Enterprise Bargaining - Australian Public Service

In this speech on the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016, Terri talked about the failure of the Government to come to an agreement with the Australian Public Service on workplace conditions and pay.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (11:45): It was a very passionate speech from the member for Wannon—clearly not passionate enough to go the full time allotted to him to make the speech, but passionate nonetheless. The Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016 is another example of the Liberals turning their backs on the principles for political expediency, by seeking to restrict the matters about which parties can bargain. It is a bill that is breathtaking in its hypocrisy. This Liberal government is seeking to lecture others about workplace bargaining while at the same time they have been utterly incompetent at bargaining with their own workforce, the Australian Public Service. It is a bill that serves one useful purpose: to remind us that Australia needs to do better when it comes to collective bargaining in the public service.

This is just an example of the Liberals sacrificing their own principles for political expediency. If you want another example, we had a great one yesterday when the Prime Minister came into this chamber and tabled a bill that he himself did not believe in, which was a bill for a plebiscite for marriage equality. In that example there were so many Liberal principles that were sacrificed for political expediency. It is hard to know where to start, but a good place to start is the purported belief in civil rights and individual liberties, something that the Liberals claim is the core of liberalism, and yet despite claiming that to be the core of liberalism—which it really is—the Turnbull-Joyce government is working hard to do whatever it can to stop marriage equality, including by coming up with this plebiscite idea, which of course was invented by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The member for Cook has also claimed responsibility for that.

Mr Craig Kelly: On relevance—this bill is about the rural fire service. It has nothing to do with marriage equality. There are plenty of other opportunities for the member to debate that. She should restrict her comments to the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I take the member for Hughes's comments, but this is a broad-ranging subject and I give the call to the member for Griffith.

Ms BUTLER: I thank the honourable member for seeking to interrupt me because he is clearly so embarrassed by the fact that what I am saying is true—the Liberals sacrificing their own proclaimed principles in the name of political expediency. If you believe in individual liberties and freedoms and if you are not sure how this is relevant, then you might want to listen because I think it is pretty obvious. You do not take away individual liberties and freedoms and you certainly do not discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality, which is of course what the Liberals are seeking to do in their continued quest to at least delay if not obstruct marriage equality, and that is really what the plebiscite idea was invented for. That is why the Liberals came up with the idea: they did not want to see marriage equality pass. It is interesting that at the end of that six-hour party room meeting where marriage equality was debated and the plebiscite idea was first floated then Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that that would be the last term the Liberals would be bound in relation to marriage equality. In the next term—which we are of course now in—people would no longer be bound in relation to marriage equality. You would think that would have led to the delivery of a free vote on the floor of this parliament in relation to marriage equality, but, sadly, it has not, because the Liberals are pretty hypocritical when it comes to their proclaimed beliefs in individual freedoms, liberties and civil rights.

Another principle sacrificed for expediency was parliamentary democracy. In fact, one of the new members of this place stood up this week and cited in his first speech the belief in parliamentary democracy as one of the reasons why he is a Liberal. I believe in parliamentary democracy myself. It is one of the reasons why I think the plebiscite's radical departure from parliamentary democracy is something that we should really take a deep breath and consider before this parliament continues to pursue it in this place. It is a radical departure from parliamentary democracy tradition—it is not a conservative idea at all.

The final so-called dearly-held principle of the Liberals that has been sacrificed for political expediency in relation to the plebiscite is the purported claim to fiscal discipline. If anything makes a mockery of the claim to fiscal discipline, I do not know what could be better than the idea that we are going to set fire to $170 million just because some people in the Liberal Party do not think that people who have a sexuality different to theirs should be able to get married, which of course is exactly what they are seeing.

In the bill we are debating today, there is yet more sacrificing of this commitment that Liberals are supposed to have to individual liberty, in the name of political expediency and in the name of this highly-political piece of legislation. In fact, the principle that is being sacrificed is something that the Liberal tradition has so strongly believed in for such a long time, and that is the freedom of parties to a contract or to an agreement to agree on the terms of that agreement—the freedom to bargain and the freedom to agree without restriction by third parties. But what is actually happening in this bill? Of course, the whole effect of this bill is to restrict the nature of the bargain that can be struck between consenting parties. It is saying to parties: no matter what you want to agree on when it comes to reaching agreement with each other you cannot agree on this topic. You are prohibited from agreeing in relation to this particular topic. It is a throwback to the Work Choices era, when the then Prime Minister John Howard led a government that sought to—and was effective in legislating it—prescribe a set list of specific matters about which people could not bargain, at risk of being fined. That was what is in the Work Choices legislation—a long list of prohibited content for agreements. This is not only another attempt to try to ignore the fact that Liberals stand for freedom to contract and bargain. This is not only an attempt to ignore that very longstanding belief that there should not be an intervention by the state in agreements between parties; this is the second time in recent history—well, it is more than the second time, of course, but this is another example—when the Liberals have used the apparatus of the state to intervene in bargains that can be struck by seeking to prohibit terms that can be contained within those bargains. They cannot help it. Work Choices runs through the blood of every Liberal and National member in this place. They are addicted to seeking to use industrial relations legislation to serve their own political ends. That is what this government is doing with this legislation, and of course it is what it did with the Work Choices legislation.

That is a grave shame. You would think that after the 2007 election, the 2010 election and, for that matter, the 2016 election the government would have learned that continuous ideologically driven pursuit of your political opponents, particularly where that is inconsistent with the principles that you profess to hold dear, is not a very good idea, and trying to restrict the matters on which people can bargain is also not a very good idea, particularly when it is for political purposes or where it is excessive intervention by the state in bargains that are struck between parties.

But I also think that this bill really serves to emphasise the hypocrisy of this government in another way, and that is that it is seeking to lecture parties about bargaining when it has proven entirely incompetent at bargaining in its own right. Not only are the Prime Minister and his ministers at this point trying to bring forward this legislation that is really an attempt to lecture other people about how they can bargain, but they are doing so at a time when they are fundamentally failing to accomplish a basic function of government, and that is bargaining with the Australian Public Service in relation to its terms and conditions. This is the first government in 30 years that has been unable to settle public sector bargaining. It is an embarrassment. It is yet another example of how this Prime Minister and this government have plenty to say and talk a lot but are absolutely incompetent when it comes to actually executing. They cannot execute.

The Howard government, a government known for its ideological approach to industrial relations laws, was nonetheless able to progress and finalise bargaining with its own workforce. The Howard government could do it. Governments over many, many years have been able to resolve with their own workforce, the Australian Public Service, pay and conditions through bargaining and through industrial relations arrangements. But this government has been completely unable to do it.

In fact, bargaining for Australian Public Service workplace conditions and pay has been going on for 1,028 days. It is a disgrace. It is part of a wider attack on public services by this coalition government. The reason there are waits at Medicare and over a million phone calls that went unanswered at Centrelink is that this government is unable to lead a service provision framework. It is unable to reach any sort of arrangement with its own workforce. It is unable to deliver services. It is unable to execute, as I say.

When you think about the people that are affected by this, it is not just Minister Cash, who is obviously highly embarrassed by this. It is not just Prime Minister Turnbull, who at least should be highly embarrassed by this. The people who are really affected are normal people with mortgages, people who have families, school fees and bills to pay. They have been stuck in this bargaining deadlock for more than a thousand days, simply because they do not want to accept cuts to the rights and the conditions in their agreements.

This is not a situation of a few staff. It is not a handful of staff. Enterprise agreements covering approximately 165,000 staff across around 115 Commonwealth agencies expired on 30 June 2014. Approximately 70 per cent of APS staff in around 55 agencies have not yet made an agreement. That is about 115,000 workers, the overwhelming majority of them. They work in the Department of Human Services, in the Australian Taxation Office, in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and in Defence. Staff in these agencies have voted up to three times to reject the government's proposed agreements, and the last pay rise provided for by enterprise agreements for most of them was back in mid-2013. I remember mid-2013 very fondly. It is a long time ago. That is a long time, because of course what has been happening while they have not received a nominal increase in their pay is that inflation has been increasing, so of course the consequence for them is that in real terms they have received a pay cut in those 1,028 days.

Of course, there is also the question of conditions and the arrangements under which people work. A lot of people who are working in these jobs are low-paid people who earn around $50,000—in that vicinity—and they have families and family responsibilities. So it is not just about pay, although pay is important; it is also about conditions of work, because if you have young children—as you know very well, of course, Deputy Speaker Vasta; you have very beautiful young children—you have to be able to have some flexibility.

What is so frustrating about this is that a resolution to this dispute is actually being prevented by the government's own current workplace bargaining policy, which caps pay rises at two per cent per annum and obviously does not make any allowance for the gap since the last pay rise. When you work out and take into account that you have had this real pay cut over the 1,028 days, the offer is, in effect, around one per cent per annum, and people know that that is less than CPI. They know that this makes them worse off.

Probably just as distressingly, the government's policy mandates cuts to working conditions, like increases to working hours and reduced access to part-time work and workplace flexibility. So people know that this is going to make it harder for them to manage work and family obligations. These are competing obligations, and probably what is just as bad as that is that the centralised control over bargaining is such that departmental heads who are pragmatic and can see what needs to be done in order to land a deal so that they can stop the constant bargaining—which is, of course, in and of itself something that takes resources and time—do not have the flexibility. The department heads themselves lack the authority, and they cannot be in a position to put forward tables.

It has got to the point where the workforce is actually having to file good-faith bargaining applications against the government. It is a disgrace that that is having to happen. The government needs to sit down with its workforce and actually find a way to resolve these bargaining disputes, because they are a drag on the Public Service. I think that most people would agree that, whatever your views are about industrial relations, about the politics of industrial relations and about workforce issues, it is actually better for our country if the government is able to deliver stable workplace conditions for its workforce—for the 115,000 or so people for whom that is not yet a reality. But, of course, that takes a government that is able to be competent and to execute—and, unfortunately, that does not seem to have been the case. It is very, very rich, it is ill in the mouth, for the Prime Minister and ministers to lecture other Australians about bargaining when they have been unable to land bargains for their own workforce—the Australian public sector employees.

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