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Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Page: 27708

Mr PRICE (12:21 PM) —Like other opposition speakers, I rise to speak in opposition to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002. Industrial relations have a great impact upon employment. I must say that I am getting quite alarmed by the employment statistics coming out of my electorate. For example, in December 2001 there were 75,942 people employed in my electorate. By December 2003 that had fallen to 70,230. Nearly 6,000 people have fallen out of employment in my electorate since the re-election of the Howard government.

Indeed, there has been a dramatic climb—of more than 1,000—in the number of unemployed people in my electorate. The figure rose from 4,796 in December 2001 to 6,601 in December 2003. The unemployment rate has gone up by half a per cent each quarter in the last five quarters. Of course, I am alarmed at that trend. In December 2003, it was 9.4 per cent. In December 2001, when the Howard government was re-elected, it was 6.3 per cent. I wish I could provide the House with some easy and ready explanation for what is happening in my electorate. I cannot, other than to say that these figures are telling a very stark story. I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard the table of the figures from which I have just quoted.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows—


Persons in the Labour force

Dec 2001 75,942

Dec 2002 74,905

Mar 2003 73,240

Jun 2003 71,479

Sep 2003 69,944

Dec 2003 70,230

Dropped by 5,712 between December 2001 and December 2003.

Unemployed Persons

Dec 2001 4,796

Dec 2002 4,618

Mar 2003 5,042

Jun 2003 5,645

Sep 2003 6,198

Dec 2003 6,601

The number of unemployed persons in Chifley rose by 1805 between December 2001 and December 2003.

Unemployment rate

Dec 01 6.3%

Dec 02 6.2%

Mar 03 6.9%

Jun 03 7.9%

Sep 03 8.9%

Dec 03 9.4%

Mr PRICE —I thank the House and I particularly thank Parliamentary Secretary Stone, who is sitting at the table. On 15 October I asked the Prime Minister about these figures—that is, the increase by a half a per cent each quarter from June 2002 to June 2003. The Prime Minister was kind enough to accept that the figures that I had provided were reliable, and I thank him for that. But in response to what the government might do to lower unemployment, he relied on the fact that interest rates were low and that he wanted to get rid of the cumbersome unfair dismissal laws—get them off the back of small business. I want to make the point that I do not believe that unfair dismissal laws affect employment whatsoever. In fact, the small business that my wife is a director of has been putting people on, notwithstanding unfair dismissal laws. I believe there is a whole fabrication being built around this so-called burst of employment that might arise as a result of a further attack on workers' rights.

In speaking to this bill, I want to say that I am proud to be a union man. I have always been a member of a union. As a teenager, I was elected as a union delegate when I was working as a labourer on the water board, and then, when I started to work for PMG and later Telstra, I was always pleased to be a delegate. In fact, I have been very much involved in my branch's union activities. In those days, we were considered the militant section of the union, but we would talk ourselves blue in the face before we would take workers off the job. We did do it, but we exploited every opportunity. I think it is a great thing to have been a representative of people who work. I applaud my colleague the honourable member for Throsby, who came into this place with an illustrious record of having worked for workers' rights, including being the President of the ACTU. I do not see this as something on which to belittle me or the honourable member for Throsby. It is a point of pride with us. It is a point of accomplishment for us. To the day I die, I will be a union man.

But this government sees unions as evil—as somehow holding back progress in the world of work. I would like to remind the House of all the things that we did under the last Labor government to make changes in the workplace. There are some things that as a member for parliament you never forget. I remember that, when we were trying to get workers to be involved with management, to increase productivity and to develop quality circles, we were tramping around the paper mills down in Tasmania and we spoke to a delegate there. His words will never leave me because he said of those changes: `Before when I used to come to work, when I bundied on I left my brains behind; now, when I bundy on I am expected to bring my brains with me.'

I have never understood the philosophy of the Howard government—and I have been on both sides of the equation, as a worker and as a manager. How can you expect to get the best out of the workplace if you do not involve workers or if you terrorise them with concerns about losing their jobs? And, indeed, what does this bill do? It takes out termination as an issue for an award. So an employer can ring you up and say, `Goodbye, you don't have a job.' Already the work force is very concerned about the lack of certainty in their employment. I understand that over the last 20 years things have changed dramatically in the workplace. Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, you and I might have looked for a permanent job with a company or public institution and stayed for 10, 20 or 30 years and seen our careers out. Young people are different today. They are quite happy to move around in a way that we would have found very discomfiting.

Let me say this: on the Labor Party side we actually believe in the dignity of work—that is, that there is nothing dishonourable about working; that there is dignity in saying, `I am a worker.' Whether you are a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker, there is dignity in that. As a society, we also credential ourselves by what we do. If you are meeting someone for the first time, the most common thing you ask is: `What do you do?' But what is the Howard government doing? The Howard government is trying to drive a huge wedge between workers and their employers.

Under the Howard government's industrial relations reforms, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, you and I can be doing the same job but we can be differently remunerated. I think that is terribly wrong. In Australia we are very proud to have had an arbitration system for more than 100 years. It was used to get over those terrible great strikes in the 1800s and the early 1900s; it was used to provide mechanisms whereby strikes could be resolved; but, most importantly, it provided protection for workers. The idea that somehow a worker and an employer are on an equal footing, equally able to negotiate on the fundamentals of employment, is absolutely farcical. Why continually attack organisations that seek the betterment of the working men and women of Australia? I do not understand that. It is a maniacal assault on the trade union movement. I just do not understand it.

Already, since 1996, the allowable matters in awards have been reduced to 20 matters. In the Hawke-Keating years, for example, we were able to achieve—without any strikes, without any lockouts—the crunching of over 300 separate awards in the car industry down to nine. In fact, the government got involved in a range of important issues. We did not stand at arms-length and say, `This is something that the marketplace has to sort out.' We actually got involved in the car industry and the steel industry and insisted that there ought to be reciprocity—that is, in return for concessions on the union side, there would be an investment program ensuring that the facilities that the workers had to work with were up to date, modern and the best that were available.

Whatever anyone would like to say in this place, it is unarguable that that car plan led to a massive transformation of our automobile and components industries. That was not an example of the Labor Party in government bringing down draconian legislation; it was not even a case of the Labor Party in government trying to favour one side of industrial relations over the other. It was done with the active support of the unions, the employers and the employer association. That is what should happen. But can you recall an example in the eight years of the Howard government where the Howard government has intervened to cause investment in an industry or got involved in ensuring an industry's future? Of course you cannot.

The member for Throsby pointed out what was being removed from the award system: skill based career paths for workers. The notion that if a worker undertakes study—an industry credentialled package of skills—and becomes more highly skilled, they should not be rewarded; that somehow Australia is so skilled that we do not have to worry about providing opportunities for the people of Australia, our working men and women, to gain further skills, and that when they gain those skills they should receive zero rewards for it. How absurd. I am sure that every coalition member understands that productivity, having increased so much through technological change, and skilling up the work force is now at the point of decline whereby it is starting to cause people to worry, and so they should. Australia has no comparative advantage in trying to compete internationally on a low-skill, low-pay base. We cannot do it. There are already countries in Asia which have wages much higher than in Australia.

We on this side of politics believe this passionately: our future is in providing opportunities for people. In the main, for working men and women, that means providing opportunities to get entry-level training into the careers of their choice and providing career training to enhance their skills. Not only do they benefit as individuals but we benefit as a nation. What is the Howard government doing? It is saying no. It is saying: `Nyet. We've got to get this out of the award system. This is holding Australia back. This is an alien philosophy to us. We can't have skill based career paths in our award system. If we get skills, we can't provide opportunities for people to move up the ladder in the world of work.' That is what they are saying. How absurd.

Long service leave is going to be taken out of awards. I think we can agree in a bipartisan way that there is nothing worse than seeing workers, men and women who give a lot of service to an individual company or organisation, accrue entitlements and then see that company go belly up so they do not get their entitlements. We can argue about the process for fixing it, but I think in this parliament we all should—and I believe we do—think that that is terribly wrong. On this side of the House, we say that the measures that you have sought to provide recompense in that system do not go far enough. Your safety net does not go far enough. That is a debate we can have, and we can take different sides of it, but why are you trying to take long service leave out of awards? What is the rationale? Do you want workers who do not have the benefit of strong union representation not to have long service leave in their agreements? Is that really what you are getting at? Is this another way of hollowing out workers' pay? There has been a lot of hollowing out of workers' pay since this government came in. Is this just another example? Why would we in the Labor Party not object to taking out skill based career paths and long service leave?

And—horror of horrors—how many times have we heard from the coalition members that workers should benefit from the success of their employers and places of employment? Many, many times. And now, of course, bonuses are to be taken out. You cannot have an award where workers might be paid a bonus. All the rewards of success should go to capital. All the rewards of success should go to management. It is diabolical, and I must say that it is a view of work and management that I do not share. But I will be interested to hear the coalition speakers provide justification for why skill based career paths, bonuses, long service leave and notice of termination should be out of awards.

The future of the world of work is dependent on a number of things. The involvement of workers is important. It should not just be a one-way thing. It should not just be: `You're lucky to get a job, and that's it.' You actually want workers to be committed to their place of work. You want them to be involved in key decisions, because often the workers, white-collar or blue-collar, know a lot more about the job than management does—and we were going along that path. I have always said that I believe, philosophically, that management and workers have a lot in common. But, rather than encouraging the sharing, you are trying to wrench them apart. You are trying to entrench the idea that all workers are entitled to is the privilege of a job at the whim of the employer, and that is it. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Order! Before I call the next speaker, during the member for Chifley's contribution leave was sought to incorporate material in Hansard. I have allowed that course of action to be followed. However, for the information of the House and the member for Chifley, it has been the practice of previous Speakers to keep Hansard as a true record of what is said. Where material can be read into the Hansard, it should be. The incorporation of anything into the Hansard record other than items such as tables, which need to be seen in visual form for comprehension, is usually not allowed.