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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29401

Ms PANOPOULOS (3:46 PM) —I was a little disappointed with the member for Bruce. The member for Bruce thinks that there has been enough discussion on the unfair dismissal laws and the burden that small business has suffered, but until the Labor Party in the Senate, after 40 times refusing to pass reforms to let small business get on with the job, support the government's reforms to unfair dismissal laws there will never be enough discussion in this House.

From one end of my electorate of Indi to the other, small business owners and operators have pleaded with me for the government to do something about unfair dismissal. Unfortunately I have to say to them, `We've tried.' Since 1996 we have tried 40 times, but in our parliamentary system there is a thing called the Senate and the legislation has been stymied in the Senate. But let us not blame the institution of the Senate. Forget the Greens, the Democrats and other non-government senators; as I was reminded by some of my coalition Senate colleagues this morning, it is the Labor Party in the Senate that has refused to support the government and pass these important reforms. Let us not forget that. The Labor Party has the power to ensure that these reforms get through but chooses to do nothing.

The Liberal Party's commitment to small business is undoubted. I am proud to stand here not only as a member of the Liberal Party and part of this government but as a product of a small business. I had the great pleasure and privilege, from the age of 12 until well into my late 20s, of working in the family milk bar. My parents could not employ additional workers, because of the fear of the additional costs that would be incurred. I learned a lot—in fact, I learned enough to forge me for my current responsibilities.

In the lead-up to the 1996 election, what were small businesses telling the Liberal and National parties? Small businesses were saying, `Please fix the economy; get it right. We just want to be able to get on with the job of growing our businesses and creating jobs for Australians.' Now we have the trifecta of unemployment at 5.6 per cent—and in my electorate, proudly, it is at 3.8 per cent, the lowest in rural and regional Australia—housing interest rates of 6.55 per cent (unlike the 17 per cent interest rates under the last Labor government) and inflation of two per cent. So we have got the economy right. The one thing remaining to be done to help small businesses is that holy grail: reform to Labor's unfair dismissal laws. Why won't the opposition support these commonsense reforms? Quite simply, the Labor Party just do not care about small businesses. They do not believe that small businesses are their constituency, so they will just ignore them.

The government are committed to small business because we understand the daily sacrifices that owners and operators of many small businesses make not just in their personal lives and the economic risks they take but in their lifestyles, the manner in which they raise their families and the time commitments they need to put in to get their business up and running. We understand that small business is the engine room of the Australian economy and the best thing that we can do to let people get on with running their small business and creating jobs is to remove debilitating legislation. That is why it is so critical that the Labor Party see the light and, if they can find it in their hearts to empathise with these people who often do it tough on a day-to-day basis seven days a week, help pass reforms to unfair dismissal laws.

How else have we suffered so far? Studies have shown that the unfair dismissal laws have cost 50,000 jobs which could have been created. The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research has found that the cost to small and medium sized businesses of complying with unfair dismissal laws has been at least $1.3 billion and has contributed to the loss of 77,000 jobs. Why do Labor disregard these statistics? Why do they disregard the difficulties and fail to recognise the importance of small business? Perhaps some light was shed on this matter by the former Leader of the Opposition, the member for Brand, when he said, `We've never pretended to be the party for small business.' His honesty is refreshing indeed. And, perhaps in an unguarded moment, even the member for Hunter was compelled to be honest in 1998 when he said, `Well, my wife constantly tells me she could afford to put on one person or would like to put on one person but is fearful of unfair dismissals.'

And what about the member for Jagajaga? The member for Jagajaga forgets the disgrace of the last Labor government; forgets the fact that her party when last in office forced one million people onto the dole queues. She was asked on Channel 10 on Meet the Press by Paul Bongiorno:

But, Jenny Macklin, isn't it a fact that a casual job is better than no job?

The response was:

Well, I don't think that's the case, especially if you've got a family to feed.

So here we have the Labor Party saying, `We don't want to create extra jobs; we don't care that 77,000 jobs have been lost and that an extra 55,000 jobs couldn't have been created. In fact, let's go even further: let's just cut out all casual jobs altogether.' It is old style Labor. They have a preference for putting people on welfare instead of freeing up the economy and letting people find employment and have some sort of life.

But why is there such hostility to small business and to these reforms? We have the Labor Party on record often enough. Perhaps it lies in their reliance on their lifeline, their umbilical cord to the trade union movement. Even some of them have been a little brave at times and have been honest about the union movement. I am indebted to Michelle Grattan of the Age. In an article on 9 May 2004 she said:

In 2002, ACTU president Sharan Burrow suggested Latham `must have lost the plot' when he proposed helping workers buy shares. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union's Doug Cameron said Latham was `a professional politician all his life ... who, because he lives in Campbelltown, is able to pull a cloak of working-class respectability around himself for the ...


he goes on with.

Furthermore, we are also indebted to Michelle Grattan for reminding us of certain statements that the Leader of the Opposition made. In the article, he admitted:

... `modern trade unionism (has) become too big, centralised and bureaucratic'; the previous year he warned that the union movement `runs the risk of becoming yet another dinosaur'.

Such bravery from the Leader of the Opposition. We can only hope that he finds the personality of old and actually tries to engage in the reforms that the previous leader, Simon Crean, tried unsuccessfully to embark on with the union movement.

But the real gem is the admissions that have been made by a very prominent, high-profile member of the opposition frontbench. These admissions relate to the unfair dismissal laws introduced by the last Labor government and their impact on small business and the ability of small business to employ people and create more jobs. As we are well aware, it has been reported that the member for Rankin admitted to small businesses on Tuesday night that when he ran a small business he did not employ extra staff because he was apprehensive and fearful about unfair dismissal laws. Did he think that such an admission would not get out? Did he think he was the only person in that room who would be able to verify what he said? I hope the member for Rankin's admission was not a slip but part of a new era; a new era in which the Labor Party may perhaps empathise with small business.

The problem with the personal explanation made by the member for Rankin today is that it highlighted something about the new Latham Labor Party, and that is they think they can get away with saying one thing to one group and then saying another thing to another group. They think that just because they can wipe something off the Internet it disappears off the face of the earth. It does not. They cannot be in this day and age and in this current political era—and nor should any political party want to be—a chameleon and change their colours depending on which room they are in and depending on which group they speak to.

I plead with the member for Rankin: come clean. What do you really believe? Are the unfair dismissal laws disadvantageous? Do they prevent small businesses taking on extra employees? Did they affect your decisions? This has been put on the record by the member for Rankin and he has a responsibility to add to the growing chorus in the Labor Party that are uncomfortable with the lack of commonsense that is adding to the burdens that small business have.

We know the member for Rankin and the Labor Party should not pick and choose, but they do. They choose the union movement. When the member for Rankin was an employer perhaps he had some empathy for small businesses. But perhaps if he is not genuine in his empathy for small business anymore it is quite understandable. He is fortunate and privileged enough to have a job with a monthly salary guaranteed, unlike small businesses, which have to do it tough every day.

But maybe the member for Rankin and the rest of the Labor Party do not care about small businesses because there is a bit of money involved. You just have to look at their masters; their union thug bosses, who have bought the Labor Party lock, stock and barrel with $40 million donated to the Labor Party since 1996. You would not look that sort of gift horse in the mouth, would you?

Mr Baldwin —And Centenary House.

Ms PANOPOULOS —And Centenary House. I say to the Labor Party: liberate yourselves from the shackles of your black-mailing labour bosses. Forget about the physical violence that some of you have been subjected to by these union bosses. Regret-fully, on other occasions you have been forced to make unwise decisions against the national interest. Forget about the criminality of some elements of the union movement. Free yourselves and reveal yourselves to be the visionaries that you claim to be. Adopt some commonsense and flexibility and do something for small business. Do something for this nation, instead of posturing and tak-ing headlines from the latest tabloid newsp-aper to get a bit of cheap publicity. Actually stop and think why you are here: you are here to assist in making decisions for the betterment of this nation.

There is an urgent need for reform to the unfair dismissal laws. Fundamentally, our responsibility is to remove undue hindrances, to remove legislation that prevents those who create money, who create jobs, in this society from getting on with it. It has already cost small business millions of dollars. It has already cost thousands of jobs.

The ball is in the court of the Labor Party. In the Senate, they can make the right decision and they can pass—on the 41st attempt, as mentioned by the Treasurer earlier—the reforms of the unfair dismissal laws and assist small business. My invitation to the opposition is: come and join us; step into the 21st century; refuse to be held to ransom by the thugs and the criminals that pay you all these millions of dollars; and, for once, try and do the right thing by this very important sector in the Australian community.