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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 38

Dr JENSEN (11:33 AM) —I was staggered to hear complaints by the member for Ballarat about the government limiting debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. A friend of mine once said with regard to increasing your capability that some people say, ‘I have 20 years experience, when the reality is that they have one year of experience 20 times over. In this case, the debate consists of the same argument over and over again. The debate is not a real debate. The same points are being made every time.

The economy is the centrepiece of a nation’s wellbeing. That is an absolutely critical aspect that needs to be considered in this argument. You can talk about social niceties and protections and all sorts of other issues, but if your economy is not performing all the protections in the world do not assist. Civil unrest is generally a result of poor economic conditions. Unfortunately we are seeing some of those effects in France at the moment. I know it is not just an issue of poor economic conditions there, but France has 12 per cent unemployment, despite a highly regulated economic and industrial relations environment. There are other social issues involved, but the economy is one of the central issues there.

Some people have asked: why do we need changes? I have said to them: your economic position is essentially like being in a boat on a river. If you stop rowing, you do not stand still; you move backwards. Working on your economy and economic performance is a continual process that you need to follow. Labor’s position appears to be one of no reform at all. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition has stated that the industrial relations issue has basically been squeezed dry. That sounds rather like David Lloyd George at the end of World War I talking about squeezing the German lemon. Unfortunately, if Labor ever got into power, the economy would be somewhat of a lemon.

The industrial relations system is not perfect. Look at the effects of Labor’s legacy, where we have had very regulated environments and poor economic performance. If we do not continue a reform process with industrial relations, the industrial relations system will atrophy and result in a sclerotic economy. The only extreme that I can see as far as this legislation is concerned is the extreme scare campaign that has been run by the ACTU. Labor has no real policy, and certainly it does not have any heart or ability to reform. This is in contrast to the legacy of the Hawke and Keating governments, which were reformist governments—and, indeed, many of their reforms were supported by the then opposition. Labor at the moment almost seems to be subscribing to the viewpoint of Lyndon LaRouche of the CEC on economics: that we should return to the Bretton Woods type arrangements that were in place from the 1940s to the 1970s—almost fixed exchange rates and tariff barriers.

In stark contrast, the coalition government is very much a reformist government, and this reform has significantly benefited Australia. There have been no recessions ‘we had to have’ on this government’s watch. People are paid 15 per cent more in real terms compared with when the Howard government took office. So much for the fear campaign of reduced living wages and reduced standards et cetera. Unemployment is down to five per cent, the lowest in 30 years. Interest rates are at historic lows. Inflation is under control. This government is a very good economic manager. Part of that good economic management means that the population generally is far better off, and that is not just the wealthy. Indeed, if you look at the data, it indicates very clearly that these economic benefits have flowed through to all Australians, not just the wealthy, which is the position put by Labor.

I have heard claims by some members opposite that these changes are undemocratic, particularly given the fact that the majority of people contacting them are opposed to the legislation. Here is a little bit of a lesson for the Labor Party: this nation is a representative democracy, not—and here I will invent a new word—a populatocracy, where we basically legislate in terms of the popular sentiment of the day. I have heard a lot of complaints about the media and media influence on policy. Quite frankly, if we governed according to popular opinion, that would result in the media essentially driving government policy, as media viewpoints, by and large, are where the public generate their viewpoints.

On the views of the opposition—and I have said this before—it is basically like that Led Zeppelin song: The Song Remains The Same. For instance, at a doorstop interview on 23 May 2005, Stephen Smith said:

Firstly, these changes will be unfair, they will be divisive and they will be extreme.

Secondly so far as the impact on Australian employees and their families, they will have the effect of reducing their wages, stripping their entitlements and removing their safety nets.

…            …            …

We also know that the Government’s proposing to take an axe to the Minimum Wage, to reduce the Minimum Wage.

Thirdly, we know the Government is looking at reducing the number of Allowable Matters and stripping entitlements.

Sounds rather scary, doesn’t it? But let us have a look at what he said 10 years ago:

The Howard model is quite simple. It is all about lower wages; it is about worse conditions; it is about a massive rise in industrial disputation; it is about the abolition of safety nets; and it is about pushing down or abolishing minimum standards. As a worker, you may have lots of doubts about the things that you might lose, but you can be absolutely sure of one thing: John Howard will reduce your living standards.

That was on 17 October 1995. Let us have a look at those ‘reduced standards’ again. They are quite interesting: people getting 15 per cent more in real terms, unemployment down to five per cent, inflation under control—it does not sound as scary as the member for Perth was stating 10 years ago.

In his speech, the member for Rankin appears to blame IR reforms for petrol price increases—a staggering claim. Also, as with the member for Perth, he seems to claim that our government wants to lower wages. Why would any government want to reduce people’s wellbeing? The member for Rankin states that there is a problem with a lack of necessity, in legislation, to bargain in good faith and that this has been the case since 1996. The fact that wages have gone up by 15 per cent in real terms does not say much for the ‘bargain in good faith’ legislation. After all, under Labor, with this ‘bargain in good faith’ legislation, Labor only had around a two per cent increase in wages in real terms over a period of 13 years.

Why is this bill necessary? We need a national system so that we can get rid of the ludicrous situation of multiple awards across the states, where tradespeople from one state cannot be gainfully employed in their trade in another state. Unfair dismissal legislation may have had noble beginnings, but it has been found to be a turkey. It is a disincentive to employ. Other members on our side have spoken about cases where unfair dismissal claims have been brought and won at the tribunal—where people have won their cases despite the fact that the claims were ludicrous. In fact, the issues of unfair dismissal are obviously clear to the opposition as well. In 1998, the member for Hunter said:

... my wife consistently tells me she could afford to put on one person or would like to put on one more person, but is fearful of unfair dismissals ...

That pretty much says it all.

I could say a lot more on this legislation, but I know that we are trying to be fair to the opposition in allowing them their opportunity to debate, so I will just finish with one point. I have heard the trotting out of the viewpoints of individual economists in Australia, but there are organisations such as the IMF—which is a very prestigious, very powerful economic body—which state that further reforms are necessary. Indeed, the IMF states that centralised awards set minimum conditions in 20 areas, and large employers face six different industrial relations systems—this is for large companies. This is from the IMF, not the government. I guess that the opposition would say that the IMF is in the Howard government’s pocket! The OECD state that further unfinished business includes the harmonisation of federal and state industrial relations. They further state:

The Government is now in a position to address these issues and should proceed as soon as practicable.

This is from the United Nations and the OECD. I will leave it at that, and I commend the bill to the House.