Labor’s overtime and penalty rates protections "can’t be stripped away".
Australian Labor Party on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in a post on the ALP website
Labor says its workplace rights can't be stripped away
The Gillard government says it has done great things for workers and that its protections can't be taken away.
In 2011, the Gillard government added penalty rates and overtime payments to the list of National Employment Standards.
Seeking to portray itself as the ally of workers, and the Coalition as antipathetic to worker interests, Labor suggested the Coalition had a secret intention to restore WorkChoices-type initiatives that so damaged the Howard government’s re-election prospects in 2007.
On its website, the party declared in bold letters that, "Labor has delivered strong protections for conditions like overtime and penalty rates that can’t be stripped away."
Labor has been making the claim consistently for a couple of years. In 2011, then Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, issued a media release that said: "The Labor government introduced National Employment Standards and modern awards that can’t be stripped away, including penalty rates for working weekends, late nights, public holidays and overtime pay."
He was not alone in the labour movement. The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Dave Oliver, declared weekend penalty rates were locked in "forever".
Their fanning of a scare campaign against an Opposition which had pledged a day prior to Senator Evans’s media statement that "we will not be taking away penalty rates" (Liberal workplace relations spokesman Senator Eric Abetz) coincided with widely reported business musings that penalty rates needed winding back.
The issue here is not the Opposition’s trustworthiness and whether a Coalition government would stand by Tony Abbott's pledge last Thursday that no worker would be worse off under any changes to the Fair Work Act. Labor's words – "can’t be stripped away" – suggest an irrevocability about its protections for penalty rates and overtime payments. If that is true, nothing the Opposition might secretly plot on that front would be of consequence. Like the host of a 10th birthday party, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.
One of our guiding principles here at PolitiFact is that words matter. Ordinary voters would surely hold that "stripped away" means removed or done away with. So Labor's promise is tantamount to a guarantee of irrevocability, an assurance that penalty rate and overtime provisions will outlast the hardy cockroach.
We asked the ALP how it arrived at its claim, what "stripped away" meant in this context and whether this form of words could reasonably be interpreted as a guarantee that the right to penalty rates and overtime payments could not be revoked by any authority, including the Australian Parliament. Alas, we did not hear back.
Labor's point seems to be that it has enacted a series of national employment standards far superior to anything a future government could pursue.
But experts told us it's simply not true to suggest that a future Coalition government could not revoke Labor’s penalty rate and overtime protections.
Richard Pye, Deputy Clerk of the Senate, told PolitiFact: "If Parliament enacts a law, it can legislate it out. Parliament can amend or repeal any statute so long as its actions accord with the Constitution."
Haydon Manning, head of politics and public policy at Flinders University, Adelaide, said Labor’s guarantee was secure only so long as "Labor is in office".
Manning said that, "a Coalition government, with the right numbers in the House and the Senate, could reverse the law if it so wanted." Indeed, it can make any law consistent with the Constitution.
Labor says on its website that overtime and penalty rates protections "can’t be stripped away."
But we find it's simply not true to characterise any party's policy as permanent. What legislatures can give, they can take away. And that makes Labor’s penalty rate and overtime protections as durable as the Parliament’s will, and potentially a lot shorter than eternity. Our ruling: False.
Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Labor is for workers, Australian Labor Party website, accessed May 5, 2013
Chris Evans, then minister for tertiary education, skills, jobs and workplace relations, media release, August 16, 2011
Dave Oliver, secretary Australian Council of Trade Unions, National Press Club address February 6, 2013
Haydon Manning, associate professor and head of politics and public policy, Flinders University, telephone interview, May 3, 2013
Richard Pye, Deputy Clerk of the Australian Senate, telephone interview, May 3, 2013
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