At a time of growing inequality, when the gap between the super wealthy in this country and ordinary people is growing, we know that something is badly wrong with this country’s laws when some of our lowest paid and youngest workers can have their pay cut. This bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017, if passed by the parliament in this sitting fortnight, will prevent the unfair Fair Work Commission decision from coming into effect. We know that many people, especially young people in this country, are being screwed over right now. We just need to look at what is happening with the cost of education, the cost of housing in particular, the rising cost of health care and so on. We know that what is happening in this country right now is that young people are being screwed over. Many of them rely on their penalty rates to make ends meet, to pay their rent or their mortgage and to put food on the table.

Right now, the rules of the Fair Work Commission allow them to reduce the living standards of these people. They allow the commission to take things backward, and that is why they need to change. This bill will maintain the independence of the commission, but it will change the rules—which, we have seen, are unfair—so that young people and vulnerable workers cannot go backwards.

It is time right now for the crossbench to decide where they stand. Senator Xenophon, Senator Hanson and Senator Hinch need to decide whether they stand for protecting wages or for cutting them. They often talk a big game in their home states about standing up for ordinary people, for battlers, but what we have seen, particularly from the One Nation party, is that when they come to Canberra they vote with the Liberals time after time. In this case, doing so would be an attack on people’s rights at work.

The Greens are very proud of having led the national debate across so many areas. Obviously we are the party that took on the issue of dangerous global warming at a time when no-one in this parliament was even talking about it. We have been leading the debate on housing affordability and, in fact, led the charge on reform to negative gearing and capital gains tax reform. We are very pleased that the Labor Party has shifted its position and has joined us on that, as it has on the debate on a royal commission into the banking and finance sector. Before the last election, the Greens were the only party that committed to legislating to protect weekend penalty rates of pay, and now we can see why that has to happen. We are indeed pleased that the Labor Party has changed its position and that Senator Lambie has joined us, so that we can stop this decision from coming into effect before it is too late. Initially, we had some concerns about Labor’s bill still allowing the commission to phase in penalty rate cuts over years by offsetting those cuts against cost-of-living wage increases, but this new, agreed, joint bill is now bulletproof.

It might be hard for members of the government to imagine it, but I ask them to look at the world that young people are facing right now. We have an unaffordable housing market. People are being locked out of it. The drawbridge is being pulled up in front of them as baby boomers, who enjoyed affordable housing, are now looking to enter the property market to purchase their third, fourth or fifth home while young people are being locked out of purchasing their first. We are seeing low levels of student assistance. We are seeing massive HECS debts. All of those mean that the cost of living is rising. So cutting weekend rates of pay, which are often the only thing that allow people to pay the rent and keep studying or do other things that they need to to get by, would place them under immense pressure.

This government has made its priorities crystal clear. It is using this week in parliament to make hate speech easier. We have seen in the lower house, just today, legislation being introduced to give huge, big tax cuts to the big end of town. We are seeing an attack on the social safety net. Indeed, quite literally at a minute to midnight last night we saw passed legislation that would take money out of the pockets of families who are doing it tough right now. Besides opposing all of these moves that will deepen income inequality in Australia, the Greens say that one of the most important things that we can do over the next week or so is stand up for young people, for those workers who rely on penalty rates to make ends meet. Make no mistake, those people are waiting to see if parliament is going to act to stop those cuts. Those hundreds of thousands of people are set to lose many thousands of dollars. They are inching closer and closer to a future that is becoming more uncertain, more difficult, one where they are going to have to sacrifice even more time to make ends meet. There are even some reports today that the effect of these cuts will be felt for many, many years. The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work released a report warning that at current levels of wage growth—we have to remember that wage growth has been stagnant now for a number of years—it would take 17 years until higher base wages for retail workers offset lower penalty rates. That is what this government is doing. Let us be really clear about this: in an environment where housing prices are out of control and where wage growth is stagnant, the government is taking an action that will ensure that the losses from these cuts may not be recouped for at least 17 years. It is doing this at the same time as it is saying, as the member for Deakin did: ‘Well, what you need to do if you want to buy a house is get a highly paid job. Just get a better job.’ Too bad if you are trying to crack into the housing market at a time when wages are stagnant or indeed being cut.

This bill lays down a challenge for the government, which says that it is doing all that it can to help ordinary people. That has been shown to be a lie. Indeed, that was shown just last night, when we saw those big cuts to social security payments. But it is a challenge also for members of the crossbench, those people who sit here, who talk a big game in their home states about standing up for the battlers and yet vote with the Liberals almost every time and attack people’s rights at work. The question is: are Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, Nick Xenophon and Derryn Hinch simply a branch office of the Liberal Party? Have they become simply a faction of the Liberal Party?

Our job in this Senate is to hold government to account. That is what people elect the Senate to do, to be a check on executive government, to hold government to account. The Greens have shown that we are prepared to do that, that when it comes to seeking to be a check on executive power it is the Greens who are the genuine alternative to politics as usual. People know that the Greens will stand up to this government. We now know that the Labor Party, which has changed its position, will stand up to the government on this issue. We know that some of the Independent crossbenchers will do that—Senator Lambie has indicated that that is also her position. So the question now is for Senator Xenophon, Senator Hinch and Senator Hanson. What will you do when you are forced to decide whether to support this government, indeed its big business mates, cutting the wages of ordinary people? Will you side with them or will you side with those voices in this parliament that want to do something about growing inequality?

This parliament acts far too often in the interests of a privileged few. They act for their powerful mates, mates in big business, mates in the coal industry, mates who are big Liberal Party donors. And, too often, they act against the interests of people in the community. This week we have seen that on display. We have seen cuts to the social security net, we have seen cuts across a range of areas like health care and education, and now we are seeing a Fair Work Commission cut to penalty rates. We have seen the government refuse to take on the issue of housing affordability by tackling what we know is the critical policy reform required in that space—that is, negative gearing and capital gains tax reform, along with other measures that the Greens have put forward. The Greens, the Labor Party, and Senator Lambie have put this challenge to the government, front and centre. We are in a situation where people’s livelihoods might go backwards. We have to decide whether we are going to do something useful in this place and stop it, or whether we are going to see the growing gap between the super-wealthy and everybody else continue to get bigger.

Chamber

Senate on 23/03/2017

Item

BILLS – Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017 – Second Reading

Speaker :Di Natale, Sen Richard