At the outset I would like to make something very clear. It is an undeniable fact that millions of people have lost their rights at work under the new industrial relations laws. It is undeniable that many people have already been affected. And it is undeniable that the longer these laws are in place, the more people will be directly affected.
We are not engaging in a scare campaign as we have been accused by the government. Our aim is to win the support of Australian people by telling them the facts. Over the last 18 months or so, we have come a long way to achieving that goal. The majority of Australians are opposed to the laws. We have won the support of important community leaders. Labor, the Democrats and the Greens have given a commitment to get rid of the IR laws.
The Labor Party's position on the IR laws is extremely important because Labor is the alternative national government. Labor has made some commitments which are important for all working families. A very clear choice is emerging between Labor and the government on industrial relations. To hear more about that, we will hear today from the Leader of the Labor Party, Mr Kim Beazley.
I also want to draw special attention today to the situation of building workers. Building workers have been specially targeted by the government. They risk fines and imprisonment for standing up for their rights, even for something as simple as holding a workplace meeting. In the building industry the government has given itself the power to summons workers to a secret interrogation. If they do not attend they face up to six months gaol and six months gaol if they refuse to answer questions. And six months gaol if they tell anyone including their family about the questions they were made to answer.
These extraordinary coercive powers are being used against ordinary working people. This has happened to people in Western Australia, where so far 107 workers have been charged for taking industrial action. The fight to defend the workers in Western Australia is ongoing. It is one of the many campaigns we are fighting to protect people's rights.
James Hardie Asbestos
Over the last couple of years there has been another long and difficult battle - the campaign to bring James Hardie to justice - to force it to meet its responsibility to victims of its asbestos products. James Hardie had taken its assets overseas to put them out of reach of asbestos victims. I cannot think of a more difficult campaign.
There were times when I thought we may not reach a settlement. But two weeks ago we were finally able to say that the deal was done. The agreement will see as much as $4 billion paid to victims over the next 40 to 50 years. The agreement is unique in the world and by far the biggest compensation payment in Australian history. I'm proud of it.
And it shows what the labour movement can achieve. During the campaign against James Hardie I had the opportunity to work with someone who is pretty special. I'm referring to my partner in the negotiations, Mr Bernie Banton. Bernie played an enormously important public role in putting pressure on James Hardie to pay up. Would you please welcome him. "What we do now is not just for us, but also for our children and for future generations."
The campaign ahead
The IR laws are taking away important rights and have set us on the path to United States style inequality and disadvantage. That is what we are fighting against. But equally important is what we are fighting for, and how all of you can help to achieve our goal. Our goal is not just to repeal these unfair industrial relations laws, but to replace them with decent rights for working people. A decent safety net of minimum pay and employment conditions. A right for people to collectively bargain.
If a majority of workers want to collectively bargain with their employer, we believe that the law should require the employer to negotiate. This is a simple democratic principle that should be respected in Australian workplaces.
These are some of the rights the labour movement is fighting for. We are fighting for them because of our values and beliefs. We believe that working people should be treated with respect and with dignity. We believe in fairness and justice throughout our society. We believe in democratic principle and human rights.
Democratic countries do not hold secret interrogations of workers because they held a workplace meeting. Real democracies uphold human rights and encourage tolerance and respect. Decent societies do not leave people behind, they reach out and lend a hand where it is needed and these values are the foundation of our campaign.
A month or so ago the High Court confirmed that John Howard's IR laws apply to the overwhelming majority of the Australian workforce - millions of people have lost their rights. Let's be very clear about the real implication of the High Court decision. It has confirmed that the only way to get rid of John Howard's industrial relations laws is to vote against the government. John Howard is not prepared to repeal the laws, so we must elect a government that will. And this can be achieved.
Your Rights at Work - Worth Voting For
A new campaign starts today. Your rights at work are not just worth fighting for - they are worth voting for. We will campaign in the wider community and ask people to vote for change. What we do now is not just for us, but also for our children and for future generations.
Some people I speak to support the campaign but are pessimistic about achieving change. I know as well as anyone how daunting the task can be. But I am confident of our capacity to win. Ours is a great cause. The values and the rights that we are upholding are shared by many, many Australians. We are standing up for a fair go.
Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered today to protest and watch this broadcast. By all of us working together, we can win this campaign. In the lead up to the election we will not only stand up for people in their workplace, we will ask people to vote for change. Unions will maintain our advertising campaign. The television and radio advertising will keep people informed about the effect of the IR laws on ordinary working people. The advertising will help to build community support. You can help by donating to keep our television ads on air.
We will also focus on changing votes at the grass roots level. Elections in Australia can be decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of seats. The South Australian seat of Wakefield will change hands if just several hundred people change their vote. In that seat there are 15,000 union members. Many of them who voted for John Howard last time are reconsidering their decision because of the IR laws. Our task will be to talk with them, and with other working families and ask for their support - to ask them to vote for their rights at work.
All of you can help - by volunteering a bit of time. To become involved, or to find out more, you can SMS your details ON 1991 88 77 to the ACTU or visit our web site - www.actu.asn.au But above all else each of you can vote for change at the next federal election. And it's not just IR that we need to change. The Howard government has been divisive and deceitful. It took the country to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. The government lied about refugees throwing their children overboard. It is shameless about its incompetence over the bribes paid to Saddam Hussein. It has put the interests of big business above those of working families.
John Howard knows that these IR laws are unpopular. He will try to con people by making some cosmetic changes. Please do not be fooled. We have seen these tactics too many times. There have been too many lies, too much deceit. We need to restore some integrity and decency to national politics.
We must focus on the real challenges confronting us as a society. We need to plan for the jobs and the economy of the future, do our best to protect living standards and job security, not just give up and let jobs go offshore. We need long-term thinking, not short-term opportunism. We need to build a greater sense of community.
We must reach out for a better future for this country. A future which respects democratic rights. These are great things to strive for, and even greater to achieve. Please join with us, and over the next 12 months let's give it everything we've got. If we do that, we will win.
Greg Combet is the Secretary of the ACTU. This is the text of his address to the national day of protest against the Australian government's industrial relations laws on Thursday 30 November 2006. The address was presented at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, from where it was transmitted live to mass protest meetings throughout Australia.