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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31548

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (3:41 PM) —One thing we can be sure of is that Australian Labor Party members deserve a decent spokesperson on workplace relations. In what was a rambling, turgid contribution—

Dr Emerson —I thought it played pretty well.

Mr ANDREWS —He says he thinks it played pretty well. Let me remind members of the House and anybody listening to the debate what this MPI was said to be about:

The Government's misleading of working Australians on the right to collective bargaining and on other matters affecting their living standards.

Apart from the first sentence of his contribution to the MPI and a cursory reference to working Australians, as the member for Deakin is indicating we heard not one word in 15 minutes about what the member for Rankin, as a representative of the Australian Labor Party, submitted to the Speaker as a definite matter of public importance for debate this afternoon. It was basically one of the most lightweight performances we have seen in this House for a long time.

Let me address the question of collective bargaining in this country. What we have in terms of the policies of the government, compared to those of the Labor Party, is a situation where the Australian Labor Party refuses to allow Australian workers the freedom to choose their own terms and conditions of employment. This coalition government believes that both workers and businesses should have the freedom to choose working arrangements which best suit their needs. Both the coalition and the Labor Party believe that workers should have the right to be represented by unions, but the fundamental difference between the two parties is that Labor wants union membership to the exclusion of all other options. The government wants workers to have the freedom to choose whether to belong to a union or engage directly as an individual in the workplace with their employer to set workplace agreements with third parties.

Yesterday the honourable member for Rankin asked me a question—I think the first question and the only question that he has asked me in relation to industrial relations. In it there was a suggestion from him that somehow Australian workers are not able to collectively bargain. May I remind him of the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act, which as the spokesman he does not seem to have even read. Section 170LJ states that an employer may make an agreement with one or more organisations of employees—in other words, in normal parlance, with trade unions. Section 170LK states that an employer may make an agreement with a valid majority of the persons employed at the time—namely, a group of workers within a particular business.

Let us look at the actual details of the number of people who have made such agreements in Australia. Section 170LJ agreements are where the unions in effect bargain on behalf of the workers for a certified agreement. Between December 1996 and 31 March 2004 there have been 30,809 of those agreements covering 3,695,400 Australian workers. That is hardly a situation in which Australian workers are unable to make collective agreements. Under section 170LK, over that same period of time, 6,301 non-union collective agreements have been made, covering 465,700 workers.

In terms of the facts about what was raised by the member for Rankin, he obviously has not read the Workplace Relations Act and has not looked at the details as far as agreements are concerned. It is no wonder, because we on this side all know, and half of his colleagues say, that he does not really want this particular job; he is trying to line up to be the Treasurer, if he can, if Labor were ever elected to government. That is the factual situation we are dealing with.

What is the Labor Party's proposal in relation to freedom of choice? As far as the Labor Party are concerned, they want so-called good faith bargaining, which requires employers to bargain in good faith. Let me point out to the House that under the Workplace Relations Act there are provisions which require the Industrial Relations Commission to act according to equity, good conscience and the substantial merits of the case. Indeed, in a case before the Industrial Relations Tribunal in October last year, the full bench of the Industrial Relations Commission ruled that these provisions include the power for the commission to issue directions to ensure a fair process is adopted.

So a case of bargaining fairness is something which is already provided for in the Workplace Relations Act in Australia and something which, in December last year, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission made reference to. The Labor Party are not advocating fair bargaining. That is a misnomer for what they are saying when they talk about good-faith bargaining. What it should be called is union monopoly bargaining, because what the Australian Labor Party are proposing is that unions will have the right to become involved in enterprise bargaining, even against the wishes of the business concerned. In a bargaining process it will force businesses, under the threat of law, if it were never introduced by the Labor Party, to reveal sensitive business and financial details to the union during the period of negotiation. That means that employers will be forced by the Australian Labor Party, if they are ever elected to government, to negotiate with the union, regardless of whether or not their employees actually want that process of negotiation. Therefore, under Labor's proposals, the businesses will be forced to negotiate on the unions' terms. This is part and parcel of the Labor Party's proposals.

In addition to those hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of employees in Australia under collective certified agreements, this government introduced the ability for employers and employees to enter into individual agreements—so-called Australian workplace agreements. Since that was introduced, a choice of industrial mechanisms can be used: a person can have a collective bargaining process done on their behalf by a union, or a group of employees in a particular business can collectively bargain, or, as an alternative, an individual employee can bargain with their employer on that individual basis and enter into an Australian workplace agreement. What we are saying is that Australian workers ought to have the opportunity not only to collectively bargain but also to reach individual Australian workplace agreements.

What the Australian Labor Party want to do—not just want to do but propose in their written policy platform—is abolish Australian workplace agreements. That is to say that, for the almost half a million employees who have entered into these in Australia, you should not have the right and the opportunity to have an individual agreement with your employer. That is what the Australian Labor Party are proposing. Instead of leaving it to employers and unions to come to an agreement, the commission will have the power to impose an enterprise agreement if employers do not concede to their demands. Under legislation in Western Australia, and it is also proposed under South Australian legislation, we are starting to see this happen already, and the honourable member for Rankin would like to see this nationally. We believe that businesses should be free to make their own plans and arrangements and not be forced to a union agenda.

What this is about, when we come to the core, the nub, of the Labor Party's proposition, is a policy that is simply about giving unions a legislative leg-up by dealing them back into the bargaining process. You could ask yourself: why would the Australian Labor Party want to do this? Surely they are about freedom of opportunity and choice on behalf of their workers. As I said, we have had nearly half a million Australian workplace agreements. If workers want to enter into an individual arrangement with their employers, surely they should have that choice. What crazy motive stands behind this proposition from the Australian Labor Party to whip away the choice that Australian workers and employers currently have? It comes down to a couple of things.

It is interesting to look at the current make-up of the Australian Labor Party compared to what it was some years ago. In 1983, when union members made up 49 per cent of the Australian work force, almost one in two Australians were members of a union. At that stage, the union members comprised just 29 per cent of the federal parliamentary Labor Party in this country. Since then, union membership has declined in Australia from 49 per cent to 23 per cent overall—half of what it was back in 1983. Yet, over that period, the number of Labor Party parliamentarians having a union background has increased from 29 per cent to 74 per cent—that is, 2½ times what it was. So when union membership in Australia has been decreasing from 49 per cent to 23 per cent overall, and in the private sector it is down to 17 per cent—so less than one in five Australian workers are now members of a union—we have had the opposite occurring as far as the Australian Labor Party are concerned.

Mrs De-Anne Kelly —Not representative.

Mr ANDREWS —So almost three-quarters of the members of the federal Australian Labor Party come from a union background. That is in no way representative of the Australian work force today; in fact, it is going in the opposite direction. In addition to that, since 1996 the unions in Australia—the big union bosses—have donated $40 million to the Australian Labor Party. Imagine the outcry if the Business Council of Australia had donated $40 million to the Liberal Party or The Nationals. So far as I am aware, they have not donated anything, but imagine the outcry if $10 million, $20 million, $30 million or $40 million had been donated by major business organisations like the Business Council or the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to the Liberal Party or The Nationals. That is not the case. But $40 million, it seems, buys you a lot of policy within the Australian Labor Party.

Honourable members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Order! I am not going to tolerate interjections.

Mr ANDREWS —Ordinary Australians have to ask themselves whether this Labor Party policy to massively reregulate the work force in this country is serving the interests of Australians or the interests of their union bosses and the union movement. As I said, Australian workplace agreements are being entered into in Australia at the rate of about 12,000 per month. Last month we saw a record number of almost 16,000 approvals of Australian workplace agreements. Employees covered by these agreements are earning on average 29 per cent more than colleagues covered by federal certified agreements. Women on Australian workplace agreements are earning on average 32 per cent more than those who are employed on the collective certified agreements. So what we have here, simply, is not only the opportunity for Australians to enter into individual contracts but that opportunity being realised for them individually and for their families in higher wages. But this is part of the massive regression of policy which is being proposed by the Australian Labor Party should they win office.

Increasingly we see what their policy is: increasing the powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to impose solutions on the work force, strengthening union bargaining power, restricting business capacity to make non-union individual agreements, increasing the award regulation of workplaces and increasing the powers for trade unions to enter workplaces, organise and take industrial action. In short, Labor under Mark Latham will undo the reforms that were made in the Workplace Relations Act 1996 but, in addition to that, they will even undo some of the modest reforms that, to their credit, the Keating government put in place between 1993 and 1996.

These reforms are important, because the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Look what has happened in Australia over the last seven or eight years. We have created the circumstances, through this more flexible work force, where 1.3 million extra jobs have been created in Australia. Indeed, more full-time jobs have been created in Australia in the last six months than in the last six years of the Labor government. Unemployment is at a 23-year low—at 5.5 per cent in May 2004. Full-time employment is at a record high, with more than 6.9 million Australians in full-time work. Between 1996 and 2004, real wages for full-time employees have risen by some $140. Strikes are at historic lows in Australia at the present time. And these reforms are all at threat of being undone by the regressive policies of the Labor Party. Let me conclude with the first couple of sentences from an editorial in the Australian in January:

Somebody should explain to Craig Emerson, Labor's workplace relations spokesman, that he is supposed to be finding ways to create jobs for Australians, not destroy them.

Hear, hear!