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Thursday, 13 October 2005
Page: 35

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (12:13 PM) —I also want to make a number of comments in relation to this debate and the issue of the government taking the position of refusing the extension of time to the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee to report on its current inquiry into industrial relations and associated matters. Just checking back on the records, I note that since July-August this year there have been 16 applications by committees seeking extensions of time in order to complete their reports and report to the parliament, and on every one of those occasions those committees were granted those extensions.

What is probably more significant is that there have been only four occasions in the past 20 years on which committees that have sought an extension of time in order to report to this parliament have in fact been denied it. I also have the opportunity of sitting on the Selection of Bills Committee. It has been very notable that since August, since the new parliament with the majority on the other side came into being, we have been consistently confronted with decisions by government to constrain the time within which a committee has to examine bills and to report. They have continually sought to truncate the reporting periods available to the committees.

Senator Abetz —We are looking for efficiencies.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —Senator Abetz interjects and says, ‘We’re looking for efficiencies.’ Let us look at what has been put to us in relation to the bills, in relation to the government’s industrial relations agenda. As I said the other day in respect of this matter, the government’s overall IR plan was launched last Sunday. It was launched in a fanfare of a briefing for the business community. Interestingly enough, the employers unions got an invite: the AiG, a registered organisation in the commission; ACCI, another well-known employer organisation; and a range of other employers unions from other industry sectors. But did any of the unions representing employees get an invite? Not one. They received no briefing whatsoever. As I understand it, the press got two minutes notice. They got a copy of the document two minutes before the press conference—a real opportunity to examine the detail of the document and to be able to ask questions about its content.

What is worse than that is that this parliament is expected to examine that legislation between now and Christmas. It is expected to examine the detail of the bills that are put before it and to pass that legislation before the Christmas break. I do not think any of us expect to get out of here until it is passed. If there is any delay in trying to examine it, the government will simply do what they have done with Telstra: drop the guillotine, apply the gag and ram it through. We have not received a copy of the IR plan. No copies of the 68-page document were presented to any parliamentarians in this building. I do not know whether government members got copies of it, but certainly those on the opposition side did not.

Let us look at what we are being asked to do here and what is particularly important in terms of its relationship to the other inquiry. We have been told that the legislation is likely to be introduced into the parliament at the end of this month—that is, the end of October, before the parliament will sit again. So by the end of October the bills will be in the parliament. Presumably when the bills get in here they will be referred, as per the decision, to the legislation committee for examination and report by 22 November. In effect, that means that we will have 21 days to examine proposed legislation which everyone is arguing is the most far-reaching proposal for change in our industrial relations system since Stanley Bruce tried to abolish the arbitration commission in 1929.

We are going to be given 21 days to examine the legislation. When you dissect the 21 days you see that we have to allow time and opportunity for interested parties to be notified that the inquiry is on, to give them the opportunity to make submissions. We have to give those individuals the opportunity to be heard. At the same time, we have to allow time within that time frame for the committee to write its report. I would suggest to this chamber and to anyone else who is listening that it is going to be a practical impossibility for us to meet that deadline and to do justice to a proper examination of the consequences of those bills.

There is a range of issues. There are myriad issues involved in the proposed legislation. There are interrelationships between various aspects of the proposed changes which will require examination because they could lead to substantial disadvantages being placed upon the work force. That could even happen by accident, not by design. But there is at least a responsibility on us as members of parliament, as legislators, to examine in detail the proposals in the bills to ensure that people are not inadvertently seriously disadvantaged as a result of the changes that are being put in place.

There have been a number of claims made by the Prime Minister in respect of the proposed IR reforms. One of those claims is that they will enhance productivity—that we will get significant productivity growth. It is said that we need to change because we need to drive productivity and give it a boost. That is one claim. But you cannot just sit down, glance at a document and say, ‘Yes, that will lead to productivity.’ At the moment, it is an assertion and nothing more; it has not been put to the test. I suggest there will be little opportunity to talk to experts in the field to see whether or not the rhetoric of the government will match the outcome.

The Prime Minister also claims that the reforms will lead to a better balance between work and family responsibilities. Again, that is an assertion without any attempt to examine its veracity and to test it with those people who work in that particular field and are familiar with it. And the Prime Minister claims that the capacity for employers and employees to choose a form of agreement making that best suits their needs will give greater flexibility—employees and employers will be able to make whatever agreements they want, and that is in their best interests. If you take a generous view, maybe that claim is true. But at least there ought to be a proper opportunity for it to be tested and examined against the facts, because that is not what is being said by a range of other people.

Those elements are part of the inquiry being conducted by the references committee. They are part of its terms of reference. We are already substantially down the track in relation to those issues. We have had a considerable number of witnesses before us. You can take out of the equation the witnesses that those on the other side of the chamber would claim are biased, which would be the unions, with the exception of the employers unions. And you can take out of the equation the people that we would suggest were biased witnesses, which would be the employers and employers unions.

We have had submissions to the inquiry from a significant number of highly reputable academics in the field of industrial relations. They are not all raving radicals. There were people from the very right of the spectrum across to the left of the spectrum. Not one of those academics has said that the claims by the government or the Prime Minister are right. In fact, they have all argued the reverse. They have all argued that the proposed changes are going to impose greater stress on workers and are going to create a position where wages will fall, that they will not be family friendly and that the bargaining process will substantially disadvantage workers compared with employers. All of them, without exception, have said that, including people like Professor Wooden, formerly of Flinders University and now at the school of applied economic research at Melbourne university. He is a well-known conservative academic who has been consistently used by the government to advocate their causes over the past 10 years. So it has been people right across the spectrum.

There are figures which give rise to concern about the government’s claims in relation to this proposed legislation. The government are fond of telling us how terrific they have been for workers—that workers’ wages have increased 14 per cent or thereabouts over the period of this government. The reality is that the workers whose wages have increased by 14 per cent—13.8 per cent, to be precise—are in the top percentile of employees in this country; that is, in executive and managerial positions. The wages of workers in the bottom two percentiles have increased by 1.2 per cent over that period. There is a huge gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. That has happened throughout the period that we have had Australian workplace agreements in place.

It is the same in respect of productivity. Labour productivity grew by half a percentage point in 1996-2004. But the most telling figure over the same period is that multifactor productivity has declined by over half a per cent. Anybody doing economics 101 will tell you that that means that resources are shifting from investment in technology, plant and equipment to investment in labour. That normally signifies that the price of labour is falling, because that is the determinant when you make a judgment about which of the two you invest in. Those figures make the point that wages have been falling over that period. The general view, and the view of a number of the academics that we heard from, is that they will fall even quicker.

The motion moved by Senator Marshall asks for an extra seven days over and above the reporting date that has been suggested in relation to the legislation which is to give effect to the government’s industrial relations agenda. That is not much of a difference. I would have thought that was sensible in the context that this committee is already dealing with a range of the issues that are pertinent to the examination of the legislation. We are yet to talk to a couple of academics who have done a great deal of work on the introduction of individual agreements and their impact on productivity and income.

I would not have thought that that was a very difficult set of circumstances for us to accommodate, given that the government’s own resolution in establishing the reference to the legislation committee has expressly excluded examination of a whole range of issues that have particular pertinence to the overall outcome of the inquiry. So we have asked for an extra seven days. We will have 22 days to try to put together a range of submissions and to organise hearings. I might add, out of those 22 days, the parliament will be sitting for the first two weeks. We have Senate estimates for the first week of the period, so no-one will be available to have any hearings. The second week is a sitting week for the Senate. In fact, we will have less than 14 days to conduct the inquiry and to report. It is not surprising, because I believe it has been a deliberate strategy of this government to ensure that scrutiny and examination of the detail of this proposed legislation be kept to a minimum. The fewer opportunities there are to expose it to rigorous examination and rigorous testing, the more opportunity there is for the government to get away with its introduction.

In many ways, I believe that this legislation will turn out to be the government’s Achilles heel. In the same way it ‘killed’ Stanley Bruce in 1929, I am confident that it will ‘kill’ Peter Costello, in all probability at the next election. But that is a judgment they have to make. That is a political judgment for the government—but accept the fact that I believe it has made the wrong one. In addition, two committee members are going to be away for part of the period in which this examination is going to take place. But I do not think it worries the government greatly whether or not those individuals in this chamber who have considerable knowledge of and expertise in the field are able to participate effectively in the work of the committee, because it is not the government’s intention that the committee work effectively in its examination of the detail of this legislation. If it were, the legislation would have been out much more quickly and there would have been greater consultation than there has been to this point. We will see this legislation dealt with in this chamber and in the other chamber in very much the same way we have seen the legislation to sell Telstra dealt with. It will be done in such a way that we will be limited in our capacity to contribute. (Time expired)