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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 26822

Dr EMERSON (6:26 PM) —In January this year, Labor's national conference endorsed its policy platform. The part of the platform that deals with industrial relations policy was endorsed unanimously. The platform is built on four pillars. The first pillar is the restoration of the right to bargain collectively, supported by a fair award safety net, and a requirement on the parties to bargain in good faith. This pillar includes the abolition of Australian workplace agreements, or AWAs. Labor strongly supports workplace-level enterprise bargaining; after all, it was Labor that introduced enterprise bargaining in the Hawke-Keating years.

The second pillar is the restoration of the capacity of the independent umpire—the Australian Industrial Relations Commission—to settle intractable disputes that the parties themselves cannot resolve. This would be only as a last resort. Labor is committed to preserving the primacy of workplace bargaining as the chief means of determining wages and conditions of employment. The third pillar supports on-job security, including guaranteeing all employee entitlements in the event of corporate failure and addressing the use of casual employment for staff who have been employed on a regular long-term basis. The fourth pillar rectifies the imbalance between work and family life that is experienced by so many Australians.

The Howard government has systematically misrepresented these policies at every opportunity. Most of the policies were also in the 2000 national platform. The main changes were to add a new section on work and family issues and a reference to defining casual employment. This has not stopped the Howard government from making statement after statement that the economy will grind to a halt with massive job losses if this so-called new platform is implemented. If Labor's industrial relations policies were truly threatening to business, the Howard government would not need to misrepresent them so grossly. Why does the Howard government make blatantly false statements? The answer is that, if the government accurately conveyed Labor's policies, there would be no cause for alarm in the business community. But that would not suit the government's political purpose, which is to alarm the business community in an effort to galvanise support against Labor. I suppose that is politics, but do we really want and need the politics of the `big Liberal lie'?

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism and the Minister for Employment Services have all joined the Prime Minister in making false claims about Labor's plans for Australia's workplaces. I know that these ministers are not doing this inadvertently out of ignorance of Labor's policies. I know this because I have refuted their false claims in my press releases and in my published opinion pieces and letters to the editor. I know this because I have contacted ministers directly to point out to them the falsehoods in their statements. But, to remove any doubt, I will go through each of their fictitious claims and refute them one by one.

The first Liberal myth is that Labor will mandate an entitlement to part-time work. The Prime Minister is fond of this myth. Most recently, he said on ABC radio on 1 February 2004:

The mandating of an entitlement to part-time work sounds great in theory in the context of a work-family balance policy, but very hard for a small business ... if you've got only a couple of employees you need them full time. And if you're told by law, well you can only have one of them part-time and you must make provision for part-time ... for a person running a small business with two or three employees, that becomes a nightmare.

The reality is that Labor's policy does not mandate such an entitlement. Labor's policy would give parents returning from parental leave—most often mothers—an entitlement to ask for part-time work if they so wish. Employers do not have to accept this request if it is unreasonable for their business. Reasonableness will have regard to the size and nature of a business. So a small business that has only a few employees and cannot accommodate part-time work would easily be able to show that the request is not reasonable and it would not, therefore, have to provide part-time work. We know why the Prime Minister felt the need to falsify this policy: our policy was recommended to him by his own interdepartmental task force into work and family issues. The task force also noted that there was previously a similar provision in federal awards, but it was taken out through the Howard government's award-stripping process.

The second Liberal myth is that Labor would mandate for casuals to receive the entitlements given to permanent employees. The Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment Services, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and the Minister for Small Business and Tourism have all made false statements on this issue. The Prime Minister was reported in the Australian on 19 January 2004 as saying that Labor's policy is, `You've got to pay the casuals all these leave entitlements as well as the loadings.' On 18 March 2004, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations told a mines and metals conference, `Employers will be forced to offer permanent positions for casual workers.' The Minister for Employment Services said, in a press release on 9 March 2004, `Labor plans to increase the cost of casual employment.' This was kicked off by the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, who made a blatantly untrue statement in his press release of 5 February. He said:

Firstly, the Labor Party intends to force employers to provide additional benefits to casual employees, such as holiday and sick leave. This ignores the fact that many casual employees already receive loading to compensate for these benefits.

The ALP intends forcing its solution on the workplace, where many employees have chosen casual employment for the flexibility it offers.

The reality of Labor's position on this issue is very similar to that for parents and part-time work. The government is deliberately ignoring two key aspects of our very simple proposal. First, like our policy on part-time work, this proposal is not mandatory for either employees or employers. Second, there will be no adding of paid leave or other entitlements to the casual loading. The proposal is based around a provision that is already in several awards, including the metal industry award and the hospitality industry award. Neither industry has collapsed under the weight of this light-touch regulation. The provision in these awards allows regular, long-term casuals to ask for permanent work if they wish. Employers can refuse if it is unreasonable for their businesses. If casuals do convert to permanent employment, they gain access to the usual entitlements of permanent employment—like annual leave and sick pay—but they lose their casual loading. How does this lead to an increase in the cost of casual employment, as claimed by the Minister for Employment Services?

The third myth is that Labor will introduce a national portable long service leave scheme. This myth has been perpetrated by the Minister for Small Business and Tourism. It arises from a private member's bill put forward by a member of the ACT parliament, which the minister insisted on attributing to the ACT Labor government—even though he was personally told at a breakfast that the ACT government did not support it. The reality is that neither the ACT government nor federal Labor supports a national portable long service leave scheme.

The remainder of the government's myths about Labor's industrial relations policy come mainly from the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. He made a whole swag of false claims in his speech to the Australian Mines and Metals Association in Perth on 18 March 2004. The fourth myth is that business will have to bargain with union bosses rather than negotiate directly with workers. The reality is: Labor's policy does not involve the abolition of non-union workplace agreements; they will continue. Nor does it seek to remove common law individual agreements, which cover much of the work force.

The fifth myth is that government contracts would go only to union-friendly businesses of which Labor approves. The reality is that government contracts would go only to businesses which meet their legal obligations—hardly an unreasonable requirement, but obviously unreasonable in the Howard government's view.

The sixth myth is that union collective bargaining would be the norm. This is beyond policy; it is just unrealistic in an environment where unionisation rates are around 23 per cent. As has always been the case, many working Australians are not covered by awards and are simply employed under common law contracts. The abolition of Australian workplace agreements will hardly affect this at all, since less than three per cent of working Australians are covered by them after eight years of legislated existence.

The seventh myth is that secondary boycott provisions will be removed from the Trade Practices Act. The reality is that this is misleading. These provisions will be put back into the Workplace Relations Act.

By insisting on misrepresenting Labor's policies, the government proves that Labor's actual policies are not bad for business or for the economy. If they were, there would be no need to distort them. Labor support productive, harmonious workplaces. Our policies are balanced, fair and are good for Australia's future. Our economic reforms in government made the Australian economy more competitive, more resilient and more adaptable. Our reforms led to a decade of record productivity growth. We now embrace a new economic reform agenda based on skills formation and innovation—the keys to a new round of productivity growth. But Australia's resulting prosperity must have a purpose. It needs to be fairly shared and it has to create opportunities for all Australians. This can and will be done by a Latham Labor government, and it will be done in a way which does not harm business or job creation. We do not agree with the Howard government's low road to low skills and low wages. We will withdraw vulnerable Australians from that race to the bottom and enter them in a race to the top—of high skills and high wages for the benefit of all Australians.