I stand before you today in this legendary Town Hall - proud and inspired by its history and the great traditions of our party. The two forever entwined.
It is, of course, a time-honoured Labor ritual to speak here. In the hub of an incomparable city, my treasured second home. At the heart of this great state of New South Wales, led so ably by my friend, Morris Iemma. A building immersed in history. The scene of so many battles fought for decency and fairness. For the future of our party and of our nation.
Delegates, today's battle is the fight of our lives. Because we are fighting a prime minister whose prejudices and obsessions are wrecking the lives of millions of Australian families. Poisoning the essence of all that is Australian in the name of blind ideology; systematically destroying the rights and conditions that generations of Australians have worked and fought for. Deliberately vandalising all that Australians believe in - communal good will, justice and fairness - all for the sake of his tired, old dream.
A prime minister who jets back from his latest world trip and stays just long enough to get his dinner suit dry cleaned before the next round of foreign engagements. Just long enough to arrogantly tell Spotlight employee, Annette Harris, that she should be grateful. She should be more than happy to trade away everything for two cents an hour, so more people like her can be employed on slashed wages. I challenge John Howard to go to Coffs Harbour and explain to Annette Harris why losing $90 a week in penalty rates is good for the economy. How slashed wages, lost rest breaks and capped hours build our collective prosperity.
Australian Values at Work
Delegates, we should be rewarding Annette Harris not punishing her. Not poisoning the family life of millions like her. That's why when we win next year the very first thing I'll do is rip up Howard's IR laws and build a new industrial relations system based on Australian values. Because these laws are slowly, insidiously eating away at the family lives and aspirations of millions of working Australians.
Here in your state, every day, more and more victims of John Howard's extreme laws. On the Central Coast, the 100 garbage collectors employed by local councils, who look like losing $340 a week because their jobs have been put out to tender. Or the Cowra Abattoir workers. They arrive at work the day after the IR laws take effect and get the sack. Offered their old jobs back the next day with wages and conditions slashed. Or Rhonda Walke, a part time receptionist in a Blacktown medical centre who has worked for the same company for over 20 years - sacked for daring to question her new AWA. Rhonda is a widow. The mother of an ill daughter. A victim of Howard's one-sided AWAs.
And nationally, the 6000 Spotlight employees, waiting to become the latest victims as their employer, with the full blessing of the Howard government, prepares to employ everyone on AWAs that trash their entitlements. Gone - public holidays, penalty rates, overtime payments, rest breaks. Everything. All for two cents an hour. And they're just the ones who make the news.We can only guess how many others stay silent. Too scared, or humiliated or worried about what the boss will do to speak out. Afraid even to talk to their union rep for fear of reprisals.
"I know AWAs can't be fixed. They can't be made good. They must be rejected. So today, I announce that a Beazley Labor government will abolish John Howard's Australian Workplace Agreements."
Delegates, on behalf of the millions of workers who've built our national prosperity, my first act as prime minister will be to rip up these laws and replace them with a flexible, modern system based on true Australian values. Decent laws that aren't stacked against employees. Balanced, fair laws.Decent laws to protect all Australians from the threat of unfair dismissal. Laws that understand employees are mums and dads too. And guarantee them the right to negotiate childcare and other family friendly provisions. Laws that recognise unions must be allowed to play a role in safety training - without the threat of $33,000 fines. Laws that guarantee a safety net of minimum standards and an independent umpire. Laws to uphold the right of every worker to bargain collectively and to be represented by a union. And delegates, as I announced yesterday, laws that ensure workers get the penalty rates they deserve for working public holidays.
I'm going to move in Parliament to protect penalty rates on public holidays. And I challenge Jackie Kelly and Gary Nairn and Louise Markus and Ken Ticehurst and Jim Lloyd to vote against it. To vote against penalty rates then go home and look their constituents in the eye.
An end to Howard's AWAs
Delegates, I've come here today to make an important announcement about how my government will protect employees from individual contracts that cut their pay and conditions. Since I last stood before this Conference, John Howard has rammed through parliament the most extreme industrial relations laws we have seen in a century. At the dark heart of these extreme laws are John Howard's Australian Workplace Agreements. Make no mistake. They're his weapons to inflict his nasty, regressive ideology on working families.
Delegates, since these extreme laws came into effect, we've had Australian workers, one by one, telling of horrific experiences with AWAs. Last week we learned these headline stories are not isolated examples. The man that Kevin Andrews appointed as chief promoter of AWAs - the Employment Advocate, Peter McIlwain - has spilled the beans. Revealing that In every single AWA he has checked since John Howard's new laws came into effect, at least one so-called protected award condition was cut out.
That's things like leave loadings, overtime and penalty rates, shiftwork and public holiday loadings. In two thirds, leave loadings and penalties were scrapped. In over half, shift loadings were abolished. One in six of them took away every single protected award entitlement, leaving those workers the barest minimum conditions.Three months ago that sort of conduct would have been unlawful. Now, that sort of behaviour is sanctioned and protected by an Australian government - protected by law!
Delegates, if it's like this now, what's it going to be like for our kids in the future? For the past 12 months I've kept an open mind about how to ensure John Howard's AWAs don't cut conditions or undermine collective bargaining. But now, the evidence is beyond dispute. The way to act is clear.
I believe AWAs are the poison tip of John Howard's industrial relations arrow. I believe AWAs are nothing more than a means to cut wages, cut conditions, and undermine decency and fairness in our workplaces.
Delegates, I know AWAs can't be fixed. They can't be made good. They must be rejected. So today delegates, I announce that a Beazley Labor government will abolish John Howard's Australian Workplace Agreements. And delegates, under my government there will be no statutory individual contracts. I will not have Australian mums and dads ripped off by contracts that are shoved in their face by employers who've got no interest in any genuine bargaining process and hold all the cards.
Delegates, I want to see our nation prosper. I want to see workplaces that are hardworking and harmonious. I want our offices, factories and worksites to be places of fairness, not places of fear. And there's one way to ensure flexibility and fairness. That's by giving Australians a right to collective bargaining. I stand before you today and make this commitment. The party I lead will unashamedly be the party of collective bargaining, and collective agreements.
The Liberal Party is the party that wants to force Australian workers on to individual contracts, against their will. John Howard knows that when they bargain collectively, working Australians would never accept having their pay slashed and conditions stripped bare. He knows the only way he can achieve this is to make workers deal with the employer on an individual basis.
Even spruikers of AWAs concede that they don't involve genuine individual negotiations. Kevin Andrews and his allies openly promote carbon-copy one-size-fits-all AWAs that strip away employees' rights like penalty rates and holiday leave. And these are supposedly negotiated, one-by-one!
The fundamental problem with AWAs is that they ignore the basic inequality in the bargaining relationship between employers and employees. And they give no protection to employees' basic entitlements. It is plainly ridiculous to think that an 18 year old kid can bargain on equal terms with powerful multi-nationals. It's absurd to think that a mum who is just getting by from week to week looking after a couple of kids, can somehow have an equal bargaining relationship with a big corporate. And it's galling when John Howard says, oh well, if you don't like being forced on to one of my AWAs, you can just go and get another job somewhere else. What if you're in regional Australia and 'somewhere else' is hundreds of kilometres away?
Delegates, there's a brutal unfairness at the heart of John Howard's AWAs. Employees should be free to choose to have their interests represented collectively. When they choose to be represented by a single voice, they can offset inequalities in the bargaining relationship - making bargaining fairer. Generations of advances in the living conditions of working families have been achieved off the back of collective representation and bargaining. And it's easier and cheaper for most Australian employers to bargain one or two agreements rather than tens, hundreds or thousands of individual ones.
Delegates, Australia achieved record productivity growth during the 90s, on the back of Labor's reforms that shifted Australia from inflexible centralised wage fixing to flexible enterprise-based collective bargaining. Collective enterprise bargaining gives employers and employees the right incentives to work together to find ways to lift productivity and share the gains in profits and pay. AWAs give employers the wrong incentives. Cutting workers' pay does not foster productive workplaces. Howard's AWAs are not a natural evolution from the reforms we introduced into our industrial relations system in the early 90s. They are a repudiation of those reforms.
Delegates, today I have announced that neither AWAs nor statutory individual contracts will be part of Labor's new fair and flexible IR system. While collective bargaining will be the bedrock of the system, individual flexibility will remain an essential feature.
First, I will ensure that employers and employees have the capacity to enter into common law employment agreements that do not drive down wages and conditions. They will be underpinned by Labor's new minimum standards. They will provide flexibility upwards, to the overall advantage of both the employer and the employee, and our nation.My announcement today means flexibility up? YES. Flexibility down? NO.
Second, our system will ensure that employers and employees can make provisions in collective agreements and awards allowing for individual variations to their arrangements. If employers want the flexibility to meet operational needs or to reward individual effort through performance-based pay, they can. If employees want the flexibility to change their hours of work or to make other personal changes in their work arrangements, they can.
Third, we will also ensure that the parties to common law agreements have access to appropriate advice and representational services, and can resolve any disputes quickly, efficiently and with a minimum of fuss and formality.
And finally, we will have sensible transitional provisions for existing AWAs. If both the parties genuinely want them to continue for their agreed term, they will. And at the end of that term, the parties will transition to alternative agreements or instruments, again underpinned by our new minimum standards. A system that ensures that when you put in, you get back. A new, modern system based on Australian values.
Delegates, our prime minister is stuck in the past. He loves nothing more than to be cast in the same light as his great hero Robert Menzies. And I have to say there are some striking likenesses. Their eagerness to send young Australians to war - the wrong wars. In Vietnam and Iraq. And of course we mustn't forget how Pig Iron Bob earned his nickname in the lead up to World War Two. For helping to arm Japan - Australia's wartime enemy.
Well John Howard has gone one better than his hero now. His government turned a blind eye as AWB channelled $300 million into Saddam's brutal dictatorship, to buy the bullets and the guns and the bombs aimed at our troops. Menzies and Howard - true brothers in arms.
There is, however, something else that they have in common. A shared failure to prepare the nation for the future. The shared squandering of opportunity. Taking the easy option of shallow opportunism over the tough, far-sighted decisions essential to build our future prosperity. National posturing instead of nation building. Just like his old hero, John Howard sits back, content to squander the once in a century opportunity offered by the resources boom. So out of touch he thinks the boom will go on forever and our creditors don't notice we're piling up millions of dollars in foreign debt every month. Lulled into a dozy complacency so reminiscent of the Menzies era. Oblivious to the alarm bells now beginning to ring in the economy.
Delegates, last year I stood before you and sounded a serious warning on foreign debt. Some of you might remember that we were told foreign debt doesn't matter any more, that nobody cares about it, that we were barking up the wrong tree. Well how things have changed! In the space of just one month, we've had eight separate expert opinions warning of the danger posed by the combination of rampant household debt and uncontrolled foreign debt.
The tide of concern about our foreign debt is rising in financial markets from New York to London to Sydney. Analysts last week were comparing us to highly indebted countries like Turkey, Nigeria and Nepal. Our foreign debt has soared by $70 billion since I last spoke to you - its fastest growth in our nation's history. It's now half a trillion dollars. That's $24,000 for every Australian man, woman and child.
Delegates, the resources boom has given us a once in a century chance to invest in our future and fireproof our economy from these growing risks. Think of the future Australia could be looking forward to off the back of this 21st century Gold Rush.
An economy driven by a skilled, highly trained workforce. Instead this government turns away 300,000 Australians from TAFE and imports 270,000 extra skilled workers from overseas. A nation serviced by world class infrastructure - the roads, bridges and ports needed to get Australian goods overseas. A high speed, state of the art communications network, defying the tyranny of distance, to go on-line to the world. Â§ A thriving Australian fuels industry reducing our dependence on the soaring price of Middle Eastern oil.
But what do we have instead? A man so fascinated by his own future that he does nothing for ours. A man obsessed with nuclear reactors, not renewable energy. A man who's failed to equip our kids for the future.
Train Australians first
You see delegates, John Howard's only plan for the future is to drag Australians down. Make our kids compete in a race to the bottom with India and China. A low-wage, low skill race we shouldn't be in and we can never win. Shutting TAFE doors on Australians and abusing the skilled migration program to disguise the shameful neglect of education and training that's engulfed us in a national skills crisis. Bringing in foreign workers as a substitute for training Australian workers; hired on workplace agreements offering below-award wages and giving employers extra bargaining power to cut the pay of Australian workers.
I will not stand by and let this happen. I'll legislate so employers who make Australian workers redundant will not be able to sponsor foreign workers to do the same job for a 12 month period. And I'll move immediately to abolish John Howard's foreign apprenticeship visas. No government I lead will import foreign apprentices while Aussie kids are turned away from training. Because instead of poisoning and punishing Australians, we should be rewarding them when they skill up and work hard.
Only by building a smart, competitive workforce can we build a prosperous future. So when Australians want to learn a traditional trade to become one of the skilled workers the country desperately needs, they shouldn't have to pay. That's why my government will get rid of TAFE fees for the traditional trades. It's why I'll get rid of TAFE fees for the thousands of Australian trainee child carers who start courses each year to address the shortage. It's why I'll give every Australian student the opportunity to study at specialised trades schools, a chance to participate in the Trade Taster Program, and more opportunities to enrol in school-based apprenticeships.
My Pact with Middle Australia
Because delegates, the government I lead will be guided by one core principle - when you put in, you get back. That's my Pact with Middle Australia. Because it's the hard slog of Middle Australia that's generated our current economic prosperity. It's their determination, their effort, their ingenuity that will build our future prosperity. When Australian workers put in a fair day's work they'll get job security, decent wages, decent conditions, and decent protection from unfair dismissal. When mums and dads bust their guts to be good parents and good employees - I'll end the 'double drop-off' by building 260 new childcare centres on primary school grounds. So families can spend more time at home and less time in the car.
When parents get their kids learning on the internet, equipping them for the future, I'll give them a super fast communications network 25 times faster than the speeds available in Australia today. Virtual classrooms for kids in Dalgety and Dubbo; world-class communication for businesses in Crookwell and Casino. And when parents who choose to send their kids to non-government schools work hard to pay school fees - my Government won't punish them for that choice. I'll lift all schools up, not drag some down.
The road ahead
Delegates, I can't tell you today whether John Howard will cut and run like a coward from an industrial relations election. But I can tell you this: we can't win a federal election without winning seats in New South Wales. Greenway and Lindsay. Robertson and Dobell. Eden-Monaro. Page and Paterson. Together we can do it. Together we will give this country a nation building government. With Australian values at work. A government with kitchen table values around the Cabinet table in Canberra.
Delegates, John Howard's cynicism knows no bounds. He clothes himself in mateship and solidarity at the same time attacking, with his extreme industrial relations laws, the same mateship and solidarity that distinguishes and defines the Aussie spirit.
Delegates, the people of New South Wales deserve better than this extreme and out-of-touch prime minister. Day in day out they put so much in and get so little back. Give so much. Work so hard. For so little in return. Slugged by Howard's triple whammy - rising interest rates, soaring petrol prices and wages and conditions slashed. This is how John Howard treats the people who built our prosperity. This is how he treats the people we're depending on to build a prosperous future for our kids and grandkids.
Our nation demands a leader who rewards hard work and effort. Our nation demands a leader who defends Australian values at work. Our nation demands a leader who can and will build our nation. Now, more than ever, our nation must have a Beazley Labor government.
Kim Beazley is the Member for Brand, the Leader of the Federal Labor Party and the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. This is the text of his address to the NSW Labor Party State Conference on 11 June 2006.