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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 24

Mr WAKELIN (10:30 AM) —The history of workplace relations is as old as Australia. When I first came into this place—and before that—the exchanges between those of us in the export industry, the Labor Party and those who believe in the CPI economy were long and almost impossible to reconcile. Let us think about the issues of wide combs and live sheep, and the ports—the things that build Australia’s economy. The great problem we had was trying to get many Australians to understand that you could only pay wages which the country could afford. That is one of the great virtues of the current government. We base our wages on productivity increases and our capacity to export competitively.

As a former shearer, I understand how hard it is to shear a sheep. I would like to record in Hansard, for the purpose of the debate in the House this morning, the story of an acquaintance of mine—a political opponent from the AWU—now deceased, one Trevor Girdham from Port Pirie. We were having the normal exchanges, with me as a new politician, about my virtues or lack thereof. He was predominantly representing the Labor Party point of view. I put a challenge to him in the local paper that I would take him on in any shearing shed anywhere in this country any time. He responded with a little humour. He said that he would not do that, because he did not want to do too much damage to the sheep. That brings out the point that Labor has moved very far from its roots. The days of the 1930s are well behind us.

A fellow by the name of Clyde Cameron, a former Labor minister, tells a wonderful story in his autobiography about the first sheep he shore. He said he took so long that the sheep actually died on the floor. As smoko came and as the bell went after the last catch, he thought he would get the sheep outside into the let-out pen and prop it up with a stick so that the boss would have to count it out. That is the type of humour that I really enjoy from that era. The Labor Party has moved a long way from the basis of the union movement.

Next Tuesday there will be a rally outside my office in Whyalla, sponsored by the ACTU. Apparently, they have six complaints about unfair dismissal, alleged cuts to wages and conditions, changes to minimum wages, the abolition of the awards system, keeping unions out of workplaces and the restriction on the power of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. These are well-travelled routes. Everybody knows the argument; it has been repeated here ad nauseam in recent days, and no doubt that will continue to be the case.

The thing that is totally missed in this debate is that it is about improving our standard of living, giving everyone the opportunity to have a job and remembering that there are many more points of view than the one presented by the ACTU and the Labor Party. The basis of our society is the ability to run a business, to be able to export and to be able to create innovation in the workplace. The workplace is the best place for the relationship between the employer and the employee to be worked out. That is the basis of this legislation.

The word ‘extreme’ has been used a lot in the last few days. I offer the view that there is a lot of extreme rhetoric around this issue. An example is that a boss is somehow going to intimidate the worker—that is all the employer does when he goes to work. He has nothing better to do with his time than intimidate potential or current employees. Let us talk a little about intimidation, about the MUA and about what happened in that dispute. Let us talk about shearing sheds being burnt down. Let us talk about the wide combs. As a shearer, I assure the House that I much prefer to shear with a wide comb than a narrow comb. It makes me more money and it does just as good a job. To stop using wide combs was just stupid.

Let us talk a little about the export of live sheep. That market wanted those live sheep. What right did the union movement have to stop me from having the right to trade freely within my occupation in order to make a living? I am talking about intimidation and the right of people to make a living. Let us look at Olympic Dam and the Labor Party. The one man who allowed Olympic Dam to become one of the biggest mines in the world, on the principle of never stopping anyone from having a job, was Norman Foster from the ALP. There are a whole lot of double standards in this. If Australia is to reach its potential and we are to allow every individual Australian to make the most of their opportunities, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 we are now debating needs to go through.

I want to talk a little about arrogance—that word is coming up pretty regularly. I believe there are various forms of arrogance and arrogance can also lead to poverty. Arrogance is a presumption that your own belief is right, to the exclusion of all others. That can lead to poverty. From 1974 to the late eighties and early nineties we saw our unemployment rate go from 100,000 people—and the Labor minister of the day said he would resign when unemployment reached 100,000, but I do not think he did—to one million people. We will hear often in the debate—the minister has mentioned it a lot—that the one thing you can offer an individual that will give them the best chance in life is a job. That first job someone gets is as important as any job they will ever have—and perhaps it is the most important job they will ever have. This is what I am fighting for in this place. It is what I believe in. I know it is not what the Labor Party believe in, but they must respect that there are other points of view. That is why I think Tony Blair has been successful in the UK: because he has been able to accept other points of view. It is not as if this nation’s economy is in such a bad way. This nation’s economy is the envy of the world. The argument goes, ‘If that is the case, why do you want to bring in this legislation?’ The answer is because we want to make sure this country maintains its position in the world and goes on to have an even better outcome for its people and to take its place in the world.

To conclude, the union movement have a great problem and that reflects a great problem for the Labor Party. With union membership in the private enterprise work force standing at 17 per cent, surely the ACTU and the union movement must ask themselves, ‘How do we get our membership up?’ Because there is no doubt that employees need good advocacy. It is a legitimate position to argue for their rights and their position in the economy in Australia. But I know all of us in this place would not be here if we relied on 17 per cent. We know that. There is something fundamentally flawed in our system when the movement that portrays itself as the representative of the working people of Australia can only get 17 per cent of the work force to join. I am not anti union. I am pro union. I have been a member of unions. I believe in collective efforts for the wellbeing of particular community groups and for the nation at large. But I cannot accept from my life’s experience that the issues that the Labor Party and the ACTU have thrown at me during my working life are acceptable. This country is based on the sort of economy we are running now, and there is no way I want to see that put under threat. I want to see more people in the work force rather than fewer.