Industrial Relations Amendment Bill passed

Today Abigail supported the majority of changes in a bill in pursuit of a pro-worker agenda, after 12 years of worker neglect in the pubic service.

Abigail said: 

As The Greens spokesperson for treasury, finance and economy, for industry, jobs and trade and for work, health and safety, and as a proud unionist, I contribute to debate on the Industrial Relations Amendment Bill 2023. This is an important bill. It is a bill that has been a long time coming. After 12 years without a proper pay rise—12 years under a hostile, anti‑worker Government and an anti‑worker industrial relations regime—our public service has been left splitting at the seams and crying out for relief. The shameful mismanagement of our greatest public asset, our workforce, over the past decade of conservative rule has a long tail and we will not fix that overnight. It is in that context that this well overdue reform emerges.

Labor recognised the issue and made an election commitment to reform the industrial relations regime in New South Wales and to abolish the cruel and economically damaging public sector wages cap. Labor chose to vote against abolishing the wages cap last year, but does not like to talk about that. The Greens policy has always been for the abolition of the wages cap and for the reformation of the Industrial Relations Commission to ensure it is an independent and neutral body, free from the undue influences of conservative governments of all stripes. I acknowledge the work of my colleague the member for Newtown, Jenny Leong, for being a strong voice and advocate on these issues as well. We are glad to see this bill taking these steps. The main objects of the bill before us are:

(a)to amend the Industrial Relations Act 1996 to—

(i)re-establish the Industrial Relations Commission in Court Session, and

(ii)provide for mutual gains bargaining, and

(iii)require the Industrial Relations Commission … to take into account the New South Wales Government's fiscal position and outlook in the exercise of the Commission's functions about public sector employees, and

(iv)repeal section 146C concerning the duty of the Commission to give effect to government policies on conditions of employment of public sector employees prescribed by the regulations,

The bill makes other related consequential changes. I point particularly and crucially to the fact that the legislation before the House removes section 146C of the Industrial Relations Act 1996, which, as we say, previously required the Industrial Relations Commission to give effect to government policies on the employment conditions of public sector employees prescribed in regulations. In effect, this was the provision that enabled the imposition of the public sector wages cap. The Greens support the majority of substantive changes proposed in the bill and we welcome, finally, the final removal of the wages cap from legislation. We also absolutely welcome the re‑establishment and reforming of the industrial relations system by the re‑establishment of the Industrial Court and acknowledge the work of unions, the union movement, members and the commitment of the Labor Government over this year, and the then Labor Opposition over many years, in attempting to re‑establish that court and to provide an independent umpire for workers' protection in this State.

The Government will make much of its mutual gain bargaining framework. I for one am relieved that it remains voluntary. It sounds to me like it is just another case of requiring workers to trade conditions for salary increases. I wonder how exactly the Government is expecting to find productivity improvements from teachers, nurses and paramedics. These workers are already at breaking point and have been working at 110 per cent capacity, if not more, for years and years. Thankfully, with the removal of the wages cap and the reassertion of the independence of the IRC, we will see unions once again able to run work value cases. This is where our public sector workers will see the greatest gains. We all know full well that our public servants have been chronically undervalued, and any fair‑minded commissioner will surely find the same. An element of this bill I am particularly pleased to see is the re‑establishment of the Industrial Court, turning the Industrial Relations Commission into a one‑stop shop for industrial disputes and arbitration as well as providing a separate industrial court for judicial purposes. This means returning the work health and safety jurisdiction to its rightful home, within an expert institution, to the benefit of all parties.

I turn now to the amendment of section 146 (2), which will require the commission to take into account the New South Wales Government's fiscal position and outlook, and the likely effects of the exercise of the commission's function on the position and outlook. In what I understand was a bit of a compromise to the unions, this bill also inserts a new object of the Act, which is "to encourage strategies to attract and retain skilled staff where there are skill shortages so as to ensure effective and efficient delivery of services". And it is in these two proposed amendments where this bill gets far more controversial. Much has been made of the Government's commitment to scrap the wage cap. The Minister tells us that they are achieving that goal by repealing section 146C. As we say, section 146C is that section under which the commission must, when making or varying any award or order, give effect to any policy on conditions of employment of public sector employees declared by regulations to be such a policy—excellent. So it looks like the wages cap is scrapped, or is it? Proposed new section 146 (2) requires the commission to take into account a different, but not entirely dissimilar, consideration when it comes to public sector wages—the "fiscal position and outlook" of the Government.

Instead of referring to a wages policy of the Government, presumably, the commission can now look to the Government budget documents as an indicator of the levels of wages that the government of the day can currently afford. On the face of it, we might think that looks like a far more independent and valid way for the commission to determine wages but, in reality, it is anything but. No‑one can stand in this place and tell me with a straight face that the budget is not manipulated by the government of the day, and the truth is that what a government can reasonably afford to spend on any particular item of expenses is a product of countless government decisions along the way—decisions that it could make differently, if it were incentivised to do so. For example, a government might have a poorer fiscal outlook because it has chosen not to raise royalty rates on coal sufficiently. A government might have a poorer fiscal outlook because it has chosen to let casinos off the hook of paying higher taxes. It might have a poorer fiscal outlook because it has chosen to prioritise infrastructure costs and have made more borrowings and hence have higher debt repayments—not the current Treasurer, in particular.

My remarks apply to all potential Treasurers. So rather than being subject to a wages cap under a regulation, public sector workers in this State could just as easily be subject to a wages cap of sorts that is a creation of the Treasurer of the day's making—the budget. Thankfully, the commission must only take the fiscal position and outlook into account, rather than being obliged to apply a wages cap, as was previously the case. But this amendment is a curious inclusion from the Labor Government, one that has made us, and many in the union movement, uncomfortable about its application in practice. This becomes doubly important when you consider the particular budget handed down by the Treasurer this year.

Cue the Essential Services Fund—$3.6 billion over four years set aside to fund increases in public sector wages. It is an actual line item for the commission to refer to when determining exactly how much of a wage increase the Government can afford to pay the public sector workers of this State. Nurses, paramedics, teachers, prison officers, police and childcare workers are all fighting it out for a piece of the $3.6 billion pie. These two amendments cannot be logically separated. The Government is saying, "Yes, we're scrapping the wages cap, but only if you accept that wages will be constrained by what we declare to be our fiscal position and outlook." Rather than it being an across-the-board "everyone gets 2.5 per cent" style of cap, it is a cap on the total amount available for increases, which the various unions then have to battle over to get a decent deal for their members. It is just as arbitrary. Budgets are about choices—the choices of the government of the day—just as the wages cap was a choice of the previous Government.

It is no wonder that unions fought hard to include the new object, designed to sway the commission to side with the sectors suffering most from skills shortages—never mind the unskilled workers in the public sector, like the cleaners, who would benefit from simply having a fair wage. It is telling that the attempt by my colleague the member for Newtown, Jenny Leong, to balance this object out with reference to unskilled workers was unsuccessful. Ideally, the reference to fiscal outlook would be removed from the bill, but the late hour at which the bill has come to us, and the threats to the union movement filtered back to members in this place that we must pass the bill unamended, have stymied attempts to strengthen the bill and address those valid concerns. I sincerely hope that the anticipated "part two" of this legislation will be proposed in better faith. Industrial relations legislation is vitally important for many workers in this State, and we will create better legislation if we are able to scrutinise its contents properly, with input from a broad range of stakeholders.

Workers in this State have been an afterthought and a punching bag for far too long. The Greens believe that the workers of this State deserve respect, and for their contribution to our shared prosperity to be properly recognised through their wages and conditions. For too long, workers have shouldered the burden of government mismanagement of the State's finances and lack of ambition on proper economic reform. Unlike the major parties, The Greens are not in the pockets of the bosses. We will not stop pushing for a more equitable redistribution of wealth from the big end of town. We will not back down on demanding our workers are paid what they are worth. We look forward to continuing to pursue an unashamedly pro-worker agenda and keeping the Government accountable to the people who elected them. The Greens support the bill.

To read the full debate, see Hansard here

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