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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 691


Mr LINDSAY (10:43 AM) — All of us in this place have about 7,000 small businesses in our electorates—there seems to be a similar number across the country—and Townsville and Thuringowa in my electorate are no exception. We have some very good performing small businesses and some poorly performing small businesses, but at the end of the day they all have to employ people to operate. Small businesses tend to work very hard and they are very focused on making a dollar at the end of the day.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002 has, in various forms, been presented in this place on a number of occasions and it has not been successful. But the government is determined to pursue the successful passage of this legislation because of the benefits that we see for the small business sector and Australia. There are arguments on the upside and the downside but, at the end of the day, the upside far outweighs the downside that might be articulated. I note that the opposition are articulating what they perceive as the downside, but I am puzzled, because their argument tends to be mutually exclusive. On the one hand they say that this legislation is unfair because it leaves employees without any protection and, on the other, they argue that it will impose additional costs on small business because there is legal redress of employees through common law. You cannot have it both ways; you cannot say that it leaves employees without protection and then say that small business will have problems with the protection process. That puzzles me.

I also do not understand why the Australian Labor Party opposes something which is plain, downright commonsense. I know it to be that because I ran a small business for 25 years. Before my time in the federal parliament, I variously employed small numbers and large numbers, numbers not covered by the current legislation and numbers covered by the current legislation. I know—as every other small business manager knows—that when you are going to employ a person you are mindful of the consequences of taking on an additional person. The other thing that you are extraordinarily mindful of when you are running a small business is that, if you have got good employees, you do not dismiss them; you keep them. Your employees are your best asset. Above all else, having a good employee is the thing that gives most benefit to your business. An employee who is a good employee and who works well has no fear that they might be unfairly dismissed—no fear.

I concede that there will always be sharks in the community—there always are—but they are just in an extraordinary minority. Most small businesses are family-oriented businesses. They run their business in such a way that their employees are part of the family, effectively, and no-one wants to face the very difficult situation of having to dismiss an employee—you avoid it wherever you can. I do not see that what the Australian Labor Party is trying to argue holds up in practice—it just does not. From my experience it certainly does not hold up.

The member for Chifley made a point earlier about a minor who had some difficulty with an employer. What he has failed to point out to the House and to recognise—and I do not think he did it wilfully—is that minors are generally apprentices or trainees, who are specifically excluded from this legislation. That is a sensible part of the proposals that the government is putting forward.

Why is there this strident opposition to what seems, on the face of it, to be very sensible legislation? I can only assume that it is the stranglehold that the unions seem to have on the Australian Labor Party. Why the opposition does not think about the country or making it easier for our unemployed to get jobs I do not know. I am very disappointed to see that the Australian Labor Party would prefer to be beholden to the unions rather than to do what is good and right for the country.

This bill is about little people. It is about small businesses that just want to be getting in there, doing their thing, making their dollar and not having to have a human resources section—businesses that can confidently focus on making sure that they survive and, more than that, do well. We have to be very supportive of the small business community in the country and we have got to let them have their run because, at the end of the day, commonsense says that you will not unfairly dismiss a person who is working very well for you. Big business is okay, of course, and that is why there is a limit on the number of employees covered in this particular legislation.

I know of a case where a dismissal claim was raised which put the small business out of business—in fact, it was the Townsville Tile Centre. You know what it was about? An employee was stealing from the company—they stole something in the order of $100,000. The manager of the company—for pretty obvious reasons—decided to dismiss the employee. Well, there was the greatest court case you ever did see and there was a settlement, but it broke the business. That cannot be allowed to happen.

I have talked to the Townsville Chamber of Commerce. I said, `What is your advice to me? What are your members saying?' The Townsville Chamber of Commerce is a very vibrant organisation. It is very switched on and very much in tune with small business in the Townsville community. It represents the community very well. Its president, Peter Duffy—who incidentally is a lawyer—said to me in no uncertain terms, `Pete, you've got to understand: businesses are not inclined to employ extra staff because of the prospect of an unfair dismissal claim.' Well, there you are. A respected community leader in my community confirms what the government has been saying. He confirms that the current position of the law militates against the employment of additional people. Why should we stand for that? Why can we not recognise, as legislators, that we need to change the legislation? And of course the bill before the House this morning is the way to do it.

I ask the Australian Labor Party, in the spirit of the words and the philosophy that they espoused after the last election, to reconsider their position. I ask them for the sake of people wanting jobs and I ask them for the sake of Australia. I certainly strongly support this bill. I have on previous occasions supported the bill and I hope that, in this instance, we will be able to get the bill through the parliament for the benefit of those seeking a job.