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Tuesday, 24 March 1998
Page: 1192


Senator MARGETTS (5:49 PM) —The government is obviously working on the theory that third time is lucky in relation to the changes before us today. The Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] is in fact the third attempt by this government to impose its fundamentalist and discriminatory proposal to exempt businesses employing no more than 15 workers from the unfair dismissal provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996. In late June 1997 the Senate voted to disallow regulations under the act which would have had the same intent as this bill. The bill was rejected in the Senate on 21 October 1997 and now we have the bill before us today. On both previous occasions I voted for the disallowance and I see no reason to change my position.

There are some very fundamental issues that are being missed by the government. One would have to suggest that they are being deliberately missed. One is that they forget that low wages—and they are pushing very hard for reducing wages and conditions to be `internationally competitive'—equals lack of spending power equals reduced market for small businesses' goods and services. The largest part of the market for small businesses is in fact the local economy. Added to that we have another simple equation: job insecurity equals lack of consumer confidence. What does that mean to small businesses' goods and services? Are you likely to spend on goods and services if you are unsure of whether you will continue to have a job tomorrow, the next day or the next week? Those things are fairly basic.

We currently have a government the Prime Minister of which talks about a nation relaxed and comfortable, a nation of shareholders. What I can say to that is: get real. We have in fact a nation of growing working poor, a nation of people who no way in a million years would be able to purchase Telstra shares, who no way in a million years would be able to be involved in the speculative international economy. There are a few players in Australia involved in that. We know that it is a very big part of the banks' agenda in Australia, but we know it does not represent the average Australian.

What does it really mean if, for instance, 35 per cent of the unfair dismissal claims in the courts are associated with small business? What it means is that small business in fact is underrepresented in relation to unfair dismissal claims. It means that less employees of small business are currently going to that court. It means that we should look at the outcome for those types of people who are involved in those kinds of court cases.

The 1996-97 annual report of the Industrial Relations Court of Australia highlighted that 58 per cent of contested unfair dismissal cases were decided in favour of the employee. Instead of the government saying, as it always seems to, `Oh, gosh, this is a cost for the employer,' I would say, `My goodness, this means that the court has found that 58 per cent of those people were found to have been unfairly dismissed.' It is dreadful to suggest that this kind of behaviour will be rewarded by the government—it will make it easier to treat those people unfairly. The median amount of compensation was around $6,000. We know the government has restricted the ceiling on payments that can be made to those people claiming unfair dismissal.

We have to decide what we do for those vulnerable people in our society who may face the fear of not having protection against being treated unfairly. That is what the court is required to decide. We are in a nation of the growing working poor. We are in a nation where the Prime Minister thinks that the nation can afford to buy Telstra shares. But we are in fact in a nation where the government believes the primary goal of government is to push for wages and conditions to be reduced so that we can be competitive in the international free market.

I would say that there is something missing from that argument. What is missing are the people who will be affected—that is, people who are working, people who are unemployed because they have been shed in the push for international competitiveness and downsizing and those people who are going to treated unfairly in this system. All the small businesses that are actually going down the tubes because of the concentration on corporate systems and international free markets will also be affected.

It seems to me that the government has lost the plot. It has left the community out of the equation. This is just another example. It is getting people through the door that is the main concern of the majority of small businesses in Australia. If they have not got people with the money and inclination to buy their goods and services they can sack people to their hearts content and things will not get better for them in the medium or long run. That is what this government has failed to address. The Greens will not be supporting this bill. (Quorum formed)