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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1010

Senator JOYCE (8:04 PM) —It is interesting to talk here on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 tonight because things have changed over time. I remember that when this legislation initially came in I was very hesitant—I would say reticent—and so was Queensland, about the adoption of this bill. The issues at the time spoke to an economy that was robust, where opportunities were abundant, where the horizon had what a nation should have levelled out before it for its citizens.

That was some time ago in politics now. Economically the world has changed dramatically since then and it seems almost foolish, almost lemming-like, that the discussions politically around this chamber and other chambers tonight ignore the realities of exactly where the world is. The IR changes came before the US pumped $200 billion to try and refloat the American economy, to no avail. Even if we look today at the headlines in the papers, we see that the worsening credit crisis has heightened concerns about the liquidity of major investment banks after the US Federal Reserve was forced on Friday to bail out one of Wall Street’s top five firms, using powers not exercised since the Great Depression.

We have to acknowledge in this chamber and in this parliament where the world is heading. We have to have a reality check about exactly what is in front of us. We have to confirm that the US, with 26 per cent of the world economy, and by default Australia, with about 1.5 per cent, are heading for a recession. I looked at this before I came in here and googled some words. This is four minutes ago. ‘Shares plunge.’ ‘US bank crisis spooks investors.’ Basically Asian markets have gone down four per cent, Europe has gone down two. ‘Big Apple softening.’ ‘European investment bank shares dive as credit crisis fears spread.’ Vancouver, with stories of people losing their homes in impending recession in the United States. This is the reality of where the world is now, so what on earth are we talking about? What on earth are we talking about in how we are going to deal with this problem, the major problem that is coming before our nation now, and calling for those with a bit of steel about them to deal with it? This problem is way beyond any of the minor nefarious imbroglio that surrounds this bill. This problem is the big deal of the day.

My position is entirely different to my position when, with hesitancy, I first voted for this bill. I think, to be honest, that my position now in supporting this bill is probably stronger than ever. We have an impending train wreck. It has been preceded by the subprime mortgage meltdown; it has been preceded by the $200 billion injection; and it has been preceded by the fact that the Australian market has gone down by, I think, 21 per cent since October last year. First and foremost, the thing that we need to do for people is to keep them in a job.

The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer of this country today have an immense responsibility in front of them. I know they cannot stop it, but they need to try and mitigate the effects on the Australian people of what will happen—to soften the blow. Let us look at what levers they have before them. They have monetary policy, which they have exercised by basically saying nothing—by taking the rudder off the ship, putting it in full sail and seeing were it blows. And now Australian working families are at tipping point in what they can afford in their mortgage repayments. That is not an emotive statement; that is a statement of fact. Last weekend in Brisbane, in my home state, the clearance rate on the sale of houses was 26 per cent. That is astronomically low. In the major market of Sydney, it is less than 50 per cent. There have been a record number of listings in Melbourne, yet we sit back and pretend that there is nothing happening. We sit back and pretend that the world is just going on as per normal. We have reached tipping point for Australian working families. We are tipping them out of their houses and we are tipping them out on the streets. We need to take hold of some of the levers to try to mitigate the effects of this fall for our nation.

We have had statements by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer about fiscal restraints. But they are not quantifiable. We cannot pin them down. There is nothing you can actually get to. We cannot even at this point in time quantify exactly where the so-called two per cent efficiency dividend is.

Senator Marshall —Mr Acting Deputy President, I am reluctant to rise on a point of order—that of relevance—but Senator Joyce has been going now for just over five minutes. He has made one reference to the bill, but did not actually talk about it. There is nothing in the substance of his speech so far that goes even remotely close to the bill before us. I would ask you if you would draw his attention to the question before the chair.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Mark Bishop)—Thank you, Senator Marshall. I am sure Senator Joyce is aware of the bill before the chair, and I would ask him to direct his remarks to that bill.

Senator JOYCE —I know that we are arriving at the soft underbelly of exactly what the intrinsic issues are in this nation at this point in time. This is what the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 is all about: it is about taking away another lever to the control of our nation so as to mitigate that fall, so as to save Australia from the effects of an uncontrolled, unreasoned collapse.

I know the rhetoric that has been played around this place, but we must be strong and we must maintain some position. Although it may be unpopular, it is essential if we want to take hold of this nation. Our first job, even before guarding our own political skins, is to be a patriot to this nation. If this bill were not required, I would say, ‘So be it,’ but the original bill, now more than ever, is required. It will not be the panacea, but now, more than ever, we must start looking at an extensive and holistic view of the problems that are before this nation right now.

I believe, to be quite honest, Mr Swan is not up to the job. I am not making any personal assertions against his character but, for the job that is in front of our nation now, he is out of his depth. We have some major problems that are coming before us.

Senator Marshall —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Mr Swan is not even the minister that has carriage of this bill. I really think the senator needs to be talking about the bill. He is on some meandering rampage about economic policy that has got no link to this particular bill. You should bring him to the question before the chair.

Senator Bernardi —On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop: Senator Joyce has every right to fully expand upon the implications of this bill across the Australian economy. He is well within the brief and the subject matter. I do not think there is any point of order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator Bernardi. On the point of order: it seems to me that Senator Joyce has been taking a very broad view in his contribution to the debate on the bill, but I am sure he is coming now to more pertinent comments as to the content of the bill.

Senator JOYCE —I return to exactly why it is pertinent: what we are going to see now is a wage-interest-inflation spiral. That is what is coming before us now. To take you back to the crux of what happens next, what happens next is wage-interest-inflation. We have that because of the centralised control that will permeate back into the direction of wages—and obviously unions must reflect the aspirations of their members. They will say that their interest rates have gone up because the government has failed to talk down interest rates, because the government did not have the courage to go out and publicly state that monetary policy is a blunt instrument and because the Prime Minister and the Treasurer refused to go into bat for the working families of Australia and put downward pressure on interest rates. Because they refused to do that, we now have the advent of what will be wage-interest-inflation. It will work quite simply. The workers will meet with their union rep, as they are entitled to do, and they will apply for a wage increase. The wage increase will come about and then people will lose their jobs, because you cannot get blood out of a stone. This is what is going to happen. There is only a limited amount of money to go around.

We are heading for an economic squeeze like we have not had in the history of this nation and it has got absolutely nothing to do with our domestic economy, which has been left in entirely good shape. We could never be so conceited to think that we are the drivers of world economic policy. The drivers of world economic policy are nations that are far stronger than us, and that is what is driving the agenda of this nation. All you can do in this nation is mitigate the effects of it, because that is all you have the power to do. When you open our economy from the inside to wage and interest inflation, you do not mitigate the effects, you exacerbate them. You exacerbate the effects of the hurt and the pain that will come from what is already before us.

That is why, with a completely carte blanche ‘we are going to throw this out’ approach to politics, you may win a political point, you may be popular or a whole range of other things, but you are not a patriot and you are not doing the right thing by our nation. There has to be an ability to mitigate by having an extra lever in some way, shape or form—some control mechanism that is not determined from a centralised point, as this will be.

This government will be judged on its capacity to manage under a position of stress. And I will be honest, it did not bring about this position of stress; it was going to come regardless. If it does not have the capacity to manage it, the judgement will be for all to see, because there will be ramifications for every working family in the mortgage belts of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, which this week had a 26 per cent clearance rate. Those people are under stress and under pressure. They cannot even pay back to the banks what they owe them. As those pressures come on board, this government will be judged on whether it has the capacity and the ability to steel itself to walk up to the line and deal with the issues.

Going back to the bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it will not jeopardise employment. Quite obviously, that is a statement that will not stand the test of fact. Anyone who has been in business will tell you that, when times become precarious, you will not take someone on full time if you do not have the capacity to disengage from that employment. Without a shadow of a doubt, in the real world if I am worried and I am under the pump because my nation is under the pump I will not take employees on. The only avenue I have is if I have the flexibility of negotiating with them in the best terms I possibly can so as to keep them in a job and to keep myself in business. But my business is my house mortgage. It also supports my family. I will not let it all go down the tubes by making a stupid decision. So, in small business, my decision is: if in doubt, rule out. I will not employ people; they will stay as casuals. More to the point, if I think that there is going to be some caveat placed on it by the government or some intrusion by the government, I will not employ them at all. I will do without. That is an impediment to the aspiration of the Australian people to go into the workplace.

You might say, ‘We’re at full employment now.’ We are, but as a resource nation, we lag behind the effects in the rest of the world. We have heard some ridiculous arguments in the past by a number of commentators about so-called ‘decoupling’. As I stated earlier, Asia today went down four per cent; so much for decoupling. The US is the nose of the plane and no matter where you are on that plane you will follow where the nose of the plane goes.

The only thing that we can do to try to keep people in the workforce is to create some sort of flexibility of engagement. It is a fool’s errand to think anything else. You are talking not only to the employer but you are talking to a wife with a mortgage and she will not put the house at risk for the sake of taking on an extra employee. This is the reality of where we are now.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have the run of this nation for another two and a half years and God bless them and good luck to them, because they need it. But I look forward to a substantial statement of policy direction on how this nation is going to manage the impending threat that is absolutely apparent to anybody who has the capacity to google. As to why this nation is not dealing with it, I have no idea. I have no idea where this political debate has wandered to.

In summary, I believe there is more reason now for legislation to support the working families of Australia and to keep people in jobs, to deal with the reality of the position we are in now. Industrial relations laws change all the time, and six months ago it was a completely different situation to where we are now, and surely Labor must acknowledge that. We need to manifestly express that reality in the policies we put before the Australian people. The Australian people will understand that it is a hard statement but that the alternative is unemployment. The alternative is mortgage repossessions on their houses, loss of the payments on their cars and having them taken away, and kids not being able to go to the school of their parents’ choosing. They are the things that will come screaming in the door. If economic pundits in the United States are correct when they say that this is the biggest economic crisis since 1928, then what page are we reading from? Why hasn’t there been a statement that says that we are going to start to deal with this issue?

My belief is that this bill is now more pertinent to the security of our nation and the security of jobs and to mitigating the effects of the impending recession than has ever been the case before. Our nation has before it now a crisis that has not been seen by our government—and not by any government—for a long period of time. The strength, structure, policy development and courage of the government that is able to deliver those policies to see the Australian people through that period will be held in high esteem by the history books for a long period after all of us have left this chamber. But, if you take the rudders off the ship and you allow the Australian nation to venture forth in full sail at the behest of the storm, we will be crushed by the waves and you will be held responsible.