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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1700

Mr SLIPPER (10:39 AM) —It is interesting that the ALP has chanted Work Choices like a mantra and yet the principal element of Work Choices was a national industrial relations system. I have not seen any evidence that the new government intends to dismantle the national industrial relations system and go back to a situation where each individual jurisdiction in this country has its own industrial relations laws. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 has caused a substantial amount of debate in the coalition parties. As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has said, the coalition does not intend to oppose the passage of this bill through the parliament. That does not mean that we support the bill; it means that we are not going to oppose it.

Right across the country, on 24 November, millions of people voted for the former Howard government supporting flexibility in the national workplace—supporting our industrial relations system—but, as we saw, more people voted in the other direction, with the result that, as in any democracy, there was a change of government. In my own area, Work Choices did not seem to be a major issue, but there is no doubt that the new government went to the people, prior to 24 November, and said that, if a Rudd Labor government were elected, Work Choices—in particular, the elements contained in this bill—would be abolished.

So we in the coalition find ourselves somewhat on the horns of a dilemma with respect to this bill. On the one hand, one ought to respect the mandate that the government received on 24 November, which does, as the Deputy Prime Minister said in her second reading speech, give the government the right—indeed, you might even say, the obligation—to bring in the changes supported by this particular bill. On the other hand, members of the coalition parties went to the people—as did the former government—on 24 November last year supporting the policy, and those of us who were returned to this place were returned on the basis of the policies that we espoused prior to the election. Therefore, that presents to us somewhat of a problem of a politically moral nature. On the one hand, do we stand up in the parliament and support the principles on which we went to the election, the principles on which we were returned to the parliament, or do we roll over and say, ‘Well, even though our constituents voted for Work Choices, the government, because it has more members, has the right to put its legislation through the parliament’?

I have a little difficulty with the position of the coalition. While the government does have an obligation to bring in this bill, on the other hand I would like to have been able to vote in the parliament on the basis of the principles on which I stood for re-election on 24 November: to vote for the policy which we introduced that sought to bring about flexibility, higher wages, higher productivity and an ability for people to be rewarded for initiative, enterprise and hard work—a situation that gave people the ability, in effect, to reap the benefit from being able to come to arrangements with their employers that suited their individual circumstances. One size does not fit all, and I hope that the government in the future recognises that individual employers and individual employees all have individual and separate needs and that a flexible system is very much the best way to go. However, we have decided that we are not going to oppose the passage of this bill. Consequently, when the bill passes both houses of the parliament, as it ultimately will, the government will be able to deliver on its election promise.

I would also like to say how unfortunate it is that the new government is seeking to demonise the very sound economic record of the former Howard government. The new government has tried to suggest that, in some way, shape or form, we were irresponsible in our spending and that is why we have seen this proposed attack on carers and the threat of closure or chopping of many of the very sensible projects that the former government sought to fund as a dividend for responsible economic management over 11 years. We have seen the Queensland Rugby Union, for instance, suffer a withdrawal of promised funding with respect to improvements to that code in Queensland—and I think that is eminently undesirable.

We as a former government did a lot. We repaid $90 billion of Labor debt. We enabled our nation to hold its head proudly right throughout the world. We were able to make sure that Australia was respected and listened to in the economic fora around the globe. We were a government which sought to return money to individuals through reductions in income tax, because we believe that individuals have a right to spend their money, even though governments will often spend it more quickly. We sought to return individual opportunity to individual people.

I believe that the current government stands condemned for the way in which it has sought to suggest that we were as economically irresponsible as our Labor predecessors. I do not believe that is washing with the Australian community. Even though they voted for a change of government on 24 November, which sees this bill introduced, the Australian community does recognise that our government was probably the best government Australia has ever had. Having said that, this bill is a bittersweet proposal for the opposition. On the one hand, it seeks to overturn what was a key element of our industrial relations reforms, a key element which saw many of us on this side of the House returned because our constituents supported it. But, on the other hand, it is an opportunity for the government to implement an election promise, and any implementation of any election promise ought to be commended.