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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2310

Mrs ELSON (11:52 AM) —We hear a lot of political rhetoric from the Labor Party about the need to address youth unemployment. They stand in this place, they try to score political points and they shed crocodile tears for Australian youth, but one thing you will not find them doing is admitting that the problem was created during their 13 years in office. Another thing you will not find them doing is supporting any government action to try to improve the level of youth employment.

I am proud to stand in this place today as part of the Howard government, which is taking practical measures to help young unemployed Australians to get a job. The Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 is yet another practical, commonsense way the government is fixing the legacy left to us by the Australian Labor Party. This bill seeks to finally reverse the legislation introduced by the Keating government in 1993 and 1994 which has made junior rates of pay unlawful from 22 June 1997.

One of the first things we did following our election to government in 1996 was to discuss with the Democrats the repealing of this ridiculous legislation. They agreed on the condition that a review be established. That review is currently being conducted by the IRC. This bill amends the Workplace Relations Act to include specific reference to the protection of the competitive position in the labour market and the promotion of youth employment. This bill permanently exempts junior rates of pay from existing provisions intending to eliminate age discrimination in awards and agreements.

It is a move endorsed by the recent joint government submission to the junior rates inquiry. This was a 250-page submission by the state governments of South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory. It presented absolute concrete evidence that the junior wage rates are a positive assistance to our youth employment and that the scrapping of them will cost thousands of jobs.

We can stand in this House and argue until we are blue in the face about the merits of the philosophical view that pay rates should be based on skill alone. Those opposite can talk about discrimination and ageism. It all sounds fine in theory, but the bottom line is that junior wage rates protect young people's jobs. There is a mountain of evidence supporting this undeniable fact. More than 420,000 young Australians are employed on the base of youth wages in both federal and state workplace relations systems. In the retail industry alone, it is estimated that the jobs of more than 220,000 people will be at risk if this legislation is not passed. To put that into perspective, while the latest labour force figures show that youth unemployment is at its lowest level since 1990, there are still 80,500 unemployed 15- to 19-year olds. There are currently just over 80,000 unemployed young people, yet the Labor Party, at the behest of their union masters, is saying that they want to put at risk the jobs of a further 420,000 young people. Just think about it: 420,000 young Australians—enough people to fill the ANZ Stadium in Brisbane seven times over.

If you stop to think about it, even for a minute, it seems absurd that we are here having this debate today. There should be unequivocal support for the retention and the protection of our youth wages. Perhaps there would be if there were more people with a small business background in the Labor Party who were interested in developing sensible policies instead of playing politics. I am yet to find a small business person who does not 100 per cent support the retention of youth wages.

Many have told me that, without the youth wage, they simply could not and would not employ the number of people that they do. That is exactly what Labor and the union movement fail to understand—that if there is not an age based youth wage then employers will not simply pay all the junior employees at adult rates. They will reduce the number of people they employ and, inevitably, they will choose to employ older, more experienced and more reliable people for those positions they can afford to keep. In opposing this legislation, not only is Labor putting at risk the jobs of young people currently employed, they are severely inhibiting the prospects of finding jobs for those 80,000 young people currently looking for work.

I have discussed this issue extensively with small business people in Forde and, having run a small business myself, I can appreciate their concerns. I have spoken at length in this House about the tenacity and resourcefulness of our local small business owners, be it in our rural or regional centres. They have endured great difficulty under the Labor government and, in particular, during Paul Keating's engineered recession. Once again, I take this opportunity to thank them for their endeavours and for being the engine room of the Forde economy. Our latest census figures results show that over 87 per cent of local residents are employed in the private enterprise sector of my electorate.

Small business is the largest employer in Australia, which is why any government which is serious about addressing unemployment must take into account the views of the small business sector. To do otherwise is to defy logic. The verdict of the small business sector is undoubtedly strongly in favour of this legislation to protect youth wages. It makes sense. Any employer will tell you that a young person, simply by virtue of the fact that they have not been in the work force very long, does not have the same skills or work experience as someone older, and they generally require more training and guidance.

As the Victorian Minister for Industry, Science and Technology pointed out in his statement `Jobs for young Victorians', it is all about junior rates of pay. Young people entering the work force for the first time do not have the same level of skills and experi ence as older people. It is important that our workplace relations agreements do not hinder young people getting and retaining a job. Junior wage rates are effective and well known and automatically recognise the experience and skills which young people gain as they become older and mature. There is no viable non-discriminatory alternative. On the contrary, without age based junior wages, young people will be priced out of a job. I seek leave to continue my remarks at a later date.

Debate adjourned.