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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 131


Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (6:16 PM) —I think it was Gerard Henderson who first identified the industrial relations club as a club where insiders practised an arcane science that was quite unfamiliar to the rest of the people, particularly those who were subject to their deliberations. For two decades now we have been looking forward to the day when industrial relations could become comprehensible to ordinary folk. What the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 does is reduce 2,000 pages of state and federal legislation to 700 pages—and, of those 700 pages, 200 pages are transitional provisions. So it is a tremendous reduction in the amount of black-letter law that is going to be applicable to how people are able to negotiate situations in the workplace that are suitable for them.

I listened with interest to some speakers in the course of the debate—not all, I have to say. What I really hear being argued is a case for, ‘Please leave it all in place, because it’s ours; we know how to play the game and we don’t want any change.’ It really is a plea to leave in place the old industrial relations club and to leave in place trade unions, which are an enormous source of money for the Labor Party, which is their political wing—$47 million has been paid since 1995-96 from trade unions to the Labor Party for the purposes of fighting elections and protecting that base.

If you look at the make-up of the people who form the members of the Labor Party in the opposition, you will see that something like 50 per cent of them have a trade union background. Similar statistics apply to the people who sit on the front bench. I hear almost a bleat coming from the opposition. If we see the passage of this legislation, and its bedding down and functioning well, that 17 per cent of people in the private sector who choose to belong to trade unions may become even less. If that is the case, the amount of money that will flow into the ALP’s coffers will decline. So there is very much a self-interest in all the arguments that come from the opposition to defend the status quo.

But I think it is relevant to look at the history of the opposition since we came into office. Let us look first at a quote from the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, in 1996, very early in the term of this government. He predicted that the Workplace Relations Act—that is, the one we have been living with for nearly a decade now—would turn Australia into a ‘low-wage, low productivity industrial wasteland’. What has the reality been? We have created 1.7 million new jobs. Of those 1.7 million new jobs, 900,000 have been full time and 800,000 have been part time. What was the outcome of a totally regulated system that the Labor Party had in place during their 13 years in office? Aside from the fact that we had a boom-bust cycle and an enormous depression in the early 1990s—where, because of the mismanagement of the economy, firms that would normally have survived a correction in the marketplace perished under that hideous interest rate regime that was imposed by former Prime Minister Keating—during their period of tenure, over 13 years as distinct from over nine, they created 707,000 jobs, of which only 188,000 were full-time jobs.

So you get an outcome that says that, if you have a totally regulated system, you get a smaller number of jobs created and you get a recession—which we had in the middle of it, where the recovery rate for new jobs was far slower than the loss rate of jobs that went during that depressed period—versus the beginning of a freed-up workplace and a freed-up economy, which has generated the greatest number of people we have ever had in employment. We now have more than 10 million people in employment. We have more women in employment than we have ever had before. There are more women participating, using the skills that this country has enabled women to have. There has been a huge investment made in us, in that we have been able to acquire good educations and we are able to use those skills that we have acquired, and in a way we give a dividend to the nation because our skills are being used.

At the same time, we have seen a nearly 15 per cent growth in wages; whereas under Labor we saw a minimal growth in wages. Indeed, we saw Labor Party people say that they were proud of the fact that they had suppressed wages, which allowed greater profits to be made. Let us see what some of the activists who are still playing in the game had to say as well. Just prior to the 1996 election, in October 1995, Stephen Smith, the member for Perth said:

The Howard model is quite simple. It is all about lower wages; it is about worse conditions; it is about a massive rise in industrial disputation; it is about the abolition of safety nets; and it is about pushing down or abolishing minimum standards. As a worker, you may have lots of doubts about the things that you might lose, but you can be absolutely sure of one thing: John Howard will reduce your living standards.

Let us take them one by one. Wages have risen; they have not gone down. Conditions have not worsened. ‘A massive rise in industrial disputation’ did not happen; it lessened. ‘It is about the abolition of safety nets’: safety nets are still in place. ‘It is about pushing down or abolishing minimum standards’: it was not; they have not been abolished. ‘As a worker you have lots of doubts about the things that you might lose, but you can be absolutely sure of one thing: John Howard will reduce your living standards’: he has not; they have risen.

All the dire predictions that were made about the first tranche of our industrial relations reforms have been borne out to be incorrect. The peddlers of fear—that damnation was nigh—have all been proven to be wrong. Now we are seeing a huge step forward which will successfully reduce the complexity, the arcane science, the mystery and the volumes of pages of minute conditions that have to be followed under the award structure to something that people can comprehend and honestly negotiate upon.

Unions will not be abolished; they will still have a role to play. However, I repeat: the main problem that will lie for the Labor Party is that, if people see that they do not need to continue to belong to a union, the revenue that flows to the Labor Party may well drop. I can see that that is a real concern for the Labor Party, particularly as they have now sold Centenary House which, in the last years of that lease, would have produced $8 million a year for them. Nonetheless, they realised the capital gain. It cost $17 million to build and it realised $35 million on sale because of the value of the lease attached to it.

Just on Centenary House, I have asked the Audit Office to look at it to ensure, should the Auditor-General continue as a tenant after the cessation of the lease, that holding over provisions would not be on the same terms and conditions as the lease. That is very important, because the amount of money that is spent by the Audit Office on rent is practically greater than the money it spends on doing its job.

Back to this bill. I concede that the bill may well have a real effect on the cash flow into Labor Party coffers, but it will also have a very good outcome on the cash flow into workers’ pockets. Workers’ pockets are the ones that this government cares about. By having a freed up labour market, more and more people will have jobs and be part of the pride of working. There will be fewer families where there is no job—no breadwinner; merely welfare. Those are the aims. No better gift of independence can be given to an individual Australian than the right to work and to support themselves and their family. This workplace reform is about seeing a new horizon—about seeing new hopes and aspirations. It is about getting rid of the arcane science and the IR club for the insiders and seeing opportunities open up for people who have been denied the opportunity to participate. It is a pretty good aim.

When the opposition tried to hold up the introduction of the bill, I think John Howard said he had been waiting 20 years so he could wait another 15 minutes. The fact of the matter is the country has been waiting for decades, and it will finally get to see a freed up system where individuals will prosper.