17 September 2018

What a farce this motion is! The government is struggling to even get their own members in the House to debate it. The member for Forde seems to be suggesting that the economy is in good shape and there has never been a better time to be a worker in Australia. That couldn't be further from the truth. Working Australians know their part of the economy has gone into reverse gear: 30 years of experimenting with trickledown economics has failed to secure fair jobs, a living wage and fair pay rises for working people. It has failed to prepare a secure future for us, by failing to deal with the climate emergency and a just transition for workers in affected industries. It has failed our public services and the wellbeing of our communities.

The latest GDP figures show the continued poor return that workers are getting from the economy. While company profits are soaring, real living standards and incomes continue to fall. Company profits are growing more than five times faster than wages. Living standards are not growing under the Liberals and have actually stayed at the same level since 2011. The majority of Australian workers are seeing real wages decline. For the whole economy, real wages have stagnated. Real household disposable income is at the same level it was seven years ago. Workers have not been receiving their fair share of productivity improvements for a long time, while profits have soared.

Headline figures about unemployment levels provide a misleading guide when trying to judge the strength of the labour market. In recent years, the much of the job growth has been casual or part time. Those are jobs with no security and no benefits. Making ends meet has an uphill struggle for workers for some time. As housing costs and other expenses continue to rise, most working families now feel they are being asked to climb a mountain just to survive. Australia has forfeited its reputation for a fair go as income inequality has increased.

No, member for Forde, most women are not 'enjoying employment outcomes'. Women get paid less. Women are increasingly locked out of a secure retirement. Women make up the majority of workers who are reliant on the minimum wage. Women are more vulnerable to exploitative, casualised and increase forms of work due to deep-rooted social norms that women face. Women have more disruptions over their working lives by taking on the majority of responsibility by caring for children, family members or ageing parents.

The members opposite suggest that there are no grounds for panic over pay. They argue for patience and say that over time economic growth will produce a tighter labour market and an automatic rebound in wage growth. This advice is not convincing. I'm sorry, but it is very small comfort for those who are struggling right now. Any given rate of unemployment is now associated with a weaker pace of wage growth by virtue of the erosion of structural and institutional supports for wages. We need a comprehensive package of reforms to boost the power of workers. It is clear we need stronger labour market institutions and an alternative to the low-paid bargaining stream, which isn't working, if Australia is to return to normal levels of wage growth.

The key point is this: a tighter labour market is a necessary but not sufficient condition to boost wages growth. We need to have a proactive approach to getting wage growth on track again. A laissez-faire, sit-back-and-see approach simply won't hack it. Australia is facing an unprecedented wage crisis as average wage increases for the private sector, which account for 85 per cent of the Australian workforce, rose just 1.9 per cent and living standards remain at the same level they were in 2011. The asymmetry in power between the employer and worker in Australia has reached such a level that faster economic growth and a return to full employment will be insufficient to spontaneously boost real wages. A minor tinkering with our labour laws and waging fixing machinery would also be an inadequate response to the wage cuts.

We need a comprehensive package of reforms to boost the power of workers. We need to strengthen our labour market institutions and find an alternative to the low-paid bargaining stream. We need to institute a living wage, not a minimum wage. We need to raise public sector pay and regulate growing levels of insecure work. We should encourage union membership and help our unions to do their job in keeping wages commensurate with productivity, like they do in Europe and other high-wage countries. Only then will we see wage growth return to normal levels.