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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1684

Mr MORRISON (9:29 AM) —The coalition have agreed to not oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. It is a simple and straightforward position. The government appear confused, but it is simple: we have decided not to oppose this bill. This position may disappoint those who sit opposite who may have wanted to get their Your Rights at Work posters out of their garage, dust them off and get them up on those poles again at the next election. The posters got on those poles with the assistance of the ETU and all the energy companies—which, I note, particularly in my electorate, were more than happy to see their staff go up the poles to put them up there. In fact, if you drive around some parts of the Sutherland shire, you will still find these signs. They are still out there on our poles, traffic signals and various things. It is about time they came down; the election is over. The decision has been made and we are now dealing with the outcomes of that decision in this place.

The coalition have abolished Work Choices as our policy and will present a fresh policy to the Australian people at the next election. Those opposite will try every trick in the book to seek a rerun of the Work Choices election, but they will find no comfort here. Next time, they will actually have to develop a policy agenda that goes beyond slogans, t-shirts and big orange signs. They will be the government at the next election and the Australian people will hold them to account for the expectations they have created. Those expectations include putting a lid on petrol prices, reducing interest rates, keeping unemployment at record lows and controlling the price at the checkout. These are the expectations created at the last election by those who sit opposite. They were going to manage these things and keep them under control. At the next election, they will be held to account for these expectations. At the checkout, they will be held to account not only for the prices of mainstream items—of groceries, cereal and all of these sorts of things—but also for other items that are out there, from Chupa Chups to Tim Tams. These are all things that they said that they would keep a lid on in terms of prices and that is what the next election will be about.

That said, there can be no mistake: workplace relations was a key theme at the 2007 general election. In my own electorate of Cook, in Sydney’s Sutherland shire, it was the only issue my opponents raised. They offered no vision for our local community. They made no claims about their candidate’s ability or experience to deal with local issues. They were, in absolute truth, a one-trick pony. In addition to their candidate, there are other good reasons for not highlighting these matters. The Labor campaign was completely funded by the Electrical Trades Union. The ETU had no interest or stake in the future of local issues in the shire and they were certainly not about to invest their tax-free union funds in any campaign other than one that addressed their goals and purposes, so it was wall-to-wall Your Rights at Work from start to finish. While the ETU may have failed in Cook, the broader union campaign, backed by $30 million of tax-free union donations, certainly hit its mark. The campaign sought to exploit the fears of Australian families and it worked.

It is a common saying that history is written by the victors. Implicit in this saying is that such history is never the full truth and is written to reinforce the victor’s own ongoing purposes, regardless of its relevance to the result. If we blindly accept the victor’s version of history, as those opposite are seeking to achieve, then we run the risk of failing to learn the true lessons of that history and, therefore, of repeating it. I am happy for those opposite to be so caught up in their own importance as to miss this point. There will come a day when they will wish they had curbed their exuberance and listened more carefully to what the Australian people actually said on 24 November rather than what they wanted them to say.

Those who lose elections are the ones who are sent a message. It is for those who have been defeated to understand the message that has been sent. So what did we learn? What message did we receive? In 1996, the Howard government introduced for the first time individual statutory agreements. It did so after winning an historic election, which followed Bill Kelty promising the full symphony of union opposition. The election was won. The reforms were introduced and opposed by those who sit opposite—so much for their respect for mandates in this place. Subsequent reforms—including the opportunity for non-unionised collective agreements, the abolition of compulsory unionism, restrictions on the right of entry and sanctions against secondary boycotts—all formed part of a workplace revolution opposed by Labor, which fuelled the growth of our economy and, more significantly, increased the real wages of Australian employees by 21.5 per cent over the term of our government. That was the dividend to Australian families, two million of which became working families under the policies of the coalition while in government: a 21.5 per cent increase in real wages.

What does that compare to? How did the election of the Howard government change the lives of ordinary Australians? That increase is in comparison to a 1.8 per cent decline in real wages under the previous Labor government, despite commencing the process to unshackle the Australian labour market. Commendation must be given to those who sat opposite and are no longer in this place for trying to start that process. They could never implement the reforms that were necessary to create the more than two million extra jobs and to see the unemployment rate drop from more than eight per cent to 4.1 per cent. Of greater significance were the reforms to our waterfront, also opposed by those who sit opposite. These reforms have resulted in a 60 per cent improvement in the productivity performance of our ports, with average crane rates increasing from 16.9 per hour in 1996 to 26.8 in December 2006. Under the coalition government, no longer did you have sit and watch the absolute travesty of product for offshore markets rotting on the docks.

The combination of these reforms served to set up our prosperity. Most significantly, we have been able to harness the benefits of the resources boom. The resources boom is something those opposite like to talk a lot about. They seem to think that a resources boom is something that falls from heaven—that it just happens to your economy and there is nothing you have to do to make sure that you can harness that boom. They seem to think that there is nothing you have to do as a government when there is a resources boom to ensure that the benefits of that actually translate to the Australian economy and are captured.

Without the reforms introduced by the Howard government to industrial relations in 1996 the resources boom would have passed us by. Had those who sit opposite continued in government at that time, they would not have been able to guarantee supply. The business would have moved elsewhere. Our reforms reduced industrial disputation to the lowest levels on record. As union membership declined to just 15 per cent of the private sector workforce, Australians learnt that the way to prosperity and better living conditions in this country was not through Labor’s tired old union model of conflict and disputation; rather it was by constructive engagement, profit sharing and working for the success of their enterprises that saw real wages rise by 21.5 per cent.

In fact, one of the challenges faced by the coalition at the last election was that the relevance of unions in the Australian workplace had become such a distant memory that many were completely unaware of the risks faced by their return. Well, they will now be reminded. And for many it will be a new experience. Those who have started businesses in an environment of the lowest level of industrial disputation on record will be reminded of what it is like to have unions come and interfere in the operations of their businesses, particularly when they are employing between about five and 20 people in their workplaces.

The reforms of 1996 were reinforced by victories in the 1998, 2001 and 2004 federal elections. That is what I call a mandate for industrial relations reform. I say to those opposite: one swallow does not make a summer. In 1996 we won an election on the basis of serious reforms of our industrial relations system that was backed up by the Australian people on three further occasions. In 2006 the new reforms that were introduced awoke the union beast and changed the nature of the debate. But what was the offending nature of these reforms?

In her second reading speech the minister would have you believe that the problem was all to do with individual agreements—agreements that had been available to Australian employees since 1996 and had been endorsed at the ballot box on three separate subsequent occasions. Such an argument may suit her agenda in rewriting history to confect her mandate, but it does not make it true. In her speech she said she believed that there is ‘no need for any individual statutory employment agreements’. This is the main game of the Labor Party: the abolition of individual agreements and the re-unionisation of collective agreements. That is the agenda. This is the mandate they are now seeking to confect as a result of the 2007 general election. But this is not what I believe the Australian people said on 24 November. The flaw in the coalition policy was to provide insufficient protections as part of the new package, more specifically the removal of the no disadvantage test. This was the poison pill of Work Choices, not individual agreements. If such agreements had continued to be the subject of a no disadvantage test then we may well not have had this debate we are having now. It will be ever to the shame of those businesses who sought to abuse the new provisions provided by the government that the ground will be forever spoiled to entertain such levels of flexibility in our workplaces. I commend the member for North Sydney for his attempt to restore faith in the package through the introduction of the fairness test. There was no other alternative, but sadly the damage had already been done.

The minister has sought to cleverly demonise individual agreements by asserting in her speech introducing this bill that the ‘essence of such agreements is that they override the safety net’. This is a fallacy. An individual agreement can be as equally subject to a safety net as a collective agreement. These statements are proved by the government’s own willingness to preserve such agreements in this bill and make them subject to these conditions. It is also true that a non-union collective agreement can be as equally subject to these protections as a union collective agreement. Yet the government is seeking to effectively mandate the involvement of unions in such agreements in every workplace by setting the bar so low that, for those of you who read children’s stories—and there used to be someone in this place who liked to read children’s stories—Flat Stanley could not get below this standard. This standard is so low that unions will be in every single workplace in this country again.

Heaven forbid that Australians may actually wish to individually or collectively continue to negotiate their terms and conditions directly with their employers in their own enterprises! This is particularly true for those who work in small business. The problem with those opposite is that they are hopelessly out of touch with small business in this country—small business does not feature on their agenda. Small business families are not part of the government’s definition of working families. But, as those on this side of the House well know, there are no more harder working families in this country than families who are working in small business. These businesses typically employ less than 20 people. They are the heart and soul of Australia’s entrepreneurial culture and they have been marginalised and demonised by this government.

In my own electorate of Cook, 91 per cent of the almost 6,000 businesses that employ people employ 20 people or less. They are spread over many different industries, from construction and manufacturing to retail, trade and financial services. They employ tradies, professionals, administrative staff, sales assistants and labourers—it is a broad cross-section. You will find no pretension or confected class barriers in the shire. People take you as you are. You are expected to be honest and up-front, to work hard and take responsibility. This is how business thrives in the shire. Our businesses, especially small businesses, work as teams. They work together. They do not need the unwelcome intrusion of those who wish to bring division and dissent to their workplace to justify their own existence. As a former CEO I know that the most important objective is to build the trust in your workplace. It cannot be a battlefield; it must seek to share the rewards of effort. Such an approach is accommodated by individual and non-union collective agreements and must continue to be an option in Australian workplaces if we are to continue to enjoy a prosperous future.

The government have made much of inflation since coming to office. They have drawn much attention to the issue. They have a five-point plan for inflation. However, of greatest interest is that this plan—a five-point plan, with a five-star blind spot—is totally silent on the issue of workplace relations, which totally undermines its credibility.

On 19 January this year, the Governor of the Reserve Bank—a constituent of mine—gave an address to the Australian businesses in London. In that address, he stated:

The rapid pace of global growth in recent years has seen a pick-up in some key prices. Prices for foodstuffs, energy and raw materials for industrial processes are quite high. The synchronised nature of the increases has been quite marked as well, in a fashion eerily reminiscent of the early 1970s.

What is different on this occasion is the way that labour costs have behaved. In the early 1970s, labour costs exploded in many countries as inflation expectations began to rise … and labour unions reached the peak of their power.

That is what the Governor of the Reserve Bank had to say about inflation in January this year. The multiheaded policy approach of the Howard government, with workplace reform and fiscal discipline, evidenced by 10 successive budget surpluses, including the last three at 1½ per cent plus of GDP, has enabled us to grow our economy to more than $1,000 billion and keep inflation at an average of just 2½ per cent, compared to over five per cent when Labor was last in office.

A plan to curb inflation, which fails to address the issue of wages, is no plan at all; it is just a list of five things. In fact, it is a wish list, because only by a wishin’, a hopin’ and a prayin’ will it have any impact. It is not a five-point plan. It has a five-star hole in it and this hole needs to be fixed. The dogs are out and they are barking. They are off the leash following this election.

In a state wage case currently underway in New South Wales, Unions New South Wales have made a submission, affecting 220,000 workers, for a 4.8 per cent wage increase. That is what I call a genie out of the bottle. What would possess them to make such a claim of 4.8 per cent? I refer to the speech of the Governor of the Reserve Bank in London, in January, where he said:

The fact that inflation expectations have been low and pretty stable has also helped.

‘Keeping a lid on inflationary expectations,’ the Governor said, ‘has helped.’ Since the Governor made these statements, things have changed. In February the Reserve Bank reported on how inflationary expectations had now risen from 3.8 per cent to 4.3 per cent. That was what it reported in the February edition of the Reserve Bank Bulletin. That is the first figure on inflationary expectations that has come out after this government was elected. And I wonder why inflationary expectations are up. This is what happens when you have a reckless Treasurer—the missing and weakest link of this government—stumbling around our financial system, talking about genies and bottles, and a Prime Minister so hell-bent on undermining the economic credibility of the opposition that he is prepared to do anything, including talking up inflation and putting pressure on wages and, ultimately, interest rates. That is why we have a 4.8 per cent wage claim from Unions New South Wales, because they are trying to keep up with inflationary expectations—inflationary expectations that are rising on a daily basis by the reckless actions of this government.

The five-point plan needs a renovation. It needs a renovation rescue. It needs to include a clear plan on workplace reform that contains wage pressures, not one that unleashes wage pressures. It also needs a plan to keep the Treasurer away from the microphone. We as a country cannot afford this Treasurer to be bumbling about our financial markets, talking up inflation, which leads to an increase in interest rates and impacts on those whom we in this place should protect most. Everything that is coming from the Treasurer is hot air and it is giving lift to inflationary expectations.

The opposition has proposed some sensible amendments to this bill. They should be supported by the government. We want to see the work done in the Senate that lets the Australian people know what they are in for when Labor dismantles the industrial reforms first introduced by the Howard government in 1996 and endorsed at subsequent elections by the Australian people.

Let me stress that this bill is not content with reversing the changes introduced in Work Choices. Labor have gone a lot further than that. Work Choices no longer represents coalition policy. Labor go much further and, before they introduce this system, we should first get an estimate of what it will cost so that working families—and in our definition of ‘working families’ we include families which work in small business—(Time expired)