Shoulder to shoulder

The case for change
Kim Beazley

Thank you for your generous welcome. Thank you for fighting so hard for true Australian values at work. Thank you for working day and night for a Labor government. John Howard must be defeated. And with him his extreme, unfair, unbalanced industrial relations laws. This is the fight of my life.

Since the last election, Howard has gone too far. He said he'd govern for all of us. But instead he governs for his mates. He said he'd keep interest rates at record lows. But instead rates are going up and up and up. He said winning wouldn't go to his head. But then he arrogantly rides roughshod over every check and balance. He said he'd get the economy right. But instead he's squandered the opportunities of this once in a century resources boom. He said he'd protect us from terror. But instead he took us to a war in Iraq that's made all Australians less safe. He said a lot of things. But there are some things he never said anything about. Nothing about his plans to slash wages. Nothing about smashing awards. Nothing about scrapping penalty rates, overtime, and redundancy pay. All that cleverly concealed by a cynical politician.

Next time Australians will get the choice they didn't get last time. To say no, Mr Howard - you've gone too far. And make no mistake - if Australians miss this chance, there's worse to come. Because John Howard is not finished with working families yet. I will rip up these extreme and unfair laws. It's the first thing I'll do in office. And I'll build a new system. A fair system based on genuine Australian values. A fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Fairness. Opportunity. Reward for effort.

The stakes could not be higher. This is truly the fight of our lives. More important than just a fight for our own survival. It's a fight for the future. A fight for families who work so hard and make our economy strong. A fight for the type of country we want to hand to our kids. A fight for the hopes and aspirations of middle Australia. For families who need us to build a fair IR system as we go about building a modern, competitive economy. An economy that builds a new generation of prosperity. An economy that harnesses the toil and talents of all our people. An economy that rewards hard work. So when the families of middle Australia put in, they get back.

I'm here today to talk about my plans for our nation's future. Our role in building it. My plans for a new industrial relations system for Australia. But first let me tell you how I see our relationship. The relationship between the two mighty wings of the great Australian labour movement. The movement I've devoted my whole life to. A relationship I've long been committed to.

Together, we've achieved so much for decent working people. We've fought so many battles. Won some. Lost others. But let me be honest: the battles of the past no longer interest me. Now and in government, all my energies, all my efforts, all my time will be spent on this one great challenge: How we build a nation we're proud to hand to our kids and grandkids. As we go forward, I will listen to you and work with you. Just as I'll work with business, experts, and everyone else who'll put a shoulder to the wheel, to build together a modern, competitive economy. But in the end, the decisions rest with me and my government. We will have our differences. That's normal. Healthy. I will always be your friend and ally, but I will not be unquestioning. I will tell you when I think you're wrong, just as I expect you to tell me when you think I'm wrong. And know this: I will govern in the interests of all Australians, never just for the vested interests of a few. In the national interest not sectional interests. In the interests of millions of Australians, not just a few. That's what makes me different to John Howard.

The future party

Friends, I want to build with you the fairer, more prosperous future hard working Australian families deserve. Because to me our great Labor Party is the future party. The only party that knows if we're to build a new generation of growth and prosperity we'd better start now. That's why we'll teach and train Australians. So we can go up the high-wage, high-skill road. Not down Howard's low-wage, low-skill road to nowhere.

 

Australia will be a very different place when I lead it. I want Australia to be a better place for our kids to grow up in. It's their future I'm fighting for. I want them to grow up in a high-skill, high-tech nation - competing on skills and ideas not wages and conditions. A nation that trains Australians instead of going for the quick fix of importing foreign workers. A nation where working Australians are protected by a modern, flexible, fair industrial relations system. A system based on Australian values. Where employees don't go to work with the constant fear of being sacked with no right of appeal. Where there's a strong safety net of minimum wages and conditions and an independent umpire to settle disputes. Where Australians have the right to join together and bargain together for decent wages and conditions. The right to choose collective bargaining. The right to join a union and be represented by a union.

A new system

Since early this year I've been setting out the shape of Australia's new fair and balanced industrial relations system, step by step. First, my government will abolish John Howard's wage-cutting Australian Workplace Agreements. There will be no statutory individual contracts. Second, we'll have decent laws that protect all Australians from the threat of unfair dismissal. Third, we'll recognise that unions must be allowed to play a role in the education of workers - especially in occupational health and safety training - without the threat of $33,000 fines. Fourth, I won't threaten mums and dads with punishment and fines for trying to negotiate childcare and other family friendly provisions in workplace agreements. Fifth, when Australians go to work on public holidays, I'll protect their penalty rates.

And my sixth rock solid commitment, the most important of them all: I will uphold Australians' right to bargain collectively and to be represented by a union. I stand before you today and make this commitment: The Party I lead is unashamedly the party of collective bargaining, and collective agreements. And that's the focus of what I want to talk about today. But before I do that, let me deal with two matters that I'll have more to say about at a later date.

First, the national industrial relations laws. A Beazley Labor government will use all the powers available to it under the Australian Constitution, for the purpose of legislating a modern, flexible and fair industrial relations system. We know that whatever the High Court decides, some employees will still be covered by state systems. I know I can only build a truly national system if I work with the states - with options like uniform Commonwealth/State legislation or harmonisation. Under no circumstances will I ride roughshod over the states, like John Howard. This is the only sensible way forward.

Second, minimum standards. A Beazley Labor government will restore decent minimum standards for all working Australians. Those minimum standards will be guaranteed by legislation and by our modern award system. And those minimum standards will reflect the Australian belief that all working people are entitled to the dignity of a living wage. Not like John Howard's five bare minimums, which will give us the American nightmare: Millions of working families barely able to keep their heads above water.

Collective Bargaining

Let me return to collective bargaining - the centrepiece of my modern, flexible and fair industrial relations system. Collective bargaining provides balance, fairness and greater productivity for employers and employees. Let there be no doubt about where we stand. The Labor Party is the party of collective bargaining. Unashamedly, the party of collective bargaining. The Liberal Party is the party that wants to force Australian workers on to wage cutting AWAs, against their will.

Can you believe they call this choice? Their only choice is between a wage-cutting AWA or no job at all. And John Howard knows that if they have genuine choice of collective bargaining, working Australians will never accept his one-sided, wage-cutting AWAs. He thinks the only way he can make Australia compete globally is to drive down wages by forcing workers to deal with their employer on an individual basis. John Howard's AWAs ignore the basic inequality in the bargaining relationship between employers and employees. It's just ridiculous to think that an 18 year old kid or a working mum can bargain on equal terms with powerful multi-nationals. Yet John Howard and his IR ideologues carry on with this deceit.

Employees must be free to have their interests represented collectively if that is what they want. When they choose to be represented by a single voice, they can offset inequalities in the bargaining relationship - making bargaining fairer. Generations of working Australians have achieved advances in living conditions off the back of collective representation and bargaining. And collective bargaining has a proven track record of success for our economy. Collective bargaining achieves higher productivity and wage outcomes than individual contracts. Collective agreements can provide for performance pay, individual rewards and flexibility upwards.

Australia achieved record productivity growth during the 90s, off the back of Labor's reforms. Reforms that took us from inflexible centralised wage fixing to flexible collective bargaining. Collective bargaining works. It gives employers and employees the right incentives - to work together to find ways to lift productivity and share the gains in profits and pay. And that's why a right to collective bargaining is the foundation of a modern, flexible and fair industrial relations system. Today I want to make some important announcements about Labor's new collective bargaining system.

First, my system will guarantee the will of the majority is respected. If the majority of workers want a collective agreement, they'll get one. A fair and balanced industrial relations system respects the wishes of the majority. If the employer and their employees choose to bargain collectively, they should be free to do so. I do not believe in one-sided rules that let employers unilaterally refuse to engage in collective bargaining when a majority of employees want it. But that's exactly what John Howard's IR laws allow. That's how they're designed.

In most cases, employers happily negotiate a collective agreement, if their employees want it. They understand that those agreements deliver productivity and balance. But sometimes, an employer refuses to bargain. And that can lead to intractable disputes. Under my system, when that happens, the independent umpire can step in. Its job will be deciding whether a majority of workers want collective bargaining. If there's doubt about what the majority wants, the Commission can test the majority view - including by conducting a secret ballot of employees. If the majority want collective bargaining, then the Commission will make an order to that effect. If the Commission concludes there's no majority support for collective bargaining, negotiations won't go ahead. Instead, workplace arrangements can be made through other options, which meet Labor's new minimum standards. Because just as we respect a majority that wants collective bargaining, we'll respect a majority that doesn't.

Second, once the parties are at the table, my system will ensure they bargain fairly. Bargaining fairly requires good faith conduct on both sides. Labor won't require any party to agree to specific claims. It'll simply require fair and reasonable conduct during bargaining. Like:

  • Agreeing to meet face to face at reasonable times.
  • Attending meetings you've agreed to attend, and adhering to negotiating procedures and commitments you've given to the other side.
  • Not requesting information that isn't relevant, but disclosing information that is.
  • Responding to questions, but allowing employers to protect their legitimate commercial interests.
  • Stating a position on matters at issue, and explaining that position.
  • Considering and responding to proposals made by another negotiating party.
  • Putting enough time and resources into the bargaining process to ensure it's genuine.

Labor's balanced system of fair bargaining will say simply this: You must act in good faith - whether you're an employer or employee, an industry association or a union. Under Labor's system, you'll be treated in the same way. Subject to the same rules. Where a party acts in bad faith - employer or union - the independent umpire can step in to get them back to the negotiating table. To act in good faith. To act fairly.

I have one further announcement. As my fair bargaining system requires good faith on both sides, I can't agree to one sided agreement making. There will be no employer greenfields agreements in our modern, fair, balanced system. You cannot have a fair bargaining system while you've got employer greenfields agreements. This notion that an employer can 'negotiate' an agreement by themselves, with no other party, is just a nonsense. It just shows who John Howard's IR laws are really looking after. That employers can write one-sided agreements without even pretending to talk to anyone else.

The golden thread that runs through everything I've said is this: unlike John Howard, I won't fix all the rules to favour one side. I believe in a fair balance in the roles of employers and employees. But fairness is not a one way street. John Howard has tilted all the rules too far in favour of employers against employees. Some would want us to tilt all the rules the other way. But I won't make that mistake. Because what Australians want is a balanced system. Not extreme ideology. Not a government that just looks after one side. My system will provide fairness. But you too must act fairly. A fair bargaining system means fairness all round. A fair go for everyone. A system that reflects basic Australian values.

Conclusion

This is an historic Congress for the Australian labour movement. This attack on working people is more vicious and extreme than we've ever seen. Your response is critical. That's why your industrial relations policy debates today are so important. Kevin Andrews wants to make this a fight about union bosses and union power. But you've made it a fight about working families. Your efforts have helped put IR at the centre of political debate. Your TV campaign and grassroots activists on the ground are highlighting all these important issues. You've also made this an argument about respecting the democratic wish of the majority. I applaud you for that.

This is a government of ideological extremists. Howard. Andrews. Minchin. Costello. They're not interested in the majority. They're prosecuting a war for one small, powerful group. But you've resisted the temptation of going to the other extreme. You've fought in the middle ground. That's where you'll win this fight. And that's where I'm going to win this election. At the kitchen tables of middle Australia.

Delegates, the election is just 12 months away. We only tear up Howard's extreme laws if we win that election. And let me tell you, I'm ready for it. Ready to build the infrastructure projects essential for a globally competitive economy - our roads, bridges and ports. Ready to log all Australians on to a super-fast communications network that brings them on-line to the world. Ready to build an Australian fuels industry - a modern, diversified industry with cheaper, greener fuels to end our dependence on foreign oil. And ready to invest in the institutions that strengthen our communities and build our kids' future - our universities, TAFEs and schools.

Mine will be a government obsessed with nation building because it's obsessed with the future. That's the immeasurable distance between me and John Howard. My high-skill, high-tech nation - his low wage race to the bottom. My nation building broadband - his Telstra fire sale. My stake in Medibank Private - his bungled sell off. My kick-start for innovation and exports - his growing foreign debt. My passion for modern manufacturing industry - his ten long years of neglect. My investment in productive infrastructure - his plan for public servants' superannuation. My cutting edge Australian fuels industry - his dependence on foreign oil. My plan for renewables - his plan for nuclear reactors. My plan to protect Australia from climate change - his short-sightedness. My practical measures against terrorism - his wrong war in Iraq. My collective bargaining - his American style wage-cutting AWAs. My plan for our kids' future - his plan for his own future. This is my case for change.

Join with me as I make this great case for change. To build a different Australia. A new Australia built by the future Party. The nation building Party of middle Australia. Delegates, I didn't start this fight. You didn't start this fight. Working families didn't start this fight. But make no mistake - I'm going to finish it.


This is the text of the speech by the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, to the ACTU National Congress in Melbourne on 24 October 2006.


Also on the Evatt site:

Also on the Evatt site about the IR changes: