The Abbott government has rubbished nation-wide workers’ rallies and dismissed demands from the Senate that it put its money where its mouth is on penalty rates and minimum wages as a political stitch-up orchestrated by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
The demonstrations – staged in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Townsville, Mackay, Hobart, Launceston and Darwin – attracted tens of thousands of workers.
They turned out to condemn the Abbott government’s ‘attacks on workers’ – a response to news that the Productivity Commission will include penalty rates and minimum wages in an Abbott Government-commissioner review.
But a spokesperson for the Employment Minister Eric Abetz said the protests were “simply a continuation of the union bosses’ dishonest and partisan campaign against the Coalition Government”.
The spokesperson also alleged that the ACTU was behind a successful Greens motion in the federal Senate, co-sponsored by Labor, which called on the government to direct the Productivity Commission to stop canvassing possible changes to penalty rates and minimum wages.
“The purpose of this ACTU initiated vote was to create a false issue around the independent Productivity Commission’s evidence-based inquiry to fit the ACTU’s pre-printed scare campaign,” the spokesperson told New Matilda.
But the Greens say they did not discuss the motion with the ACTU until after it had been announced and covered by the media.
“Just because the Liberal Party takes regular instructions from big business and the Institute of Public Affairs, it doesn’t mean that other parties operate the same way,” Adam Bandt, the Greens’ industrial relations spokesperson, said.
The Secretary of NSW Unions, Mark Lennon, told New Matilda at the mass-demonstration in Sydney yesterday that people had rallied because they are “genuinely concerned about the attacks by Tony Abbott and Mike Baird on their workplace rights, their workplace conditions and their proposals to sell public assets”.
Not least among those concerns are possible changes to penalty rates and minimum wages.
Last week Senator Abetz said he was “surprised” that a sweeping Productivity Commission review of the workplace relations system, currently underway, was canvassing changes to those entitlements.
He committed the government to not changing penalty rates, minimum wages, or introducing any significant changes to the system, unless a mandate was won at the next election.
The Greens’ responded with a motion calling on “the government to provide certainty to workers and businesses by directing the Productivity Commission to exclude the minimum wage and penalty rates from its inquiry”.
New Matilda asked the Employment Minister whether, in light of yesterday's events, the Coalition would do as the motion suggests.
“The Government’s position has consistently been that it is the task of the specialist and independent Fair Work Commission to consider and determine the complex and fluid issues of minimum wages and penalty rates on a case by case basis and not the Parliament,” the spokesperson said.
While this is a fair description of how penalty rates and minimum wages are determined, it doesn’t address the widespread, and mounting, suspicions that the government is hoping the commission draws up a blueprint for government intervention at a later date.
“There’s no doubt that Tony Abbott is hoping the Productivity Commission will give them the ammunition they want to attack penalty rates,” Lennon said.
“Tony Abbott’s being very cagey about this. He learnt from the Work Choices debate not to try and rush these things through, but to chip away slowly. So it’ll be a deliberate attack for a number of years.
“Abbot’s modus operandi is very simple; ‘that we will chip away at these things and attempt to do things now by stealth – rather than come through the front door we’ll sneak these changes through the back door’.”
The government, though, took a swipe at union bosses like Lennon in a statement issued to New Matilda late yesterday, saying that “honest union members deserve honest representation”.
“The money [workers]pay for their membership should be spent defending their interests, and not wasted by dishonest union bosses running dishonest campaigns for the Labor Party,” a spokesperson for Abetz said.
But the thousands of vocal protestors who amassed outside NSW Parliament yesterday – not to mention the 40,000 who rallied in Melbourne, and the thousands in Brisbane – at least, thought it was money well spent.
Meg Pendrik, a member of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, spoke at the Sydney rally about what penalty rates mean to her.
“I’m here today because I’m sick of being taken for granted, and I want this federal government to actually listen to those of us who work in industries that provide 24-hour services,” Pendrick said.
“Penalty rates are recognition of our contribution to the care of the sick and dying.
“They acknowledge that while I miss my son’s soccer game, my daughter’s netball practice, my sister’s birthday and my son’s anniversary dinner, I have been an invaluable and necessary asset in the provision of a service that people expect.
“For many nurses and midwives – particularly those working mums and dads – these penalty rates help pay for our mortgages, pay for our child care. They put petrol in our car, they feed our families and they allow us to afford our own healthcare.”
Figures released yesterday show that those basic necessities are getting further out of reach, with net disposable income down by 0.9 per cent per person over the year.
The tens of thousands of demonstrators who turned out around Australia are concerned that any degradation of rights at work, when combined with cuts to services, healthcare and education will deplete their standard of living.
“You can’t cut your way to economic growth and it’s time the Abbott Government realised that and started delivering policies that benefit the whole community – not just big business and the wealthy,” Ged Kearney, the President of the ACTU, said.
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