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Thursday, 10 February 2005
Page: 97


Mr SLIPPER (4:20 PM) —As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted by question time, we have this interesting situation where the opposition is endeavouring to compel the government to break a promise made to the Australian people. We are facing the very grave situation where the opposition is endeavouring once again to force the government of Australia to break an election promise. One would have thought that, since the Australian people spoke clearly and loudly at the last election, the opposition would want the government to deliver all of its promises in full and on time to keep faith with the Australian people. As I said prior to question time, the unfair dismissals law has been the subject of attempted amendment on 41 occasions since the government was elected in 1996. On 41 occasions the Australian Labor Party has voted against reform, and in doing so continues to condemn many people to a position in the dole queue rather than allowing them to get a foot on the employment ladder.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal Reform) Bill 2004 amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to prevent unfair dismissal provisions from applying to businesses with fewer than 20 employees. The government recognises that this bill introduces very substantial benefits for the community and gives job opportunities to many people who would otherwise not have the chance of getting a job. The new jobs will provide employment for many people who are currently out of work and they will open up opportunities for those who wish to change their means of employment. As we all know, when we have a higher level of employment, as this government has created during the time it has been in office, we do have a higher level of wealth created, and that is of great benefit to the nation as a whole. I want to point out that this bill will apply only to new employees of a small business and not to existing employees. The bill will require the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to order that an unfair dismissal application be not valid if it involves a small business employer with fewer than 20 employees.

When you look at the current cost being incurred by small businesses throughout the nation as a result of Labor's unfair dismissal laws, there is an overwhelming and compelling reason to change the law. The government's promise to the Australian people was made on very sound grounds indeed. The current cost of small business compliance with the unfair dismissal laws has been estimated to be at least $1.3 billion per year. A 2002 study by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that the current unfair dismissal laws are costing Australia 77,000 jobs. It must be very hard for the Australian Labor Party to look in the mirror and feel they are doing the right thing, I imagine, when they know that their inability to accept that they made a mistake in government by bringing in this legislation is actually depriving 77,000 of their fellow Australians of the opportunity to find work.

The reason this legislation is targeted to small businesses—that is, those with fewer than 20 employees—is that the current unfair dismissal laws work in a disproportionate way against these small businesses. They do not have the human resource specialists to deal with unfair dismissal regulation. In my own electorate office, time and time again we have been told that people will simply try to avoid putting on extra staff because of the various horror stories which have been told about circumstances confronting small businesses which have had to remove from the payroll someone who is simply unacceptable as an employee.

Most honourable members would be aware that the time and cost of defending a claim, even one entirely lacking in merit, can be substantial. It was interesting to note the evidence given to the Senate committee inquiring into the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002 indicating that it costs the restaurant and catering industry on average $3,600 and around 63 hours of management time to defend an unfair dismissal claim. I think most members on both sides of the House would agree that $3,600 and 63 hours of management time are resources that most small businesses simply are unable to afford.

It is regrettable that this law has not been changed previously. It is one of the key issues raised by my constituents with me. I am particularly pleased that the government post 1 July will have a majority in the Senate. Hopefully, the promises we make to the Australian people will be able to be fully implemented without the carping negativity we have seen from the opposition in relation to this and so much other legislation.

It is interesting, now that the honourable member for Brand has been reincarnated as the Leader of the Opposition, that unfortunately he has not been able to junk the policy on the unfair dismissal laws in the same way as he made quite sensible changes by scrapping large portions of the health policy and by also scrapping their inequitable schools funding policy. This really is a test of the economic and social credibility of the Beazley led opposition. Really, they have got to ask themselves: will they agree to modernise their economic policies and encourage job creation or will they continue to accept the orders that seem to be handed down to them from the trades halls right around the country? It is, I suppose, difficult for them to bite the hand that feeds—since 1995-96 unions have donated over $47 million to the Australian Labor Party. For too long the Labor Party has concentrated on the interests of those already in work and has neglected the importance of creating circumstances which do enable more people to get jobs. There has been, of course, a campaign of dishonesty. Ms Burrow of the ACTU claimed that, I think, five million Australians could lose their jobs if this legislation were actually carried. I think most people—even most people opposite—would agree that this is over-the-top stuff and entirely untrue.

I do respect at times some views expressed by some members of the opposition. It is well known, of course, that the honourable member for Hunter whilst shadow minister for small business admitted that his wife would have liked to have employed an extra person in her business but was fearful of the unfair dismissal laws. It was last year that the then shadow industrial relations minister, the honourable member for Rankin, was reported as admitting that he himself had felt discouraged from employing people by the threat of unfair dismissal laws and the claims flowing from those laws which were implemented by the former Hawke and Keating governments.

One of the aspects of the economy that all of us should be focusing on is the desirability of trying to give as many people a start in the work force as possible. The Labor Party has lost a number of elections. I think it is tragic that they have been unable to recognise that they are out of touch with the Australian people. This government has promised over and over again to amend the unfair dismissal laws. On 41 occasions since 1996 we have endeavoured to do so, and yet, even though the Labor Party would be aware that post 1 July they will not have a majority in the Senate along with minor parties, they are simply unprepared to accept the mandate of Australian people.

I understand that the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads wishes to make a statement. I therefore seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.