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Monday, 9 February 2015
Page: 46

Mr LAMING (Bowman) (12:44): Maybe we will swing back to reality here and talk about just how important it is when bosses and workers get together and are mature enough on both sides to come to agreements in 99 per cent of cases—how that focus has to be on productivity. That is the future.

I have made many statements in the last couple of weeks about the increased challenges in 2015. Australia is not alone, but obviously we are moving from a mineral-dependent economy—rocks and crops—to a post-mining future. Having young Australians carve out a living in reasonably-earning professions outside of mining is going to be an enormous challenge for whoever is in power. Certainly, as we see developing economies with a subsiding appetite for our commodities that chastens us deeply to make sure that we have jobs for the 140,000 young Australians leaving school and who cannot even pick up a broom or find a job to do. That has to be a massive social challenge for any government, regardless of which side of the fence it is on.

As I said, when bosses and workers get together it is our belief that for 99 per cent of the time they can do so in a mature and good-faith way. But—let's face it—there is a little bit of evil on both sides and, at the extremes often that cannot occur. That is why we rely on fair work legislation and on the commission in particular to assist that process forward. In doing that, this side of politics worries about productivity and that side of politics relies on beating up one side of the argument and doing their best to run interference on what are the mature decisions made by workers. That is a very patronising view of the world but one that is deeply ingrained.

Obviously, we would like to see a chance for mature adults to talk first and come to some kind of reasoned agreement. We would like to think that when offers and responses are put on the table that, to the average read by an ordinary Australian, it seems to be done in good faith—that they are not unrealistic or completely implausible. We are not talking about 30 per cent pay rises over four years, or being able to stop work at a moment's notice and hold your boss hostage and all that sort of stuff. That is all patently ridiculous but, strangely so, still possible under Labor changes. I guess that what we want to see on this side is that when there is protected industrial action it does not just happen before negotiation even begins—the sort of 'go directly to jail and pay $200' approach that we saw from Labor where there is really just no proper and meaningful consultation. And we had plenty of evidence of union bosses regarding themselves as above the law. Once you start with one party with that view it is almost impossible to come to these productive arrangements that other economies overseas seem to be able to do because they have moved on from this highly immature, two-party approach. There is one approach that says people can come to these agreements—and we see workplaces where that occurs—but as I do concede, there are the rare examples where we are going to need legislation and we are going to need a Fair Work Commission to assist in that process.

So the Fair Work Amendment (Bargaining Processes) Bill 2014 simply says that if you are going to apply for a protected action that there are going to be a few basic requirements. We know that the ballot is still held by the Fair Work Commission but, more importantly, we need information provided to the commission about exactly what is being sought in protection action ballot orders. To do that, I think it is utterly reasonable that the union has to demonstrate the steps that it has taken. After all, it is the unions that are the pros in these arrangements, right? They go from workplace to workplace with fully-rehearsed arrangements. Often, these bosses only renegotiate these arrangements every two, three or more years; for them, this is an occasional occurrence. But for the hard-core pros it is their full-time business, making life as miserable as possible for those who are trying to strike otherwise productive agreements.

So we want to see from unions that appropriate steps have been taken, that they have at least tried to engage the employer. No matter where you go, you have these stories where they barge into the office and unilaterally stamp down their arrangements on the table and say, 'We're the boss. This is what's going to happen. If you try and fight us it will only get uglier for you,' and all this sort of stuff. Whether that is all just apocryphal, you would have to ask bosses. But there are plenty of stories where the whole negotiation process starts off on the wrong foot.

Secondly, of course, the case has to be stated. What we are asking for is for unions actually to demonstrate that they have told the employer what they are chasing before they have embarked on this process. Then, of course, you would expect that if you are going to make an initial offer—and often what we see is copycat pattern bargaining within a sector and between workplaces. The old union tactic, of course, is to negotiate an agreement, go to the next worksite, start from that agreement and ratchet it up a little bit more. If anyone wants to know where the boom time was squandered, it was squandered by doing these agreements that did not relate to productivity at all but just related to how much people could be paid for doing as little as possible. That is obviously what got us into the pickle we are in, paying people working in our mining sector almost double what the United States pays for an equivalent-trained miner doing exactly the same job. It is an average of $68,000 in America compared to $108,000 in Australia. Good luck competing under those conditions!

Of course, the union has to respond to offers or counterproposals. In many cases the unions just cannot wait to get into the business of tearing up agreements, creating destabilisation and pulling everyone off the worksite, because that is what they do best! But I think that what we are asking for here is utterly reasonable; that we give reasonable people who have an open mind to striking an agreement a chance to get that to happen. This is all based on a leading decision of the Fair Work Commission, based on what the relevant considerations are that they think should be looked at before authorising an industrial action ballot.

Up till now we have seen these unrealistic claims too many times for us to completely ignore them and too many times for us to do nothing about them—manifestly excessive. There will be a number of those examples given by those who, while having a seat in this place, are more intimately acquainted with experiences with the unions. Now, we are not about to say that they are all bad and we are all good. I conceded at the start of this speech that there is a range of participants in this, just like we generally find in the world that there are people who exploit the system on both sides of it. We are just trying to allow for the sensible centre to get on with doing what they do best, which is drawing up arrangements with their bosses and getting mutual agreement first of all on the way in which they spend their hours at the workplace, what they do and what the agreed targets are between them and their employer about productivity and contribution to the workplace.

Too often, this starts from a completely bellicose and hostile arrangement. I think this bill makes an important step. It focuses on what I think is the No. 1 word for the next 12 to 24 months: in this country it will be about 'productivity'. It is going to be about how we can get the best possible outcomes in the workplace, the best possible outputs and, of course, the strongest possible sectors to compete with—and let me be frank—international competitors: our trading competitor economies, which are at every step prepared to take our markets.

There have been some changes with the changes to currency but there will be no substitute for getting Australia back on the productivity track, being as competitive as possible and, where we can, allowing bosses and unions to strike their own agreements without molestation and interference from trade unions.