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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1033

Senator ABETZ (9:38 PM) —Tonight we are debating the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. The fundamental principle that the coalition and I operate under is that the best welfare any government can provide to its citizens is a job. Indeed, we as a government never accepted five per cent as full employment. One of my colleagues said, ‘Let’s be brave and dream of an unemployment figure that commences with a three in front of it.’ Today we are in fact actually celebrating that because, as I understand the official figure, whilst we accept it at four per cent, it is in fact 3.97 per cent—something that people never thought could or would be possible. Indeed, I recall being on the other side of the chamber when the unemployment rate was still above five per cent. The Labor opposition of the time used to goad and joke about what we thought might happen if the employment relations system in this country were to be altered. Today we do have a dividend of an unemployment rate of 3.97 per cent.

Our record in providing jobs, and thus in fact creating the much vaunted working families, is clear. There are a lot more working families in Australia as a result of our policies, because we wanted to get people into work. The social data is overwhelming: an individual’s self-esteem and health—physical, emotional, social, in every aspect—is enhanced; the socialisation into society of the children who live in the family unit is enhanced; and, of course, there are the huge benefits to the community at large. You name it—there are positive benefits from employment.

Labor went to the last election claiming that our legislation went too far. We accept that some Australians accepted that notion and that it had an impact, amongst others, on the decision by our fellow Australians. As we have said on a number of occasions, we accept their verdict and that is why we will not be opposing the bill. But what I do say to the Labor Party is: be very careful that you do not actually get that for which you wish; be careful for what you wish. Labor did not go to the people promising to destroy jobs and damage the economy, so I again say to Labor: be careful what you actually wish for. The reality is now dawning on some, especially some opposite, that the good sound bite of the last election campaign is very difficult to translate into sound policy.

A residual fear I have is that Labor will turn their much vaunted working families into welfare families. I think Labor realises this as well, because let us not forget that six days before the election, on 18 November 2007, the then Leader of the Opposition said, ‘We will be recalling the parliament before Christmas.’ There was so much work to be done, and, of course, Work Choices, amongst I think eight or nine other things, was his first priority. How they could all be first priorities, beats me, but it was his top priority. So after the parliament did not resume, as promised, before Christmas, I was expecting an early start—early January, mid January, late January. It was not to be. Indeed, the parliament started on the equal latest date that this parliament has started in this millennium. So much for the rush to get this legislation into the parliament to turn over Work Choices.

It seems it is no longer urgent. Indeed, with all the time that Labor have now had, you would have assumed that they could have overcome the technical difficulties that so many people pointed out to the Senate committee inquiry. Indeed, you would have thought—and I accept Senator Murray’s comments in his report—that with all this time Labor could have brought in their changes to the unfair dismissal laws that they promised as well. It is a very easy, very simple amendment. If all these workers around Australia were being treated so harshly, so unfairly, where was the warm-hearted Mr Rudd in getting rid of this obscenity? Well, it was not before Christmas, was it. They delayed the recommencement of parliament to the latest date possible and then the first bill dealing with these matters did not even refer to unfair dismissals. Methinks Labor are starting to realise that the sound bites of the last election do not translate into sound policy very easily. That is why they are now trying to defer a lot of these impacts until after the next election. So we will be watching that very carefully as well.

We are witnessing a very bizarre approach by Labor to this. They promised to rip up Work Choices lock, stock and barrel. What was the lock? The constitutional lock was the corporate affairs power. Remember how the state Labor governments wasted millions upon millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in taking a challenge to the High Court for and on behalf of the federal Labor opposition, only to have it thrown out lock, stock and barrel by the court—a complete and utter waste. But having spent so much time and effort in opposing the use of the corporate affairs power, guess what Labor have found? They will now use this constitutional lock of the corporate affairs power and they have accepted it.

The stock of course was the need for a national system. Strangely enough, that is also now accepted by the Australian Labor Party. And the barrel, as far as we were concerned, was the harsh unfair dismissal laws—introduced by Paul Keating—that Labor had refused to amend on 40 separate occasions. It is interesting that these very harsh unfair dismissal laws—the barrel of the Work Choices legislation—are now in fact accepted by those opposite.

The only argument we seem to have is on the quantum. We who have an unashamed bias in favour of small business say that the number ought to be 100. It stands to reason that those who favour small business would seek to balloon it out in favour of small business up to the 100. Those that are anti small business would of course seek to minimise that figure as much as possible. That is why Labor is now arguing, if I understand the latest iteration, for the figure of 15. So the only issue we are talking about is not the principle any more; it is simply the quantum.

When Labor says, ‘We will rip up Work Choices,’ do you know what they are doing? They are getting a little bit of one millimetre of the top right hand corner of Work Choices, ripping it off and saying ‘Look at this, we’ve ripped up Work Choices.’ But of course they have not and they are very slow in going about it. I think we know why. It is because they accept that their rhetoric, aided and abetted by a $100 million trade union campaign, is something that they can no longer deliver on. The slick campaign—the smart sound bite—does not make smart, sound policy when in government.

When I asked the minister at Senate estimates, ‘Can you give us an assurance that under your legislation’—the legislation we are debating here tonight—’there will not be a single worker worse off in this country as a result?’ she was unable to give that guarantee. It is a guarantee that the trade union movement, in a $100 million campaign, demanded of the former Prime Minister and of the former government. They said it was an outrage that the Prime Minister would not give that assurance and that he was letting down the working families of this country. Well, guess what? Now that the need for a sound bite for the election has passed and the need for sound policy has come about, they are unable to give to their much vaunted working families the same assurance that they required from the then Prime Minister and government.

There is no doubt that as a result of the passing of this legislation—which I have said we will not oppose because we accept that Labor ran a campaign on this—there will be losers. Labor has admitted as much. There will be losers as a result of this legislation and we will be championing the cause of those losers. The Prime Minister so proudly boasted ‘the buck stops with me,’ and when he turns working families into welfare families we will be reminding him that the buck stops with him.

Indeed, the Australian workplace agreements, which were pilloried as being so obscene and so evil, are going to be allowed to continue forever under this legislation. They are not going to be abolished. Sure, you cannot make new ones, but the ones that are in existence today can continue, not just until 2012 but even beyond 2012. There were those—and especially those opposite in the government—who ran around the countryside saying to people: ‘Australian workplace agreements are obscene and evil. We are going to rip them up lock, stock and barrel. Under us there will be no Australian workplace agreements.’ Well, those who believed that mantra were unfortunately misled because Labor is now going to keep AWAs if the parties to them want them to continue. If I were the ACTU, chances are I would be asking for my $100 million back because the Labor Party, whilst continuing with their mantra, have adopted a large swag of that which we were asserting.

In the time left, I will quickly make reference to the Senate committee. The report does no justice to those government senators who put their name to the majority report. But you only have to turn the page and ask, ‘Who was the chairman?’ It was a member of the Electrical Trades Union—one of Dean Mighell’s mates. Then there was Senator George Campbell of the AMWU, then Senator Glenn Sterle of the Transport Workers Union and finally Senator Wortley of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance—all trade union officials. In their pathetic 30-page report, guess who they refer to as the great academic? I must say I laughed when I read this. It was none other than Professor Peetz, the trade union bard who writes poetry for trade unions online—the independent academic; give me a break!

Others, including me, have highlighted the bizarre nature of Professor Peetz and some of his commentary. Did the Labor Party rely on Professor Peetz once, twice or three times? No. There was such a wealth of academic evidence in favour of the Labor Party report that—guess what?—they had to quote him 30 times: once per page, on average. I wonder why there is this overreliance on Professor Peetz. Of course, it is quite obvious. The majority report is, quite frankly, a disgrace to the system. It is pejorative and it is partisan in a way that does no credit to the Senate’s committee system. Paragraph 1.1 of the majority report states:

Yet the insistence of the former government in regarding industrial relations solely for the purposes of driving down wages to increase productivity was ultimately damaging to economic progress.

That is an absolutely false assertion and, because it is such a false assertion, guess what? The committee was unable to footnote it, because there was no evidence before the committee for that untruth. When members of the majority of a Senate report go about putting those sorts of sentences into reports without even the decency of a footnote to suggest where the evidence might have come from, you realise that something foul is at play. There was something foul at play. This was a political speech rather than a Senate report and it does the Senate committee system no good whatsoever.

On page 11 we have a very interesting table telling us how overtime, penalty rates and annual leave loading had somehow been absorbed or abolished and, moving along, how things have changed. That is very interesting. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance negotiated to get rid of—you have guessed it—annual leave loading, penalty rates and overtime in their award. So it is quite okay for the trade unions to do it, but somehow it was not right for people to be able to do that in their Australian workplace agreements.

The list goes on. Indeed, on page 23 of the majority report, it quotes the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association. On a previous occasion I was able to point out that the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’s Union was responsible for getting rid of penalty rates et cetera in the award for shop workers back in, I think, the 1970s. It was a long, long time ago. But, of course, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association does not refer to that at all.

The coalition report has highlighted that the bill is fundamentally flawed and that there are many difficulties with it. I commend those people who are genuinely interested in this legislation to read that report. If they think that the coalition senators might be a bit biased, I would invite them to read today’s additional remarks of Senator Andrew Murray, where he says:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That is interesting, but then he goes on:

It beggars belief that, when a range of witnesses make a case for amendments that would improve the bill—including recommendations from such reputable and experienced witnesses—

And I differ a bit from Senator Murray there but, for the sake of the argument, I will accept it—

as the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and Professors Buchanan and Stewart—the majority could not find even one change to formally recommend.

It beggars belief. It is a steamroller, arrogant attitude to try and get this legislation through, irrespective of what common sense might dictate.

We will not stand in the way of this legislation, but I remind those opposite that, when the GST came in, they opposed it lock, stock and barrel. They now accept it lock, stock and barrel. When they opposed our budget surpluses, they had people from the other side breaking down the front doors of this Parliament House to oppose them. Today, they say they have always been economic conservatives whilst they have still got the splinters of the front doors of this House under their fingernails. (Time expired)

Senator Wong —I raise a point of order. I would ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, to reflect on some of the comments Senator Abetz made at the conclusion of his speech in which he seemed to assert—and I could be wrong; I was not listening closely—that members on this side had been involved in activities such as breaking down the doors to Parliament House. If that is the case, it is clearly a reflection on those on this side of the chamber and it is also incorrect.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Mark Bishop)—I will take advice of the Clerk in due course and come back to the chamber.