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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 716


Mr WINDSOR (1:00 PM) —I will be supporting the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002 and follow some of the arguments of the previous speaker, the member for Calare. In terms of the process that has evolved in this place, one of the comments he made was in relation to the dogma-driven division that occurs here, particularly in relation to industrial relations. It seems to me, particularly from a regional perspective, that we have a fairly odd set of circumstances where both sides of the parliament are essentially in agreement in relation to the economic framework under which the nation operates, but we still have this great division in terms of the politics of the place concerning the industrial relations framework.

I have been involved in a number of small businesses over the years—a farming business, an earthmoving business and those sorts of things—and I am interested to note the number of people in this place who are making decisions in relation to the future of small business people, and the number of those people who have actually been in any form of business at all. Until you have actually been there and experienced some of the concerns, the toing-and-froing, the risk-taking et cetera, that small businessmen have to encompass in their daily lives, I do not think you fully appreciate the fears that are out there.

There are a number of numbers being bandied around about how many jobs will be created through this legislation if it is, in fact, passed; how many unfair dismissal claims there have been—is it going up; is it going down—in the last six years. Those sorts of numbers are handy to have, I guess, in terms of people's arguments. But there is no doubt—and the member for Calare touched on this as well—that there is a fear within the small business community that, in conjunction with the litigation-led society we have tended to drift into of recent years, it is unfair or could be unfair to some small businessmen if this sort of legislation does not get through the parliament.

Along with many other members in this place, I have encountered some abuses of the process, in my view—using unfair dismissal claims to really jeopardise some small businesses. I cannot say it has been a lot. But having had interaction with the people that really do experience these concerns at that particular time in their business, the cost to their business and the pressure that applies to their business, given all the other pressures that are involved, I believe it is something that this parliament should look at seriously.

A little bit of history in relation to my involvement as a member of the New South Wales parliament concerning this particular area: in the 1991 parliament, when John Fahey, the former finance minister in this place, was the industrial relations minister in that place, mine was the deciding vote that allowed the New South Wales industrial relations legislation to proceed through that parliament. I am not unhappy, in the 10 years that have gone, with supporting that particular legislation. I was also very supportive of the current Premier, Bob Carr, in his attempt to come to grips with workers compensation arrangements in that state.

I note that he not only suffered the wrath of the union movement at that time but also the wrath of the Liberal Party and the National Party in terms of trying to grab hold of the workers compensation issue and actually do something about it. There is no doubt that unfair dismissal claims are part of a portfolio of problems, in my view, that small business has. I am fully aware that workers compensation has a state based legislative framework, but it does have an impact, and I was pleased to support the Labor Premier in New South Wales trying to come to grips with that. I believe the current minister, Della Bosca, is also trying to do some more in relation to that particular area.

I was also involved with the Pioneer Concrete subcontracting issue in the New South Wales parliament. As an Independent back in the 1991 to 1995 period I was able to broker a solution to that problem. I have not seen the particular individual here yet but Senator Steve Hutchins was the chief of the Transport Workers Union at that time. Steve and I were involved in trying to broker a solution with the then minister for industrial relations and now opposition leader in New South Wales, Kerry Chikarovski. I was also involved, through the committee processes, in coming to grips with the security of payment issue to subcontractors, where there have been some enormous inequities perpetrated by large companies on smaller subcontractors over the years. There is progress being made in relation to that particular issue.

Many people have said that there are other issues that the government should be involved in in relation to small business. I will not get into the argument as to where unfair dismissal falls in the gamut of concerns, except to say that it is one of the concerns that small business people do have. But there are many others, and I agree with the opposition when they say that there are other impediments, particularly to country business. It reflects a little bit on the framework of the government's policy and that of the Labor Party prior to this government coming to power, and on the patchy benefits that competition policy and some aspects of economic rationalism have had for country businesses. I would like to list a few of those in the brief time that is left to me.

In a sense, the message coming from the policy framework that is emanating from this place is to get big and not to get small. I think that is damaging, because the very essence of country communities is and always will be based on the growth and prosperity of small business and the relationship that they can establish between their workers, their families, their schools et cetera. But the message that is emanating from this place started with the Keating government and has been carried on by the Howard government, and it is a very subtle message of: if you are not big, if you cannot generate these cost efficiencies, you are not part of the equation. One of the reasons I have come into this place is to try to talk some sense into the people who believe that the most effective way to exist is to move to a feedlot on the coast. I do not agree with that at all.

Insurance is a cost to small business that I know the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, Mr Hockey, is currently looking at. I am also aware that some powers that be in this place are tending to water down the approach that Minister Hockey may have had. I support him in his attempts to show some leadership in coming to grips with this issue. I had a phone call this morning: the Tamworth clarinet choir has had to stop a performance at Bingarra, which is nearly a couple of hundred kilometres away, because of the costs of insurance. The last time I saw people going berserk with clarinets is in my deep dark memories. They are the sorts of things that are happening in country areas that need to be addressed. There does need to be some leadership shown at a federal level in relation to those problems. I encourage Minister Hockey to move on and keep going with that issue because the general public, the small business community and many others are behind him.

The fuel issue is a classic case where small businesses in country areas in particular are suffering. I was a supporter of the need for some form of consumption tax throughout the mid-1980s when I was involved with some of the farm organisations. One of the real difficulties that the government has caused small business in particular is the fact that fuel taxation is based on something between a 50 and a 60 per cent GST, not a 10 per cent GST. That has implications for all business, particularly for small businesses because they do not have the economies of scale of some of the bigger businesses, but particularly for regional businesses, which are not the beneficiaries of any discounting by the fuel companies. I urge the minister in the chair and the government to look very closely at that issue. If they are really concerned about small business and the competitive aspects of this nation relating to other nations, why are we charging 60 per cent GST on fuel? We have 48c a litre being charged at the moment. We raise $12.5 billion that way and then we have many members in this parliament come in and say, `We are very concerned about the future of small business.' If we are concerned about the future of small business we should be doing something about that burden of fuel taxation that we are placing on those very businesses.

Workers' entitlements arrangements also come into the gambit of workers' rights and the capacity of workers to have their entitlements looked after. I support the general thrust of legislation to encompass workers' entitlements. We have just been through an incident at the Hillgrove mine in my electorate where an overseas company looked as though it was going to remove itself from its obligations. I thank the minister in the chair because I think he was involved in some way in helping to bring that company round to make sure the entitlements of those workers were given out. I understand there is a scheme of outworkers' entitlements, but I think it is something that needs to be tidied up. Like the unfair dismissal laws, there is a fear in the bosses and the people who own the companies and, equally, there is a fear in people who are working for, particularly, the overseas companies, that their entitlements are not guaranteed. Companies and business people have to recognise that it is the workers' money they are dealing with, not their money. I would support initiatives to make sure that that is structured in this particular parliament.

I would like to mention a number of other issues, briefly. Regarding the Telstra issue, if we are serious about coming to grips with competitive business, particularly in regional areas, there has to be more done in relation to the equity of telecommunications and country communities. The very framework I spoke about earlier has a classic involvement with Telstra. There is no way that a fully privatised Telstra is going to look after the smaller communities. The very principles that a fully commercial operation would have prevent this—and I do not think the government can bind a commercial company to anything that is going to be structurally certain for future years. I encourage the government to look seriously at that particular issue.

In conclusion, I support the legislation. It is overdue and many small businesses will be pleased to see it go through the Senate.