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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 58

Mr HARTSUYKER (1:03 PM) —I very much welcome the presentation of the legislation before the House, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I believe it represents an important step forward for the economy of this country and therefore for the people of this country. The economy has made great strides in recent years, and these reforms will ensure that the economy continues to grow and that we continue to meet the challenges ahead.

In the time I have available to me I wish to look at the need for these reforms and the safeguards for employees that will be put in place and to challenge the notion that these reforms are somehow un-Australian. It is important to stress the safeguards because this coalition government policy has been the target of a systematic campaign of distortion and misinformation by the Labor movement, whose main tactic has been to say that black is white and to scare working people about what the future holds.

Apart from the obvious distortions—let us be frank; apart from the obvious lies—such as the claims that awards and the right to union membership will be abolished, I have had trade union officials tell me that the Low Pay Commission in the UK has not met for years. Their clear implication is that the minimum wage in the UK has not been increased for years and that the proposed Fair Pay Commission, and as a result the minimum wage set here, will meet a similar fate. It took just two minutes on the internet to debunk that lie. In April 1999 the UK adult minimum wage per hour was £3.60. It has increased annually since that time and at the beginning of last month rose to £5.05. The commission has already recommended an increase to £5.35 in October next year. That will result in an increase of some 48.6 per cent since 1999.

Just whose interests do these trade union officials think they are serving when they peddle this sort of stuff? Don’t they realise that their members can see through it? Don’t they realise that their members do not like being conned? It is tactics like that that go a long way to explaining the declining level of membership of trade unions, to the point where now only in the order of 25 per cent of employees belong to a trade union. Workers of Australia do not feel they want to pay their good money for representation like that.

Why do we need these reforms? Since 1996 we have seen higher real wages, the lowest unemployment in 30 years, more Australians in work, the lowest level of strikes, higher productivity and higher standards of living. No doubt some union official could explain to me why that is all bad for the Australian worker, but I cannot fathom it myself. I cannot see why higher living standards are somehow so bad.

To be fair, in the context of talking about reform, I do not just mean reforms by this government. Our reforms go back to 1983 and include the reduction in trade barriers, privatisation, work force reforms that have been done to date, tax changes, floating the dollar and so on. In 1983 when these reforms started we were ranked as the 18th most prosperous country in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Now we are eighth. But what does that mean for the worker? The average Australian worker is better off by some $83,000 as a result. If we can sustain the sort of growth we have enjoyed in recent years for the next 20 years, the average Australian worker will be better off by a further $74,000.

Without the reforms put in place since 1983, it is estimated that our unemployment rate for 2003-04 would have been 8.1 per cent compared to the actual 5.8 per cent. Of course, our unemployment rate has fallen further since that date. But there is the rub. The average Australian will only be better off into the future if we can sustain economic growth. All the signs are that we can only do that if we continue the reform process. If we can sustain growth of four per cent per year over the next 20 years, the average Australian will be a further $74,000 better off.

However, current forecasts predict a growth rate of only 2.4 per cent. On that basis, by 2025 Australia is likely to fall back to the 18th ranking in GDP per capita, precisely back to where we were in 1983. If we can achieve through reform a growth rate of four per cent over the next 20 years, the economy would be 40 per cent bigger and Australia would rise to third in GDP rankings. Growth at four per cent as opposed to 2.4 per cent would result in an increase in Commonwealth revenues of nine per cent of GDP by 2025. The extra tax revenue could be used to cut personal tax rates by 30 per cent and pay for future projected health and education funding. On an individual level, the wealth of the average Australian would be 25 per cent higher.

These statistics provide compelling evidence of the need to change for anyone who may care to say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ We are facing new challenges at home and abroad. Our population is ageing, more people are becoming entitled to the many benefits we rightly provide our senior citizens and there are fewer people entering the labour market and creating the wealth to pay for those benefits. Our work force normally grows in the order of 170,000 a year. But indications are that, with the ageing population, work force growth will only be 190,000 for the whole period 2020-30. That is in the order of one-tenth of the current rate. Productivity is falling. The rates of growth that we have seen in current times are beginning to slow.

What about challenges from abroad? Yes, we do need to think about what is happening abroad. I am frequently told by people that they do not care about what happens in other countries. They should because, if they had not noticed, Australia may be an island but it is certainly not a fortress. I will have more to say about the island mentality later. Let us remember that we have a population of only 20 million. We are disadvantaged by our size and our distance from major centres of population around the world. We are disadvantaged by the distance from potential markets. We are no longer cushioned by the Commonwealth. We compete with countries with far bigger populations and the advantages of far larger internal markets. The growth of the internet and better communications generally mean that there is no hiding place from the global market. Of course we have to care what happens in other countries. It does not mean that we have to be like other countries, but we do have to be aware of other countries, we have to work with other countries and we have to compete with other countries.

The European Union, with its 25 member countries and its population of some 459 million, is actively working towards harmonising its 25 different systems of employment legislation because it makes economic sense. If the European Union is moving that way, how can it make sense for a relatively smaller economy of some 20 million to cling to the notion of having six different employment relations systems? In short, we have to care substantially more about what happens in other countries because our prosperity depends on it. We either compete and maintain our place amongst the wealthiest nations with a better quality of life or we ignore what is going on around us, fail to compete and become a second- or third-rate economy. That is the ‘She’ll be right’ mentality, the mentality peddled by the ALP—just leave it the same and run the economy through the rear-view mirror.

Mr Albanese —You just went through all the reforms we did!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Baldwin)—Order! The member for Grayndler is warned!

Mr HARTSUYKER —That is the context of these reforms. That is the big picture with some idea of what we stand to lose as a nation unless we press ahead with reform. Yes, individuals often feel lost in the big picture and may ask, quite rightly, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Another thing that has baffled me about the labour movement in this day and age is their apparent failure to grasp that what is good for the Australian economy is good for Australians generally and that it is possible for employers and employees to work in a way which is mutually beneficial. These simple concepts clearly have not yet dawned on the members opposite or the members of the union movement, who cling to a simple fundamentalist concept such as ‘workers good, employers bad’. I have news for them: unless you have an employer, you do not have a job; unless you have a healthy, profitable company, you do not have any workers. At least Greg Combet sometimes knows a good thing when he sees it. As he told the National Press Club in July:

Australia is currently in its 14th consecutive year of economic growth - a historically significant period of economic expansion, low inflation, productivity growth and low unemployment.

Mr Bowen —Why’s that?

Mr HARTSUYKER —My advice to him is: spread the word amongst the brothers and sisters, Greg, and tell them how we got to this historically significant period.

Mr Bowen —Thank you, Paul Keating.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Prospect will remain silent.

Mr HARTSUYKER —We got there through reform. He might also have a word with the current leader of the Labor Party, who in this House in June 1996 said that the then Workplace Relations Act would turn Australia into a ‘low wage, low productivity industrial wasteland’. How sad he must be that he has been proved wrong.

Mr Albanese interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! I remind the member for Grayndler that he has been warned. Any further interjections will see him exit the House.

Mr HARTSUYKER —I said I would talk about safeguards for the individual in the context of this legislation. There are four I would like to begin with, for Greg’s sake. Let us talk about the safeguards offered by economic expansion, the safeguards offered by low inflation, the safeguards to workers offered by productivity growth and the safeguards to workers offered by low unemployment.

As for the safeguards specifically mentioned in the legislation, the bill will set up a Fair Pay Commission, which will be an independent body. There will be for the first time statutory minimum standards for pay and conditions covering minimum and award classification wages, four weeks paid annual leave, 52 weeks unpaid parental leave, 10 days paid personal and carers leave for employees with more than 12 months service, and a 38-hour ordinary working week. Workers covered by a federal award will have their minimum wages and basic entitlements guaranteed by law under the Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. If the award is different from the standard, the more generous will apply. If a worker is currently covered by a state award or agreement and is moving to the new national system, the current arrangements will be protected until replaced by a new agreement. The following award matters will be protected: public holidays; rest breaks, including meal breaks; incentive based payments and bonuses; annual leave loadings; allowances; penalty rates; and shift and overtime loadings. But there’s more—and I am going to list these safeguards, because I have heard time and time again from members of the labour movement and read letters in the local paper casting doubts on these additional safeguards.

I want to refer here to unlawful dismissal and the protection that this legislation provides. You cannot be subject to unlawful dismissal in relation to temporary absence from work due to illness or injury; trade union membership or participation in trade union activities; non-membership of a trade union; filing a complaint or participating in proceedings against an employer; race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin; refusing to sign an AWA; absence from work during maternity or other parental leave; or temporary absence from work due to carrying out voluntary emergency management activity.

It is right and proper that the protection should be in place, just as it is right that this legislation will exempt smaller companies from unfair dismissal provisions which have acted in so many cases as a deterrent to firms putting on new workers. The unions talk about the victims of this aspect of legislation, yet the World Bank has found that the more restrictive the country’s firing regime, the greater the black economy. Under a black economy there are more people who are working without any job security. Under a black economy there are people working without a wage safety net. Under a black economy there is no workers’ compensation. Under a black economy there is no sick leave. There are certainly no safeguards whatsoever.

According to the World Bank, it also means that fewer jobs are created and that there is a lower average income, more female unemployment, more youth unemployment and more unskilled workers without a job. I know that many in the labour movement refuse to accept anything that appears to come out of the World Bank. So let me remind them that the World Bank’s mission is to fight poverty, that it has 184 member countries, that it is providing debt relief to 27 countries, that it is the largest external funder of education projects and that it is a major player in the fight against HIV-AIDS. On the basis of the material put forward by unions in their campaign against these measures and the material which has been shown time and time again to be based on misinterpretation and mangled facts, right down to falsehoods, I would rather trust the material coming from the World Bank than the rubbish that we have seen on our TV screens from the labour movement.

Let me remind the unions that this is about fighting poverty, lifting living standards and providing jobs. If you do not have a job then any increase in the minimum wage is going to be of little assistance. In fact, it may even work to price you out of the market. No amount of increase in the minimum wage is going to increase your living standards if you do not have a job. The best safeguard against poverty and social problems in our community is providing jobs for people.

However, there is one thing that this legislation does not seek to set in stone, and that is the role of the trade unions. Under this legislation, trade unions are basically going to have to seriously compete in the market and provide better representation than they have done to date. They have been prepared to tell all sorts of lies about the government’s intention and about what is going on in this bill because they know their membership is declining. It is a scare campaign. It is the last roll of the dice to try to pick up a few members by scaring them.

Finally, let me deal with the notion that this reform package is somehow un-Australian. In a lecture in Sydney, Bob Hawke went further. He said: ‘It’s wrong. It is unfair. It is un-Australian. It is immoral.’(Quorum formed) To my mind, it is wrong, unfair, un-Australian and immoral to conduct the kind of campaign run by the labour movement. It is wrong to imply, as I mentioned, that the UK minimum wage has not been increased for years when by next year it will have been increased by almost half since 1996. It is wrong to tell people that they will lose their lunch breaks or to tell mothers that they will lose their jobs if they have to care for a sick child. I think it is wrong and immoral for Sharan Burrow to say in the context of the ACTU campaign: ‘I need a mum or a dad of someone who has been seriously injured or killed. That would be fantastic.’ I think that is a pretty immoral statement.

It is not wrong, unfair, un-Australian or immoral to set out measures that will help to ensure the continued success of this country’s economy and that will help to provide more jobs, higher wages, more opportunities and greater prosperity. This government recognises—and so do the members opposite in their weaker moments—that there are good and bad employers and that there are good and bad employees. But there is a balance in this package, providing what is best for both sides and what is good for our country.

These reforms are not un-Australian if, by that description, they mean unfair. As I have said, the aim is to increase prosperity and opportunity but against a backdrop of safeguards. When people sometimes say that something is un-Australian, they often mean that it is something different, something they are not accustomed to. We have been doing things differently in recent times. It is important that we continue to change, and it is important that we keep reform going, because we have to compete in the global economy. It is all right to say that we are going to manage very nicely just as we are but, unfortunately, staying just as we are is not an option in a changing world. We need to keep abreast of our competitors, and we need to keep working hard to ensure that Australia maintains a great world economy. These reforms are a major part of that program.

The Australian Labor Party want to run this economy through the rear-view mirror. Their policies are backward looking. This government is very much focused on moving this country forward. A more flexible labour market provides great benefits for employees and employers. It is great for our nation, and it will build a stronger Australia. I am committed to these reforms; the ALP may not be.