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There is a better, fairer way

Remedying Australia's industrial relations

Greg Combet

I would like to thank the press club for using a photograph of me that is about seven or eight years old in the promotional material. I appreciate that because the last 12 or 18 months have been pretty hard going, and anything that helps you to get a spring in your step is pretty good. And it has been hard going. All my colleagues at the ACTU and throughout the union movement have taken the government on over its industrial relations laws. It is a big thing to take a government on in the way that we have. Governments have a lot of power and authority.

I am very proud of the labour movement for the way in which we have stood up for what we believe in. Obviously this is a very subjective observation to make, but I think that we are winning the debate over these laws. This is not only because the laws are unfair. We are not only winning the debate because the laws are unfair, but because the government has essentially been dishonest. It has failed to argue, I think, a case for the industrial relations changes, and has chosen instead to try to deceive people about the effects of the laws and the motivation or the rationale for bringing the laws in. I want to start by reminding you about some of the facts.

What do these laws do?

Millions of people employed in businesses with less than 100 staff have lost protection against unfair dismissal. As a consequence, they can be sacked arbitrarily without any opportunity for independent review or redress. Workers in businesses with more than 100 staff can also be unfairly sacked, provided their employer cites operational reasons for doing so. And those same operational reasons can be, and already have been, used to sack people and offer them their jobs back on inferior terms. There are a couple of people here who have come all the way from Cowra today, one of whom was one of the meat workers' delegates at the Cowra Abattoir. It is exactly what happened to them: sacked - 20 offered a job back, with a 30 per cent pay cut.

In addition, the laws have changed the way in which minimum wages are set in Australia. Now the wages of more than 1.5 million people, who depend upon minimum award pay increases, have effectively been frozen. Their ability to keep up with rising prices and interest rates is now in the hands of this rather opaque and I think unaccountable institution called the Fair Pay Commission. This organisation touted that it was going to consult with minimum wage workers in the new approach, by going out into the community and talking to them about their experience of life. When it came down to it, they outsourced that role to a public relations firm.

The laws have of course made very significant changes to the safety net that has operated in workplaces for many years. The award safety net of pay and employment conditions has been usurped by only five minimum standards. This has put overtime pay, penalty rates, annual leave loading, public holidays, allowances, career structures, the right to training, regular pay increases and a host of other employment rights up for grabs. It is the law of the jungle. If you do not have the bargaining power to hold onto those conditions, you may well lose them. They are no longer guaranteed.

Collective bargaining has been deliberately undermined by the laws in favour of John Howard's individual employment contracts - the so-called AWAs, Australian Workplace Agreements. These allow businesses to unilaterally determine people's pay and employment conditions, and deny people a say. There are some people here today who have been employed by a contractor to the Defence department, and the contract has been re-let to a new organisation, Serco Sodexho. Some of those people have worked for many years in the Defence department, including in entrusted positions; positions which oblige them not to disclose the nature of some of their work. The new contractor has come in and said "if you want to keep your job now that we're taking over, you better sign this AWA, one of John Howard's contracts, and along the way you better cop a 10 per cent pay cut" - $3000 to 5000 a year less for people who have loyally, respectfully, with dignity, gone about doing their work in a responsible way. That is how they are treated under the laws. That is precisely how the individual contracts work. There is no pay increase in those AWAs for five years, other than what is provided by the Fair Pay Commission. They are denied the right to have a say and to bargain. That is a specific and graphic example right here in Canberra of how the laws are affecting many people.

When these sort of problems arise, the laws make sure that the Industrial Relations Commission has no power to deal with them. It cannot guarantee a fair go for everyone any more. There is nowhere to go to resolve disputes. We've had disputes recently - particularly in Melbourne, at two large employers - where delegates have been targeted for either redundancy or dismissal. Ordinarily, a dispute over such a situation might be able to go to the Industrial Relations Commission for mediation and arbitration, hopefully to resolve it, to test the motivations of the employer and to ensure that fairness is delivered to the employees and the employer. Under the new laws, there is no alternative other than what was done in both of these cases, at Amcore and Boeing, where the employees could see the injustice of what had been done. They had no alternative other than to take unlawful industrial action and put themselves and their savings and the union at considerable risk.

Union representation is directly attacked by the laws. Even the making of a claim on behalf of workers for unfair dismissal to be included in a collectively bargained agreement or an AWA, even making a claim that the employer not sack someone unfairly, is unlawful under the new laws. We can be fined up to $33,000 for making such a claim, and employers can be fined up to $33,000 if they agree to it. Other things are treated in this way. If we seek a role for a union to represent employees in a dispute settlement procedure, that is illegal - a $33,000 fine. If we ask for the right of employees to attend a training course in health and safety, or anything else - literacy, numeracy, you name it - if the course is run by a union, it is unlawful for us to ask for the right of employees to attend such a course, and we can be fined up to $33,000.

Union activity in the building industry has been effectively criminalised. To gather evidence of an offence, and it is not too difficult to offend the laws, the government can now haul people in for a secret interrogation. They can be imprisoned for contempt for up to six months if they do not attend the interrogation, if they don't answer questions or provide documents. They can similarly be imprisoned if they disclose the content of the questioning to others, including their family. There is no right to silence under the building and construction industry laws for workers. There is no protection from self-incrimination. This is treatment akin to alleged terrorists, and it is a breach of human rights and democratic principle. What is the justification for it? There is none.

The labour market shake up has been complemented by abuse of the government's guest worker visa programme. Temporary migration visas are being issued without sufficient opportunity being afforded to Australian citizens or residents to apply for the positions that are available. In some cases, foreign workers, guest workers, are exploited and paid substantially less than Australians, and are accommodated in unacceptable circumstances. That is the Australia of today.

These laws have gone too far

Overall, these laws have gone too far, and I think every fair-minded Australian would agree. They have handed too much power to employers to wield over employees. The laws put downward pressure on the take-home pay of many people, particularly the low paid, and this in truth is a key element of the economic rationale behind the laws, a rationale that the government does not want to talk about.

The threat of the sack in combination with the power to impose individual contracts is enabling the systematic intimidation of many employees to accept the dictate of the employer. I cited the practical example of the employees in the Defence contracting positions. I have dealt with many people in the business community over a long period of time now. I know there are many good people in the business community who share very similar values to those that I will talk about shortly. I know that many employers respect and value their employees. I know that many of them will not be motivated to use these new powers. But the pressure in a competitive market brings about behaviour to drive down costs, and that dynamic is already taking hold as a consequence of the new laws. You might be the nicest person as an employer. But if your competitors are using the laws to drive down their costs, their unit costs, then you may well be compelled to do the same.

The government's own Office of the Employment Advocate has surveyed AWAs since the new laws came in. This is the evidence they gave to a Senate Committee. Every AWA the Office of the Employment Advocate examined removed at least one key award condition, and almost one in five of the AWAs eliminate all award conditions. Two-thirds of the AWAs removed penalty rates, and the same number got rid of annual leave loading. More than half have abolished shift penalty rates. A third have cut overtime pay and more than 40 per cent have removed the public holiday entitlements the government promised would be protected by law. As to the government's argument that AWAs generate higher pay, sort by workers and employers in a free situation of choice, leading to higher pay and productivity. The Office of the Employment Advocate reported that a fifth - over a fifth of these new individual contracts - do not provide for any pay increase at all. Many of the AWAs run for up to five years.

Now, we know that "the sky is not falling in", a refrain we frequently hear from the prime minister. The sky's not falling in. The IR laws are doing their work. The IR laws are hurting many people. We never claimed the sky would fall in. We are not fools. But we know that changes like this will hurt many people, and the longer these laws are in place, the more people will suffer as a consequence. They need to be properly argued and justified. People's concerns are being borne out by their experience. It is indisputable that people are being unfairly sacked. We have brought many cases to public light. It is indisputable that the pay of 1.5 million people is effectively frozen at this point in time. One and a half million people and their dependents. People are being told if they don't sign the contract they won't get the job. That is a policy in the prime minister's department and Kevin Andrews' department. You cannot get a position there unless you sign an individual contract. Some employers are indisputably targeting union activists. AWAs are indisputably removing overtime pay, penalties and public holidays.

We have 107 workers in Western Australia in the building and construction sector who face fines of up to $28,800, each for taking industrial action where they had no alternative - in their view, and I support them - but to defend a union delegate who had been sacked. And ultimately in resolution of that dispute, months ago we had the issue heard in a private arbitration and it was found that the delegate was unfairly dismissed, and arrangements were made to rectify this. Months later, the government's agency came in and served writs on 107 people, who now face fines. An action that we do not believe is supported by the construction contractor involved.

ABS figures recently showed that increases in average weekly earnings for workers have fallen to their lowest level for seven years. Some economic commentators have attributed this to the new laws, and in particular the loss of penalty rates.

We have different values

That is some of the reality for working families under the laws. But rather than accept any evidence of the injustice of its laws, the government has waged a smear campaign against the ACTU and, worse, against ordinary working people who have appeared in our television advertisments. It has been asserted that we have mis-represented their position. I want to say something to you very clearly here today. We have mis-represented nothing. Nothing. We stand by our TV ads and we stand by the people who had the courage to get up and appear in those ads.

I expect the government, as pressure increases in coming months, will intensify its smear campaign, and I ask people to consider something. Just bear in mind a few things about the performance of this government, which has a disreputable history. It lied about refugees throwing their children overboard. It took the country to war over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. It makes the incredible claim that it knew nothing about AWB payouts to Saddam Hussein, despite repeated top level warnings into the prime minister's office. And it spent $55 million on patently deceitful ads to promote their IR laws. In the last election campaign it made misleading claims about interest rates; claims that we now know were of grave concern to Ian MacFarlane, the governor of the Reserve Bank, who only in recent days has indicated what he thought about those allegations. I would like people to carefully consider the form of the players in this debate. People should not be conned by the government.

We will not be intimidated by the government. Our campaign against these laws is going to grow and intensify because our opposition is not confined to the specific elements of the legislation. Our opposition is far more fundamental. We have got different values, different beliefs and we've got a more positive vision, not only for industrial relations but for the economy and the Australian society.

Unions do not want to go down the US road of widening inequality, working poor and social disfunction. We are opposed to the entrenchment of even more power and wealth at the top of the tree. We are opposed to the increasing alienation of people from the decisions which effect them in their workplace and their livelihoods. We are fighting for a more fair and just society; one where the benefits of economic prosperity are fairly shared. We are fighting to ensure that people have reasonable rights to mitigate the abuse of power by big business, and we are fighting for democratic rights and principles to improve the quality of Australian democracy. We believe and we assert that economic prosperity can be achieved in harmony with decent employment rights and the observance of democratic principles. We do not accept that economic competitiveness can only be achieved at the expense of people's rights at work.

This, I think, gets to the heart of the debate about the government's IR laws. If the government had the decency and the honesty and the courage to argue its case, it would surely assert that the employment rights it has abolished are not economically sustainable. That is effectively what they are saying. The government would assert that business must be awarded the freedom to adjust to competitive pressure, unencumbered by unions, collective bargaining, obligations to treat people fairly, or by minimum pay and employment conditions established by independent institutions. Effectively, the government is saying we cannot afford this in the Australian economy; these things must go. By allowing business to take penalty rates off people with little bargaining power on low pay, like cleaners and shop assistants, the government seems to believe that we are on the way to developing a truly productive and internationally competitive economy. I think that is an insipid defeatist vision for Australia and its people. It is a vision the labour movement rejects. Australian people know it is garbage. The laws are bad policy and they are going to hurt people the longer they are in.

We need an Australian alternative

So we are not simply opposed to the IR laws. We have a positive alternative. We want laws based on strong Australian values. We would seek to have the following features in any alternative industrial relations system brought in with labour movement support. Firstly, we seek a decent safety net of pay and employment conditions in awards or legislation that is able to be adjusted to take account of community standards; one that ensures that the low paid in particular earn a fair share of the benefits of prosperity. Over and above the safety net, we support the right for people to collectively bargain: a system of collective bargaining in which all parties are obliged to negotiate in good faith. Thirdly, we believe that people must be protected against unfair individual contracts, and we support Kim Beazley's commitment to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements.

We believe there must be an independent tribunal to maintain and improve the award safety net, to oversee the bargaining system and to guarantee fair treatment and protection against unfair dismissal; a practical system. We never argued that the unfair dismissal laws that we had were the ideal circumstance. But you must ensure that people have a guarantee to be treated fairly. We also believe that ensuring Australian employees can exercise their right to union representation - membership and representation - must be respected in the law. And we want to see the elimination of discrimination and artificial arrangements that exclude workers from protection of the IR system - things such as dodgy corporate re-structuring, the siphoning off of funds and sham independent contracting arrangements. People should have the protection of the system available to them.

Those principles are the principles that the union movement believe should be a blueprint for a future Labor Party policy. I believe those principles are more important to Australians than questions about which Constitutional head of power might be used to legislate them or the jurisdiction in which those rights are delivered. The judgment of the High Court in the Constitutional case against the IR laws that was brought by the state governments and Unions New South Wales and the Australian Workers' Union is expected later this year. It is important to bear in mind that that High Court case is not a test of the fairness of the IR laws. That verdict we believe is already in. Rather, the case in the High Court and the judgment will define the extent to which the Australian government has the power to legislate using the corporations head of power of the Constitution. If the High Court interprets that power narrowly, the government's IR laws and its attack on the rights of Australian workers will be in tatters, and that is our desired objective and that is why we in the labour movement support the challenge to the laws in the High Court. However, if the High Court interprets that power widely, the Commonwealth will have been granted broad powers to legislate national industrial relations laws and this will have significant implications for the development of union and Labor Party policy. In such circumstances, speaking within the union movement, I will ask the unions to support the use by a future Labor government of all of the Constitutional power available to it to repeal the government's laws and legislate a decent IR system, based upon the principles that I have just articulated.

That will be a significant decision if it is taken. We will discuss it at our ACTU Congress in about six weeks' time. But I am keen, as an ACTU leader, to use all of the available powers to establish a fair system for Australian workers and their employers, and if the business community wants to have a say in the development of such a system - which it should in my opinion - if it wants to have a say, it would be well advised to break with the partisan advocacy of the Liberals' attack on working people and unions. The ACTU in particular is not interested in talking to Liberal Party stooges who parade as business representatives. I think the economic circumstances demand greater responsibility and imagination from the business leadership, at least those who are in public advocacy. Less partisanship and better long-term thinking. In particular, business and big business has a responsibility to recognise that Australia is a democracy and that we must as a society adhere to democratic rights and principles and internationally respected labour rights.

Democratic societies do not hold secret interrogations of workers who go on strike to defend a sacked union delegate or who hold a stop work meeting. That feature of the laws alone should alert people to the fact that there is something seriously wrong at the moment in this country. Genuinely free and democratic societies appeal to what is best in people. They respect one another. They encourage people to care for each other and to strive for higher standards of co-operation and a sense of community. Democracies respect the right of working people to freely associate and organise in trade unions and they champion the right of working people to collectively bargain.

With big business support, the government has repudiated these values and repudiated these rights. What sort of society will it be if they win? Who is going to fight for justice for people who are victims of companies like James Hardie, if not the labour movement? Who would fight to lift the living standards of the low paid? Who would fight to improve health and safety at work? Who would fight to build retirement savings for working people? Who would fight to recover people's entitlements following a company collapse? Who will guarantee a fair go for Australian working people? I'm not going to leave it in the hands of big business or the Liberal Party. We are going to fight for those rights. One of the giants of the twentieth century, in my opinion, Franklin D Roosevelt, knew that to avoid a repeat of the economic and political failures that had contributed to the Great Depression, it was critical that the New Deal in the US delivered rights for working people. Many of those rights which he introduced survive in US law today. He knew that introducing rights for working people would improve the quality of US democracy. If we want to defend and improve the quality of Australian democracy, that recognition is needed here and now.

Australia is the only advanced economy where an employer can make a collective agreement with the union and, the very next minute, turn around to the employees, repudiate its contractual commitment and require employees to agree to substantially inferior conditions in individual contracts. It is the only country where that can occur. It is the only country in the developed world where an employer is not required to negotiate with a representative union; where the law mandates an employer to say 'I do not care if you represent all of my employees, I am not going to talk to you and I will demand that your members sign individual contracts in terms dictated solely by me'. That is what operates under these laws. There are other people here today, two representatives from a small operation in Adelaide, Radio Rentals, where there is a dispute, where the employer targeted the union activists, sacked three of them recently and subsequently has locked the employees out for one month. Their sin has been to seek a collective agreement negotiated with their employer. Two of them have come up from Adelaide today because this is exactly what is happening to them. Their employer is saying sign this or get out, we will not negotiate with you or your union.

How to remedy this injustice

One essential remedy to the injustice at the heart of these IR laws is the enactment of an enforceable right for people to collectively bargain. The ACTU has been working for some months now on a new model for collective bargaining in Australian workplaces. A delegation of senior officials, many of whom are also here today, visited North America, the UK and Europe to investigate the way in which those countries give effect to their international collective bargaining obligations. Yes, they actually do something about it. Earlier today, we launched the delegation's findings and the policy suggestions they recommend for Australia. This will be the centrepiece, this report and the proposed model, of the policy that we are putting forward to be considered at the ACTU Congress next month. The model for collective bargaining rights that we are suggesting represents an entirely new approach for Australia. One which not only respects workers rights, but which promotes co-operation, not division, and which promotes productivity and teamwork in workplaces.

It is a new approach because it puts workers at the centre of decision-making about the form of agreement that they will have. The report argues for a policy that removes the right of employers to unilaterally dictate the form of agreement their workers will have. It argues instead in favour of a system where an employee, a union, or the employees themselves will have equal rights to initiate a collective bargaining process. Collective agreements will be possible between a union and an employer or directly between employers and employees. But union members, as is appropriate, should have the right to representation at all times.

Within that framework, there are two key elements of the proposal that we are advancing. Firstly, we argue that the law must oblige all parties to bargain with each other in good faith, to collectively bargain in good faith, and it empowers the Industrial Relations Commission to help make that happen if help is needed. Secondly, we argue that workers themselves must have a say when there is a contest about whether there should be a collective agreement. For example, when an employer refuses to bargain collectively and insists on individual contracts, we believe that the majority view of the employees themselves should determine the issue - give people a democratic say. If a majority of workers express their support for a collective agreement, then it is our proposal that the Industrial Relations Commission must ensure that good faith bargaining ensues and that the employees' decision is respected. If it is not, then as a last resort we advocate that the Commission should be able to arbitrate to resolve intractable disputes. That proposal - good faith collective bargaining, between an employer, a union and employees, and the right for a majority of workers to decide what form of agreement should be negotiated by them or on their behalf - these things are fundamental democratic principles in our opinion, and they are the foundation of the proposals that we are advancing. We want to give people a say in their own workplace. Just as it is fair to elect a government by majority, we believe it is fair for a majority of employees to democratically decide what form of agreement should apply to them.

The government has already declared its opposition to our ideas, not surprisingly. They want to maintain an employer monopoly on the form of bargaining that takes place. Kevin Andrews, the workplace minister, says that good faith collective bargaining means compulsory unionism. I haven't worked out exactly how that could be. I think it is so stupid and ridiculous that it is unworthy of a response. John Howard says that individuals will be denied their right to an individual contract if that is what they want. This is misleading. It is wrong. Collective agreements on our proposal would certainly bind all employees. But there would be nothing to stop an employee and an employer agreeing to an improvement, or some sensible flexibility which does not undercut the collective agreement and common law arrangements, such as that have always been available, and we support their continuing use. Of course, in the real industrial world, the government always opposes flexibility for individuals when it matters. It supports it for employers, but not for working people. Unions have been seeking, for example, for some time now, the right for a woman to return to part-time work after a period of maternity leave, but we have been opposed every step of the way by the government for that sort of flexibility on an individual basis.

Kim Beazley's policy statement in recent days in support of collective bargaining, and in support of the views of the majority of workers, means that there is now a very clear policy difference developing between Labor and the Coalition on industrial relations, and we are very pleased to see it. This argument will get down to John Howard's individual contracts and Kim Beazley's collective bargaining. Individual contracts have never been a path to economy-wide productivity and growth. New Zealand in the 1990s was proof enough of that for those of you that are familiar with it. Or if not familiar with it, people were pushed onto individual contracts in exactly the same way and productivity fell relative to Australia. And what was going on here at the time? We had engaged upon the path to decentralised enterprise bargaining on a collective basis and productivity grew significantly, and it has been the basis in a significant way of the sustained economic growth we have had.

There is a better way forward

As a nation, I think it is imperative that we ultimately resolve these industrial relations issues in an appropriate way, and with a decent outcome for working people in this country, because we need to get onto the real economic issues that are not being addressed. The path to improved productivity and prosperity is not going to be through John Howard's IR obsession. It will involve dealing with the real economic challenges facing this country. After more than a decade of Coalition government we are experiencing an unprecedented skills shortage, significant infrastructure blockages, a collapsing manufacturing base, and there is no one at the national level driving the debate about innovation and productivity. These issues should be at the forefront of national political debate. They are John Howard's blind spot, and they are Labor's opportunity.

The sustained boom we have experienced for 14 years has provided a unique opportunity to tackle the long-term economic capacity constraints that we now face, but it has been completely squandered; the opportunity is being lost. The government has been content to rely heavily upon household debt and consumption as the key driver of economic growth. That has been the main driver for the large part of the current business cycle that we have been experiencing. It is the source of interest rate sensitivity in the electorate and it cannot continue. Growth is already slowing.

The challenge now is to identify the new drivers of economic growth and to tackle the serious capacity constraints on growth and productivity. The first constraint on growth that has to be tackled is the skills shortage. It requires a substantial investment in education and training. The government has overseen a decline in the proportion of GDP which is dedicated to education and skill development. Its priority, unbelievably in post secondary education, is to compel institutions to offer individual contracts, otherwise they will lose their funding. That's the government's priority. It will not fix the skills shortage, and neither will the government's unpopular and abused guest worker visa programme. A major boost in genuine trades apprenticeships is needed. We need to continue to improve on Year 12 completion rates, and at a tertiary level more places are needed in engineering and acquired science disciplines. I think we have got to consider a major scholarship programme, in particular, to ensure that young people who've got the ambition, the capacity, the intellect and the drive to contribute to the country, who want to get ahead, have the opportunity to get tertiary places in the areas where they are needed, and they achieve some financial support for doing so. They cannot - we cannot as a society - afford to have a disincentive such as is now there through the HECS scheme for people to get into university and contribute. I would never have got to university had it not been for the Whitlam government. But we are now prohibiting people getting access to tertiary education. It is not good enough.

A second constraint to growth is the lack of national leadership in infrastructure investment. There is no nation-building plan. And no strategy for funding one either. The resources boom is fueling huge fiscal surpluses, but they are not contributing to public or private investment in our economic and social infrastructure - our transport systems, our communications systems. Communication strategy is all about privatising Telstra, and I agree with Ken Davidson who wrote in The Age a couple of weeks ago, and who is here today, it is economic lunacy. They are looking to sell the thing at any price that they can get. We ave got a massive need for investment in childcare capacity in hospitals and schools. Now with increasing globalisation and WTO regulation of what governments can and cannot do to assist private business, infrastructure becomes even more important as a major determinant of competitiveness. All Australian governments should be identifying priorities for infrastructure investment in a co-operative federal framework. Many of the states have been investing heavily, and we recognise that, but national leadership is lacking. This is an important opportunity that Kim Beazley and Labor is taking up.

A third constraint on growth is the failure of government to drive innovation. A strategy is needed to restore double digit growth in particular to business investment in research and development for the next decade. This is going to be vital for manufacturing. It is not good enough to have one workplace after another close down and for there to be no effective strategy to try and ensure the improving competitiveness of Australian manufacturing. In the decade to the mid-1990s, business investment in manufacturing R&D grew in real terms by 10.5 per cent a year. Since then, under the Howard government, growth has slumped to only 2 per cent a year. Reversing that trend is crucial. It is the key to improving manufacturing competitiveness. It is how we get the higher skill, higher wage jobs, and how we reposition Australian manufacturing higher up the value-added chain. But rather than meet this imperative, the government is preoccupied with a free trade agreement with China; an agreement with potentially devastating implications for manufacturing employment in Australia.

The state and territory Labor governments, along with industry and unions, are currently developing a manufacturing industry policy and plan. That is something with which the federal government also needs to be engaged. We need a co-operative bipartisan approach to tackle these issues and to provide some hope for people in the manufacturing industry. But what ultimately is the government doing to prepare Australia to effectively compete, and to prosper potentially from a FTA with China? The answer, the only one I can come up with, is the new IR laws; that is, to allow business to compete by driving down labour costs. Cutting the wages and conditions of Australian workers will not protect people from competition with China, India or anywhere else. We could never go low enough. We must chart an alternative economic path by investing in skills, in education, in infrastructure and innovation. That returns me to my essential argument.

There is a better way forward for this country to go; a way which can get the balance right between workers' rights and the economic imperatives that the country faces; a way which addresses the real economic issues and at the same time respects the basic Australian value of a fair go; a way which will treat people with respect and dignity and which will nourish the democracy rather than undermine it. These values define the labour movement. They are what we believe in. We will campaign for them for as long as it takes. We always have. In a practical sense, we are going to keep our TV ads on air, we will defend people in their work places, we will mobilise hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, we are going to fill the MCG on the 30th of November - get yourselves there, we are going to broadcast across the country, into clubs and pubs and community halls, to take our message everywhere. We will campaign in marginal seats. We are going to stand up for people's rights and we will articulate a more positive vision for this country. I am confident that, when we do all of those things, we are going to win the support of the Australian people and bring about positive change.

Thank you.


Greg Combet is the secretary of the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions). This is a lightly edited text of his speech to the National Press Club on 13 September, 2006. Go to the ACTU website to download the policy discussion paper A Fair Go At Work.


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