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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 1

Mr WINDSOR (11:12 AM) —I am pleased to be able to speak to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I will relate some of my comments to people within the electorate. I have conducted a survey of constituents’ views on this piece of legislation. Before doing so, I would like to explain to the House a bit of my history on these sorts of issues. As you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, in 1991 I was selected to the New South Wales parliament and my vote was the one that put the conservative coalition government into power in New South Wales. It was a hung parliament.

Mr Billson interjecting

Mr WINDSOR —I did not hear the interjection, but I am sure it was a good one. One of the issues I raised and supported in my first speech in state parliament was that of industrial relations. The other issue was about incentive based taxation systems. I referred to the federal government on both those issues at the time. John Fahey was the then Minister for Industrial Relations in New South Wales. He became Premier on the removal of Nick Greiner and subsequently came to this place.

But it was my vote that actually got the IR legislation through the New South Wales parliament. I remember that particular time, because the nature of the parliament—being a hung parliament—and the nature of the decision-making process meant that the outcome was based solely on my shoulders. It was a fairly difficult time in terms of the vitriol and the views that were being imposed from all directions—to do this and not to do that. I decided at the time, partly because I was involved in various farm organisations, to support the New South Wales legislation. I had been supportive of the Mudginberri decision in the 1980s and I had followed the now Treasurer’s movements in relation to the Dollar Sweets case and a number of those issues. I was also very much involved—at a low level, I admit—in trying to push the issues of free trade and productivity. The New South Wales legislation was mainly based on enterprise agreements and the removal of some restrictions in relation to unions et cetera. After that period, the Commonwealth government also did some work on the issues of enterprise bargaining and Australian workplace agreements.

I come to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 with that background. I have never been a member of a union, but I have been supportive of unions. I listened earlier to the member for Grey when he talked about his shearing history, the fact that he had been a member of a union and the rights of people to gather collectively, whether in the workplace or as community groups, to try to push their particular agendas. I would agree with that, but I have to say that I have really struggled with this particular piece of legislation. Given my background and the attitude that I have had in the past towards industrial relations, one of the things that I have done to try to reconcile views is to survey my electorate.

One thing that the government has quite rightly recognised is that as we enter a global society, as we become players in the global community, our living standard is above our productive capacity. The government may or may not like to say that, but I think the issue that is really at the heart of this is how we maintain a living standard when we are moving into a global society where our wage and salary rates are much higher than our productive capacity and much higher than those of many of our competitors. The government is suggesting that, if we move to a different system, that will increase productivity and employment rates and hence we will maintain our position in the world in terms of our living standard.

I do not believe that is entirely true, and I do not think we should be solely focused on the so-called productivity improvements that the Treasurer and others suggest will flow. I am a little dismayed that the Treasury and the government have not done any analyses on the impact of this legislation on the real numbers—those of productivity and employment rates. There is an argument put that improvements will naturally follow. I do not think that is necessarily the case. I think there are many other things that we probably should focus on before focusing solely on wages and the way in which wages are determined as being the parameter that will keep us in the game.

The Prime Minister, to his credit, has initiated an inquiry into red tape. I think there is an enormous capacity there to influence the productive capacity of our productive industries. Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, you and I both come from regional areas where one of the great problems over the years has been that we have had an artificial cost structure at home and a corrupt price structure overseas. Trying to weave our way through those two parameters and maintain a productive existence has been, at the very least, difficult.

But the government has initiated a red tape inquiry. I noticed the other day—and I think it came from the Productivity Commission—that one of the greatest noncompliers in terms of efficiency is the Treasury itself. I would suggest that before embarking upon this specific industrial relations agenda we should be looking at a whole range of other things—red tape being one and renewable energy being another. If we are serious about trying to maintain a living standard within a global community, surely we have to look at the things we can do at home and how we can do them effectively.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I know I sound like a cracked record on ethanol and I know you are a greater supporter of ethanol, but it is a classic example—not the only one—where we can cut that corner that we are locked into, that agenda where we export grain at corrupt world prices and use some of that money to buy oil at corrupt world prices but will not do anything about it at home because that would be interfering in the market. I think that is an extraordinary thing to say, particularly in the energy field, where we have such very high and inefficient taxation regimes in terms of fuel excise.

The taxation system is another area where I think the government could have much more say on increasing productivity—incentive based packages and those sorts of things. There is very little mention of that in the 1,200 pages of the document before the House at the moment. The price of housing has been partly driven by government incentives. That may be all very well for those individuals who are sharing in that escalation in the price of houses, but it is not doing anything for the capacity of the generation to follow to enter that marketplace.

We have a relatively low population and we have now got an extraordinary situation where, because of an artificial domestic pricing structure in terms of accommodation, a lot of younger couples are finding that both partners have to work—and they are still struggling to meet mortgage commitments. I have mentioned fuel, but infrastructure is another area where government could do a lot to provide the mainstay and mechanism for productive investment and the umbrella under which a lot of productive investment could take place. Compliance costs and red tape are also issues.

In the telecommunications area we seem to be in reverse gear. Our productive sector in regional Australia is going to be deliberately disadvantaged by moves to privatise operations. We see the debate going on now between the ACCC and Donald McGauchie, the Chairman of Telstra. The Prime Minister has consistently refused to identify where the mythical agreement is that the National Farmers Federation are supposed to have put in place to guarantee parity of pricing for broadband and telephone services. It is apparently in some speech someone made in the Senate one day that has no bearing on the legislation and is not in the legislation at all.

The member for Gwydir and I have been in conflict on a number of issues, but on the issue of the National Water Initiative I agree with him. I think the National Water Initiative is at risk of collapse. To have put in place a structure that is allowing state governments at the moment to look at charging regimes in the high band of the COAG agreement seems to me to be one of the most unproductive moves that any government could make. But the bureaucracy has been allowed to move on this particular piece of red tape because the original agreement, through the COAG process and the National Water Initiative process, allows the bureaucracy that freedom. The member for Gwydir made the point on ABC regional radio the other day that we have to make a very strong challenge to those bureaucrats who are driving that agenda. This debate is about productivity, and in one fell swoop one of the most productive groups in regional Australia—the irrigating community, which is one of the very few groups in regional Australia which is reasonably profitable—is going to be disadvantaged. Hence our capacity to influence overseas markets et cetera will also be disadvantaged.

I have always supported unfair dismissal legislation in this parliament. I think it is among the top five issues that I have spoken on during my participation in this place. One of the few things that the business community has come to see me about in recent years—that is, since there has been relatively quiet disputation between the union movement and the employer organisations—has been unfair dismissal. As I have said, I have supported unfair dismissal legislation, but I will be moving an amendment to the legislation. I was attempting to move an amendment to excise the unfair dismissal component from the legislation and have it debated separately, but I am told that is very difficult to do, so I will be moving an amendment that the number of employees in a business covered by the legislation be reduced to the original government proposal of 20. Businesses of that size are, essentially, family owned small businesses which should be treated differently from the bigger corporations in the industrial relations system. I will be moving that amendment. As I have said, I have always supported legislation on unfair dismissal for businesses employing up to 20 people.

The government has sent a very nasty signal of uncertainty to the community by increasing the scope of the legislation from businesses with 20 employees to businesses with 100 employees. There was no mandate at the last election to do that. There was a definite mandate that a business with 20 employees was a small business—family owned and operated and face-to-face, where employers needed rights to dismiss people that were different to the rights needed by larger corporations. Some people in the farm sector have expressed some concern about the Corporations Act being used. Even though they have been given five years to adapt to the process, the process of moving to becoming companies does create some concerns, which people are looking at.

My survey has been difficult to put together because of the rush of the legislation, but in the last five days—and some people are still only receiving the survey—I have had a response from 2,200 of my constituents. Out of those 2,200 people, 77 per cent have said they are opposed to the legislation, 20 per cent of people have said they are in favour of the legislation and three per cent of people are undecided. Over the last few months—bearing in mind that the legislation has only been in the parliament for a week and a lot of people would have been shadowboxing with various propaganda campaigns that were going on—my office has received more than 1,300 letters about this issue. Well over 90 per cent of those letters have been in opposition to the legislation.

The major concern from the business community in my electorate is unfair dismissal. I think the fact that the government has put that issue into this omnibus legislation, grouping it together with a whole range of other things, such as the Fair Pay Commission, the role of the Industrial Relations Commission, the rights of weaker bargainers, the abandonment of the no disadvantage test and the ministerial power to override agreements at the stroke of a pen, is a concern. That new ministerial power—irrespective of the legislation—is something that we should be dreadfully concerned about. The ethic behind this legislation was supposedly that people would have a choice—that the worker and the boss could make an agreement and decide in their own time about their own business. But now you have this capacity for the minister to suddenly come in and override any agreement.

I have the greatest personal respect and regard for the current minister, but legislation does not stay with the minister in the chair. I am certain that the minister in the chair would not abuse that process, but that does not mean that, with a change of government or a change of minister, abuse could not sneak into the process. That sends a message of uncertainty to the community as well, about why that would be there. If it is not for a negative reason, why is it there? What is the positive aspect of having a Work Choices process where the minister can come in and overrule something? That is not deregulation—it is re-regulation.

My major concern is that this legislation, although it has some benefits, has a major disadvantage for our community, in both an economic and a social sense. That disadvantage will be the division that it creates within our community. For a little over a decade we have moved into enterprise bargaining and a whole range of other areas where Labor and Liberal have been essentially in agreement. We have had very little disputation in industrial relations. The major motivation behind this legislation has very little to do with productivity. The academic arguments and the opinions that are being put up agree—there is no proof that this legislation will improve productivity. One would hope that it will, because it is going to go through the parliament, but there is no proof that it will.

There is no proof that countries that have less regulation in the labour market have better living standards. The Prime Minister has used the argument that there is some academic opinion to that effect. An article in today’s Canberra Times by Peter Browne is well worth reading in relation to that. It discusses the OECD employment rate index and the job protection index. I do not have the article with me, so I cannot cite the exact figures, but of the six best performing countries in terms of employment and living standards only one has less regulation—and the United States performs quite badly, in fact.

In the time that remains to me, I would like to read a couple of comments made to me by people in my electorate. One of my constituents says:

The group of people on the minimum wage will be the worst affected by this government’s quest to support big business and Australia’s wealthiest people. The rich get richer and the poor get the picture.

A constituent who was for the changes said:

I believe that, if an employee is found to be unsuitable for a particular job or incompetent in carrying out the task at hand, an employer should be able to terminate his or her employment. Unfair dismissal laws were a disgrace and need changing.

I oppose the legislation. (Time expired)