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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 15

Senator SANTORO (1:33 PM) —Yet again, we are debating a workplace relations bill that follows on logically from the longstanding policy of the coalition parties, particularly the Prime Minister, and from workplace relations reforms already implemented by the coalition government during the past 10 years. That policy and the reforms are to free employers and employees to make workplace arrangements that best suit them. It really is that simple. They are policies and reforms that have received overwhelming mandates at the last four federal elections, and some of them are similar to measures I introduced in Queensland as Queensland’s Minister for Training and Industrial Relations in the 1996-98 state coalition government. They were sensible and productive reforms then in the state context, and they are sensible and productive reforms in the national context under the Howard government’s program.

The Prime Minister’s interest in Australia’s workplace and relations within it has been a driving force of his political career. It has been a central policy objective of his government since he was elected in 1996. The workplace reform program is well established, well known, and widely welcomed, particularly by the engine room of the Australian economy—small business. It is widely welcomed—that is, except by the Labor Party and its union paymasters, and within one church whose national leader apparently prefers political lobbying to saving souls. They say this bill is a killer. But it is not—and they know it. Apart from the fact that it opens the door to a single national workplace relations system, there is nothing radical or novel about it. Nothing in this bill is dangerous to anything other than the entrenched and one-eyed industrial relations muscle wielded by the big unions and the Labor Party that thinks, apparently, that it will find its future in its past.

Like many bills, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 has been before a Senate legislation committee. I took part in 1½ days of that committee’s inquiries. I will come back in a minute to one aspect of that hearing that frankly worries me. But the important thing to note is that the committee has recommended some minor changes to the legislation—that is what Senate legislation committees normally do. The Prime Minister has indicated he is quite prepared—and he always is, of course—to look at sensible proposals to improve the legislation. That process is under way, and there are many senators and members involved in the process, including members of the Prime Minister’s workplace relations task force and members of the Senate committee that a week or so ago inquired into the provisions of the bill before us today.

The important thing about workplace relations legislation is that it secures our economic base in the globalised economy in which we live and work. The Work Choices bill provides strong protections for both employers and employees—and, for that matter, also the unions, if they could only see that they must reinvent themselves as relevant entities. Employees’ terms and conditions will not be abolished. The new Australian fair pay and conditions standard will introduce universal statutory minimum standards for the first time at a federal level. Protected award matters include public holidays; rest breaks, including meal breaks; incentive based payments and bonuses; annual leave loadings; allowances; penalty rates; and shift and overtime loadings. Unfair dismissal rules will be strengthened—properly in the policy context—to assist productivity and cut business costs.

More than $28 million will be provided over four years to fund the recently announced unlawful termination assistance scheme to support workers who have been unlawfully terminated. The scheme will fund legal advice for employees who believe their employment may have been terminated unlawfully. It also includes a best practice education and training program for employers on fair and proper termination practices. The Office of Workplace Services will become a one-stop shop to ensure that employees and employers know their rights and obligations and that these are fairly enforced.

In short, this bill takes the ongoing reform process a necessary step further forward in a responsible and measured way. It does not do so by trampling on rights. It will not put the family at risk, and certainly not the family weekend barbecue. It will not end the observance and celebration of iconic events in Australian society. It will not even deny Father Christmas an opportunity to call on everyone just after midnight this Christmas morning. But, to listen to the descants of the choir of critics that trots out every time there is a workplace relations bill to debate, yet again we are approaching the end of the world. The senator opposite who spoke just before me, Senator Webber, made that very suggestion repeatedly.

It is apposite at this point to comment on the highly politicised—and plainly wrongly based—lobbying effort that the Uniting Church has mounted against this bill. I declare an interest here: I have for years attended a Uniting Church in my home town of Brisbane. Therefore, what I have to say on this occasion is not easy and I say it with a heavy heart. I preface these remarks by saying that the churches of course have a perfect right to comment on anything; their contribution to welfare delivery is absolutely invaluable and their pastoral voice is something everyone should listen to. From time to time, the churches make moral points in relation to the impact of activities or policies of government, with force. But their messages are religious, moral and ethical; they cannot be politically partisan messages. No Australian churchman has any justification for trying to reinvent liberation theology.

At the Senate committee hearing on this bill on 14 November, I was shocked, frankly, by the partisan position taken by the President of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Reverend Dr Dean Drayton. Dr Drayton told the committee the Work Choices bill would worsen the rate at which Australia is splitting into two distinct and mutually exclusive communities: the haves and the have-nots. Dr Drayton appears to believe workplace relations reforms have created a huge underclass of casual workers. That is absolute nonsense. That it is also the central point of Labor Party propaganda is worrisome in the context of the moral force that Dr Drayton, as head of the Uniting Church, would otherwise bring to his argument. It is a claim that completely ignores the substantially lifted levels of welfare support that the Howard government has provided for all Australians in need. It is a claim that completely ignores the massive jobs growth under the Howard government since 1996. It is a claim that flies in the face of logic and ignores the principles of honest and objective assessment.

For the record, for the information of senators and for the education of Dr Drayton, here are some of the facts. A total of 1.7 million jobs have been created since March 1996, of which 900,000 were full time and 800,000 were part time. In contrast, between March 1989 and March 1996, when the Labor Party was in office—at which time, on the basis of Dr Drayton’s expressed views on workplace policy, the ‘good guys’ were in charge—only 707,000 jobs were created, of which 188,000 were full time and 519,000 were part time. Again for the record: of the 1.7 million jobs created since March 1996, 47 per cent were part time. Of the paltry 707,000 jobs created under Labor over seven years—that is, 101,000 a year—more than 73 per cent were in fact part time.

Now, I do not accept that part-time work, which includes casual employment, is a bad thing. It suits many people, especially women with families to care for. But even if you accept Dr Drayton’s flawed political logic on that score then you must accept that he has shot himself in the foot, because the people he obviously thinks will ‘correct the imbalance’—that is, the Labor Party and the unions—were disastrous failures before and show no signs of having learnt any lessons at all since.

At the committee hearing on 14 November, Dr Drayton made other remarks that, as the record shows, astounded me. He attacked the new Fair Pay Commissioner who as an evangelical Christian says that in his deliberations he might seek God’s guidance. Divine guidance is apparently anathema to Dr Drayton. He would far prefer that temporal legislation be the sole arbiter. Again for the record, Dr Drayton told the committee that in his view the Fair Pay Commissioner should—his word—face a crisis of conscience over the lowest paid:

I would actually prefer that the guidelines of the Fair Pay Commission gave him quite explicit directions. Is it appropriate that, in fact, a Christian is actually calling upon God in a multicultural and multifaith society? I think that raises more questions than it answers.

What it actually does is raise questions about Dr Drayton. He also made this inappropriately partisan point:

I state it because it is important to put in the legislation what can help the Fair Pay Commission make wise, rational decisions about how people in Australia can have a minimum wage that does not decrease but increases. And we have no guarantees of that at all.

But real wages, as you would know, Acting Deputy President Murray, have risen on average by more than 14 per cent under the Howard government. Unemployment is at 5.1 per cent. In the past 12 months, it has consistently been at 30-year lows. In my view, that record clearly answers any ‘social justice’ issues Dr Drayton might legitimately have.

But, if we pretend for the purposes of this discussion that Dr Drayton’s poor oppressed masses actually exist, who is actually looking out for them? It is not the Labor Party, which in office depressed not only the economy but also employment and wage growth. It is not the unions, who seem to be still trying to work out whether the bloke who invented the wheel had the appropriate union ticket to do the job. It is the Howard government, and the record shows that very clearly indeed, including what I have again put on the record today.

The unemployment rates for March 1996, when the Labor Party was newly out of office following the verdict of the Australian voters—a verdict that has now been repeated three times, I should add, as I said yesterday; I will say it again today and, undoubtedly, I will say it again many more times—compared to those for June this year, the latest figures available in complete form, illuminate the landscape very clearly. For brevity’s sake, I will not go through, for example, all of the Queensland federal electorates to illustrate my point as to just how far unemployment rates in all of those electorates, including electorates represented by the Labor Party, have fallen. However, I will say that the figures for the 28 House of Representatives seats in Queensland are highly instructive indeed and demonstrate precisely why the Labor Party holds only six of them. But I commend the figures to Dr Drayton and other people who apparently want to be willing dupes of the Labor Party and the big unions.

Nor will I repeat today all the things that I have said in favour of the reforms we are currently considering. On many occasions in this chamber and elsewhere I have stated the logic and the imperative for these reforms. They include choice, flexibility, personal initiative, changed workplace and work force circumstances, undesirable duplication and ending the confusion that the present system creates for small business. So I say to the Labor Party and Labor Party senators opposite: ‘Wake up and see the new light on the hill.’ We must all work towards creating and maintaining sustained jobs growth within a strong national economy. We can start doing that today. We can do so in the context of the workplace relations reforms that are before us today—by voting for them.