Australian Workers Union National Congress – Broadbeach Queensland


Australian Workers Union National Congress

Jupiters Conference Centre, Broadbeach QLD

Tuesday 19 February, 2013

It’s a privilege to speak to an organisation older than the nation itself – forged fifteen years before Federation.

The AWU was formed to protect the rights and working conditions of shearers and labourers.

Under a tree in outback Queensland, it helped form a political party to do the same thing.

It’s the reason we have things today like the workers compensation. Like Medicare. Like superannuation.

Why we don’t have WorkChoices.

This is a union that over a century, hasn’t just changed the lives of it’s members – it has changed Australia.

It has made it a better place and a fairer place.

It has done that with Labor Governments.

The challenges we face in the 21st century are very different to those of the 19th century.

But the reason those shearers formed a union, and then a party, are still just as important and just as relevant today as they were over 120 years ago.

It’s to improve the lives of working people. That’s our job.

And it is a never-ending task.

Today one of the big challenges we confront is what is happening to manufacturing.

A high dollar is hurting.

It makes the challenge of competing against low wage economies even harder.

That’s why the Prime Minister announced a $1 billion Jobs Plan on the weekend. The Prime Minister spoke about it here last night.

I won’t go through it again, except to say this – it shows how serious we are, and it’s the sort of thing only a Labor Government would do.

I grew up in a manufacturing home.

My father was a draftsman at the same company for 23 years.

I still remember the day he came home and told us he had been retrenched.

It was the early 1990s. Recession had taken the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians.

I never thought my old man would be one of them – and I’ll never forget the shock and the feeling of insecurity that ricocheted through the family.

He was one of the lucky ones. He got another job. A lot of other people never did.

That same story is playing out right now Europe and the United States. 8.4 million jobs were lost in the US in the last few years – and there are still more than 23 million people unemployed in Europe.

The decisions we made a few years ago stopped that happening here. It stopped a recession, and all that brings. It stopped hundreds of thousands of people like my father, and your members, from losing their jobs.

That only happened because there was a Labor Government in power.

It’s not the only thing we did.

In 2009 I was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Employment. One of the things I was responsible for was the GEERS scheme.

Many people here will remember GEERS: the General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme.

Its purpose was to cover workers’ entitlements if the company they worked for hit the wall and didn’t have the funds to pay out what they owed their employees.

There were two big problems with the GEERS scheme.

It wasn’t law. It could be abolished by a government at any time.

And it didn’t properly look after people who had worked at the same company for decades. Under GEERS they were entitled to a maximum of 16 weeks redundancy pay.

We changed that. Working with Dave Oliver and Paul and others, I developed the Fair Entitlements Guarantee.

It guarantees all worker’s entitlements including redundancy pay (up to a maximum of four years for each year of service), all annual leave, long service leave and up to three months unpaid wages.

We took that to the last election.

Last year Bill Shorten introduced that legislation. And it’s now the law.

Australian workers are now have that guarantee.

It means people who have worked at the same company for 20 or 30 years now have the security of knowing that they will get up to 4 weeks redundancy pay for every year of work – if the worst happens.

This wasn’t the case until last year.

It only happened because of the work we did together.

It only happened because of a Labor Government.

I am now in charge of anti-dumping policy.

The strong Australian dollar, a weak global economy and surplus commodities out there looking for a market, have made Australia a target for dumped goods.

In the last couple of years this has meant that the workload on our anti-dumping system has tripled.

And expectations are that this will continue.

We are a trading nation.

Boosting trade is critical to our success – and dumping is a threat to that.

In simple terms, it is cheating, and it can cost Australians their job, it can hurt Australian industries and it can undermine confidence in free trade.

That is why it is important we have a strong umpire to make sure that people play by the rules.

Last year I asked John Brumby, the former Premier of Victoria, to give me advice on the best structure for Australia’s anti-dumping administration.

He recommended establishing a new Australian Anti-Dumping Commission.

That’s what I have done.

In December the Prime Minister, Greg Combet and I announced we would establish a new Anti-Dumping Commission.

This month I introduced the legislation. It passed the House of Representatives last week.

It will start operating on the 1st of July.

We are also making sure the Anti-Dumping Commission has the resources it needs – giving it an extra $24 million – to double the number of investigators.

I am also boosting its powers.

In the next few months I will introduce legislation to:

  • impose higher duties when rules are broken;
  • increase infringement notice penalties; and
  • make it easier to retrospectively apply dumping duties.

Again – this is the type of reform only Labor Governments do.

Let me give you one more example.

The work we do can’t just be about supporting the businesses and industries we have today.

It’s also got to be about creating new ones.

I want to tell you about one of those.

A new industry for a new century: building submarines.

We have committed to build 12 new submarines.

It will be the biggest defence project Australia has ever embarked upon. A multi-billion dollar project.

It will create thousands of jobs and work for hundreds of Australian companies, right across the country.

More than this it will create a new Australian industry.

This is why this is not just an ordinary defence project. Most defence projects involve the purchase of equipment over a relatively short period of time – and then we maintain that equipment here in Australia.

This is different. It will take decades to build 12 submarines, and by the time the last is built the first will need to be replaced. It’s not a short project. It will go on and on.

It will create an industry that could last for a century or more. And that industry should be here in Australia.

It also has flow on benefits. It will build skills useful for other industries and technology that can be applied elsewhere.

It will also build the capabilities and skills of our universities and our technical colleges.

Building submarines is no easy task. They are complex machines.

We need a very skilled workforce to build them.

The key to building this skilled workforce is a continuous ship building plan with long term, predictable work.

We don’t have this now. Instead we have got a valley of death. A gap between the ships we are building now and the submarines we will build in the future.

We’re currently building three Air Warfare Destroyers – at Newcastle, Melbourne and in Adelaide.

A lot of AWU members work at these sites.

Construction of the submarines won’t start until a couple of years after they are finished.

In between is a gap – where there is no work and we risk losing all the skills we need to build this new submarine industry.

We need to fix this. I started that work as Minister for Defence Materiel – and have now handed that over to Mike Kelly.

You can expect to see more on this in the months ahead.

If we get this right it will build a new naval shipbuilding industry for Australia.

It is a nation building project.

It’s the sort of thing the Liberal Party wouldn’t do – they are more likely to build them overseas.

But we can do this here, and we should.

Think about the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Another difficult and complex project that had its doubters.

In 1949 Ben Chifley, described it as “the greatest single project in our history”. He said, “This is a plan for the nation and it needs the nation to back it.”

This is just the same.

The result will be good for Australian industry and Australian workers.

They are just a few examples of the things we are doing – that only we do.

Whether it’s Medicare or Superannuation, protecting workers’ entitlements, setting up an Anti-Dumping Commission, a $1 billion Jobs Plan or building submarines in Australia.

These are the things that only we do.

That only Labor Governments do.

You know that.

So do I.

We are the inheritors of the work started over a century ago by shearers and labourers at Ballarat and Barcaldine.

The challenges we face are different, but the job hasn’t changed.

To improve the lives of working people.

To help build the country of their imagination.

A stronger and a fairer Australia.

And I look forward to building that with you in the months and years ahead.

– ENDS –