In a keynote address opening Day 2 of the conference, Mr Shorten said Australia thrives when working class and middle class Australians get a fair go and when they have growing living standards.
“To me it is not an either/or proposition that an economy creates work for people or a society that looks after them,” Mr Shorten said.
“We need both and each depends upon the other. It is what Australia is about - common effort and shared reward.”
But, the Opposition Leader said, many Australians feel like they are putting in yet being left behind and he blamed stagnant wages growth. Lifting Australians’ living standards needs to start with a lift in wages.
He said the nation is enduring the longest period of wage stagnation on record at the same time as cost of essentials keeps rising.
“I believe that getting wages moving, wages growing is a first order priority for the nation and for the government,” Mr Shorten said.
“I think it’s the right and fair thing to do for people. And it’s essential for growing our economy and growing the confidence of people.”
Mr Shorten said underemployment was also hurting Australian workers with many reporting they want to work more hours but can’t find them.
“Underemployment traps our fellow Australians into insecure work. It also effects every worker in the economy because it depresses wages outcomes,” he said.
“If we have this persistent problem of underemployment, if it stays at this level modest gradual improvement in the overall unemployment rate doesn’t help workers catch up with years of flat wages.”
He noted Australia also has a damaging overreliance on skilled visas.
“Perhaps during the mining boom this was understandable but there’s no excuse in Australia for a skills shortage to last one day longer than it takes to train an Australian,” he said.
“That’s why properly funding public TAFEs and apprenticeships are core economic business for Labor.”
Mr Shorten was also critical of the lack of a clear wages policy in Australia. This, he argued, has allowed a break down in our industrial relations system and said Labor would fix the flaws in the system used by some employers to drive down wages and conditions such as offshoring, cuts to penalty rates and entitlements and the “aggressive” use of labour hire to replace permanent jobs.
He said we were seeing a winding back of the clock to before enterprise bargaining with ramifications across the economy.
“It effects the whole of our economy by undermining confidence, by dampening consumption. I think this nation is long overdue to rebuild the link between profits, productivity and pay,” he said.
Mr Shorten outlined Labor’s proposed wages policy which, he said, would get enterprise bargaining off life support, reverse unilateral cuts to Sunday and public holiday penalty rates, crack down on the misuse of labour hire and other forms of exploitation that drive down pay and tackle the gender pay gap.
“At our current rate of improvement on the gender pay gap it will take 150 years for Australian women to earn the same as Australian men,” he said.
“We need to do more to boost the pay of women who work in feminised industries; jobs that are vital to our future, of our economy, our society like healthcare, like the NDIS, like aged care.”
Mr Shorten said Labor also had an alternative to the Turnbull Government’s tax cuts plan that would give back almost double the tax refund the Government is offering. Labor’s tax cuts would be targeted to the people who need them most and they would circulate in the economy and build confidence.
“When people have money to spend that is a rising tide that lifts all boats,” he said.
He described stages two and three of the Government’s tax cut plan as “an irresponsible plan from an irresponsible Government” that the Opposition could not support.
And he hit back at Government claims that the Opposition was practising class warfare.
“Surely credentialed governments don’t just try to stimulate confidence in the economy, don’t just make promises which can be paid for but they also build policy buffers that safeguard our nation to protect us from external pressures,” he said.
“They don’t bet the house based on the basis of continued good times for the next seven and 10 years.
Mr Shorten said, stage three of the Government’s tax cuts would cost the budget $33 billon over just five years with 80 cents of every one of those $33 billion going to the top 20 per cent of income earners.
In addition, he said, the Government had failed to explain how it would pay for the tax cuts and something would have to give – in the form of increases in other taxes, cuts to services or a bigger interest bill on the national debt.
“You simply can’t take a quarter of a trillion dollars out of the nation’s ATM in the next seven and 10 years without explaining what you do,” he said.
Mr Shorten argued the money could be used instead to fund TAFE, apprenticeships and extra university places as well as unfreeze Medicare, increase the patient rebate or help people with their out of pocket medical costs.
“Government can afford to invest in these services. They can afford to invest in the future of our nation’s infrastructure, in the productive capacity of our people in our safety net of the fair go all round. They just choose not to,” he said.
Referring to CEDA’s Community pulse 2018: the economic disconnect report, Mr Shorten said “This economic disconnect leads perhaps the real challenge, a sense that the fair go all round isn’t the fair go all round.”
“CEDA has a richly deserved reputation for digging deeper than the headlines and getting to grips with the substance and I think your report this year is a standout.
“It's important to get away from the noise of the parliament and hear directly from our fellow Australians about how they're going. I have to say in that context I was terribly interested to see the research published by CEDA yesterday. You got it right. CEDA just nailed it… The economic disconnect between Australia's long run of growth and people's sentiment that they're not sharing equally in the promises, in the benefits that their living standards have not improved.
“We think the best economic plan for Australia is to include all Australians in the economic plan – get the safety net right, get the wages policy right, get the productivity humming. Work with people not dividing people.”