HON. WAYNE SWAN MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LILLEY
TREASURY LAWS AMENDMENT (WORKING HOLIDAY MAKER EMPLOYER REGISTER) BILL 2017
WEDNESDAY 9 MAY 2018
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I rise to oppose the Treasury Laws Amendment (Working Holiday Maker Employer Register) Bill 2017, which seeks to strip away protections from a uniquely vulnerable group of people in Australia, working holiday-makers. This bill is ripped, if you like, straight out of the trickle-down playbook of the Turnbull government. To businesses who wish to employ working holiday-makers, the Turnbull government says, 'We'll quietly remove the need for you to publicly list on the Australian Business Register.' The Turnbull government says to these businesses: 'You can be a nonentity. You can employ working holiday-makers, treat them however you like and pay them whatever you like.'
Instead of shedding light on the galling practices of these employers, the Turnbull government is going to shed darkness. That's par for the course with this government. At the mention of any movement towards the bright light of transparency, whether it's for big business or for shonky operators, the government recoils like a vampire. The government sides with shonky operators, basically because it's prepared to tolerate this exploitation. We've seen them oppose Labor's moves on tax transparency. When we proposed that public companies tell us what they pay in tax, the coalition ran away from the light. We saw their resistance to transparency, indeed, in the parliament this afternoon, when the Treasurer couldn't or wouldn't reveal the cost of his company tax cuts or the yearly cost of the income tax cuts. We're seeing it in this bill as well. It is a chance for the Turnbull government to step into the light and expose employers who overwork, underpay, harm and mistreat working holiday-makers in this country.
Labor will not take a backward step in exposing and opposing the practices of these businesses. We will expose and oppose the practices of the Turnbull government, as they are, in some instances, allied with exploitative employers. This bill is merely another bungle that the Turnbull government has banged on the back of the backpacker tax. The package that passed the parliament in 2016 required a mandatory registration process for employers of working holiday-makers. Visa holders could check the public register to see if a business was a legitimate employer of working holiday-makers. There are real concerns about the unconscionable exploitation of working holiday-makers by some businesses.
This bill strips working holiday-makers of the ability to look up details of a registered employer and will affect their ability to choose an employer who will charge the correct level of tax and pay them a fair wage. The register was one aspect of the original bill that did allow for greater protection of working holiday-makers against exploitation. Given the significant cases of exploitation in this area, that is why we stand in strong opposition to this bill.
The Turnbull government claims to be the champion of choice, but of course it says for big business, 'You're free to choose,' but it says to workers: 'You're simply free to lose. You're free to lose your hard-fought-for penalty rates for weekend work and overtime. You're free to lose your sense of job security, whether that's safety at work or the security of having a job at all. And you're free to lose your job if the employer can find and exploit a migrant worker who can do it cheaper and who won't complain.'
In this country, almost one in six Australians are underemployed or want to work more hours. One in six—that's almost 1.9 million Australians on the fringes of the labour market in this country. And, if you're aged 15 to 24, you have a one in three chance of wanting more work. That is 660,000 Australians. These numbers are the shame of this government.
We had a chance to reflect on these matters this weekend in Queensland. Last Monday was Labour Day. It was a chance for the labour movement to reaffirm what history tells us: working people can make a difference, and working people can change a country. All of the great reforms of the 20th century came from the labour movement, the unions and the Labor Party working together: a decent minimum wage, Medicare, a fairer and more progressive tax system, a strong voice for working people—the list is long. On Labour Day we acknowledged that the labour movement frequently has to defeat powerful vested interests that seek to crush the voice of the people. Indeed, this bill has been subject to the power of those powerful vested interests in the amendments we are debating today.
For us it's a difficult task because we have to organise against people who are well funded, wealthy and powerful corporations who control the public megaphone, who seek to drown out our voice. But on this side of the House we choose to fight those people, to take them on in the parliament and particularly to take on those who run the Turnbull government, including the cheerleaders and puppeteers in the Business Council of Australia.
In recent years, I've focused a lot on these issues in the parliament. I've talked a lot about the imbalance of power, the imbalance of influence and the imbalance of class. It's not because I'm particularly chippy or resentful, and it's not because I've become a Marxist. It's simply because class is now a live issue in our nation, and I see it pounding the lives of people in the community I represent and around the country. I see it with my constituents. I see it in the youth unemployment figures. I see it in the insecure work which now comprises something like 40 per cent of the workforce. It is a real issue in Australia. It's changing our politics, and it's changing our society.
I've been particularly fired up about it since the global financial crisis because what I have found in our country is something that is quite ugly. It's something that I wasn't prepared to have found but something that I've seen that is new. That is a growing self-interest and arrogance of what I would call an overpaid and overpowerful corporate elite, who are generally the people who are dictating the policies of the Turnbull government. These people have been in the dock at the royal commission into banking throughout the last few weeks. Their arrogance and their blindness of affluence has infected corporate life in Australia.
Of course, these are the people that working people have to deal with every day. They seek to bolster their self-interest at every turn. The culture of too many boardrooms is not just selfish but now obviously ranks with malpractice, as we have seen at the royal commission. There's a sick race to the bottom going on to minimise tax, to casualise their workforces—all the way through that process, barracking for lower wages and, of course, cuts to investments in health and education.
In office, and over the last five years, the Labor Party in this parliament has fought for the big structural reforms that we need to secure a prosperous and fairer economy and society. But at no stage through any of that process have the overpowered corporate elite who run this government put their hand up for the very big structural long-term reforms that are required to secure our future. They wouldn't stick their hand up for negative gearing, a sensible price on carbon, the Gonski education reforms—the list is long. What we do see in Australia, like the rest of the developed world for that matter, is a capitalist economy which is dominated now by a plutocratic family model backed up by an overpowered and overpaid corporate elite. They do want an economy run by the rich, for the rich, and that's what we're getting. And nothing from the budget last night sticks out more than the obscene tax changes put in place to flatten the progressive tax system and hand massive tax cuts to people who earn incomes like ours and well above.
When I was growing up, my father had an attitude about the world he lived in. He went to war. He came back. He was distrustful of the big banks and the big oil companies. His generation had witnessed the Depression and the Second World War. They fought for freedom when they went overseas. They came back. They had plans for a big society, a great society, in which the fruits of that economy were fairly shared amongst working people. They fought for that. They changed it. They fought for it and they were successful.
Over the last 30 years, that has been wound back. The beneficiaries have been a relatively small elite on very high incomes who dictate this government's budget and dictate this government's tax policy. It was there last night in black and white for everybody to see the rank unfairness of it—the destruction of the personal progressive income tax system, where someone on $37,000 would pay the same rate as someone on $200,000! To present that budget to this parliament in an environment where there is growing inequality around the world, which is polarising politics, is simply insane. It shows you how far to the right those opposite have drifted and how far they have come from the national interest.
In this simple bill this one amendment that we are objecting to today says it all. Why couldn't there be a register so we can stamp out malpractice? Why couldn't that continue in the bill? I'll tell you why. It's because some vested interest got hold of them, or some loony in the Senate dictated to them that it must be changed. What I really find troubling about our country, and particularly the activities of organisations like the Business Council, is that at every turn they smear collective action. At every turn they smear the role and importance of government and, in particular, collective action from trade unions. They tell a great lie about our society. They say it's divided between makers and takers. This Ayn Rand view of the world goes to the core of where they come from, how they make policy and how they present their budgets. Of course, they are the makers. And they just think the takers should take what they can get—and business should of course do whatever they want. And that goes back to the amendment in this bill.
We on this side of the House know we need collective action. We know we need unions. There's a power imbalance in our country. Franklin Roosevelt said it all in the 1930s:
Our first truth is that the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.
They are very profound words—and very profound public action flowed from those words. Progressive taxation came from those words. Breaking up monopolies came from those words. The union movement came from those words. But this government is now controlled by trickle-downers and plutocrats. F. Scott Fitzgerald said of plutocrats: 'They think they're better than we'—that is, they think they are the wealth creators and the rest of us are just leaners, hanging around.
Today, I want to say very clearly in this House that history shows that working people can make a difference, and we'll make a difference again. We will run down this budget because of its rank unfairness and because there is a profound sense of unease, insecurity and unfairness in our society. This bill before us today is a reaffirmation of why we need a strong labour movement that's proud of its history and unapologetic about where it stands and who it represents: the economic interests of working people. History will be made again as we turn back the trickle-down policies of this extreme right-wing government that occupies the government benches.