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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 31

Mr NEVILLE (11:01 AM) —Our IR system is archaic, with more than 130 different pieces of employment related legislation, more than 4,000 awards and six different workplace relations systems. Surely in this day and age we can come up with something better than this—and we have, in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. A nation cannot move forward when its work force and its economy are shackled by an overly complicated IR system and a dispute based conciliation process.

Do not get me wrong—I believe unions have their place and I recognise the valuable role they have played and can play in a productive workplace. Unions have delivered better working conditions for millions of Australians who needed higher pay, better working conditions and a more equal relationship with employers. However, the relevance of unions has dwindled to the point where only 17 per cent of private sector employees are now union members.

Another indicator is the fact that workers on AWAs at present earn on average 13 per cent more than those on collective agreements and 100 per cent more than those on awards. Why should anyone sign up to a lesser collective agreement or award to receive less money or fewer benefits? Obviously, modern-day workers are finding unions irrelevant and unable to provide the services they want.

Sadly, it would seem that all the unions and opposition can offer in this debate is a fear campaign. We have seen claims of mothers being sacked for being unable to work and bosses intimidating workers into signing AWAs. Over the last two days we have also seen the opposition ridicule the notion of employees using accountants to negotiate an AWA with their employees. But a bargaining agent can be anyone: it could be an accountant, a business planner, a retired solicitor, a family member and, yes, a union advocate. Let me make this point: if unions were truly doing their job, they would be preparing a team of young, enthusiastic advocates to accompany workers to the bargaining table. Instead of whipping up a fear campaign, the unions should adapt their services and expertise to benefit Australian workers who choose to enter an AWA.

The ALP also claims that the government wants to slash wages to make Australia more competitive. Having done a little research on this, it is easy to point out that this is a scare tactic. The Union Bank of Switzerland’s price and earnings comparison of gross and net hourly rates of pay in US dollars of major cities around the world shows that, across an average of 13 occupations, workers in Sydney take home a net hourly pay of $US7.80 an hour. The same study showed that workers in Taipei received $US6.90 net an hour and workers in Tokyo, at $US13.60, took home almost double the Australian rate. In other words, we are certainly not in a state of forcing down pay—there are other countries around the world with which we compete that have higher pays. Another set of figures from this year’s IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook shows that in terms of total hourly compensation for manufacturing workers Australia is almost level pegging with Japan and the USA. So the fear that wages will be slashed to remain competitive is unfounded.

The opposition has said that it will reinstate awards. I find that extraordinary. As I move around the electorate and talk to individual unionists and even union groups, no-one seems concerned about awards; they are more concerned about their EBAs. Most acknowledge that their enterprise agreements are far better than anything awards can offer. Under the new regime, there is no reason why that cannot continue. That is why I find it bewildering that there is such concern about and fear of AWAs.

On top of these half-truths, a Labor government would roll back these changes. We are not removing awards under these changes; we are simplifying them and removing ridiculous provisions such as the one in the New South Wales Pastoral Employees (State) Award which stipulates:

(a)   Where the shearing shed is within 229 metres’ walking distance from the kitchen, smoke-oh lunches are to be held in the shed except:

(i)   where an offsider is employed; or

(ii)   in the case of a cook of a mess of ten men or less.

Another furphy Labor is peddling is the line that, under this new system, pensions will fall. That cannot happen, because the coalition was the first government to peg pension payments to both CPI and at least 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings. That was done because, in this time of low inflation, it gave pensioners the chance to stay in touch with workers in the marketplace. In fact, since March 1996, single and partnered pensions have increased by 40 per cent. This means that single pensions have increased by over $50 per fortnight and partnered pensions by over $43 per fortnight, each more than they would have under the previous Labor system, largely because of MTAWE. I find it absolutely extraordinary that Labor is trotting out MTAWE and trying to make people feel that, because MTAWE might go down a bit, their pensions will drop, when Labor did not even have a MTAWE factor in its pension profile. That is just rank hypocrisy.

The process of the AIRC is inherently complicated. A broad snapshot of its core activities makes your head spin. For example, the AIRC facilitates agreements, prevents and settles industrial disputes, hears and determines unfair dismissal applications, and hears and determines matters involving the registration and coverage of unions and employer organisations. If that were not bad enough, more than half-a-dozen bodies are regulating industrial relations at the federal level. These are the AIRC, the Australian Industrial Registry, the High Court and federal courts of Australia, DEWR, the Office of the Employment Advocate, the state industrial relations tribunal and so on.

This mishmash of regulation creates enormous cost to employers and employees alike but, contrary to union claims, the government is not seeking to abolish the AIRC and its key responsibilities. Rather, these reforms will modify the organisation’s role to keep pace with the needs of a modern economy. Under the new system, the AIRC will focus on its key responsibility—dispute resolution—while retaining its role in simplifying and rationalising awards and regulating industrial action, the right of entry, unfair dismissal and registered organisations. The AIRC will not be able to exercise compulsory powers of conciliation and arbitration. Rather, it will provide voluntary dispute resolution services and maintain its role in providing an initial conciliation service.

One of the most aggravating problems facing small business today is that of unfair dismissal. In my experience, existing laws actually discourage small business from taking on new or permanent employees. I find this particularly so in the city of Gladstone in my electorate. Many different employers and business groups have echoed the same concerns from a national perspective, but I have also received grassroots feedback from small businesses who welcome these reforms. One Gladstone businessman who through his line of work has union membership had this to say in a letter to his union:

What you are fighting is the only answer to small business employment problems, in particular unfair dismissal and employment agreements ... I continue to work my guts out on my own and will never put on any staff as long as the current laws exist. Anyone who supports the existing IR laws which restrict all business should also realize that they are holding back employment, growth and retaining people’s standard of living, especially in the small business sector.

Another businessman related a horrific story to me of an unfair dismissal case. A young man was doing some fairly ugly things at work, including accessing pornography on work computers and so on. They had a talk, and the young man decided to resign and got a very generous 14-week severance pay but, a month later, he came back, claiming $30,000. The matter came before the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission and then escalated, would you believe, to the antidiscrimination board on the grounds that he was a mentally disturbed person. The claim then went from $30,000 to $190,000. The court hearing was set up for three days but lasted only two hours, with the claimant admitting that the evidence he had given was fabricated and that the employer’s evidence was accurate. What happened next? The claimant was broke and so only had to pay the punitive penalty of $5,000 while the ex-employer had to foot a bill of $53,000.

I would like to go on a lot more about this, but we have an agreement with the opposition that we on our side will restrict our comments to 10 minutes. I think the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is a good bill. I do not mind saying that I had some misgivings with some parts of it, which I made clear to people. I think it will improve the marketplace. I hope it will be the start of a new generation of unions, and I think AWAs will give people many more choices in the marketplace but not at the expense of their EBAs and their awards.