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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2321

Mr WAKELIN (12:41 PM) —In response to the previous speaker, I would draw her attention to a statement by the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business in his second reading speech on 26 November on the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 . The minister used a very telling quote. He quoted from a letter to the Adelaide Advertiser from Paul Madden, Executive Director, Baptist Community Service, South Australia:

It seems to me that a fundamental question must be asked: "Is it better for a young person to have a lower wage and the opportunity to develop valuable skills or to have an adult rate and no job at all?"

That quote sums up the discussion for me. The Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1999, as I have indicated, was introduced in the House on 26 November 1998. The aim of the bill is to promote the inclusion of junior rates in awards and workplace agreements and to exempt youth wages from the anti-discrimination provisions of the Workplace Relations Act.

By way of background, more than 420,000 young Australians are employed on the basis of youth based wages in both the federal and state industrial relations systems; 220,000 of those jobs are in the retail sector. At the same time, October 1998, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 27 per cent. For those over 20, the equivalent unemployment rate was seven per cent. Clearly, young people are disadvantaged in their search for full-time employment.

At the 1998 election the coalition made a commitment to protect and promote junior rates as part of its More Jobs, Better Pay policy. This bill is the direct and immediate implementation of that commitment. That commitment involves the reverse of the Keating government's 1993-94 industrial relations program, a program that would have made junior pay rates illegal from June 1997. I am particularly interested in the member for Batman's earlier comments. He mentioned that the ACTU actually had in its submission to the commission that it would allow for junior pay rates in many industries.

As for the provisions of the legislation, the legislation is broad ranging for it does not simply focus on pay rates. The amendments apply to the whole operation of the Workplace Relations Act, including the exercise of powers and discretions by bodies such as the Industrial Relations Commission and the Office of the Employment Advocate.

This legislation amends the principal object of the act by including in its aims:

. . . protecting the competitive position of young people in the labour market, promoting youth employment and assisting in reducing youth unemployment.

It also requires the IRC to take into consideration the promotion and protection of the competitive position of young people in the labour market when varying and establishing awards. As such, junior wage provisions will not be regarded in law as constituting age based discrimination. Similarly, the commission's determinations and decisions must take into consideration these principles. Junior rates of pay will be formally and permanently exempt from the operation of relevant antidiscrimination provisions.

On the issue of the totality of Australia's youth employment situation, when discussing the often emotional issue of youth unemployment it is worth while reflecting on the raw facts of the matter. A snapshot taken in October 1998 of the condition of young Australians would reveal that of the 1.4 million 15- to 19-year-olds almost half were not in the labour force—that is, 562,500 were at school, in training or simply enjoying their youth. A further 213,900 were in full-time work, 395,980 were in part-time work and 136,800 were unemployed, almost half of whom were seeking part-time employment only. There we have the totality. It is something that the last Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, did bring some factual base to in the dying days of his government.

As such, youth unemployment is not the scourge of an entire generation. To take as gospel the tabloid headlines would be to ignore the extraordinary contribution made by young Australians across the nation in their work, their education and their service. Nevertheless, all Australians deserve the right to seek out their own destinies without the interference of others. And here is the real tragedy of youth unemployment, for it is the present industrial relations system that condemns over 136,000 young Australians and countless other citizens to the poverty, idleness and dissatisfaction that comes with unemployment. For far too long we have all tried to close our eyes and ears to the reality that unemployment in Australia is about choice. And we have chosen to trade away the futures of a minority in the interests of centralised wage fixing—the interests of big unions and industrial lawyers.

This legislation represents a paradigm shift away from that immature and irresponsible trade-off. It recognises that the young and inexperienced are disadvantaged in their search for employment precisely because their age and experience makes them less valuable, especially initially, to those who ultimately pay the bills—Australia's employers and small business people. There are some in the community, most of whom occupy the opposition benches and the office of the ACTU, who would say, `So what?' They would condemn those young people to unemployment without a second thought—collateral damage in a long over class war.

That is not the Liberal way. The Liberal way recognises that our workplace relations system should cater for the national interest and the interests of individual citizens, not for lobbyists and lawyers. It should cater for all Australians both in and out of work. Failure to pass this legislation will cost 60,000 young people their jobs almost overnight and 200,000 jobs in the long term. There will be 20,000 jobs lost in South Australia alone. And those who vote against this legislation must be willing to look everyone of those 200,000 young Australians in the eye and tell them their intransigence was in their interests. Be they senators or members, they must be willing to justify themselves to thousands of Australian families who will lose a pay packet because ideology demands it.

Our youth are the next generation of Australians—they are our next MPs, our next ministers, our next professionals, our farmers, employers and employees. We should not deny our young their bright futures and we should not deny Australia the contribution they can make by denying the young work.

Youth is an advantage and a disadvantage. Enthusiasm cannot always compensate for experience and skill. For that reason we wholeheartedly support apprenticeships and traineeships and for that reason we should support junior wage rates by supporting this important legislation.