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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 16

Mr SCHULTZ (9:55 AM) —In continuing my contribution to this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, I make the observation that many of the comments from the opposition are premised on the absurd, archaic notion that Australians are incapable of thinking for themselves and that they are simply going to comply with the arrogant assumption that the ACTU knows what is best for them. I find that remarkable, given that in 1976 the union membership of this country was 51 per cent of the work force but today it is down to 22 per cent, of which only 17.4 per cent of the private sector are members.

The ACTU’s strategy in response to losing its Senate majority is related to the position that it is in now. Its response has not been to reinvent itself and make itself more appealing to workers; instead it has been to fill the workers with fear and loathing in the hope that they will vote Labor at the next election so that the Labor Party can implement the ACTU’s roll-back policies and return it to its privileged position. The ACTU’s campaign has nothing to do with protecting workers; otherwise it would provide them with accurate information instead of trying to make them feel insecure. It is all about electing a Labor government so the unions can once again return to their complacent position of legislated protection and will not have to adapt to the modern world.

On the Sunday program on 29 May 2005 this was illustrated by Greg Combet. He confirmed that this was a purely political campaign in the week he launched the ACTU’s campaign when he commented that ‘we need a change of government’. Even union leaders concede that the movement has lost relevance and is not focused on the interest of workers. John Robertson, the Secretary of Unions New South Wales, in a reported article in the Daily Telegraph on 30 April 2005 that was headed ‘The unions disunited: Leader attacks members’ said this:

We need to be honest with ourselves ... These laws—

he means IR reform—

are not the biggest threat to the future of the labour movement. We are.

Many of our unions are in a sad state—some have given up recruiting on the basis it will upset internal power balances.

Our political wing (the ALP) is in even worse shape—control of local branches is now being fought out by operatives on the public payroll.

The union movement has no interest in helping small businesses. Its campaign against workplace relations reform has been predicated on the idea that no employee can trust their employer and that all employers are heartless animals, who cannot wait for the chance to exploit or sack their work force. Yet union leaders, deep down, know that their scare campaign based on evil bosses is not realistic and does not portray the reality in small business workplaces. There is no better way to illustrate that than to quote the comments made on Lateline on 8 August of this year by the ACTU President Sharan Burrow. She said:

I think you’d be surprised about how flexible small business can be and if they know there’s a way of keeping a very skilled employee attached to their enterprise ... They tell us they’re worried about losing skilled workers, particularly at a time of increasingly full employment.

So the question needs to be asked: why is she running an $8 million campaign saying that small business employers will run amok, unfairly sacking their staff under the new system? The President of the ACTU herself has confirmed that she is running a misleading scare campaign.

Despite that scare campaign, the employment rate in this country is the highest it has been for three decades. In the Hume electorate the decrease in the unemployment level, whilst not as impressive as the results in some other electorates, where unemployment has dropped even more sharply—including in the seats of many of the ALP members who are here today opposing these important reforms—has been significant in recent years. That has been on the back of the strong economic leadership and decision making of the Howard government. In Hume today unemployment is estimated at just 4.1 per cent, down from 5.9 per cent during the last year of the previous Labor government. Rural people have suffered years of drought and hardship, but the constituents in Hume are still finding employment at a higher rate today than even 12 months ago—a testament to the solid foundations built by this Howard-led government.

There has been a large amount of negative press about these reforms in the electorate of Hume, as there has been elsewhere. I understand that voters are wary, especially when they have the ALP and union doom and gloomsters preaching the evils of this legislation at every opportunity. They did the same thing in 1996, when the Howard government’s workplace reforms began. Since then this government has created more than 1.7 million jobs, seen an increase in real wages of 14.9 per cent, delivered the lowest unemployment rates in three decades and reduced the chaos caused by industrial disputes to its lowest level since records were first kept more than 90 years ago. Despite this success, the ALP doom and gloomsters are doing it again.

I would now like to refer to a matter related to a union instigated meeting in Goulburn in my electorate, where I made the decision not to compromise my commitments to my constituents and enter public debate with the unions over these reforms. That has been criticised in the local press in my electorate. However, I feel strongly, as I have always in the 18 years that I have been a member of parliament, about my long-term commitments. In any case, no amount of fact telling or reassuring will convince those tied up in the union movement that these changes are good, that they are a step forward and that they will one day be noted as a turning point in our history.

These freely available facts have been accessible and offered by me to those interested in having an open mind and sharing the government’s vision of this way forward. The facts are that under this bill terms and conditions will not be abolished. Employees will be able to keep their conditions until they agree to new arrangements with their employer. There is no obligation to enter into a new agreement under the new system. Conditions which exist in awards can also exist in agreements, which will now be able to run for up to five years, rather than the current maximum of three. This is not a new issue; it has been around for some time. It is practised in the public sector when public sector employees offer to forgo some of their conditions in the interests of accommodating some of the financial pressures on themselves or their families.

The minimum standards will be universal and protected by law for the first time at a federal level. This will include minimum and award classification wages as set by the Fair Pay Commission, four weeks paid annual leave with an additional week for shift workers—with the option for employees to cash out up to two weeks leave, but only at their own request—52 weeks unpaid parental leave, 10 days paid personal carers leave, including sick leave, for employees with more than 12 months service, plus two days of paid compassionate leave, plus an additional two days of unpaid carers leave per occasion, which will be available in emergency situations. There will be a maximum 38-hour working week.

Where conditions in an award or an agreement are more generous, those conditions will apply. Award conditions will be protected. Although they will not form part of the Australian fair pay and conditions standard, other conditions will be protected, including public holidays, rest breaks, meal breaks, incentive based payments and bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift and overtime loadings. Things such as superannuation, notice of termination and arrangements for jury service and long service leave will also remain protected under the existing legislation.

Despite the trade unions’ claims, I am delighted to shed light on the fact that employees cannot be forced onto new workplace agreements under this new system. Under Work Choices it will continue to be unlawful for employers to force employees into new agreements. If a worker does not like what is on offer, they can opt to stay on their current arrangements. It is as simple as that. Help will be provided to employees who require it in dealing with workplace disputes. Australian workers need not fear these reforms. To further protect workers’ rights, a strong inspection service will exist under the new arrangements to assist workers who believe they are not being paid their appropriate entitlements. That is more protection, not less, than under the current arrangements.

Finally, protections against unlawful termination on the basis of family responsibilities, union membership or all types of discrimination will continue to apply for all employees. The onus will be on employers to prove that the determination was not for a prohibited reason. Australian workers will not be worse off as a result of these reforms, despite the scaremongering that is out there in the community, driven by the ACTU and the ALP. They will be better off—of that I am confident, and I will stake my political reputation on it. Those people in Hume who have taken the time to acquaint themselves with the facts believe so too. I will give the House some illustrations. When asked the question, ‘Would you rather negotiate an employment agreement or have a union do it on your behalf?’ ordinary Australians in the electorate of Hume agreed that they would prefer to negotiate directly with their bosses. ‘I would probably negotiate’, said one woman. ‘In a small business you’ve got a relationship with your boss’, said another. ‘I don’t know, really, but I suppose I would choose to do it myself,’ a young woman just starting out in the work force said. Even at the other end of the scale, a man with plenty of working years under his belt, whom I would describe as a mature individual, said the same. ‘I would do it myself,’ he said. So four out of five when answering an unsolicited question said they could see the benefits of fostering an open, flexible relationship between employers and employees. That might only be a small sample, but I believe it is an accurate one.

I will quote from a letter I received from the President of the Southern Highlands Business Chamber Inc., Mr Terry Oakes-Ash, in reply to a letter I sent to him relating to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill. He said:

Regarding the increased emphasis on direct bargaining between employer and employees, we fully support these changes.

And here are the pertinent points:

Employers will be forced to bargain wisely and fairly, otherwise they will not retain the workforce that they need to run their businesses.

That is a very pertinent point. He continued:

Employees will be able to negotiate how they want their wages and conditions packaged, a plus for them.

Regarding the unfair dismissal laws as they relate employers with less than 100 employees, we believe that this will enable employers to be more selective of the applicants required to run their business and even more prepared to employ additional people, knowing that if they do not suit the job, then they can be replaced without being taken to court. Employees will adopt more professional approach in their job application, which should lead to great harmony of employer/employee relations.

I think that says it all, and it is one of the reasons why the unemployment level has dropped to its lowest point in 30 years, as I said previously.

In closing, I would like to issue a challenge. I challenge those people in the Hume electorate who may have been brainwashed and stifled by their union, by their friends or by their families about these reforms to educate themselves fully and then make a decision about how these reforms will affect them. I am only too happy to talk to those people who are willing to listen, and my office has some very good material—as do all members’ offices—which I am sure many people will be surprised to read. I make the point that I made before: at the next opportunity when I go to the polls, I will live with the decision that I and my parliamentary colleagues on this side of the House have made in supporting this historic piece of legislation. (Time expired)