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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 59

Mr SLIPPER (1:17 PM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for at least considering the point that was made by the member for Corangamite and also by me. I do believe it is inappropriate because, far from being imbeciles on this side of the chamber, the government are far sighted and will not apologise for the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, which in 2005 will usher in a new era in industrial relations that will see higher pay for higher productivity.

Rarely, though, does one get to enjoy debates in this place and, when I listened to the honourable member for Corio, I was almost able to close my eyes and imagine that this was the way that the Labor Party used to be, when the Labor Party was fighting the class warfare of the 1890s and uttering rhetoric to the effect that our side of politics was trying to crush the workers. Indeed, I suppose you would say that the member for Corio is, in many respects, a living, breathing dinosaur or troglodyte—and my friend the member for Hunter is smiling, because he realises that his agreement with the member for Corio was made with some level of levity and mirth. I find it very difficult to understand, though, how members of the Australian Labor Party in this place can, in 2005, expect to be found relevant by the Australian people when they are taking attitudes which are more than half a century old.

It is also interesting to note that the Labor Party continues to talk about how this government wants to crush unions. Workers have been voting with their feet for years. Currently, this year, fewer than 20 per cent of workers in the private sector have opted to join trade unions. That is voting with their feet. It is a telling indictment of the trade union movement, which I will concede has played a very important role in Australia’s history. But it indicates that the union movement is somewhat removed from the people whom it seeks to represent. That is why the legislation before the chamber is particularly important because it does, as the name suggests, bring about work choices, individual freedom and the ability for people to sit down and talk with their employer about a better deal. It enables people to work out arrangements which are suitable to employers and employees and it loosens up the system, while still ensuring that we have the Australian principle of a fair go enshrined in the legislation.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 highlights a system which both is fair for workers and will encourage economic growth for Australia as a whole. Let us look at a few facts. If you listened to members of the Australian Labor Party, you would believe that this government is trying to crush workers and destroy the ability of workers to get ahead and look after their families. When one considers the items in the second reading amendment, moved by the honourable member for Perth—which goes for some pages—one can see that the Labor Party is not really serious. Even the Labor Party would appreciate that the various items included in the second reading amendment simply do not have any validity.

This bill will better protect fair minimum wages through the establishment of the Australian Fair Pay Commission. For the first time, minimum conditions will be set out in federal legislation. The safeguard of an Australian fair pay and conditions standard will be introduced with the goal of protecting workers during the agreement-bargaining process. As well as simplifying the agreement-making process at the workplace, it will bring in protections for those workers who are currently not sheltered by an agreement. Currently, there is an unmet demand in the economy for workers with specific skills. This is resulting in emerging labour shortages which need to be filled and Work Choices will also help to fill that void. Despite claims by opponents, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will not be closed down. Many reasonable people in the community think that it should be, but it will not be closed down. It does have an ongoing role under these new laws.

It is interesting to note the comparisons, which have been drawn by honourable members of the Australian Labor Party in this place, between the proposed new industrial relations system—which is being brought into effect by the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005—and the industrial relations systems administered by the Labour government of New Zealand, in particular, but also of the United Kingdom. By comparison with the legislation in the UK and New Zealand, this legislation is really quite moderate. The Labor Party has suggested that in some way, shape or form the legislation in the United Kingdom and New Zealand has not worked and is not working. But I find it somewhat curious that Labour governments have been in place in those two countries for a considerable period. However, there is such a consensus in the United Kingdom and New Zealand that there has not been any serious move to undo the important and meaningful reforms brought about which have seen the industrial relations systems in those countries substantially transformed.

As you would understand, with an important piece of legislation like this, there has been a lot of feedback to individual honourable members from members of their constituencies and, like other members, I have received a significant amount of positive feedback about the changes. One business owner—and I will not mention his name—who operates a professional service business in my electorate said that unfair dismissal laws, as they currently stand at present, were having a detrimental effect on his company. He has had a problem with a staff member but, under the legislation introduced by Mr Brereton when he was the member for Kingsford Smith and the Minister for Industrial Relations, he has simply been unable to move this particular person on without leaving himself open to a substantial claim for unfair dismissal. Yet this person has been undermining his business. This person has been in effect the window of the opposition within his business, and I think that it is absolutely unacceptable that businesses with fewer than 100 people are unable to get rid of people without having to face the difficulties of Labor’s unfair unfair-dismissal law.

My constituent was particularly deflated in June this year when he contacted my office and was informed that the new workplace relations system, the legislation we know as Work Choices, would not become law until early next year. I imagine the most likely commencement date is now to be 1 March or 1 April 2006. The Work Choices legislation will assist this businessman to build his business and it will assist him to create additional staff opportunities, so it is a win-win situation—a win for him, a win for his business and, of course, also a win for his employees.

The Work Choices legislation is giving small businesses an opportunity for a fresh beginning. When the new WorkChoices booklet was released recently—the one with the orange cover—a Sunshine Coast businessman was one of the first to enthusiastically come into my office and pick up a copy. He has a small business with few staff. I believe one of his sons is one of his employees. He wanted the booklet so that he could begin drawing up workplace agreements with those staff. He sees the Work Choices legislation as a very positive thing for his business. It is a chance to sit down with his workers, and together they can get things organised to their mutual advantage.

Earlier this year I was confronted by a large number of people who were concerned by the scare campaign run by the union movement and the Australian Labor Party. They wanted to know about the new industrial relations system. I hope that I was able to allay their concerns. Certainly when this legislation becomes law the sky will not fall in. There will be increased flexibility, there will be increased opportunity and there will be an increased chance for employers and employees to work out arrangements which are to their mutual advantage.

The unions, I believe, should stand condemned because of the way that they have undermined the confidence of people in the community through mounting this scare campaign which, in effect, has frightened many people and has given people a lot of concerns. I certainly appreciate the chance to talk to constituents, and I am sure I have been able to allay the concerns of many of them, but it is politically and morally irresponsible for the trade union movement, in its own self-interest, to try to terrify the Australian community into opposition against this very important and positive legislation which we are currently discussing in the chamber.

Regrettably, because of the time constraints, members of the government have been reduced to 10 minutes talking time—I know the clock will not reflect that, but I certainly do not want to incur the ire of the whip. But I do want to stress that included in the reforms, as I mentioned earlier, is the major liberalisation of the unfair dismissal laws which have held back jobs growth in Australia. If I had my way, I would abolish the unfair dismissal laws, even for businesses with more than 100 employees, but that is not the position of the government. I believe, though, that if this is logical for people who employ fewer than 100 then it should be logical for people who employ more than 100.

What we are achieving is the goal of a national industrial relations system in 2005, one which reflects the competitive reality of the Australian economy. Many people on both sides of politics have supported this national industrial relations system. This Work Choices legislation will build very strongly on the successful management by the Howard-Costello government of this country’s economy over the past decade. We have performed well, but we can do even better. I have lots more to say, but regrettably I do not have time at this opportunity to express those sentiments. All I want to say is that I reject the second reading amendment moved by the honourable member for Perth and I commend the legislation to the House. I hope that it passes in a speedy way and that it passes in the other place, because the benefits for Australian businesses and workers will be incredibly positive.