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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 49

Mr CADMAN (12:23 PM) —Australians are doing increasingly more with their minds and using technology more than they have ever done before, and at the same time they are increasingly voting less for the Australian Labor Party and are leaving the union movement. There must be a reason for this process. What is happening is that Australians are thinking for themselves. They do not need the union movement to think for them. They do want to take charge of their own affairs and they do want to look after their own families. They do not want Big Brother telling them what is best for them in the workplace through some paid official who has often never done a day’s work and who is likely to finish up in the federal parliament as a member of the ALP never having worked at a real job in their life.

So Australians using their initiative and their minds makes me wonder where the Australian Labor Party in this House have been for the last 10 years. They appear to have observed nothing—no changes in the workplace and no changes in Australia. They appear to have analysed nothing. They appear to have derived nothing from either analysis or observation. They are arguing nothing. They are going right back as if there has been a hiatus for 10 years and a continuation of the Keating government, for a change of the Keating government’s policies are the arguments I am hearing today. There is no vision and there is no opportunity. They have developed nothing in the whole 10 years. I think it is a great shame that the Australian Labor Party have consistently said, ‘We think that the opportunity that exists in Australia is an opportunity to continue to hand over the rights of Australian workers to the union movement.’

There has been a change and a realignment in the relationship between unions and the members of political parties in this process, and I think that will continue. Ten years ago we were used to the conciliation and arbitration process—ambit claims, then arbitration and an outcome that was resolved by court process. The bigger the claim, the higher the compromise was likely to be. There was nothing heard about individuals or individual businesses in that process, and it is no wonder there is a declining number of people saying they want to be represented in this process. They want to withdraw from it and establish their own processes, their own lives and their own futures.

This could be the last hurrah for the union movement or the greatest opportunity it has ever had. These changes will really test the imagination and commitment of the union movement to the people it claims to represent. There has never been a better opportunity for looking after workers than there is at the moment. These changes will provide opportunities for intelligent representation and encouragement in the workplace. What the union movement needs to do is accept the challenge of change and become relevant in this process, not irrelevant. It needs to accept the fact that it has to break with the outdated and backward-looking ALP or wait for perhaps another 10 years for the ALP to come to office. That break must occur for representation of workers in Australia. As is the case elsewhere in the world, union movement representatives must be able to stand free and firm, as do the employer representatives, and say: ‘We want the best deal. We are looking to our political representatives for the best deal.’ That is the process we are undergoing now and that is the challenge for the union movement. The union movement needs to accept the excitement of what it can do for the future workers of Australia.

The people the ALP claim to represent are probably the people that the Labor Party in government punished the most. You have only to look at the results of the changes that have occurred in Australia to realise that, since 1996, 1.7 million new jobs have been created and unemployment is at its lowest for almost 30 years. This is the record; this is where we are building. These parties, were they to win government, would never stay in government if they were to deliver all the things the Australian Labor Party proclaims they will deliver.

If we look back over the past 10 years we will see the best record of employment and opportunities for families to pay their mortgages. No wonder the housing industry has gone gangbusters—people have certainty to commit themselves to mortgages and to their future. No wonder the birth rate is starting to rise, a sure indication that people feel secure that they can manage their affairs and know their commitments can be fulfilled, that their children in the home can be managed, loved and nurtured.

We have had real wages growth of 14.9 per cent over the 10-year period of this government, compared with 1.2 per cent during the 13 years of Labor. That is why people are confident. That is where the Australian Labor Party need to reassess where they are up to. We have had the lowest level of industrial disputes since records were ever kept. Does that not say that these parties really understand what the work force wants, what their aspirations are and the way in which they think Australia should develop? It is not the backward-looking stuff that we hear about in here, not the fact that there has been no observation or examination. I say again: I believe this is a great opportunity for the union movement to move ahead, away from the Australian Labor Party, and become a relevant player in representing the workers of Australia.

You have only to look at some of Greg Combet’s statements to see an illustration of the exaggerated claims that are being made about this legislation which are dishonest, untrue and manipulated so as to create an emotional reaction in the work force of Australia. We will tab these and we will refer to these over the next two years, because they will be proved to be absolutely wrong and we will go to the next election quoting the incorrect, inaccurate and exaggerated statements that the Australian Labor Party and union movement have made in order to frighten Australian workers. I quote Combet:

For the better part of 100 years Australia has had an industrial relations system which ... has ensured that in times of economic downturn there have been solid protections for Australian workers ...

A heavily regulated system operated by the Australian Labor Party produced unemployment of over one million people. That is where that system led us. That is where the process of conciliation and arbitration of 100 years led us—no flexibility, no leadership capacity to be able to deal with economic downturn. One million unemployed thrown on the scrapheap! The very ones that the Australian Labor Party claim to represent the most were the ones they damaged the most—the young, women and older workers. They did nothing for those people. Take the 55-year-olds who were booted out of a job because they were too old, the women who did not get a start and the youths who were never put on: what about those? They made up the one million unemployed in Australia created by the Australian Labor Party. So what for a hundred years of a better system? Combet, get the facts straight: your party and your organisation brought that on Australians, and they never want that again. Combet again:

The Government has made no case for the WorkChoices legislation.

The IMF, the OECD, Access Economics and the Reserve Bank of Australia have all made the economic case for further reform. Bring out the experts, not some associate professor at a Melbourne university against the OECD, the IMF or the Reserve Bank or any of these well-qualified managers of the Australian economy. The only people who do not seem to be listening appear to be the ALP and the ACTU. Another Combet statement:

... you can be sacked for no reason, with no right of appeal and no recompense.

Unlawful termination still remains for all employees. Protections will still be there under state and federal occupational health and safety and equal opportunity legislation. They cannot be sacked for no reason. That is not true; that is a blatant lie. Combet again:

Protection against redundancy is also attacked for all Australian employees. It will no longer be a ground for claiming unfair dismissal, even in big business in the circumstances that the employer no longer needs you. That will put redundancy pay at risk.

Redundancy pay is determined by awards and workplace agreements. All employers’ obligations to pay redundancy pay will remain, regardless of whether they are subject to an award or unfair dismissal laws. Those redundancy obligations are not changed. Redundancy and dismissal are two different things. Don’t try to confuse Australian workers—they know the difference. Redundancy pay is a completely separate legal entitlement. It is unrelated to unfair dismissal. Combet again:

There is no guarantee in the legislation that the real value of minimum wages will be maintained.

There is no guarantee at the moment. In fact, the Labor Party cut wages. They had this brilliant accord: ‘Let’s accept superannuation instead of a wage rise. Fellas, what do you think of that?’ Some of the people in the House at the moment said it was a great idea and forced it on the Australian work force. So what! Under the accord a small superannuation pie in the sky when you die, instead of employers being able to pay your wages or you keeping your job. That was an absolutely unrealistic approach and it produced one million unemployed people in Australia. There is no way that policy of the accord produced any results beneficial to the employers and employees of Australia. Combet says:

There is no guarantee in the legislation that the real value of minimum wages will be maintained.

There is no guarantee now, and we have seen that there is no guarantee. The Australian Labor Party proved that when they were in office. There was no guarantee under Labor from 1983 to 1996 when the minimum wage actually declined—and you agreed with it by getting together and saying, ‘We’ve got an accord; we’ll let the wages fall.’ The ultimate guarantee of higher minimum wages is a strong economy—and I think that the Australian Labor Party, in some weird way, are acknowledging that, although Combet is not. He says there is no guarantee, but there never has been one under Labor or anybody else. He says:

The government’s real intention here is to allow minimum wages to fall in value over time, and that is what is going to happen.

The UK Low Pay Commission, a body similar to the one that we are proposing, has awarded minimum wage increases of over 30 per cent since 1999. I am not claiming that the Australian body will do the same, but the fact of the matter is minimum wages in Australia have risen and will continue to rise. The Fair Pay Commission will look at the whole structure of the economy and what Australia can afford. Minimum and award classification wages will not be able to fall below the levels of the 2005 safety net review. We have had that review. It is in place. Minimum wages cannot fall below that. That is law. That is what we are looking at today. But Combet can still make the statement that minimum wages will fall over time. The last government to have a policy to reduce the real value of minimum wages was the Hawke government during the accord with the ACTU. That was the only government that we have seen that reduced real minimum wages in Australia.

Combet also speaks of a $66,000 fine for asking an employer to protect someone against unfair dismissal, a $66,000 fine for asking an employer to commit to collective bargaining and a $66,000 fine for asking for the right for employees to attend a union training course. This is no different in principle to current provisions related to prohibited content in collective agreements. These provisions are designed to prevent union standover tactics and nothing else imposed by union-friendly clauses on employers such as the anti-AWA provisions, compulsory union training leave and attempts to force employers to ignore the unfair dismissal exemptions. Combet rails against employees allegedly being forced into agreements, but he has no qualms about unions forcing employers into agreements—a one-way street. Let us make it fair: let them both have choices.

Combet says:

It will not be duress under the law for an employer to force an employee onto an individual contract—something the Government has been claiming falsely of course in its advertising and its public comments—but that will not constitute duress, so employers will be able to force people onto individual contracts on inferior conditions.

The bill makes no amendments to the provisions of section 170CK(2)(g) of the Workplace Relations Act which makes it unlawful to terminate an employee—that is the law now, that is the law in Australia at the moment; that has not changed—for ‘refusing to negotiate in connection with, make, sign, extend, vary or terminate an AWA’. They are protected now. That is not going to change. How can Combet make those statements? He knows that is not true; he knows that is designed to scare people and to make them unsure of their future. Clause 104(5) of the bill is very clear:

A person must not apply duress to an employer or an employee in relation to an AWA.

It is very clear. It is there in the legislation: it will be unlawful to apply duress.

Combet goes on about pattern bargaining. One of the most common things that boards of directors do in this country is market rate surveys of CEOs’ salaries and directors’ fees and then determine their own remuneration on that basis. Combet says that is pattern bargaining. Pattern bargaining occurs where unions use industrial action to force agreements with identical terms and conditions on all workplaces regardless of the circumstances. That has happened in the building industry, the industry condemned by Commissioner Cole. In his royal commission he said pattern bargaining is enforced no matter what the circumstances and what the conditions. People in the building industry work hard and they work unusual hours under difficult conditions, but those conditions change depending on where people work in Australia, whether they work in a hot part, a cold part, a wet part or a dry part. It varies with the type of construction they are undertaking. So there should be flexibility for those conditions to be covered instead of this forced thing that Commissioner Cole so rightly condemned.

Combet says that AWAs are pattern bargaining. All AWAs must comply with the fair pay and conditions standard; that is all. The rest of it is up to employees and employers to decide. That must be the foundation. There is a legal foundation to the whole process that must be complied with which guarantees certain conditions for all workers in Australia. All AWAs must be freely agreed to. It will remain unlawful for employers to force employees onto AWAs, but this is the kind of behaviour Combet would like to force on workers himself—to force them into pattern bargaining in the building industry.

There is more, and I am going to use future occasions, maybe at the consideration in detail stage, to raise these issues. With the union movement representing a decline in opinions and smaller groups of people, it is really significant that they and the Australian Labor Party have not taken this opportunity to go ahead and take advantage of what is being offered. I believe that together—after all of this carry-on is through, as with other measures of reform this government has adopted—we will be able to work for future growth in Australia. This government is not about to give up office by doing something crazy.

As I have always said to the Australian Labor Party, if our policies are so bad or so poorly thought through, why don’t you let it go through without opposition? Then you would see us quickly destroy the nation that you want to represent. But the fact is that you make a noise and the louder the noise the opposition makes the weirder the arguments and the more likely we are to be right because you are trying to prevent the process from going ahead. Those issues that you think we are going to lose on you let go through to the keeper. This is one of those issues the Australian Labor Party are making a noise about because they do not want it to occur because they know it is right. They would not be opposing it with such strength if they thought it was so destructive. If they thought it was destructive, they would pass it here and in the Senate without opposition and then claim, in their speeches and subsequently, that they had always said that these parties do not represent the workers of Australia. The fact is the workers in Australia have been represented well by this side of the parliament in job availability, wage and salary rises and permanency of employment. That is what the families of Australia want and that is what they need. That is what this government is offering and will continue to offer as it goes ahead with the changes which are most important to everyone in Australia.