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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 44

Mr ANTHONY SMITH (12:05 PM) —I rise this afternoon to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, which is very important for Australia’s future. It will provide a truly national system of choice, simplicity and fairness. On this side of the House, we strongly believe it gets the balance right. It provides for the much needed reforms that strike the right balance for us to create further job opportunities and greater choices and to keep the economy strong, not just tomorrow but well into the future. It is in the interests of Australia, the electorate I represent and the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne generally.

As I said, we believe this bill gets the balance right. It ensures that there are important protections, which the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, in his second reading speech and numerous times subsequently, has outlined. It is worth reminding some of the members opposite of what those protections are. Principally, the Fair Pay Commission will set and adjust the federal minimum wage, minimum award classification rates of pay, federal minimum wages for juniors and trainees—including school based apprentices and employees with disabilities—minimum wages for piece workers, as well as casual loadings. This bill allows people to have a choice and provides those important protections.

In all of the speeches of those opposite and in the commentary from those opposite in the media in the three weeks or so since this bill was introduced, we have seen a scare campaign, a dialogue of doomsday on what this bill in their eyes would bring forward. That is disappointing, but it is something that we on this side of the House have become all too familiar with when it comes to industrial relations reform or any change whatsoever on workplace relations.

You only need to go back and look at the attitude and approach of those opposite to previous reforms to see that they have performed the role of roadblock on every single proposed reform in industrial relations in the last 10 years. What we are seeing here today in this debate is just another groundhog day of negative scaremongering and opportunism.

Those opposite opposed any move to introduce voluntary unionism. They opposed all of the reforms back in 1996. They opposed moves to improve the waterfront and make Australia’s waterfront more competitive and efficient. They did so in the full knowledge that our waterfront was not operating effectively. Now they look at a waterfront operating more effectively, building a better economy, and they say nothing.

Those opposite also oppose any moves to fix up some of the worst areas of union thuggery and intimidation, like the building industry. They opposed a royal commission into that. It seems that when it comes to supporting the union movement there is nothing they will not support if they are asked to. There is nothing that they will not differentiate themselves on. That is easily explained by the fact that they are simply owned and operated by the trade union movement.

Those opposite conveniently ignore the changes that have been made over the last 10 years and go into their latest scare campaign. Their rhetoric and speeches—the breathless scare campaign by the Leader of the Opposition—are identical to what occurred in 1996. If you just replay the tape from 1996, you will see the same thing. What did the now Leader of the Opposition say back in 1996 when the government embarked on its first round of needed reforms? He said that it would create an Australia with:

... the kind of low wage, low productivity industrial wasteland we see in the United States and New Zealand where jobs can be bought at bargain basement rates.

He said that Australia would go:

... straight down the American road on industrial relations legislation, straight down the American road on wages justice ...

He continued:

... and that produces social dislocation more than anything else.

He also said:

At the end of the day, guns are a symptom of that process.

What did Senator Mark Bishop say back in 1996? He said:

The bill before the Senate today will result in lower wages and conditions in a range of industries ... All this bill offers Australians is a 19th century industrial relations agenda in a 21st century world ...

There was scare after scare. In June 1996, the member for Batman said in this place that the bill ‘threatens the very fabric of our society’. That was their scare campaign then; that is their scare campaign now.

But what actually happened after 1996? The economy grew. We have had strong and stable growth for the last nine or 10 years. Wages have increased by nearly 15 per cent. Some 1.7 million new jobs have been created. Unemployment is the lowest in 30 years. Interest rates have remained at historic lows. That is what happened. That is how believable the scare campaign of those opposite was in 1996.

And that is the test. What those opposite said in 1996 is identical to what they said today and what the next speaker will say. What happened after 1996 is completely at odds with what they said, but they do not blush: they move on. They just go from one scare campaign to the next.

What happens if we compare what has happened in the economy and what has happened in the labour market in terms of tangible outcomes for Australians and in terms of the sorts of people working hard in my electorate of Casey with what they experienced in the previous period of Labor government between 1983 and 1996? That is the real scare—what actually happened. There was wage growth of just 1.2 per cent and there was a decline in the minimum wage of about five per cent in real terms. This was a deliberate policy. This was not something of which they were ashamed; it is something of which they were proud—in terms of repressing real wages. That is where wages were repressed—under those opposite. Where did it all end? Of course, it all ended in the great economic train crash of the Keating recession. There were a million people out of work. What sort of lot did they have? What sort of job did they have? They had none.

The scare campaign has been back again in recent days. We have been told that people will die of asbestos disease because of this bill. Workers will be enslaved, we have been told by the Labor Party. We have been told that society will break down; that children will not be able to be raised properly; and that children will not see their parents on Christmas Day. We have been told that there will be a class war. It is all the same old stuff.

The problem those opposite have is that they have said it all before. When the legislation comes into effect, it will create the platform for continued growth, prosperity, opportunity and choice across Australia. Small businesses locally in electorates like mine and those of my colleagues, and across the outer suburban seats, are really the lifeblood and the future guarantee of job prospects for many of our young people.

That is why the unfair dismissal law provisions are so important. We have new and emerging businesses in horticulture, tourism and hospitality, which are very much at the cutting edge of the growth in our economy, that are frightened to hire people because of the current unfair dismissal laws, which those opposite would imply enshrine all the rights of termination. But of course they do not. They would imply that those unfair dismissal laws have existed since settlement in Australia, but they were only introduced in 1993. For the 6,000 or so small businesses in those emerging areas this will provide opportunity, choice and jobs for young Australians to live and work in their area.

In concluding, because I know we are on a short time schedule: take away the political rhetoric of politics in Australia and look abroad. Look at the reforms that are being introduced by this government and compare them to the reforms and the rhetoric of the British Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The name Tony Blair is hardly uttered by those opposite. Look to the independent assessments of international economic bodies such as the IMF and the OECD, which say that these sorts of reforms are necessary to provide future prosperity, future growth and future job opportunities.