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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1720

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (12:16 PM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this important bill, Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. This bill starts to right the wrongs of the last few years. I have listened with interest to some of the speakers from the opposition and I cannot help but be reminded of the apocryphal scenes of, I think, 1957 when the last Japanese soldier surrendered in the highlands of the Philippines. Yet here I am watching the metaphorical political equivalent of Japanese soldiers still fighting the war 20 years later when I listen to coalition members splutter and declaim, ‘We were right and the people got it wrong.’ On the contrary, this bill recognises that the people got it right at the last election and the coalition got it wrong.

There is no sin in politics to be repenting of the mistakes that you have made. The previous laws which we are correcting were mistakes. I am reminded of what they say about the Bourbon regime of France. I think it goes like this: the Bourbons learned nothing and remembered everything. I have listened to the speeches of the coalition. How people vote on this bill and what these changes represent really is a question of the following: if they like the thought of people losing income, job security, minimum safety nets, they will oppose the legislation in front of them and they will support the old laws; but, if they hate the idea of people losing income, losing job security, losing minimum safety net award matters, they will support the new laws. I believe that these fair industrial relations laws reflect the Australian spirit: the idea that a fair go should command respect in the workplace. This should be sufficient alone to support these new laws.

No government deserves to exist where insecurity, uncertainty and fear in the workplace are treated as incurable diseases. I thank the electorate with gratitude and with appreciation of the responsibility that they adopted at the last election by removing the government that introduced these unfair laws. All that these new laws seek to do is to recognise that the welfare of the weakest in the workplace and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. We understand in the government that industry cannot flourish if labour languishes. We understand that good workplace laws need to be justified by something more than the previous government’s case and that fair workplace laws should rest on the foundation of fairness and decency. Modern Labor understand that all the actors in the economy deserve a fair go all round. By demolishing the extreme Work Choices laws, which we are trying to fix up, we want to actually ensure that Australian workers enjoy more job security, better pay, fairer hours and the capacity to take leave to look after sick children or relatives. When you look at the previous government’s laws in the context of the need to sustain productivity across much longer working lifetimes, you see that the old laws make very little sense from any long-term perspective.

We require more innovative ways to balance our work and family and recreational lives. For the last number of years, unlike the cabinet ministers of the coalition, I existed in the real economy, where every morning I would be involved in negotiating agreements which would see greater productivity and greater outcomes for both employer and employee. I refer, for instance, to the Eastlink project in Melbourne—the largest and most expensive project in Australian road construction history. That was negotiated under the pre-Work Choices laws. Now what we will see, despite the concerns of the member for Menzies that we will all be ruined by these new laws, is a climate where the sorts of agreements negotiated before Work Choices can again become the norm and we will see greater pay and higher productivity for the people involved in such projects.

Seven hundred days before the 2007 election, even before Work Choices became law—when it was still a bill, still a bad cloud on the horizon—I actually said that, once the legislation was passed, the immediate focus would recede. I believed, even before the Work Choices laws came in, that the Liberals actually had all their toes and fingers crossed in the hope that everyone would forget about the laws and that they would sail through. The reality is that most Australians earn $50,000 or less and one of their key staples is a minimum safety net. One thing which makes the entry of young people into the workforce easier is that there were minimum matters in the agreements, and they have now been reduced to five under Work Choices. What I predicted—and it is interesting that the member for Menzies is no longer here to hear the answers to his questions—700 days before the election which the electorate got right, is that the jury would be out and they would see what happened over the two years of Work Choices. The jury did come in over the next two years. The jury saw unfair laws and we saw this absurd situation where there was policy on the run. Let us not forget that once the government discovered how deeply unpopular the Work Choices laws were they introduced the fairness test. What a red-tape nightmare for business that was.

Let us not forget Spotlight. They tried to introduce AWAs and then they tried to adhere to the fairness test. The previous government created Soviet style red tape and then they employed Dutch backpackers—whose familiarity with the Australian retail industry could only have come from evaluating the Neighbours TV show—to evaluate how Spotlight should run their business. In the end Spotlight said: ‘It’s too hard. Let’s go back to dealing with workers in a collective fashion and then we can get on and run a proper business and look after the workers.’

The previous government was on the run in 2007. They were trying to pretend that black was white and that the Work Choices laws were no good. In fact, on 15 April the government and the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey—and I have to warn the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that being the coalition spokesperson on industrial relations does not seem to advance one’s career terribly well—told Laurie Oakes ‘we’re not for turning on the fundamentals of these laws’. The next day the former Prime Minister told Brisbane radio that he always listens and that if he got it wrong and it was in the interest of Australia then he was willing to change. Yet now we see the opposition struggling, playing in the metaphorical political traffic, not sure if it supports the old laws and not sure if it supports the new laws. The opposition needs to clarify with the Australian electorate where it stands on the fair go all round at work.

In my first speech to the House I said that I have experienced the abundant goodwill of Australian workplaces from both employers and employees. I know firsthand the many examples of cooperation, compromise and pragmatism which bring dividends to all involved. I said:

But in the real economy, as union organisers know, building a business, running a farm or constructing a road is a really tough thing to do. There are no shortcuts—trust, openness, fairness, partnership, a bit of flexibility and compromise all round. Where you find these qualities, in my experience, you will spot a successful growing business and business leaders who understand that people are the most important feature of their business.

This bill proposes to restore fairness in the workplace. What we need to drive the future of Australia is not the low road of cutting costs but the high road of investing in people and treating people as a premium. Ours is a small nation at the edge of Asia. A nation of 21 million people can only have a future if it is constantly investing in people, not trying to compete with low-wage economies by lowering and removing the safety net. Australians understood this. The coalition, however, unfortunately still struggles with the notion of what to do about industrial relations.

The previous Prime Minister had a long service in public life. Unfortunately, one of the legacies he has left to the coalition is that he was the prime minister who tried to remove the fair go and in turn lost his seat to the new member for Bennelong. This has not happened in 80 years. It last happened in 1929, when Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce lost his seat. He had taken on the idea of the fair go and 80 years later history has repeated itself. I believe that Australians have always rejected extremes. For me this place, the parliament, is the keeper of the middle way—labour and capital working together, metropolitan centres and strong regions in balance and prosperity cross-subsidising growth and need across our large and diverse continent. I do believe that our nation and parliament operate best when they promote tolerance and diversity. But when political parties drift to extremes of either the right or the left the patient electorate make it clear through the ballot box that they expect the parliament to reflect the native Australian gradualism and pragmatism. I believe that this place is a very important institution in helping Australia adapt to the big issues of the future. The new laws that are being proposed will ensure that the balance is restored in the workplace. For as long as the opposition are unclear about what their position is, if they want to hark back to the glory years of Work Choices under the former Prime Minister, or if they are interested in ever trying to form a majority in this place, then I suggest that their best path forward—for all parties—is to support this bill and restore the fair go all round.