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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 107

Mr BALDWIN (4:41 PM) —The heart of this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 lies in the ability of our country to build on our strong economy—to create more jobs, to build on productivity levels, to create more national wealth for both employers and employees and to secure a future for our nation that will be prosperous for everyone. As Terry McCrann wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

The Government’s industrial relations reforms are sensible and moderate. They are the minimum necessary for Australia to survive and prosper in the 21st century.

The future prosperity of our nation is exactly why I became interested in politics to begin with. The ‘light on the hill’ had gone out for our nation under the previous Labor government, which left this country with a $96 billion debt, left the economy in tatters and put unemployment into record levels.

Since 1996, this government has worked hard to reduce that debt and bring unemployment down to historically low levels. It has provided the foundation for a strong and secure economy. Unemployment in Paterson, for example, has gone from 10 per cent in March 1996 to 6.2 per cent in June 2005. But we still have much more to do. That is what the Work Choices bill is all about.

The bill contains a range of measures. It will simplify and create a national workplace relations system; create the Australian Fair Pay Commission to set and adjust minimum and award classification wages; enhance compliance with the Workplace Relations Act; enshrine in law minimum conditions of employment; create a greater emphasis on direct bargaining between employers and employees; improve regulation of industrial action while protecting the right to take lawful industrial action; retain a system of awards that will be simplified to ensure that they provide minimum safety net entitlements and protect certain award conditions such as public holidays, rest breaks, incentive based payments and bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift/overtime loadings; preserve specific award conditions such as long service leave, superannuation, jury service and notice of termination for all current and new award reliant employees; and permit other award conditions such as annual leave, personal/carer leave and parental leave to apply to current and new award reliant employees if they are better than the conditions provided in the standard. It will also encourage employers and employees to resolve their disputes without the interference of third parties, by introducing a model dispute settlement procedure.

Local businesses have told me that they want these reforms and Work Choices because they will balance the rights of workers with the rights of employers. They see the current regulations as unfair and unjust. The small businesses in my electorate have put their houses and family savings on the line to build up their businesses and in turn employ people in those businesses. Many of those would only employ a small number of people, but they are the ones taking the major risks to keep their businesses running, to make them grow and to employ local people.

Creating investment opportunities and strengthening the measures that have already been put in place by this government to build a strong and secure economy is what is needed in regional areas like Paterson. We have seen enormous investment in our region—for example, at Newcastle airport Qantas subsidiary Jetstar, through its engineering infrastructure, announced earlier this year a $29 million investment in expanding the facility. The expanded maintenance facility hangar is to support Jetstar’s Airbus A320 fleet and its maintenance needs. At the time, Jetstar employed 25 apprentices out of their total of 82 employees at the airport, but that expansion means an extra 50 jobs over five years, which include the provision of more apprentices rolled out over that period.

As a nation we need to capitalise on our existing economy by putting these reforms into place and to position ourselves to be able to be flexible and compete with other countries. Work Choices is about business and workers working together. I have an example from a Paterson resident, who has experienced negotiations with an employer first-hand. This resident worked for 34 years as a factory employee at Bankstown. In her letter, she wrote:

Allow me to voice my support here for the Government in their reform endeavours and recount what happened between my former union, the Federated Rubber Workers Union, and my 200 fellow factory workers in 1996.

We entered into wages negotiations with our employer and the company said they couldn’t afford the union’s demands.

The union immediately pushed for all workers to strike but the workers rejected this union demand and said they didn’t want to go on strike.

Consequently the 200 employees held a meeting with no representatives of the Rubber Workers Union hierarchy present.

Two delegates representing the workers in each department were elected to negotiate directly with the employer body over wages and conditions. This move was agreed to by the company and negotiations began.

Previously under union demands each wage rise had been brought about with the threat of strike action which did not accomplish anything for the workers except loss of income and a breaking down of harmonious relationships with the bosses.

As a consequence of our elected worker involvement in our own wage negotiations, without the bevy of union heavies being involved, we the workers were threatened with court action by our own union and the company intimidated with threats of black-bans against suppliers of materials to the factory.

Black bans would have seen our production lines already under threat from overseas imports brought to a standstill with the consequence workers being stood down without pay and the factory shut down.

Regardless of the threats, negotiations went ahead and proved fruitful to both parties with rises and pay bigger than that demanded by the union and better conditions to boot.

This resulted in higher production levels and improved standards of workmanship.

As a consequence workers voted to exclude the union from any further future discussions on pay and conditions with our employer.

All conditions affecting worker safety, future wage negotiations, were dealt with directly between employee delegates and the employers management. This occurred in just about all cases in a harmonious and amicable atmosphere.

As you can see, if in 1996 two hundred workers drawn from all ethnic backgrounds could band together and tell the union stand over heavies to rack off, that we would conduct our own negotiations with management, why shouldn’t nine years on this myth of union being the workers friends be laid to rest once and for all time.

This is yet another example of the unions representing the needs of the union officials and not those of the workers. It is no wonder union membership is at an all-time low level of 17 per cent. They still do not understand that it is the workers’ interests they are supposed to be representing, not their own.

This legislation will replace an industrial relations system that was designed over 100 years ago with one simple national workplace relations system. It will remove red tape and the 130 different pieces of industrial legislation and over 4,000 awards currently in Australia across six states. I can give another local example of how these different awards are affecting local people. There was a letter to the editor in this month’s Medowie Murmurs that highlighted how ambulance officers work under different awards. It said:

... in the Ambulance Service, there are Ambo’s working together in the same vehicle doing exactly the same work while being paid under different awards.

Some enjoy the benefits of the Hunter award while others are under the state award. The person under the Hunter Award will receive substantially more pay: a higher loading on Saturdays and Sundays and also receives more annual leave than his/her counterpart on the State Award.

If the ACTU and the ALP were fair dinkum about equality in the workplace and workplace entitlements, they would have corrected these very unfair anomalies long ago.

Frankly, it is not surprising that the vast majority of people have decided to opt out of unions in recent years. The ALP and ACTU have lost their identities and now just resort to political tactics to try to regain their past popularity. All the ALP seems to do is protest against every change the government seeks to introduce without regard to whether it really is in the best interests of the country or the people.

The world has changed and the policies of 20 or more years ago are just not appropriate for the present global economic situation. To follow the archaic philosophies of the ALP is to take a road to economic ruin.

This is an excellent example of how working Australians doing the same job are not properly rewarded for their work under the current arrangements and it is another example of why we need to simplify into one national system. It is not just workers and employees in Paterson who see it; it is also industry groups. The Business Council of Australia says:

We believe workplace reform is a key element in maintaining the economic growth which underpins Australia’s enviable standard of living.

Geoff Dixon, from Qantas, said this last month:

... we welcome the Federal Government’s proposed changes to the industrial relations system. They will give established, successful companies like Qantas greater flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions. Because if we do not, be sure that others will come in and use greenfields costs or foreign structural advantages to devastating effect. Ansett is a stark reminder of what happens to airlines that cannot change.

As I said, the Qantas subsidiary, Jetstar, based in my electorate, is extremely important. If you want to look further afield, the OECD wrote in their economic survey of Australia this year:

Further unfinished business includes harmonisation of federal and state industrial relations and the streamlining of regulations which minimise the incidence of unlawful industrial action.

In the Hunter region the Hunter Business Chamber had this to say in a media release on 2 November:

The Hunter Business Chamber welcomes the tabling of the Federal Government’s new workplace relations legislation which introduces necessary reforms that will ensure workplaces in Australia continue to thrive.

It went on to say:

The legislation delivers significant improvements to existing unfair dismissal laws, draws together over time State and Federal awards and will assist in the reduction of industrial action.

The move to replace six separate systems with one national workplace system, the reforms to be made to the unfair dismissal regime and the greater flexibility this will afford within the workplace are vital for continued business growth.

Unfortunately it is a message that Labor do not want to hear or they have chosen to ignore. Very sadly, they are using the situation of the Boeing workers at Williamtown for political purposes instead of addressing real issues within our economy that are holding back future prosperity.

On the issue of the Boeing workers, it is very disappointing to see Labor and the unions using striking workers as political pawns to turn the dispute into their platform for media exposure. Yesterday both parties were before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission as a result of the AWU’s application to the AIRC for a secret ballot to be taken in relation to the implementation of collective agreements for all workers. The Williamtown site currently employs 87 full-time employees out of a total Boeing work force of 400. All of these employees are on individual common-law contracts. They are located across three sites: Williamtown, Oakey and Amberley. Boeing sent all employees a letter proposing changes and improvements that recently came out of a work force focus group. These proposals were sent to all 400 employees who were on those individual contracts and asked them whether the improvements resolved the issues. They were afforded the opportunity to sign the letter to alter their existing individual contracts whilst, at the same time, the AWU was urging them not to sign the letter. The result was that 93 per cent of the work force signed up.

The work force made a very clear choice. However, 25 of those workers—all at Williamtown—did not accept those proposals and are on strike. At Williamtown, 62 out of the 87 who are currently employed choose to work under the contracts and they cross that picket line every day to attend their employment. The AIRC took submissions from both parties, Boeing and the AWU. The commission recommended that the parties use the opportunity of being at the commission to talk together about their issues. The commissioner recommended the parties arrange for talks today, and the commission facilitated those arrangements. Both parties have agreed to talk. However, I need to make it clear that this dispute has nothing to do with these reforms before the parliament today, despite the gross misinformation that has been put out by the union and Labor members opposite. From my understanding, the union wants to prove that the majority of Boeing aircraft engineers and technicians want a collective agreement, while Boeing says that the 93 per cent of their work force chose individual contracts three months ago and that that should apply.

I sincerely hope that all parties can work together on this dispute and that the union does not use these workers to score cheap political points when, quite clearly, the reforms introduced under this bill have not been put into law so cannot impact on their current dispute. As I said earlier, these reforms are a necessary part of the framework we need to put in place to allow further growth, a flexible market place and a modern economy. They are necessary for small businesses in my electorate to prosper, and they are necessary to keep our nation on track to compete with the rest of the world. I strongly commend this bill to the House.