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Thursday, 14 September 2006
Page: 126

Senator BARNETT (6:10 PM) —I stand tonight to speak about why Work Choices is working. In Australia we have around 2.5 million people, or about a quarter of the people of working age, on welfare. It was British Prime Minister Tony Blair who said to the British Trades Union Congress on 9 September 1997 that ‘fairness in the workplace starts with the chance of a job’. In Australia today we have 700,000-odd children growing up in a household where no-one has a job, and that is very sad. A job of course provides financial and personal benefits. It is why Work Choices will in my view, in due course, be seen as one of the great economic reforms in Australia of the early part of the 21st century. It is a job creator, it provides flexibility and it increases wages. It undergirds our economy, making it stronger.

Work Choices will pick up the underclass forgotten by the Labor Party—the unemployed. Under Labor, a million Australians were out of work. Under John Howard, 1.9 million jobs have been created, most of which are full time. Economic growth depends on keeping the reform process going. This approach has helped to build one of the strongest economies in the world. Changes to our workplace relations system since 1996 have been an essential contributing factor to the strong economy and low interest rates that Australia currently enjoys.

Work Choices replaces a system that has six different industrial jurisdictions, more than 4,000 awards and over 105,000 different job classifications. As the Hon. Joe Hockey recently said, in a workforce of roughly 10.2 million people, that means a different classification for every 100 workers. How ridiculous. Pay for employees doing the same job but under different awards can vary by up to $77 per week. The reforms include a set of minimum standards covering wages, annual leave, sick leave and the like. These standards cannot be undercut. They apply to up to 85 per cent of Australian employees.

In the union and Labor Party scare campaigns and criticism of Work Choices, they said two things: it will lead to fewer jobs and it will lead to lower wages. Indeed, AWU Secretary Bill Shorten said Work Choices was ‘a green light for slashing jobs’. Let us look at the facts, because the facts are on our side. The unions said that the sky would fall in, that there would be mass job losses under Work Choices. What has happened since Work Choices came into being? We have over 175,000 new jobs throughout Australia. That is since March this year. Indeed, since 1996, when the Howard government came into office, 1.9 million new jobs have been created. In Tasmania, my home state, since Work Choices started, unemployment has fallen four points, from 6.4 per cent to six per cent. Of course, unemployment reached 12.6 per cent in Tasmania under Labor.

Labor said Work Choices would lead to lower wages. What do the facts say? Real wages have actually increased nationally by 16.4 per cent in the past decade under the Howard government. In the June quarter this year, real wages growth shows projected annual-basis wage growth heading for 4.4 per cent. In Tasmania, between February and May 2006, average weekly ordinary time earnings rose by 1.5 per cent; that is an indicative six per cent growth over a full year.

In response to last week’s fall in unemployment in Tasmania, the state Labor Treasurer, Michael Aird, admitted that the sky had not fallen in. What did he actually say? He said:

... more people are looking for work because they are confident of getting a job in the current economic climate.

Indeed, there have been no mass sackings since April, no Armageddon and no mass purge of the workforce as the union-Labor scare campaign warned.

I want to turn now to the economy. Let’s have a quick look at the results. The number of Australians in work under Labor was 8.3 million in 1996; under John Howard, 10.2 million. Of those jobs, 7.3 million are full time. The number of long-term unemployed was 197,800 in 1996; it was 91,200 as of June this year. Labor’s $96 billion debt has been wiped out; now we are looking at a surplus. Average mortgage rates under Labor were 12.75 per cent; under John Howard they are 7.15 per cent. Average inflation under Labor was 5.2 per cent; under John Howard, 2.5 per cent. The number of working days lost per 1,000 under Labor was 193; under Prime Minister Howard, 64. This is a very important point: strike action in the 1990s peaked at 104.6 working days lost per 100,000 in the 1992 December quarter. Who was the Minister for Employment, Education and Training then? The Hon. Kim Beazley was the employment minister. Our standard of living was ranked 13th in the OECD in 1995; it is now ranked eighth. Individual workplace agreements in Tasmania are, on average, 48 per cent more than those on awards, and nationally it is 100 per cent more than those on awards, and 13 per cent more than those on a collective agreement.

Interestingly, four out of five workers have opted not to have union membership. Union members are some 17 per cent of the private sector workforce now. Unions have handed the ALP $47 million in party affiliation fees and other contributions since 1996, whether the membership voted Labor or not. In my view, that is the key to the scare campaign behind Labor and union efforts to date. Most of those opposite are former union officials, and they know the importance of the union affiliation fees and contributions used to prop up the Labor Party. And now we know how they hope to protect this political laundering of union membership dues.

In the Hon. Kim Beazley’s rollback he wants to abolish AWAs. He is threatening the income of 20,000 workers on approved AWAs in Tasmania, and almost 900,000 nationally. The plan of the Leader of the Opposition is a plan for collective bargaining which will enable workplace collective bargaining if more than 50 per cent of the workers in that workplace agree. Mr Beazley’s office has confirmed that, under a Labor government:

... unions would be allowed to call on the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to subject all existing individual agreements to change to fit a new set of yet-to-be-announced minimum standards, even if neither party in the agreement wanted to change.

But on Wednesday, just yesterday, at the National Press Club, ACTU Secretary Greg Combet claimed that Mr Beazley’s collective bargaining announcement had been misinterpreted. He said:

We are not putting and I don’t understand Mr Beazley to be putting a position such as it obtains in North America where before a collective bargaining process can take place, there’s a necessity to establish that a majority of workers in that workplace want the collective agreement. What we are putting is that, a much, I suppose more flexible approach to it, that the law provide that employers and employees and Unions can voluntarily enter into collective bargaining at any time ... That is not a system where the right to collectively bargain is predicated upon a majority decision of the employees. It’s a system where any party can enter into collective bargaining negotiation at any time.

What does the business community think about that, and what do other commentators think about it? The state chamber of the peak New South Wales industry group, Australian Business Limited, said:

The Beazley plan is about stripping away the right of any worker to negotiate directly with an employer ...

I refer to the Illawarra Mercury headline today, Thursday, 14 September, entitled ‘Labor keeps union IR plan at a distance’. The lead sentence says:

Labor has distanced itself from a union plan to compel workplaces to adopt collective agreements even where the majority of workers don’t vote for them.

The Financial Review today says ‘Choices for work are clear’, and goes on to make some very interesting observations, including:

While the labour movement’s high priests have been mulling their response to Work Choices, evidence continued to mount that the new workplace regime is not the horror they seek to portray.

And indeed it goes on. We have the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressing their concern, including on the front page of the Tasmanian Business Reporter, where they say that the union right of entry is ‘an outrage’, and Damon Thomas is quoted extensively in that regard. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Before calling Senator Forshaw, I understand that Senator Forshaw has agreed to split between himself and Senator Carr the normal 10 minutes allocated for speeches on the adjournment debate. I ask the Clerk to set the clock accordingly: three minutes for Senator Forshaw and seven minutes for Senator Carr.