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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3860

Mr NIKOLIC (Bass) (10:59): I welcome this opportunity to speak in support of this bill, to reject the opposition's amendment and to reinforce the coalition government's commitment to improve the Fair Work laws. How extraordinary to hear the first few Labor speakers on this bill oppose their own election commitments. The member for Wakefield talks about keeping your commitments. Well, this bill is about helping Labor keep its own commitments when it comes to this area. We heard the member for Wakefield, from the shoppies union, use the language of class warfare and division and, above all, protection of union interests, opposing amendments introduced by Labor itself. We should not be surprised, because Labor opposes many things now it previously supported. It reflects a disturbing lack of certainty and clarity at the leadership level of what was once a proud party.

This is a party that before the last election said it had 'terminated the carbon tax' yet now opposes our repeal of the carbon tax. This is a party that promised billions of dollars in savings at the last election yet now opposes in the Senate our efforts to make those very same savings. This is a party that trashes the reform legacy of Labor prime ministers Hawke and Keating in the industrial relations area. Hawke and Keating would never have been as captive to a union movement as the current members opposite are. Far from the proud legacy of Hawke and Keating, ALP leaders today embrace the Calwell-Whitlam legacy of economic ineptitude and subservience to union bosses. It is little wonder that the Australian people so comprehensively rejected such confusion and dysfunction at the last election.

I will say at the outset that greater investment and productive workplaces are the foundation on which our future prosperity will be built. It will not be built on the sort of divisive language we have heard from the former government in recent years, which frames the debate as a battle between rich and poor and an ideological struggle between capital and labour. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hawke and Keating never resorted to the cheap politics of division that those opposite engage in today. The whole billionaires-versus-battlers story that many members on the other side continue to peddle on a day-to-day basis has been rightly dismissed by the Australian people. The truth is that capital creates jobs, and the greatest power of business is its power to invest or disinvest. When it does invest, jobs are created, people earn income, they pay taxes, governments receive revenue and so the collective needs of our community can be funded. It is a golden thread of logic that no amount of socialist babble will change.

All members of this House should have a special and ongoing interest in the matter of work in general and the Fair Work Amendment Bill in particular. This is an important issue in my home state of Tasmania, which is blighted by unemployment as well as its invariable accomplice—underemployment. I use the language of crime deliberately because the effects of joblessness are like a criminal invasion of the psyche and wellbeing of those afflicted by it, all the time corroding individuals, families and even whole communities. Once this problem reaches the critical mass of intergenerational welfare dependency, it requires a near superhuman effort from government to turn that situation around. Tasmania, like other beleaguered parts of the nation—notably some in rural and regional Australia—includes depressed communities where unemployment directly affects 20 per cent, or more, of people. They are desperately seeking work.

The government's Fair Work Amendment Bill seeks not only to improve existing work conditions but also to play a critical role in encouraging long-term investment in Australia. It gives genuine substance to the coalition's proud claim that, 'Australia is once more open for business.' In supporting this bill my intention is threefold: firstly, to focus on the full spectrum of Australia's employment compact, and that includes employees, employers, and the legislative role and responsibilities of government; secondly, to highlight the key elements of this important bill; and, thirdly, to comment on the relationship between this proposal and the unacceptably high rate of unemployment in my home state of Tasmania.

It is all too easily forgotten that employment related policy and supporting legislation must balance and meet the needs of multiple and sometimes dissenting parties. The coalition's commitment to balance the rights, needs and requirements of both employees and employers represents both a challenge and our determination to do the right thing for all Australians. Refreshingly and perhaps uniquely, this amendment bill represents a case where the government and even key Labor luminaries find themselves in heated agreement with each other.

During a recent address to the National Press Club, the former head of the Australian Workers' Union, Paul Howes, spoke passionately about the inherent pointlessness of class warfare between unions and business, at various points calling for a 'grand compact' and 'gestures of compromise'. I welcome Mr Howes's outbreak of common sense. Mr Howes might also have borrowed thematically from the Fair Work Amendment Bill itself, because this bill practically enshrines legislation that will better protect the work rights and conditions of all Australians. Whether he knew it or not, Mr Howes's speech contained key elements of this amendment bill. I genuinely thank Paul Howes for his faith in the government and, unlike some of his Labor colleagues, we will not let him down.

What the coalition intends with the Fair Work Amendment Bill has never been a secret. We released our workplace relations policy well before the 2013 election in order to openly address key problems with the Fair Work laws. This bill implements the commitments we made in that policy. Contrast that approach with the Labor and Labor-Green governments from 2007 to 2013, which rolled back not only coalition IR policy but many of the sensible policies that former prime ministers Hawke and Keating introduced. This bill also delivers on specific promises made by the ALP themselves prior to the 2007 election, promises they subsequently broke.

I will now focus briefly on some key features of the bill. It provides more balanced workplace relations outcomes, which include the safeguarding and protection of workers' conditions. It prevents needless union vetoing of greenfields agreements. This will ensure that unions cannot use endless delays as bargaining chips which frustrate investment and risk our country's prosperity. This bill supports the establishment of a work environment and culture that encourages investment in new projects. It sends a strong message to investors that Australia is, once again, open for business. It ensures that bargaining must have commenced before strike action can be taken. This is in order to negate needless and costly industrial action. It also avoids waste and productivity impacts, which the government, like other sensible and fair-minded Australians, is not prepared to tolerate. It improves individual flexibility arrangements to enhance productivity and fairness by giving our workers a greater say personally in negotiating work arrangements with their employers. Everything we are doing on the issue of individual flexibility arrangements was recommended by the previous government's own Fair Work Act Review Panel and was clearly articulated in the coalition's election policy.

Indeed, this idea of the individual having distinctive rights has been one of the most fought over in our recent history. As long ago as 1996, Bob Hawke commented:

For its part, the trade union movement must recognise ... the right of an employer and an employee, freely, to enter into individual contracts underpinned by an independently determined safety net.

Julia Gillard promised prior to the 2007 election to sweep away all individual agreements, but then ultimately took a more pragmatic view in promising:

Under Labor's new collective enterprise bargaining system all collective agreements will be required to contain a flexibility clause which provides that an employer and an individual employee can make a flexibility arrangement.

But, once again, Labor were all promise and no delivery. The legislation they introduced made individual flexibility clauses effectively worthless. These clauses in union agreements typically allowed for only one or two minor terms to be varied and could be unilaterally terminated on a month's notice. Employers and employees ignored them as offering no practical benefit to either party. Yet so many people in my community tell me they crave individual flexibility. In opposing this bill, Labor and the unions ignore those voices, even though individual flexibility is within a collective framework and the employee is better off.

Another important feature of this bill is that it delivers on what was promised by the previous government in 2007 on union workplace access. It will implement fairer right of entry laws that mean business can carry on without unnecessary disruption. Employees can access union representation if they wish to; and, if they do not wish to, they are able to go about their business without unnecessary disruption or harassment. Right of entry is a statutory privilege and conditions ought to apply. This should particularly be the case, given the frequency of unauthorised site visits. As we know, Labor broke their promise on union access by giving unions much easier access to workplaces under the Fair Work Act, and it has been shamelessly and repeatedly exploited. We have seen the arrogance of CFMEU National President, Joe McDonald, who was fined $193,600, along with his union, for ignoring a request to leave a site in Western Australia. When asked to leave, because he did not have a right-of-entry permit, Mr McDonald replied:

I haven't had one for seven years, and that hasn't f**king stopped me.

Little wonder that unlawful industrial action by union official Joe McDonald has resulted in more than $1 million in fines being issued since 2005. Our changes will reduce union capacity to harass and disrupt business. The bill will also address the failure of the previous government to implement a number of common sense recommendations made by its own Fair Work Act Review Panel in 2012.

In all these respects, this bill implements the coalition's publicly stated election policy—nothing more and nothing less—and the sorts of mendacious claims made by the member for Wakefield will not change that fact. The government is strongly committed to these measures. They will help build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australia's workers, businesses and the economy. We therefore call on the Labor Party and on all members of this parliament to support the sensible and measured reforms included in this bill; they are about bettering the lives of all Australians.

I now turn to a separate and thorny issue, that of the actual limits of government workplace involvement. The coalition took to the electorate a clear plan of exactly what we would and would not do in relation to workplace policy, if elected. We seek now to fulfil only that which we promised. However, it is not lost on me, nor on any other member of the government, the pain that is currently being felt in wider Australia following large-scale job losses. The government remains deeply sympathetic to the immediate and obvious impact of these job losses on workers, families and local communities. But the fact remains that there are limits to government involvement in work. Arguably, they can be distilled into two different but equally pressing imperatives. The first is to set or adjust the conditions by which work might be made as fair as possible for all parties—not only for the few, militantly represented or aggressively outspoken but for the many, and for the long term. This is exactly what this bill does. The second compelling imperative is to guard taxpayers' money with great vigilance. The coalition will never allow taxpayers' money to be spent with the reckless abandon of the previous government. This will necessarily mean having to make tough decisions now, for the longer-term national good.

In the end, it comes down to this: business or commerce is ultimately about profit, albeit hopefully achieved in a way that is sensible and humane; but government, on the other hand, is about reality, reasoned compassion and prudence—treating people and organisations fairly and consistently and, not least of all, managing public tax revenues respectfully and with strategic purposes foremost in our mind. The government will, of course, continue to pursue its goal of doing what it can to make work safe and fair for all Australians, notwithstanding the wider turbulence of strategic global market forces, which are often opaque and difficult to predict. This is also reality.

To conclude, this bill is balanced, far-sighted and honest. It is balanced because it looks to the rights of all parties in the Australian work compact—employees, employers and government. It is far-sighted because it supports the creation of workplace conditions which encourage investment. And it is honest, because it meets in full and only that which the coalition actually proposed before, during and after the 2013 election. In terms of honest and reliable policy development, presentation and implementation, the Fair Work Amendment Bill is fair in both name and substance. I commend it to the House.