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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 124


Mrs DRAPER (5:44 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. This bill will amend the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to create a more flexible, simpler and fairer system of workplace relations for Australia. The bill will carry forward the evolution of Australia’s workplace relations system to improve productivity; increase wages—not decrease wages; balance work and family life—not destroy work and family life; and reduce unemployment—not increase unemployment, as the opposition, the Labor Party, claim.

In the past 9½ years, Australians have witnessed the benefit of a strong national economy, one of the strongest in the developed world. Credit for our strong economy must go to the Treasurer, the Hon. Peter Costello. It has been during these years that real wages for ordinary working men and women have increased by 14.9 per cent, compared to a 1.2 per cent increase by the previous Labor government during their 13 years at the helm. It has been during these years that the unemployment rate has decreased to the lowest level in 30 years and over 1.7 million new jobs have been created. And it has been during these years that industrial disputes have decreased to their lowest levels since 1913, when records were first kept.

We know the opposition believe that the industrial relations fairy fixed all of this in 1996, but the truth of the matter is that these achievements can be attributed to another great event in 1996: the election of the Howard government. These achievements are the achievements of this government, through its partial deregulation of the workplace relations system in 1996 and its strong economic focus. Now is the time to secure the future prosperity of the workers of Australia and their families because, despite this government’s partial deregulation in 1996, Australia’s workplace relations system is still crippled by the complex, inflexible, operationally detailed award system and the confusing red tape associated with it.

The bill will simplify the complexity inherent in the existence of six workplace relations jurisdictions in Australia by creating a national workplace relations system, based on the corporations power, which will apply to a majority of Australia’s employers and employees. Work Choices is about simplifying our workplace relations system. It is about cutting red tape. It is about modernising the way in which employers and employees relate to one another. It is also about choice and flexibility. It is about fairness. But, most of all, Work Choices is about securing the future prosperity of the workers of Australia and the national economy. This is evolutionary economic reform the Australian way, in a manner that advances prosperity and fairness together. As the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions, these are big reforms but they are fair reforms.

The government will establish an independent body called the Australian Fair Pay Commission to set and adjust minimum award classification wages; minimum wages for juniors, trainees, apprentices and employees with disabilities; minimum wages for pieceworkers; and casual loadings. As the Prime Minister, the Hon. John Howard, has stated on many occasions, no system of industrial regulation can protect jobs and support high wages if our economy is not strong and productive. This is the central lesson of 100 years of industrial relations history in Australia. It is the bitter lesson of Labor’s recession in the early 1990s, the recession we had to have, with 17 per cent interest rates and over a million unemployed—and let us not forget the l-a-w law tax cuts that never happened. It is the lesson that the Labor Party refuses to learn. The key to advancing prosperity and fairness together is higher productivity. When productivity is higher, the whole economic pie is bigger. Individuals and families benefit from more jobs, more competition and higher living standards.

One of the central focuses of Work Choices is to encourage the further adoption of workplace agreements in order to lift productivity and hence the living standards of working Australians. It is not by chance that those industries that have the most workplace flexibility also enjoy the highest productivity growth and the highest wages. We need more choice and flexibility for both employers and employees so that we can reward effort, work smarter and find the right balance between work and family life.

At present, Australia’s workplace relations system is comprised of six different systems, 130 different pieces of employment related legislation and more than 4,000 awards. This tangle of regulation creates enormous cost and complexity for employers and employees alike and is hindering flexibility and choice. This hindrance is bad for business. It costs jobs and it is holding Australia back. Work Choices removes this hindrance and enhances both flexibility and choice by creating a single national system. We live in an integrated national economy. Why would we not want to work in one?

Work Choices will establish a body called the Australian Fair Pay Commission to, as I said earlier, set and adjust minimum award classification wages; wages for juniors, trainees and apprentices; and wages for employees with disabilities. The Fair Pay Commission will include members who have experience in business, community organisations, workplace relations and economics and will make the wage-setting process simpler, fairer and holistic.

Along with wages set by the Fair Pay Commission, the Work Choices legislation enshrines minimum conditions of employment through the establishment of the Australian fair pay and conditions standard. The standard will apply to employees in the national system and will include the 38-hour week, four weeks guaranteed annual leave and personal and carers leave, including sick leave and parental leave, but provides that, where existing award conditions are more generous than the fair pay and conditions standard, the award provisions will apply. Work Choices will preserve award conditions.


Mr Kerr —Unless you trade them away.


Mrs DRAPER —No. As I have just said, Work Choices will preserve award conditions such as long service leave, superannuation, jury service and notice of termination. But it will not require these conditions to be included in the new awards, because they are already protected by specific legislation.

Work Choices will also protect certain other award conditions—for example, public holidays; rest breaks, including meal breaks; incentive based payments and bonuses; annual leave loadings; allowances; penalty rates; and shift and overtime loadings. These provisions are protected and can only be modified by specific provision in a new agreement. If these entitlements are not mentioned in an agreement, the award provisions will continue to operate.

Work Choices is a comprehensive policy that will make Australia’s workplace relations system simpler and fairer. It will stimulate economic growth, increase productivity and benefit all Australians, their families and their living standards. It has support from some of Australia’s most recognised employers, including the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and Woolworths. Business groups, such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Business Ltd, the Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Group, the Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Association and Business SA, have endorsed the reforms. Independent experts, including the IMF, the OECD and the Reserve Bank, have stressed the importance of further reform. If Australia wants to remain a leading world economy, it has to move forward.

There has been much criticism of our Prime Minister by the opposition, particularly in relation to unfair dismissal laws—that he has wanted these reforms for 20 years. So he has and for good reason. All small businesses have wanted the same reforms for 20 years. Perhaps I can add: so has my father, who has been a sole trader and, at the age of 75, still works six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. He would dearly have loved to employ a couple of apprentices or other mechanics in his small business, but he could not take the risk because he could not wear the costs of an unfair dismissal claim. Once this legislation is passed, all small businesses in Australia will have the opportunity to take on an employee or an apprentice, if they so choose.

Today, all that stands in the way of further prosperity for the working men and women of Australia is the Australian Labor Party and opposition members, who, on economic matters, are led blind by the union movement, like a flock of sheep following their shepherd. But even the ACTU was right about one thing: this government, under John Howard, has been the best friend of Australian workers. These reforms will ensure that this remains the case.

I congratulate the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Hon. Kevin Andrews, for his work. I also congratulate the Prime Minister for his tenacity in this area and for having the confidence of the people of Australia such that they voted us a majority in the Senate so that we can pass this legislation. I commend the bill to the House.