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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 87

Senator McGAURAN (7:51 PM) —This evening we are debating the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005—a bill that has generated significant debate and passion in this chamber and in the community. It is understandable that the public would cringe at any change to their workplace that may affect the security of their jobs or their take-home pay. Therefore, the government accept that with every reform we introduce, whether it be radical or soft reform, we are obliged to explain to the public the details and the reasons why we seek to introduce it.

We have done this for all our major reforms—no less for the 1996 industrial relations reforms and the tax reforms we introduced in 1997 or 1998. However, it is clear from listening to the debaters from the other side today, yesterday and, no doubt, tomorrow that no amount of detailed explanation will ever convince them or certain sectors of the community of the need for this reform. In fact, I cannot think of one major reform that the government have introduced that those on the other side have ever supported.

So there comes a point in time when the government have to decide what we consider to be in the national interest, when the debate must end, when we must act and what we wish as a matter of leadership to introduce. This is certainly one such occasion. This government have shown leadership in the past and the courage to take reforms to elections. Today after question time we had Senator Marshall, interjecting during my speech, saying he cannot wait for the next ballot to test this particular reform. So be it, because every reform, no less than for our first reforms in 1996 in industrial relations, has been tested at the ballot box and so will this. We await that judgment.

You have to say that our record thus far has been very good when we have put up our reforms at the elections, such as with the GST and industrial relations. Even for the first budget in 1996, when we had not been in government for more than six months, we introduced one of the toughest, if not the toughest, budgets—certainly of this government but I would say of any government—so as to lay the foundation stone of our economic credibility, to bring the budget into surplus over two or three years and to reduce the debt legacy that we had been left with. That was a pretty tough budget and the sort of budget that governments lose elections on. Again, we faced the ballot box and we were successful. As I said, history shows that our reforms have been successful and have always met the standards that we have set on their introduction. So it has to be said that the reverse is exactly true: on each occasion, the Labor Party have opposed our reforms, they have tested their stance at the ballot box and they have lost on four occasions.

We have confidence that this bill will create jobs and increase pay rates over time, and we have the record to submit and to justify that confidence. It has been said many times that our commitment is our record, in low interest rates, inflation rates, unemployment rates and, of course, wage rates—in less than 10 years there was an increase of some 14.9 per cent, which is a record Labor never matched in their 13 years of government.

We particularly reject the accusations from the other side. One by one, as members of the opposition have risen, they have accused this government of an ideological bent and no more—that that is our motivation: just simply ideological pigheadedness. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, these industrial relations reforms are pragmatic, as they are necessary. It simply proves that the Labor Party as an opposition have learnt nothing about this government’s modus operandi or about the message that the public have been sending them at each and every election—most of all at the 2004 election, the last election. That message was that a government with strong economic credibility and with the courage to reform will win the election. And, given the economic credibility that the government have built our record on, which is in fact our electoral foundation stone, it is highly unlikely that we would commit political suicide and forgo that economic credibility that we have built up over 10 years.

In fact, the finger ought to be pointed to the other side when it comes to ideological bent and obsessions. All the ex-unionists on the other side are simply coming in here and thrashing up the old class wars. Without question, the best was Senator Carr. I would not invite anyone to go back and read his speeches in the Hansard. I am sure I will not get much objection from the other side when I say that Senator Carr’s speeches were the pinnacle of raising that old class war—raising that dark and menacing boss who stands over the poor, weakling worker. It fits the whole life that Senator Carr has tried to live: a delusional life, so be it, but he has gone a long way in living that delusion—but you can only live it inside the Labor Party.

Senator Sandy Macdonald —He’s the standover person.

Senator McGAURAN —Well! The picture that they paint is false, but they need to paint it to justify their jobs. It is so far from the truth. All that animation that we have seen, and we are yet to see, defends the old system that simply gave undue power to the unions and, worse, protected that rigid labour market. The 1993 reforms brought in by the Keating Labor government loosened the shackles somewhat, but, really, 1996 was a major step and now we take the next step. Prior to that, if anyone remembers the seventies, the eighties and the early nineties—

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—

Senator McGAURAN —Someone even remembers the sixties, but we are not going to admit to that—like France and Germany we had an unemployment rate locked in. It could never drop below eight per cent. It was around 700,000, peaking at a million in the nineties, but it was always fluctuating between 700,000 and one million.

Senator Carr interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order, Senator Carr! Senator McGauran has been heard so far in silence.

Senator Carr interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Carr, don’t interrupt me, please!

Senator McGAURAN —That is the highest price paid by Australian families for the sake of propping up an old system, and that is a locked-in unemployment rate. That is the experience that we still see in countries like France and Germany that have not modernised, that have not taken the courageous political steps necessary to change their industrial relations system and, in fact, their social system and lifestyle as we have done.

The Senate would be aware of the very ugly and remarkable fortnight of rioting in Paris recently. One of the measures of how out of control that society became over the two weeks was the burning and wrecking of thousands upon thousands of cars. Almost to a man, the rioters were unemployed, and commentators freely confessed that a great part of the frustration of the rioters was the fact that over 2.7 million French people are unemployed and have been for decades. One commentator put it quite succinctly in this way:

... France effectively chooses to accept high unemployment to protect those with jobs ...

It is a mirror image of Australia in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Senator Carr —The short straw!

Senator McGAURAN —France, I should add, has union membership as low as 10 per cent, yet the union agreements cover 90 per cent of the work force.

Senator Sterle —Where are you going? Where are you heading?

Senator Sandy Macdonald interjecting—

Senator McGAURAN —The real tragedy is the social problems that that generates.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Things have suddenly got rather animated. It seems that everybody in the chamber has something to say, but Senator McGauran has the call and I think we should let him get on with it.

Senator George Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to the fact that Senator Sandy Macdonald has been constantly interjecting and he is not in his seat. If he wants to interject he should go and sit where he normally sits and interject from there.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The point is well made on two counts. Senator Macdonald, (1) you are out of your seat and (2) you should not be interjecting.

Senator McGAURAN —Thankfully we have a Prime Minister, a cabinet and a government that do not suffer from reform inertia. It is true to say that if we were intimidated by the public sabre rattling from the marchers down the streets of the major capital cities, or by the tens of thousands of petitions that are delivered to Parliament House, or by any of the shrill hysteria that is produced from the other side, or by the polls for that matter—when the polls go against us—we would have backed down on the 1996 reforms, which, under any analysis, were a bigger leap in industrial relations reform than those we are debating today. Then, we introduced individual workplace agreements, AWAs. The Employment Advocate was introduced. The toughening up of the secondary boycott rules was introduced. I believe that they were bigger reforms. The intimidation was so great. Who can recall the charge on Parliament House led by Ms Jennie George, the President of the ACTU at the time? They broke in through the front doors of Parliament House! That was pretty intimidatory. They knocked over the police cordon and ran amok around the Great Hall. It was very intimidatory, but the government stood firm on those reforms.

If we were going to back down and be intimidated by what the other side sought to visit upon us—the downward spiral in the polls, the marchers in the streets, the petitions and so on—we would have backed down on the waterfront. We would not have shown leadership on the waterfront. Who has heard of any strikes down on the waterfront lately? It is very quiet down on the waterfront. The reforms that they said could not be done have been done down on the waterfront. Then, ministers required 24-hour security. Ministers received death threats.

Senator Carr interjecting—

Senator McGAURAN —And of course there were the picketers outside the gates—one of whom is straight over there. From time to time they were very threatening towards the workers as they came to work. The other unions attempted to go out in sympathy but, because of this government’s strong secondary boycott laws, they were unable to.

Senator Carr —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I understood that Senator McGauran just said that I threatened people at a picket line. When was that? On what basis does he make such an outrageous claim?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Firstly, I did not hear precisely what Senator McGauran said because I think you were shouting at the time. Secondly, I am not sure that you should ask that question of me. There is no point of order. I know that Senator McGauran has attracted an audience, but they should still listen in silence.

Senator McGAURAN —I was talking about how it is all so quiet now down on the waterfront, regardless of the enormous disruption and the difficulty that the government had in supporting Patrick in introducing those reforms. We saw our convictions through. As I said, we know how Labor are attached to an old world. We know about their utter inability to understand what really is in the national interest. They should try to forget politics from time to time when major reforms are raised in this parliament.

It is worthy of note that the industrial relations reforms cannot be divorced from a series of other economic and social reforms that we have introduced and are about to introduce. Those reforms are all designed to meet the economic challenges of the future. In the budget papers of 2002 the Intergenerational report was tabled. In essence, that report articulated what we have all known for some time—that Australia is facing an ageing population as the baby boomers reach retirement and that that will have a cascading effect on the government’s tax base. Unless serious reform is undertaken within the next 20 or 30 years, the government of the day—possibly this government!—will have budget difficulties and will be severely strained in meeting its commitments across all portfolios, none less than pensions, health and education. It will be a question of sustainability for a future government.

One of the keys to meeting the challenge of an ageing population is greater workplace participation to counter labour shortages. We have already enacted many reforms, as I said, such as in superannuation and through incentives for pensioners and self-funded retirees to give them a greater working capacity and to change the culture of the employment of aged workers. In a matter of days the government will introduce the Welfare to Work reforms. These industrial reforms fit today in that they are an integral part of a workplace that needs to be more flexible and productive for those seeking to return to work and those seeking to employ. Australia will not be able to meet the challenges of its ageing population unless it does have a strong economy. A modern industrial relations system is the foundation stone of economic success.

There is a good reason why the Labor Party speakers have been so shrill in their attack upon this bill and the government. There is a good reason why they have exaggerated every aspect of this bill in the desperate hope that they will see it defeated: this bill will see a fundamental change to the old system, which dates back to the early 1900s. It is a dinosaur that has served the Labor Party’s political base well but has not served Australia well. The call for industrial relations reform really does go back to the seventies and eighties, when union abuse of power was most rampant. In those times, there was no effective secondary boycott provision and the country frequently ground to a halt with national strikes, electricity blackouts and waterfront stoppages. You could always guarantee that at around this time of the year the unions as a whole would go out and threaten the country.

Our international reputation as an unreliable exporter was notorious. The biggest loser in those days was the farming sector, the rural sector, which exported 70 per cent of their produce, and to this day they still export 70 per cent of their produce. Those were the years when wage demands far outstripped productivity gains, which of course fed into inflation and higher interest rates. It is worthy of note that it was during those years that we saw the creation of the National Farmers Federation, which brought together all the state farming bodies as a national body, and for the first time there was a single voice for the rural sector.

It can be said that it was the National Farmers Federation more than anyone else who kicked off the industrial relations debate, which brings us to this somewhat historic day. It was the NFF who initially set to change the culture and the laws of our industrial relations system. The first big battle, the first landmark, when the wheels first started to turn—albeit very slowly—was the famous Mudginberri case. That is when the winds of change first blew. It was the NFF from that time through to the waterfront dispute in 1997 who led the significant reforms on the waterfront and who backed Patrick in their pursuit to reform the waterfront.

So the NFF have been to the forefront. The rural sector, right down to the farm gate, has benefited from their efforts to reform the industrial relations system. There can be no doubt that the greatest benefactor of these current reforms will be the rural sector. However, it has not just been peak bodies like the NFF and the Business Council of Australia who have called for reforms. The IMF, the OECD, Access Economics and the Reserve Bank have all made a case for further reforms, and if those on the other side seek the documentation they will see that. In conclusion, this bill is critical and is in the national interest. I urge the Senate to pass it.