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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 99


Mr BARTLETT (4:38 PM) —I rise to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. It enhances and strengthens the safety net for Australian workers. The central feature of this legislation is the fairness test, which guarantees that when workers enter into a workplace agreement it will be a fair one. It will guarantee that any protective conditions traded off will have been fully and fairly compensated, as they usually are, in higher wages. This will be examined by and will need to be approved by an independent statutory authority, the Workplace Authority. Further, the Workplace Authority will ensure compensation in any case where an AWA is not deemed to be fair and will require changes to agreements to ensure that they are. The work of the Workplace Authority will be backed up by the Workplace Ombudsman—if you like, a workers’ watchdog—also appointed by the Governor-General. This is in contrast with Labor’s proposed Fair Work Australia, which would be manned by the unions, run by the unions and operated for the unions.

This legislation will ensure the best of both worlds. Firstly, it will ensure strong protection for workers to ensure a fair deal, to ensure that they are no worse off under any agreement; and, secondly, it will ensure a continuation of the flexibility of Australian workplace agreements, which have delivered productivity increases and pay rises and which have allowed workers and employers to negotiate mutually agreeable arrangements that suit their own family needs, study needs et cetera.

It is worth pointing out—and these are not my statistics but the statistics of the Australian Bureau of Statistics—that people on AWAs are earning, on average, nine per cent more than people on collective agreements, and a massive 94 per cent more than people on awards. This legislation provides protection but still allows the flexibility that has increased productivity, will continue to increase productivity and will ensure those ongoing pay rises.

It is also worth pointing out the record and comparing it with the claims and the scaremongering that we heard from the Labor Party and the union movement 18 months ago when this legislation was introduced. First of all, they said that, by ending the unfair dismissal laws, we would see mass dismissals, that there would be rising unemployment and that workers would be put off just at the whim of employers. The member for Rankin might not agree, but that was clearly the message from the opposition and from the trade union movement.

What have been the results in the past 15 months? The results are an absolute denial of the claims that we heard from those opposite. Since March last year, 326,000 new jobs have been created. Ninety per cent of those are full-time jobs, thus ending the casualisation of the workforce that had been going on for some time. Unemployment is down to its lowest level in 33 years, down to 4.4 per cent, building on the improvements that we have already seen over the past 10 years following the first round of workplace relations changes introduced by this government in 1997—changes that have reduced unemployment, dramatically reduced youth unemployment and lowered the ranks of the long-term unemployed. So much for the scare campaign from those opposite that we would see rising unemployment. We have welcome low levels of unemployment not seen for at least 33 years in this country.

The second nonsense we heard from the other side was that wages would be driven down; that, supposedly, the aim of this legislation was to drive down wages. What has happened? Again, the very opposite. In the last year, wages have risen by 4.1 per cent on average and real wages are up by 1.5 per cent. Compare the record of the Howard government with the record of the Labor Party that is supposed to be the workers’ friend. In the last 11 years under the Howard government, we have had real average wages rise by 19.8 per cent. What did we have under Labor? We actually had a fall in real wages in the 13 years of Labor—and Labor proudly boasted that they would drive down wages. It could not be a clearer contrast: Labor drove wages down; this government has lifted wages in real terms by 19.8 per cent, faster than inflation.

The other aspect of the scaremongering we heard was that the Fair Pay Commission would somehow erode the wages of workers. What was the first decision by the Fair Pay Commission late last year? A rise in the minimum wage of $27 a week, a rise that stunned even the Labor Party and the ACTU because of its magnitude.


Mr Bevis —To cover 18 months, not 12. Why don’t you tell the truth?


Mr BARTLETT —It was a substantial rise that embarrasses the member for Brisbane—which is why he feels compelled to interject—a wage rise far greater than under Labor. Labor actually eroded minimum wages in real terms in the 13 years they were in office.

The third assertion that we heard from the other side was that there would be widespread industrial unrest, that there would be chaos in the workplace. What have we had instead? We have had the lowest level of industrial disputation since records were kept, since 1913. I see the Chief Opposition Whip coming into the chamber, I dare say, to instruct his colleagues to call a quorum here. So what have we seen? We have experienced the lowest level of industrial disputation since records were kept, in almost 100 years.

The point is this: the government’s workplace policies have been delivering for the Australian people. They have been delivering more jobs, higher wages and industrial harmony. Yet Labor want to roll back these reforms. They want to reverse the changes that are generating more jobs. They want to reverse the changes that are generating higher wages and building industrial harmony. The question has to be asked: why? Why do they want to do this? The answer has to be obvious: they are at the beck and call of their union masters. He who pays the piper calls the tune and that is obviously what is happening.

When Labor’s industrial relations policy started to unravel, we heard the astonishing revelation by the Leader of the Opposition that he had left the details of the policy to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Lalor, who had built up this confected policy with the help of Greg Combet. The Leader of the Opposition had left Labor’s IR policy to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition who had left it in turn to Greg Combet of the ACTU.

Why do Labor want to roll back these changes? Because their union bosses are telling them to. They want to roll back AWAs and replace them with common-law contracts. Currently, 747,000 Australians, some 8.4 per cent of the workforce, are on Australian workplace agreements and, as I said, they are earning far more than people on awards and earning significantly more even than people on other agreements. Yet Labor want to roll these back, cut these out, therefore reducing wages and in the process creating havoc in the workplace. They would thereby dramatically reduce productivity, especially in the mining industry. We have seen the Australian Mines and Metals Association estimate a reduction of $6 billion in the income of the minerals sector in Australia if AWAs are removed. So we will see lower productivity, lower exports, lower wages and fewer jobs.

This is probably why the Western Australian Premier, Mr Carpenter, said that in the resources sector we need to understand that flexibility, balance and fairness are critical and are being offered to people currently. He was told not to endorse AWAs and obviously therefore did not, but he said that the current flexibility—that is, the flexibility currently being delivered by Australian workplace agreements—ought to be retained because it is delivering productivity, jobs and higher wages in the mineral industry. Labor know this and therefore the only conclusion could be that their attempt to substitute AWAs with common-law contracts is somehow an attempt to try to walk both sides of the street, pretend that they are interested in labour market flexibility, pretend that they want to generate some sort of productivity, but still keep their union masters on side. The two differences, clearly, between AWAs and common-law contracts are that common-law contracts are really a Clayton’s AWA that will not provide the flexibility and the productivity increases that are needed not only in the mineral industry but throughout industry generally. Secondly, and it is a point that ought to be noted, common-law contracts that Labor want to introduce in place of AWAs are not subject to the fairness test to which we would be subjecting AWAs. So what they are proposing is a nonsense.

In the remaining time I want to outline some of my other concerns with the Labor Party’s supposed industrial relations policy, although it is a bit hard to get a handle on it because it changes every second day. Their Forward with fairness publication says on page 14:

Under Labor’s system, bargaining participants will be free to reach agreement on whatever matters suit them.

One wonders what that includes. It clearly was intended initially at least to include bargaining fees for non-union members—admitted by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in her interview with Neil Mitchell of 3AW on 1 May, later retracted under pressure just to keep things looking good. No doubt it will be reintroduced should Labor win the election. They would re-introduce bargaining fees for non-union members—that is, if you are not a member of a union and union members somehow secure a pay rise, you will be forced to pay the bargaining fee, which from past practice seems to be higher than union membership, therefore coercing or enticing people into joining a union. So we will have bargaining fees, de facto compulsory unionism and we will have ‘no ticket, no start’ again. We will have the right of unions to write whatever matter suits them into a workplace agreement, including things like paid leave to attend union meetings and training sessions and unlimited right of entry by union officials.

It will be open slather for union officials to come into the workplace and, what is more, not only to come into the workplace but under the supposed good-faith bargaining introduce ambit claims and therefore access to the books of small businesses to see if those ambit claims are reasonable. You could have a union delegate coming into a workplace and putting up a claim for a wage rise for their employees. The small businessman might say, ‘We cannot afford this.’ The union official could insist and have the right, under Labor’s proposal, to open the books of the small business to see what their accounts say. This would be an outrageous intrusion into the legitimate operations of a small business, yet Labor wants to allow union bosses to walk into a small business unannounced and open up their books to see what the state of their finances is and whether they can push harder for wage rises. This is outrageous.

The third feature that really worries me about Labor’s proposal is the proposed return to pattern bargaining. That will allow pay rises in one industry that might be experiencing productivity gains to be replicated throughout the country, even in businesses that cannot afford it. A recipe, as the member for Rankin would definitely know, that would put upward pressure on prices, add to inflationary pressures in this country and therefore add to pressure on interest rates.

This point needs to be clearly understood: a return to pattern bargaining, which Labor wants, will put upward pressure on inflation and therefore upward pressure on interest rates. One of the very clear reasons that we have been able to run this economy for the last 10 years at near full employment, with low inflationary pressures and therefore low interest rates, is the flexibility in the labour market. Labor will remove that flexibility, put upward pressure on prices and, therefore, put upward pressure on interest rates. This is precisely why the coalition can say that interest rates will always be lower under a coalition government than under a Labor government: Labor’s return to an inflexible, less productive labour market will put upward pressure on prices and upward pressure on interest rates.

The fourth thing about Labor’s policy that worries me is their desire to restore the unfair dismissal laws—to return to that regime of job-destroying unfair dismissal laws which cost jobs, which discouraged job generation and which, even when jobs were generated, led to a casualisation of the labour force. I could give example after example of this, as could most of my colleagues—of small businesses being forced to make extortion payments to unions, to pay go-away money simply to stop themselves being dragged through the courts. I could give the example of a small business person who said, once the unfair dismissal laws were removed, ‘I will now go out and give a young person an apprenticeship because I’m no longer afraid of being dragged through the courts by the trade union movement.’ I can tell the story of a small business man I spoke to a couple of weeks ago who said, ‘Since the IR laws have changed, I’m now moving my employees off casual rates and into permanent employment.’ Casual employment was the safeguard that many small businesses built in to protect themselves against Labor’s unfair dismissal laws. This employer said, ‘I’m now willing to give my workers permanent jobs instead of casual jobs.’ And yet, inexplicably, Labor want to restore these unfair dismissal laws. They want to restore the discouragement, the disincentive, for young people to get jobs.

The last point I would make is that Labor’s policy is clearly a return to union control of the workplace. We had the charade today of Dean Mighell, the secretary of the ETU, being supposedly sacked from the Labor Party. But that has happened in the past, and he rejoined. In the same way, should Labor be elected to government, he will rejoin and be welcomed with open arms again. Nothing was said by the Labor Party when Dean Mighell said: ‘I’m looking forward to having fun when Labor repeals these laws and Labor’s in office. I’m looking forward to having fun putting pressure on employers and exploiting employers.’ We heard nothing from the Leader of the Opposition then. And we heard nothing from the Leader of the Opposition when Kevin Reynolds, the CFMEU boss, said he was looking forward to the day when the Australian Building and Construction Commission would be abolished and it would again be open slather in the building industry.

And we heard nothing from the Leader of the Opposition when Greg Combet said, ‘I remember the days when the unions used to control this country and I’m looking forward to a return to those days.’ It is little wonder when 70 per cent of the Labor frontbench are ex union officials. It will be easier for them now: they will not even have to get on the phone to Greg Combet to get instructions from him. Now that—in a typical exercise of Labor’s abolition of democracy in their preselection processes—he has rolled one of their own sitting members, they will not even have to phone Greg Combet to get instructions from him; he will be sitting in here with them from the next parliament. They will just ask in their morning caucus meeting or over a cup of coffee in the morning, ‘Greg, what does the ACTU want us to do with our policies now?’ It will be very easy. They will not even need to get on the phone to him.

It is not just the government saying this. It is not just business saying this. Many independent commentators are pointing clearly to the dangers of Labor’s industrial relations policy. I could go back through article after article by independent commentators—as recent as yesterday’s editorial in the Australian headed ‘Conflict continues on the work front’ or an article by Steve Lewis, again in yesterday’s Australian, ‘Back to IR past in name of “fairness”’, which I might read a bit from. He writes:

LABOR will take an industrial relations policy to the election even more antiquated and antibusiness than the policies dreamed up by Mark Latham.

Even more antiquated and antibusiness. He goes on:

And guess what? Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard don’t give a damn. It is now demonstrably clear the Labor leadership has locked in behind an alternative industrial relations agenda that will take Australia backwards, reduce workplace flexibility and re-empower the unions all in the name of “fairness”.

For all the flowery Labor rhetoric about kicking out a tired and jaded Coalition government, a Rudd government would dramatically reshape the industrial landscape. And not for the better.

Further on, he writes:

Rudd has been doing a lot of schmoozing with business, attempting to reassure it he is listening to its concerns and working on ways to “soften” the impact of Labor’s alternative IR pact. But this is a facade, a display of false pretence.

That is the same facade and display of false pretence we see on so many issues from those opposite. They should be ashamed of themselves. They should be supporting this government’s legislation, which is delivering higher productivity, delivering workplace flexibility and delivering more jobs—and delivering more jobs at higher wages.