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Thursday, 1 December 2005
Page: 14


Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (10:33 AM) —I am not one of those people who thinks the world is perfect and that we cannot improve the way we do things. Equally, I do not think that change for the sake of it is necessarily always good. If we are going to elevate proposed change to the status of reform, we need criteria for doing so. For me, the criteria revolve around families and small business. As I said in my first speech, I believe the first question we must always ask is: what is best for families and what is best for our kids? As I also said, my vision includes the idea that families should have genuine choice about how they structure their paid work and family life. People should be parents first and workers second. Workers should feel secure in their jobs and should not have to bargain for basic wages and conditions. Any changes should be aimed at reducing the crippling number of marriage and relationship breakdowns which wreak such a devastating toll on families. Ultimately, that is what is best for this great nation of ours.

I know I ruffled some feathers when I said that the major parties struggle to reconcile their professed family values with their free-market mantra. To those politicians, I say that this legislation is a test, because it reflects the tension between the market and families. If people think I am wrong when I say that what are sold as family-friendly policies are really market-friendly policies, this legislation gives them an opportunity to prove it. The direction in which society is going is affecting family life in ways we do not even understand. For example, while we talk about the benefits of part-time work to families, we do not talk about the significant number of men in their thirties who only work part time. A report commissioned by the Australian Family Association suggests that, because of their limited income and education, these men do not form relationships and are unable to take on the responsibility of marriage and children. We talk about work and family. This bill is all about work or family. That is a choice Australians should never have to make.

I understand the Prime Minister’s argument that we have to look to tomorrow as well as focus on today. However, I do not think that means families should stand idly by and accept the Prime Minister’s idea that businesses ought to be able to operate 24 hours a day, seven a days a week, 365 days a year without paying penalty rates. Australian families do not think working at 2 am is the same at working at 2 pm. Nor do they think working on a Sunday is the same as working on a weekday, or that working seven days a week with no day off is fair or reasonable. That might suit the market, but it certainly does not suit families. In fact, families suffer. Mr Howard may be right: the world may have changed from a five-day-week society. However, we work to live, not live to work, and our laws should reflect this important point.

There is more to industrial relations than economics, but let me address the economic issues first. I agree we all have a vested interest in a strong economy which continues to generate jobs and ensures we can maintain our standard of living. However, views about the economic benefits of the government’s legislation are not universal. Professor Mark Wooden, who is not one of the usual government critics, says that, if individual agreements promote:

... competitive behaviour within workplaces, and fosters non-cooperative relationships and greater uncertainty for workers, then business may actually suffer ... AWAs could be used by some managers to avoid management responsibilities.

Professor Wooden went on to question why firms employing up to 100 people should be exempt from unfair dismissal laws. He says most of the employment gains will be concentrated on very small businesses and adds:

... among larger businesses the employment gains are likely to be small and could even be negative. The cost, on the other hand, is greater uncertainty and insecurity for some Australian families ...

One of the difficulties with the economic case is that the government has not produced hard evidence to support its claims and has not commissioned Treasury to do any modelling, thereby reinforcing suspicion that it cannot support its arguments. It is not surprising that the latest Sensis business index reveals that 70 per cent of smaller businesses do not have a problem with the present system and 25 per cent believe the changes have gone too far. Despite government claims that changing unfair dismissal laws could create 50,000 to 80,000 jobs, Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group says:

You’re not going to go around putting on more people just because the unfair dismissal laws have changed.

Dr Paul Oslington from the Australian Defence Force Academy, who together with Ben Fryers has done a three-year study on the costs of hiring and firing, believes the changes will create about 6,000 jobs. I accept there are problems with the current unfair dismissal laws and I agree with Ms Ridout that these arise from too much emphasis on procedural fairness and not enough on the facts of the dismissal. Unfortunately, the government has not addressed the real problem.

It is important to state that this bill does deal with issues of legitimate concern and these changes I do not oppose—for example, changes to the minimum wage. I know there is suspicion around setting up the Fair Pay Commission and how that might impact on minimum wages. While there are some people in the community, and, I suspect, the bureaucracy and government, who think the market should determine the minimum wage and it should fall to its natural level, there is no evidence this new body will deliver that outcome. Further, we cannot deny a link between the minimum wage and jobs for low-income earners.

As far as a national industrial relations system is concerned, I understand the argument of those such as Professor Craven about the benefits of a federal system and the consequences of entrusting one government with what Lord Acton might have described as absolute power. However, this is not the first example of this government’s centralist tendencies and, looking at comments by the ministers for health and education, it is probably not the last. I also do not think the government’s obsession with destroying the Industrial Relations Commission is sufficient reason to oppose this bill, even though unincorporated businesses currently under the federal system may pay a price in five years.

The fundamental flaw in this bill is that it is another example of this government putting the interests of the free market ahead of the interests of families. This legislation is driven by ideology, by this government’s obsession with the free market, and no amount of tinkering at the edges, such as last-minute changes to public holidays, can disguise that fact. Markets are there to serve people, to serve families—it is not the other way around.

When families voted for the government last year they were not voting for abolishing the concept of a fixed working week. The government’s claim that overtime and penalty rates will be protected is hollow. A significant number of Australian workers, such as cleaners, security guards and funeral assistants, depend on overtime to earn a decent living. These workers tend to be those whose bargaining position is the weakest. How will they cope if they suddenly find their weekly pay packet reduced by the equivalent of eight hours pay? As important is the effect this new regime could have on those families who rely on overtime to pay for the little luxuries, such as seeing a movie or going to the local pizza parlour for dinner on Sunday night. The protection the bill offers for meal breaks is equally flimsy. We work to live, we do not live to work, and our laws should reflect that fact.

While the government puts the market before the interests of families, it conveniently ignores its own mantra when the market leads to outcomes the government does not like. For example, not only does the bill allow companies with fewer than 100 people to dismiss people unfairly, the government will not allow employers and employees to strike their own dismissal procedures. This means a small business which wants to attract good staff by offering job security will not be allowed to do so. That does not make sense. The government claims it wants to remove third parties from the employer-employee relationship, yet it interferes by preventing employers and employees from negotiating their own arrangements. If the government wants a market system, it should allow a market system, even when it produces outcomes the government does not like. To do otherwise creates the impression that the government’s agenda is loaded in favour of employers.

The government also claims it is interested in transparency but it will not list in the bill those matters about which employers and employees cannot negotiate. Surely these items should be listed in the legislation, particularly as negotiating such matters risks fines of up to $33,000. Small business should not be expected to keep up to date with government regulations to know whether or not they are breaking the law.

The government argues that individual agreements enable workers to strike a balance between work and family life. The government assumes that employees and employers negotiate on a level playing field. We all know that this is not what happens in the real world. We also know how family friendly many workplaces would be if left to employers. The managing partner of a national law firm thinks that employees do not have the right to free time. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says that many workplaces cannot accommodate the demands of parents. The workplace relations manager for the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry stated:

It’s important individuals have their life in a reasonable balance so they are focused on the job.

I regret that the market is more important to this government than family life. As I said earlier, we talk a lot about work and family, but this bill is about work or family. That saddens me because that is a choice Australians should never have to make. As long as these provisions remain in the bill, I cannot support it.