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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 39

Mrs MARKUS (11:43 AM) —I rise today in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Before I talk specifically about my electorate and how this legislation is going to benefit Greenway, I would really like to focus on some of the comments made by the members opposite. Let me remind the members opposite that the Howard government’s guarantee is its record; I would like to bring to the House’s attention and remind the House of the opposition’s record.

The Leader of the Opposition, the member for Brand, talked about his skills during his speech. The member for Jagajaga spoke at length about apprentices. The member for Brand was the Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 1991 to 1993—the minister for jobs and skills. When he was minister for jobs and skills, his record in relation to apprenticeships was—and let me remind the House that I was a social worker working in the community at this point, and I saw first-hand these impacts on families—having youth unemployment reach a postwar record of 34.9 per cent. 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. Let me remind the House that in Greenway apprentice numbers have grown by over 100 per cent since this government has been in. It was only in 2004 that it returned to the level it had been at just before the opposition leader became minister for jobs and skills.

When the current Leader of the Opposition was minister for skills—in an age when there were several hundred thousand long-term unemployed and youth unemployment was at 34.5 per cent—he was unable to get young people to take up opportunities to be better skilled. In fact, the number of apprentices fell by 23 per cent. The opposition leader and the member for Jagajaga also stood by, silent, when the labour movement was trying to limit apprenticeships and training opportunities. Last year, after several years of proceedings, the Industrial Relations Commission finally varied the building industry award to allow for school based apprenticeships. This application to vary the award had been supported by the government and opposed, tooth and nail, by the CFMEU.

Where was the Labor Party? Where was the Leader of the Opposition? Where was the member for Jagajaga? Why didn’t they support this application to provide more opportunities to young Australians to become skilled? They supported provisions in awards which limited the number of apprentices because unions were in favour of them. Provisions in awards which place limits on apprenticeships are just one of the absurdities of the old workplace relations system. Provisions such as this illustrate a system that was more interested in protecting those in work than in creating job opportunities for those out of the work force. This government is committed to doing both.

Let me address the members opposite who talk about family breakdown. Having worked to ensure that families remain together, I saw at first hand the impact of Labor’s policies on families during the late eighties and early nineties. The loss of jobs, high interest rates and many other impacts led to family breakdowns and families losing absolutely everything. Let me remind the House and the people in the electorate of Greenway of these facts.

As Australians, we have come to value a great many privileges which many around the world do not experience. I will focus now on the positives: where we are going, what this government have already done and the direction that we are taking to build a better future for this nation and for our young people and our families. We are given opportunities to pursue an existence that provides access to quality health care, an excellent standard of education and the right to speak freely. We are also afforded the right to choose what we do with our working lives. That is what the changes in this legislation are fundamentally predicated upon—the right of Australian workers to choose and their right to negotiate working arrangements that suit them, their families and their employers.

Those on the opposite benches would have you believe that that is not the case. Instead, they have run a scare campaign to try and convince Australian families that a change in legislation will lead to the destruction of Australian society as we know it. Let me remind members opposite that they have asked: ‘What is your guarantee?’ Again, look at the Howard government’s record. The opposition and the unions are using the same tactics that they used in 1996 when the government passed industrial relations reform. And the next day communities, families and businesses carried on without collapsing. In fact, people’s conditions and lifestyles have improved. Businesses, job creation, growth and real wages have flourished.

Far from being draconian, these reforms offer a real opportunity for Australian workers to tailor working conditions to individual and family needs. This will allow women to negotiate with their employers about having shorter hours—maybe leaving earlier or starting earlier and working around the needs of their child carers and their children. It will enable people on shiftwork, when both parents are working long and different hours, to negotiate with their employers and work one on one.

Nothing ever moves forward by standing still. Our industrial relations system is overly complex and burdensome. With more than 4,000 awards, the system is confusing and cumbersome. We cannot expect that Australia can move forward and remain competitive so long as we are weighed down by this system. Let us face it: we live, work and relate in a very global economy. Australia has been the envy of many economies for several years. This is a government that has earned its stripes by consistently producing strong economic growth for Australian families. Our interest rates are low, our unemployment rate is low and people are earning more than they ever have before.

Let me remind the House that in the electorate of Greenway the unemployment rate is now well below five per cent, and I anticipate that with some of the developments that are happening out there that will drop further. And that is because over the past 9½ years the Howard government recognised that providing a platform for people to achieve and to be prosperous involved making adjustments to the economic system to stay competitive and to ensure that conditions for Australians improve.

Of course, the irony of the situation is that as much as the Labor Party and the union movement cry foul over these reforms, it was their own Prime Minister that set the wheel in motion. Mr Keating recognised a need to make the workplace more flexible and productive. He was the Prime Minister who, in 1993, described his ideal model of workplace relations. He said:

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.

He said:

We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards ... to being full substitutes for awards.

Labor goes wrong by focusing only on collective agreements. It does not allow for individuals. It does not allow for unique situations and environments.

Mr Hardgrave —It doesn’t trust people.

Mrs MARKUS —That is right; it does not trust people. I remind the House that we have a very intelligent electorate, and I am sure they will see through the fear campaign of the union movement and the Labor Party. The opposition has not wanted to acknowledge those statements by the former Prime Minister Paul Keating because the reform he spoke of was very similar in nature to the legislation that is before the chamber now.

The Industrial Relations Act 1993 introduced reforms that had two streams of agreement making. The second stream was the groundbreaking measure—enterprise flexibility. This allowed employers to override the award system by reaching an agreement with a group of employees without union involvement. But there were some limitations to that legislation. Unions retained the right to intervene in any agreement that came into their view. Unsurprisingly, this became a broad and vague definition of which matters were of interest to unions. But what about the individual workers?

Something very significant happened in 1996 with the change of government. What came with that change of government was a real commitment to sensible economic management, job creation and growth—giving Australians the opportunity to really prosper. The industrial relations reforms of 1996 were a natural extension of those that occurred in 1993. In brief, the changes included reducing the scope of third parties to intervene in agreement making and clarifying where the responsibility for this lay. The government also introduced the Australian workplace agreement. The introduction of the AWA has allowed employers and employees to have a direct relationship with each other, giving credit to both their ability to express what they need and to work in cooperation in a way that is mutually beneficial.

Mr Hardgrave —Building trust.

Mrs MARKUS —Exactly! It is all about trust. The current reforms seek to enhance those relationships. There is no reason why dealings between those two parties should be adversarial. It is untrue to say that employers and employees are unable to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial. The needs of employers and employees are not mutually exclusive, as those on the other side would try to have us believe.

The additional flexibility in the workplace that was brought about by the 1996 reforms has been widely credited for underpinning the strength and, indeed, growth of the Australian work force. In its midyear survey on Australia, The Economist magazine underlined this factor and indeed argued that further reforms were in fact necessary to ensure that the Australian economy continued to provide the best conditions for job creation.

Ultimately, it is critical that we create jobs in this country. There are still too many people who want to work but do not. There are still too many children in families where neither parent works. This legislation provides a framework where parents can negotiate flexible workplace arrangements to try and strike a balance between work and family—one of the great challenges of our time. It provides a basis upon which we can finally recognise that people have different needs in the workplace. A one-size-fits-all system simply does not allow the necessary flexibility we require in our contemporary situation.

We also need to recognise that the most critical job creation and growth in our country will come from small and medium businesses. Many of these businesses are run by mums and dads who are seeking to achieve and provide opportunities for others. A young man who runs an electrical engineering company in Greenway has five apprentices. He is looking to expand his company nationwide but has held off because having to understand the complexities of six different systems is beyond a small company. But, with these workplace changes, he will be able to plan for job creation, expand his business experience and increase opportunities for apprentices. A flexible workplace system minimises the costs, risks and uncertainty involved in workplace negotiations. This means that, instead of job creation being frustrated, there is the opportunity and capacity for employers and employees to come to a suitable arrangement for both.

Our country faces significant challenges, especially when we consider that our labour force for the next 20 years has been set. This government is not afraid of facing those challenges and making the tough decisions required to overcome them. The global community continues to move forward. Australia has established itself as a power that keeps pace with and, indeed, leads international trends. We cannot afford to allow Australian families to feel the pinch of being left behind. Additionally, we face external challenges that we cannot control—challenges such as rising oil prices and natural disasters. To believe that these events do not have an impact upon the Australia economy is naive. It is essential that we have a workplace system that can adapt to those challenges and provide the best possible situation for Australian families and workers so that they are not negatively affected.

Our current system is far too complex and intricate to continue to be workable and provide the flexibility that I have discussed. Industrial relations in this country is like a foreign language to most people, and it is no surprise that it is confusing and frustrating when we consider that employers and employees are grappling with 130 pieces of individual legislation and more than 4,000 awards—and small business is expected to grow! For most people it is completely inaccessible, written in complex, legal language that requires expensive interpretation—and, I suspect, some headache tablets. 

Simplifying and unifying the system means that the legislation will be far more accessible to people on both sides of employment. Instead of having documents hundreds of pages long, we will have the ability to provide employers and employees with sensible, fair and accessible agreements that do not require their own postcodes. This is about ensuring that we have sustainable growth in this country and that we continue to grow jobs. The Australian people have come to expect no less of their government and, frankly, nor should they.

Members opposite have decided instead to engender a sense of fear amongst Australian people. Their scare campaign is untruthful and unfair. Rather than intelligently discuss reforms to the workplace and look at ways to ensure job creation is sustained, the opposition and union movement have opted to create a climate of fear. It is about time that the record was set straight. The government is not about dismantling unions. Unions can have a relevant and meaningful place in the workplace, and that is when the employee requests their presence and intervention. It should not be assumed that a third party can insert themselves into anyone’s workplace negotiations unless requested. To disagree with that statement assumes that workers are incapable of deciding upon their own priorities or of making a decision for themselves.

These reforms provide that third parties can act in negotiations when requested. That option is clearly available to all workers. The union movement, however, has decided that this is an attack on its very existence. Perhaps the union movement should instead be trying to find creative ways to make itself relevant to its members by providing high-quality services rather than resorting to aggressive tactics. In my own electorate, union scare campaigns have been suggesting to workers that unions will be abolished, awards will be abolished and everyone will be forced to work in slave-like conditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Awards will remain. No-one can be forced to enter into an Australian workplace agreement unless they consent. But awards should be subject to review to ensure that they meet the needs of our modern work force. Unfair dismissal laws will continue to protect people from termination on the grounds of race, religion, gender and family responsibilities. That is the way it should be: all workers must be protected from unlawful dismissal and this government is committed to that protection. Annual leave, parental leave, carer’s leave, annual leave loading, public holidays, penalty rates, redundancy pay and the like will all remain in awards. Any changes to those conditions can only occur where the employee consents.

The opposition has tried to renew a long-ended class division amongst Australians, but we left the ‘us versus them’ mentality behind many years ago. Australian workers are intelligent enough to be able to speak for themselves or ask for assistance if they feel it is needed. The opposition has attempted to argue that vulnerable people will be left to fend for themselves and will be forced into archaic employment arrangements. That might have some validity if the government was not providing facilities such as the Office of Workplace Services to ensure that there are appropriate safeguards and protections in place for those who require assistance.

The dirty tricks campaign has extended to Greenway as well. The unions have been circulating petitions to workers with my face printed on them without my consent. Workers Online have resorted to childish tactics to gain attention for their cause. On 28 October they published a conversation that I had with a constituent—now clearly a union plant—about the reforms. As my responses did not give them ammunition to attack the policy, they resorted to trying to attack my credibility by suggesting that I had made disparaging remarks about my electorate. While I appreciate the publicity, I am extremely disappointed that the union movement have chosen to ignore debating the issues at hand and have resorted to this kind of base personal attack. I can only hope that in future they will actually engage in policy debate. It is no wonder that union membership is at its lowest when this is how unions choose to respond to the need for reform.

I want to draw the House’s attention to what happens when labour markets are overregulated. We do not need to look any further than Europe. In Germany the unemployment rate currently sits at 11.8 per cent; in France it is 10.2 per cent. Australians remember what it was like to have unemployment at those levels. The unemployment rate has halved—thanks to members on this side of the House, who recognise the need for flexibility in the workplace. Other countries with less rigid employment systems have had a similar experience: in Britain the unemployment rate is 4.7 per cent; in New Zealand—(Time expired)