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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 68

Mr CIOBO (6:46 PM) —It is certainly with great pleasure that I stand to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. This is a monumental piece of legislation. It is monumental because it heralds a new era in Australia—a new industrial relations era which will play a pivotal role in ensuring that our nation, over the coming decades, enjoys higher productivity, increased wealth and increased security for families, employers and employees. It is an important piece of legislation because it does that whilst maintaining a framework of equity and fairness and whilst principally ensuring that employers and employees develop a relationship and negotiation style that suits the individual workplace, given the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, that are around the country.

It has been interesting to hear the various contributions by both sides of the chamber to the debate in this place. In the main I have been particularly concerned by the manner in which the Australian Labor Party, the political wing of the trade union movement in this country, has taken a shrill, emotional and highly jargonistic approach to this debate. I believe that in many respects the very manner in which the Australian Labor Party approaches this debate underscores the lack of any true substance in its confected display of emotion and so-called concern over the ramifications of this bill going through the parliament. In particular, I have heard the word ‘extreme’ used by members of the Australian Labor Party time and time again. In my mind’s eye, I can almost see them sitting huddled around the table and saying, ‘How will we portray this politically to ensure that we get the maximum amount of political advantage?’ I can almost hear the Leader of the Opposition saying, ‘We need to go out there and refer to these reforms as extreme.’ So the Australian Labor Party needs to go out there and continue the scare campaign that the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the trade union movement, started about six months ago. So, one after another, opposition members have come into this House and claimed all sorts of wide-ranging consequences as a result of the passage of this bill.

My principal concern has been that in most instances the claims that I have heard from opposition members have been extreme. The claims that I have heard from opposition members include that there will no longer be a right for union members to collectively bargain, that there will no longer be a right to union representation, that there will no longer be an opportunity for workers to be able to call upon the services of trade unions, that there will no longer be equity in workplaces, that there will no longer be fairness made available to families, that it will be the end of redundancy and that it will be the end of all manner of entitlements such as annual leave, holiday loadings, sick leave and carers leave. All these types of claims have been made and we have been told that all these things will be abolished, scrapped or under threat as a result of this legislation. In every instance the assertions put forward by the Australian Labor Party have been wrong. The assertions have been nothing more than a politically opportunistic point-scoring game to try to justify Labor’s role as the political wing of the trade union movement in this country.

The legislation that is currently before the House is simply an evolutionary step to ensure that this government does not sit back and rest on its laurels when it comes to economic reform and that this government continues the progress that is achieved through reform—the very reform that will be central to ensuring that our nation continues to enjoy prosperity into the future. In particular, the work choices bill that is before this chamber will provide the opportunity for those employers and employees in the vast majority of workplaces to sit down and have rational discussions about what is best for their business going forward.

As the representative of the seat of Moncrieff on the Gold Coast, I have the unique privilege of standing in this chamber and saying that my electorate and the city that I represent have the highest per capita percentage of small businesses in the country. In addition to that, the electorate of Moncrieff has the second highest percentage of people employed in the hospitality and tourism industries. In both instances this bill will play a key role in ensuring that the industrial system will be flexible enough to ensure that hospitality workers and small business owners will be able to continue finding paths that provide better services for employers and, in addition to that, better employment opportunities and environments for employees.

In particular, the work choices bill is about developing a policy framework that suits the majority of workplaces in this country. In my electorate, where the bulk of businesses are small businesses, I recognise—as I believe most members on this side of the House recognise—that most employers say the principal asset of their business is the people they employ. Having said that, if you work on the contention that the vast majority of businesses recognise what an asset their people are, you fundamentally see the rationale as to why the work choices bill, which enables an employer to sit down and negotiate with an employee and vice versa on the best business outcome for both, is fundamentally a far superior approach to industrial relations in this country than the proposition that the Australian Labor Party put forward. Theirs is a proposition founded on an adversarial system and in the fact that the Australian Labor Party would seek to heighten the role of trade unions in this country.

The reason the Labor Party seek to heighten the role of trade unions in Australia, and the reason they would prefer a system that pitches employers against employees and vice versa, is that in that particular environment trade unions add most benefit to employees. If employees and employers are pitted against one another, and that is the view that the Australian Labor Party have of a modern Australian workplace, then you can understand why the Labor Party would be suggesting that without trade unions workers would be worse off. That is all the better to encourage the working population to join trade unions; all the better to build the strength of the Australian Labor Party—not to mention the fact that Labor members would be beneficiaries of the very generous campaign donations made by trade unions.

But my contention is very different. My contention is that the reason we have seen such significant declines in union membership over the past decade is that modern Australian workplaces are not built on the principle of employees being pitted against employers; modern Australian workplaces are built on flexibility and healthy relationships in which employees and employers devise what they believe to be the best way forward. That is the vast majority of modern Australian workplaces—even beyond small businesses. In my view, there are a vast number of large, even multinational, employers that pride themselves on being employers of choice and they will do what they can to attract and retain hard-working, diligent, good employees. They will sit down and negotiate with those employees and will develop business practices that they believe to be in the long-term interests of their employees. This policy system will enhance the benefits that flow from that type of relationship.

Unlike the Australian Labor Party, I do not believe it makes sense to develop a policy framework that really only seeks to cover and provide protection for the five or 10 per cent of employers or employees that do the wrong thing. If you have a business where an employer does not believe that his employees are an asset, then there are protections for a worker that are afforded under the work choices bill. In addition to that, where you have a system whereby employees do not do the right thing by the business, now, because of the work choices bill, there will be opportunities for the business to dismiss that person without fear of having to pay thousands of dollars of go-away money through unfair dismissal claims.

The work choices bill will ensure in the longer term that Australia continues to develop an economy that ensures prosperity, increased productivity and, therefore, economic growth. Currently, Australia has over 130 different pieces of industrial relations legislation and over 4,000 different awards across six different jurisdictions. That is the system that the Australian Labor Party claim is superior to the system the government is seeking to introduce. There are over 4,000 awards, six jurisdictions and 130 different pieces of legislation on industrial relations—and that is somehow superior to developing one nationwide piece of legislation which deals with work choices and workplace relations into the future. For example, a national business that operates in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia needs to deal with potentially four different jurisdictions, and it might have a variety of staff in different roles and therefore need to deal with many different awards. According to the Australian Labor Party, that is a better system for government to continue operating by than replacing it with one central award system or one central IR system that the government is attempting to introduce through the work choices bill.

You can start to see the reason why this fundamental difference in approach between the Australian Labor Party and the Howard coalition has led to such vastly different results for the people of Australia. It underscores the reason why under the coalition we have seen unemployment rates fall to their lowest level for decades. We have seen economic growth continuing effectively for the last 15 years and interest rates and inflation rates at record lows. It stands in stark contrast to the state in which the Australian Labor Party left Australia—with unemployment rates significantly higher than they are now, with a huge multibillion-dollar deficit, with inflation running rampant at various times under the Labor administration and with workplace dispute rates much higher than they are currently. It is little wonder that we believe in and have great faith in the Australian people to be able to sit down and sensibly discuss and negotiate workplace conditions that we believe to be in the best interests of both employers and employees. Over 10 million people are in jobs in Australia now. This is a far cry from the situation that the Australian Labor Party left.

I now want to address some of the specific concerns and scare campaigns that the Australian Labor Party has been running. As I said, prosperity and flexibility are the central tenets of the new work choices bill. We are going to be implementing a system whereby minimum and award classification wages will be protected by law and where specified existing award conditions such as penalty rates, overtime and long service leave will continue to be protected. We will be introducing an exemption from unfair dismissal laws for businesses with up to 100 employees, because we are sick and tired of seeing that system rorted and seeing thousands of dollars of go-away money being paid for unjustifiable claims that are often put forward simply because due process was not followed—due process which goes far beyond natural process and actually descends into a bureaucratic nightmare. We will also see the creation of the Office of the Employment Advocate, a one-stop-shop to provide information for both employees and employers, as well as a reduction in red tape in the agreement-making process. People will retain their right to choose to join a union or not choose to join a union. Flexibility and choice will be the key tenets of the new system.

The Australian government has indicated that the no disadvantage test will be replaced by the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. This is a central part of ensuring that we have a new standard that will exist at a federal level. The new Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard will incorporate four key points: maximum ordinary hours of work; annual leave; personal leave and carer’s leave, including sick leave; and parental leave. Beyond that, we believe that, if people choose to make an agreement, an AWA, they should have the opportunity to sit down and work out what works best for employers and for employees. You can see the significant reduction in red tape that will be brought about because, from this point, with the passage of this legislation, employers will have the opportunity to employ people under agreements on a basis that both the employee and the employer are happy with.

In addition to that, gone will be the mind-numbing regulation and red tape that currently stops so many Australians from being employed. Having spoken with many different small businesses in my electorate, I know the profound impact that the heavy amount of red tape has on the propensity of small businesses to employ new employees. If there is one key safeguard that needs to be maintained in the economy, it is the fact that we must ensure that businesses are in a position to go from strength to strength—to grow, to generate wealth. They are fundamentally the key drivers of ensuring that there are jobs in the marketplace for people to be employed in. The easier we make it for employers to employ people, the higher will be the level of employment in this country. That is one of the most fundamental tenets that apply under this new work choices bill. The notion that in some way we need to maintain this adversarial system that the Australian Labor Party champions is absurd.

In addition to the creation of the Fair Pay and Conditions Standard, the work choices bill will establish the Fair Pay Commission. The Fair Pay Commission will play the key role in ensuring that minimum wages are determined in accordance with what is in the national interest. That approach to developing minimum wages in Australia is far superior to the previous system, which almost saw arbitrary claims achieved and balanced on the basis of some point almost midway between what a union would put in and what the government or business groups would put in.

The Fair Pay Commission will also set and adjust minimum and award classification wages for a single minimum wage; minimum wages for award classification levels; minimum wages for juniors, trainees/apprentices and employees with disabilities; minimum wages for piece workers; and casual loadings. Contrary to what we have heard from the Australian Labor Party throughout this debate, the work choices bill does not abolish awards. Awards will be rationalised under the federal award umbrella—and thank goodness for that, because pity any business that needs to operate across six jurisdictions and 4,000 different award structures. That is all the more reason for awards to be incorporated under the federal umbrella. Awards will continue to be an option that is made available. There will be particular entitlements that will be subject to negotiation if the employee chooses. Certain award entitlements will be protected under the new work choices system, although bargaining can occur on those entitlements. They include public holidays; rest breaks, including meal breaks; incentive based payments and bonuses; annual leave loading; allowances; penalty rates; and shift and overtime loadings. I think it is a positive that these award measures are also able to be negotiated should the employee choose.

Unlike the overly prescriptive Australian Labor Party, it is not my view that we need to step in and intervene on these matters. The vast majority of people are in a situation where they can make an informed opinion in this particular instance. Where they feel they cannot do that, the right still remains for them to call in, if they so desire, a third-party bargaining agent such as the trade union movement. Despite the fear campaign from the Australian Labor Party, we see the adoption of a better, simpler system which ensures that employees and employers can reach the kinds of workplace agreements that both believe to be in their respective best interests.

Finally, I would like to touch on the issue of unfair dismissal. Unfair dismissal was introduced in 1993. Although the Australian Labor Party treats it as some kind of altar, there have been many instances of abuse of the unfair dismissal scheme that I have seen as a result of employers not being able to follow due process because of its overly complex regulatory framework and a number of instances in which unfair dismissal claims have been brought unfairly. I am glad to see it go under this system. I believe its going will lead to higher levels of employment.

In conclusion, if we are going to continue to have a modern Australian workplace, one that is flexible and that ensures Australia’s economic prosperity into the future, we need to ensure that we develop a system that is relatively simple and, most importantly, removes burdens on employers employing new staff.