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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 79

Senator BARNETT (2:19 PM) —My question is to the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Will the minister outline to the Senate how the Howard government has created more job opportunities for Australian workers? Will the minister also indicate whether the government intends to introduce policies that will continue to promote employment opportunities? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Barnett for his comprehensive question. In doing so, can I note that the unemployment rate in Australia has now fallen to 5.3 per cent. This is the lowest level since the 1970s and it demonstrates what we have been saying all along: only a coalition government can deliver real jobs with real wage rises for Australian workers. This has been achieved by a comprehensive process involving two key elements. The first is the outstanding financial management by Australia's finest Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello, which involved paying back Labor's massive $96 billion debt, keeping interest rates low and keeping inflation low. The second arm is the significant reform of Australia's workplace relations system, which took power out of the hands of big business and big unions and gave it back to the real people of Australia—that is, the employees, the individual workers and the employers. Those two factors have given us not only an economy which is the envy of the world but also real jobs growth, real wages growth and the highest level of wealth amongst ordinary Australians in our history.

Yet there are some people who want to turn the clock back to when union thugs stormed into businesses with baseball bats and intimidated workers and employers. They also want to turn it back to when the Industrial Relations Commission sat in judgment and made grand pronouncements about compulsory industrial awards, regardless of the needs of individual workers and businesses' capacity to afford those conditions. Earlier this year Labor approved an industrial relations policy, which, according to a former Labor adviser, rolled back the reforms of not only the Howard government but also the Keating and Hawke governments. That program was comprehensively rejected by the Australian people on 9 October, yet only yesterday we had Labor's parliamentary secretary, former communist and ACTU leader, Jennie George, saying:

In my view it would be folly to jettison the very good industrial relations policy we took to the election.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet has already warned—

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senators on my left will come to order.

Senator ABETZ —Let them deny that she was a former communist—of course, they cannot. ACTU secretary Greg Combet has already warned that federal Labor would face united opposition from the union movement if it were to water down its IR policies. So it seems that Labor's new shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, Senator Penny Wong—and I wish her well—is in for a very long stay in that position and will not have much work to do because it has already been done for her and set in concrete.

Whilst Labor may have dropped a Penny on the front bench, it seems that the penny has not dropped with Labor that they have to change their policies. They have to change their antijob policies which have impacted on the Australian people in such an appalling way. It is not only in the area of workplace relations that Labor have let down workers; it is in their forest policy and it is in their energy policy. Labor's policy touchstones are: will it keep the trade union leadership happy and will it keep the Greens happy? Our touchstones are: will it support Australian workers and will it create jobs? Mr Latham has an opportunity to show his economic credentials in the area of industrial relations, and I call on Labor to support our policies on unfair dismissals. (Time expired)