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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 35

Mr SLIPPER (11:35 AM) —When one looks at the opinion polls on a regular basis around Australia, it is pretty clear that what the Labor Party is seeking to do under the new Leader of the Opposition is to create a veneer of moderation. The ALP would have us and the community believe that it has set aside its past as the party of the unions, controlled by the unions and a party which legislates for the unions. The shadow minister for transport, roads and tourism is at the table and, in a prior manifestation, he was Australia’s peak trade union leader and I must say that he was somewhat better than some of the others. Having said that, the Labor Party is clearly the party of the unions. The wonderful thing about the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 is that it does give the people of Australia the opportunity to see the Labor Party in its true clothing. The wolf in sheep’s clothing will have its fleece removed and we will see the Labor Party for what it is. The Labor Party cannot help itself in this debate; it must come forward with its ideological bent supporting the growth of trade union power.

What this government has sought to do since 1996 is to bring about an Australian economy that is world class. We have made some essential changes. We appreciated that, as a nation, we could not allow ourselves to fall behind the rest of the world. We have taken some very difficult decisions. We were the first government to reform our outdated and antiquated tax system through the introduction of the GST. We have made sure that we have a much more efficient waterfront. We have moved people from welfare to work. And we have brought about reform of the industrial relations system.

The Labor Party would have us believe that we are a party which is opposed to the rights of ordinary working men and women. When one listens to the speeches made by members of the Australian Labor Party in this place, it is pretty clear that the Labor Party is tired and that it is the same old party it always was. Hopefully this message will get through to the Australian people in the months between now and the election: the Labor Party is the party it always was. It might appear to be more moderate, it might appear to be more financially responsible and it might appear to have put aside the things that caused the Australian people to vote against it for so many years, but the reality is, when one listens to the debate in this bill, that members of the Australian Labor Party are still mouthing the rhetoric, principles and outdated attitudes that historically have highlighted the Labor Party as a party controlled by trade unions. (Quorum formed) I would like to thank my friend the honourable member for Melbourne Ports for gaining a slightly greater, although necessarily temporary, audience for what I was saying: that this debate gives all of us the opportunity to see the Labor Party the way it always has been—the party of the unions, the party controlled by the unions and the party that is dedicated to legislating for the unions.

This government has reformed the industrial relations system but we have carefully monitored the law to make sure that it retains the aims that the legislation had when implemented by the parliament. This industrial relations legislation seeks to bring about increased flexibility. The Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 introduces a new fairness test which will enhance the safety net for over 7½ million Australians making workplace agreements. It will enable employers and employees to modify or exclude protected award conditions, but only where employees are fairly compensated. So this bill is finetuning the legislation which has been carried by the parliament.

I will state some other facts which should allay the concerns expressed by members of the opposition. The fairness test guarantees employees fair compensation in lieu of conditions such as penalty rates, overtime and shift loadings. The stronger safety net provides additional protection to vulnerable employees, including younger people and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds. The bill will guarantee that, when Australian workers enter into a workplace agreement, it will be a fair one that has been approved by an independent statutory authority. This bill is not an about-face by the government; it builds on the very real, meaningful and substantial reforms which we have introduced since 1996 and again more recently last year.

This bill is an important part of an employment system which has reduced unemployment to a rate of 4.4 per cent; in some parts of the country it is even lower. It has created two million jobs, many of which have been full time, over the last 11 years. And it has been responsible for close to 10½ million Australians being in work. The bill will ensure that Australia’s future economic prosperity is bolstered by a flexible and modern industrial relations system.

The honourable members opposite would have us believe that there are inadequate safeguards in this legislation. The honourable member for Gorton, speaking in the House, said that he conceded that the bill, in his view, contained marginal improvements but that it simply did not go far enough. Well, the introduction of the fairness test is accompanied by the establishment of two independent statutory officers, the Workplace Authority director and the Workplace Ombudsman, who will play key roles in making sure that the safety net is maintained for those 7½ million Australians.

The bill will require the Workplace Authority to apply the fairness test to ensure that workplace agreements provide for fair compensation in lieu of protected award conditions such as penalty rates. The ombudsman will guarantee that employers comply with their legal obligations in relation to the fairness test. The ombudsman will strengthen the policing role that has been undertaken by the Office of Workplace Services. The government is providing significant funding to ensure that these functions are well resourced. Most people would concede that that is a very important step.

The opposition would have us believe that common-law contracts are an adequate substitute for Australian workplace agreements. At first hearing, ‘common-law contracts’ sound as though they might be something roughly equivalent to Australian workplace agreements, but the problem is that nothing is further from the truth. I would like to outline to the House what common-law contracts supported by the Labor Party will actually mean. If a worker is covered by an award and employed under a common-law contract, he or she is entitled to be paid in accordance with the award. If hours are worked which entitle the worker to penalty rates under the award, the worker must be paid those penalty rates. This has been the case in Australia for close on a century. It is absolutely false to suggest that a common-law contract provides the flexibility that Australian workplace agreements provide. Under common-law contracts, employers and employees do not have the freedom to enter into their own arrangements, because they are always confined by a rigid award system. This is a classic case of the Australian Labor Party saying to the people of Australia that they support increased flexibility. When one understands the laws underpinning those common-law contracts, it is clear that the flexibility which the ALP would have us believe is there is not actually there. That is why we need the industrial relations changes which have been made by this government and continue to be improved by this government through the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007.

This new industrial relations system brings about more flexibility and convenience for the Australian workforce and reduces the stifling impact of an industrial system which has well and truly passed its use-by date. What might have been suitable during the class warfare battles of the 1890s is certainly not suitable in 2007. The ALP, despite its veneer of moderation, continues to support industrial relations principles which would take Australia back to the industrial dark ages. The coalition government and successive ministers ought to be complimented and commended for taking some difficult decisions, for not just accepting that what was there was good enough and for looking in a visionary way at what Australia needs if we are going to compete with the world. This bill gives the Australian people an insight into the collective mind of the Australian Labor Party. Despite the fact that the Labor Party would have us consider that it is in some way ‘New Australian Labor’, it is ‘Old Australian Labor’. This bill strips away any attempt by the Australian Labor Party to claim that it is a modern party dedicated to a positive prosperity for Australia in the future. (Quorum formed)

Since we seem to be having these constant quorums, I will use the rest of the time, which I was not going to use in this particular debate. The fact that we now have more honourable members in the chamber enables me to reiterate how false the support of the Australian Labor Party for common-law contracts actually is. The ALP would have us believe that those common-law contracts bring about flexibility. The reality is that those common-law contracts do not bring about extra flexibility and the situation is that the unions will still be able to subvert Australian workplaces under these common-law contracts. The Labor Party is hoodwinking the Australian people by failing to properly disclose that common-law employment contracts are incredibly inflexible and give the union movement the ability to smash any stability and consistency that an employer may have to have.

Looking at the pious second reading amendment moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, I see that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition once again appears to be supporting the so-called ‘unfair dismissals law’ that was introduced by the Australian Labor Party in government. I used to be in small business, and many members on this side of the House used to be in small business. Not many members on the other side were ever in small business. But we all understand that employers do not want to lose good employees. Good employees are extraordinarily difficult to come across. Good employees are extraordinarily important to keep as part of your workplace. Why on earth would any employer seek to get rid of a good employee without cause? When we were in opposition, I heard lots of stories from the Sunshine Coast workplaces of ordinary small business people who were prepared to go out there and have a go and to put on extra people to help boost the local economy and to help create jobs. Yet under Labor’s unfair dismissals laws those people were dragged through the tribunals and were dragged through the courts because they had a person on their staff who was destroying their business. Ultimately, what they effectively had to do was write a cheque just to get rid of that person off the books. What we have done through our exemptions for small business is to recognise that we ought to encourage that sector that is the engine room of the Australian economy.

A huge proportion of employment in Australia is created by the small business sector. I think it was Kim Beazley who said at one stage that the Labor Party ‘was not the friend of small business’. In this debate once again we see Labor Party members standing up in the parliament and saying that it is not the friend of small business. If you strangle small business, you strangle the Australian economy. This attitude of the Australian Labor Party and this outdated 1890s industrial system that they seem to want to go back to are simply going to undermine the Australian economy in the unfortunate event that the Australian Labor Party is elected to the treasury bench at the election later this year.

This government has a proud story to tell. Since March 1996, more than two million jobs have been created. Over 1.1 million of the jobs created are full time and almost 900,000 are part time. Since Work Choices came in, 326,200 additional jobs have been created. Since Work Choices came in, 277,200 full-time jobs have been created, accounting for 85 per cent of all jobs created. There are well over 10.4 million Australians in work at the moment—a record high—with 7.4 million in full-time employment and 2.9 million in part-time work. This government has the runs on the board. We have a fair and compassionate industrial relations system. We constantly seek to make sure that our system is up to date for Australia. The Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 is a further tool in the armoury of this government to make sure that we have a world-class industrial relations system that is fair to all Australians. (Time expired)