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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 51

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (12:36 PM) —It is with some commitment that I rise to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. In the process of making a contribution to this debate, I hope to bring the focus back to what workplace reform is all about. The central reality of economic life in Australia is that in the absence of a strong economy, profitable businesses and a well-motivated work force, no code of industrial relations law can protect the working men and women of Australia. The welfare and the prosperity of the working men and women of Australia are directly dependent on the strength of the Australian economy. Absent a strong economy, the living standards of the men and women of Australia will decline. Absent a strong economy, unemployment will rise. Absent a strong economy, all the aspirations we have for the employment futures of our children and grandchildren will diminish.

To illustrate this point, let me take the House back to the last time this country had a recession. That was in the early 1990s, and you all know who was in charge of the country then—but leave that aside. My central point is that in the early 1990s this country’s industrial relations system was far more heavily regulated than it was in the early part of this government’s term of office and infinitely more regulated than it is at the present time. My simple reminder to those who sit opposite is that, despite all the rules and regulations, despite the survival into the early 1990s of a heavily centralised wage fixation system, that did not prevent more than one million Australians being thrown out of work. The reason it did not prevent those one million people being thrown out of work is that the industrial relations system of that time did not contribute to the mitigation of the recession. That is the test that you have to apply. The test you have to apply is the contribution an industrial relations system makes to the strength of the economy.

During the course of this debate, I have been accused, and we on this side of the House who proudly support this legislation have been accused, of many things. In the dying moments of his speech, the member for Griffith said that we seek to Americanise the Australian economy. That is wrong. I do not seek to Americanise the Australian economy; I seek to modernise the industrial relations system of the Australian economy to the benefit of the men and women of Australia. That is what I seek to do. I have been accused of having an ideological obsession with workplace relations reform. It is true that I, along with many people in this parliament, have argued long and hard the cause of industrial relations reform, but I have done it in the belief that industrial relations reform will lift the living standards of the Australian people, and I have powerful evidence on my side in arguing that point of view.

I look around the world and I see a direct correlation between highly regulated labour markets and high levels of unemployment. We see the domestic misery of the French people at the present time, and, unlike the Labor Party, I am not going to blame the riots in Paris on the industrial relations system that France has, but I do point out that one of the reasons for a feeling of alienation and disadvantage is the persistence of high levels of unemployment in this country against a background of other European economies with less regulated labour markets that have experienced much lower levels of unemployment.

I know that those who sit opposite do not like my constant reference to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but the attitude he took to labour market regulation when he became Prime Minister is very instructive. The member for Griffith talked in a sneering fashion about Margaret Thatcher. In my view, Margaret Thatcher is one of the significant political figures of Western history in the post-World War II period. It is undeniably the case that, had it not been for the courage of Margaret Thatcher, the British economy would not now be one of the strongest in Europe. Had it not been for her reforms, the unemployment level in Great Britain now would probably have been double what it is at present. So I do not walk away from the achievements of that remarkable individual.

What we are fashioning here in Australia is a unique set of labour laws for the future of the Australian nation. They are not in ideological slavery to either an American or a European model. What we are fashioning is an Australian model for an Australia of 2005. What that requires is a recognition of the enormous contribution that the small and medium business sector of our economy is making to our current prosperity and what it will do to our future prosperity and our future employment. I remind those who sit opposite that there are now more small business men and women in Australia than there are members of the trade union movement. I do not say that critically of the trade union movement, because I acknowledge that the trade union movement has made a significant contribution to the history and the development of this country. There is nothing in this legislation that denies the right of the trade union movement to represent people who are its members or to represent people in bargaining situations who are not its members. I simply want to point out to those who sit opposite that the world has changed from the days when almost 50 per cent of the work force of Australia belonged to the trade union movement. The world has changed from the days when we were a five-day-a-week society. The world has changed enormously, and our industrial relations system has to change with it.

We are reminded from time to time by the Labor Party that great reforms were made in 1993. It is true that enterprise bargaining agreements were introduced into our industrial relations system in 1993, but they were heavily circumscribed by a requirement that a union be involved irrespective of whether or not people participating in the agreements were members of the union. Side by side with that superficially liberalised approach came the introduction of what I can only call the infamous unfair dismissal laws of the Laurie Brereton-Paul Keating period, because those unfair dismissal laws have destroyed job opportunities in this country over the 11 years that they have been in operation.

Of all the things that are contained in this legislation, none is more important than our commitment to repeal the unfair dismissal laws, which have not been part of our industrial scene since Federation; they have only been part of our industrial scene since 1994, and then as a result of a secret deal made between the then Labor government and the trade union movement during the 1993 election campaign. That secrecy has been conceded by the then President of the ACTU and the now Labor member for Throsby, Jennie George. The removal of those unfair dismissal laws will add further impetus, I know, to the desire of all of us to see the unemployment rate in this country in future have a ‘4’ in front of it rather than a ‘5’. The contribution that that can make is very significant indeed.

One of the distinguishing features of this legislation is our desire to create a single national industrial relations system. Some may argue that that is unnecessary. I would argue very strongly that in the 31 years I have been a member of this House there has been an enormous change in the perspective in which business operates in this country. Very small businesses now often have interstate operations. In the early 1960s, if you formed a company in Sydney and you wanted to do business in Melbourne, believe it or not you had to register in Victoria as a foreign company. I can say, having practised law at that particular time, the registration procedures that were involved were not very different from the registration procedures required to register in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa or the United States as a foreign company.

When I was first employed as an articled clerk in a junior solicitor’s in Sydney, there were none of the great national law firms that we have at the present time; they were all locally based. The whole focus and operation of our economy has changed. There was a day when the political order was reversed in this country. There was a day when Labor premiers, successful Labor leaders, argued for a single national industrial relations system. The person I still regard as one of the most consummate Labor figures of the post World War II period, Neville Wran, argued very passionately for a single industrial relations system when he was Premier of New South Wales. I can even recall him on occasions suggesting that he would be willing to hand the industrial relations power over to the Commonwealth. Unlike less successful Labor leaders in this country, he recognised the changes that had been going on in relation to the Australian economy.

Any proposal that involves the creation of a single national system is bound to attract criticism from some who wonder whether some degree of local autonomy is being given up. But the reality is that the economic and industrial advantages of a single national system are going to be very major indeed. They will work to the benefit of business, both large and small, and they will also work to the benefit of employees.

Let me spend a few moments analysing the criticisms that have been made of this legislation. We have heard a lot from the Labor Party about how things are being gagged through. We have heard a lot from the Labor Party about how debate allowed for this legislation has been inadequate. It is my understanding that when the legislation is voted on some time later this week there will have been infinitely more time allowed for debate on this bill than was allowed for debate on the legislation dealing with the goods and services tax.

I have listened to many of the arguments that have been put forward, and I have listened to the accusations that we are driven blindly by ideology and rhetoric and that we do not base our arguments on reason. That is why I have done a little bit of research on some of the absurd remarks that have been made. I would say with respect to those who sit opposite: if you seek to enlist the support of the Australian public on this issue, argue your case with some kind of logic and reason, rather than with the absurd hyperbole that has come forth from those who sit opposite—for example, that there will be more divorce as a result of this legislation. In the workplace relations debate on 2 November 2005, Kim Beazley said:

It is not good for the economy for workers to be unable to afford their holidays, their relaxation or a decent family life. Divorce is not good for the economy. Divorce is patently bad for the economy.

And the dire warning that parents will be estranged from their children came from none other than Sharan Burrow—who, rather infamously, was once caught on camera saying how good it would be if you had a mum whose son or daughter had been injured or lost their life in an industrial accident.

That is the measure of the absurd hyperbole that has come from those who sit opposite. It has been said that Australia will regress to the 19th century—so we are not just Americanising; we are now going back to the 19th century—and that families will be set against families and that friends will be set against friends. Mr Speaker, I do no injustice to those who sit opposite. It has also been said that Australian workplaces will resemble South America’s. In the House of Representatives on 3 November 2005, Kim Beazley, Leader of the Opposition, said:

... it is the pre-Federation Liberal Party with just a nasty right wing, hand-me-down ideology to Americanise our workplaces.

                   …              …              …

This has gone beyond Americanisation of workplaces—

I was right—

perhaps the South Americanisation of workplaces.

In an interview with Ross Davie on 28 June 2005, the Leader of the Opposition said that economic growth will cease. The problem is that that is what the same person said in 1996.

In 1996 when we introduced some reforms, which were watered down as a result of the action of the Australian Democrats and the Labor Party in the Senate, the same dire forebodings came forth, not only from the Leader of the Opposition but also from the member for Perth. Seeing that we have had something of a sermon from the member for Griffith—and I will come back to that in a moment—I have to, of course, quote Janet Giles of SA Unions who said on 11 June 2005 that it was ‘a pact with the devil’. Then of course the Transport Workers Union of Australia said that more people will die in road accidents and that women and children will be murdered. This is actually the most absurd claim of all:

The history books show what happened in America. People on picket lines were murdered. Women and children were killed, and that is the road this Prime Minister wants to take us down. It is a disgrace.

That was Bob Smith, Labor MLC, speaking in the Victorian parliament on 4 October 2005.

That is a measure of the desperate rhetoric that has been engaged in by the Australian Labor Party in order to discredit this legislation. Can I say to those who sit opposite: the greater the hyperbole of that kind that you embrace, the more determined we are to support this legislation. Anybody in the Labor Party who imagines that that kind of absurd abuse is going to make any difference to the support that these parties have for this legislation is mistaken.

Before concluding can I just say something about the member for Griffith’s contribution on matters relating to the attitude of the Christian churches of this country. As members on both sides of the House will know, I have never in the time I have been in parliament sought to invoke religious authority for particular views I hold. I respect the fact, as somebody who inadequately tries to practise the Christian faith, that God is neither a Liberal supporter nor a Labor supporter. People who absurdly suggest otherwise do great injustice to religion. So it applies in relation to this issue. As somebody who has always tried to bring some individual conscience in decision-making to the practice of Christian belief, the idea that there is a Catholic view, an Anglican view, a Uniting Church view, a Presbyterian view, a Baptist view, a Pentecostal view, an atheist view, a Lutheran view, a Buddhist view, a Jewish view or an Islamic view on industrial relations is absolutely absurd. Men and women of good faith of all religions will of course reach different conclusions and, I hope, argue them with a degree of integrity. It does not really serve the purpose of a proper understanding of this legislation or of the attitude of Christian men and women in this country to try and suggest otherwise.

Let me conclude by paying tribute to my colleague the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who has done a remarkable job in putting this legislation together. This legislation will be good for the future of the Australian economy. It will lift employment. It will lift productivity. Because it will boost the economy and boost productivity, it is the best reform that our industrial relations system can have. At the end of the day, the only thing that can guarantee the job security of the Australian people and the real wages of the Australian people is a strong economy. No set of laws, no set of dogma, no set of rules, no set of rulings by industrial tribunals can deliver a job when the economy is weak. That is the central reality the Australian Labor Party does not accept.