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Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Page: 882

Mr RANDALL (12:49 PM) —I am very pleased to speak today on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. We know that, as previous speakers have outlined, this bill seeks to amend the Workplace Relations Act of 1996, make a number of changes to the framework for workplace agreements and enable the process of award modernisation to commence. I am speaking on this bill today because I have a vested interest on behalf of my electorate. Many people would not be aware that in the Canning electorate there are more than 20,000 people on registered individual agreements, AWAs—whatever you want to describe them as. It has one of the highest numbers of people on AWAs in Australia. The highest number of people registered on AWAs in this country is in the electorate of Kalgoorlie, held by my friend Mr Barry Haase. We will examine why this is more of a Western Australian phenomenon in a moment but, suffice to say, the new member for Brand, Gary Gray, has one of the highest numbers of people on AWAs as well—individual agreements that are negotiated in the workplace.

For those who think this is all about the mining industry, let me put their minds at rest. In Canning, there is one large miner and it is Alcoa. Interestingly, most of the workers at Alcoa are on union inspired agreements on behalf of the Australian Workers Union—something I will tease out further when I get my address-in-reply speech, because we know that the current member for Maribyrnong had something to do with activity around that area. I will further elaborate on that later. The fact is that many contractors around Alcoa are on individual flexible agreements. So the workers at Alcoa are not, but the contractors in and around the area are.

But the greater number of people that are on flexible agreements in the Canning electorate are not in mining; they are in areas like hospitality, construction, customer service, the tourism sector and even local government. I say to the journalists who stop us at the door in the morning on a regular basis: most of the journalists in this country are on individual agreements or AWAs. Many of them have said to me just privately, ‘Gee, I don’t want my flexible awards and conditions being disrupted by the interference on behalf of the unions by the Rudd Labor government.’

But let us talk more about the bill before the House today. This bill is designed to remove Australian workplace agreements from the industrial relations scene of this country. The government want them terminated as an industrial instrument. In her second reading speech, Minister Gillard announced that from 13 February 2008 the Australian Public Service would no longer offer AWAs. That is because she can do that. Why has the Australian Public Service been singled out? The reason is that it is heavily unionised. We know that most of the public service organisations in this country have almost 100 per cent union membership, so it is pretty easy to do it at that sort of workplace. But we also know that in this country less than 17 per cent of people in the non-public sector have decided to be a member of a union.

For my part, I used to be a union rep when I was a schoolteacher. I see the role of the union often to be quite constructive in terms of bargaining on behalf of their members when there are issues in the workplace. But when the unions decide to become political operatives, as they have done over the last few years, and inject themselves into the workplace purely for craven political reasons then they have gone beyond their brief. They are not there for the workers; they are there for themselves. Most of the union bosses, if they are not in this place, are out there as hereditary peers of the Labor Party, feathering their own nests. How many union bosses do you ever see sitting in cattle class? They are mostly up in the front of the planes while their workers are sitting towards the tail.

Mr Griffin —Sitting next to you!

Mr RANDALL —And sitting with the member opposite as well. Would you deny that? They are sitting with you as well. When the workers go on strike, do the union bosses go on strike? No. There is one rule for the union bosses and there is one rule for the workers. The union bosses use the workers as fodder to get themselves into a place like this. This place has become a retirement village for former union bosses. Let us go through them. We have the member for Batman; previously we had Bob Hawke, a former member for Wills; we have Simon Crean, the member for Hotham; the member for Throsby; and the member for Charlton. This is the progression of the union bosses. Eventually their retirement package is to come here. I wonder if Sharan Burrow will make her way here eventually and that will be her reward.

The reason this bill has been so passionately sought as the first item of business is that the union organisations not only put the members opposite here through their preselections but they also then decide what those members can do or say in this place. The first order of bidding in this House is because the unions having paid a very big price to get the Labor Party into office in this country. The figures vary from $30 million to $50 million. We know that, in individual electorates, unions placed so-called research officers, who were just people on the ground. For example, the former member for Petrie, Teresa Gambaro, told me that a union in her electorate had people there for months and months acting as extra officers on the ground. I wonder if the general union membership knew that that was where their union dues were going—to involvement in a political campaign at that level. She tells me that, in the last few weeks of the campaign, public servants from Queensland were given two weeks leave to go and work street corners and doorknock on behalf of the union to unseat her. And they were successful. There is no doubt about it: the unions were woken up and they gathered together in a very strong force. They worked very much in marginal seats and we saw the effect that they had—except in Western Australia, and that is where I will return to, because it is my responsibility to outline the case there.

One of the reasons Western Australia had such a good result at the last election was that so many people on AWAs were happy with their lot. A former Labor senator, John Black, in an article in the Australian newspaper pointed out the correlation between individual workplace agreements and voting intentions. One of the reasons is that people who can strike an individual agreement generally get a better deal. We heard the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and many other portfolios in this place yesterday talking about entitlements being removed from people when they took on AWAs. What she dishonestly did not say was that, when they agreed—and I emphasise the word ‘agreed’, because nobody could be made to take an AWA or an individual agreement; they chose to—to go on an individual agreement, they did so knowing that they would get a better deal. So, if they traded off some spurious things like picnic days—there was an award for picnics—for higher wages, what is the matter with that? In fact, I am aware of workplaces in Western Australia—bakeries, for example—where the casual workers were saying, ‘Could you take away some of those holiday entitlements from us, because we’re students and we actually want more money in our hands today because we want to pay the bills and be able to live a lifestyle today rather than at the end receive a lump sum.’

Ultimately people had a choice. This is what we as the former government were able to give the people of Australia: choice. The choice was theirs alone and they could choose to get themselves a better deal. But the Labor Party, even today, will dishonestly continue to tell you that things were stripped away and people were made to do things and they were worse off. At the end of the day, people received more money. One of the incongruous things about this bill, which I will return to in a moment, is the $100,000 limit.

What the Labor Party and the minister have done—and I think it is quite good, actually, even surprising—is, in place of the individual agreements that were on offer as AWAs, put in this bill the individual transitional employment agreements or ITEAs. ITEAs are for people who are currently on individual agreements and want to continue on them when they expire. People who are not now on any form of agreement as such will not be able to sign on to an ITEA. In fact, they will end up on a union inspired collective agreement.

One of the things the minister has done with the ITEAs—and, believe me, I must commend the minister on this—is that she has actually put in place what we consider to be a very good safety net or no disadvantage test. That is good for workers because, if you cannot be worse off, your only choice is to be better off if you choose to be on an individual agreement. If you choose to be better off and stay on an ITEA, that is good—there is nothing wrong with that. From that point of view, we would like to see the ITEAs. As has already been said, we will be voting for this in this House—there will be no opposition to that at all.

The minister is going to put to the House an amendment which will extend ITEAs from two years to five years. People will say, ‘Why five years?’ Because currently in a state like mine, Western Australia, there are people still able to sign on to an AWA which will run for five years. Why not have the synergy for people who would like to continue on an award that is struck today to continue for another five years? We know they are not all bad when we see companies like Telstra, the Commonwealth Bank and Australia Post continuing to offer their workers AWAs. Of course we must again explain that these people are offered AWAs as a choice. It is not mandatory; you cannot make them. It is as a choice. Why would people choose an AWA? Because they can tailor their job to a more flexible arrangement and get more money by trading off things that they do not deem necessary in their particular contract which would remain under an inflexible award.

This legislation, as I said, is something that we have agreed to. We know that the ITEAs will be tested by the Workplace Authority director and will then take effect as long as there is no lessening of conditions and we know, if people tried to offer lesser conditions, that under the legislation before us there would be penalties and remedies for noncompliance, so that way forward is good. But I now refer to the fact that, in today’s Australian, Alan Wood, the Economics Editor, has placed on record his concern about the way forward under the Labor Party in terms of workplace relations. He lists a number of motherhood statements made by the minister. They are all altruistic and very good, but in the end the fact is that the Labor Party will probably be unable to do any of this because of their exposure to and their compromising by the unions.

I have listened to a lot of first speeches by those opposite. I have been impressed by the quality of members that I have met on both sides. But there are obviously some standout members—we know the member for Charlton, Greg Combet. I listened to his first speech and I congratulated him on it afterwards. He is a very articulate and obviously well-versed person, particularly in his area of expertise, and that is workplace relations. What he did say which struck a chord with me was that, when the unions ran their scare campaign against Work Choices, within six weeks of running this very expensive campaign they had 60 per cent of the Australian people in their corner. This demonstrates that this scare campaign, like the ones the Labor Party ran previously on GST and the privatisation of Telstra—and you will notice they are not talking about rolling back any of that—really bit. At the end of the day, I will agree—and this is why we are agreeing to this—maybe the previous amendments made in 2006 were too bold in the fact that they did not provide the safety net and the fairness test that people were concerned about. It was not only the workers—it was their parents and their families—that were convinced by this advertising campaign. That is why we are going to support this way forward.

In terms of people in my electorate and even in the member for Kalgoorlie’s electorate, it is interesting that this legislation allows flexibility for people on over $100,000. In my state—and it is probably why people are happy and wanted to see the flexible arrangements provided by the previous government continue, so that is the way they voted at the last election—there are many people on over $100,000. You do not have to be a wealthy mining executive to get that. There are truck drivers, steel fixers and sheet metal workers in the Pilbara who are on well over $100,000. So you are going to have two classes of people.

I put out a press release before the last election, and it is relevant today, saying that the electors in Canning—and, I would say, the rest of Australia—were going to be unfairly treated because those on under $100,000 could be excused for missing out on the ‘fair’ part of Labor’s Forward with Fairness policy. What happens to the aspirational worker who wants to earn more than $100,000? If he does not get there, he is then being dragooned into the inflexible award arrangement—the union inspired agreement—that has been put before him or her. This is typical of the ideology of the Labor Party: ‘We not only want to take over your workplace; we want to drive down your wages and corral you into an inflexible agreement.’

As we know, the previous government was able to increase real wages for workers by over 23 per cent in the 11½ years it was in government. The previous Hawke-Keating government bragged about driving wages down and they only increased wages by less than two per cent. On one hand, you have one side of politics wanting to see real wage and productivity increases and, on the other, you have the other side wanting to control the worker so that they get a worse deal—as long as they control them; that is the endgame here. They want to control and dragoon the workforce so that it is ‘one size fits all’. At the end of the day, the Australian people will judge this government on reducing the flexibility of the workforce.

One of the reasons why Australia is one of the model economies of the world is that we have historically low unemployment and low inflation. We hear them screaming about inflation, and the fact is that we have never had inflation above three per cent. It was the skill of the previous government in all that time that kept inflation low while still having low unemployment. Very few governments ever have low unemployment and low inflation. Generally there are peaks and troughs that go with unemployment and interest rates, because they cannot control them. This was done not only because we reformed the taxation system but also because we reformed the workforce so that it would be more flexible and more productive. As Alan Wood says in his article today, at the end of the day this will not be done with the existing award system and there will be no gain without real pain. That is where we are heading with workplace relations under Labor—a lot of pain.