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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 20

Mr HENRY (10:24 AM) —What a charade.  What a deceitful, shameful charade we see from the opposition on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I am sorry that the member for Brand has just left the chamber, because it was interesting to note in some of the earlier remarks by the member for Perth that he mentioned ‘trust’. Who can you trust? Let us look at the background and some of the circumstances that prevailed when the Leader of the Opposition was Minister for Employment, Education and Training between 1991 and 1993. The member for Brand, the Leader of the Opposition, had a record then of one million unemployed, 329,000 long-term unemployed and teenage unemployment of 34.5 per cent. The member for Perth mentioned Labor putting families first. That sort of level of unemployment is how Labor put families first. That sort of uneconomic outcome is just unacceptable today. Yet, they talk about trust. They talk about lies and deception—that is all on the other side.

How did the member for Brand as minister for jobs and skills go? At page 371 in the biography Beazley by Peter Fitzsimmons in 1991, the member for Brand says:

... I lost a lot of ambition and I stopped straining ... I thought that there was less capacity to achieve in that portfolio than just about any I have had.

When he was employment minister, he gave up on the unemployed; he abandoned them. This is what he said about youth unemployment in an interview on 6 May 1993. The interviewer asked:

So this group—

the unemployed—

are being told, in their twenties, by society, effectively: You’re the losers; go to the scrap heap.

Mr Beazley—

Well, those who haven’t made it into work and who are among the long-term unemployed, that’s a reasonable statement.

He gave up. On The 7.30 Report on 6 May 1993, in answer to a question about the 329,000 long-term unemployed, he said:

Where it is now is unacceptable; where it’s going to is even more unacceptable.

Consider the Leader of the Opposition’s record in relation to skills when he was minister for jobs and skills. He has been going on about how the government has not performed in this area when his performance as minister in this area was absolutely appalling. Between 1991 and 1993, the number of people in apprenticeships in traditional trades fell from 151,000 to 122,600—a decline of 23 per cent. It was only in 2004 that this level returned to the level it was just before Mr Beazley became minister for jobs and skills. So I again ask: who can you trust? You can trust the Howard government.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is a pivotal piece of legislation. In my view, and the view of my colleagues, the future prosperity and economic success of this great nation of ours and the people in it depend upon the passing of this legislation. I remind the House of what has been achieved by the Howard government’s economic reform measures since coming to power in 1996. The government’s record is remarkable, representing as it does an increase in real wages for Australian workers of 14.9 per cent, the creation of around 1.7 million new jobs and an unemployment level that is near a 30-year low. Contrast that with the record under Mr Beazley as minister for employment and training.

Australia today ranks 53rd in terms of world population but it is the world’s 13th largest economy. In terms of income per head, Australia ranks eighth in the world and, in the not too distant future, this government will be debt free—a fact that is even more remarkable when you consider the $96 billion debt that the previous Labor government left as part of its legacy of economic mismanagement. Part of that legacy also included high inflation and even higher unemployment, which I demonstrated earlier.

This government recognises that Australia’s economy has not made such strides forward and its people have not enjoyed such prosperity by the government of the day standing still or adopting a do-nothing attitude to such an important issue as workplace relations reform. Unless the economy is provided with the impetus and the framework for growth, we will be failing the Australian people.

This bill will deliver a substantially improved workplace relations system for Australia by providing an alternative to the overcomplicated structure that exists within the country today, with its more than 130 pieces of separate legislation, 4,000-plus different awards and six distinct workplace relations systems. Labor talks about the need to preserve these areas, but I can tell you that business out there, and employees and employers, are confused by the complexity of these systems. We need to change to a much simpler and more understandable system. Work Choices will deliver even higher real wages, create even more jobs and continue the downward pressure on unemployment. It will contribute significantly to the future success of our economy and it will mean that Australia will remain one of the world’s most successful and vibrant economies. This belief is shared by the OECD, which has described Australia as a model for other countries, and the International Monetary Fund, which holds to the Howard government’s view that Work Choices provides real opportunities for job creation.

Before considering the detail of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, it is appropriate to first say a few words about the campaign of fear and lies on the government’s workplace reform agenda that has been waged for several months by the unions and the Labor Party at the state and federal levels. The campaign took advantage of a period while the detail of Work Choices was being prepared. It was based on outright lies, innuendo, erroneous assumptions and the twisting of facts for self-serving ends. Ultimately, it was a politically motivated campaign with one purpose: to improve Labor’s rating in the polls. The ACTU admitted as much when its secretary, Greg Combet, announced at the launch of the campaign: ‘We need a change of government.’ Why does the ACTU need a change of government? It seems there are 47 million reasons, because over the last 10 years unions have invested $47 million in the Labor Party and they want a return on their investment. The ACTU wants a government, not an opposition, that it can control and that will adopt policies it can dictate. The member for Perth mentioned employer control, but he continues to ignore the union control of the opposition.

In 1996 the current Leader of the Opposition predicted the Workplace Relations Act would turn Australia into a low-wage, low-productivity industrial wasteland. He was dreadfully wrong then and he is wrong now, as is everyone on the opposition benches and their union mates. The Leader of the Opposition needs a lesson in history; perhaps he also needs to learn a little from his more successful predecessors, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who embraced the liberal democratic reform process and introduced enterprise bargaining and individual contracts.

Ms Macklin —That’s a bit rich!

Mr HENRY —Workers are a lot richer under the Howard government than they ever were under the Labor government, that is for sure. At least they are getting jobs now. Here is a quote that appeared in the Australian on 1 November 2005 which was attributed to Bob Hawke when he was President of the ACTU in 1971:

The least likely way of maintaining harmonious relations in industry is going to be a system where some external parties impose their will on the two parties most affected.

That was Bob Hawke. Work Choices actually delivers on that ethos and should be embraced, not opposed, by the Labor Party.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 represents a major step forward in achieving a simpler, more effective and nationally based system for workplace relations. It will simplify the workplace agreement process and enshrine for the first time a statutory set of minimum conditions within federal legislation. The bill provides for the establishment of the Australian Fair Pay Commission, which will set minimum wages and award classification wages as well as rates for juniors, trainees, employees with disabilities and casual workers. Significantly, the Fair Pay Commission will be independent of government and its primary responsibility will be to promote the economic prosperity of the people of Australia.

That requirement has significant implications because it means that the Fair Pay Commission will have to look at the capacity of the unemployed and low paid to obtain and remain in employment, as well as factors impacting on employment and competitiveness across the economy and the need to provide for a safety net for the low paid. I welcome that responsibility being placed on the shoulders of the Fair Pay Commission. It introduces equity for those seeking entry to the job market for the first time and for those on low wages, as the Fair Pay Commission will be considering their needs alongside those of the rest of the work force. The setting of overly high minimum wages without reference or link to the impact on the job market and the ability of the economy to generate new employment opportunities is wrong. I hold the view that, ultimately, the best form of welfare is a job, and the requirement placed on the Fair Pay Commission will help ensure that those seeking to escape the welfare trap will have a chance to do so.

Much has been said in the media about the impact of this legislation on minimum wages and award rates. As part of their deceitful campaign, Labor would have us believe that wages will fall and that workers will be worse off as a result of the new workplace relations regime. I believe the opposite to be true. The idea that employers are waiting in the wings for this bill to pass through parliament, eager to seize an opportunity to erode the working conditions and entitlements of their workers, is absolutely wrong. I know that employers will pay the prevailing market rate for a job to be done. If they paid less than the market rate, who would want to work for them? Labor needs to face up to the fact that the myth it is promulgating that businesses are lining up to seize any opportunity to strip away worker benefits is a lie. As we have already seen from the impact of previous workplace relations reform legislation, the opposite is true, as employers and their workers together reap the benefits of a growth economy.

Much was made in the union sponsored misinformation campaign about workers losing their right to lunch breaks, having their annual leave entitlements cut or losing out on public holidays. The undeniable fact is that under this bill these rights are protected within the bargaining process. However, they can be traded off for other benefits if workers so wish, and many workers I know welcome this. I have seen it happen time and time again to the advantage of both the employer and the employee.

As the name implies, Work Choices is about choice. It is about flexibility and the ability of employees to negotiate with their employers to put into place working arrangements that suit them and fit into their lifestyle. This means that, under this bill, workers will have the right and the ability, if they so desire, to cash out some of their annual leave entitlement or arrange an earlier finishing time in exchange for a shorter lunch break; but these trade-offs cannot be forced on them. It is not the case that there is no choice under this bill, as claimed by the unions and Labor. There is real choice, as opposed to the situation under Labor, in which employees would have no choice and no work unless they had a union ticket. ‘No ticket, no start’ is the claim of unions, supported by their Labor mates. Without a union card, workers would be denied the right to a job. No wonder we had so much unemployment under the previous Labor government—workers chose not to join a union. And they continue to choose not to join a union—all we have to do is look at the huge decline in union membership across this country.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 does not cover a number of conditions, such as superannuation, notice of termination, jury service and long service leave. This is not because, as a desperate Labor Party wants the general public to believe, such conditions are being abolished but plainly and simply because they are already covered and provided for in other legislation. Work Choices is about simplifying workplace relations systems; it is not about complicating and duplicating existing measures.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 does not abolish the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It defines and focuses the Australian Industrial Relations Commission’s role to a specific set of responsibilities that are better suited to its capabilities. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will retain responsibility, with the consent of the parties involved, for dispute resolution under workplace agreements. It will have the power to deal with unlawful industrial action, including industrial action in support of pattern bargaining. It will regulate the right of entry to workplaces by unions and will be responsible for the unfair dismissal system as well as the conciliation of unlawful dismissal claims.

A key part of this bill is that it provides for businesses employing up to 100 staff to be exempt from unfair dismissal claims. This is a most welcome provision which, in my electorate of Hasluck, in Western Australia, has been hailed by small business owners as a major step forward in providing the right conditions for them to grow their businesses, to provide more employment opportunities and to move away from casual staff by taking on those same casual staff as permanent employees, which is a great benefit to those employees. The current unfair dismissal law, which was introduced by a Labor government in 1993, saw a massive switch from permanent employment to casual employment in small to medium sized businesses. It turned off potential employers from taking on more permanent staff. Work Choices will change that and, with that change, will come some very real benefits to those who are currently casual staff, such as being able to qualify for mortgages once they are taken on as a permanent member of an employer’s team. There is no doubt that the 1993 unfair dismissal laws deterred small business operators from growing their businesses. They were, and are, fearful that they could potentially become subject to unfair dismissal claims, at a cost to their businesses, and they could ill afford the risk. There is significant evidence to demonstrate that just that situation has occurred.

Since being elected as the member for Hasluck, in 2004, small and medium sized businesses within my electorate have had a simple and crystal-clear message for me to bring back to Canberra: push on with workplace relations reform, provide the right conditions for us to grow our businesses and lift the yoke of the current unfair dismissal arrangements. Work Choices delivers on that, and I applaud its introduction on behalf of all businesses and their workers in Hasluck and Australia.

Importantly, under Work Choices, protection against unlawful dismissal will remain for all employees regardless of whether their employer is a small, medium or large business. It will remain unlawful for any business to dismiss an employee on the basis of marital status, family responsibility, pregnancy, colour, race, creed, age, sex, physical or mental disability, union membership and a host of other fundamental freedoms that characterise Australia’s commitment to a fair go for all. Unlike Labor, the government is happy for employees to belong to a union or not to belong to a union. Employees will have that choice and that right. In that regard, I welcome today’s announcement by the government of $28.3 million over the next four years to fund an unlawful termination assistance scheme, which will support workers whose employment has been unlawfully terminated. Under the scheme, parties making an unlawful termination claim will be eligible to apply to the government for up to $4,000 worth of independent legal advice.

One of the other important aspects of the bill is the transitional arrangements. In my experience in workplaces over the years, there has been huge confusion and concern when businesses buying out other businesses are wrongly impacted by the industrial arrangements prevailing prior to the business being purchased. The complexities of that arrangement will be addressed in this bill in these transitional arrangements. Work Choices provides that industrial instruments will transmit to a new business owner only where employees transfer to that owner and will apply only to those who have transferred. The bill also provides that these transferred collective agreements and awards will apply for a period of only 12 months. After that period, the employers existing award system will apply to all employees.

The opposition has made much about the government not having raised a number of the reforms provided for in the Work Choices bill. However, they overlook the fact that Work Choices contains most of the government’s reform proposals that have been stalled by the Senate since 1966. Since that time, there have been 13 separate Senate inquiries into the coalition government’s workplace relations proposals, eight of which have considered reforms to the unfair dismissal system. So we have been very upfront about our intentions and there has been a huge amount of debate and transparency. Australia’s future prosperity and the prosperity of its people depend on the ability of this House—(Time expired)