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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 103

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON (9:15 PM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 tonight not because I am a member of the Liberal Party but because I believe this great country deserves and needs the benefits that workplace relations reform can bring. My support for Work Choices is informed by being a member of the Howard government, which has demonstrated year after year since 1996 its authentic commitment to the true welfare of ordinary Australians. After all, this government has built an economy with the strength to withstand some major crises, with the ability to deal with social problems and with the ability to live up to community aspirations.

These include returning the annual government budget from a $10 billion deficit to consistent surpluses; the repayment of nearly all of Labor’s $96 billion national debt; magnificently withstanding the Asian economic crisis; reducing unemployment to a 28-year low of five per cent; real tax reform, opposed by Labor, then promised to be rolled back by Labor and today supported by Labor; substantial income tax cuts, most recently opposed by the opposition; new and more generous family benefits, most of which have best assisted lower and middle-income earners; historically, the highest ever government spending on family assistance, public health, education and national security; and containing inflation to ensure an environment which can reduce interest rates to the ones families enjoy today. There are many more examples I could give. But the point that I am trying to make tonight is that the Howard Liberal government understands this country and its people and knows that it does have a duty to govern in the national interest without being sold out to sectional interest groups.

The Liberal Party has as a central belief that it should not be beholden to any single interest group. This could never be said about the Labor Party, which is constitutionally controlled by the thuggish union bosses, who have a major say on Labor Party preselections and major policy decisions. This is something which is not well understood by a majority of Australians. However, I can assure the House that the old-timers who voted Labor in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties are as unimpressed with today’s Labor as the young Tasmanian timber workers who rallied for fair timber policies in 2004. I support this legislation because I believe Australians deserve an economy that will be strong enough to remain competitive in a global market for decades to come and to maintain a decent standard of living.

The federal Liberal government has already significantly reformed the federal workplace relations system to introduce flexibilities. That these reforms have brought increased productivity and economic prosperity is, I think, beyond doubt. However, further reform is needed. The current process for reviewing the minimum wage is known as the annual wage case and is settled by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Unions invariably make an excessively high claim in the knowledge that they have to ask for much more than they really want. Employer groups invariably argue for the lowest amount possible. The AIRC invariably chooses a number somewhere in between. There is no sense in having such a confrontational approach on an issue of national importance which will directly affect both low-paid workers and the national economy.

With regard to awards generally, there is still a need for establishing genuine minimum standards over and above which employers and employees at workplace level should be free to negotiate further wages and conditions through a simplified agreement-making process. The existing system of six different industrial relations systems does create confusion for enterprises with workplaces in more than one state, resulting in compliance obligations under different industrial laws. The limitations of operating with six different systems have been recognised by numerous stakeholders and commentators from a wide political spectrum for many years.

May I say that having separate industrial relations systems has already been recognised by the state of Victoria, which joined a federal system years ago under Jeff Kennett. Now in its second term, Steve Bracks’s Labor government has not taken back those powers. I think this puts paid to any suggestion that the states must resist the new system in order to protect workers’ entitlements. We have six different industrial relations systems, over 130 different pieces of employment related legislation and over 4,000 different awards operating across this country. Quite simply, there are too many rules and regulations that make it excessively hard for many employees and employers to get together and reach an agreement. Again this makes no sense. Why such suspicion for an agreement between a boss and a worker?

The reforms in this bill will move Australia toward one simple national system of workplace relations, establish the Australian Fair Pay Commission to protect minimum and award classification wages, enshrine minimum conditions of employment in federal legislation for the first time ever, introduce the Australian fair pay and conditions standard to protect workers’ wages and conditions in the agreement-making process, simplify the workplace agreement-making process, provide modern award protection for those not covered by agreements, provide a more flexible framework for dispute resolution, better balance the unfair dismissal laws and, importantly, expand and improve the federal union right-of-entry regime. There is a case for change, and that change must occur in a way that does protect both workers’ and employers’ rights and does put the needs of politicians and big unions second.

I also believe very strongly that Australians deserve better than to be lied to. When people in my community of Northern Tasmania have come to me with their concerns, I have listened. But what they have been dishonestly told about these reforms by the government’s critics disappoints me beyond words. There has been a dishonest smear campaign by people who oppose this bill. The Labor Party and the unions are making much of their fabricated claim that people would be worse off under these new laws. They grin from ear to ear at their success in raising alarm in the community. They should instead hang their heads in shame for deliberately lying to people.

Like many of my colleagues, I have had correspondence on this issue from local people in my electorate. I am concerned that many of my electors in Bass have been lied to. The perpetrators will not correct the record, so tonight I will try to do it. I have proof, for example, that the Australian Education Union has told my constituents that the federal government will be stripping away holiday pay, long service leave and even superannuation; none of this has any truth to it. Labor and the unions have told my constituents that the reforms will result in lower wages; this too is wrong.

Labor and the unions have told older people in Bass that the reforms will result in the age pension being decreased. I heard that stated in this place only last night by a member opposite. That false claim fills me with disgust. Unlike the previous Hawke and Keating governments, the Howard government has guaranteed, by law, automatic increases in the age pension linked to inflation or to increases in male wages, whichever is the higher. Linking the pension to the state of the economy has been a wonderful initiative to assure our older Australians that their pension will keep pace.

It has also been claimed that the objective of Work Choices is to allow the business community to unilaterally determine people’s pay and conditions. It is interesting to note that this is the same claim about workplace agreements that the unions made almost 10 years ago in a bid to scare workers into thinking they would be forced to work for lower wages. The truth is that workers on AWAs today earn more than 13 per cent more than those on collective agreements and a whopping 100 per cent more than those on awards. It also has to be said that, under this legislation, a worker is very much entitled to continue with the relevant award and not enter into an agreement, if that is what they want. The point of this legislation is not to force agreements on to people but to respect an agreement made in the workplace, if it can be amicably reached.

Concern has been expressed about Work Choices as it relates to the unemployed. The Howard government has a strong track record in keeping the economy strong while at the same time reducing unemployment. I am particularly proud of the reduction in unemployment in my electorate of Bass, in Northern Tasmania. In March 1996, the unemployment rate, at 9.9 per cent, was almost 10 per cent. At that time, there were 4,439 people unemployed. By June 2004, that rate had been reduced to 7.9 per cent; and, by June this year, it had been slashed to 5.6 per cent—a long way from those worrying days of almost double-figure unemployment.

Critics of this government’s agenda never, ever mention unemployment. In my time here, neither did I hear Mr Latham nor have I heard the current Leader of the Opposition make reference to falling unemployment. I have never heard any Tasmanian Labor identities make reference to the remarkable employment achievements occurring in Northern Tasmania. How then do they explain themselves to the 1,807 people in Bass who were unable to find a job in March 1996 but who are in gainful employment now? Silence.

Since 1996, the government has been able to create the right economic conditions for as many Australians as possible to get a job. I want to say to the people of Northern Tasmania that, although our employment situation is much better, many people still want a job. How do we help the 2,632 people in Bass who are still out of work? Do we ignore them and leave the present system as it is? Do we tell them to go to university? Do we remind them repeatedly that there is a skills crisis, a skills shortage and ‘There are plenty of jobs out there. Just go and get one’?

I say to the union bosses, the spin doctors, the Labor machine and the small band of campaigners in Launceston handing out their deceptive brochures, ‘Stop manipulating the facts.’ Let us have a debate on this important issue. But all sides of this debate must tell the truth about these proposals and about each other’s alternative or lack of alternative. They must not make false claims. They must not alarm the public with well-thought-out lies. If there are faults with the legislation, point them out. Let us debate them. Let us take them to the Senate committee that will be examining the bill next week. May I say how poorly the Australian public are served by politicians who are less than honest and sneakily acting as puppets for an outside organisation.

The main way to create jobs is to encourage the business sector to do well, to grow and to employ more staff. Anyone with a genuine interest in helping to create the right conditions knows this. By reforming the economy in line with previous reforms, business can get on and do its thing, knowing full well that there are plenty of safeguards for their workers that they must obey. If you believe in creating more jobs with the opportunity for higher wages, then you must vote for this bill.

In less regulated countries, the employment outcomes are bright. In the United Kingdom, the unemployment rate is closer to four per cent, while in New Zealand it is less than that. No comparisons with China or India are needed or warranted. The United Kingdom and New Zealand are our Western less-regulated cousins, both under Labour governments. Here in Australia we too clearly are making the right decisions. With the growing use of Australian workplace agreements, there is strong productivity growth. Industries that are still locked into the old award system have had little or no productivity growth in recent years.

Work Choices will create a simpler and fairer system, with more flexibility and more job opportunities. It will also provide effective protections for employers and employees. The new and totally independent Fair Pay Commission will be established to deal with such matters as minimum and award wages. Under Work Choices, unlike what we have heard from the government’s critics, federal awards will not be abolished. In fact, the government will protect a number of award conditions, such as long service leave, to ensure that award reliant employees now and in the future continue to enjoy the benefits of those provisions in their current awards.

Work Choices will protect specific existing award conditions when new workplace agreements are negotiated. These conditions are public holidays; rest breaks, including meal breaks; incentive based payments and bonuses; annual leave loadings; allowances; penalty rates; and shift overtime loadings. Superannuation and long service leave are already covered by other legislation; the government’s support for these is as strong as ever, as well as for choice in superannuation. Many Australians already work on public holidays and weekends, because the work they do is essential or it is required to be performed on a continuous basis. It is what keeps the economy strong and our standard of living high. There are 10 standard public holidays in Australia, including Anzac Day, Good Friday and Christmas Day; all are declared under state or territory legislation. Under Work Choices, there will be no changes to these arrangements.

Work Choices is also about protecting and developing Australia’s small businesses. In my electorate of Bass there are around 5,000 small businesses which contribute to the local economy in many different ways every day of the year. Along with the rest of the small businesses throughout Australia, they provide close to half the private sector jobs in this country, but for a long time they have been dealing with a workplace relations system that is adversarial, awkward, outdated, legalistic and complex. For years, small businesses in this country have argued that most employers and employees are capable of making their own arrangements. It is no wonder that there is a call for changes to our complex system. Work Choices will deliver a simple, straightforward lodgment-only system for all agreements. They will be lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate, they will commence on the date of lodgment and they will need to meet the fair pay and conditions standard—the new national safety net—throughout the life of the agreement.

Small business owners have also argued against unfair dismissal laws. Work Choices will exempt businesses with up to 100 employees from these laws. Employees will still be protected from unlawful termination, like some forms of discrimination, irrespective of the size of the business. Under Work Choices, a person cannot be sacked on the basis of sex, race, age, pregnancy, political views, union membership or even refusing to agree to sign an AWA. If an employer has a staff of more than 100, an employee retains the right to claim unfair dismissal if necessary in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

It is my strong conviction that, overall, Australian families, including those in my electorate of Bass, will be better of under Work Choices. There will be more job opportunities; greater workplace flexibility; new, real jobs for those on the margins of employment; and stronger protections for workers with family responsibilities. I look forward to watching the economy benefit from the necessary reform, particularly in regional areas of our great country. I will be voting for this bill because I take my responsibility as a passionate advocate for Northern Tasmania very seriously. Industry and those who agree with the government need to appreciate and properly respond to any concerns which may be expressed by their workers or members of the community. Also, I trust that those who disagree with my position will at least know that, in reaching this decision, I have taken the time to listen to the views of my community, and I am confident that this is the right way to go. We have a duty to properly balance the rights and responsibilities of all parties in a workplace and a duty to ensure that our national economy and labour market remain strong. I commend the bill to the House.