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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1727

Mr COULTON (12:46 PM) —I rise to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. However, I wish to put on record my support for the second reading amendment to the bill to be moved by my colleague the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. This bill will make changes to the current workplace arrangements: AWAs will be abolished and new individual agreements, ITEAs, will be introduced.

I note the comments made by the member for Lindsay prior to my speech about the mandate of the current Labor government to bring in these workplace reforms. I would like to inform the honourable member for Lindsay that, in my electorate, 76 per cent of the people were not gullible about the union-led campaign and rejected the incoming Labor government. So, as a result, I am under no obligation to believe that there is such a mandate from the people of my electorate.

I believe that flexibility in the workplace is of utmost importance, especially in rural and regional areas like my electorate of Parkes. This is particularly important in the case of small business. Small businesses are the largest employers in the electorate of Parkes, and small businesses are frightened of unfair dismissal laws. They need a system in place that will accommodate them and give them some confidence in employing people. The key word in all of this is ‘confidence’. It is having confidence that when people take on a job they are going to be treated fairly—and no-one believes in a fair go more than I do—but also confidence that a business can put on an employee and, if it does not work out, they will not be severely punished for terminating that arrangement.

When I cast my mind back to the eighties, I can remember when parents were offering to pay employers the wages of their children, just to give them a job because the employment restrictions were so great at the time that no-one was game to employ anyone. We had people well into their 20s with no practical experience of employment. There was much made in the campaign last year about exploitation of young people and the conditions that they were working under, but my point of view is that the greatest gift you can give a young person is experience. Quite often people do not stay in a job, as they did in previous years when they might stay in the one career forever. Once a person gets that first job and first experience, they can move on. That needs to happen at a reasonably young age, because I can remember back 25 or 30 years ago when many people did not do that. Those people who missed out on getting an early start are now in their forties and fifties and, regrettably, are still unemployed. They are the forgotten group in Australia. The people who were victims of the Hawke-Keating era of the eighties are still unemployed because they missed out on getting those skills at a very early age.

Training is also a vital ingredient for the employment of young people. You need flexibility in a workplace to enable that training to take place. In my electorate, one of the greatest problems we have is not unemployment but the shortage of skilled workers. The ability for employers to put on employees and offer them training and flexibility to undertake that training is vital if we are going to grow our economy and employment, particularly in regional areas. As an example of that, in my electorate, west of Dubbo there is a dairy that is offering a job, with excellent conditions, for a skilled manager but is unable to find anyone. So we still have a long way to go in filling the skills gap.

One model that I have been actively involved with in relation to employment and training is that of the Gwydir Learning Region. Prior to coming to this place, I was the mayor of the Gwydir Shire Council and, as little as five or six years ago, we had a very high unemployment rate. We had a large number of students dropping out of school and into unemployment, and we had a large section of middle-aged people who had never experienced employment. We have no university, no technical colleges and very few facilities in our local area, but in a partnership that was formed by the Gwydir Shire Council, the local schools in the area, employers, adult learning associations and the University of New England, we were able to form a community based learning organisation that has reversed the situation. Indeed, in the last five years no children have left Warialda High School that have not gone into further training or permanent employment.

One of the reasons that that system was able to work was that employers could take on young people on a casual or part-time basis as trainees and offer them experience without large wages being involved. This would not have been possible under previous regimes. However, we found that, by the time these young people had left school and finished their period of traineeship, they not only had experience of working in a workplace but also had gained self-respect from being treated as adults and working in the wider community, and they went on to become productive citizens. Obviously, not all of these students stayed in the trades or the employment they undertook as trainees; many of them went off to university. But that hands-on experience they gained at an early age enabled them quite often to get part-time employment to help supplement their living expenses at university. Also, when future employers looked at them as prospective employees, quite often it was that experience they were able to gain at a young age that got them the job. Back in the eighties, when we had much more restrictive workplace practices, that was not possible. I urge the government, as they go about their task of restructuring the workplace, to try to keep that balance—that they do not price young people out of the workplace and deprive them of that wonderful opportunity to get that experience and a start in life.

I will conclude by speaking about an incident that happened in my home town. I have lived all my life in the town of Warialda, which is in north-west New South Wales. I went to school there, played sport there and have been very involved in community activities there. I have a deep respect and love for that town and the people in it and I never intend to live anywhere else. In my 50 years of being a resident of Warialda, there has only been one period of time where the harmony of that community was shattered. Warialda is the sort of place where, on a Sunday on the golf course, you can find a schoolboy, the wealthiest person in town, a professional—the doctor—and a plant operator on the council all in the same golf team. It is the closest I think you could get to having a harmonious society.

However, back in the 1980s, we had what was called the ‘wide combs dispute’—and I am sorry that the member for Maribyrnong is not in the chamber at the moment, because his former union, the AWU, lost massive ground through that dispute. I might say that, since then, the AWU has modified its approach and is actually doing some good work in regional Australia. But, for the benefit of those who might not know about it, the wide combs dispute back in the 1980s was over the width of a shearing comb that was used to shear sheep. It was not a case of reducing the conditions of the shearers that were doing the work; it was not a case of making them work long hours. Indeed, there was ample proof to show that wide combs improved the capacity of the members of the union to earn more income per day.

But the union decided that it was a matter of principle and they were going to use this issue to, once again, place their stamp on and establish their dominance in the shearing and pastoral industry. I guess under less compelling circumstances they may have had their way; but, because the benefit to be gained from introducing wide combs was seen by the industry and its membership to be of such an advantage, a dispute broke out. In that 12-month to two-year period, we saw our harmonious little town split in half in a way that I had not seen before and, thankfully, have not seen since. It took place a long time ago, but we had friends and neighbours not speaking; we had bashings at social functions on a Saturday night; and we had AWU representatives breaking into shearing sheds at night and vandalising private property. It was a very unpleasant time.

I just remind the House and caution members opposite of what can happen when the balance is upset and the pendulum swings too far back the other way. I, too, agree with fairness in the workplace, but we need to keep it in balance. We need to keep that balance so that not only are employees guaranteed a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work but also employers are guaranteed not to be exploited.