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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1722

Mr FORREST (12:26 PM) —I am not necessarily diametrically opposed to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, but I want to make some comments on the public record from my casual observations, having been around this place for some time now. When we come to this place on certain things our political perspectives and ideologies, or the kaleidoscope in which we see the world, are already fixed. There is one particular issue that distinguishes members of the Australian Labor Party and members of the coalition parties, and that is industrial relations. The Labor Party claims that it has a mandate as a result of the last election. That may or may not be true. I spent a lot of time on, and worked very hard during, the last election campaign and I have to say that from my perspective, and from my electorate’s point of view, and despite the bombardment of television advertising from the union movement, not one single person raised this issue with me as something that was top of mind in their daily world. From the north Victorian perspective it was all about water—water first, water second, water third—and the lack of recognition in a national election campaign of their needs.

The constituency of Mallee consists of hardworking, small business, mum-and-dad family operators providing 75 per cent, dare I say even 80 per cent, of the employment. These are business people who, when they find a good employee who is delivering for them, will do everything in their power to keep that employee satisfied—with the ultimate outcome a win-win situation for both the employee and the employer business. That usually means one family and another family—that is the nature of employment in my constituency. So I am speaking on this legislation before us today from that perspective. The other thing I have objected to while listening to this debate, and to others that occur in this place, is the offensive way in which the Labor Party, from its ideological position, wants to rewrite history and paint the former government as a pariah because of all the terrible things that it did. That is not the truth. I want my constituents who are listening today to be aware of the real truth.

It is true there is no such thing as a perfect government. Despite all the hubris we hear from members of the new government, they will learn there is no such thing as a perfect government. There can be a good government, but not a perfect government. Mistakes get made—that is true. It has already been acknowledged by the member for Menzies that attention to the safety net could have been better addressed. But I have not had one of my constituents come up to me and say that they have had an adverse outcome. They want to sit with their employer and suggest productivity gains. It is the nature of the employment that it is not nine to five. It is not: catch a train into the city, start work at nine, knock off at five and go home. It needs incredible flexibility, because it is reliant on the climate, the temperature and the production of sensitive crops—food and fibre. Flexibility is the name of the game. Australian workplace agreements gave that opportunity for a tremendous influx, a productivity focus and a win-win for employers and employees. It is true that there are some larger corporate employers across the north-west of Victoria, but the bulk of the employment is one or two people working in a small business.

I am immensely pleased with the outcomes for the Australian economy from the government that I was part of. They speak for themselves. After we inherited government in March 1996, more than 2.2 million jobs were created—over 1.2 million jobs which were full time and 950,000 which were part time. In a constituency like mine, despite the worst drought in living memory, that outcome was evident, particularly in the provincial centres of Mildura, Swan Hill and Horsham. You could not get a sparky, a plumber or a builder to do any extra renovation that was needed to develop and expand a business and to make way for more and more employees.

The greatest fillip we gave to those small businesses as a government then was the removal of those unfair dismissal laws. They were the single biggest restriction of confidence for a small business owner to put somebody on: with the vagaries of economies, particularly those that are climate dependent, knowing the difficulty of coming to the tough decision to put a person off and endure an enormous financial pain for it. That unleashed employment opportunity across the north-west of Victoria, and that is what most of the people in my electorate were talking about during the last election campaign. They saw the benefit of a tally of, at the end of 2006 at least, 1.88 million small businesses across Australia—the engine room of the economy—some of them providing two or three jobs and some of them providing up to 100 jobs. It is small business that drives the constituency I come from. Therefore that affects the ideological perspective from which I come to a discussion on legislation like this.

Let us look at unemployment. Like the member for Menzies, I remember coming into this place when the nation had a horrendous unemployment record. But, as a result of reforms that the former government made to the way our taxation system works, a stimulus to business and a more flexible and creative workplace formula, we saw unemployment come down to its lowest level in 33 years—down to 4.2 per cent. It was slightly higher in Mallee, but again the changes were dramatic. You could see it in the small towns. This is the record that I want my constituents out there listening to this broadcast today to be aware of. I do not want them to be sucked into the rhetoric we are hearing from the Labor Party about how terrible things are.

I am concerned that the new government does not really understand the nexus between the way the economy operates, the way growth operates and the way flexibility in the workplace operates, and the subsequent impacts on the total economy, including inflation. I can remember the days of being in small business myself before coming to this place, in the terrible days of a former Labor government, wondering what on earth the people in that rarefied atmosphere in Canberra were thinking about, when I had to contend with the impacts of an economy out of control, one day realising that I had an overdraft interest rate of 25¼ per cent on money I was borrowing to pay the people that worked for me. I worry with great concern that this new government is so fixed by its ideological position that it wants centralised workplace regulation in place. I fear that the outcome I saw before coming to this place will be the outcome again. Today’s Australian has published some work by Econtech which predicts that scenario.

This bill today is just the start from the Labor government. In fact its reference is to ‘Transition to Forward with Fairness’. We all support fairness, but there is nothing fairer, I believe, for a family than to provide them with gainful employment, in employment where they have opportunity to develop their own potential and to assist the business that they work for in the best interests of the nation’s economy. That is what I see out in my constituency. I hope that the scenario in the member for Menzies’ contribution is not the outcome we have to wait a few years to find. This government, which is not going to be perfect, is making another mistake.