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Thursday, 10 November 2005
Page: 5

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:21 AM) —In summing up, I thank all members for their contributions to this long debate on this important bill, which is about securing the future prosperity of individual Australians and their families. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 will move Australia towards a flexible, simple and fair workplace relations system. The Work Choices bill will modernise Australia’s workplace relations system by encouraging Australians to negotiate their own working arrangements at the workplace level. We on this side of the parliament believe that Australians should be trusted to have the maturity to reach their own mutually beneficial working arrangements.

Australia’s economic prosperity and the living standards of our people depend on the productivity of our workplaces. The government believes that agreement making between Australians at the workplace level will result in higher productivity, lower unemployment than would otherwise occur and increased wages. At the same time as encouraging workplace bargaining, the bill provides for the protection of a guaranteed set of minimum conditions and preserves more generous award conditions and protected conditions during bargaining. This government has ensured that a fair and robust safety net of terms and conditions exist to protect the most vulnerable workers.

During the debate the member for Perth has consistently repeated the tired old mantra that this bill is extreme, unfair and divisive. In fact, the member for Perth has uttered these words no fewer than 46 times in interviews and in this place since the start of this year. While I congratulate the member for Perth for staying on message, I can assure him that the weakness of his argument is not improved by its repetition. As the Prime Minister has said, these are big reforms but they are fair reforms. This is evolutionary, not revolutionary, change.

A number of members of the opposition have made outrageous claims in this place that the bill will increase the gender wage gap, that it will reduce women’s pay and conditions, that it will force women onto individual arrangements or agreements with no family-friendly working arrangements and that it will increase casualisation and reduce incentives for work force participation. Nothing is more important to individual peace of mind, to family security, to vibrant local communities and to national prosperity than reliable employment. The only guarantee of reliable, secure employment is a growing and productive economy. That is the reality that we face in this country: a growing productive economy with workplace laws that encourage employment growth and make it easier for employers and employees to come together and reach agreement in their individual workplaces.

The workplace relations reforms are designed to build on and enhance the protections and flexibilities already provided to Australian workers with family responsibilities. For example, over 70 per cent of Australian workplace agreements contain at least one family-friendly provision and, of these, more than half have three or more such provisions. The strong economic employment and real wage growth that has been achieved in Australia since 1996 has had a very positive impact on Australian family life, something that the opposition will not come to terms with. What the opposition will not come to terms with is that the strength of the Australian economy is what has delivered real benefits to Australian workers and their families. Families have had the security to invest and plan for the future, with higher job security and strong and sustainable increases in wages. There has been an increase of 14.9 per cent in real wages since 1996, something which stands in marked contrast to the 1.2 per cent increase in real wages when the Australian Labor Party was in government for 13 years. That is what Australians know about the record of this government in terms of security for themselves and their families.

Women will continue to be able to access remedies in relation to pay discrimination. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will continue to be able to make orders to ensure equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value in agreements without discrimination based on sex. That is the reality of this legislation. The Fair Pay Commission in exercising its powers is to apply the principle that men and women should receive equal remuneration for work of equal value. It must also take into account the principles embodied in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and ensure that its decisions do not contain provisions that discriminate on the grounds of sex, marital status, family responsibilities or pregnancy, amongst other grounds. The Fair Pay Commission must also take into account the principles embodied in the Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention. So that claim is simply without foundation.

Another claim made by opposition members during this debate—by the member for Lilley—was that workers would lose up to $234 per month. This outrageous claim is based on the presumption that employees will lose their penalty rates and shift loadings under Work Choices. This is a purposefully misleading claim. Work Choices will protect penalty rates and shift loadings in awards when new workplace agreements are negotiated. The claim is also based on the false premise that Work Choices reforms will lead to a reduction in average weekly earnings. However, the aim of these reforms is the opposite—that is, to boost wages in Australia. In fact, a central feature of the Work Choices reforms is to make negotiations on agreement making between employers and employees significantly easier. The evidence shows that growth in agreement making will have a positive impact on wages as workers on agreements currently earn considerably more than workers on awards.

The best guarantee that the government can give in relation to real wages is its record. Since March 1996 real wages in Australia have increased by 14.9 per cent in comparison with just 1.2 per cent under 13 years of the Labor Party. The reality is that the Labor Party is the party that has boasted in the past about driving down wages in Australia. We have not boasted about driving down wages; what we boast about is increasing wages for Australian workers. These are nonsensical claims which have been made by the Australian Labor Party.

We know the Labor Party does not represent small business in this place—it has said so itself—but anybody who does take a passing interest in the small business sector will know that unfair dismissal laws act as a clear brake on employment. The unfair dismissal laws are Paul Keating’s failed social experiment, which has subjected small and medium business to a culture of complaint and litigation which acts as a direct disincentive for business to employ more staff.

There is not just anecdotal evidence about this; there are numerous empirical studies which show that the current unfair dismissal system is bad for business. For example, Benoit Freyens and Paul Oslington have found that the average cost of contested dismissals can reach almost $15,000 or 35.7 per cent of annual wages costs. That is the average cost of unfair dismissal in Australia. That is what the opposition is defending at the present time.

The August 2005 edition of the census business index survey found that 28 per cent of employers had not hired additional employees, due to fear of action under the unfair dismissal legislation. That is the reality in the small business world in Australia. If the opposition even pretended to represent small business then it would know that these are the facts that are facing small businesses throughout this country. Finally, the OECD has found that strict employment protection legislation, which includes unfair dismissal legislation, protects existing jobs at the expense of more disadvantaged workers, including the unemployed.

Mr Albanese —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Given that the minister is exercising his right of reply in the wind-up to this debate, I wonder how he can have that right when 20 members on this side, including me, have not had an opportunity to participate in this debate.

The SPEAKER —The minister is in order.

Mr ANDREWS —Maybe the member for Grayndler was not in the chamber earlier when the Leader of the House pointed out that this has been the second-longest debate in the last 10 years in this place. It is a debate that went on much longer than, for example, the debate on native title legislation, when the opposition was in government.

I will continue. The key point about this is that throughout this debate it has been quite clear that there is no regard whatsoever by members of the Australian Labor Party for the unemployed in Australia. That is the reality. The exemption will allow smaller businesses to grow into larger ones without the threat of unfair dismissal laws affecting them. Labor’s continued opposition to reforming unfair dismissal laws shows that it is totally uninterested in, and disconnected from, the issues that affect small business in Australia.

In closing, let me say that the government stands firmly behind this bill. The provisions in this bill represent an evolutionary process in Australian workplace relations and will prepare Australia for the challenges of the future rather than relying on the complexities and inefficiencies of the past. This bill will help to establish what any modern economy needs in the 21st century—that is, a single national system of workplace relations, which will improve Australia’s productivity and maintain fair minimum protections for workers.

These reforms are comprehensive and necessary. They are moving Australia away from an outdated workplace relations system to one that suits the needs of a modern, productive economy. It is a system that will give this country and the people of this country the best chance of continued prosperity in the future. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Stephen Smith’s amendment) stand part of the question.