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Thursday, 18 February 1999
Page: 2232

Senator HARRADINE —My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Hill. I ask whether it is true, as was quoted in the Australian this morning, that:

The Prime Minister has ditched the Government's promise that the award system will protect the wages of all workers, opening the way for lower pay for anyone starting a job for the first time.

Is the government to follow Mr Reith's agenda of total deregulation of the labour market, which will leave the most vulnerable employees unprotected, unrepresented and exploited? Will this not also mean a vast expansion of the army of underemployed within Australia?

Senator HILL (Environment and Heritage) —No, I think there has been a misunderstanding. The government's policy and its commitments are clear: no worker making an agreement will be worse off than under the award safety net. The no disadvantage test will be retained. This applies to existing and new workers entering a workplace agreement. Laws will be retained ensuring that agreements are made without duress and that employees will be free to make the type of agreement that suits their needs. The AIRC will maintain a safety net to protect the low paid. This means that both existing and new workers are protected by the safety net.

It is true that the government is determined to look at all credible options to address Australia's unacceptably high unemployment—notwithstanding that we now have the lowest unemployment in eight years, thanks to the policies that we have implemented. But there is still a lot to be done, seeing what we inherited. Certainly we will look at options including increasing real wage flexibility, further reform of workplace relations and removing work disincentives in the tax/welfare system. Proposals are at an early stage of discussion, and it is obviously premature to speculate on what will be finally decided. But initiatives that are adopted will be consistent with the government's commitments.

Senator HARRADINE —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Can I get a guarantee from the government that there will be no interference with the AIRC's responsibility to set minimum wages and conditions for workers in this country? If that guarantee cannot be given to me, isn't what is being proposed by the government, or being proposed by Mr Reith, a fundamental attack on something that is ingrained into the culture of Australia—and that is the right to a fair go through an umpire? Won't the minister recall, for political purposes, what happened to the last conservative Prime Minister who went to the people on an anti-umpire, anti-arbitration approach? Can he not understand that every conservative Prime Minister since Bruce has upheld the system of conciliation and arbitration—and that goes from Menzies right through to Fraser? (Time expired)

Senator HILL (Environment and Heritage) —There are really two points. The first is, as I said, that the AIRC will maintain a safety net to protect the low paid, which means that both existing and new workers are protected by the safety net. That is the fundamental safeguard. But this government also recognises that there is the potential for people to do better when you have employers and employees able to negotiate agreements that best serve their mutual interests. This government recognises and respects the right of individuals to negotiate with employers and get a better deal for both sides.

I guess that is what is in stark contrast between the coalition's position and that of the Australian Labor Party, because the Labor Party believes that a third party will always make a better decision for a worker; we do not. We think if you give workers `a fair go', to adopt Senator Harradine's expression, they will get a fair go that is in their interests with better terms and conditions. (Time expired)