire companies which consistently undermine award or agreed terms and conditions would be de-registered, and employers no longer able to use them.
- Restoring penalty rates in awards and legislating so that they can never be cut again.
- Removing the ability of employers to simply terminate enterprise agreements with ease in the Fair Work Commission (like what happened with Aurizon), thereby preventing the nuclear option of the loss of all the provisions of the existing enterprise agreements and bargaining power to employees.  
- Putting an end to all remaining zombie WorkChoices agreements.
 
Labor is up for addressing the challenges presented by changes to the labour market. 
Gaming the system is another growing issue - companies reducing pay and conditions by using subsidiaries or contractors who impose enterprise agreements upon a workforce who had no say in them. Labor will legislate to make clear that the workers who vote on an agreement must be representative of the workers who may ultimately be covered by the agreement.
Labor will also change the law so that workers and their unions can apply to the Fair Work Commission to re-negotiate sham enterprise agreements.
The common theme to each of Labor’s policies is clear – enhancing the lives and opportunities for working people, and making sure that the labour market delivers for the economy and for society. 
We know more must be done, for example, to reduce the gender pay gap, to make industrial relations more user friendly for small business, to make it adaptable to changes we are seeing in today’s labour market and the to the changes that are coming,  to bring intractable disputes and negotiations to an end, to make the Fair Work Commission easier to access, to create job pathways for people with disabilities, to tackle discrimination of older workers so they stay in the workforce, and to help younger people to enter it in the first place.
The common theme to each of Labor’s policies is clear – enhancing the lives and opportunities for working people, and making sure that the labour market delivers for the economy and for society. 

This is an essential part of Australia’s inequality story and Labor’s agenda to tackle it.

In order to succeed in this task, we must bring all parties together – workers, employers and unions – to consider how we might reform workplace laws to deliver better outcomes in this ever changing labour market.

Is enterprise bargaining working for low paid workers? 

In what ways can we strengthen the bargaining power of workers in precarious jobs?

How do we make the Fair Work Act more user friendly for small business?

Is the Fair Work Act adequately providing for the rights of workers, including sufficient rights to be represented?

Are the awards an adequate safety net?

Does the Fair Work Commission have sufficient powers to step in when parties are not bargaining in good faith? 

Is it too hard for the average person to have a dispute about their pay and conditions resolved by fair work institutions?

We must put serious thought into how we achieve both flexibility and security in a way which works for our economy and for our people. 

There is no one answer, or one solution.  But, whatever the solution or solutions might be, two things are clear – it must be collective, and it must redress the imbalance in bargaining power. 

I am also acutely aware that a central plank in addressing inequality is ensuring that our industrial relations system is not only adaptable to the changes we see in today’s labour market; but also to the changes that are coming.
Around the world, governments and oppositions alike know that future of work challenges are coming – report after report has told us so. 
The Liberal government simply refuses to acknowledge the challenges of insecurity, inequality and social immobility flowing from automation and technological change.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that all great leaders have had one common characteristic – the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.
As I travel around the country talking to workers, there are few issues about which they are more anxious.  For themselves and for their children.
Labor will move to establish a Senate Inquiry into the Future of Work, and just as importantly, the Future of Workers.  This inquiry will consider the implications of new technologies, social trends and policy choices affecting the regulation of work, and will make practical recommendations to address the most pressing challenges and opportunities these present to our labour market and system of workplace laws.
We have to create the future we want, not drift into a future we will regret.
As I’ve said before inequality is not the price of economic progress, it is an impediment.
When working fairly, collective bargaining generates productive outcomes for businesses and delivers better wages and conditions for workers, whether or not they are union members.   
And the economy benefits through more cooperative and innovative workplaces and more committed and respected workers.
When we stand up for working people and their communities, and when we listen to business concerns, we stand up for a fairer, more equitable, more inclusive Australia – and a more prosperous one.



We'll Put People First.