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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 151

Mrs ELSON (7:45 PM) —I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to the debate on this very important piece of legislation. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 builds on the substantial reforms that have been introduced by our government since 1996. It moves to establish a single national system of workplace relations with the establishment of the Australian Fair Pay Commission. It sets in place the Australian fair pay and conditions standard that will protect minimum wages. It will protect annual leave and it will protect parental leave. It will also protect personal leave and the 38-hour working week. So I can assure the member for Shortland that she can tell her constituents that they have nothing to worry about.

This legislation sets in place protected award conditions that must form part of any bargaining process, such as public holidays, rest breaks, incentive based payments and bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and overtime loadings. This legislation simplifies the agreement-making process. It opens the path to more suitable dispute resolutions. It provides for protection against unlawful termination. Most importantly, it sets in place a fairer unfair dismissal system—one that does not discourage employers from hiring new staff, one that does not allow for frivolous claims and one that does not do damage to our economy and hamper job creation.

Let us be clear about this: this legislation is firmly aimed at improving working conditions for Australian men and women. It is about creating a flexible system that will meet the needs of all Australians as well as challenges for the 21st century. It is about a system that strongly adheres to the values of a fair go for all and it retains the important conditions that we have worked hard to secure over the years while jettisoning some of the antiquated aspects of the system that are clearly holding us back.

I want to state my support for this legislation, and I want to state that support in the context of my strong working class origins. I have always been what those opposite would call a battler. I realise that it is a term that is often bandied around this House very loosely, but I really mean it in a traditional sense. I was one of nine children. I left school at 13½ to work in a factory to help support the family. I have had a range of real jobs in retail, in running my own business and in fundraising for the disabled. I have raised eight children in very difficult times under Labor. I have had second and third mortgages to keep my house and family home. I have not come to this place with the privileges and comfortable upbringing of those opposite.

I say all of this for no other reason than the fact that Labor and the unions are once again trying to turn this important policy debate into some kind of class warfare battleground. They have made some utterly outrageous allegations, some utterly baseless claims, and it is all in the name of unions retaining their power and Labor desperately trying to gain power. The implication is that the government do not care about workers, that they do not understand the struggles of Australian workers and that all bosses are cruel and heartless and are only concerned about the bottom line. This implication is so far removed from reality, it is truly laughable.

As the Prime Minister has said many times in this place, this government has been the best friend Australian workers have ever had. Under the Howard government real wages have risen, living standards continue to rise and interest rates have remained low, which helps to relieve pressure on the family budget. Equally important, though, is that we have given more people the chance to be a worker by helping the economy grow and businesses create well over a million new jobs. Unemployment in the electorate of Forde has dropped to five per cent, the best figure for the past 20 years. This is an important point: we have helped more people become workers. If the trade unions had real relevance, or served a genuine purpose in the workplace, they should have been able to increase their membership rather than have it continuing to fall.

We can contrast all of this with Labor’s effort the last time they were in office. We should all keep this uppermost in our minds. We had record high unemployment, record high interest rates, living standards falling and real wages decreasing—yet, at every turn, they opposed the things we have done to create a strong economy and give people a better lifestyle. Labor opposed tax reform and they made many outrageous claims about how it would impact on people. They ran around, in what became their signature Henny Penny style, telling everyone that the sky was about to fall—life would never be the same, our country would be ruined, our economy would be devastated, our unemployment would increase and people across the nation would be worse off. But tax reform, including cutting income tax and abolishing a raft of Labor’s hidden taxes, has been introduced and implemented. The funny thing is that none of Labor’s dire predictions have come true—not one. Life went on in a manner now expected by the Australian people: unemployment decreased, the economy continued to grow strongly and consumer spending continued to reflect the Australian people’s optimism.

With this legislation Labor and the unions are trying to do the exact same thing: they are trying to scare the Australian people into believing that the sky is about to fall. Kim Beazley has even compared these reforms with terrorism, saying that they were a massive threat to civil liberties—greater than the government’s antiterrorism laws. Then of course there were all those Labor people and the Greens—those conspiracy theorists—who said that the Prime Minister was merely trying to deflect interest in the legislation by making the announcement that he did last week and rushing the changes to our antiterrorism laws that yesterday helped facilitate the arrest of 17 people suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. We all agree on this side that that is quite frankly beyond the pale. That is the worst form of playing politics with a serious national issue. Believe me, the Australian people will remember this.

But such is the hysteria that Labor and the unions have sought to create in relation to these reforms. Greg Combet said on 3 November that all employees will lose their unfair dismissal protection if their employer claims to have made an operational change. The fact is that this is not true. The employee still has the right to make an unfair dismissal claim and the Industrial Relations Commission would determine whether the employer had made a strong enough case that the dismissal was for genuine operational reasons.

It is simply ridiculous to assert, as Kim Beazley did the very same day, that the boss could use the operational reasons claim to sack someone who refused to buy his lunch. The Industrial Relations Commission would never buy that; it just would not happen. On the very same day, Simon Crean said it would be—

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Forde will refer to members by their title or their office.

Mrs ELSON —a case of taking the AWA or the sack, when that member knows full well that, under section 170CK(2G) of the act, it will continue to be unlawful to sack an employee for refusing to agree to an AWA, just as it will be unlawful to apply duress to an employee in connection with an AWA. Many of the ‘maybes’ that Labor and the unions are trying to scare people with are possible now under the current system. They are not being altered by the legislation; they already exist. The fact is that, in most workplaces, it is not a case of them and us. Most employers see employees as a critical, important part of their business—as an asset. In many cases, they know them well and they plan to keep them by treating them fairly.

It makes no sense, especially in today’s competitive marketplace, to drive away decent employees. The cost of hiring and retraining is considerable. Most businesspeople just want to get on with their business, and they are not into power games or political struggles. It is not about the workers for unions; it is about their own jobs and keeping hold of the little power they have these days. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to doing the right thing by all Australians, especially the decent, hardworking men and women in the Australian work force. I know that time is precious in this debate, so I will conclude now. The Australian people have waited long enough and they deserve a first-rate industrial relations system that will truly meet their needs now and into the future. I am pleased to strongly support this legislation, and I commend it to the House.