The Liberals Have Failed to Protect Penalty Rates - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

The Liberals Have Failed to Protect Penalty Rates

The Liberals have failed to act on penalty rates being cut. Labor has introduced a bill to protect and restore penalty rates.

I recently spoke on the Fair Work Amendment (Restoring Penalty Rates) Bill 2018.

You can read my full speech below.

What's happening in the Australian economy right now is pretty clear. We need to have more consumption, we need to have a situation where there's a stimulus in the economy, and one way to do that is to ensure that the wages of people whose marginal propensity to consume is pretty high are not cut. It is a no-brainer that the last thing we should be doing right now is cutting the wages of working Australians. It's pretty clearly the case also, when you look at the Wage Price Index—and, as you know, Deputy Speaker, it has been languishing, down at its lowest rates since we started keeping the Wage Price Index in 1997. All of these factors should make it blindingly obvious to this government that it is economic vandalism to allow the commission to be cutting wages at this time for some of the lowest-paid workers in the country. And the government has failed to do anything about this, despite the blindingly obvious nature of the problem that's before us. The government could step in and legislate to ensure that people's penalty rates are not cut. The government could step in and legislate to ensure that the commission does not reduce the take-home pay of working Australians. But the government has not only failed to do this, it is preventing the opposition from having a vote on doing these things, and I think that's deeply reckless.

The government is trying to blame the fact that this cut has happened on the commission. The fact is: of course the commission has an obligation to review awards—of course it does. If the commission doesn't review awards, awards become obsolete, because community standards and industry rates so far exceed the award that it is rendered useless for all except those who really want to completely underpay their workers. So you have to have reviews of awards, and those reviews of awards, of course, have to take into account more than just the base rate of pay; they should take into account penalty rates, allowances, working conditions—all of the things that go into an award. But that's not a reason to say that we should just wash our hands of the decisions that are made in respect of the review of awards when the commission makes a decision that is so obviously wrong for our nation, for our economy, and for the people who depend on those wages. We have the opportunity right now to say to the commission: 'Look, fair enough, you are reviewing awards; you're expected to do that under the legislation. But it is up to this parliament, the sovereign parliament of this nation, to ensure that the laws that are made here are for the peace, order and good governance of this country. That requires us to take a responsible approach to our economy and our society and to the people who live within them.' Once we have taken that approach, we can see quite clearly that there needs to be legislative change to ensure that the commission knows that it is not to be reducing take-home pay of working Australians, and that's what this bill does.

This is an opposition private member's bill. It's a private member's bill to introduce into the workplace relations legislation provisions that would preclude the commission reducing the take-home pay of working Australians. It's a very straightforward piece of legislation. It's only a couple of pages long, but it would introduce amendments to ensure that, in the process of reviewing awards, the commission does not reduce the take-home pay of Australians. Not only would it resolve the penalty rates problem that has been caused by the decision of the commission to reduce penalty rates, but it would be a method of preventing the commission making further decisions in the future that reduce the take home-pay of Australians.

It's pretty rare to see a commission make a decision to reduce the take-home pay of Australians. You will remember that under Work Choices, which of course the government would love to go back to, there was a minimum pay panel, and they increased the minimum wage every year except for 2009, I think. That was one of the years. Deputy Speaker, I'm sure you remember the controversy that surrounded the decision of that panel not to increase wages—which, for what it's worth, I thought was a pretty terrible decision, as we were just coming out of the global financial crisis. But to now be going a step further and have the commission reducing take-home pay—given the economic circumstances at the moment but also, of course, as a general proposition—should be, and is, even more controversial. That's why you're seeing no matter where you go—whether in the Longman by-election or the streets of my suburbs in the electorate of Griffith—you are seeing people raising concerns about the fact that this government is doing nothing to prevent cuts to penalty rates and that under this government's watch the commission has cut penalty rates. This government, by allowing that to stand, is effectively responsible for cutting penalty rates. It has the chance now to fix it, and it should.

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