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Tuesday, 3 March 1998
Page: 218


Mr ANDREN (8:20 PM) —The member for Capricornia (Mr Marek) alludes to the sacking of Bob Hawke. I wonder how unfair is the demise today of our respected Speaker. Let me repeat from the outset some words from my contribution to this debate the first time round:

The unfair dismissal law was a disincentive to employment, and that was made patently clear to me . . . in the course of the last election campaign—

and in discussions with small business ever since. I recently had a working breakfast with Bathurst business operators. Unfair dismissal laws remain a problem but far from the problem for small business. I put it to the House then, and it still applies, that, while unfair dismissal has been an important issue impacting on small business, it certainly is not the major one.

My new independent colleague, the member for Lowe (Mr Zammit), asked yesterday about action on the Reid report into fair trading and in particular action on the renewal of leases for sitting tenants. That is more germane to the problems of small business than unfair dismissal. The exploitative rental regime in regional shopping centres and overheads for small business, including payroll tax and workers compensation—these are the major issues affecting small business.

I spoke last time of the need to regulate franchising and, in particular, the petroleum industry's franchise system, with the benefits all in favour of the oil companies. That is another area needing urgent reform.

Small business operators want to be in a position to employ before they worry too much about the terms and conditions of employment. That goes in a regional sense to the sort of incentives and support that government might offer to small business in regional areas of Australia.

I have no objections with this bill exempting businesses employing no more than 15 workers from the unfair dismissal provisions of the act. I say this because the unlawful dismissal provisions of the act remain intact. This includes dismissal for discriminatory reasons such as sexual preference, age, union membership and family responsibilities.

Let me revisit some of the comments made last night by government and opposition members on this bill. The member for Robertson (Mr Lloyd) convincingly detailed the protection for employees unlawfully dismissed, as contained in this bill. None of the protections under the unlawful dismissal provisions will be removed by the passing of this bill. The member referred to his experience in small business and the disincentive for a very small employer from the unfair dismissal provisions and how expensive and time-consuming such action could be. That is true and that is why I have no problems with this particular bill.

The member for Cunningham (Mr Martin) pointed out—I gather, from the remarks in the Hansard—the unfairness of the three months period of grace in which an employer can work out if their employee is up to the mark. Such a process has been in place in my former occupation in the television industry for many years. As I said in my previous comments on this bill late last year, such a three-month period, after which either party could part company without prejudice, worked perfectly well. I as a manager had absolutely no problems with it, nor did any of my employees.

There are many exaggerations in this debate on both the advantages and drawbacks of this particular piece of legislation. But it is certainly not `everyone to the barricades' stuff. It is not the end of the world as we know it for the workers of this country or the employers, although you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise judging by the rhetoric we have heard from both sides on this. So it makes me wonder why this particular bill becomes the first trigger for the double dissolution we have to have. It does not seem to me to excite the passion of the electorate but it does add up, with the Wik bill and the charter of budget honesty, to make a trifecta of bills likely to founder on the rocks of the Senate. The passion of the electorate of course would surround the native title bill—largely bitter and divisive passions.

The charter of budget honesty and the unfair dismissal bills on their own would hardly excite the gatekeeper at Yarralumla, let alone the electorate. So one does not have to be very smart to realise that if the government seeks a double dissolution, it will be doing so on the basis of native title. That is a divisive and tragic route to take. To hold this parliament to ransom over a bill amended to the satisfaction of even some of the government's own members with a conscience is tragic.

This debate on this bill is really an academic exercise. I do not propose to go through the arguments I gave on 27 August last defending the legislation in the interests of small business and employment opportunities, particularly in country and regional areas where jobs are so scarce and where trust, not mistrust, should be the basis of the mutually acceptable employment contract—not a contract in a formal sense, I might add, but that special understanding between a country town employer and his staff. I would suggest that in a business of fewer than 15, that sort of trust still exists in that market-driven mania.

The opposition has made it very clear that it will maintain its opposition to this bill, and I suppose that the vote in the Senate is likely to remain unchanged. But I would suggest to Senator Harradine, the Democrats and the opposition that there is nothing so sinister in this Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] to warrant its being a manufactured part of a three bill trigger to bring on a double dissolution. I think the Senate should pass this bill and call the government's bluff—defuse the trigger so there are fewer grounds for a double dissolution.

The key to microeconomic reform is micro reform of our constitution, and fixed four-year terms for federal parliament should be part of that. The Senate and its right to amend legislation is a fact of life consistently delivered by the electorate of Australia. There is no escaping it, whichever party is in government. Get real, get with the reality of the Senate, get real about its right to amend within reason, get real about the amended Native Title Act and 7½ out of 10 is not a bad mark starting from such polls to reach such an agreement.

A race based election in this country will be far more a tragedy for the cohesion of Australia, especially rural and regional Australia, than the perceived effects of this particular piece of legislation on the workers of Australia. I urge the opposition, I urge the Democrats and I urge all of those senators in the other place to think long and hard about this and remove one of those triggers.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Question put:

That the bill be now read a third time.