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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1694

Mr CIOBO (10:09 AM) —I am certainly pleased to rise to put the coalition’s point of view with respect to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. It is an important bill because in a number of respects it goes to the very core of the last election. I am pleased to follow the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement—a man who in so many respects epitomised the dishonest scaremongering campaign that the union movement put forward in the last election and, indeed, for a good 12 months prior to that. It is interesting to debate this bill because it deals with the fundamental industrial relations issue in Australia and, in many respects, we have two opposing points of view.

The coalition took to the last election its policy named ‘Work Choices’. The coalition understands that the majority of public opinion was to reject Work Choices, and we have made it very clear that Work Choices is no longer our policy. We have also made it clear that we will not be opposing Labor’s Forward with Fairness bill that we are discussing here in the House today. But what we have seen from the Australian Labor Party is an attempt to rewrite history and to imply in some way that every aspect of the Work Choices reforms was a negative. Even worse that that, they attempt to couple Work Choices with AWAs.

The coalition have taken into account the results of the last election and the feedback we have received and have moved away from Australian workplace agreements. But in both of these respects it is worth putting on the record that a large amount of the economic benefit, the social benefit and the benefits that flow to the small businesses of Australia—and, interested as I am in small business, this is particularly important to me—is a result of key reforms that were instituted by the coalition. But my concern, as I mentioned, is that we are seeing an attempt by the Australian Labor Party to rewrite history. I find it reprehensible that the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement stands in this chamber and explicitly says that the purpose of Work Choices was to exact punishment on ordinary working people. It is consistent with the attitude of this new government, which is intent on using whatever misrepresentation it can to bend and twist people’s recollection of key reforms that have had a very profound impact.

There were aspects of Work Choices that were wrong, and no-one on this side of the chamber pretends otherwise. There were aspects that were wrong, and we have now moved to correct and recognise that. But there were also a number of very good aspects. In this respect, I must say that the Australian people cannot forget the fact that Work Choices and, indeed, a whole series of key economic reforms that were introduced by the previous Howard government paid very large dividends to the Australian population. The fact that our unemployment rate is at a 30-year low is a consequence of the key economic reforms of the Howard government. The fact that small businesses had confidence that they could take a chance with new employees is a direct result of the key economic reforms of the Howard government.

I have heard ministers opposite talk about having a mandate. Let us make one thing very clear: the former Howard government had a mandate on many occasions to ensure that there was an exemption on unfair dismissal for small businesses. But you never heard anything from the Australian Labor Party then. You never heard any great respect or regard for the small business sector to make sure that our mandate was recognised. The then coalition government sought to have an unfair dismissal exemption introduced more than 40 times, and more than 40 times the Australian Labor Party said: ‘We’re going to completely ignore that mandate. We don’t believe it has application. We are going to oppose it.’ And they did oppose it, more than 40 times. The consequence of that opposition was that small businesses did not have confidence that they could take the chance to employ someone and not have to pay ‘go-away money’.

I would have thought that it would be a matter of priority for the Labor Party to have a clear, definitive statement on unfair dismissal and its impact on the small business sector. It is often said that small businesses are in fact the backbone or the engine room of the Australian economy. Before speaking today, I looked to find a contribution by the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy but I found he has not even spoken on this bill yet, and I am not sure if he is listed to speak. I find it extraordinary that the small business minister in the Rudd Labor government—or perhaps I should say I do not really find it that extraordinary—has not even spoken on this bill and has not put forward any clear statement at all from the Australian Labor Party about what their position on unfair dismissal will be. How amazing that we should have a ‘transition to Forward with Fairness’ bill that provides no clarity and basically does not even mention unfair dismissal and the impact that will have on Australia’s 2.4 million small businesses, which employ millions and millions of Australians.

The coalition has said, as I mentioned earlier, that we will not be opposing the government’s legislation. However, we will seek to incorporate an amendment. We would encourage the government to incorporate that amendment into the legislation. That amendment is key. It is to extend the operation of the individual transitional employment agreement beyond the global expiry date of 31 December 2009 by a period of five years. We know that the Australian government acknowledges there is a place for individual workplace agreements. This is despite the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister went around for 18 months demonising the operation of individual agreements and the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement, who epitomises the union scare campaign in this regard, went around demonising individual workplace agreements. So, lo and behold, what happens? The new Australian government says: ‘Oh, we should actually have them. They should be in place.’ Apparently they do provide some flexibility, some certainty and fairness, but that is only for two years, according to the Australian Labor Party. So after two years and one day they no longer provide fairness! It is a non sequitur; it does not make sense; it is a ridiculous proposal.

The Australian economy has been a very big beneficiary of individual employment agreements and they need to remain a part of the Australian workplace relations system. For small businesses it is even more essential that they remain a part of that system, because small business operators do not have the luxury of having an HR department; they do not have the luxury of having a human resources manager; they do not have the luxury of employing the kind of specialist skill base and knowledge that is required to often navigate one’s way through industrial relations in this country. In that respect individual employment agreements play a very important role in small business operators reaching an understanding and an agreement. They ensure that there is equity and fairness as to both the employer’s needs on the one hand and the employee’s needs on the other.

What I find most concerning is the fact that the Australian Labor Party holds out that, essentially, employers are there to try to wrangle and put employees under pressure. What a remarkable experience those in government must have had, because that stands in stark contrast to my understanding and to my experiences when I get out and about in my electorate. When I talk to people I speak to them knowing that my seat has the highest concentration of small businesses in the country. What I understand from employer after employer after employer is that they recognise that their employees are their best asset. They know that you cannot replace a good employee. Employers, especially those in small business, recognise that the worst thing they could do would be to try to take advantage of their employees, and that is especially the case when we have a record low unemployment rate.

The proposition that the Australian Labor Party puts forward concerns employers who at the moment are actively competing to try to secure additional employees with the nation having a record low unemployment rate, and that has been referred to by members opposite time and time again when they acknowledge that there is a labour force shortage. But the government says: ‘Well, you know what: we think in that circumstance employers are going to try to pin down employees. Employers are going to try to rip away the terms and conditions and to rip away the working environment of employees.’ That is absolutely absurd and should be acknowledged for what it is.

Employers know that the key to having a successful relationship with an employee is to make sure that it is exactly that: a successful relationship built on discussion, built on equity, built on an acknowledgement that each has individual needs that need to be catered for and need to be incorporated. That is what individual employment agreements do. The Labor Party know that, and that is why they are a feature of this bill. But for some reason after two years they are no longer fair! So I would say to the Australian government: please listen to employers, please listen to what employees are saying and acknowledge that there will be significant economic and social benefits that will flow from extending these agreements beyond the global cut-off date of 31 December 2009.

This is especially the case with Labor’s much heralded no disadvantage test. If there is going to be a no disadvantage test, why is it not fair to have that continue to apply to individual agreements? Why is it not fair to allow an employer and an employee to have discussions one on one if they both desire, subject to the operation of a no disadvantage test so that we can maintain workforce flexibility? It is not only the coalition that is saying this. The fact is that the Reserve Bank of Australia Governor has made it explicitly clear that industrial relations flexibility is absolutely warranted to ensure that the Australian economy can deal with the challenges that lie ahead. When he was asked to what extent he felt that the flexibility that exists has been a significant part of containing wages growth, he replied, ‘It has been very important.’ He said that to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration on Friday, 17 August 2007. As a former member of that committee, I recall that. I recall the Reserve Bank of Australia Governor making it exceptionally clear that flexibility was a very necessary part of a modern Australian economy.

The government likes to talk about Reserve Bank warnings. I say to the Australian government: recognise this Reserve Bank warning. The worst thing that you could possibly do is to remove workplace flexibility. The consequence of removing it will be a deterioration of economic conditions in this country and, as a result, we will see an increase in unemployment. That will all be laid at the feet of the Australian Labor Party for not having the wherewithal to acknowledge what is a very sound and reasonable amendment that the opposition is putting forward. Their obstinacy in this regard will cause a deterioration of economic conditions and an increase in unemployment. I am happy to be on the record as stating that. That will be the price that Australia pays for this blanket approach by the Australian Labor Party—that they will not even incorporate the amendment that the opposition has put forward. We are seeing it already.

Three indexes have come out: the Sensis business index, the Olivier index and Westpac’s confidence survey. The most concerning part is that we have seen the biggest deterioration of conditions in the recorded history of each of these indexes. How does the Australian government explain to the Australian people that business confidence has absolutely collapsed? How does the Australian Labor Party explain to the Australian people that confidence in the economy has collapsed, constituting the biggest fall in the recorded history of the surveys? I ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, who is at the table: how does the Australian Labor Party explain that we are seeing the biggest collapse in employment advertisements in the Olivier index? It is no coincidence. Index after index after index has recorded the biggest fall in the history of the surveys. Let that be a very clear warning to the new Australian Labor government—that when they start to meddle with these matters beyond what is reasonable and beyond what is called for in their dogged pursuit of an ideological bent, driven by people like the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement, the result will be a further continued erosion of business confidence and an increase in unemployment.

I warn the Australian Labor Party to take stock, to start to listen and to recognise that it is not appropriate to just pursue unions’ demands. Unions may have paid for the Australian Labor Party to get elected and they may be demanding their pound of flesh now, but I would encourage the Australian Labor Party, now that it has the responsibility of government, to recognise that you cannot just capitulate to the union movement; you have to make sure that you balance their demands with the very legitimate demands of the Australian working public and employers. The fact that the Australian Labor Party is not doing it yet is the reason we are seeing business confidence plummet. The fact that it is not getting that balance and that it does not recognise the legitimate need that the Reserve Bank has spoken about to retain flexibility as part of a modern Australian workforce is proof that such erosion of conditions will carry forward, and the consequence of that will be an increase in unemployment. I say to the minister for small business, who has not even spoken to this bill, that it is time he started being heard around the table when it comes to the Australian Labor Party. The member for Rankin needs to speak up and be an advocate for the 2.4 million Australian small businesses, because if he does not do it they will simply stop employing people in the numbers that they were employing them before.

Mr Baldwin —He is not on the speakers list.

Mr CIOBO —I have just found out that he is not even on the speakers list. I say to the small business minister: put yourself on the speakers list; stand up for the 2.4 million small businesses in Australia that you are paid to represent; be an advocate for them; please provide clarity to them on what will happen with unfair dismissal. I predict that if he does put his name down, he will stand up in this chamber and wax lyrical about how the Australian Labor Party is talking to small businesses and has set up the Small Business Advisory Group. My concern is that it is only being done for show. Will the Small Business Advisory Group that the Australian Labor Party has established really be listened to by the Australian Labor Party or will it just be seen to be consulting? The small business minister has said, when he has spoken at a number of events, including a doorstop at the front of the House of Representatives, that he does not believe that there should be a uniform unfair dismissal code in operation in Australia. The small business minister has previously made it clear that he does not believe that there is any benefit from seeing a uniform small business unfair dismissal exemption.

That is concerning to me and I know it is concerning to Australia’s small business sector. That is the engine room of the Australian economy and the Australian Labor government ignore it at their peril. By all means, those on this side of the House understand that the Labor Party must serve their union masters, but understand this too: they must also serve the needs of the Australian people, both employers and employees. I urge the government to incorporate the coalition’s amendment to this bill, to maintain workforce flexibility, which is a fundamental part of a modern Australian workforce, and to please balance—not capitulate to—union demands that have been put upon them by a union movement that bought the last election.