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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 97

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (7:45 PM) —It is a wonder to me: listening to the Labor side you would think that every employer in Australia was out to unscrupulously attack every employee.

Senator Marshall —Not every one.

Senator BOSWELL —Senator Marshall, I am one of the few people here who have employed people. You go to the nth degree to keep your work force happy. Not only is that my experience but it is the experience of just about everyone who employs people. It is not your purpose to go and sack people. You do not say: ‘I’ve had a rotten day today. I think I’ll go and throw a few people out of their jobs to make my day happy.’ You go to the nth degree to try to keep your work force intact and to keep a good relationship with them. But I will come to that later. I want to make a full contribution on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 because I think this is very important legislation for Australia.

Australian individuals and families today live in one of the world’s strongest and most resilient economies. Through sound economic management the National-Liberal coalition government have significantly increased our nation’s productivity and lowered interest rates to record levels. There can be no argument about that, Senator Marshall. Australians now enjoy higher wages. They find it much easier to find a job in a vibrant job market and have greater flexibility in their employment. At the same time, real wages have risen 15 per cent. Prosperity and security have been achieved in an unstable global economy characterised by major global economic downturns such as the Asian economic crisis and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US.

We have come a long way since we took government in 1996, but we cannot stop now. There is more to be done. There is always more to be done. A modern workplace is an essential component to increasing productivity and further increasing prosperity for individuals and families. The Work Choices legislation before the Senate today forms the next step in the coalition’s plan for a more prosperous future for all Australians. It strikes the right balance between more flexible and productive workplaces and protecting basic rights and conditions.

The system we are now under was largely created at the end of the 19th century. Our workplace relations system is badly in need of an overhaul. The government reform challenges the entrenched mindset of unionists who have failed to change with the times. Our awards system is based on the Harvester case from about 1907. As I said, I actually employed people. I had storemen, packers, clerks and reps. You would go to any degree to keep your staff happy, including paying for their children’s weddings. You would take it out of their pay.

Senator Hurley —Take it out of their pay! That’s good of you.

Senator BOSWELL —Of course you would. You would pay a couple of grand—in those days that was what a wedding cost—and they would pay it off. You would finance their weddings or you would finance a car. You did those things because you wanted them to work for you, not disappear and work for someone else. It is wrong to categorise all those on this side of the chamber as being intrinsically opposed to the interests of Australian workers. As the federal election result showed, it was the blue-collar workers who put us on the treasury bench and the Labor Party in opposition.

When I started in business in the early sixties you sat on your own market. There were people in Sydney and that was all they looked after. People in Melbourne looked after that market. All markets were almost state based. Slowly they changed into national markets. That was over a period of 10 to 15 years. Now we are in an international market. The world is everyone’s oyster and we are faced with international markets. The level of competition demands a new response of everyone and everything in the industry food chain, from telecommunications and access to the latest technology to individual workplace agreements. We cannot stop the world and say we want to get off because we liked things the way they were in 1907. If we do, we will be left behind. Ultimately it will be the workers and their families who will be hurt. To prove my point on that: in France and Germany, where there are highly regulated labour markets, they also have the highest unemployment rates. Their economic powerhouses are faltering because they are not open enough. Another EU country, the UK, meanwhile, with its more open labour market, has nearly full employment and higher wages to offer its workers.

We have 130 pieces of legislation in this area, 4,000 different awards and six different workplace systems. How can you run a competitive industry in Australia if every employer has to take that into consideration? There definitely has to be a move towards one simpler, fairer national system. We will get left behind if we do not move that way. Everyone knows that. If you on the opposition benches are honest with yourselves you know it too.

I will give a recent example. Mr Acting Deputy President Barnett, you will remember it because it was in your state. Remember how the potato industry was doing it tough. What happened? The industry went out and campaigned, but eventually New Zealand took the market from Australia. How did they manage to do that? Through having a more efficient labour system that contributes to an overall greater flexibility and competitiveness. Our farmers need this legislation. Our small business people need this legislation. Australia’s small businesses provide one in three jobs created in this country. They and their employees have suffered a workplace relations system that is adversarial, outdated, legalistic and complex. The need for a simplification of the industrial relations system is particularly felt by small businesses that do not have a payroll section and a human resources division. The complex and therefore time consuming and costly task of managing award compliance falls especially hard on small businesses and farmers. The Work Choices package aims to address this imbalance.

One of the main objectives of the workplace relations bill is to encourage the further spread of workplace agreements in order to lift productivity and hence the living standards of working Australians. Work Choices will deliver a simple, straightforward lodgment-only system for all agreements. All agreements will be lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate, will commence on the date of lodgment and will need to meet the fair pay and conditions standard—the new national safety net—throughout the lives of the agreements. Easier lodgment will encourage more businesses, particularly smaller businesses, to join the 300,000 workers from all around Australia that have switched to Australian workplace agreements in recent years.

Under Work Choices, 4,000 awards and their complexity and duplication will be reviewed. Some of those awards are totally antiquated. I had a look today at the plumbers award for Queensland and WA. It has a section listing the tools to be purchased and maintained in efficient working order and for which an employee is paid an allowance. It lists wood bits, soldering irons, wood braces, hand drills, ladles and shave hooks. Those tools are 20 years out of date. No-one has used those sorts of things for 20 years yet they are in an agreement. They are obsolete, they have been obsolete for a long time, but they are still in the award.

During my 23 years in parliament, a major issue constraining small business operators has been the country’s unfair dismissal laws. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Barnett and Senator Nash, the stories about unfair dismissals and how small business people have been duped are legend. Work Choices will exempt businesses of up to 100 employees. And small businesses cannot get to it fast enough from the burden of the laws which have added significant cost to their overheads in defending often frivolous unfair dismissal claims. More commonly, businesses have paid go-away money for people to go away, saying, ‘I am sorry, I do not want to go to court, so here is $15,000 for you to run away,’ to avoid the cost involved in drawn-out disputes. The laws were effectively a disincentive for small businesses to put on new staff.

No-one is going to do anything to put on a new employee if they have to play Russian roulette. They will outsource the requirements of their businesses, such as the photocopying, they will get their wife to work or they will get the kids in, but they will not employ anyone extra unless they are forced to. The big winners from the Work Choices exemption will be the thousands of people who will find jobs because small business people will not be frightened of the possible negative consequences of employing people. That is going to create a greater demand, a huge demand, for a work force that is already undersupplied. The work force is undersupplied now. Employees will still be protected from unlawful termination stemming from some forms of discrimination, irrespective of the size of the business.

As I said before—and we have had this debate numerous times—why would an employer want to get rid of anyone? No employer would do that unless it was an absolute necessity—where they were faced with an unworkable situation. Listening to the other side, you would think that every employer was an absolute rogue who wanted to dismiss their work force. I had a small work force of nine or 10. I had them for 18 years. They were almost part of the family. Many of them were blue-collar workers—storemen and packers. They came to my warehouse, and many of them joined the National Party because they could see the fair way that they were treated by a National Party person. That is not a word of a lie. They stood on the polling booths for us, they joined the National Party and they became part of a family operation.

From the day the party was formed, on 22 January 1920, members of the National Party have been strong champions of industrial relations reform. The Nationals strongly believe, in principle, that the best arrangements are those developed by employees and employers in the workplace. We believe in the capacity of Australians to exercise choice and to work together. We believe that cooperation and flexibility, not conflict and arbitration, are the path to prosperity and fairness. That is why National Party members strongly support the principles of the Work Choices legislation. The Nationals strongly support the cooperation and flexibility it will facilitate in the workplace and the increased productivity and prosperity it will deliver in our region. Australian workplace agreements have been in force for a number of years and have not had the dire consequences predicted by Labor politicians and the ACTU. In many cases they represent the only way for an enterprise to remain competitive in the modern world. Many industries of today were not around when awards were determined. Many awards were based on the old economy, characterised by nine-to-five operations, single income families and import barriers.

The reality today is that we have to be competitive in world terms. We have to feed the non-stop demand of retailers and consumers. There was no such thing as extended shopping hours when many of the awards were struck. A grocery supplier, for example, must be able to fill orders immediately or lose the market. This means that they must have flexibility in their work force and make efficient use of their labour 100 per cent of the time. They also have to meet today’s more stringent food standards and quality assurance programs.

This works in favour of employees, not against their interests. Employers report a more satisfied work force because there is flexibility in working hours, which can provide a two-income family with the means to provide before and after school care or be with the kids on school holidays. There is genuine effort to reach mutually beneficial outcomes. That is the way to a happy work force and a happy company bottom line. Today’s world is about meeting the customers’ expectations. Rigid labour systems simply cannot do the job anymore and most workers know and appreciate that the demands are different, too, from the old days. The wedge that unions try to impose between employer and employees simply holds both sides back.

As Leader of The Nationals in the Senate, I pay tribute to the hard work of The Nationals senators on the Senate committee inquiry. The Senate committee and the minister have indicated that they will support sensible technical amendments that seek to clarify and strengthen the intent of the legislation. These amendments will in no way compromise the principles of this important legislation. The Nationals stood strongly behind the waterfront reforms of the 1990s which now see our ports amongst the most productive in the world. Similarly, we will stand strongly behind the Work Choices reforms, which will increase productivity, prosperity and so greatly benefit regional and rural communities.

The Nationals have the strong backing of the rural sector and small business in supporting this bill. The National Farmers Federation’s President, Peter Corish, agrees with it, as does Queensland Agforce IR Committee Chairman, Robert Pietsch. Small business in Australia has long argued that most employers and employees are capable of making their own arrangements and that our institutions and outdated laws too often impede sensible bargaining in the workplace. COSBOA’s CEO, Tony Steven, agrees with it.

The Australian worker is better off now than they ever were under the ALP. Let us be perfectly clear that Labor’s motivation behind their hysterical campaign is that they are hopelessly beholden to the unions. It is no secret that, of the 86 ALP caucus members, 41 are former union officials. I would like to take a count in the Senate, as I believe nearly 100 per cent of senators—

Senator Hurley —I wasn’t.

Senator BOSWELL —I said ‘nearly 100 per cent’. The ALP has received $47 million since 1995-96. No wonder they are protecting the goose that laid the golden egg! That is what this is all about: protecting the ALP’s source of income.

This legislation seeks to put control of the workplace where it belongs: as a relationship between the employee and employer with appropriate levels of protection for both. It is constructive and necessary legislation. I commend the bill to the Senate and I wish it a speedy passage.