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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 146

Mr VASTA (7:18 PM) —I rise to speak tonight about the position that I maintain regarding this government’s industrial relations reform. Bonner is Queensland’s most marginal seat and, as a result, the electorate has been targeted in the debate over this issue by both the Queensland unions and the media. I understand the sensitivity of this issue. However, let me be clear in saying that I make no hesitation in confirming my strong support for the proposed workplace reforms. Furthermore, I make clear my intention to vote for the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, which has been set before the House, and I will remain firm on this decision.

Since the introduction of the proposed reforms, my electorate office has been the target of several union protests. Threats have been made by union officials that they will ‘doorknock every house in the electorate’ until the Bonner constituency understands the union’s view on the matter. Politics, however, is not about polling the electorate on each current issue and then trying to vote accordingly. I have been elected as the federal representative for Bonner and with this position comes a duty to consider what is in the very best long-term interests of both the electorate and Australians throughout this country. It is about weighing up the factors involved in each issue and deciding on what will deliver the best possible outcomes for the people that I represent.

I have carefully considered the reforms that the government has proposed and, in doing so, I have also considered the following three points: firstly, the opinions that have been expressed by various constituents, community organisations and small businesses in the electorate; secondly, the current workplace relations system and the position this country and its workers and employers would find themselves in if this system were to be maintained for the next 10 years; and, thirdly, my own experiences as both an employee and a former small business owner, employing at one time over 60 staff. It has been through these considerations that I have come to the conclusion that the industrial relations reforms are in the national interest and will ultimately benefit Australian workers, employees and small business.

Consequently, I will be voting for this bill in full confidence. Given the current climate of objection to proposed changes, this is a tough decision but one that I will not back down on. I will be judged on account of the stand that I have taken. However, I have absolutely no doubt that history will ultimately show that it took a strong government under the leadership of a strong Prime Minister to deliver the benefits of a reformed industrial relations system. Australia cannot stand still. This government is looking to the future and making tough decisions about what changes are needed now to secure long-term benefits for the country and its people.

On Friday, 4 November, an article appeared in the Courier-Mail entitled ‘Planned workplace change is music to his ears’. It told the story of Allan Todd, owner of Todds HiFi chain in Brisbane, and his plans to fully embrace the proposed changes. With a store in the Bonner suburb of Tingalpa, Mr Todd shares the views of other business owners in the electorate who believe that the reforms are overdue. Mr Todd is correct in saying that the industrial relations changes seem to have attracted the same unfounded fear that surrounded the introduction of the GST. He is a business owner who understands that the current workplace system is far too ambiguous and, therefore, needs to move towards a simpler single national system.

Not only will small business benefit from these changes but also workers can rest assured that they will be better off under the Work Choices system because it will preserve existing protections in the current system while making it easier for workers to be rewarded for their work with higher pay and more flexible working arrangements. The previous one-size-fits-all award system failed Australian workers. It did nothing to prevent one million Australians from becoming unemployed in the early-nineties recession. Most employees are likely to find that their existing awards and agreements will remain in place and not be affected. There is no obligation to switch to new agreements and, for those who do, it will be unlawful for any employer to force an employee onto a new agreement against their will.

It should not be forgotten that the exact same predictions of doom and gloom were made when the Howard government’s first workplace relations reforms were implemented in 1996. Back then, Kim Beazley predicted lower wages, social division and more industrial disputes. In contrast, real wages have risen by 14.9 per cent since 1996 compared with 1.2 per cent between 1983 and 1996. In addition, unemployment is at a 29-year low and industrial disputes have fallen to the lowest levels ever recorded.

Ultimately, the key factor in workers being better off is a healthy economy. The new workplace relations system will help to ensure that the economy remains healthy, and it should be viewed as a blueprint for positive change and progression over the next five or more years.