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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 11


Mr ROBB (9:43 AM) —I rise to speak in very strong support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. This is a hugely important body of legislation for Australia. By putting faith in greater choice and flexibility in the workplace rather than in choking regulation, this legislation will underpin the future prosperity of Australian workers and their families for generations to come. This is fundamental legislation and fundamental reform. This legislation will promote job growth and job security. This legislation will promote a strong economy and better living standards for all Australians. This legislation will unlock productive capacity at every workplace and give everyone a bigger slice of the pie. This legislation will empower employees to directly influence their own work arrangements. This legislation will allow flexibility as never before, allowing for more family-friendly work practices as well as arrangements which suit people who do not have families.

This legislation will make it easier for the small and medium sized businesses, the local corner store, the small tradesman and the mid-sized tourist venture to make agreements with their employees that are relevant to their businesses. It will provide opportunities for employees and, in turn, make for happier, more collaborative and more productive workplaces. This legislation will provide opportunities for small and medium sized businesses that larger businesses have enjoyed from some of the legislative changes over the last 12 years. This will spread the productivity improvements that we have seen from a more flexible workplace over the last 12 years—the evolution we have seen over the last 12 years to a more productive and flexible system. This legislation is fundamental to spreading that evolution to small and medium sized businesses—to hundreds of thousands of workplaces across our economy. By promoting flexibility and greatly simplifying the system of industrial relations, this legislation will deliver better outcomes for interest rates and employment and inflation, a factor ignored by the Leader of the Opposition in his tirade over the last 30 minutes.

Fundamental to these changes is the health of the economy. Jobs, growth, productivity and quality of life all stem from a strong economy—these changes are fundamental to that. This legislation will promote the ability to adapt and compete effectively in a global world, ensuring quality employment prospects for our children. There is an inevitability about the need for these changes. It has come since 1970 with the globalising of the world economy. We cannot go on with a blinkered view about trying to prevail and to protect the regulation that has endured for 100 years; we have to be able to adapt and compete in this global world. This legislation is fair to unions but requires unions to earn their place in the sun and not have it guaranteed by legislative fiat. This legislation ensures our workplaces will no longer be hamstrung by a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace regulation. This legislation is about letting the people who know what is best for them choose the working arrangements which work best for them. At their core, these workplace reforms are about giving every Australian new freedoms and new choices while ensuring strong safeguards and protections. They are about enhancing the way of life of everyday Australians.

Yes, ever since these reforms were announced we have faced a campaign of scaremongering and deliberate deception from those opposite and from their ACTU bosses. We have heard that society will crumble, that living standards will fall, that economic growth will stop and that there will be a class war. We heard it all again this morning—on and on and on and on. There was no substance, just endless rhetoric. We have heard that democracy is under threat. We have heard that this is a pact with the devil. We have heard that reform will lead to enslavement. Indeed, just about the only thing we have not heard is that the earth will stop spinning—although it did not stop at the suggestion that women and children will be murdered as a result of these reforms. This crying wolf, this facile exaggeration and this deliberate deception will come back to seriously bite those opposite. Their pathetic overreaching is leading the electorate to largely switch off from this issue, because they have heard it all before. They have heard all this scaremongering, this facile exaggeration, endlessly from the other side of the House. In 1996 we heard the Chicken Littles opposite say the same thing. We heard from the member for Perth:

The Howard model is ... about lower wages; it is about worse conditions; it is about a massive rise in industrial disputation; it is about the abolition of safety nets; and it is about pushing down or abolishing minimum standards ... John Howard will reduce your living standards.

This was 1995, not 2005, from the shadow minister. Of course we now know that this prediction was nonsense. Precisely the reverse occurred. Yet this has not stopped the member for Perth and the Leader of the Opposition crying wolf, making the same extreme predictions. It is intellectually lazy or inept or both and it patronises the Australian people.

The overreaching and the scaremongering from the Labor Party is also saturated with hypocrisy. For over a decade both sides of politics have recognised the need to modernise our workplaces, to turn away from a centralised way of doing things, to encourage our businesses to be flexible and fast on their feet. In 1992 Paul Keating told the International Industrial Relations Association Congress that the system at the time:

... was doing its best but it had just about run out of possibilities. Every principle had got a run at one time or another—basic wage, total wage, relativities, work value, absorption, non absorption, flow ons, no flow ons, indexation, no indexation, minimums and maximums, industry decisions and national decisions ... Every principle, except the simple and straightforward principle of working together to find outcomes which left us all better off.

In 1993 Paul Keating, when speaking to the Institute of Company Directors, said:

Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards ... Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses ... We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards ... to being full substitutes for awards.

This is not John Howard in 2005; this is Paul Keating in 1993, and it was the forerunner to an attempt to bring in legislation to give effect to that model. To deliver this Keating model—that is, to make agreements full substitutes for awards rather than add-ons to awards—the no disadvantage test would need to be replaced with a strong safety net set within a framework of minimum standards.

This is exactly what our legislation proposes. This is one of the points that we keep hearing from the opposition. Those opposite know this, of course. They know that what we are proposing gives effect to the model that Paul Keating outlined in 1993. It is why they have spent the last three weeks fulminating about the cost of communicating the detail of the legislation while ignoring the substance of the changes in the legislation. We heard it again this morning. We heard the Leader of the Opposition spend probably half his time on a tirade about the communication program, ignoring the substance of the changes in the legislation. They have asked for months for details on the substance and when they got it they ignored it. We have had two weeks of facile arguments about the cost of communication in the face of a campaign of deliberate deception by the ACTU and deliberate deception over many months by those opposite.

The fact is that in their hearts those opposite fundamentally know that what we propose is good for workers and good for the country but not good for their political ambitions and not good for the privileged, protected comfort zone of their union bosses. On the other side of the House they are under instruction on this matter. You can see state leaders all around the country under instruction to go out and do their bidding. They have not got their hearts in this. They understand that these changes are fundamental to the future wellbeing of Australian families and for that reason they are fulminating and carrying on with politics but not with the substance that is put in front of the House with this legislation.

As the member for Lilley said in 1993 when Labor introduced workplace legislation:

I support the Industrial Relations Reform Bill because it will accelerate the move towards enterprise bargaining, continue to make Australia a more productive and competitive nation and lead to the generation of more jobs ...

That was well said. The member for Lilley was talking about the model articulated by Paul Keating. We all know that the final Keating legislation was nobbled by the ACTU back in 1993, but it was a start. It was a start in the move to true agreement making at the workplace level—a start we aim to complete with these reforms.

Labor’s crass opposition runs counter to their own policy disposition when in government. When they came into opposition in 1996 they chose to follow a strategy of opposing for opposing’s sake. Since being in opposition they have talked endlessly about economic reform, but when it comes to the crunch they can never vote for economic reform. Not content with simply opposing our 1996 workplace reforms, they have opposed every major piece of reform this government have put forward. On top of workplace reforms they have opposed welfare reform, GST reform, waterfront reform—another major productivity improvement opposed in total by this opposition—$21 billion in recent tax cuts and the related reforms to tax thresholds. There was also their total opposition to the sale of Telstra, higher education reform, border protection measures, health insurance rebates and the recommendations of the Cole royal commission. There is an endless litany of opposition to every piece of substantive reform this government have put forward.

With every flurry of opposition they have cried wolf and they have predicted dire consequences. We have heard it again this morning. Noise is no substitute for reasoned debate, yet all we get is bluster, hyperbole and misguided attempts at political opportunism. No wonder their party president recently dismissed their policy platform, acknowledging that their:

... unwillingness to tackle tough issues courageously creates an image of indecisiveness and lack of conviction.

That lack of conviction is being exposed once again. In full force, over many months, endlessly their lack of conviction is being exposed. They are opposing reforms which I sense they know in their heart of hearts are right and are good for Australians. Certainly they agreed with the policy direction when Paul Keating talked about these reforms. They embraced it then; they have opposed it ever since they got into opposition. It is cheap political opportunism and they will be found out again and again.

By allowing employees and employers to choose what works best for them, this legislation will facilitate the spread of the cultural change that has been evolving in our workplaces over the last 20 years. Fast fading is the 19th century model of a bitter them-and-us class struggle, where workers are treated as industrial foot soldiers and the workplace is treated as a battleground. There is no place in a modern economy for this mentality. Fundamentally, Work Choices is about giving all businesses in Australia the chance to share in the simple, straightforward principle of working together to find outcomes which leave us better off. Our current system encourages employees and employers to outsource their problems to a third party. There is especially the welter of regulation which still discourages small and medium businesses to take responsibility themselves. It encourages them to outsource their problems to a third party—a union, an employer association or the commission. This encourages antagonism and rigidity. It works against an adaptable workplace, it works against a flexible economy and it works against competing effectively in a world market.

Work Choices places the primary emphasis on employers and employees to resolve their differences and to identify opportunities at the workplace level. This means that both employers and employees will need to develop their abilities to manage their relationships at the workplace level—to be more open and more empathetic. Developing more open and more collaborative workplace relationships will provide significant benefits to employers, workers and, ultimately, the whole community. We have seen it again and again where this flexibility has spread through larger businesses that have had the money to deal with the complexity of the system and still take up some of the big productivity improvements. We have seen a fundamental change in the attitude, the opportunities, the flexibility and the productivity.

Take Rio Tinto, for example—with workplace agreements across all of their miners in the Pilbara. There has been a fourfold increase in productivity and a fivefold increase in improvement in safety ever since they went to a collaborative arrangement. Compare that with the record of industrial sabotage and total disruption that plagued that industry for 20 years. It is a revolution which we need to see spread throughout the Australian economy, through small and medium sized businesses. Open communications lead to a happier workplace. It means that individual circumstances are known and can be taken into account. It also means that employees can share their ideas and know-how with their employer, which will benefit productivity. It is a partnership between an employer who brings capital and a business to the table and an employee who brings not only labour but know-how. Employees understand their work and their responsibilities. They are a great source of invention and productivity improvement. If employers can tap into a collaborative workplace which forces employers to work better with their employees, it will encourage and unlock the ideas and the know-how of employees, which will benefit the activities of each business.

Better productivity leads to a stronger, more sustainable business and a stronger, more sustainable economy. There is nothing which generates job growth, higher wages and security of employment more than a strong economy. By delivering a strong economy, with opportunity for people to give expression to their own unique talents and circumstances, people will be happier and more fulfilled and we will see steady improvements in the quality of life for all Australians.

At the same time as freeing up Australians to have a say in what is best for them, the government also recognise that strong protections are needed to ensure that the vulnerable are not exploited. There are very strong protections throughout this legislation. We have worked very hard to ensure that we have genuine bargaining at the workplace level. That is a must if this system is to work. I support Work Choices because it will deliver real benefits for Australia.

In my earlier life, my involvement in the Mudginberri wide-comb dispute opened my eyes to the straitjacket that a highly regulated centralised industrial relations system places on employees and employers and on the country as a whole. At Mudginberri, an agreement between an employer and his employees to pay on the basis of productivity suited the economics of the meatworks and the peculiar nature of that remote workplace. Despite the fact that the workers were happy with the deal—and why wouldn’t they be; they were by far the best paid meatworkers in the country—it took two years, a $10 million fighting fund, 27 court cases and a $2.3 million damages bill to convince the union that this was a good and proper thing for the country. The wide-comb dispute in the wool industry highlighted the foolishness of unions opposing the adoption of new technology. If they do not adapt, the world will pass them by, ultimately putting at risk many jobs in an industry that they purport to protect. These and other disputes were a forerunner to the legislative changes of the last 12 years, to the evolution which has significantly contributed to the robustness of the Australian economy over the last decade—an evolution that must continue and go further if we are to maintain that economic strength. We must never lose sight of the fact that the quality of life of the Australian people critically depends on the strength of the economy.

The government have worked very hard over the last 9½ years to improve the lot of the working men and women of Australia, and we are very proud of the record. These reforms are fundamental to continuing the improvement in the quality of life of Australians now and in the future. They are fair and they are a progressive set of reforms, and I commend the bill to the House.