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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1004

Senator KEMP (7:46 PM) —As my colleague Senator Fisher has said, the coalition will not be seeking to oppose the passage of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. I commend my colleague on her speech and the remarks that she made. The coalition’s policy on this matter has been well stated on several occasions by the shadow minister for employment, Julie Bishop. Of course we have concerns with this bill, and so do many business groups, but the coalition recognises the political realities we now find ourselves in.

I congratulate the coalition senators on their report, which was tabled today, from the hearings conducted by the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations on this bill, chaired by Senator Gavin Marshall. As my colleague mentioned, Senator Marshall got himself into some serious trouble with his colleagues through one of his remarks. When he speaks, undoubtedly we will have the greatest backflip since Federation. We understand that, Senator Marshall, and that is the way the Labor Party operates—as I will say a bit later on in my remarks about the pipers and tunes.

My colleagues, in their report, describe this bill as fundamentally flawed, unduly complicated and, in many areas, difficult to understand. In my view they are absolutely right. The concerns of employers are extensively summarised in the coalition senators’ report. Many Australian business groups argued there were significant problems with this bill. For those who are worried about the challenges facing the Australian economy, this bill does not make happy reading. Let us not mince words. This bill is the first instalment of the Rudd government’s dividend to the unions for their unprecedented $30 million investment in the ALP’s election campaign. Let us not pretend, despite the title, that this bill has much to do with fairness or sound management of the economy; it has everything to do with the Labor Party dancing to the union tune. For all its claims of consultation and working with business, when the choice comes between business interests and union interests, there is no surprise who wins when the umpire is a Labor government. The outcome is always certain. The unions pay the piper and, therefore, they call the tune.

In a period where the Rudd government ministers speak incessantly about the threats of inflation to the Australian economy, is it not a little surprising that the first major bill they present to the parliament will undoubtedly increase inflation? Some Labor senators seem to constantly refer to the so-called ‘dark days’ of the Howard-Costello government. These were not dark days; they were a golden age—not only compared with the Hawke-Keating government but compared with governments in the post-war period.

Let me have a look at a couple of statistics. There was unprecedented growth in the economy during the Howard years and, by every measure, as I said, it was a golden age for Australian workers, Australian families and Australian businesses. Real wages—this is a very important statistic—increased by a remarkable 21.5 per cent over the 11 years of the Howard government. Contrast this real 21.5 per cent increase in real wages with a negative growth in real wages of 1.8 per cent, which occurred under the Hawke-Keating years. Under the Howard government, industrial disputes fell to their lowest level for a century. Unemployment is currently the lowest for 33 years. Inflation, interest rates, government debt—all of these figures illustrate why the years from 1996 to 2007 can be considered to be a golden age. Of course, this is quite contrary to the message which is now being marketed by Mr Rudd and his ministers.

One of the most flawed areas in the bill—and this was extensively covered by my colleague Senator Fisher—is the model award modernisation request that has come under attack from a number of areas, including from Professor Andrew Stewart at the University of Adelaide. On the one hand the ALP say they want to oversee the eventual demise of individual statutory agreements and yet, on the other hand, they are not prepared to ensure the modernisation of Australia’s some 4,200 awards takes place prior to pushing their legislation through the Senate. This will leave many businesses in an unsatisfactory workplace relations abyss of confusion and old-fashioned practices. The problem—and I will not go over this in detail because it was so well covered by Senator Fisher—that Professor Stewart identified is that the model award modernisation request, which was included in the explanatory memorandum to the bill, contains statements to the effect that the government instruct the industrial relations commission to neither disadvantaged any workers nor increase the cost to any business. Of course, Professor Stewart has said that, while it may be possible to modernise awards while minimising the damage done to employees and employees, it is not possible to standardise instruments without someone being worse off than under the previous system. Professor Stewart has described the ALP’s bill as trying to ‘make an omelette without breaking any eggs’.

It is ludicrous for the ALP to think that the removal of adequate statutory agreements within the existing time frame is achievable. It is impossible for Labor to implement its new laws without workers or employers being worse off—someone simply has to lose. It will certainly be the employers who will meet the additional costs and we all know what that means. Higher costs mean less demand for labour, which, in the end, means higher unemployment. And not only will the Rudd government boost inflation; it will boost unemployment as well. Growth will fall, unemployment will rise: are we heading back to a period of stagflation?

As I said, this is the first instalment demanded by the unions. Not too far down the road the unions will demand further dividends from this government. The Australian Building and Construction Commission will be abolished in 2010 under Labor’s policy, which, of course, is opposed by businesses in the sector. The ABCC has been extraordinarily successful at ending the endemic corruption and lawlessness which has plagued the construction industry and brought about, in this sector, a new era of industrial peace. How long will it be before Anthony Albanese’s infrastructure plans effectively dump the building codes which have further underpinned the building industry’s success?

Then we come to the fact that there will be a rollback of unfair dismissal laws, which will have a huge effect on small business. How long before the right of entry laws, which I note Labor promises to maintain, will be overridden by the manipulations of occupational health and safety laws, as state Labor governments have done in Tasmania and Queensland? The alleged modernisation and simplification of awards will only further burden business by ratcheting up rates of pay and inspiring further wage blow-outs. Who, for a moment, can take Labor’s promises to modernise and simplify the awards when the so-called 10 award matters are really closer to 30—or so I am advised? How does this amount to modernisation and simplification? How is the award modernisation process meant to simplify and remove red tape from business when all it will achieve is to expand coverage and provide greater prescription on how businesses should run themselves? How long will it be before the union wish list is implemented? And what is this union wish list? Compulsory union dues, paid time off to perform union work, compulsory union training, compulsory bargaining fees for non-union members, restrictions on the use of contractors or labour hire arrangements and the threat of an influx of non-working union delegates to the workplace. We are already hearing stories of the MUA seeking the pay rates of engineers working on the North West Shelf for those who are labouring in the dredging ships of Port Phillip Bay. This is what we were told simply would not happen, but I am advised this is one of the current demands of the MUA. The truth is that the rollback of industrial reform will continue until employer groups say, ‘Thus far and no further.’

During the election campaign there were a number of employer groups that recognised the immense danger that Labor presented. Credit should go to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Mines and Metals Association and a number of other groups. However, there were other business groups that thought, to be quite frank, this was a fight they could avoid. They were, in a sense, apolitical. Of course the leader of this particular group was the Australian Industry Group. During the election the union movement was firing on all guns, but the firepower of the employer groups was diminished by disunity and, in some cases, absenteeism. There is, I believe, a need for some heavy thinking amongst employer groups about the onward march of Rudd Labor and their union mates. Already the unions are collecting dues for the next campaign. Why would they be doing this? Why would the unions be collecting, having achieved what we were told were their goals? Why would they be collecting dues for the next campaign? The fact of the matter is we have a situation now where union power is triumphant. It is my view that it is time the employer groups started to recognise this. They can demonstrate their seriousness by establishing, for example, a fighting fund. This was done by the National Farmers Federation in the 1980s to deal with union excesses. There are some business groups that are settling for scraps from the ALP’s government table. If business groups are serious about halting the rollback of Labor’s actions then it is time for them to get real on what is to be done to stop the union paymasters from calling the shots.

Let us go back to the election. There has never before been an example, I believe, where more money has been spent by an interest group, namely trade unions, on an election than either of the two major political parties. The unions’ $30 million-plus certainly outweighed the amount spent by the Liberal and National parties and outweighed the amount spent by the Labor Party. The business community contributed, I understand, a relatively paltry $8 million to fight this campaign. As I said, some business groups, and I have instanced publicly the AiG, seem to be more interested in negotiating the terms of surrender than fighting the battle to ensure that major labour market reform was not rolled back. Time will tell if business groups are serious about labour market reform. If they wait too long, it will take a generation to restore the gains that had been made under the Howard government.

Australian businesses now face nine Labor governments—one for every state, one for every territory and of course the national government—and each and every one of them is beholden to their union mates through the massive amounts of money they provide. How interesting it was to read information in the newspapers on the TWU and the union slush fund and the extortion from business. Mr Joe Ludwig recently was explaining to the Senate how they can conduct a political investigation of a former Liberal minister, but how loath they are to call for an investigation into this TWU slush fund. I just wonder, if the next election turns out the way I hope, whether some minister will follow the Senator Ludwig precedent and have an investigation into the actions of a former minister. It was a very unwise step, Senator, and the Labor Party and some ministers should be careful, in my view.

The former Prime Minister, John Howard, said before last year’s election that if Rudd Labor won the election the concept of lasting industrial relations reform in this country will be gone forever. To be quite frank, I hope that Mr Howard is wrong. But unfortunately too few business organisations have come to realise this. They still think that the ALP legislation is balanced and workable. It is not balanced and it is not workable. It is regressive in its effect, I believe, on the Australian economy and ultimately on the living standards of Australian employees. As I said, this is the first major instalment that has been paid back to the unions for the unprecedented amount of money which they spent on the last campaign to elect a Labor government. We can complain about developers and the Wollongong council, we can complain about their money that was being spent to have an influence on local governments and maybe even a state government. That is bad and disgraceful. But it is nothing compared with the amount of money that the unions have paid to win an election and to get a seat at the table of government. We on this side will be monitoring what happens very carefully.