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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 67

Mr BARRESI (1:43 PM) —This is a historic debate! There is no question about that. It is a debate that has been much anticipated by the Australian public. It is also a debate that is taking place on a policy program that this government has never shied away from. It is a policy position on industrial relations on which every member on the other side knows full well where the coalition has stood for the last 10 years. So for them to say in their contributions that all of a sudden this has been sprung upon them is an absurdity. Even the members on the other side have acknowledged—

Mr Bowen —You didn’t promise this! Why didn’t you put it in the policy speech?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Baldwin)—Order! The member for Prospect will refrain from interjecting, otherwise he will take an exit trip from the chamber.

Mr BARRESI —that the Liberal Party and the National Party have long advocated industrial relations reform, and industrial relations reform is taking place today. What they have failed to understand on the other side is that our national prosperity and our global competitiveness depend on our ability to encompass flexibility and to engage in this reform program. We have had to weather some very vocal opposition from the union movement right across Australia throughout the last 12 months as a prelude to this debate. The government’s measures introduced in parliament yesterday and debated today really began back in 1993. Members of the opposition do not like us reminding them of the fact that the debate took place in 1993.

The previous speaker, the member for Prospect, lauded the Labor Party for having introduced the changes in 1993—changes that the current Prime Minister, John Howard, could not introduce when he was Treasurer. What the member for Prospect failed to disclose was that those changes in 1993 took place with the support of the then opposition: the Liberal and National parties. We are going through an evolutionary process. This is not a revolution, and this is not extreme. One thing about the Labor Party is that they have been consistent throughout the last 10 years: they make an allegation, they use very inflammatory language and they repeat that language over and over again in the hope that people will believe it as a point of fact when it is not.

Paul Keating introduced changes in 1993. The Howard government introduced further changes in 1996. A third wave of reform is now taking place. It is reform that is much needed by the Australian community. Let us remember what Labor’s much lauded Prime Minister had to say back in 1993. The Labor Party do not like this being thrown back at them, but let us go through it. Mr Keating said:

Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards provided by arbitral tribunals. Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards with fewer clauses. We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreement from being add-ons to awards to being full substitutes for awards.

The statement by Paul Keating that we need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-on to awards to being full substitutes for awards is precisely where we are today with this third stage of reforms. We are seeking to make agreements full substitutes for the choking, award based system. Awards will still remain. They will remain in place; they are certainly not being abolished.

We supported those changes back then. The then Prime Minister wanted to go further, but he was stymied by the union movement. He did not have the guts to stand up to the union movement and go further. This government has no such qualms. We are introducing reforms that are good for the economy, good for business and good for employees. Unlike the Labor Party, we will not be beholden to the interests of the union movement, whose membership is so much in decline—now at a miserable level of 17 per cent of the private sector.

The great irony of this debate is that we supported Labor but they refuse to support us at this time. Interestingly, during the last federal election the ALP did try to feed off some of Hawke and Keating’s so-called economic legacies. Here is a perfect opportunity for the Labor Party to grab some credibility in the workplace reforms debate, but they are backing down under the strong instructions and pressure that has been exerted upon them by the union movement.

The debate about these vital reforms has demonstrated where the centre of workplace relations vision lies in Australia. On the one hand the government recognises that further reform is needed to ensure that our employment system is flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the 21st century. On the other hand the Australian Labor Party, which claims to be the party of progress and social justice in Australia, has demonstrated their inability to make a constructive contribution to such a vital issue and has instead resorted to fear tactics and inflammatory language. Only yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Brand, claimed in an absurd contribution to the MPI that the divorce rates would go up as a result of our industrial relations reforms. He has claimed that kids would be dragged out of school and would not be able to have full education as a result of this industrial relations reform.

This is the sort of inflammatory language that we heard in 1996. Since then, unemployment has dropped, the inflation level is at its lowest, interest rates have remained at low levels and there has been growth in full-time employment in this country. There was doom and gloom back then and there is doom and gloom now. But, of course, the doom that they are talking about these days is even more absurd, with claims that the Family Court will be clogged with divorces next year and it will all be attributed to industrial relations reform.

The real opposition to these reforms has come from the trade union movement. The ACTU and others are running a political scare campaign. The ALP and the Leader of the Opposition are providing a vehicle for that campaign to the trade union movement, which is strongly in the hands of people such as Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow. While the two waves of reform in 1993 and 1996 have set the stage for the economic prosperity of the last 9½ years, there is more to be done. The Australian public expect the government to do more rather than to simply rest on its laurels. We do not have reform fatigue on this side. They may have reform fatigue on the other side, as espoused by their current leader, but certainly on this side we recognise that reform is necessary.

There are others in the community who also recognise that reform is necessary. The Business Council of Australia has estimated that the government’s 1996 reforms led to an additional income per person of $4,200 in 2004 and $80,000 in additional wealth per person. The University of Sydney’s research concluded that the federal minimum wage increased from $349 in 1996 to $484 in 2005. While I am on that subject, members on the other side say that this government has opposed every wage claim in the Industrial Relations Commission and that it is only because of the union movement that there has been a wage increase of 14 per cent in this country. Certainly, that is not the full story. I will not say that it is deceitful, but it certainly ignores the fact that, to have a claim in the Industrial Relations Commission, a dispute is needed. What better way to have a dispute before the Industrial Relations Commission than to put in an absurd claim and have employer groups dispute it. That is the process that has been in place; but now, with the Australian Fair Pay Commission, it will no longer be in place.

Members on the other side also say that we have not made out a case that these reforms are good for the economy. The case is there. I have cited the Business Council of Australia’s figures and its comments about the changes that took place in 1996. Many other employer organisations over time have made similar claims. Only the other day, the IMF said:

... further reforms of industrial relations are needed to expand labour demand and facilitate productivity gains ...

The OECD has said:

Further unfinished business includes harmonisation of federal and state industrial relations and the streamlining of regulations which minimise the incidence of unlawful industrial action. Finally, the cost of dismissal procedures, including for employees who have been with firms for only a short period, is often cited by small businesses as a disincentive to hiring.

Ian Macfarlane, Governor of the Reserve Bank, has said:

I think industrial relations reform is valuable and it does contribute to higher economic growth ...

And it needs to continue. This is being said by us and also by other groups. The community out there, within our borders and overseas, have all recognised that further industrial relations reform certainly is required, and we are going about that process. The people standing in our way are those on the other side, who are strongly controlled by their union masters. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 represents the implementation of the government’s ongoing workplace relations reform agenda. Its very size is indicative of the obstructive attitude that the ALP has taken in blocking many of our reforms in the Senate.

Australia’s workplace relations system is still based largely on the archaic and antiquated industrial relations system from the time of Federation. But we are no longer a disparate collection of colonies, where conflict and disputation were the key pillars of the industrial relations system. In addition, back then, we did not have a strong welfare system in place and there was the need for an industrial relations commission to come down with deliberations, protections and award decisions. This country now has a very strong welfare system. It is a system that is certainly going to continue and that is very much supported by this government.

Our modern workplace is set in the ever-globalising international economy and much more still needs to be done. Only last week, I was in Ireland and I saw the economic revival that had taken place there. Countries like Ireland and those to our north in Asia certainly will leave us far behind unless we also modernise our workplace system. The Australian workplace relations system is still rigid with many inefficiencies. Employees and employers are still facing an overly complex and bureaucratic system of agreement making. Across six different industrial relations systems, there are over 130 pieces of legislation and more than 4,000 awards. This is particularly taxing on small business, with many hundreds having to comply simultaneously with different awards and state and federal laws. This bill seeks to lessen the burden by drawing workplace relations into a single national system.

To give an indication of the need for workplace relations reform, particularly for small business, last year I brought the Prime Minister out to my electorate to meet with local small business representatives; that meeting took place at the Whitehorse Business Council. At that time, those representatives raised many issues with the PM, ranging from taxation to trade and infrastructure. However, the issue that raised the greatest level of concern was the impact of draconian unfair dismissal laws on small business. The removal of this burden is critical in achieving the full benefits of a strong economy flowing on to the employment sector—and this also has been cited by the OECD in its comments.

A comment often made by those on the other side is that we are taking the industrial relations system to a level akin to that in the United States and we are wiping away all protections. Let us have a look at some of the other countries. Members opposite carp on about these reforms being an extreme attack on workers’ rights; that is an absurdity. One would think that it is all doom and gloom and the sky is about to fall. One would think that we are going to see divorce rates go up and kids being taken out of school, as stated by the member for Brand!

The ALP and the trade union movement conveniently neglect to inform the public that, even after the implementation of these reforms, Australia will still have a comparatively highly regulated system of workplace relations. For example, we will still have more regulation in place than the United Kingdom and New Zealand, which are presided over by Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Helen Clark, respectively. The industrial relations system in New Zealand is largely predicated on workplace agreements and there is no scope for awards. Much of the deregulation that took place in New Zealand occurred in the 1990s, under the former National Party government. Its 1991 Employment Contracts Act was a broad, sweeping reform in which awards were abolished and all conditions of employment were made negotiable and subject only to minimum statutory entitlements, including leave entitlements and a minimum wage. This act affords no formal recognition of trade unions in the bargaining process, although employment contracts can be collective as well as individual.

Despite pledging to roll back many of the 1991 reforms, Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark has retained many of the necessary reforms—and rightly so. In the five years to 1996, employment growth in New Zealand was the highest in the OECD; unemployment fell by 11 per cent; and, by December 2004, unemployment stood at 3.6 per cent. Broadly speaking, even after Helen Clark’s partial re-regulation, a small list of minimum entitlements still remains.

I will make my comments about the United Kingdom when I resume my remarks after question time. Certainly, there we have a Labour Prime Minister who has also deregulated his country’s industrial relations system and has accepted the reforms that took place under his predecessor. If only we had a Labor opposition in this country that was similar to Labour in the UK and in New Zealand.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.