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Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Page: 27719


Mr JOHN COBB (1:10 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 because, like 40 other bills, it is designed to make small business more efficient. It is primarily designed not only to allow all business and employment in Australia to be good for those who have a job now but also to make it easier for small business—in fact, all businesses around Australia—to employ more people in the future. The core difference between those opposite and us is that, while we look after those who now have jobs, we are always trying to get employment for those who do not have a job. Without a doubt, the current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Werriwa, and his party are more about keeping the union happy and getting perks for those with jobs than about trying to create new jobs.

This bill is about delivering to business what they have been asking for; that is, a simple regulation and a clear definition of the allowable award matters for employee contract negotiations—in other words, a simplification to make it easier for everyone, but especially small business and the employees of small business, to reach a simple agreement directly between employee and employer without being part of a union contract.

There are 20 allowable matters in the Workplace Relations Act that can be addressed by the Industrial Relations Commission. They make up the minimum award or safety net provisions for Australian employees. Those allowable matters are listed in paragraph 89A(2) of the act. The award system is a safety net. It is a minimum set of conditions which must apply to employees and employers in any field of endeavour or work. I think what business and government agree on here is that we should not be totally prescriptive—in other words, we should not put in a set of principles that cannot be varied and cannot help either side with respect to wages and conditions. We believe that employers and employees should be able to sit down and have the flexibility to negotiate a wage package that allows both sides to make the most of their opportunity in the situation they are in and that, at the same time, guarantees a safety net and satisfies the minimum standard.

Obviously each workplace will have unique circumstances, irrespective of the industry and the particular conditions involved in it. Differences can and must be accommodated, and that is what this bill is trying to provide for. The amendments will provide clarity for employers as to what those minimum standards are and how they have to be incorporated in a voluntary agreement. The amendments will provide a concise reference for the Industrial Relations Commission to arbitrate where a dispute takes place. All that is pretty much commonsense and, I would have thought, beneficial to all sides. I certainly believe it will make it more possible for small business or any other business to expand and to chance its arm.

You would imagine that anybody would support such a circumstance; but will the Labor Party? No, they will not. Why? Quite obviously their union masters, the backroom boys of the Labor Party, will tell the man they direct, the member for Werriwa, that they do not want it. In other words, they do not want workers having freedom. They do not want a worker to be able to negotiate his own provisions in the workplace—not even when they meet the safety net or when they would be beneficial to the worker. That is not what they want. Anything that is not prescriptive, anything that does not put the union in the forefront, is of no use to them.

All of this totally ignores the fact that governments, the nation and employers are in the business of employment and production, and I would have thought that getting the maximum number of people in jobs would be at the forefront of everyone's mind—not giving the maximum number of union people a place in the movement of the work force. I think it would be very fair—when you read this sort of thing—to call the Labor Party `the unemployment party', because what they are supporting is certainly more in the interests of unemployment than getting people into jobs.

This government believes in a minimum safety net, but it also believes in a situation that is not so prescriptive that it inhibits the negotiation of a more mutually—and I stress `mutually'—beneficial package of work. This coalition has an incredible record, and I suppose this narks upon those opposite; it has had a very proud record on industrial relations over the last seven years. It has delivered more jobs, higher wages, lower unemployment and fewer industrial disputes than the previous Labor government of 13 years. We want to continue that. We have every reason to do that, and so does Australia, so does business and so does anybody who is a prospective worker. We wish to have the positive reforms that I have already spoken about to entrench minimum standards, but we want simpler, fairer unfair dismissal legislation as well. What does Labor want? They want what we used to have: total regulation and a fully centralised negotiation system of workplace awards. In other words, they want union domination, union control and a say in everything a worker does—no matter whether the worker wants it or not.

Industrial relations is a further example of why we must look at what Labor do, as the Treasurer says, and not what they say. The present opposition will say virtually anything in the light of day in an attempt to look good; but at the same time they are quite happy to tear the guts out of business, especially small business, to appease the unions behind them. You only have to look at what they have done to see that. The best example of that is the ALP National Conference of January 2004. It gives an incredible insight into what a retrograde step Labor and the unions want to take in industrial relations. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have extensively reviewed the January 2004 policy, and they concluded that the policy would adversely affect the interests of private employers and compromise economic development. They also said that it would heighten trade union activity and have significant implications for jobs and employment. In this blunt and comprehensive assessment, the ACCI calls upon Labor to at least look at what Paul Keating tried to do. He failed, but he tried to have a less centralised workplace relations system. But his successor, if you like, the member for Werriwa, certainly cannot do that. He will not even follow the industrial relations attempts made by the previous Labor government.

I must comment on some of the statements and positions adopted by the opposition and the unions. The Victorian construction union branded Prime Minister John Howard, our leader, an industrial firebug. We have been anything but that, and we have proved that over the last seven years. With our economic management, construction activity has increased, jobs have increased and wages have increased. If this government are guilty of anything in industrial relations or productivity, we are guilty of providing jobs, of making sure wages and salaries are growing along with production, and of ensuring the forward movement of this economy and its growth in real terms. Yes, we are guilty of that.

What is our record? We have created more jobs in the last six months than the previous Labor government created in its last six years. The current Labor opposition are proposing—and I think this is an enormous point—to revert to processes and policies that were discarded by their predecessors during the Keating government's modest attempt at industrial relations reform. It is not just employers that should be afraid. Workers should be afraid—very afraid.

Let us take a look at where Labor wants to take the country. Forget the rosy words used by the member for Werriwa. Look at what it is doing. Look at where it will lead us. The bill is about the amendment of allowable matters, and I think we have got to look at that. The proposal is to limit the types of allowances that can be included to monetary allowances payable to employees for expenses incurred in the course of their employment, for particular responsibilities or skills such as handling hazardous materials, or for work in particular conditions such as confined spaces or remote localities. Yet Labor would oppose this.

Labor seemed to want any additional allowance to be included in the award and to therefore preserve the right of the union to call industrial action if that allowance, no matter what it was, was not to their liking. We would be back to the union controlled workplace. I would like to give an example of what that was.

Some members may remember the dim sim allowance—a debacle on the Sydney waterfront over 10 years ago. Construction workers on the Sydney waterfront objected to a local Chinese restaurant cooking dim sims—it might sound funny but it is serious; this is what happened—and demanded a weekly dim sim allowance equivalent to the price of a Chinese meal, just to keep them on the job because they did not like the smell of dim sims cooking. If members opposite want to question that, they can ask their mates in the Waterside Workers Union about it.

I imagine the unions are rubbing their hands together at the thought of returning to that kind of industrial mayhem and lack of productivity if the Labor opposition have their way. Heaven forbid: if the member for Werriwa leads a government, obviously that is where the unions will take us.

There is another allowable matter entitled `Public Holidays'. The amendment before the House clarifies these as including only those holidays gazetted by state and territory governments. In other words, any other days off are a matter for a workplace agreement or enterprise agreement and are not part of any national award. Again, we cannot return to the days where our national productivity is compromised because of union demands for days of rest or other issues which result in lengthy strikes, and have done in the past, or expensive Industrial Relations Commission involvement.

When the coalition government assumed office in 1996 there were massive structural inefficiencies in the workplace causing businesses to be uncompetitive in the world market. There was incredible unemployment—approximately one million people—and a union movement that was totally restricting efficiency and productivity.

Labor and the unions controlled the industrial relations agenda to the point where there was virtually no—I stress `no'—optimism within the business community. The union movement, supported by the Labor government, was far more interested in rorting the system, getting more holidays and getting every little dim sim they could than they were in employment. The result of that was one million people unemployed, and there were no new jobs. By fixing the economy and lowering interest rates this government has created not just business and productivity, but jobs, better working conditions and better wages.

What no-one on the other side of the House understands is that without profits we not only do not have pensions but we also do not have the ability to provide better conditions, because we cannot pay for them. We can pay for them in the short term but they do not last, because businesses go broke.

As the ACCI acknowledged in their review of Labor's industrial relations platform, at least Paul Keating tried to address some of these matters. He failed but at least he tried. The present opposition leader, the member for Werriwa, and those behind him, appear to lack both the will and the fortitude to do what is necessary. Just as their populist politics at the moment have absolutely no guts, no forethought and no future, what they are doing in industrial relations is what the popular union at the time wants.

This government has shown that it still has the will. It is still producing good policy and is, for the 41st time, trying to make certain that we get changes to the workplace that not only allow small and larger businesses to do better but also mean more jobs for more people. That is something the unions and Labor do not seem interested in.

I refer once more to the waterfront. We reformed that industry to the point that the average container moves per hour went from 16 to 30. We have averaged over 25 lifts per hour for the last 13 consecutive quarters. Despite knowing what a mess the waterfront was, Labor governments around Australia combined with unions to try and block those reforms. Happily for Australia—for workers, for small and large businesses and for the debt of Australia—they were not successful. I think a lot of people have a lot to thank Peter Reith, the former industrial relations minister, farmers bodies around Australia and all those involved with those reforms for, for simply fixing that situation.

This government is about more jobs, not more rorts. Even members opposite must admit—they cannot dispute the fact—that, after eight years of coalition government, there are more people in work, unemployment is at half the rate it was under Labor and real wages are better, yet Labor still oppose the industrial relations reform program. It is time the public were aware of their duplicity and coercion, with unions, not to get more jobs but to get more rorts. The ACCI has looked at Labor's policy and seen the real need and the real danger. The ACCI said that it does not care which political party is in government, as long as there are policies to enable businesses to do their business and provide jobs and productivity.

There is nothing new in Labor's policy or actions. Labor's industrial relations platform is a return to centralisation and regulation. It is a rehash of a failed past policy that nearly broke Australia and, among other things, led to $96 billion worth of debt and interest rates of over 20 per cent—I know; I saw those high interest rates and had mates who went broke because of them.

Labor would turn control of our industrial relations over to their union masters—a body that even workers are deserting. That is what all this is about. They will not back off because they are down to 17 per cent union membership and Labor, being funded by the unions, are trying to help the unions get their membership up when everything the coalition does—economic management, more jobs, better jobs for better money—is helping to drive union membership down. When it was high, there were one million people unemployed.

This is a bill designed to help not only business, especially small business, but everybody. This bill is designed to create more jobs and give more people a better lifestyle. Let us pass it; let us get sensible.