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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 102

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (9:05 PM) —I rise this evening to speak in favour of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. It represents the implementation of the government’s fourth-term workplace relations reform agenda as well as addressing a number of longstanding policy commitments which have been blocked in the Senate since 1996. It is comprehensive and necessary reform which will see implemented a number of new policy items. It also builds on the reforms introduced by the coalition in 1996. Today we are one of the strongest economies in the world, but we need to move on in a global marketplace. We cannot stand still.

In Australia today we have six different workplace relations systems, 130 pieces of industrial relations legislation, 4,000 different awards and 30,000 classifications. It is clear that the system needs reforming. Work Choices will move Australia towards one simpler national workplace relations system. Up to 85 per cent of all Australian workers and most incorporated businesses will be covered by the new system. By a simple referral of powers by the states, a national system covering 100 per cent of employees could be achieved. This would free up to $120 million, $40 million of which is the cost of the New South Wales system alone, to go towards hospitals, schools and roads.

We have seen a lot of posturing by those on the other side and their union masters. They know there is need for change. Senior members of the Labor Party have been telling us this over many years. I could use my entire time this evening quoting them. I will confine myself to citing only a number. In 1990 Bob Carr said:

In a nation of 17 million people struggling to modernise its economy, seven separate systems of industrial regulation are an absurd luxury.

The Victorian parliament Hansard of 21 November 1996 quotes Steve Bracks:

The opposition supports in principle the concept of a single national system of industrial relations, and it always has. It can deliver benefits to both employees and employers by creating a uniform national framework for dispute resolution and the application of minimum employment standards that can be more easily complied with and enforced.

Workplace relations laws affect jobs, investment, productivity, competitiveness and economic activity. In turn, these affect our living standards. This reform is about all Australians; it is about employers and employees and ensuring we create an appropriate framework for an effective working relationship between them. Past reforms have sought to make Australia’s workplaces more flexible and responsive to change. However, complex and detailed red tape for agreement making remains at the core of Australian workplace relations. Too many of the processes, rules, regulations and requirements are complex and costly. This is not good for business, it costs jobs and it is holding Australia back from achieving so much more.

Work Choices will replace a rigid and outdated system that was designed over 100 years ago to deal with another era—it is not geared for the challenges we face today. Ten years ago the union movement and the ALP predicted that the Workplace Relations Act would drive down wages, slash and destroy working conditions and increase unemployment. How very wrong they were. Today the mantra of our opponents is, once again, that reform will erode fairness. They were wrong in 1996. They are still wrong in 2005.

Fairness does not require complexity, because complexity impedes fairness. Fairness is best ensured by a system which is easily understood by both employers and employees—understanding not only their rights but also their respective responsibilities. Economic reform, including workplace relations change, produces benefits. The experience of the last 10 years is testimony to this: 1.7 million new jobs created; the lowest unemployment in almost 30 years; real wage growth of 14.9 per cent, compared to 1.2 per cent in 13 years of Labor; and the lowest levels of industrial disputes since records were first kept in 1913.

In this context, I would like to highlight that in the Illawarra, where my electorate office is located, unemployment has effectively halved since 1996, in Cunningham it is down from 11 per cent to 6.7 per cent and in Throsby it is down from 12 per cent to 6.5 per cent. A similar trend is clear in other seats in New South Wales where I am currently patron senator. For example, unemployment in Charlton is down from 11.2 per cent to 5.9 per cent; in Lowe, from 5 per cent to 2.5 per cent; in Werriwa, from 10.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent; and in Greenway, which Labor lost at the last election, from 8.8 per cent to 4.7 per cent. We now have a generation of Australian workers who do not know about economic downturns or, even worse, a recession. They only know an Australia with low unemployment, stable interest rates, low inflation and increasing real wages. This is a generation that knows that they have nothing to fear from change.

Many employees today perform a wide range of tasks. They use technology in a sophisticated manner. They use their initiative. They are accountable more for contributing to business outcomes than for performing routine tasks during set periods of work. More and more Australian workers are working in many different ways in workplaces across the country. Employees want to contribute to the best of their abilities. They appreciate recognition and reward for good performance. They realise they will benefit from helping their business be as successful as possible. The best arrangements are those developed by employees and employers at the workplace level. They should be sensible, simple and fair arrangements that recognise and reward the matters important to employers and employees at that workplace.

I have cited some Labor figures who have advocated reform. I would like to add just one more. In an address to the Institute of Company Directors in 1993, Paul Keating outlined his vision for the new Australian labour market. He said:

Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards … Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses … We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards … to being full substitutes for awards.

The Keating government were unable to deliver a system with workplace agreements at its centre. They buckled under hostile pressure. When elected in 1996, one of the first priorities of the coalition government, which had supported Mr Keating’s initial round of changes, was to seek to give full effect to the model he outlined in 1993. Notwithstanding all their past promises and pronouncements, what then is Labor’s policy on industrial relations? It is to return Australia to the dark days of a rigid, one size fits all industrial relations system. They would discourage enterprise bargaining and effectively abolish individual Australian workplace agreements. Indeed, they would not only roll back the reforms of the Howard government since 1996, but would also undo the enterprise bargaining reforms implemented by the Keating government in 1993. In the words of Mr Keating’s former economics adviser, John Edwards, this platform had the potential to ‘reverse Labor’s own reforms of 1992-94, and to reintroduce the worst aspects of the old award system’.

Of course, the reason for this roll-back is that the ALP are hopelessly beholden to the trade union movement. Little wonder, since they have donated over $47 million to the ALP since 1995-96. At a time when union membership comprises barely 17 per cent of the private sector work force, unions now have more control over the Labor Party than ever before. Of the 86 ALP caucus, 41 are former union officials; of the 32 members of the ALP front bench, 17 are former union officials; and of the 28 ALP senators, 18 are former union officials. Kim Beazley is more beholden to unions than any other Labor leader. Thankfully, the diversity of backgrounds on this side of the Senate ensures we bring a much broader perspective to this debate.

I would like to conclude by saying that as a senator for New South Wales I represent constituents across all of New South Wales. Given the resounding victory of the coalition and, in particular, the increase in our Senate vote in New South Wales, there was a clear endorsement by the people of Australia for the policies of the Howard government. I am confident that the people of New South Wales, including the Illawarra, where my electorate office is based, will continue to enjoy the benefits of the proposed industrial relations reforms in the future.