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Monday, 14 August 2000
Page: 16253


Senator FORSHAW (4:49 PM) —I thank my colleagues Senator Sherry and Senator Cooney for allowing me to jump the queue, as it were, to make some brief remarks now on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Unfair Dismissals) Bill 1998


Senator Ian Macdonald —It had better be worthwhile.


Senator FORSHAW —It will be. I am glad that I have the minister's attention. For many years now the coalition parties and their ideological supporters within the business community have consistently argued that unfair dismissal laws are a barrier to employment. They have argued particularly that small business will not employ people or is reluctant to employ people whilst unfair dismissal laws remain on the statute books. This is an argument that the present Prime Minister and other ministers ran constantly when they were in opposition during the years of the Hawke and Keating governments, and it is an argument that they still want to put forward today. No doubt people like Senator Mason would continue to parrot what is in fact a nonsensical proposition.

I say it is nonsensical because the actual employment figures over many years put the lie to this argument that unfair dismissal laws are a barrier to small business employing more people. When this legislation first came before the parliament back in 1996 as part of the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill, I referred to official statistics which showed that, rather than there being some decrease in employment in small business during the years of the Hawke and Keating governments, there had in fact been a substantial increase. I pointed out that during that period, particularly in the early 1990s when the federal legislation was amended to pick up unfair dismissal provisions, there was a significant increase in employment at that time. This is quite contrary to the assertion that was parroted around the countryside day after day by the coalition and by spokespersons for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and so on that we would see increases in small business employment if only we got rid of those terrible unfair dismissal laws. It became such a mantra that even some people in the then opposition started to believe their own ideology. Mr Reith still continues to parrot this line, and he brings this legislation back again before this chamber in order to try and get it passed. Once again, I am confident that the Senate will reject it because it is founded on a totally false premise.

I do not wish to take a lot of time because many of the concerns which I and others have in regard to this legislation have been put on the record time and time again in previous debates but, for the benefit of honourable senators, I do wish to update some of the information which I put before the Senate in 1996. I refer to a table entitled `Employment by business size and sector' which has been provided by the Parliamentary Library. Its source is ABS statistics for employed wage and salary earners and the labour force. I have spoken to the government representatives in the chamber and will be seeking leave to table this table at the conclusion of my remarks.

This table shows the growth in employment between March 1990 and September 1999. It is divided into private sector and public sector statistics. With respect to the private sector, it is in turn subdivided into figures for small business employment and figures for big business employment. Let me point out that between March 1990 and 1993, employment in small business in Australia grew by 5.3 per cent. Further, between March 1990 and March 1999, employment in small business in this country grew by 20 per cent. If you put that into figures, between March 1990 and March 1996, when the Labor government was in power, small business employment in this country grew by 450,000, from 3,171,200 to 3,621,200—a huge increase. In those six years during the 1990s, when the Labor government was in power and those supposed unfair dismissal laws were in operation, this government argued—when it was in opposition—and continues to argue today that those laws are a barrier to small business employment growth. Between March 1996 and September 1999, when the current coalition government has been in power, small business employment growth has continued and has grown by 185,000—that is, in a period when this minister has been seeking to reduce the rights of small business employees. Over that nine-year period from March 1990 to September 1999, small business employment has grown by a total of 635,000.

If you look at the figures for big business and the public sector—I will not go into those in detail—you will find that the growth in employment in big business has been less than it has been in small business. Over the nine-year period it has been some 18 per cent. In the public sector, growth has been negative. In fact, public sector employment has declined by 14.7 per cent over the same nine-year period. We are all aware that there has been a lot of downsizing in the public sector over the years through the 1990s.

The point I want to make in respect of this legislation is that there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for this furphy, this fictitious claim, this untruth, that the current unfair dismissal laws—which protect the rights of employees, particularly in small business where they do not have access to a lot of the resources that may be available to employees in a large company—restrict employment growth and that we need to tighten up in the area of unfair dismissal to make it easier for employers to sack workers. The government continues to put forward the argument that, if only we got rid of the unfair dismissal laws and made it easier for employers to sack workers, we would see an improvement in employment in small business. Well, employment in small business has been growing constantly right through the 1990s and there is absolutely no reason why rights for those workers should be taken away. I seek leave to table this document.

Leave granted.