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Wednesday, 29 September 1999
Page: 10855

Mr HORNE (10:03 AM) —The self-proclaimed prince of power has paraded before this parliament pronouncing `More jobs, better pay'. Let me say here that the people I represent, the people of Paterson, do not see him as a white knight with a key to the future. In our region, where unemployment is twice the national average, people see him as the politician who uses dogs and thugs in the name of reform. This is a government that spent $350 million to get rid of over 1,000 jobs on the Australian waterfront. They claimed it was reform. The benefits would be immense, they said. They spent $350 million when everyone knew that what was needed on our waterfront to achieve efficiency was investment in equipment and infrastructure to modernise our docks.

The short title of this legislation is an illusion. It is not only an illusion but a slap in the face to workers and their families, the people in my electorate. This legislation is a personal and ideological vendetta for Peter Reith, the Minister for Employment, Work place Relations and Small Business. The Reith vendetta will see workers in my electorate compromise their basic working rights in a thinly veiled disguise of what he calls reform.

The Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999 reveals the illusion of reform that the Howard government is intent on trumpeting. This legislation is put forward by a government that stood opposite us thumping the table saying, `If only the opposition would allow us to make it easier to sack people we would employ more.' How easy do they want it to be to sack people? What a cynical approach to the development of Australian society. Where is the vision in this approach? How on earth can you fabricate a positive title like `More jobs and better pay' out of a negative? And that negative is retrenchment, and the word `retrenchment', as it echoes around the Hunter Valley today, strikes fear into the thousands of families where there is no breadwinner.

This minister has not been there since BHP announced its closure, since the mines have shed 2,000 jobs, since the Aberdeen Meatworks closed shedding 400 jobs, and he has the audacity to come in here and say, `This legislation is more jobs, better pay.' How can you respect a minister that has such audacity? To me, my colleagues and the workers of the Paterson electorate, this negative focus on retrenchment makes this legislation an ideological joke.

The title of this legislation belies the real push of this government. That real push is to do away with awards, to do away with penalty rates and to increase the competition between workers for the few full-time jobs that may exist. Obviously, this becomes a cut-throat world very quickly and, quite frankly, I think it will come as a surprise to the government that Australian workers do not want this type of dog-eat-dog world. They want job security, they want a valued lifestyle for their families. The workers of Australia believe they live in a community, not an economy. And how can an individual worker demand a fair go when there is such a large pool of unemployed?

We have seen reports from the transport industry in the last week that drivers are being forced to work longer hours to guarantee that they have a job. This cutthroat approach has led to increased accident rates and a transport industry that not only threatens workers but threatens workers' lives. It threatens the lives of all people who use the highways if we overwork our transport drivers, but this government would claim that is a small price to pay for the supposed reform they have brought about.

This week in question time I have listened intently as both the minister for workplace relations and the Deputy Prime Minister have praised the decision to do away with tallies in meatworks. In northern New South Wales these days you have to look pretty hard to find a meatworks—they are virtually all closed. Since the Howard government came to power, they have closed the meatworks at Gunnedah, they have closed the meatworks at Macksville, they have closed the meatworks at Grafton and earlier this year they closed the meatworks at Aberdeen. Well over 1,000 regional jobs have gone, jobs that will not return. The economy of those towns and their communities will face an undeniable and irrevocable downturn because those sorts of jobs do not come back to those communities.

The Deputy Prime Minister claimed that these reforms would yield greater efficiency and cheaper costs to the producer. There was no mention of workers and no concern shown for the 400 families at Aberdeen—in an area adjacent to his own electorate—where jobs are certainly at a premium. They do not exist. The associated mining areas in that part of the Hunter Valley have also shed over 2,000 jobs in the last couple of years. How about the efficiency and the cheaper costs that the Deputy Prime Minister refers to? Meat producers in the Hunter Valley, the cattle growers, are now paying $80 a head to have their cattle shipped live to Dinmore in Queensland for slaughter. Is that efficiency? Is that the reform this government is driving—driving jobs out of rural and regional Australia into our metropolitan areas? If that's efficiency, if that's reform, Australia can do without it. There is not a single export abattoir in the Hunter Valley today. Workplace relations such as those being proposed by this minister will ensure that not another one will take its place.

I also noticed in today's media that Justice Michael Moore has ruled that employers have a legal right to make the signing of Australian workplace agreements a condition of employment. This is a further push to oust the unions as representatives of workers' rights. Perhaps this was envisaged by the minister when he introduced this legislation a few months ago because he said:

These reforms will continue to give workers and employers at their workplace more choice and more opportunities to manage their relationships without the forced interference from unwanted parties.

The unwanted party that he refers to is the union—unwanted by this government, unwanted in the case of some employers. But in the case of many workers I know it remains the only organisation that they can turn to for a fair deal and that understands their needs—the needs of their family and of their community. This government has shown by many pieces of legislation, by the slashing of services to communities, that they do not particularly care about workers and workers' families.

I would suggest to the minister that there is no way he would have budged for the miners at Oakdale if it had not been for the strength of the CFMEU. The continual confrontation with the CFMEU to ensure that those workers got their just rights made this minister back down. But how many other thousands of workers out there are waiting for their rights? Many of them do not have a union to represent them. This minister would say that is good. He also knows that because they do not have a union to represent them they will not get their rights. They will never see their long service leave, their holiday pay, their sick leave. All those entitlements they contributed to while they were employed they will never get. This government will not ensure that they get them.

The Howard government has a perverse and tedious paranoia about unions. I am proud that I come from an area where union strength is a major part of the community. It is about the brotherhood of people. This legislation is all about reducing the power of the unions. Would the minister like to tell us how much his department has spent this year to advertise and promote a non-unionised work force? How eager he and his department are to tell workers, `You don't have to belong to a union; the government will look after you.' We are seeing how the government will look after workers.

The vendetta by the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, the Hon. Peter Reith, against unions involves a worker negotiating their own workplace agreement and in the event of a dispute appealing to the new conciliation commissioner, for a flat fee of $500. When there is a dispute because somebody does not like some of the conditions and they appeal, they have to front up and pay $500. Five hundred dollars may be a minimal amount to the minister or an employer, but to the breadwinner of a family $500 can be a month's repayment of the mortgage. It can mean being able to eat that month or not, it can mean the family having a holiday at Christmas or not and it can mean having something in the Christmas stocking or not. Five hundred dollars may be a nominal amount to a minister, but it is a gigantic amount to a worker simply to register a dispute. Once he does that, what happens to his job? His job is placed in jeopardy. The employer is aware that the worker is not content with the workplace relations, so how long will that job last?

In June the minister said that workplace relations does not only involve economic considerations; it is also about fair dealing between employers and employees and about social considerations. Australian workers are not stupid, Minister. Australian workers know full well where you stand and what you believe in. The same minister made the following statement when addressing a luncheon in Perth this year:

. . . let's not forget whose side we are on . . . let's not forget we are on the side of private capital.

This is a statement by a minister who does not realise that our society should be, and can be, a symbiosis of workers and employers. That is the ideal and that is what any minister should be promoting. But this minister is not doing so. This minister would rather promote conflict than consultation. This minister does not want peace in the workplace. He wants competition, because he knows that when there is competition between workers for the thing they value most—a job—that will drive wages down.

Mr Tuckey —It hasn't. Their real wages are up, Bob. They never achieved that in all the time you were in office.

Mr HORNE —The minister opposite might like to come to the Hunter and explain that to the 1,500 who will walk out of the gates of BHP for the last time with no job and no job prospect. That is the situation and it is something the Howard government will always be condemned for in the Hunter region. It took no step to stop BHP closing that steelworks—a steelworks that has been seen as the lifeblood of the Hunter region for the past 80 years and more.

The rhetoric of this government about work, family life and social consideration means absolutely nothing, and Australian workers will not be fooled. The Hunter region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, with a skills drainage out of the Hunter. The shameful thing is that most Australians like to consider that we have a family way of life. If you have a family that lives in the Hunter, be prepared that as soon as your children get to workable age, they will leave the Hunter. They will go to one of the capital cities because there are no jobs in the Hunter. That is a shame because the Hunter is diverse and it is one of the most productive regions in the whole of Australia. It has a larger population than has Tasmania and it is the biggest coal port in the world. It produces 85 per cent of the state's electricity, yet it cannot provide jobs for its own young. And the minister says, `Well, that's part of the small price of reform that we have to pay.' As I have said, this is an ideological vendetta at the expense of thousands of workers in my electorate. I have no shame in claiming I represent workers. I represent the workers of my electorate. The people of Paterson have one important and indispensable asset to barter with—

Mr Tuckey —As long as they don't work for the forests. You will not look after forest workers. You won't vote for the RFA when it comes back here.

Mr HORNE —I find it interesting that the minister opposite wishes to interject. I am quite happy to stand on my record of supporting forest workers. I also find it interesting that the minister, who has known that the New South Wales government signed off on the RFA for the North Coast last November—it has been with the minister opposite since last November—will not sign off. I can tell the minister that already they have stopped taking woodchip from the sawmills because they will not allow a carryover from 1 January. Until the minister signs off, that woodchip cannot be exported. Already there is a downturn in employment in the timber industry because of the action of the minister sitting opposite. Minister, your leader said the other day that you were the champion of blue-collar workers. All I can say is that you need to get your act together and realise that 10 months is a long time to sign off on state legislation.

The workers of Paterson have only one important and one indispensable asset to barter with—and that is their skills and their labour. This asset not only feeds their families and creates a valuable and enjoyable lifestyle but also benefits the whole of the country, as we develop our regions and our productivity. This government shuns this asset. It regards it as a commodity to be devalued and dishonoured. I support the amendment that this government should be condemned because of the stance it takes on Australian workers.