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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1835

Mrs GASH (12:01 PM) —As has been stated and restated in recent days, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 is a turning point in the history of industrial relations in Australia because it spells the end of Australian workplace agreements, which were first implemented in 1996. It is true that the federal coalition has championed statutory individual contracts for many years and has fought critics of the system. However, the election on 24 November 2007 delivered a convincing win to the Australian Labor Party as a result of the policies the ALP took to the people of Australia and the people of Gilmore. While there is continuing debate on the reasons for the ALP victory, there is no doubt that the debate on Work Choices and AWAs was highly public and a driving factor in many a person’s decision on election day. That being the case, the coalition is not going to stand in the way of the government’s industrial relations policy and its commitment to the Australian people with regard to Work Choices and Australian workplace agreements. However, I strongly suspect that the coalition would have been criticised for whatever stance we took on the issues.

The coalition is seeking one change to the bill, and I strongly urge the government to adopt the amendment. The coalition believes the Australian government should extend its temporary employment contracts, its individual transitional employment agreements, from two years to five years. This will allow greater certainty for employers and employees. The amendment the opposition proposed will not obstruct this bill but it will provide greater flexibility. The coalition will now focus on developing new policies to encourage individual employment arrangements using the framework of common law contracts. That said, the key to this entire debate lies in the bill’s subheading, ‘Transition to Forward with Fairness’. The 10-year National Employment Standards profess to provide a simple, fair, flexible safety net for all employees, and that is a commitment to which the alternative government will hold the Prime Minister and his government accountable.

Twenty-twenty hindsight is a luxury not afforded to new policy. We are not in a position to gauge the true impact of the new legislation; we can only hope it delivers what the government has said it will. It goes without saying that we need to be wary in these troubling international economic times. Already in some circles the 1970s term ‘stagflation’ has been resurrected and is being bandied about. The government has been elected to make laws for the benefit of the nation, not just for a select few. As a former small business owner and now parliamentary secretary to the shadow minister for tourism, my concern obviously turns to the business community, particularly the hospitality and service sector. The Australian Financial Review wrote on Friday, 15 February 2008 that employers were warning of a massive increase in costs and more restrictive work arrangements. Business groups also warned that the new industrial era being introduced will place more and more impositions on business activity and impact on the bottom line. There is no doubt that the less-structured approach to industrial relations from the reforms up to 2005 have brought us benefits. These concerns must be taken on board by the government as it moves forward with its changes. We left the Labor government a legacy of strong economic and employment conditions, a point acknowledged on both sides of this House. We left the new Labor government no debt and a massive surplus. We left this Labor government and its state colleagues a lot of economic wriggle room. The management of our industrial relations system is no easy task—and the Rudd Labor government now has its hands on the controls.

This bill is the government’s first major foray into the arena, and its impact will be monitored not only by the coalition but by the people of Australia—the working families and the business owners. As a backbencher my primary concern is towards my constituency and the impact this will have on one of the major industries in Gilmore—tourism, a major employer of young people. The new government’s policies are gradually unfolding and need to be monitored so as to avoid any deterrent to employment and potential to contribute to an increase in unemployment. The new government has before it the challenge of meeting the economic and industrial relations changes of a rapidly changing world. Our local tourism industry is at the cutting edge of that changing world and among the first to feel the impact of change to industrial relations legislation.

I talked to a number of small business owners in my electorate recently, asking how things were going. Without exception they expressed deep concern about where things were heading. They were concerned about how rough things have been in New South Wales for a very long time and that it did not seem like they were getting any better. In regional and rural areas trade has been down. These people trade on weekends and public holidays. That is when tourists visit and it is their best opportunity for making a living. They told me that many cannot afford to open because of the high cost of staff and that they are wary of a union driven wages break-out. One cafe owner said it cost him about $40 an hour for a senior shop assistant on New Year’s Day. That is a lot of lattes that he has to turn out every hour just to break even. But he says he needs to do that just to make sure his business has continuity. He has to cop any losses from that. He has a choice: he can do that or he can shut up shop. If he shuts, staff have no jobs and the tourists have no service. My point is that, in the face of a possible world recession, with the events unfolding in America this year, more interest rate rises on the way and further deterioration of consumer confidence, sound management of our industrial relations system is more crucial than ever—and now the new Labor government has the helm.

Although the question of the reintroduction of unfair dismissal provisions has not yet been raised, it would appear likely. The prudent approach should be to explore the consequences of any such step. Again, this is a case of the government being given the reins of control. We as the alternative government have the responsibility of making sure that due diligence is followed in the formation and delivery of the government’s industrial relations policy agenda. When business operators, the people who provide and create jobs, are telling us to take it steady, we should listen.

Of primary concern for me and the people of Gilmore is the creation of jobs and the maintenance of employment. Job creation or job preservation strategies are critical elements of any government’s industrial relations legislation. We need to avoid pressure mounting on the domestic tourism industry. Added pressure will come if this government does not control inflation. It is all very well blaming the former government but, sooner or later, the government have to accept responsibility and act on the fact that they were voted in because Rudd said they would do a better job. If the unemployment rate starts going up then it is a clear sign they have failed. This failure will be accentuated if the government fail to reduce the unemployment rate in Gilmore.

My concern is to protect and to build on the jobs we have, and the people of Gilmore would expect no less of me. We need to address the issue of job prospects in the Gilmore electorate and particularly in domestic tourism. Gilmore has the reputation of having one of the highest unemployment rates in Australia. During the last campaign Labor promised to make it a priority to address the chronic unemployment issue in Gilmore by addressing the infrastructure bottlenecks and the skill shortage crisis. In fact, I have purposely kept a record of the words used by my Labor opponent during the campaign with regard to this issue and many others. I might remind Labor that the unemployment rate in Gilmore under the previous stewardship was as high as 17 per cent and was brought down to 7.8 per cent as of September 2007. Labor now has to bring that figure down significantly if its promise is to have any meaning at all. Labor needs to make some serious investment in the Gilmore electorate and one of the first places to start would be the local tourism industry, which is the major cornerstone of the economies of Kiama, the Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla.

I have no qualms about working with the government to achieve this and have already taken steps, through approaches to ministers, to put some rubber on the road. I strongly encourage Minister Albanese to place the Princes Highway at the top of Infrastructure Australia’s priority list. A commitment to the improvement of our main transport artery would be a positive early sign that the government is determined to do as it promised and govern for all Australians. As far as I am concerned, we cannot afford to be caught up in arguments over ideology. Industrial relations management is too important. Sound management of an incredibly complex system is what, in the end, puts bread on our tables and clothes on our children’s backs.

Businesses in my electorate are very concerned at what could be coming over the economic horizon, as are mortgage holders, mums and dads, builders, casuals and young people about to leave school and their parents. These concerns will not be easily allayed, but a steady approach to industrial relations management will go a long way towards doing just that. Again, Work Choices is no longer coalition policy and the coalition will not block the abolition of AWAs as this bill passes through the House.

However, over coming months and years the government should be aware that it is on notice that the people of Australia and Gilmore are dependent on it to deliver on its election 2007 commitments. Policy that reduces flexibility and returns modern workplaces to the mandatory collective agreement dominated days of the past will be rejected and stunts and posturing will also be rejected. The people of Australia, particularly the people of Gilmore, stand by the coalition when it says that Labor has the controls but it does not have a mandate to destroy jobs and damage the economy.

Our people want to work and we need the jobs for that to happen. It does not help when the government axes programs like the local liaison officer program that was of great assistance to local members in their efforts to assist, for example, job seekers. The new Labor government also needs to closely investigate the impact of abandoning programs like Sustainable Regions. The coalition had committed $15 million under the Sustainable Regions Program to encourage business initiatives and job creation on the New South Wales South coast. While I appreciate the new government is in a stage of review and renewal, I strongly urge it to look at the need for such a commitment in Gilmore. A similar commitment by the Rudd Labor government to the people of Gilmore would be a clear indication that the government is determined to deliver on its commitment to govern for all Australians.