Release type: Speech


Address to AWU National Conference, Gold Coast


The Hon Bill Shorten MP
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation

I want to acknowledge today the loss of two workers in Victoria: Katie Peters and Steven Kadar. Some of you will be aware that Katie and Steven were fighting the Harrietville-Alpine north bushfire in Victoria last Wednesday, when a tree fell on their emergency vehicle, killing them both. I understand that Katie was just 19, she had hopes to be a vet.  Steven was 29, he loved the high country. But also, Steven was an AWU delegate. 

These two people worked with the Victorian Department of Sustainability, Environment as fire fighters. They were doing their jobs - demanding jobs, clearly dangerous jobs. They were protecting their community and they have paid for their worth and their courage with their lives.  As all of you know who've ever been in a workplace marked by fatality or severe injury, nothing is ever the same and I, like the union, extend my condolences to their families.

But what I also know, and this is the story which never gets written, and it isn't done to be written, but it deserves to be written, is that, every day and every night all of you do the work that those Victorian branch organisers did in the hours and days after this tragic loss: visiting the families, trying to help fill a hole which can never be filled, making sure that the workmates are supported, helping investigate how such things can be avoided in the future. Every day you do this difficult, this stressful, this emotional task of standing up for other people. It isn't the work which sells the newspapers, but I tell you what, it's the work which makes me proud to be an AWU member. That's what you do every day; that's why I'm here to pay you respect, because you stand up for people. 

In fact, whilst I acknowledge that you've finally got around to presenting Bill Ludwig with his life membership - which in itself will be the hardest 50 years of life membership anyone's ever going to earn and well deserved. What it reminds me of is that this union is bigger than any individual and the work we do, and unionism is bigger than any individual.

I am very proud to carry in the Parliament of Australia every day, my union membership card.  You give me immense pride. I am what I am because of you. There wouldn't be a day goes past where I don’t apply my union organising experiences in all manners of representation in the Parliament. Be it issues to do with people disability, be it superannuation. I am, and indeed the Labor Party is, what it is when it's at its best, when we remember where we come from, and remember what get us up in the morning every day and drives us every day until we finish work every evening. It's the Labor movement values which make, I believe, the Labor Party the preeminent political force in Australia.

Now I respect your leadership. Frankly I'm blown away by how Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig have taken this union from strength to strength in recent years. It's a remarkable accomplishment. You're whole national organisation - the state branches all deserve recognition. You do good things, and you've got to keep believing in yourselves and the good things you do.

I am happy to hold up my union card, because I know there'll be some anonymous editorial writers in some of the right-wing media who will say: how terrible it is that a minister would hold up his union card. Well you know what, I am pro union. I am not embarrassed to use the word union. Unions have contributed much more good in this country than any other institution in Australian democracy outside of the Parliament of Australia.

So I say again, and I declare, I am pro union. But before the editorial writers and some of the vested interests on the right, write to say well this is bad, let me also say to you - whether or not these words will get the same coverage I don't know - but I'm pro jobs and I'm pro employers and I'm pro businesses and I'm pro families - and I don't care what shape or form a family comes in. I don't even care who you want to marry.

But the reason why I say what I'm for is because Australian unionism across its history and the history of this union is a good history and it's a good present and it'll be a good future. See I know that when the critics say unionism's had its day that in fact there's no more work for unions to do, you go tell it to people who die at work. You tell it to the families of those victims. You tell it to people who are getting underpaid. You tell it to people who require their penalty rates to make ends meet. If you want to say that unionism has no future, you tell it to the people who have an insufficient amount to save for their retirement, when it's unions fighting for better retirement incomes.

See I know, I understand and I believe that what AWU delegates and members and officials and the leadership do every day, is they would seek cooperation in the workplace. They would dismiss and eschew and reject disharmony and conflict. All our members want is to be paid fairly, to be paid reasonably so they can get ahead. So they can pay their housing mortgages, so they can educate their kids, so they can have a holiday, so they can retire on something approaching a reasonable form of dignity.

I know modern Australian unionists seek cooperation in the workplace. I know that you every day work with employers. I know there's many employers out there who seek cooperation with you. And I know that there's many employers out there who are generating the value and profit, which employs our members. I think it is logical and reasonable and sensible that Australian workers in combination with Australian employers create the national wealth of this country. And it is entirely appropriate that unions would seek the fair distribution of national income being the fruits of the work of Australian workers.

How can this picture of the economy and society be out of date? When did cooperation go out of date? When did the rejection of exploitation go out of date? In fact it has never gone out of date. The fact is, that what you do every day, is you make sure, that there's a little more equity in the workplace than there would otherwise would be if you weren't there.

I don't believe that what you do in the workplace is bad, I think it is good. What worries me is when you're not present in the workplace, then who speaks for those people? How do we avoid these people being unfairly dismissed, made redundant without their appropriate conditions, not working in safe environments. Our movement and your organisation and the organisation I'm a life member of, we are as relevant as we were a 127 years ago and we'll still be relevant long after some of the editorial boards of some of the critics are long and truly forgotten.

But let me report to you about who else is standing up for working people, and you know who I'm talking about. You heard from her last night. Friends the Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard and the Treasurer Wayne Swan - who will be addressing this conference today - they're standing up for you too, and we should respect and support them.

And they're standing up in tough times. You know, there's been something like 470 pieces of legislation passed in this Parliament since September 2010. And we've won most of this legislation - when it's a vote - by one or two votes.

Now if your favourite football team was winning every game by one goal or two goals that would inject of level of stress into the supporters. But when it's 470-nil, the scoreboard's on our side.

And whilst we shall never own the forms of communication in this country, no one can take away from us our ability to tell the stories and tell the facts. And some of these 470 pieces of legislation let me briefly remind you what this scoreboard is.

Got rid of WorkChoices.

Better road safety for the long distance truck drivers, outworkers getting treated properly, lifting superannuation from nine to 12 per cent - what a shame that Robert Menzies never did it. The national disability insurance scheme, a steel plan, an aluminium plan, stronger anti-dumping laws - all specifically driven I have to say by your leadership. Equal pay for women working in the community services sector, a plan to remove asbestos in buildings in the next 20 years. Oh yes, there's the tax cuts. If you earn $50,000 a year you're paying $1,500 dollars less. You're paying thousands of dollars less in tax because of a Labor Government. Paid parental leave. The Fair Entitlements Guarantee can't be just taken away by a Coalition Government if they got elected.

These are not too shabby these changes. When you're at Easter catching up with the in-laws, and they might be going rogue and voting Liberal, given them that list.

But there's more to be done. What is wrong with the Fair Work Commission at last having the jurisdiction to deal with workplace bullying complaints? We know the state regulators are under resourced and overworked. It's time we made sure that bullying was a workplace relations issue, which we know it is. We've got to get that through in the next two months.

And I say to the delegates here from Esso I haven't forgotten the six hundred days, or arguments, where the company tried to change the rosters without a regard to the impact. We're putting the clause in the model clauses which says that employers have to genuinely consider the impact of roster changes upon your family life. That'll make - that'll even it up a bit for people.

So friends, that's standing up. When you hear people say: oh they're not really doing what Labor Governments do, tell them to put that list in their pipe and smoke it.

But indeed as you will hear in more from our Treasurer today we hear a lot of doom and gloom about how Australia's going. Not only do they think that unions and Labor don't have a role anymore, but Australia can't compete with the rest of the world. Well give this list to your family at Easter: tax to GDP - our tax take is a smaller portion of GDP than it ever was under Howard. They say they're the low taxing party. They were the big taxing party. That's a fact.

Do you know when Labor came into power were the 17th largest economy in the world - we’re now the 12th.  Unemployment five point four per cent is difficult, but it compares very well to most of the industrialised world. Interest rates: as they say at Coles down, down, down.

And if you take the size of our economy based on our population, we’re fifth in the world. Fifth. And the other thing is that when people say that Australia’s not going so well, why is it that the rest of the world wants to come and live here.  Our population’s growing faster than the average of the world, because the secret’s out friends, this is a great country and people want to be part of it. You look at our superannuation savings, larger than our economy. That was something which the Liberals opposed whenever they could get a chance, to get out from under the policy doona.

The global financial crisis, our economy’s grown 13 per cent since then. Most of the rest of the industrialised world would love that set of numbers, and perhaps most importantly for a union Labor gathering: we have been in charge when there’s been an 850,000 extra jobs created.  That’s a test of a Labor Government. 

So there you have it. Both on the industrial front and the economic front, there’s a reason for us to hold our head up.  And if that wasn’t sufficient reason friends, then let me remind you of what the alternative is: we need to make it clear for the Australian people and to the Australian media that politics should never be a game of the Liberals hide their policies and we seek them. Hide and seek is not acceptable. 

We should demand, in the voices of which we’re able to rally, to say of the Opposition: we think workplace relations is important. It is not good enough that the only things they’ve announced in workplace relations is union baiting and union bigotry. It is not enough for them to smear everyone in the union movement with the actions of a few and say, therefore, all unions are the same.

Did you know that since 2003, there’s been thousands of prosecutions under the corporations law of companies? Did you know that hundreds of directors and senior managers have been jailed? I never see a speech in Parliament from the Coalition about the evils of business, but dare I ever say that I’m pro union, they all come out from under their rocks and they want to blame the union movement for everything.

We need to fight back. We need to make it clear as only unions and Labor can that we stand on the side of not the top one per cent of Australian society, but the rest. And it is not good enough for the opposition to think that they can get into power by hiding their policies. That is an insult to Australian people. What I understand though is that when you look at Campbell Newman, we see a peek from under the rock of what Coalition governments do. They sack, they slash, they burn. Mind you, you’ve got Premier Baillieu in Victoria, not going to work a sweat doing too much. Why should he? He’s a Baillieu.

But what I do know is that Liberal governments make bad employers. How else can you explain alienating every nurse in Victoria, how is it you can explain triggering the biggest ever government teachers’ strikes in the history of Victoria? They even got the Catholics out. The reverse industrial miracle from you know… I can’t figure that one out myself. One bullet, two enemies, I don’t know.

But what I do know, is that Premier Baillieu said he’d look after teachers and make them the best paid in Victoria.  There was just fine print; I’ll make one in ten of you the best paid.

It’d almost be funny if it wasn’t true.

So we know what Liberals do when they get power. They break their word to the workers. Now there are some tests coming up in the Australian Parliament.  Will they support the Government’s measures for people to be able to request flexible arrangements when they’re returning from maternity leave? Will they support us tackling workplace bullying by using the Fair Work Commission? Will they support a simple requirement that there be genuine consultation about roster changes affecting longstanding workers? Will they support reasonable reforms to the right of entry laws? 

See if they say that after September 14 if they’re elected you can trust them. We don’t have to take it on faith alone. We don’t need to pray for some divine intervention.  We can see how they vote - before the election. So when people tell you that they’ve learned their lessons, even though we can’t see their policy. When they say that all they’re against is bad unions, when they’ve never said anything about good unions. When they cry their crocodile tears for workers -   what will they do on the National Wage Case this year? Where was their submission on the penalty rates review? Nothing and nowhere. 

Don’t mention the war, don’t come near us, let’s hope we can sneak our way into office.

That is why I have confidence in Labor, because I believe, and I know you believe, that the proposition that’s standing up for working people is an action which never goes out of fashion.

Everything which the people before us have done brings us here to this spot in time. But as I’ve said, we in this current time are the people who will build our accomplishments for the future.  We’re an iconic union, from Dame Mary Gilmore to Henry Lawson. Just about every big fight the AWU has been somewhere near it, or in it. And now it is our turn to step up and stand up.  Some people say, that as I said, it’s all too hard. The polls are terrible, what can we do?

Well friends, with the strong leadership you have from Prime Minister Gillard, with the strong leadership that this union exhibits - as I said, in many times tough, unglamorous, unreported circumstances. The time has come for us to explain to the Australian people that we stand alongside them, we stand in front of them, we stand for them, because we are the optimistic believers in the future of this country. 

We know life expectancy’s extending, we know that there’s more to life than just work. We know we’ve got to smooth our prosperity. And we know we’ve got to be healthy. We know we want our kids to be better educated than we were and we expect them to educate their kids better than we did for them. But I know something else: at 127 years old we’re going to have a lot more birthdays than a lot of our critics. 

Thank you very much.