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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 42

Dr SOUTHCOTT (12:16 PM) —I note that I am speaking after one of the many former ACTU presidents who sit with the Labor Party in this parliament. What that serves to highlight is that the next election will be the most audacious union grab for power we have ever seen, at a time when only 20 per cent of the workforce are members of a trade union. When only 15 per cent of the private sector workforce are members of trade unions, we still see one workplace that is fully unionised—that is, the federal parliamentary Labor Party caucus. It is no obstacle to preferment, to advancement, to elevation if you are a former trade union official. Twenty-six of the 30 Labor frontbenchers are former trade union officials. Actually, after the next election, win or lose, it will be even worse, if you can believe that, because the best Labor seats are being set aside for current trade union officials, for the union bosses. In my state of South Australia, in the seat of Port Adelaide—a Labor seat since Federation—the Secretary of the LHMU, Mark Butler, is to be the Labor candidate at the next election. The other key union official, Don Farrell, the Secretary of the SDA, is to be a candidate for South Australia for the Senate and will replace Linda Kirk, a lawyer, an academic—(Quorum formed)

Labor’s celebrity strategy is a smokescreen for an audacious union grab for power. The best Labor seats are being set aside for union bosses. They will all be coming into parliament—Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Richard Marles—to take out insurance on Kevin Rudd, to ensure that what Kevin Rudd does is in the interests of the unions and the union bosses. It has nothing to do with what is in the best interests of Australia, the economy and the people. I am really worried about the future, that we are going to see a return to the bad old days of union dominance, union thuggery and union interference in businesses.

Only in the last week we have seen a number of cases which highlight the way the union movement and the Labor Party think about these things. We have heard Dean Mighell boasting about the way he has ripped off businesses and Kevin Reynolds bragging about the abolition of the ABCC, a watchdog body which has ensured that the rorts which characterised the construction industry are being stamped out. Worst of all was the way the Labor Party dealt with the Lilac City Motor Inn, a business which had its reputation and its name smeared across Australia. What we see is a double standard whereby a business which has a Labor connection is treated with kid gloves while a business which does not have a Labor connection is smeared. It is typical of the union mindset, the bullyboy tactics and the thuggery which characterise the whole culture of the labour movement.

The problem, as I see it, is that you cannot claim to be an economic conservative and at the same time give the unions what they want. The problem we have is that, with Labor’s IR policy, the Leader of the Opposition left it to the shadow minister for industrial relations to sort out the details on Labor’s IR policy, and she gave the unions what they want. Some day there is going to be a clash between what is in the interests of Australia, what is in the interests of families, what is in the interests of businesses, what is in the interests of jobs and what is in the interests of the trade unions. I cannot see the Leader of the Opposition standing up against trade union interests for the sake of Australia’s economy.

The key to the workplace relations system is in having a much more flexible system. One of the problems with the old accord was that having a centralised system of setting wages was very poor. It was very bad for productivity in Australia. I believe very strongly that it is important to have wages set in the workplaces and to have them set cooperatively between employees and employers. One recent example of this flexibility is the Port Adelaide-Enfield Council. There, a clear majority of staff voted for a five-year collective agreement with annual pay rises of four per cent. This was against what the Australian Services Union wanted. As a staff representative stated with regard to the union, those guys have a different backing. Their backing is from a national point of view and they are against Work Choices. It became apparent that they were not interested in anything else. In other words, the unions will look after themselves but they could not care less about what the employees actually want.

If Labor are elected at the end of the year, those employees would not have had the chance to negotiate with their council a system that benefited them. The council’s human resources manager stated that these workplace changes have allowed for a stable work environment. The title of Labor’s IR policy, Forward with Fairness, is completely misleading. Firstly, it has nothing to do with going forward. Labor policy will send the industrial relations system back 15 years. The days of union power in the workplace and of class warfare finished years ago. This is something that the Labor Party needs to recognise. What we need to do in the current economic climate is to encourage people to succeed in business, applaud people who create jobs and build the economic performance of Australia. Since 1996 we have had AWAs. They have been absolutely critical to the performance of the mining industry, and they have been critical to the growth in the Australian economy. They have been critical in a number of sectors: restaurants, hospitality and retail. The Labor Party has an outdated view with regard to how businesses work. Every business will see their employees as a resource. What the current workplace system allows for is the flexibility for employers and employees to agree to find an arrangement that suits them.

I welcome the introduction of the fairness test. I think it is an improvement. What it does is to allow for people who are on incomes below $75,000 to ensure that their AWA will not be below the award. The intention was not to have AWAs which were below the award. The intention was to have flexibility so that people can find an arrangement that suits them.

There are a number of problems with Labor’s IR policy. There will be no restrictions on union content in agreements, so they will also have a centralised system allowing for pattern bargaining across entire industries. This will have a devastating effect on inflation, as wage pressures, skills across different economic sectors and interest rates will suffer. This policy flies in the face of the Leader of the Opposition’s claim to be an economic conservative—and I suppose he claims to be a good economic manager. Businesses around the country are deeply concerned about Labor’s industrial relations policy. The Australian building and construction industry, the Master Builders Association and the Mines and Metals Association have all expressed concern over Labor’s policy. Even in today’s Australian there is the headline ‘Firms fear the return of unions’. Business groups are raising concerns that Labor’s industrial policy would allow union involvement in the permanent running of a company’s operation.

Again, today, we see another union boss, Dean Mighell, from the Electrical Trades Union, gloating about ripping off businesses by extracting millions of dollars from them. The unions do not care about workers; they care about themselves. They cannot wait for Labor to win this election so that they can start attacking businesses. If Labor wins the election, the country will be controlled by a union movement that represents only 15 per cent of private sector workers.

There are a lot of troubling aspects of a Labor government. A return to a Labor government will be quite dangerous for the Australian economy. We do not know what they are going to do with secondary boycotts in the Trade Practices Act. This has been part of the reason why for the last 11 years we have had such a low level of industrial disputes. It was absolutely critical to reforming the waterfront that we had the secondary boycott provision in the Trade Practices Act. One thing we do know is that they will abolish the ABCC. This has been very important in cleaning up the rorts in the building and construction industry. This is a $50 billion industry, so the health of the building industry affects us all—it has enormous flow-on effects throughout the economy. Independent economic research undertaken by Econtech in 2003 concluded that if productivity in the construction sector matched that in the more efficient residential building sector the level of gross domestic product would rise by 1.1 per cent, CPI would fall by one per cent and consumers would benefit by $2.3 billion. It was estimated at that time that it was costing around 30 per cent more to build the same project in Melbourne compared with Sydney.

The findings of the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry in 2003 presented a compelling and unassailable case for change. It concluded that the commercial building industry is one that is characterised by lawlessness, standover tactics and shonky corporate practices. It found that conduct of this kind, which would be unacceptable and even criminal in any other industry, is regularly tolerated because honest participants feel powerless to do anything about it. (Quorum formed) If Labor are elected what we will see is the abolition of AWAs. We will see a winding back of the reforms of the last 15 years and we will see a return to the bad old days of strikes, disputation, union domination, union interference in businesses and union thuggery.

The problem we face is the fundamental conflict between what is good for Australia and what is good for the union movement. Anyone would recognise that there will be times when these two come into conflict. The problem is that the union movement, which controls the Labor Party, has taken out insurance by stacking the parliament full of former trade union bosses. What we see is that 26 out of 30 of the Labor frontbench are former union bosses. And it is actually going to get worse at the next election, because the best seats have been set aside for the most powerful union bosses to come in, to take out insurance to ensure that the Labor leader does what is in the interests of the unions—not so much what is in the interests of employees, not so much what is fair for families, not so much what is in the interests of Australia.

There are a lot of very disturbing signs about how dangerous the Labor Party would be if they were elected to office. We have seen that they would abolish the ABCC. We have seen that their IR policy has not even made any attempt to be fair; all it has done is give the unions what they want. We do not know what they would do on secondary boycotts. It looks like we are going to face compulsory union bargaining: ‘good faith bargaining’ will be compulsory union bargaining.

As I conclude my remarks I welcome a former official of the FSU—another one of the 26 out of 30 former union bosses, former union officials, who are on the Labor frontbench.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BK Bishop)—Before I call the honourable member for Prospect I remind the opposition that the Deputy Speaker has ruled that the chair will only acknowledge a quorum call at intervals that exceed 15 minutes, as they otherwise constitute a deliberate disruption of the parliament. I recognise that we are now calling an opposition member, so there will be no likely quorum called, but I remind opposition members that in the case of government members that rule will be enforced.