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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6249

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (4:03 PM) —by leave—I congratulate Senator Ludwig on that act of pure sophistry. It is really an act of transparent cowardice, because he seemed to suggest towards the middle of his remarks that the purpose of the exercise was to avoid the Christmas rush. But he started off by saying that the opposition stood ready to confront this matter—it was not afraid of a double dissolution—but unfortunately the Democrats were not ready and therefore they would defer to the Dems. That is not exactly what Senator Bartlett said. What Senator Bartlett said was that he had great and enduring respect for Senator Macklin who, many years ago, was arguing the case for a cut-off motion or an exemption from the cut-off that would follow from it. As he understood the purpose of a cut-off motion, it was to ensure that there was adequate time for consideration of a bill.

If ever there was a bill that has been overexposed it has to be this one. This bill has been before the parliament no less than 15 times; it has been before this chamber eight times. If ever in the history of the Senate there was legislation by which you could say you were not taken by surprise, it is that on unfair dismissals. This has been a circus for years. To pretend that somehow you are not ready, or to hide behind what you claim are the Democrats saying they are not ready, is complete and utter sophistry. The reality is that the Dems want to hide because they want to put off the date of reckoning. But they know full well that the purpose of the cut-off motion is to ensure that people are not taken by surprise. This has to be one of the worst kept secrets of all time if you think we have suddenly sprung this on you. We have been bringing it back time and again. Just so that the Labor Party is utterly exposed on this issue, let me remind you what its general attitude has been to exemptions from the cut-off. Senator Ray said on 24 September last year:

... around 125 to 127 bills have been subject to a cut-off resolution since we resumed after the 1998 election. The Labor Party has only ever opposed the cut-off for one ...

So you would think that there would have to be extraordinary circumstances to justify that. It would have to be a huge piece of complex legislation which had been dropped on you at the last minute and you simply had not had time to prepare. This, of course, is quite the opposite. The Labor Party has known for months and years about a determination to proceed on this matter and, with its usual consistent intransigence, it absolutely refuses to come to the party. That is irrespective of the fact that we have gone to elections on the issue. It is irrespective of the fact that there have been surveys in which small business has made it painfully clear that this is costing it hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

A recent survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research gives compelling reasons why small business needs to be exempted but, as always, the Labor Party just says no. As we saw in an article by Cameron O'Reilly this morning, it is because virtually everyone on that side is here representing the interests of the union movement. They are not representing the wider community; they are not in touch with small business. They are not really in touch with policy issues. They are simply here as spear carriers for their various unions. If there is one issue that unites them, it is the fact that the unions do not like the exemptions for unfair dismissals. As a result, they are going to die in a ditch. I would have thought that to start off by saying, `We are not afraid of a double dissolution, but we have to defer to the Democrats,' was the height of cowardice. For all those reasons, we will be supporting the motion.