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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 67

Mr KEENAN (1:48 PM) —It is with great pleasure that I rise to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. It is legislation that will help secure the prosperity of my constituents in Stirling as well as the prosperity of the wider Australian community. The debate around this legislation has allowed both parties in this chamber to show their true colours. We have seen a government that still has the drive to implement reform that benefits the Australian community, a government that pursues the national interest as opposed to vested interests. At the same time, we have seen an opposition that will do and say anything to protect what is always their bottom line, the only thing that this opposition really care about—maintaining the privileged position of the union movement within the Australian industrial relations system. I suppose we should be thankful that they have at least found something that they can all agree on.

I have heard some plainly ridiculous suggestions about the legislation that is before this House, but I was particularly drawn to the opposition’s efforts in question time yesterday. Many members took the opportunity to state their view that this legislation is the culmination of the Prime Minister’s obsession with providing a more competitive industrial relations environment. They accused him of championing this throughout the whole of his public life. Mr Deputy Speaker—guilty. The Prime Minister has championed more industrial relations flexibility for the whole of his political career. The Australian people have known it—they knew it in 1996, they knew it in 1998, they knew it in 2001 and they knew it again in 2004. They know that the Prime Minister stands for a simpler, more productive industrial relations system and that this is absolutely at the heart of his core beliefs.

Perhaps I could take a moment to contrast this with the current Leader of the Opposition. What does the Prime Minister’s determination say about the member for Brand? Twenty-five years in the parliament—and I congratulate him for that—but I could not tell you one thing that he actually stands for. I know what he is against, but I do not know what he stands for. What policies does he champion? If he were Prime Minister, what set of principles would he use to frame public policy? I am a keen follower of Australian politics, but I could not tell you anything about the views of the member for Brand, and that is the tragedy of the modern Labor Party—rudderless, without a guiding set of principles and led by a leader who cannot actually decide why it is that he is in politics.

Because I have limited time I want to address one particular aspect of this bill that is very close to my heart, and that is the unfair dismissal laws that have for over a decade stopped Australians from getting jobs. The fact that we have tried to pass this measure through the parliament on many other occasions but that it has been denied to the Australian people represents a great disconnect that occurs between some in this place and the real world of ordinary Australians, who have been begging for some workplace flexibility and cannot imagine why such sensible measures have never been passed. The unfair dismissal laws, as they exist, stop Australians from getting jobs—it really is as simple as that. How anyone elected to represent their constituents could fail to support measures that contribute to employment truly beggars belief. Yet the Labor Party has voted against our efforts to repeal these laws over 40 times. I listened carefully to the rationale for doing so, which has been outlined many times in this chamber, and it appears to be the Labor Party’s view that the unfair dismissal laws do not hamper employment. But there is overwhelming, independent evidence to the contrary.

Mr Adams —Where?

Mr KEENAN —I am very happy to tell you. The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, in a study published in 2002, estimated that the current unfair dismissal laws cost small business $1.3 billion per year and come at the expense of 77,000 jobs. That is 77,000 people that members opposite are happy to throw on the scrap heap. In a survey conducted by the New South Wales Chamber of Commerce over half the businesses surveyed said the unfair dismissal laws had discouraged them from recruiting new staff. Australian Business Limited found that 84 per cent of small business employers were concerned about the potential for an unfair dismissal action when hiring new staff. Research done in other parts of the country backs this up. Even the Victorian Trades Hall Council found that 39 per cent of respondents believe that unfair dismissal laws have affected their business.

Yet the Labor Party refuse to acknowledge this overwhelming evidence. Instead, they have marched into this chamber and cited out-of-touch professors and even Catholic bishops in support of their case. But none of these, I respectfully suggest, have ever run a small business. Rather than communing with the clergy and academia, Labor members should go and talk to the small businesses in their electorates. They should go down to one of the local thoroughfares and talk to the manager of the cafe, the owner of the local restaurant, the grocer or the newsagent because what they will find is that there is a lot of confusion and fear about employing staff and a concern that you are stuck with staff once you employ them, regardless of how they perform. The intricacies of the current laws are lost on business men and women who do not have the time to study the current legislation. Instead, they do not employ people for fear of falling foul of the complexities inherent in the current regime.

The detailed record keeping and extensive counselling required under the present regime might be good policy in the theoretical world of industrial relations academics, but it totally ignores the real world of individuals and families who are struggling to make a living and cannot afford to waste time on unnecessary bureaucracy. It is not rocket science: the more restrictive you make the legal framework around employment, the more you will reduce the demand for labour. Simple economics tells us that making something more costly to do—in this case employment—will result in an obvious drop in demand. Small businesses do not have a huge amount of time to dispense on human resources. They cannot afford the large human resources departments or the in-house lawyers that are required to negotiate the maze of legislation surrounding industrial law.

Estimates suggest that an unfair dismissal claim costs $3,600 and around 63 hours of management time for a small business to defend. This is time and money that most small businesses can ill afford. There is absolutely no protection for employers to prevent vexatious claims from being made. Disgruntled employees can use the existing provisions to blackmail their former employer, who often finds it easier just to settle the claim rather than spend time and money defending what may be baseless allegations.

There is evidence to suggest that these laws have their worst effect on the long-term unemployed, young job seekers and workers who come from minority groups. Given the perceived risks that would be associated with employing these groups, employers who are confused and fearful of the existing regime will be more likely to take a chance on a less marginalised group. I hear talk from Labor these days about economic credibility, and a new-found sense of responsibility following the experiment of the previous opposition leader. Yet Labor members have, astonishingly, risen to oppose these much-needed reforms.

Although these laws are attractive at face value, you always need to be mindful of the ultimate effects of such legislation. Because these laws have been in place for many years, it is not difficult for any member to be just that, by actually going to talk to the small businesses within their electorates. They would tell them that these oppressive restrictions cost Australians jobs. The knee-jerk reaction of the Labor Party in opposing these measures appears to be rooted in the outdated notions of class warfare, of the employer as the enemy. Labor assumes that businesspeople will unfairly treat their employees if given half a chance. This is a disgraceful slur on hardworking Australian operators of small, medium and large businesses. Anyone who has employed staff knows that letting one of them go is perhaps one of the most horrible tasks that an employer ever has to perform. It is not something that is done lightly and it is always an unpleasant task.

With the limited time I have got left—with the approach of question time—I would like to end my speech where I started, and that is by saying that this Prime Minister has stood for a more flexible industrial relations system for the whole of his public life. This stands in stark contrast to the current Leader of the Opposition. He has a chance in question time to stand up and tell us, after 25 years in public life, something that he actually believes in—a core principle that he would be prepared to defend if he were Prime Minister. He could explain to us the sorts of things that he believes in and the sorts of qualities that he would champion if he were to become Prime Minister. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: the parliament is full—you have an opportunity. You can stand up in question time and tell us one thing that you would do if you were made Prime Minister of this country. Stand up and tell the Australian people what sorts of principles you would use when you were defining public policy.

This side of the House is proud of the record of our Prime Minister in standing for workplace flexibility for the whole of his public life. It is now incumbent upon the Leader of the Opposition to stand up and tell us something that he has stood for for the whole of his public life, and to tell us one thing that he would champion if he were Prime Minister.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being approximately 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.