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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1230

Senator ALSTON (Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts) (10:58 AM) —I want to speak on Cheryl Kernot's law. Clearly it is something that she regarded as a triumph, and that is why she supported it in the first instance.

But I want to make some preliminary remarks. I am sure none of us in this chamber will forget Greg Louganis—not only was he a gold medallist but he also inspired the former Prime Minister, Mr Keating, to actually boast about triple backflips with pike. The Labor Party in government had a notorious record for reneging on solemn commitments whenever it suited their political purposes.

We do not have to simply refer to the occasion on which Greg Louganis was invoked, we have to remember not just the solemn promises, but the legislation actually passed through this parliament which misled millions of Australian voters into thinking they were going to get additional tax cuts, because they were l-a-w, law—ripped up as soon as Labor got back into power. We had all the promises on Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, about not selling down any further or not selling at all. As soon as they won the next election, they immediately ripped up those promises. So I would have to concede that Labor has an outstanding track record on reneging whenever it suits their political purposes.

During the life of this government, Labor has also done some amazing backflips. One only has to remember the work for the dole legislation and, indeed, the charter of budget honesty. We had Senator Faulkner fulminating about the evils of work for the dole. He thundered and he postured and he jumped up and down and he wanted to move a whole raft of amendments because these were such odious and unacceptable provisions. But, of course, what did they do? They rolled over. They were arguably much more significant pieces of legislation than this current piece, important though this is.

Why is it that Labor will not roll over on this bill? Why are they prepared to go to the wire and face the prospect of a double dissolution on it? Quite simply because they have a massive and irreconcilable conflict of interest, because this chamber on that side is a wholly owned subsidiary of the trade union movement. They have said, `No, you are not allowed under any circumstances to support this legislation.' About two-thirds of those on the other side, including Senator Mackay, have very strong trade union backgrounds and have come here out of the sheltered workshop because they could never get a job in the real world.

I should remind the chamber that Senator Lundy is a classic example. She recently addressed a seminar in this building and solemnly explained that she did not understand the procedures of the parliament because, after all, she came from a private sector background. It really took my breath away to think that dyed-in-the-wool trade unionists now regard themselves as private sector individuals. But of course they are not.

Senator Chris Evans —She does come to divisions though, Richard, which can't be said of all members of the chamber.

Senator ALSTON —She does come to divisions. I will give her that. Certainly, I trust that those who miss them have very good reasons for not attending and that, when they are in that situation, they explain. The fact is that there are very many on the other side who simply have no choice. In fact, I think the last 10 who have come into this chamber as Labor senators, including Senator Quirke, have very solid trade union backgrounds.

Senator Mackay —So what! What's wrong with that?

Senator ALSTON —So what? What flows from that is that you have the biggest long-playing record in history. Of course the owner of that record is the trade union movement—His Master's Voice. They tell you what to do. They tell you whether they support legislation. They tell you whether they do not. Kim Beazley's office has been known to say that they cannot get back to us yet because they have not had a reply from the ACTU.

The reason Labor will not roll over on this is that they are not allowed to do so because the trade union movement sees this as one of their last opportunities to somehow pretend that they have derived advantages for the workers, that they have been able to generate a little more by way of damages in common law suits and statutory claims, and that this is somehow a justification for trade union membership. We all know that people are deserting the movement in droves, but it is alive and well in this chamber. Here we have another trade union rep coming in for the debate.

Senator Bishop —And pleased to be one.

Senator ALSTON —It could have been anyone. I am not being personal. Anyone who could have walked in from that side would have been a trade union member. You have a two out of three chance. There is nothing surprising about you not rolling over on this one.

Senator Chris Evans —Are you still a member of the law society, Richard?

Senator ALSTON —No, I never have been. Actually, I might have been in 1966 for one year before I became a barrister. They do not have law societies for barristers.

Senator Chris Evans —You joined the barristers' union then, did you?

Senator ALSTON —I did. I also belonged to the BLF, if it is of any interest to you. I am certainly not in any shape or form anti-union.

Senator Chris Evans —Did you declare that?

Senator ALSTON —Yes, I did. It won me the preselection. When I said I had been a member of the BLF, my people were absolutely astounded and said, `Well, you'd have a good understanding of the way the system works,' and I do.

Senator Mackay —No, you don't.

Senator ALSTON —I certainly understand the power of the union movement which tells you people how high to jump.

Senator Bishop —Why are you trying to take advantage of it?

Senator ALSTON —I paid my dues. You are still paying yours. You have your preselections. You have a lifetime commitment to repay, and I understand that.

I would like to thank all honourable senators who have contributed to this debate. The debate is all about jobs and about letting small business get on with business. Small businesses want and need an exemption from the federal unfair dismissal provisions not so they can dismiss unfairly but to relieve them from the threat of unfair dismissal proceedings.

Senator Chris Evans —Your bill's provisions.

Senator ALSTON —No. They simply want to be able to get on with it and act fairly. They do not need your crowd looking over their shoulders. They simply want to get on with being productive. We acknowledge that more needs to be done in this area and this bill will improve outcomes and help deter undeserving applications. Employers are still fearful of incurring very expensive and time consuming arbitrary outcomes which can impel them to a commercial settlement regardless of the merits of the case. A time-honoured tactic—you simply threaten long, drawn-out proceedings with the vast power of the union movement behind you—`Our pockets are limitless. You're a small employer. Pay up or else.'

What those opposite fail to understand is that businesses take into consideration issues such as the dismissal of employees and how they might have to manage unsatisfactory workers when they decide whether to engage new staff. Probationary periods will not solve that problem because the employee might slacken off once the probationary period is up. I was very interested to hear Senator Faulkner quote a recent Yellow Pages small business survey—if this isn't the ultimate in selective quotation! He said that five per cent of small businesses were concerned about industrial laws. What he did not tell you was in that presumably same survey in November 1997 covering 1,200 small businesses—

Senator Mackay —That's the one you paid for, Richard.

Senator ALSTON —Well why is he quoting it? He obviously thinks it has legitimacy if he quoted it. In that survey, 79 per cent of proprietors thought that small businesses would be better off if exempted from unfair dismissal laws. Thirty-three per cent said they would have been more likely to recruit new employees had there been an exemption in 1996-97.

We have unlimited funding coming from the trade union movement. Literally millions of dollars being money-laundered from a Labor government through the system and washed back in, in terms of contributions to the election campaign. An absolute scandal. You are shameless about it. It does not trouble you in the slightest because that is where your bread and butter is.

We understand that, but you ought to at least declare it when you vote on this bill. You ought to stand up on the other side of the chamber and state whether or not you have an interest in the outcome of this legislation. Let there be no doubt that this bill is about jobs and that those opposite from the trade union movement have no idea about the issues confronting Australian small businesses. This bill will remove a major disincentive to small business growth, and that is why this bill should be supported.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.