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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 95

Senator BARNETT (8:30 PM) —As a government senator on the recent Senate workplace relations inquiry, I am pleased and honoured to speak in favour of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I am pleased and honoured because I believe it will deliver higher standards of living for Australian men and women and their families. It will deliver more jobs, higher wages and a stronger economy for Australia. I want to acknowledge the work and leadership of Senator the Hon. Judith Troeth and Senator David Johnston as the government members of the workplace relations committee of inquiry that was recently held. I want to acknowledge Senators Santoro, Fiona Nash and Barnaby Joyce, who all participated during that inquiry.

In 1997, it was the UK Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who told the Trade Union Congress:

... fairness at work starts with the chance of a job ...

This is the crux of the current workplace relations debate in Australia. I can see no economic blight on society more serious than a person helpless in the soul-destroying quest for a job. There are 700,000 children in Australia growing up in a household where no-one has a job. Those children are entitled to grow up in an environment where the mortgage is affordable, where there is food in abundance and where the family savings account is growing. Sadly, the union movement has abandoned the jobless, because its primary concern is those who have a job and pay union dues. Is it any wonder that union membership has dropped to 22.7 per cent of the total work force and to around 17 per cent of the private sector work force? At the same time, unions are tucked up in bed with Labor, having donated $47 million to the ALP since 1996—and this point was raised again during the recent Senate inquiry.

While Labor is a captive of the union movement, the Howard government since 1996 has created 1.7 million new jobs, of which 900,000 are full time, thereby creating the lowest unemployment rate for more than 28 years. Having found jobs for 1.7 million Australians, the Howard government has increased wages by 14.9 per cent in real terms, compared with a miserly 1.2 per cent growth rate in real terms for workers under federal Labor. There is a win-win for workers and the unemployed under John Howard. Australia currently enjoys record low interest rates and the lowest level of strikes since records were first kept in 1915. We are enjoying levels of prosperity not seen since the 1950s because of good economic management and a government with the guts—I repeat: with the guts—to pioneer workplace relations reform and to create more jobs.

We could rest on our laurels, but if we do the world will pass us by and the hard gains which have been won and which have won us in Australia solid economic and wages growths, created jobs and given more young Australians their first home would be squandered. For the sake of these young Australians in particular we must remain world competitive and boost productivity through reform to the workplace. A report called Locking in or losing prosperity: Australia’s choice, written by Access Economics for the Business Council of Australia, shows that without the workplace relations changes already made, unemployment would have been 8.1 per cent in 2003-04, rather than 5.8 per cent, and an extra 315,000 people would have been out of work. The report says that each Australian could be $70,000 wealthier if workplace participation rates increase and further workplace relations reform is undertaken.

In response to all of this, the unions have embarked on a purely self-serving membership recruitment campaign by demonising the Work Choices reforms and by plain scaremongering. They have said Howard’s reforms will cause an increase in divorces—as noted by the Hon. Kim Beazley—civil riots and higher road deaths, and they have even likened them to fascism—compliments of the New South Wales Minister for Industrial Relations, the Hon. John Della Bosca. Victorian Labor MP Bob Smith even suggested the reforms will lead to American style murders of women and children on picket lines. Of course, the Labor-union movement were just as vitriolic in opposition to workplace relations reforms in 1996 and the GST reforms in 1998. But the sky has not fallen in. I quote the current shadow minister for workplace relations, Mr Stephen Smith, who argued prior to the 1996 election:

The Howard model is quite simple. It is all about lower wages; it is about worse conditions; it is about a massive rise in industrial disputation; it is about the abolition of safety nets; and it is about pushing down or abolishing minimum standards.

Comments such as this are effectively no different to comments made nearly 10 years later when Mr Stephen Smith said:

Firstly, these changes will be unfair, they’ll be divisive, and they’ll be extreme. And secondly so far as they impact upon Australian employees and their families they’ll have the affect of reducing their wages, stripping their entitlements, and removing their safety nets ...

Well—groundhog day—the sky has not fallen in. In fact, the Howard government has delivered higher wages, more jobs and a stronger economy. What is this all about? The ACTU Secretary, Greg Combet, on 29 May 2005, said ‘We need a change of government.’ That is what it is all about. It is about a political campaign by the union movement, not concern for Australian workers or those out of work. Labor leader Kim Beazley, when talking about the unfair dismissal laws, said as recently as 21 July this year in an ABC radio interview:

The problem that they—

the employers—

confront, is when you get a bloke, or a person who is an employee, who’s a con artist, a rorter, who knows that if you can get the small businessman to shut his shop for a couple of days, drag him down to the IRC, put him through the mill it’ll be worth ten grand for him to send you away. And you get a lawyer who’s prepared to do it for that and take three from you and you take seven and walk out the door.

This is despite federal Labor using the Senate 41 times to block the reforms aimed at reducing these unfair dismissal rorts.

The current costs of small business compliance with unfair dismissal laws have been estimated by the Melbourne Institute at $1.3 billion a year. According to the Restaurants and Caterers Association, it costs on average $3,600 and around 63 hours of management time, primarily of small businesses, to defend an unfair dismissal claim—money and time most small businesses can ill afford.

The government has boosted the threshold figure for unfair dismissal exemptions from 20 employees to 100. But, even so, all employees will enjoy protection from unlawful termination. In other words, it will be unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee if it is based on discrimination for unlawful reasons, including age, race, colour, sex, sexual preference, physical or mental disability, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy and religion. All prohibitions against harassment, bullying and discrimination under state law will continue to apply, as will state occupational health and safety laws and federal laws relating to signing an agreement under duress.

The government will expand the scope of the Office of Workplace Services to create a one-stop shop to ensure that employers and employees know their rights and obligations and that these are fairly enforced. A readily accessible single agency will provide further protection for employees. The Office of Workplace Services will have the power to enforce compliance with the Workplace Relations Act and the number of inspectors in the Office of Workplace Services will increase from 90 to 200.

The recently concluded inquiry by the Senate committee—of which I am a member—into the reforms requested that the government consider more safeguards for workers, including outworkers in the clothing and footwear industries; clarification over the 38-hour working week; and making it clear that an employer can only give 90 days notice to terminate a workplace agreement after it has expired. I thank Minister Andrews and the government for agreeing to consider these suggestions. The Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee inquiry had hearings for five days. Despite claims that it was rushed, it heard from 105 witnesses and took 5,400 submissions—mostly pro-forma ACTU spam or letters—and 200 substantial submissions.

Unions are campaigning against Australian workplace agreements, AWAs, but employees on AWAs in Australia on average earn 100 per cent more than their colleagues on awards and 13 per cent more than colleagues on collective agreements, according to the May 2004 ABS survey. We know the position of the unions: they adamantly oppose AWAs. I would like to know Labor’s definitive position on AWAs. Do they support them or do they oppose them? What is their position? There are currently 130 pieces of industrial legislation and 4,000 awards across the federal and state jurisdictions. It is no wonder unions want to preserve awards as the hallmark industrial agreement, as awards give unions an automatic place at the negotiating table and hence an automatic cache of union dues for unions and the ALP. This regressive and self-serving relationship between the ALP and the ACTU has alienated the average worker as mere canon fodder in a campaign more about politics and power than working conditions, while the unemployed hardly rate at all.

I want to commend the small businesses across Australia, of which there are about 1.2 million. They produce 30 per cent of our GDP and account for just under 50 per cent of the private sector work force. I particularly note the small businesses in Tasmania, which account for about 50 per cent of the private sector work force there. There are about 30,000 small businesses in Tasmania, my home state. Small business will benefit under these reforms because of the flexibility that they offer.

I note that the government’s reforms have received the support of COSBOA CEO Tony Steven; the Australian Industry Group, AiG, and Heather Ridout; the Business Council of Australia; and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry—and Peter Hendy’s leadership should be acknowledged. They specifically referred in their submission to 54 reports from the likes of the OECD, the IMF, the Reserve Bank, the Productivity Commission and Access Economics in response to allegations from Labor, unions and others that there was no evidence in support of workplace relations reform. They delivered that evidence—and in spades. The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry support the reforms, and we thank them for their support and the leadership of Damon Thomas. Peter Corish from the National Farmers Federation should be acknowledged, as should the Master Builders Association and the Housing Industry Association.

The government has been accused of causing further inequality in the community. Page 27 of the government senators’ report highlights the fact that the Household income and income distribution report released by the ABS on 4 August 2005, this year, shows that there was no significant change in income inequality between 1994 and 2003-04.

I now want to address and respond to the disingenuous comments by Labor senators on page 52 of the Senate report—and, specifically, recent comments made by Senator Marshall—where they note in that report that ‘Professor Peetz’s assessment was right and Senator Barnett’s wrong.’ Labor senators say that the department supports Professor Peetz’s view on page 50 of the Hansard of Friday 18 November. Senator Marshall has clearly misrepresented the position of the department and Ms Centenera, in particular, and an apology should be offered to her as it should be to me.

Businesses in this country should be able to make decisions based on their operational requirements and the government believes this to be the case. Termination on the basis of operational requirements has been accepted by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission as a valid reason for dismissal. This is a well understood concept in Australian law. The concept of a genuine redundancy has always existed under the unfair dismissal provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996. Redundancy due to operational requirements is currently a valid reason for dismissal under the act. Under Work Choices, even if the employer claims the dismissal was for operational reasons, an employee still has the right to make an unfair dismissal application. An employee has the right to contest the issue of whether the termination was for an operational reason as part of the unfair dismissal claim process. The employer must convince the AIRC that the dismissal was genuinely due to operational reasons. If the AIRC finds that are the alleged operational reason was a sham then the employee is free to pursue their unfair dismissal claim.

Some critics have also dishonestly portrayed how the operational requirements provisions will operate. It was on the ABC radio’s AM program on 3 November 2005 that Professor David Peetz—the resident bard of workers online, and referred to by Senator Abetz in the Senate chamber on many occasions—asserted as follows:

There’s a provision that says that for employers of any size, if you’re dismissed, and part of the reason for your dismissal is to do with operational reasons, and that can mean all sorts of things, if you’re something to do with the structure, or technical requirements, or whatever of the organisation, then you can be dismissed, you can be targeted for dismissal, because the boss doesn’t like the way you chew gum, or whatever, and you’ve got no recourse for unfair dismissal.

It is completely incorrect to assert, as Peetz does, that an employee dismissed for such reasons has got no recourse for unfair dismissal. An employee still has the right to make an unfair dismissal claim and contest the validity of the operational reason. It is dishonest and absurd to suggest that the AIRC would accept that an employee chewing gum was a valid operational reason to dismiss them.

The Work Choices bill at clause 114 on page 356 makes this clear. I will not read it into the Hansard; I will refer it to Senator Marshall, and other opposition senators, to read themselves. If the AIRC did not believe the termination was for genuine operational reasons, the claim for unfair dismissal could proceed. It is now the case, and will continue to be after the passage of the Work Choices bill, that an employee who was purportedly terminated for operational reasons but in fact was terminated for a prohibited reason—for example, sex, religion, union membership or refusing to agree to an AWA—will be able to claim unlawful termination. There we have it.

In conclusion, I say that the Labor-union campaign has been an hysterical overreaction to the government’s proposals and as the Prime Minister, John Howard, has said, people will wake up next year and the year after and ask themselves, ‘What has all the fuss been about?’ The Howard government has delivered in the last 9½ years and it will continue to deliver for the Australian people; for the Australian men, women and their families.