Bill's Speeches

LAUNCH OF THE JOHN CURTIN RESEARCH CENTRE - MELBOURNE - WEDNESDAY, 25 JANUARY 2017

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I want to start by echoing Henry’s words about the horrific tragedy that occurred last Friday just around the corner from here in Bourke Street Mall. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families, we stand with them in their grief.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to elders past and present.

It’s a genuine pleasure to be here among so many friends and luminaries, to launch the John Curtin Research Centre.

John Curtin was a truly remarkable person – at a truly remarkable time. An unprecedented man – in a moment of unprecedented pressure.

In the wake of Pearl Harbour – John Curtin didn’t wait on word from the mother country. He declared war on Japan.

In our nation’s darkest hour – he said we would be Australia, we would speak for ourselves.

And he urged his people to give their every effort in the ‘Battle for Australia’ to ‘work or fight as we have never worked or fought before’.

This remarkable man left another powerful legacy.

He was determined – always – for Labor to be a party of government.

And to govern in its own right.

Don’t discount the difficulty of that task.

Leading a party that – apart from 3 years during the Depression - had spent 20 years in the political wilderness.

And winning the support of Australians, to serve as their government in the very hardest of times.

People can debate if Curtin was Labor’s greatest leader. Or Australia’s greatest Prime Minister.

But he remains revered – and relevant – above all because he was the leader who showed Australians that Labor is better in hard times.

This humble person.

Self-taught, imperfect, scarred by time, burdened by toil, reached deep within himself to achieve true greatness.

Resolute, defiant, magnificent.

“The world breaks everyone.”

Hemingway said.

“And afterwards, many are strong at the broken places”.

That was John Curtin.

He beat the drink and battled depression, he healed his party and united a nation.

And it’s the Labor story too.

Strong in the broken places.

A party prepared to learn, to change, to moderate and modernise.

A party of government – not protest.

And a party that has always had the courage to remake itself, to raise its sights.

Friends

We honour our legends, the giants of our movement.

But we stand on their shoulders – not in their shadow.

We are not the prisoners of our past, or hostages to our history.

As Gough Whitlam used to say, the true measure of a patriot is someone who loves their country enough to change it.

That’s our duty too.

Because the best way to honour the Labor tradition is to keep it relevant.

To modernise, to adapt, to enlarge.

Serving the labour movement has always demanded more from us than nostalgia. More than reverentially polishing the silverware of past glories.

It’s about injecting new ideas, adopting new causes, writing new chapters in the Labor story.

Broadening and enlarging the definition of fairness to include more Australians in the opportunities and progress of this nation.

That’s true for jobs, for Medicare, for education – and for workplace relations.

And – just as John Curtin and Ben Chifley worked alongside each other to win the war and build a prosperous peace – I hope the Curtin and Chifley Research Centres can enhance each other’s contribution to our national debate.

Friends

One hundred years ago the new Australian federation was already known internationally as a ‘social laboratory’ – home to radical experiments like:

-       The 8 hour day

-       A fair pension

-       A decent minimum wage

-       And compensation for injuries at work

The Labor party of those times, won those fights and led those reforms. 

Just as the Labor Party of Hawke and Keating delivered universal superannuation and enterprise bargaining.

Modernising the negotiating powers of Australian employees and creating a national savings scheme built on a simple, powerful promise: if you work hard all your life, you shouldn’t retire poor.

All those achievements are ours to defend – and build upon.

For you and me, for our Labor generation, there are new battles to fight, new causes to make our own.

In an age of insecure work, increasing casualisation and growing exploitation – it’s more important than ever for our movement to speak up for the rights of working and middle class Australians.

This means recognising the current plateau in our enterprise bargaining system.

Workers on enterprise agreements are paid 25 per cent more than workers on awards or the minimum wage, on average.

But despite the clear benefits of bargaining, we’re seeing a growing proportion of workers on minimum or award wages.

Acquiescence with no bargaining has become the new normal in too many workplaces.

And the good employers who bargain are undercut by employers who don’t bother.

Whole sectors, whole industries have chosen a wages pause – rather than renegotiate.

And too many important sectors for Australia’s future economic growth: from retail and tourism to hospitality are focused reducing wage costs – rather than boosting productivity.

We have also seen – in more recent times – a worrying phenomenon developing where enterprise agreements are being terminated by the Fair Work Commission.

This means workers are going from their negotiated pay and conditions back to the relevant award, which can result in very substantial pay cuts – as high as 65 per cent.

The ability of companies to use legal means to drastically cut the pay and conditions of workers seems increasingly prevalent and is of great concern for Labor.

That’s why we have established a Senate inquiry that will examine the intentional avoidance of industrial obligations by companies in order to cut workers’ pay and conditions.  

Through the inquiry, Labor will examine whether workplace laws are sufficiently capable of ensuring fairness and justice for Australian workers.

It’s our job to clean up the workplace visa system, to prevent dodgy employers exploiting overseas workers, to undercut Australian wages.

We’ve all heard the stories of massive underpayment at Pizza Hut. 

We’ve seen that shocking footage of a 7-11 worker being walked to the store ATM and made to withdraw cash, handing back their pay.

Massive multinational companies – engaging in industrial-scale rip-offs.

I’m determined for Labor to end these criminal practices, tighten up the work visa system - and put local workers first.

It’s our job to put a stop to the widespread exploitation in Labour Hire firms.

How can it be, in modern Australia, that meatworkers are put on for 19-hour shifts, for far less than the minimum wage?

How can our system allow workers to go months without pay – to the point where some people were owed more than $45,000 by their employer?

And how can employers who do the right thing, compete with the scandalously low costs of these immoral practices?

At the last election, we committed to a universal licensing scheme – to restore Australian wages and conditions, and to put these shonky operators out of business.

Friends

It’s our job to drive real action to reduce serious injuries and fatalities at work – especially those caused by asbestos, on which this government continues to shamefully drag its feet.

And it’s our job to make Family Violence leave part of the National Employment Standards.

Escaping a violent home is already an isolating, impoverishing ordeal. 

There is more than enough stress – without adding the stress of missing work.

There is more than enough fear – without adding the fear of losing your job.

The Liberals talk about the cost of delivering this change.

Let me make it clear, I don’t see the courageous working women who survive family violence as a cost to the economy.

If you want to talk about ‘cost’ - count the childhoods fractured by fear, count the brilliant women broken by cowards and bullies, count the lives lost. 

Supporting working women affected by family violence is not just a test of our commitment to fairness, it’s a test of our decency as a society – and this is Labor’s argument to win.

And friends, it’s our job to stand strong for penalty rates – and the people who rely upon them to make ends meet.

Tomorrow, most Australians will be enjoying a public holiday.

Spending time with family and friends – a picnic in the park, a day relaxing on the beach or around the barbecue, tennis and cricket on TV, the Hottest 100 on radio.

Aussies will be glad to have the day off – but they’ll still expect to be able to grab a coffee in the morning.

They’ll still expect to be able to pop down the supermarket for all the things they promised to get the day before – and forgot.

Cricket fans in Adelaide and tennis lovers in Melbourne will still expect to be able to get to the ground, to buy food and drink in there, to be safe in the stadium and get home safely – and for someone to clean the place up at the end.

None of us expect the nation to come to a stop tomorrow.

But that’s only because there is an army of working people, a group of modest heroes, giving up time with their family, to keep Australia moving.

Labor has always known this.

We understand penalty rates are not a luxury.

They’re what working families count on to put food on the table – and petrol in the tank.

That’s why, when I was the Minister for Workplace Relations, Labor changed the modern awards objective so that the Fair Work Commission had to recognize the sacrifice of working “unsocial, irregular or unpredictable hours, and on weekends or public holidays” when setting awards.

Yet now, when inequality is at a 75-year high and wages growth is the lowest on record. When more and more Australians are living paycheck to paycheck and the cost of essentials keeps rising.

With this perfect storm of financial pressures facing Australian families the Turnbull Government has done nothing to protect penalty rates.

In fact – more than 60 members of the government, from Malcolm Turnbull down, are on the record arguing that penalty rates should be cut - or abolished altogether.

It’s perhaps the one thing left that unites the Liberal Party – their determination to cut the pay of ordinary people.

And why? Because they see it as a cost, an impost.

Have a listen to what Malcolm Turnbull said in the parliament when he voted for WorkChoices: (I won’t do the voice)

“You have to let the free market do its work.

And let the cost of settling the clearing price – be it for labour, shares, home units or loaves of bread – be as low as possible.”

That might be the view from Point Piper – but it’s not the real world.

No-one who knows anything about the lives of ordinary Australians would compare a workers’ wage to a loaf of bread.

Cutting penalty rates is more than unfair – it’s unAustralian.

The Fair Work Commission has an important decision to make next month, on penalty rates for several sectors.

Obviously, we haven’t seen the decision. But way back in March last year, Labor took the unprecedented step of lodging a submission to the case, arguing against any cut to penalty rates.

No one involved in the creation of the enterprise bargaining system: not Bob Hawke, not Paul Keating, no-one, would have anticipated it being used as a means to cut the wages of some of our lowest paid – and we don’t expect it to start now. 

And whatever the outcome, legislating the level of penalty rates, or imposing specific conditions is not the answer.

If we start directly legislating penalty rates we will rapidly end up legislating all of the terms of all of the awards.

This would be completely impractical.

It would set in place new and highly political rigidity in workplace relations, remove incentives to bargain, and constrain economic flexibility.

This is the stupidity that the Greens wish to pursue.

The truth of the matter is that putting penalty rates under direct the control of the parliament means loading the gun – for the next conservative government to pull the trigger.

Australia has had an independent umpire manage these issues for well over a century, with a demonstrated capacity to adjust to the prevailing economic times.

The independent umpire determines workplace rights and entitlements according to the rules set by the Parliament.

This is as it should be.

The Fair Work Commission is vitally important to the resolution of disputes in Australian workplaces.

The Fair Work Commission is an important institution to protect  - and we deplore the attacks on the Commission that are being made by the likes of Abbott, Abetz and unhappy former members.

We understand the Commission and their predecessors have made good and bad decisions in the past.

For example, they deferred superannuation increases in the 1980s - which drove Keating and Kelty to seek other solutions.

And Labor reserves the right not to support a decision which disadvantages Australian workers.

Labor would not seek to legislate penalty rates, but if necessary, we would consider changing the rules which guide the exercise of the Commission’s discretion.

If the Commission were to cut penalty rates for hundreds of thousands of already low-paid workers without sufficient compensation - leaving people worse off, Labor would not accept this.

We believe that if the rules allow the independent umpire to cut the safety net, leaving hundreds of thousands of low-paid Australians with less in their paypacket – then the rules need fixing.

If the Fair Work Commission backs a cut to weekend rates, Labor will act to ensure modern awards are a safety net Australian workers can continue to rely on.

And, friends, if we’re going to win this argument, if we’re going to defend those Australians who we count on in a hundred different ways to keep our economy ticking over.

Then we will need your help, your research, your advocacy.

Facts that speak to people’s daily lives, that prove the value of their rights at work.

Of course, our opponents will always have deep pockets – and powerful platforms.

But there’s one vital area where we have the advantage.

The vested interests who oppose penalty rates are putting themselves on the wrong side of the Australian character.

They’re setting themselves against the fair go, against the idea that we’re in this together, against the notion that people who make sacrifices for the rest of us, deserve a decent reward.

They are running against an essential economic reality: because we all have a stake in an enterprise system that sees employees and employers come to agreements, driving productivity, lifting both wages and profits.

And instead, the people waging war against penalty rates are lining up with an alien concept, a foreign idea.

An Australia of dog-eat-dog and the law of the jungle.

This is not the country John Curtin knew, it’s not the Australia Labor built – and it’s not a future we will accept for the nation we love.

We are different to that – we are better than that.

With your help, with your passion, your energy and intellect on our side.

We can win more than the next argument.

We can win the next election.

ENDS  


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