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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1839

Ms MARINO (12:19 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, with regard to my electorate of Forrest, in the south-west of Western Australia. My electorate has a full range of industry, from small business to retail, contracting and those in the very large mining and resources sector. I have found that the majority of people have not been fazed by the introduction of Work Choices and are well aware that AWAs are nothing new as they have been available since 1996. It is plain that federal Labor are using the Work Choices legislation as the excuse to roll back and then to end AWAs and individual contracts. However, they are keeping them under the new name of individual employment transitional agreements, or IETAs, but only until December 2009, when a no disadvantage test will apply. As AWAs were subject to a fairness test anyway, this really means that federal Labor intend to keep individual contracts but to promote union collective agreements over individual contacts.

In my electorate we have the Bunbury Chamber of Commerce. This particular group has over 800 small business members, with 80 per cent employing fewer than four employees. Work Choices gave these particular businesses significant confidence to expand and employ more staff. I also have larger mining and resources companies in my electorate. Wespine, for example, has 80 per cent of its workforce on AWAs. This has been the case for a long time. It believes that if these contracts cannot be renewed federal Labor will make it more difficult for the company as it has been able to incorporate flexibility into the contracts to cater for the needs of individual employees. I have another major firm in my electorate, a contract cartage and heavy haulage business, whose workers have the opportunity for a wide variety of agreements—and it is that flexibility that makes the difference for both the employer and the employees in that particular business.

Another company, Piacentini & Son, an earthmoving and mining contracting company in Picton, in the south-west, has been able to operate very successfully with AWAs not only in Western Australia but also in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. AWAs have been very good for both this company and its employees because they have offered flexibility to workers and have streamlined the rules and pay for similar activities.

With AWAs the employer could deal directly with individuals and discuss the issues that were relevant. Different levels of pay were available for different levels of activity. The company reported to me that it needs to retain this flexibility in its workforce to remain competitive in tendering for contracts right across Australia. AWAs benefited both employers and employees because they provided an alternative to a discussion platform. It was akin to having competition in the workforce as opposed to having only a union to negotiate with. The power was not confined to just one group, and it gave people the capacity to negotiate.

The Minister  for Employment and Workplace Relations has said her government must talk with employers, employees and those who will play a role in our new workplace relations system. There are a number of employers and employees in my region. I seriously hope that the minister consults with them in this process, because they are working very well with AWAs, probably because they are on non-union sites. I would strongly encourage federal Labor to get in contact with the various groups and businesses in my electorate. We need certainty, and these businesses are already contacting me looking for certainty and looking for what the rules will be going forward. An expanding business needs increased productivity, and employers and employees are happy when they work together. I am a small business person myself, and the one thing that I hear from other small business people is how much they value very good workers. We hear about workers being dismissed. In this House the employers whom I meet value their very good employees because they are part of the productivity and the future of their businesses. Employers cannot do their jobs without good employees and they value those employees. In fact, with our unemployment rates as they are in Western Australia, the good employees certainly are able to negotiate very good outcomes for themselves. My colleagues who have spoken previously to this bill have also confirmed the coalition’s position that Work Choices is no longer coalition policy and the coalition will not oppose the transition of this bill in the House.

In my electorate of Forrest the mining sector is a very high earner, followed by forestry and agriculture—including horticulture and viticulture—and tourism. All of these businesses require flexibility in the workforce. Another issue is the fact that small business is also often the engine room of many small towns and communities in general. I was the president of a football club in my small community, and the support for that football club came from small businesses. Their economic position came from flexibility in the workforce and the capacity to negotiate with their employees. Small business has the capacity to be significantly impacted by major changes. A number of those businesses have contacted my office in relation to this issue. Small business is a critical part of our economic and social fabric in regional towns and centres right across Australia, but particularly in my electorate of Forrest. The majority of these small businesses are family owned and run. Small business is a major employer nationally and is effectively the cornerstone of our society. The one thing that is often overlooked is the fact that small business is actually a critical player in strengthening competition in the marketplace. My electorate is one that has a vast range of tourism opportunities, but its workforce needs to be a flexible workforce. The same is true of the agricultural sector, particularly in dairy farming, where there is a real need for flexibility in the workforce. I have also looked at what has happened in relation to infrastructure. We have some very clear infrastructure needs throughout my electorate. I hope that the Labor government strongly supports their election commitments, particularly in relation to the infrastructure projects and the Bunbury outer ring road. Again, a raft of these initiatives will be based on the capacity to engage a flexible workforce.

I am concerned that recent job advertisement figures show the total number of jobs that are being advertised is actually falling. The three latest surveys indicate that business confidence is eroding and, as a result, there is a real and genuine possibility that unemployment may rise. Last month’s Sensis business index showed support for the new government dropped by 30 percentage points. This was followed by the Olivier job index, which recorded a drop in job advertisements for the first time in three years. Business, and in particular small businesses, is facing an uncertain future under changes to unfair dismissal laws. The Labor government wants to abolish AWAs but not enable negotiations beyond these in a way that is effective for both employers and employees. No new employees can go onto ITEAs; there will be no new agreements beyond December 2009. Only 700,000 workers—that is, eight per cent of workers in Australia—are on individual contracts, mostly in the mining sector, but they are a significant check and balance for businesses. They are a check and balance; I repeat that. We need flexibility of individual contracts as well as collective agreements. We need flexibility in the labour market for productivity gains. Individual common-law contracts are needed for contracts where employees earn over $100,000. I believe all employees should have the right to negotiate their own conditions, whether they earn above or below this level, but this sends the wrong message and separates these workers into an elite class. I maintain that we need to retain flexibility in the labour market. The amendment bill seeks to lengthen the life of ITEAs to five years. I support the amendment bill and commend it to the House.