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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 8

Senator HUMPHRIES (1:02 PM) —I want to make only a brief contribution to this debate today on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 but make a few important points. When any government girds itself for a battle of reform, naysayers, doubters and profiteers of the status quo swarm out of the woodwork, downplay the need for change, criticise the expected outcome and repudiate the motives of the people who are embarking on a brave and sometimes uncertain course. We know that is the usual run of things. We have seen that a number of times in the last 10 years as this government has embraced a range of reforms in a number of key areas. This debate on industrial relations reform is no exception. I think it is important, however, as we undertake this debate that we look at the bigger picture lest we lose sight of the underlying tectonic forces that have to be addressed as this debate goes on.

Since 1996 the Howard government has delivered prosperity to Australia. Unemployment is lower today than it has been in decades, our interest rates are at a historic low and Australians are working more productively and more intelligently. This is the simple reason that we have that prosperity today: the government has pursued a sustained and carefully managed agenda of economic reform, which it has outlined systematically to the electorate in each and every term of office that it has been elected. I think the Australian people in large measure understand what the government is trying to do, they have a clear sense of its policy and its direction and they understand that its policies in the past have delivered a growing economy, the creation of jobs and the maintenance of prosperity. I think that in this debate a measure of acceptance is available to the government from the Australian people of its capacity to deliver more of that positive change.

In the face of Australia’s current success, many interest groups, of course, assume that enough is enough and that past reforms have been sufficient to push Australia over the winning line. These interest groups mistakenly believe that the race has been won and we can now stand proud with a first place ribbon pinned to our chest. It is a very comforting and beguiling point of view. Unfortunately, the world does not actually stand still. We are engaged in a global economic competition, with prosperity and security waiting at the podium. This is a race with neither finishing line nor pit stops. To shift the racing analogy to a nautical context, the Australian ship of state must not let the wind out of its sails. Neither through inactivity nor poor seamanship can Australians afford to have the wind stolen from our sails.

What steps have to be taken at this time? Let me bring to your attention, continuing the nautical analogy, an anecdote relating to Napoleon Bonaparte. An inventor came to Napoleon with a design for a steam engine that could be installed on sailing ships. One can imagine what advantage such a vessel would have created for Napoleon, who was attempting to move his Grande Armee from the shores of France to England. The capacity to do so without the vicissitudes of waves, wind, tides and so on would have been very considerable. But Napoleon said to this inventor, ‘What? You want me to make a ship sail against the wind by lighting a fire under its decks? I don’t have time for this nonsense.’ We know the story of Napoleon’s fall from continental domination to insular imprisonment.

For those who are opponents today of change, I make the same point. The government’s proposed reforms are a step into a new phase of activity. The old ways, though they may have served us in the past, are not sufficient to maintain our place in the world. Australia has always been a land of potential and, if we are to continue to tap that potential, we must continue to reform and evolve the way we do business. It is painful but it is necessary. For Australia to avoid economic failure at this juncture, it simply has to embrace industrial relations reform.

Senator Hogg, in the course of his remarks, talked about the prospect of what he called ‘poorness’ for Australians at this point in time, the prospect that industrial reforms could deliver Australians into poverty. Will the Labor Party admit, in this debate today, that the changes the government have already made in the economy and in the industrial system have built up a stronger, more diverse economy than was the case before, that there are higher levels of employment and lower levels of unemployment and that the real wages of Australia today are substantially higher than they were when we took government in 1996? Under the Labor Party, real wages rose by something like two per cent over 13 years—

Senator Kemp —Just under.

Senator HUMPHRIES —It was just under two per cent, I am reminded by the minister. In less time than that, in fewer than 10 years, they have risen by close to 15 per cent in real terms. That is because of a sustained agenda of industrial and economic reform. Reform is on its way and, indeed, reform was begun, in some respects, by our predecessors—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Order! I cannot hear Senator Humphries.

Senator HUMPHRIES —The process of reform was, in many respects, begun by our predecessors, by Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating. They made important steps towards changing the nature of the workplace, and we have continued down that path.

I can understand the sustained attacks on the reforms delivered by union leaders. They fear that these reforms will sideline unions and make them redundant. That is, I believe, a view that shows how fundamentally entropic unions have become, as have their parliamentary representatives in this place, in recent years. As long as unions remain useful to their constituents, to the people who belong to them, they will remain relevant into the 21st century. But in many respects they face an important juncture here as well. What role will they have? What interests of their members will they serve in the new environment? They will need to focus on those questions.

The fact is that some unions have behaved in an extremely short-sighted—myopic— way in the light of these reforms. For example, in my electorate, I had the Independent Education Union come to talk to me about the reforms. I was very happy to sit down and discuss with them what they saw as the problems with this legislation. I had a discussion with them that went for quite some time and that union’s representatives went away. A few days later, I was stunned to discover that an account of our conversation appeared on a web site that was heavily distorted, that misrepresented the things that I had said and that used the opportunity of a discussion with me as a chance to strike a propaganda blow, for what it was worth, for people who might have cared to visit that web site. That is typical of the behaviour which some trade unions have engaged in during this debate. That kind of behaviour tells me that the mission the government has embarked on here is the right one. If they need to resort to those sorts of tactics, they clearly have a vested interest which is absolutely at risk and which has nothing to do with the interests of their members, who want to get higher wages and better, more productive workplaces.

The opposition need to understand that the things that they talk about as being fundamental entitlements in the workplace, the things that they say deliver a degree of certainty, as Senator Hogg put it, are things that in fact already do not exist as a certainty for many people in workplaces. They live in environments where they have to negotiate arrangements which suit them and their employers. That is the way of the future. It is the way our competitor nations are going and the way that we also need to go. I want to say that the argument about this being a race to the bottom is pure nonsense. The evidence of that fact is that, as we clearly know now, Australia is facing mammoth and serious work force shortages. With key industries not being able to find enough people to fill positions in key sectors, it is simply nonsense to suggest that these reforms will somehow lead people to getting lower wages and worse conditions. The boot is very much today, and it will be in the future, on the foot of the employee. These reforms will allow not just employers but also employees to make arrangements which are advantageous to the workplace concerned.

Interest groups have criticised our reforms. Again, I feel this is a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. Australia’s economy must become more flexible to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The federal government is running the good race to secure that prosperity for Australians, and these IR reforms are just one more step that needs to be implemented to achieve that. Refusal to reform will not mean the negation of change. It will simply mean disadvantage to all Australians when that change arrives.