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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 87

Senator BARNETT (6:17 PM) —I stand tonight to support the government’s legislation, the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007, and in doing so say that this legislation is on the back of the government’s reform legislation of March last year, which is on the back of the 1996 reforms of the Howard-Costello team. It is in the context of a Labor opposition that have over the last 12 months and longer made as a centrepiece for the party the fact that industrial relations is sacrosanct for them. They say that it is the big ticket item for them; it is the raison d’etre for their whole being. Yet Labor’s industrial relations policy before us today is nothing short of a dog’s breakfast. I say that because they have policies fair and square which say that they wish to abolish AWAs, but they have not decided exactly what will replace them. They are not sure within their own minds as to what should replace AWAs, or maybe they just wish to abolish AWAs altogether and lead us back into history to a centralised wage fixing or collective bargaining system and to remove that choice for the 1.9 million small businesses around Australia today. They also have a policy to bring back the unfair dismissal laws. In my view, that is a very retrograde step and would be very damaging to Australia’s small business in particular. This is a policy which Australian small businesses particularly wanted removed, and we tried 44 times in this parliament to remove it, but Labor with some of the opposition parties prevented that effort until recently. As I said, this time last year those reforms did take place.

The reason for Labor’s inability to come up with a policy which is sensible, meaningful and that will create jobs, a stronger economy and higher wages is in my view because they are a wholly owned subsidiary of the union movement. They are owned and operated by union bosses. I do not say that willy-nilly or off the top of my head. I say that because the facts speak for themselves. Union membership is 15 per cent of the private sector workforce, down from 16.8 per cent; yet nearly 80 per cent of the senators on the other side have a background in the union movement. I accept that some of them in fact—I can see Senator Stephens nodding over there—do not have union backgrounds but nearly 80 per cent of them do. Almost 70 per cent, or 27 out of the 40 on the front bench, are former union officials. Of course, 55 per cent, or 48 of the 88 ALP caucus, are former union officials. They are owned and operated by the union movement. In the wings, as it were, with the next election heading our way very shortly, we have people like Greg Combet being parachuted into the parliament. The fact is that the ALP have no employment balance; they are made up predominantly of ex-union officials and activists who are anti business and have never had to balance the books or to worry about creating jobs—and that is very important for the small business community.

The unions view construction not as a tool for progress but as a tool for stopping progress. They forget the dictum Tony Blair, the Labour Prime Minister in the UK, put forward some years ago: the best form of welfare that you can provide a person is a job. They seem to be political players hell-bent on power for union bosses rather than defending the rights of the working men and women of Australia. I think the union bosses have lost sight of their original goals. Their new goals are about personal advancement and personal perks rather than representing their membership. This mindset flows with them into politics. It has poisoned what some people would say was a once great Labor Party. We have seen evidence of this in recent days and weeks, with the union campaign strategy document having been leaked and discovered. It makes it very clear that they want union representatives and union members to be acting like they are in a scene from Little Red Riding Hood. She comes up and knocks on the door, and they are the wolf clothed like a little granny, kind and generous, dressed up, giving to and looking after the little granddaughter inside—but of course the exact opposite is occurring. They are motivated in all the wrong ways. They want to be represented at barbecues and at church meetings. They want to have DVD nights. This is what the strategy document discloses, and they have been found out.

At the Canberra hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education of which I was a member—and we received 28 submissions—held on 8 June 2007, I asked Sharan Burrow of the ACTU whether she stood by her comments and the lobbying that she had been undertaking, on behalf of the ACTU, to the ILO with respect to Australia’s position as being among some of the worst in the world. Australia—as a result of that lobbying by Ms Burrow and indeed, no doubt, others—has replaced Colombia on the list, where of course unionists have been assassinated for their activities. This is the type of activity that they have been involved with. It is a great shame, because it probably was once a great party. But that seems to have changed.

Tasmania is a small business state, with over 50 per cent of the private sector workforce in small business. It is critical for Tasmania. The Labor Party have preselected a man called Kevin Harkins in the federal seat of Franklin. He is a member of the ETU. In fact he is still employed by the ETU. It was Dean Mighell from the ETU in Victoria who, only a couple of weeks ago, was sacked by Kevin Rudd. In Tasmania Mr Harkins has not been sacked and remains a member of the ETU. In fact he received considerable sums of money from the Labor Party for his campaign. The ETU have now admitted that that is the case. I have an ABC Tim Cox morning show transcript with me where Nicole Wells, on behalf of the Tasmanian ETU, says:

My limited information that I have about that, Tim, is that it was around $20,000. My understanding is that it will be refunded within the next week or so.

Tim Cox says:

So that was what was already spent.

Nicole Wells says yes.

And how much had to be returned that was unspent?

She says:

There is $20,000 to be returned to the ETU.

Tim Cox says:

So a total of $40,000.

Wells says:

That is correct.

So we get an admission from the ETU in Tasmania—on ABC radio and in no other publications, as far as I am aware—that $40,000 must be returned to the ETU from the Labor Party. Has it happened? Has it been identified by Kevin Harkins? We do not know. Has he come clean and disclosed this information to the Tasmanian public? We do not know that either. All this is in the context of an IR debate and a discussion about the future for Australian working men and women. Kevin Harkins, in my view, should promptly return all those donations from his union, and he should either cease working as an employee of the ETU or cease being a candidate for the Australian Labor Party in the electorate of Franklin. You cannot have it both ways.

In terms of the reforms, something was made clear, in my view, at the Senate committee hearing by a number of the submissions. The ACCI submitted. The list of those that submitted is at the end of the committee’s report. It included the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union, the ACTU, the AiG and the department. We received a very good submission from AMMA, the Australian Mines and Metals Association. They make it very clear that they are very supportive of the reforms of the government and they highlight the benefit in terms of higher income for those in the mining sector. They refer to a recent study by the Melbourne Institute which found that average wage increases to workers on individual contracts were 6.8 per cent, exceeding those under collective agreements, 3.9 percent, and awards, at 3.3 per cent. This seemed to be disputed somewhat by the Labor Party. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics make it clear that on average those on an AWA have a nine per cent higher average wage than those on a collective agreement and a 94 per cent higher wage than those employees covered by an award. That is a huge amount of money extra. And why not? Those on individual agreements, those with an AWA, are earning a whole lot more. The government’s reforms have delivered higher wages, and the runs are on the board. It has certainly delivered more jobs. We have already heard about this during the debate, with nearly 360,000 additional jobs created, the bulk of those—over 90 per cent—full-time jobs. We have the biggest number ever in Australian history, 10.4 million, in the Australian workforce.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm

Senator BARNETT —I was speaking about the merit of AWAs before the break and I was supporting the fact that the stronger safety net provides exactly that. It provides a fairness test to strengthen the safety net for agreement making in the national workplace relations system. Regarding AWAs, I was contrasting Labor’s position, which is to abolish AWAs, with the government’s position. The fact is that Australia now has had over 1.2 million AWAs either approved or lodged since March 1997. It is estimated by the Workplace Authority that at 31 March 2007 there were 747,000 AWAs in existence and that 364,634 AWAs were lodged between 27 March last year and 27 May this year. It is estimated that close to 400,000 AWAs will be lodged over the 2006-07 financial year based on an average five per cent monthly growth rate. At this growth rate, it is projected that nearly one million AWAs will have been lodged in the three years to the end of 2001.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Workplace Authority say that people on AWAs in Australia make up 8.3 per cent of the workforce. This was confirmed by the department to our committee a few weeks ago in Canberra. I say that because it contrasts most markedly with the comments by the Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, who said on the 7.30 Report on 24 May:

Some 3 per cent of employment right across Australia currently has AWAs …

Why would he say such a thing? I was at a conference in Melbourne speaking to an IR forum seminar and shadow parliamentary secretary Brendan O’Connor was speaking at the same conference. He said that the number of Australians working on AWAs was four per cent of the workforce. And yet we have got the facts on the table: it is 8.3 per cent. In fact, with respect to my home state of Tasmania, we have had 40,675 AWAs since the industrial relations system began in 1997 and 9,016 since March last year. The national percentage, as I said, is 8.3 per cent, but in Tasmania it is 13 per cent. The Leader of the Opposition has been saying publicly, on the 7.30 Report, that it is three per cent. I think I know why he is saying that: he is trying to downplay the importance and the relevance and the significance of AWAs in Australia today.

But what do other people say about AWAs? We know the ABS says that people on AWAs are earning nine per cent more than those on a collective agreement. We know they say they are earning 9.4 per cent more than those on an award. But what do other people say about AWAs and the merits of them? The message from the business community is very positive indeed. And what do they say about the Labor policy? Let us read what Tony Caccamo, the Western Australian general manager of Australian Mines and Metals Association, AMMA, says. On 31 January this year he said:

Unless the ALP policy provides the same features as AWAs, we will continue to lobby hard against the abolition of AWAs …

That cannot be much clearer. An article in the Australian Financial Review on 23 March this year quoted Charlie Lenegan, managing director of Rio Tinto—a very important, big mining company for Australia:

Global … giant Rio Tinto has made a rare foray into domestic politics in an election year, labelling federal Labor’s pledge to abolish Australian workplace agreements as a “pathway to the past rather than a pathway to the future”.

On 9 April this year in the West Australian he went on to say:

“It is a nonsense to deny their importance and short-sighted to pursue policies which will eliminate this employment choice …”

So they are on the record. AMMA’s general manager of workplace policy, Chris Platt, said:

Any removal of AWAs hands power to union bosses.

I think that says it in one; that is exactly what it does. He goes on to say:

This, we believe, is the real reason behind the ACTU’s opposition to AWAs.

The ACTU campaign for the removal of AWAs is simply a means of handing power back to union bosses and facilitating an increase in union membership.

Of course, it would appear that the lapdog for the ACTU—that is, the Labor Party—are doing exactly that: they are following the bidding of the ACTU. Steve Knott, the head of AMMA, on 15 March this year said:

AWAs are a huge success in the mining industry. Why the ALP seeks to destroy AWAs is primarily about union control and political product differentiation.

AMMA made a very good submission to our Senate committee of inquiry and made it very clear:

As at 30 March 2007 37.2% of the resource sector were covered by AWAs.

They said in their submission:

A review of resource sector agreements lodged in the 12 months to 31 May 2007 reveals that 73.5% of resource sector employees were covered by an AWA, 21.8% are covered by a union collective agreement and 4.5% are covered by a non-union collective agreement.

They go on to say:

On 23 May 2007, BHP Billiton Chief Executive Chip Goodyear said that AWAs had had improved productivity by about 25 per cent by fostering a direct relationship with their employees.

Then, today, on the front page of the Australian is a story headed ‘Building giant warns against IR changes’. Steve Lewis writes:

Construction giant John Holland has warned that a multibillion-dollar productivity dividend will be threatened if Labor wins office and winds back the Coalition’s industrial relations reforms.

In the latest business challenge to Kevin Rudd’s industrial policies, the company argues the continuation of Australian Workplace Agreements is ‘essential’ for the $90 billion sector to achieve further productivity gains of up to 20 per cent.

With some building firms reportedly factoring in ‘risk-of-Rudd’ premiums into future contracts, John Holland also wants Labor to drop plans to scrap the building industry watchdog—

and it goes on. So you can see the concern in the community and in the business sector in particular as a result of the proposed abolition of AWAs under Labor’s policy. It is a deep concern for those on this side and for the community in general, and it is a fear I also have. (Time expired)