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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 138

Ms PANOPOULOS (6:47 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is one of the most important pieces of legislation that this parliament will debate. It represents a significant shift that will bring workplaces into the 21st century. But few bills have been misrepresented in the manner that this bill has. Few bills have been subject to the complete misrepresentation that this bill has—in particular, from self-interested bodies like the ACTU, which is diminishing in relevance from year to year. With the successful passage of this legislation, Australia will move from the complex labyrinth of an arthritic and rigid workplace relations system that was more suited to the time of the horse and buggy at Federation. We have moved on now, and there is no reason for there to be 4,000 awards in place and more than 130 pieces of separate industrial relations legislation.

The hysterical reaction from some members opposite has been a disgrace. Some have misled the House: the member for Capricornia did this recently with her incorrect rantings on AWAs—and the member for Bendigo claimed that pensioners would be worse off because the minimum wage would drop. What absolute rot. Let me remind the member for Bendigo and others on the opposite side that it is the Howard government that has ensured that the pension will never dip to below 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings and that the pension is indexed twice a year, in line with inflation.

The ACTU secretary, Sharan Burrow, told her union minions on national television that, for her hysterical advertising campaign, she required:

... a mum or dad of someone who’s been seriously injured or killed. That would be fantastic.

What a repulsive, disgusting thing to say. Here we have the president of the ACTU, a position held in the past by a few members on the other side, wanting to wreak human misery on vulnerable people in our community.

But not to be outdone, the unremarkable Victorian upper house member for Chelsea—whose previous claim to fame was that he missed a division in the Victorian upper house, where the government controls the numbers, meaning that the Labor government could not pass its bill—stated that the Prime Minister wanted to take us down a path where:

... people on picket lines were murdered. Women and children were killed, and that is the road this Prime Minister wants to take us down. It is a disgrace.

No, Mr Smith, you are a disgrace—but a perfect illustration of the quality of members of the Victorian Bracks Labor government.

As the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions, these changes are ‘big but fair’. They are necessary to ensure Australia’s productivity remains high and competitive, to ensure the highest possible living standards for Australian workers. They are necessary to ensure Australia keeps pace with the rest of the world. If we fall back and ignore reform of our industrial relations system, we risk being relegated to the backblocks of the international economy, floundering at the bottom of the ladder like the Hawthorn and Carlton football clubs of the 2005 AFL season, when we should be up there with Sydney and West Coast.

It is worth remembering that some of these reforms have been seminal coalition policy for a decade. For instance, the Howard government has been saying—up hill and down dale, since 1996—that it wants to rid this country of Labor’s ‘unfair’ unfair dismissal laws, which act as a startling impediment to jobs growth in this country, particularly in the area of small business employment. Labor is pretending that Keating’s unfair dismissal laws are some sort of unassailable, unalienable constitutional right of the worker. They have only been in existence since 1993, and the regrettable experiment that these laws have been needs to end—and it will end with the passage of this legislation.

For years, small businesses in my electorate have been pleading for changes to the unfair dismissal laws. Some of them just do not employ additional labour, but work longer hours with members of their family. Others have been unfairly financially burdened by having to pay ‘go away’ money—which is a polite term for that sort of payment—to vexatious former employees.

Some Labor members do know the folly of these laws. The member for Hunter comes to mind as someone who understands the debilitating effect that the current unfair dismissal regime places on small business. The member for Watson has acknowledged their deleterious impact. If only more members on the other side would have the courage to speak up and take the concerns of small business more seriously. But then again, they do have a leader who is on record as saying that the Labor Party never pretended to represent small business.

If we look back a bit further, we see that the notion of a national industrial relations framework garnered wide support from a rather disparate coalition of people. Take this quote:

The opposition supports in principle the concept of a single national system of industrial relations, and it always has. It can deliver benefits to both employees and employers by creating a uniform national framework for dispute resolution and the application of minimum employment standards that can be more easily complied with and enforced.

That was not the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations or the Prime Minister. It was Steve Bracks in 1996. And here is another one:

In a nation of 17 million people struggling to modernise its economy, seven separate systems of industrial regulation is an absurd luxury.

Who said that? It was none other than the former New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr. Both the New South Wales and Victorian governments have now taken out expensive advertising campaigns of their own to complement the misleading ACTU campaign. Talk about hypocrisy! When he was state secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Labor Party, the member for Perth, one of the fierce opponents of the government’s advertising campaign, supported the idea of a government being able to explain its policies. He said: ‘I see nothing wrong with a government explaining its policies to the public through government documents with a foreword by the Premier.’

We cannot talk about these industrial relations changes without mentioning the union movement in Australia. The shift to enterprise bargaining is something the unions have always feared. It is opposed by the union movement and, yes, these changes do impact on the unions. But, like the churches, political parties and other forms of organised associations, the unions have to come to terms with remaining relevant in an age of dwindling adherence to dogmatic capital. In 1976, 51 per cent of the work force were union members. That figure is now about 22 per cent—and in the private sector it is only 17 per cent. People are voting with their feet. The shift towards enterprise bargaining and the fall away from the rigidity of reliance on awards has seen a subsequent increase in wages and productivity.

As a female member of parliament, I was one of those who received an email this week from Eva Cox, imploring me and other coalition women to vote against the IR bills and support women’s equality. This is the same Eva Cox who recently said:

We certainly have more [Australian] women in positions of power than we had, we have more women earning higher incomes and they are better educated.

The member for Fremantle took up the female rights cause in 1996 when speaking in this place on the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. She said:

Whichever way you look at the government’s proposals, they are certain to be very bad news indeed for women …

She also said:

Individual contracts and deregulation in and of themselves have already been shown to be inimical to the interests of women. Women are already amongst the poorest in this community and this will exacerbate it.

More lies from the Labor Party’s hypocritical feminist sisterhood.

Ms George —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The member for Indi has used very offensive and unparliamentary language, and I ask that she withdraw those comments.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The member for Indi should withdraw the word ‘lies’. It was addressed to a group of people, and I have ruled before that a group of members cannot be accused of lying. The member will withdraw the word ‘lies’.

Ms PANOPOULOS —I withdraw the word ‘lies’. The member for Fremantle talked about women being the poorest amongst our committee. She certainly has not had to suffer, particularly when the last bill passed under the last Labor government was to pay for her legal affairs in the disastrous Penny Easton affair. I am sure she has been very well looked after by the Labor Party and the labour movement, so it is quite sad that she has now turned on them in all other policy areas.

Ms George —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The remarks being made about the member for Fremantle are couched in very unparliamentary language and are not acceptable.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Ms PANOPOULOS —The facts are that, since 1996, the number of women in the work force has increased by some 16 per cent, unemployment has fallen considerably over the same period and, whilst you will never hear the ALP or the unions say it, women are increasingly better off when employed under AWAs—so much so that women on AWAs earn 32 per cent more than women on union sanctioned collective agreements. Therefore, the main reason behind the ALP and the union movement’s staunch opposition to AWAs springs not from a benevolent desire to assist the worker but rather from the fact that unions are not involved in the application of AWAs. They are on the other side, on the back foot, dreaming of the prospect of a Beazley Labor government with the ACTU having a few seats at the cabinet table and pulling all the strings in the Labor Party’s closed shop. The fact is that unions are going to have to work a bit harder if they are going to survive and convince employees that it is worthwhile signing up to receive their assistance. Some unions do provide that assistance, but they are definitely in the minority.

These reforms are significant and they are necessary. We are making the choices now to ensure that, in the future, the Australian economy is well suited to compete internationally and that it will have the flexibility in the workplace that our current Australian living conditions and families demand. The government does not shy away from giving greater flexibility to workers and employers. We have stronger faith than the Labor Party has in the ability of Australian workers and their bosses to determine what is right for them and in their best interests. I support this legislation and commend it to the House.