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Tuesday, 24 March 1998
Page: 1198

Senator HOGG (6:34 PM) —I oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2]. It is interesting to note that, for something that potentially will act as a trigger for a double dissolution and therefore has great importance, one would expect, for the government, the speakers list on this bill is limited to one government speaker—and that is Senator Alston. Obviously it does not play an important role for the government but, nonetheless, it provides a political tool by which the government can achieve a double dissolution, as speakers before me have said, including Senator Murray from the Australian Democrats.

This piece of legislation is back here for the second time and is quite reprehensible because the legislation itself seeks to discriminate against a specific group of workers. Senator Cooney and Senator Forshaw have clearly outlined how a select group of people who have no other sin—if we can term it that—other than to work for a small business, are going to be discriminated against in this nation. And that really is quite a tragedy because here we are singling out a group of people and telling them that their rights are going to be denied to them because their employer employs a specific number of employees.

The Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business (Mr Reith) in his second reading speech quoted Mr Bastian from the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia as saying that 50,000 jobs would be created if this bill went through the Senate. Senator Murray has already picked up on the fact that this is a gross exaggeration and that there is no proof. Obviously what COSBOA was doing was handing out some sort of carrot to the government, some inducement, to get it to pass this legislation so that, as a result of passing the legislation—

Senator Harradine —He's right; 50 per cent get the sack and 50 per cent are employed.

Senator HOGG —That is right, Senator Harradine. What we are seeing here is an inducement to the government to somehow get around the problem that it has yet to tackle—the massive problem it said it would tackle but has not done so—and that is the problem of unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, in this nation. We had a debate in this chamber only last Thursday on the problems that the long-term unemployed in this nation are suffering as a result of this government—not as a result of any previous government, but as a result of this government. It can clearly be seen that the long-term unemployed are increasing in the categories 52 weeks to 104 weeks unemployed and over 104 weeks. So this offer by COSBOA in no way addresses the employment issue. Obviously it has been hung out as some sort of inducement for the government and, of course, the government is now trying to use this flimsy excuse—and that is all one could say it would be—as a reason for presenting this bill in the chamber again.

But if one looks at the words `50,000 jobs', it does not even say whether those jobs are full-time jobs, part-time jobs or casual jobs. If this government were sincere in trying to do something to offer people security in employment, they would be dropping this bill rather than putting it forward. This bill will not provide people with security and will encourage employers to sack those people in full-time jobs who are able to sustain them selves, who are able to eke out a reasonable living on some occasions.

The job argument is not a valid argument at all. It is my experience that, in the past, major newspapers have announced: `1,000 jobs here, 1,500 jobs there, 2,000 jobs there', particularly with the opening of major shopping centres. Yet, when one looks into the figures, one finds that a substantial number of these jobs are casual jobs—casual jobs of from five to 10 hours work per week. If the government were to pass this legislation, the offer by COSBOA rings hollow indeed. One would not expect that one would see massive numbers of full-time jobs which would have a meaningful impact on the long-term unemployed. What we have here is sheer gamesmanship on the part of COSBOA to try to dupe this government into passing legislation that, at the end of the day, will do nothing other than deny a select group of people their rights. So, on that basis alone, the legislation that is presented here again stands totally condemned.

There is no guarantee in the minister's second reading speech that COSBOA are offering any ironclad guarantee that jobs will materialise as a result of this legislation. It is a throwaway line—and a cheap throwaway line at that. If we look further at the minister's second reading speech, we get into the funny parts of the speech: not funny in the sense that they are laughable, but funny in the sense that they can reasonably be ridiculed. When this legislation was defeated previously, the government apparently called upon Yellow Pages to do a survey, which was conducted between 30 October 1997 and 12 November 1997. The minister actually included the results of that survey in his second reading speech. The results are laughable, because again they offer no guarantee of employment.

Let us look at the results of that survey. The survey said that 33 per cent of small businesses reported that they would have been more likely to have recruited new employees if they had been exempted from unfair dismissal laws in 1996 and 1997. That is a load of rubbish—that is the only way it can be described. There is no promise of jobs there. The words were most specific, `would have been more likely to'. There was no undertaking whatsoever; it was purely, `We might do it if we feel like it.'

The survey went on to say that 38 per cent of small businesses reported that they would be more likely to recruit new employees if they were exempted from the current unfair dismissal laws. Again, there is no promise there whatsoever. It is purely a spurious claim because it appealed to the employer. The survey asked, `Would you create more jobs if we were able to exempt you from the unfair dismissal laws?' What would you expect from the employers? The natural reaction, `Sure, you exempt us; we would employ more people.'

That is as banal a survey as trying to prove that the population in Brisbane are Christians by standing outside St John's Anglican Cathedral on a Sunday as people come out of the service asking them if they are Christians and then saying, `I've done a survey that shows that 99 per cent of people in Brisbane are Christians.' That would have exactly the same credibility as this survey—none whatsoever—and yet this government is resting on this as a potential trigger for a double dissolution. As one of my colleagues said earlier, it is very hypocritical. I find that what the government are doing has no sincerity about it whatsoever.

Further in his second reading speech, the minister talks about helping small business to `grow, employ, export and invest in Australia's future'. I am all for helping small business grow, employ, export and invest in Australia's future, but this government have done nothing to assist small business whatsoever. They were the first to embrace small business, yet they are the first to do nothing positive for small business. This step does nothing to help small business grow, employ and export because, if one looks at the legislation, one finds that there is a ceiling there—a ceiling of 15. What does a small business do when it wants to employ the sixteenth person? There is no incentive for small business to grow beyond 15 employees.

What the government did is they linked this tenuously into the termination, change and redundancy provisions. There is no sensible relationship between the termination, change and redundancy provisions—as came out of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission—and what is being proposed in this bill. They are like chalk and cheese. The termination, change and redundancy provisions were designed to protect the rights of workers, and the exemption for small businesses with 15 or fewer staff was because many of those small businesses were not making major changes brought about by technological advancement—major plant refits and so on. So it is a very poor but tenuous link that the government have tried to use in linking this to the issue of termination, change and redundancy.

Of course, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the magic number of 15 should then be used as justification for excluding a class of employees from their fundamental basic human rights—none whatsoever. This provision, if it were to get through, would act as a disincentive to employment in the longer term. If the government were serious about helping businesses to grow, helping businesses to employ and helping businesses to export, then they would drop this legislation rather than cynically use it as a means of achieving a double dissolution.

So why 15? Why not 12? Why not 10? Why not five? There is no rhyme, no reason, no justification, other than that tenuous link put up by the minister, which completely destroys itself. What we are seeing with this piece of legislation is a piece of legislation designed to destroy the fundamental rights of people in the work force.

The government are saying, `This really doesn't have any effect on existing employees.' But as Senator Murray pointed out, and rightly so, many of these small businesses have a very high turnover of staff, so what we will see in a very short space of time is this legislation taking effect a lot quicker than even the government would be prepared to admit. We would have people exposed a lot earlier than even the government would be prepared to concede.

What we see in the legislation is fundamentally a denial of justice to a certain class of employees. It certainly could not be described as being fair to the employees who work for small businesses wherein there are 15 or fewer employed. The employees are not protected from the harsh and oppressive employers—and there are harsh and oppressive employers out there in the real world. They cannot all be painted as being Latter-day Saints. Certainly, many of them are quite disgusting in the way they treat their employees.

If one looks further at the second reading speech, one would see again the cynicism that exists in the government's approach. The minister said:

The new system is more balanced and fair to both employers and employees. It is less legalistic and costly, with an emphasis on conciliation. Employers are protected from frivolous and malicious claims—

This is just a load of nonsense. What we are talking about here are the fundamental basic rights of these people. The minister said in his second reading speech that, if this legislation is passed, the employers will be protected from frivolous and malicious claims and will thereby, in some way, benefit. What we are going to see is the denial of people's rights, and people in this nation have got to make up their minds what comes first—people's rights or employers being protected from frivolous and malicious claims.

Debate interrupted.