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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 29

Mr JOHNSON (11:02 AM) —I am pleased to be the Howard government’s third speaker on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. This bill is well overdue, and the reforms that it will bring into the Australian economy and the workplace are well overdue. As the Prime Minister has indicated, this is a big bill, but it is also a very fair bill. This bill is in the national economic interest of this country and, because of that, I support very strongly its passage in the Australian parliament. That having been said, I want to say thankyou to those in the Ryan electorate who have taken the time to write to me, phone me or email me to express their reservations and their thoughts. I do appreciate that some have had concerns, and I want to take this opportunity in the parliament to thank those constituents who have come to me to express their thoughts. It is my job as their local representative to hear their views and to feed them back into the parliament and the government. But, given my own very strong support for this piece of legislation, I want to try to explain to the people of Ryan what this bill is all about and why I fully support its passage in the House of Representatives.

This is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that the 41st Parliament will pass in its three-year parliamentary term. In fact, this bill will probably rank as one of the most significant bills that the parliament has passed in recent years or is likely to pass in the decade ahead. At its heart, this bill is all about making the Australian industrial relations system simpler and fairer and about protecting minimum conditions. At its heart, this bill is also about increasing the productivity of this country and securing the economic prosperity of our people for the next generation. The current industrial relations system has grown increasingly cumbersome and unwieldy for we Australians to simply sit back and rest on our laurels. This bill will create a modern workplace architecture that is well overdue. In doing so, it will replace an outdated industrial regime that had its birth in the early 1900s—that is right, early in the 20th century. This bill seeks to replace a system that had its birth in 1904, over a century ago. That was a time when the horse and buggy prevailed, a time when the horse and buggy was mainstream thinking. We have moved beyond that.

There is no doubt that this bill will change the landscape of the Australian workplace. But that is its very intention. Its precise intention is to update and modernise our national workplace structure. Its intention is to make the national industrial relations structure relevant to contemporary Australia by embracing a single workplace system, a structure that will create a national regime. The current system has encumbered us with six different workplace regimes across Australia with over 130 separate pieces of industrial relations legislation and over 4,000 awards. (Quorum formed)

In the parliament today I want to say very clearly, particularly to the constituents of Ryan, the moments we have just experienced reflect very strongly why the Labor Party continue to be in opposition, why they have lost four elections on the trot and why they will continue to sit in opposition—because they have no policies and no ideas. They will continue to sit in opposition. They do not even give members of this parliament on this side of the chamber an opportunity to speak to the bill.

Mr Price —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Either members should be at their places or they should leave the chamber; they cannot stand.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—I thank the member for Chifley. Would those members who are leaving the House do so in an orderly manner or resume their place in the parliament.

Mr JOHNSON —If the opposition leader, the opposition frontbench, the members opposite and the Chief Opposition Whip focused more on coming up with ideas and policies instead of pedantry they might actually get the attention of the Australian people. I am pleased to continue speaking on this bill. As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted by the Chief Opposition Whip, this country today has over 130 separate pieces of industrial relations legislation and over 4,000 awards. In a country of our size, this is surely absurd; for an economy of our structure, this is surely highly inefficient. This bill seeks to legislate for a uniform system that will cover the majority of Australian workers—up to 85 per cent.

There has been a lot of misinformation and misrepresentation from the union movement and, of course, to be expected, from the Labor opposition about the conditions that will exist following the passage of this bill. The reality is very different. This legislation will introduce choice for employers, for employees and for job seekers. More than ever before, Australians want choice in their employment arrangements. Australians want and deserve flexibility—flexibility to spend time with their families, to work more overtime, to go on holidays or to earn extra money. More people are working part time, on contract or in other arrangements that suit them and their employers.

For the benefit of the people of Ryan, whom I have the great privilege to represent, for Ryan businesspeople, let me spell out clearly the position in relation to the minimum conditions that will be protected and will endure as a result of this bill. First and foremost, there will be a single minimum wage. There will be protected minimum standards and conditions. Annual leave, personal leave and parental leave will be protected. This safety net will be enshrined in legislation. Let us have none of this nonsense that the ALP peddles about the government’s bill and its intention to destroy minimum conditions. Let us have none of this nonsense from the unions about employers sacking workers because they have sick children and they need to stay at home. It is an absolutely disgraceful public scare campaign that does nothing for the reputation of the union movement in this country. No wonder the union membership rate is 17 per cent; less than one in five workers in this country belong to unions.

Mr Hardgrave —Most of them are forced to join.

Mr JOHNSON —Indeed, Minister, you are correct. No doubt many of those are compelled to join the unions just to simply make up the numbers. This legislation will also set up the Fair Pay Commission. This is going to be an independent wage-setting body. Its inaugural chairman is Professor Ian Harper, who has already been savaged by union thugs and heavyweights. One such is Bill Ludwig from Queensland, who indeed is a constituent of mine, a Ryan resident. I encourage Bill Ludwig to be a bit more courteous in his treatment of distinguished Australians.

The Fair Pay Commission will have the responsibility of setting and adjusting the minimum and award classification wages for juniors, trainees, apprentices and employees with disabilities. Minimum and award classification wages will be protected at the level set after the increase from the 2005 safety net review by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Contrary to much of the malicious misrepresentation in the public arena, the Industrial Relations Commission will remain; it will not be abolished. The AIRC will certainly have a different role under the new regime. Its altered role will reflect the original purpose for which it was established, namely, as a dispute resolution body. The AIRC will also have the important role of simplifying and rationalising awards as well as regulating industrial action, right of entry, unfair dismissal and registered organisations.

Let us ask the question: where do small businesses in this country, certainly the businesses in the Ryan electorate, stand? Australian small businesses have stood up to be counted on this bill and strongly support these changes. There are 1.2 million small businesses in Australia employing 3.3 million workers—a third of the Australian work force. In the overwhelming number of cases, small business employers and their employees have great working relationships as they both strive towards common goals, namely, business profitability and job satisfaction. Employers and employees today know that they depend on each other and have mutual responsibilities and shared needs. Small businesses and big businesses in my electorate of Ryan are certainly very supportive of the legislation.

Imagine what it must be like if you are a businessperson trying to grapple with the maze of awards, award systems and state regulations that abound in the field of industrial relations. Imagine if your business operates across more than one state or some of your employees are covered by federal awards and others are not. What sort of nightmare must surely ensue from having to be familiar with countless regulations, complying with them fully and still having to meet all the needs of your business on top of that.

A central feature of this legislation is the provision for further use of workplace agreements. With this legislation, there will be greater scope and flexibility for agreements to be negotiated directly between employers and employees. Over half of all small businesses have already implemented AWAs and the majority have been happy with the improvements in workplace productivity and flexibility. On average, employees on AWAs get 13 per cent more than those employed under collective agreements. No wonder there is satisfaction with AWAs. The unions and the federal Labor Party seem to be locked into this ideological mind-set that, no matter what, the needs of employers and employees are diametrically opposed. According to the ALP, employers will always want to drain every last drop of blood out of employees. This is dinosaur thinking. This is the thinking of the modern Australian Labor Party, but it actually reflects prehistoric thinking. It is outdated and just shows how out of touch the opposition is with the modern marketplace and the modern business world.

Everyone has moved on except the unions and the federal Labor Party. Everybody—all the relevant stakeholders—has moved on except the federal Labor Party. It is no wonder that the Australian people at successive elections have voiced their position very clearly and have confined the Labor Party to opposition, because that is where they deserve to be. The union view today does not reflect the reality of the Australian work force today.

More Australians than ever before are operating small businesses and small businesses are becoming major employers. Some of the most significant provisions in the bill for small business are the unfair dismissal provisions. I know these provisions are welcomed by those in small business. I have certainly had many of my constituents in Ryan contact me to explain the terrible experiences they have had in not being able to dismiss staff who totally deserved the sack. The provisions in this bill allow employers with up to and including 100 employees to be exempt from unfair dismissal claims. The qualifying period before which employees can make unfair dismissal claims will be extended from three to six months. Everyone in business knows that the Keating Labor government’s unfair dismissal provisions unleashed a terrible burden on Australian businesses of all sizes and varieties. The unfair dismissal laws currently on the statute books are not serving their purpose at all. A small number of unscrupulous employees who are dismissed for obvious issues such as stealing or lying about their qualifications or experience have brought the whole system into disrepute, tying up businesses in court proceedings and unleashing massive expenditure on those small businesses.

The Ryan small business community support this bill very strongly, because they know that these changes have the capacity to transform our economy and the business environment for greater efficiency and prosperity. They also know that these reforms will set up greater job security for their staff like few other reforms will. Disinformation and misrepresentation by the Labor Party and the unions continue without limit, but this has not stopped small business owners from giving their perspective, and it is a very accurate one indeed.

Today the Australian economy ranks as one of the most successful in the developed world, thanks in no small measure to the policies and leadership of the Howard government. But of course this has not always been the case, and I want to remind the people of Ryan, and especially those who made it clear to me that they did not support these reforms, of how the economy looked under the previous Labor administration: record high unemployment, massive government debt, record high home and business interest rates and, of course, ‘the recession we had to have’. The people of Australia and the people of the Ryan electorate will remember the phrase ‘the recession we had to have’ under a Labor Prime Minister.

As for the economy under the Howard government, what a contrast: unemployment at three-decade lows of five per cent and over 1.7 million jobs created. Labor’s massive government debt of $96 billion as of today has been almost repaid. Interest rates remain at five and six per cent. Interest rates are one-third of those under Labor. Today, everyday Australians can actually invest in and own their own home. Real wages growth is in excess of 14 per cent. The Australian budget is in cash surplus. The Australian economy continues to perform very strongly and robustly, in no small measure due to the leadership of the Howard government. Today, we can even enjoy tax cuts that were only a dream under Labor. Remember those days when there was just a faint hope of l-a-w law tax cuts? I am sure all Australians remember that; indeed, the people of Ryan remember that.

How can it be that the workers of Australia have fled from Labor? How is this possible for a political party that purports to represent the working class of this country, the workers of Australia? They have deserted Labor. They vote for coalition members because they know that the federal Labor Party offers no hope, no policies and no ideas and remains in policy fatigue, in a policy deep freeze. It is disappointing that I have only a few minutes left. Unfortunately, the Chief Opposition Whip has deprived me of my democratic right in this chamber to speak for my full allocated 20 minutes. I am highly flattered that he thought I was giving such a terrific presentation that he called for more members of the parliament to come in here. It is a shame that he is taking the step of depriving me, the member the Ryan, of my right to represent the constituents who elected me. But no doubt there will be opportunities in the adjournment debate for me to continue this very important presentation.

I wanted to quote two former Labor prime ministers about their support for the ideas in this bill. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, two Labor Prime Ministers, no doubt deep down believed that opening up the economy through deregulation was critical to this country’s future prosperity. Unfortunately, time is running out for me.

I strongly support this bill because it secures our productivity for the future. This legislation before us is critical, it is vital, to secure Australia’s future economic prosperity and it transforms our industrial relations system for the better. This nation is currently enjoying prosperity that would have been unimaginable in the early nineties under a Labor government. If Australia does not act, this generation of leaders will stand accused of doing nothing to protect our nation against the greater competition and the greater efficiencies of other economies which will be looking to steal a march on us.

This legislation presents this country with the opportunity to take our economy to the next level, to improve our productivity, to attract more investment and to guarantee a more secure job environment well into the decades ahead. This is generational reform that takes great courage to implement. This is generational reform that takes a great government to produce. This is generational reform that is in the national interest. Indeed, this is generational reform that only a coalition government could introduce into this country in the national interest.

Of course I commend the bill wholeheartedly, but I implore those opposite—the federal leader of the Labor Party and his colleagues sitting on the other side of the chamber—to be more in tune with what this country needs. They ignore the reality that there is an inescapable link between prosperity and production. This is what it is all about. Productivity is vital for securing the prosperity of this country. Until those opposite come out of their deep policy freeze, until they decide to engage in reform that is in the interests of this country, they will be confined to opposition. The people of Australia fully appreciate that this government is engaging in vital and essential reform that will take this country into the decade ahead. Until that happens, I am delighted to say that this government, the members on this side of the chamber, will continue to enjoy the confidence of the Australian people. I say to the people of Ryan: it is a great pleasure and privilege to represent you and I will continue to dedicate my efforts and my talents in this parliament to representing your concerns. It is a great honour to have spoken on this bill. We on this side of the parliament will be voting for this legislation in the national interest. (Time expired)