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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1158

Mr TUCKEY (1:17 PM) —Whilst most of us making a contribution to this debate on the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008 will be reasonably brief, due to the nature of the legislation, there are issues that I think are of importance. I am grateful, therefore, to be able to make some comment. I support entirely the amendment’s increasing of the lump sum compensation for work related death to $400,000, the increasing of the benefits paid for each prescribed child to $110 and the conversion of the indexing of that amount to the wage price index instead of CPI.

The consumer price index has become a very difficult index to utilise in many respects. It refers to a basket of items that people buy regularly. It has certainly proved to be very difficult to adjust pensions for the aged by that system, partly because of their consumer habits—what they buy as compared to what is in the CPI basket. Much the same applies to various families. If, as has been proposed, one uses a wage escalation index, it is quite clear it will be fairer, just as—you would remember, Mr Deputy Speaker Secker—the Howard government made an alternative index for age pensions by using male total average weekly earnings, or MTAWE, as it became known. So I think that is a good idea.

This gives me the opportunity to talk a little bit about compensation. Here we talk about prescribed children. Where there is a death related to the workplace and the person was supporting children, I believe the maximum amount of assistance should be available relative to the needs of raising those children as they would have been raised had the sole breadwinner—maybe—been still living. That is a good idea.

Nevertheless, I have never, ever been able to understand the campaigns so bitterly fought where 70-year-old and 75-year-old persons with no dependants seek huge compensation payments for past work related injury, which may cause death, when they have passed the three score and 10. They have nobody to support—sometimes a wife but certainly no children as dependants. I just wonder why, as so frequently occurs in these cases, the general community has to pay compensation in those circumstances. In other words, surely the courts or the legislation should take account of the age of a person seeking compensation for some work related injury or disease causing death. The public emotion goes high.

I find that there are so many aspects of this that we deal with in our common life. All of us are probably eventually going to be afflicted by some aspect of the life we live. I am not sure that I, for instance, should be able to claim compensation if I have been breathing too much air-conditioning in this place over 28 years. I find that ridiculous. Furthermore, having been fortunate in the past three score and 10, I am not sure that my workplace should have to fork out for me, whatever the circumstances. I do not have to worry too much, Mr Deputy Speaker—as you know, we politicians do not get workers compensation.

I just wanted to make those points. They are only slightly relevant to the legislation, but it is a point of principle with me that, as the sometimes criticised worldwide economist Friedman once said, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Whatever we do in this place and whatever we do elsewhere—whatever our decisions, whatever money we borrow et cetera—someone has to pay for it. There is no such thing as a free lunch. That is probably the greatest economic statement ever made, but it is ignored by so many.

There are other measures in this bill. It makes various changes to the social security law to amend incorrect references and clarify the operation of certain provisions in the Social Security Act. The bill clarifies the method of calculating the amount of youth disability supplement that is to be added to a person’s rate of youth allowance and the definition of a partner with rent-increased benefit. I gather that this is to say that you cannot have your cake and eat it too; you cannot seek a double payment. If your partner has certain levels of government assistance by way of rent assistance and you are the subject of youth allowance, you should not also be able to receive rent allowance—in other words, the benefit should not be paid twice. It certainly has my support.

That raises another matter of interest to me and, I am sure, to you and the shadow minister for immigration and citizenship, who is at the table and maybe even the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, who is at the table. It raises the issue that, where youth allowance operates in the Abstudy and the Austudy area—and Abstudy, I think, is a bit more generous than Austudy—in terms of access to tertiary education, there is still a distinctly unfair difference between people residing in metropolitan areas and those residing outside them. As is usually the case, the richer the parents, the closer they live to a leafy tertiary institution, a university. However, when people live at a distance from that available resource, the cost far outweighs any assistance available. We still have the arrangement, which concerns me, that young people living in rural areas wishing to get rent assistance through the youth allowance must go away and take a job, must virtually divorce themselves from their parents and their family home, to demonstrate that they are a sort of freewheeling person under the law so that, in the following year, they can qualify for these allowances. I find that totally illogical, and I am not sure that it is a benefit to society.

But even that assistance, if it can be obtained in that fashion, is far removed from the total cost, usually to parents, of people living in rural areas remote from a university—and that probably starts at 50 kilometres—where they have to relocate their children or their entire family to allow these young people to attend a university. To me, that is unfair and warrants the consideration of government. The ICPA, the Isolated Children’s Parents Association, have campaigned for an access grant. That may be the solution, but there has to be some balancing.

I have made speeches in this House in the past and pointed out—as I recollect, quite some years ago—that we had an amazing situation, which I do not think has materially changed except for the dollar figures that I will mention. If someone living in my electorate at the time with a basic salary of $20,000 a year had wished to send one of their children to university, the cost at that time would have been $10,000 a year in rent and other support that the child or the young person would need. Of course, that was obviously not affordable on $20,000 a year. If it was a single-income family and the wife then said, ‘Look, I used to be a nurse’—or a schoolteacher or otherwise—’and I will go back to work part time so I can earn the $10,000, sufficient to send Junior to university,’ the extra $10,000 of family income made that family at that time ineligible for other support, because the $30,000 was then a measure of your being rich. But you certainly were not rich in a rural environment if you had children who had to go to a tertiary institution.

The benefits available in secondary school are more generous and probably adequate, but we seem as a parliament to be unable to address in an appropriate fashion the huge disparity between the access to tertiary education available to a person from a rural area compared to one who probably lives a pushbike ride away from a university, resides in the family home, eats meals prepared and paid for by their family et cetera. It is quite a serious matter. So, while we are putting some clamps on youth allowance which seem quite proper, I think it is time we revisited that entire issue, and I would encourage people to do so.

There is another amendment to the Social Security Act. This will mean that a person who is subject to an assurance of support—in other words, they are covered by a private assurer—will not be qualified for sickness allowance or parenting payment single where their assurer is willing and able to provide them with an adequate level of support and it would be reasonable for them to accept it. I think that, again, is another double-counting measure—although, in some cases, particularly in small business, it is virtually saying that, if you privately insure, your insurer will pay, but if you do not bother the government will. That has always been an area of concern for me, depending, of course, on the ability of a person to do so.

This bill is referred to as the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill and as such I think it gives me the opportunity to comment briefly on the issue of the workplace that faces us today. I have read through the Australian newspaper and the Financial Review, as I always do, and the recurrence of articles about people losing their jobs is now quite significant. It is going to go on, and I am not sure what the Senate will do by tomorrow, but let me tell you that that is not the solution. We now have a situation where we have a huge expense quite properly accepted by government in the restructuring, if only of the public services, of this massive area of Victoria which these nuclear-type fires have swept through. That is going to soak up a lot of resources, maybe fortunately so. I do not want to be accused of being flippant, but we have a disaster led recovery of sorts.

As I said, I do not want to be flippant about that in any manner; what I am saying is that all of a sudden and out of the blue in an economic sense the construction industry will have the opportunity to create a lot of employment, and rightly so, as governments fund the reconstruction of that area. Does that then mean it is appropriate to go elsewhere and build a heap of other houses and consequently create a degree of competition for building construction workers that starts to escalate the price to first home buyers and negate the assistance the government has offered them? I put this purely as a question. I do not really want to say I have an opinion about that, but as times change and circumstances change should we be proceeding in exactly the same way as last week when some of these circumstances had not confronted us?

Might I say that it is a lesson in budgeting that when you start to get into debt you never know where the next big heap of expenditure is coming from and you can only fund it with further debt, and that is why cautious households try and keep some surplus in their bank account. But this is an issue of employment. Prosperity says we want everybody employed and for there to be demand for their services, but the minute it got to the stage of, say, 18 months ago there were cost implications and price escalation that made it very hard for young people to buy a house. Maybe the market was starting to correct that somewhat and then all of a sudden, in what might be argued is an otherwise fair response, maybe the government is going to overheat that sector.

Obviously, in my view, the reconstruction of Victoria takes precedence. That goes one step further because it is in the papers, and I believe the Senate inquiry is getting significant representations from business and employers as to issues of the fair work legislation that probably go beyond what the government promised and that also, in a time of difficulty economically, are probably unwise. I will put myself in the position of sitting in the business section of a major business, a major employer, looking at all the current problems facing my business. I have to start looking at my workforce and my legal advisers have told me that I am going to be severely disadvantaged under this law and that I could, as I expect in the north and in the Pilbara, be the subject of demarcation disputes between unions fighting each other for members and destroying the workplace in the process.

I saw plenty of that when I lived in the north of Western Australia. We nearly saw the iron ore industry collapse, and it was only when the Court government had the courage to write some rules of substance that that practice ceased. When the world has currently got a supply of more minerals than it can afford to buy and the potential exists for a single shipload of minerals to be delayed exiting Australia because of, say, a demarcation dispute, where does the purchaser place their next order? It is well known to persons like me—I saw the industry develop while I lived in the north—that so bad was Australia’s delivery reputation that the Japanese went and started iron ore mines in Brazil. Brazil is not a really good place for the Japanese to buy iron ore because the freight rates are a multiple of those from the Pilbara in Western Australia. They did it because they did not want their blast furnaces to run out of iron ore. And that was a common practice. People used to drive south and stop at my hotel and I would say, ‘What are you blokes doing?’ ‘Ah well, they have just called another strike up there over the colour of the tablecloth in the mess hall or something’—usually quite irrelevant things but frequently based around demarcation disputes. ‘It is going to last six weeks, Wilson, we may as well go to Perth.’ And that is what they did.

In the present international environment and in the workplace, is that a good idea? Not in my mind. It is not the time to be empowering trade unions, who often have agendas that do not make much sense. We read that the airlines are experiencing reduced business and that that will mean reduced employment, yet the air traffic controllers are trying to make up their mind as to whether we can go home tomorrow. Is this a good time to be having those sorts of disputes? Not in my opinion, because we do not want any further disruption. As I said, when you confront these issues—increasing costs through an emissions trading scheme and all of these negatives to business—do you do it in an international economic crisis? My view is no. (Time expired)