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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 102

Senator BIRMINGHAM (8:30 PM) —It is a pleasure to speak tonight in favour of the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. This legislation is an important step in the evolution of the workplace laws and reforms that the Howard government has introduced since 1996. I note Senator Bartlett’s comments about the need for balance and common-sense in workplace laws. I believe that this government has sought to achieve that balance and common-sense. I note that the Australian Democrats, especially 10 years ago, played a key role in helping to achieve some of the first waves of reforms. I hope that in future years they will recognise the benefits of the waves of reforms that have been introduced in the time since.

This is an important step in our evolution because it is about providing flexibility that cuts both ways. This legislation will ensure that we provide fair compensation in lieu of protected award conditions. It was never the intention of the workplace relations laws that were passed in 2005 that such fair compensation not be provided. This legislation will guarantee it; it will ensure it and lock it away. It will ensure that the lies and smears about the industrial relations laws that we have heard flung around this place and in the media will not continue.

We have now 10.4 million Australians in work, 7.4 million of them in full-time work. This is a record number of people enjoying jobs and work and a record number of families enjoying greater opportunity in Australia today. It has happened following the successive waves of workplace relations laws and reforms that the Howard government has introduced. In my first speech in this place last week I said that I would return to debate the question of which party would be the best friend of Australian workers. Tonight I argue that the coalition parties and the Howard government are indeed the best friends of Australian workers. We are the best friends of Australian workers because in the life of this government we have generated more jobs, there are fewer industrial disputes, there are higher real wages, there is lower inflation and there are lower interest rates and lower taxes for Australians. This is a government with a proud record that has given more back to Australian workers, businesses and families, and also to Australia’s future, as a result of the types of reforms we have introduced and particularly as a result of the workplace relations reforms that we have introduced.

There have been numerous waves of these reforms starting in 1996 when, as I acknowledged, the Australian Democrats helped the government. I hope that they will continue that constructive approach through the life of the government. Then there were the waterfront reforms in 1998 that did so much to drive productivity growth. Then there were the 2005 reforms, which have played an important role in driving productivity growth for Australia. Productivity growth is linked to wages because productivity gains ensure that Australians can enjoy growth in wages. That is how we get productivity growth—linking it to wages to ensure that we do not have inflation running out of control in this country. By keeping inflation under control, we have kept interest rates low and we have ensured that out-of-pocket expenses for Australian families have been kept low. We have done this by being the best friend of Australian workers and Australian families.

We have kept unemployment down to 4.2 per cent. When I was at university not all that long ago—a good few years, but not all that long ago—economics lecturers told me that full employment was somewhere down around maybe six or seven per cent. If you had a really generous lecturer they may have even talked about five per cent. None talked about it dropping below five per cent, yet today we enjoy an unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent. It is a fantastic achievement. The best thing the government can do as a friend of Australian workers and families is to achieve unemployment at such a low level. Long-term unemployment is down by 23 per cent over the life of this government to the lowest ever rate since such records were kept. Once again, it is an outstanding achievement that demonstrates benefits to Australian workers and families. Since 1996, in driving this jobs growth, more than two million jobs have been created. Overwhelmingly, most of them have been full time. Since the 2005 reforms, 326,000 or more extra jobs have been created and 85 to 90 per cent of them—277,000 plus—have been full-time jobs.

It is not just more jobs, though. We often hear that the Howard government’s IR reforms have allegedly driven down wages. In contrast, real wages have gone up. Jobs have gone up and wages have gone up. Real wages have grown by 20.8 per cent since 1996. That is more money in the pockets of Australian workers and families. Contrast that with the life of the Hawke-Keating government, when real wages growth was a measly 1.8 per cent. So we have got more people in work earning more than ever before, and they are actually getting to work. Industrial disputes are at the lowest level since 1913. The Howard government’s reforms to workplace relations have put more people in work and more money in their pockets and have ensured that business does not suffer the disputes of the past.

This is a government that approaches workplace relations issues from the perspective of working in the best interests of workers and businesses alike by putting jobs on the table for more Australians and by ensuring that businesses can benefit from greater productivity. We have had it suggested tonight that the IR reforms have increased red tape for business. I ask: if that is the case, why do Australian businesses want these reforms? Why do they want them kept and are scared of a change of government? They are scared of a change of government because they know they will be burdened again by having unions bashing down their doors and by not being able to enjoy the type of flexibility and the type of conditions that have allowed them to prosper. Indeed, they will have far more red tape back on the table than would be the case under this government.

The bill before us tonight is about making a good system that has evolved over the life of this government even better. As I said at the outset, it was never the intention of the government for core conditions to be traded away under these laws. Initially, we introduced the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard, the first step taken by a government to legislate a range of minimum conditions for Australian workers—to legislate the 38-hour week, to legislate parental leave, to legislate sick leave and carer leave, to legislate four weeks annual leave and to legislate for minimum or award rates of pay to be paid to workers. At that time we ensured that there would be a fair system for Australian workers. Since then, however, we have seen scare tactics from the other side and scare tactics from the union mates of those on the other side, and it has become necessary to ensure—so nobody can be under any doubt—that the system was not about seeing core award conditions traded away, so we introduced the new fairness test that will extend to some 7.5 million Australians. This is a fairness test that covers all those who could possibly need to be covered and ensures their wellbeing under these workplace relations laws.

So what are the protected award conditions under the fairness test that are added to those already protected conditions under the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard? They are penalty rates, shift and overtime loadings, monetary allowances, annual leave loadings, public holidays, rest breaks and incentive based payments. These are the things that workers can choose to trade off in the flexibility of the workplace relations system we have developed, but only if they are receiving fair monetary returns that they believe are worthwhile to them. It is about the relationship between employer and employee and about giving them flexibility of choice.

On the other side of the chamber we have a party whose approach to workplace relations does not have that commitment to fairness. It does not have that commitment to doing what is in the best interests of Australian workers, of Australian businesses and of Australia’s economy as a whole. Instead, we have a party that is beholden to the interests of the trade union movement. We already have amongst us many union officials who have graduated to work in the parliament for the Australian Labor Party in this chamber and in the other place. We have former ACTU secretaries and presidents galore; we have quite a good range of trade unionists working here. But at the next election we are going to see the biggest influx of union heavyweights into Labor ranks in a long time. There may always be a large number of union officials coming on board, but this will the biggest influx of union heavyweights.

We have Greg Combet, the ACTU Secretary, who has nudged out a Labor lower house member for preselection in her seat. She was nudged out very unceremoniously, might I say. We have Bill Shorten, the National Secretary of the AWU—the great media darling that he is—who is running in Victoria. We have Dougie Cameron of the AMWU seeking to join us in this place, and we have Richard Marles, another ACTU official, running in Victoria. Our good friends from the ETU have also got one on board. We hope that Kevin Harkins has better language and will not be as unparliamentary as some of his colleagues at the ETU. Then, in my home state, we have Mark Butler, State Secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, running in Port Adelaide. He is to be joined by Don Farrell of the shoppies union, who has managed to nudge out not just one colleague but two colleagues from the other side of this chamber—one is totally off the ticket—to take the No. 1 spot on the Labor ticket in South Australia. When you have the numbers in the Labor Party, you can trample all over anybody else, and that is certainly what Mr Farrell has done.

Why is it important? Why does it matter that all these union officials might be lining up on the other side of the fence? It is important because you have to question just who the boss is and who Australian voters should be listening to as we approach this Australian election. We have the official Labor Party policy, not always clearly enunciated and not always clearly spelt out. Nonetheless we have the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Ms Gillard, of the other place out there promoting Labor policy, sometimes in agreement. They initially say they are going to ban AWAs, but then they say they will not ban them—they will ban them but they are going to throw a bone to the mining industry, particularly the mining industry in WA, and work out some type of phase-out arrangement. They say they will ban unfair dismissals—but not quite. They are going to throw a bone to small business and try to keep them there for some small businesses—but not many. Most of them who now enjoy the flexibility in the workplace that the abolition of unfair dismissal laws has brought them will have unfair dismissal laws imposed again. But the opposition are trying to pretend that there might be something for some of them.

When the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education heard from Mr Joe de Bruyn of the shoppies union, I asked him what their opinion was on unfair dismissal laws. He said that they should apply to every Australian workplace. When I asked him what his opinion was on AWAs, he said that they should be abolished lock, stock and barrel, along with all individual contracts. And when I asked him what Mr Don Farrell, his state secretary in South Australia, should do as Labor’s new Senate candidate, he said that he should adhere to SDA policy and reintroduce unfair dismissal laws across the board and abolish all individual agreements.

Ms Sharan Burrow from the ACTU came before us and was asked the same series of questions. Would she wipe out all individual agreements? Would she reintroduce unfair dismissal laws to all Australian workplaces? She said yes. When asked what she would expect of Mr Combet, her ACTU secretary, or the countless other affiliates to the ACTU who seek to join the Labor Party in forming a government, she said that she would expect them to uphold the union’s policy. So indeed we have a Labor Party that is expecting people on board who are about reintroducing the ultimate regulatory framework back into the Australian workplace relations system.

The Labor Party is from a union base with a depleting membership and a decreasing relevance to Australian society but, nonetheless, it is hoping to reintroduce the relevance of the unions. The Labor Party and the union movement are playing dirty tricks on workplace relations. They are running a scare campaign, spending millions and millions of dollars over the last couple of years to scare Australians over workplace relations. They have a war chest of tens of millions of dollars to outspend the coalition parties in the lead-up to the federal election. It is a Labor Party that wants to criticise government advertising that is informative but whose state parties go out and run full-page commercials featuring pictures of the Labor premiers. In fact, in my home state of South Australia it runs television advertisements where Labor Premier Mike Rann narrates the commercial. That blatant political advertising is something that should be stamped out; not the information campaigns carried out by this side of the House that do not feature such blatant political advertising. But, no, they have spent all this money trying to scare Australians.

Along the way they are happy to smear the odd business. We all know that Mr Rudd got upset at accusations levelled at a business in Queensland. We heard Senator Hurley tonight getting upset at any accusations or smearing against her family’s business interests. But they are quite happy to smear other small businesses around Australia whom they allege may have crossed the line in workplace relations laws without giving those small businesses the opportunity of recourse or the opportunity of not having their name dragged through the public mud before they have even heard the allegations.

Then of course we have the ACTU dirty tricks manual—the six-steps manual. Nowadays, we all like steps and they are going to the six-steps manual. It is what is unsaid in the six-steps manual that is important—the things that you are not meant to mention. Oddly enough, you are not meant to mention any of the things contained in the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. No, those things that are guaranteed by law you are not meant to mention—minimum wage, parental leave, 38-hour week et cetera.

This government is sincere about its attempts to grow jobs and to implement workplace relations laws that are in the best interests of Australians. We are committing funds as a result of this bill to ensure compliance with and enforcement of the new fairness test that is being applied. We have listened to some of the technical amendments proposed by the ACTU and others during the Senate committee inquiry and we are putting those forward to ensure that the bill does what we said it would do in the first place. We are doing this in the best interests of Australia. We face an opposition that do not necessarily know what they are or what they stand for—whether they are economic conservatives or Christian socialists. They are not quite sure. We know we are building fairness and flexibility for Australian employers and employees alike. We know that we are growing jobs in the Australian workplace and we know that we are growing real wages. I commend the bill to the House.