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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 2860


Mr SCHULTZ (10:23 AM) —The 2010 federal election was the fifth occasion on which I have contested the federal seat of Hume. At the outset, I wish to thank the constituents of the Hume electorate for their generosity in electing me once again to be their representative in the historical federal seat of Hume. I would particularly like to acknowledge the significant single contribution made by those people who worked on polling booths and scrutineered in what can only be described as the most atrocious and physically trying conditions I can remember.

Cold piercing wind, rain and low temperatures tested these loyal people who stoically stood their ground and worked to ensure the Liberal vote was maximised. Redistribution leading up to a federal election invariably creates difficulties for candidates in marshalling sufficient numbers of people to work for them in the new areas inherited through the redistribution process. In my case, despite not having represented the Weddin, Cowra and Cootamundra shires since 2001, people rallied to my call for support, and I once again thank them all for it.

During the campaign, there were many issues of concern raised by many people from all walks of life who were concerned about the direction in which the current government was taking this country and how it was impacting on their lives. Escalating electricity and gas costs were impacting on the ability of pensioners and low-income families to maintain their household budgets and were so bad in some areas they were cutting back on daily food consumption or restricting the time they were using their heating and cooking appliances within their homes.

Small business is also being dramatically affected by the increase in energy costs, rent increases and Fair Work Australia IR laws to the extent they advised me they are facing three options: (a) downsizing their workforce, with casual workers being the first to go, (b) downsizing their workforce and restructuring their business so they can absorb increased operating costs and maintain a viable business, and (c) counting their financial losses and shutting down their business.

Introducing a carbon tax, which the experts say will increase the cost of electricity by a further 19 per cent to 26 per cent, will further compound the problems centred around the ability of pensioners, low-income earners and small business people to live within the tight budgetary constraints forced on them by the ever-increasing cost of living. It does not stop there for small business. They are now starting to feel the pressures bearing down on them from the Julia Gillard Fair Work Australia industrial award, more specifically the retail industry award.

These pressures can be best described by reading correspondence forwarded by a constituent to Senator Ursula Stephens following on from a letter of response from the then Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Julia Gillard, as a result of representations made by Senator Stephens to the Deputy Prime Minister on my constituents’ behalf. I now quote the correspondence in total in the interests of highlighting the indifference shown by the Labor government via its current Prime Minister, in her previous role as the former Deputy Prime Minister, to small business and the contribution it delivers to our nation’s economy and employment. This letter contains a significant and compelling message:

Good Morning Senator Stephens,

Thank you for forwarding the response by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, to my and my bakery team’s concerns regarding the commencement of the new General Retail Industry Award (2010).

Firstly, she contends that there was “wide consultation” and “extensive input” into the award modernisation. Well please let me know how many small businesses, corner stores, coffee shops, hardware stores, etc. were involved. These little business people are unrepresented because, unlike big business or trade unions, we do not have people on our payroll to look out for all these “opportunities” to make submissions nor do we have the time or people to prepare them.

I note in Ms Gillard’s response she advises that it is Government Policy that those who work “unsociable hours” should be compensated with extra reward in the form of penalty rates for late nights and weekends, etc.

In these modern days, surely it is up to the employee to decide whether work hours are “unsociable” and for them to decide whether they wish to work those hours or not. Some don’t want to work weekends or public holidays. That’s fine. But many do want to work—and without penalty rates.

We have employees who now have a proper job in their home town, who now do not have to spend 2 hours a day travelling in their own vehicles (no public transport in the bush) at a cost to them of over $100 a week. They are happy not to have to rely on Centrelink payments. Many have said they are not interested in penalty rates—they are just so happy to have a job in great business, and, in their town. No-one is compelled to work at all and often when no one wants to work on a public holiday, the proprietors fill the spots. No penalty rates for them. What makes employees better, more valuable people than their employers?

Just for your information a person over the age of 21 working on a public holiday costs our business over $50 per hour now. With the recent increase in the national wage and the introduction of this new award regime that cost will rise over $60 per hour, so you can see why most small businesses are just crumbling under the pressure and closing on weekends and public holidays and some (and a growing number) closing altogether. Employing people in small business is now mostly seen as pure stupidity and a recipe for financial and industrial disaster. We have to add a surcharge to our prices on weekends and public holidays and we cop substantial flack from the public for that.

The sentiment in business (the “small” business industry—not the big companies) is that it is just too hard. Any business that has employees is poison and is becoming pretty much unsaleable.

And interestingly enough, talking to government funded employment organisations as I was recently, they confirm that (in their words) they feel “very sorry for the owners of any small business that employs people “because” all the odds are against them.

By the same token as responsible employers, in order to retain the services of our employees we must look after them, ensure their workplace is safe and that they (in their minds - not ours) are fairly rewarded for the work they do.

That surely is the employee’s decision—not a decision to be made by someone stuck in a small office in a capital city who is well aware that the small business just cannot afford to close as they would suffer great losses and possibly lose their mortgaged home.

Secondly, the Federal Labor Government and the Trade Union movement happily go about lifting wage rates and penalty rates when, in our business, we have had no requests from any employee for such adjustments. The trade union may have members who are employed in the large industry companies who may be members of the Baking Manufacturers Industry Association of Australia (BMIAA) but very few, if any at all, of the small country bakeries/coffee outlets are members of that association. So what about consulting with us? Get out and visit (not orchestrated promo visits) some small businesses and get the message.

The Federal Labor Government and the Trade Union Movement really need to be aware that the big manufacturers don’t really care about wage adjustments because “nobody pays”. The CEO doesn’t pay the wages, the Directors don’t pay the wages. It just comes out of the bank account. And maybe the shareholders get 1 cent less in their dividend or more likely—the manufacturer just lifts their price to their customer and the price of bread in the supermarket rises by 5 cents.

But in my little businesses (and all the others) the extra costs come out of MY pocket and these award changes will cost ME $80,000 pa. That is, it adds 20% to my wage costs. And we have explained this to our employees and they are aghast and agree that it is not fair or workable as, in order to get some return on investment, jobs will go and/or prices will rise.

So we have had no information or warning about this catastrophic financial free kick against small business.

The Award system merely reduces all employees to mediocrity. The hard working employee gets the award, the slack one who takes smoke breaks and gets in 10 minutes late, and takes ‘sickies’, gets the award also. And of course we cannot dismiss the slack one thanks to the Unfair Dismissal rules. But can they decide they don’t want to work today? Of course. And what can we do about it. Nothing!!

And it shouldn’t be the number of employees that determines whether a business is small or large. Why don’t you consider the profitability as well. That would knock quite a few from large to small status.

And I would say to the ALP it is long overdue that the Labor Government really needs to understand that when a business person invests in a business they should be looking to achieve a clear profit of 20—30% on investment. In fact the government should give them a medal or a grant per employee to compensate for the grief. Because at present, we risk our homes, health and families for little reward. By the way—a tax deduction is of little benefit if there is not a profit.

And I note Ms Gillard refers to IFAs and that IFAs can be used provided that employees can be no worse off overall. Is there a like provision in the industrial relations rules somewhere that ensures that the employer is no worse off overall as well. I don’t think so.

So again, don’t swan around shopping centres getting photo opportunities for Ms Gillard allegedly consulting with small business. Come out to the coal face and sit down in the office and see the small business owners battle to put a few dollars in their pockets after making sure that all their employees are no worse off’.

And finally, perhaps the ALP forget that I am a worker myself—and a bloody hard worker. A lot harder worker than most of my employees. I’m the one who opens my accounting office at 7.30am and am still here at 7.32pm most days of the week. I’m the one who actually creates wealth by creating 8 jobs in my practice. Not any government. And if that’s not stupid enough of me I open a bakery 1.5 hours away that I visit weekly and get back to Goulburn at 12.30am after a 6.30am start the previous day. And there I created another 20 jobs. And who pays my super, holidays, sick leave and long service leave.

And just a fascinating comment from a knowledgeable person on recent developments in the PMs job and Australia generally.

It was with interest I was discussing superannuation matters with a client who has been working in Australia for many years as a foreign correspondent for a number of European News agencies. He is a citizen of Australia as are his wife and children. They have a small rural block.

We were discussing his super which is currently in a Swiss managed fund in Switzerland and I suggested that it may be prudent to move the super into an Australian Fund. His reply was a bit shocking for an Aussie. He replied, ‘not on your life. I do not trust this government. They have already fiddled with super and I do not trust them to leave super alone. Far better I leave it where it is and I can sleep at night’. And anyway, he added, ‘I do not want my super invested in a country where the person who is promoted at an election as the alternative PM, and elected as such, can be ousted by non-elected people. When that happens in other countries its called a coup. So we have seen a Trade Union coup of the Australian PM.’

I could not argue with him.

I do apologise for my very long winded response, but I do look forward to your comments to my, and most small business concerns with the Australian Trade Union Party.

Yours sincerely, Grant L Pearce

As I understand it, to date this gentleman has not had a response from Senator Stephens.

The lack of infrastructure commitment by the federal government, including road funding, was raised repeatedly during the campaign, and the Barton Highway duplication between the Hume Highway and the ACT attracted considerable public debate following a number of tragic accidents.

Accident statistics sourced from police show that from 1 January 2000 to 7 October 2010 there were some 300 crashes on the single-carriageway section of the Barton Highway. The statistics show that there were 86 injuries and 13 fatalities in that 10-year period caused by vehicles crossing the road for various reasons and colliding with an oncoming vehicle, tree or embankment. Overtaking manoeuvres where oncoming vehicles were brought into play and vehicles being hit from behind and forced into oncoming traffic were also attributed as causes for some of these crashes. Police officers say there appear to be no common denominator to these accidents. Some involved alcohol, some were on wet days, some involved front-wheel-drive vehicles and some were fatigue related.

Police quite obviously are unable to say that dual carriageways would have prevented all of the fatality and injury accidents but, from their experience, they believe dual carriageways do prevent contact with oncoming vehicles, thereby minimising the seriousness of most collisions. As an addendum to that, I note the massive loss of life that occurred on the Hume Highway in the sections that were single carriageway until such time as the dual carriageway system was funded and built.

Unfortunately, successive ministers from both sides of the political spectrum—and the side that I represent is one of them—have delayed and obfuscated on the obvious need to urgently duplicate this significant piece of vital road infrastructure, despite various reports from motor organisations such as the NRMA, which classed the Barton Highway as one of the worst roads in the country. Significant criticism centred on the fact that it is an arterial route into the Australian Capital Territory.

In the case of the current minister, it is apparent from my observations during the election campaign that he believes the covering of a saleyard complex to protect domestic animals is more important than reducing serious injuries and fatalities on highways such as the Barton Highway.

Time does not allow me to discuss all of the issues of concern raised with me but, interestingly, what did concern me during the campaign period was the lack of policies centred around agriculture—another savage indictment not only of the agriculture minister of the government of the day but previous agriculture ministers and shadow agriculture ministers. After just under 10 years of drought, serious rainfall commenced in December 2009 and continued to fall throughout 2010, giving farmers much needed relief and a promise of the best crop season for many years. That promise has come to fruition but, as is always the case in agriculture, the crops, whilst being acclaimed as the best in 20 years are being subjected to the elements of Mother Nature which threatens to take the gloss off what should be the most positive financial outcome farmers have experienced in a decade.

Those elements include the threat of a locust plague, the level of which has not been seen in some 60 years and which I have raised in this place a few weeks back, and continual rainfall, which has saturated the land to the extent that it could damage crops, thereby affecting yield and quality. It does not stop there because, due to the season that we have had since the drought broke in December 2009, we have had a massive build-up of fuel on public and private land. The risk of devastating firestorms is out there and there does not appear to be too much movement with regard to governments at all political levels getting off their backsides to be ready for that.

Then we had the debacle of the Murray-Darling Basin plan, released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on 8 October 2010 which, without due consideration and proper consultative process with the irrigators and rural communities, threatens the very survival of the irrigators who produce the food within the basin. Rural towns reliant on the economic benefits derived from those irrigation areas are under threat from this ill-conceived ambush of rural Australia.

How could any government be so ignorant and blind to the harsh reality of the vulnerability of farmers, who are financially, physically and mentally exhausted after years of debilitating drought and little, if any, income? Fortunately, the angry reaction of farmers, small business and rural residents within the basin has forced government to take two steps backward and reassess this cold-hearted, jack-booted approach to an issue that can be resolved cooperatively with the very people who rely on the environment for a living.

Farmers have proved time and time again that they have the commitment and the ability to recognise the need to conserve our most precious resource, water. As an example, apple and grape growers use computer-driven micro jet watering systems triggered by sensors in the ground which tell the computer when the vines and the trees need water. This technology has assisted some apple-growing areas to produce five times the volume of apples with the same amount of water they used 100 years ago. That shows the commitment of people who rely on the land and the environment for their living. That is the commitment that they have to conserve our very precious resource—water—and that is something that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority should take on board.

Why has the incompetence of government allowed the commonsense approach of addressing the modernisation of water infrastructure, which was funded by the previous government to the tune of $5.9 billion, to be dumped when it had the ability to make the system more efficient and continue to produce food efficiently, maintain the economic viability of the industry, and help support towns reliant on the most efficient producers of food in the world? Hopefully the Senate inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin hopeless, industry- and soul-destroying plan will come up with the answers, putting the management of the Murray-Darling Basin into perspective. I also trust they will look at the history of the system which has seen Mother Nature put under such stress before that the rivers in the system have dried up.

I thank the House for the opportunity of putting these things on record, particularly the very detailed letter from the small business man in the town of Boorowa. It is a classic example of how small business people are being affected by the decisions of government. I thank the House for its indulgence.