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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 104

Dr EMERSON (4:58 PM) —I indicate at the outset that I will use only half of the time allocated to me for this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007, because I want to create some extra space for Labor MPs to be able to make a contribution before the guillotine falls. If the government is so proud of its legislation, if it is so proud of Work Choices, why not have a proper debate instead of stopping Labor MPs from making a contribution to it? Indeed, around 90 per cent of coalition MPs have declined the opportunity to speak in this debate, yet the whip on our side of the chamber has had to say to numerous Labor MPs that he is very sorry but he cannot fit them into the small amount of time that has been allocated.

My colleague the member for Melbourne said famously, some time ago, that in politics everyone exaggerates. Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, we saw some of the greatest exaggeration in the speech by the member for Macquarie just then. I would put this proposition to the parliament: if Labor’s policy would create so much difficulty for the business community, why exaggerate it? Why misrepresent it? Why not just describe it as it is?

Mr Bartlett —That is exactly what I did.

Dr EMERSON —The member for Macquarie interjects. I am not going to speak for my entire allocated time, but I will respond to the member for Macquarie. He asserted in his contribution that under a Labor government it will be ‘no ticket, no start’—that is, a closed shop, that everyone would be obliged to join a union. This is absolutely untrue. It is outrageously untrue. If our industrial relations policy were to present such difficulties, why would you have to make that up? Why would you have to make up a claim that unions will have unlimited right of entry into any small business in this country and demand their books? Why would a government MP, a Government Whip, create that complete fantasy in order to make the case? The Australian people deserve better than the quality of debate and the sort of misrepresentation that occurs day after day as the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and government backbenchers make the most ridiculous, absurd claims about Labor’s policy.

This morning in the debate over the guillotine being applied, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, one of the two architects of Work Choices—and we do use the words ‘Work Choices’, whereas government MPs and ministers nowadays find it very hard for those words to roll off their tongues because they are so odious in the community—said that the purpose of this legislation is to deal with unintended consequences. He used the phrase ‘unintended consequences’. He is arguing that it was never intended that any Australian would be worse off under the government’s Work Choices legislation. That is completely untrue, and I will establish that by reference to several statements that the Prime Minister has made outside and inside the parliament. In an interview with John Laws on 10 August 2005, the Prime Minister obviously was saying that it is possible that people will be worse off under this legislation. In that interview, this is what was said:

LAWS: Can you guarantee that no worker will be worse off?

PRIME MINISTER: John, I have been asked that before.

LAWS: I asked years ago.

PRIME MINISTER: And I cannot do that. I can’t do that. I am not going to try.

So much for unintended consequences. The Prime Minister of Australia was saying that he cannot and will not guarantee that no worker will be worse off. In parliament later that day in question time, in response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition, he said:

As I have said before, my best guarantee is my record.

In other words, he would not guarantee that no-one would be worse off. Again—and I will not go on with a full litany of the Prime Minister’s statements—on 8 December 2005 in the parliament, the Prime Minister said:

I have said before and I will say it again: my guarantee is my record.

He would not guarantee it. Then, on 14 June 2006, the Prime Minister again said:

Let me use the phrase that one or two of you have heard before: my guarantee is my record.

On numerous occasions the Prime Minister refused to guarantee that no-one would be worse off because he knew that many Australians would be worse off under the legislation. One of the key reasons for that is an absolutely conscious decision made under Work Choices to remove the so-called no disadvantage test. That test was put in place in the 1996 industrial relations legislation not because the incoming Howard government wanted to do it but because the incoming Howard government did not control the Senate and the minor parties and Labor combined to ensure that at least there was a no disadvantage test. But the first opportunity that the Prime Minister of Australia got to withdraw the no disadvantage test he took. Upon re-election in 2004, he took the opportunity through the implementation of the Work Choices legislation.

I might add that the Prime Minister gave the Australian people no inkling about this legislation—none at all. I was the shadow industrial relations minister at the time, and I used to say to journalists: ‘It’s fair enough that, if you’re asking a lot of detailed questions about Labor’s industrial relations policy, you should go and ask the Prime Minister and the minister what their industrial relations policy is.’ Was there any indication of Work Choices? None at all. He says he has a mandate for all this, that he has a mandate for a policy that he was clever enough never to take to the Australian people for judgement. It was only after it won the election and after it gained control of the Senate that the Howard government unveiled its true intentions, including the abolition of the no disadvantage test.

Now we have a piece of legislation which is going to cost another $370 million. Add that to pre-existing financial commitments and the total is $1.8 billion, and there will be 600 extra staff for organisations such as the Workplace Authority. As shadow small business minister, I would point out that this will be a new red-tape burden for small business because we are going to have 600 staff sifting through agreements but, importantly, they will be making subjective judgements on those agreements—and I will come to that point in a moment.

The protected award conditions include penalty rates, shift and overtime loadings, monetary allowances, annual leave loadings, public holidays, rest breaks and incentive based payments and bonuses. Under this legislation there is supposed to be fair compensation if any of those are traded away. Despite the announced changes, an employee may still be worse off under a workplace agreement than under an award because there are a number of other award conditions such as additional leave for particular industries, redundancy pay and rostering protections that are not subject to this so-called fairness test.

One of the real worries with this legislation is that these public servants in the Workplace Authority have to make the decision whether, in their personal view, the deal is reasonable—not that there is no disadvantage but that it is reasonable. This is a safety net that is full of holes and is meant to create the impression with the Australian people that all is now well, that no-one will be disadvantaged as a result of the government’s Work Choices legislation. Nothing could be further from the truth. This does not provide any guarantee. It fulfils the Prime Minister’s commitment that he would never provide a guarantee that no-one would be worse off under his legislation. I talk to people in the business community and they say that they do believe in no disadvantage, they do believe in a safety net. Who does not believe in a safety net in this parliament? The Prime Minister of Australia.

This Prime Minister is a clever politician—we know that—and this is a clever manoeuvre to create the false impression that a proper safety net has been established. A proper safety net has not been established. Let us remember the words of the Treasurer when he was asked about this. He said words to the effect of: everything can change after the election. There are no commitments beyond the election, so as we go into this election campaign, according to the Treasurer we will not know what the government would do if it were re-elected. But on its form, on the 30-year history of the Prime Minister of Australia, we have a pretty good inkling, because he does not believe in a no disadvantage test or a safety net. Remember the words of Senator Minchin, a close confidant of the Prime Minister, when he was telling the HR Nicholls Society—and he did not realise that there was a tape on—that: ‘We’re going to do a lot more reforms’—so-called reforms—‘after the election.’ This is just a cynical, clever pre-election ploy. It is a safety net full of holes. People should see it for what it is. It is just an act of political expedience to get the government up to and through the election campaign whereupon, if it were re-elected, it would return the Work Choices legislation back to where it was, perfectly capable of disadvantaging any worker in this country.