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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31659

Mr HUNT (1:09 PM) —It is a pleasure to follow my esteemed colleague the member for Pearce and, more than that, a genuine friend and mentor. In rising to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting Small Business Employment) Bill 2004 I do so knowing that I came to this House with a passion. I came to this House with a passion for people who create, who establish, who lay themselves on the line, who give of themselves and who make Australia what it is. Those who enter into small business do so with no guarantee. There is no guarantee. They put themselves at risk and they put their financial futures at risk. But they do so because of an ineluctable, unbreakable human spirit which says, `We will give this a go. We will do everything in our power to take something which is unformed, to mould it, to shape it, to build it and to grow it.' They do this to establish something which represents them, which represents their activity, which contributes to the country and which helps to create and make that which we are.

That is why, when I say I came with a passion, it is a passion for the very notion of enterprise and incentive. It is a passion for innovation, for creation—for all those things which take us forward, which bring us into the modern world and which represent the prow of the boat which sails us into history. That is what new businesses, small businesses and the creation of new ideas are about. It is about the movement forward. It is not about a stagnant or static society; it is about a modern, progressive, creative, developing society. It is a privilege to represent people who have that view. It is an honour to be part of a Liberal Party which has as its core philosophy the promotion of enterprise, the creation of new things, the establishment of things to be and, above all else, respect for the fundamental notions of human enterprise, human initiative and the freedom and flowering of the human spirit.

Small business is not just a little economic thing; it is about what we are. Above all else, it is about what we can be. So that is the passion. What about the history? The second thing I want to talk about in speaking to this bill is the history of how we got to where we are today. The last century has been a century in which liberal democracy has triumphed. It is not over, but it has established itself as the paramount system which allows people to live, allows societies to work and allows communities to flourish. We have seen that liberal democracies have predominated and have been successful because they operate on the basis of both respecting the human spirit and providing the most efficient and successful means for society.

The collectivist notions have failed because they fail to recognise the spirit that is necessary. They take a mechanistic view of society. They fail to honour the notion of individual enterprise. It is not a bad thing. It is not about greed and it is not about selfishness; it is about creativity. Those collectivist notions have fallen by the wayside. Those which would deny individuality and which frown upon individual freedom have failed. What we have seen again and again is that the element of liberal democracy which has been most successful is that which emphasises human freedom and the capacity to create. That is why liberalism in its classical sense, which emphasises freedom, is something which I align myself with, identify with, believe in and endorse absolutely.

The most flexible labour systems for the most part have been the deliverers of the greatest advances in economic progress and human freedom. When people talk about economic progress, sometimes they look upon it as a negative, as if economics equals greed. It does not. Economics means the efficient delivery of services so that we can create hospitals, schools and kidney machines and all of those things which allow people to live effective lives as well as to pursue the spiritual and the creative.

My view is that there are three fundamental conditions for allowing these values and examples of small businesses to thrive: firstly, there must be basic freedoms; secondly, there must be protections for workers; and, thirdly, there must be incentives. This bill is about ensuring a balance between those three conditions. One of the things we have seen over the last century has been a dramatic increase in the protections which should be afforded people who are not working in their own employ. I am absolutely committed to the notion that people should be able to organise collectively. That is one of the fundamental freedoms that we believe in, but in ensuring that there are protections we never want to ensure that those protections become a synonym or a Trojan horse for cutting away at the basic freedoms which underpin economic society. What we have seen of late are attempts to do that. The protections have displaced some of the basic freedoms and we have moved to a situation where there is a presumption of guilt amongst those who would employ or those who would take responsibility. Numerous teachers talk about the fact that they feel frightened to teach because of the fear of the Salem-like accusations which can be launched against them. They have real responsibilities, but they must also have a presumption of innocence. The same occurs in the workplace. That is why, on this side of the House, we have fought against unfair dismissal laws which are palpably structured in such a way so that the accuser has all on his or her side and the presumption of innocence is effectively stripped away.

Against that background, this bill seeks to overcome a decision by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission which removed the exemption of small businesses with fewer than 15 employees from redundancy payments. Why would we seek to overturn that decision? That decision in itself reversed an existing position. The reason it is a problem is that it removes the capacity of a small business to plan, to establish itself, to grow and to provide for more employment. If a small business feels that it is unable to plan with any certainty for its future and that the risks of entering into business are too great, the social message is extraordinary. Each member of this House will at some stage have come across those who wish to establish a business but are too afraid of the conditions which would act against them. In that situation, we very clearly come to this House with a desire to establish a basic freedom for genuine small businesses to pursue their work, to establish their place and to move forward in the way they plan and prepare for the future.

In that context, the specific things we worry about are Australia's 1.1 million non-agricultural small businesses. Over three million employees work within that sector. A small business is twice as likely to go out of business as a large firm. That is nobody's fault; that is the very nature of the risk that you undertake when you establish a small business. Even a small business operating for more than 15 years is still 1.7 times more likely to cease than a larger business counterpart. So there are risks. If you establish a situation here where there is an unacceptable, impractical and overly heavy burden on a small business—such as would occur if the AIRC decision were allowed to stand and reverse the existing and previous situation—it would crush the life of so many small businesses, both existing and, perhaps even more frighteningly, those which are yet to have been born or established. That is why we support the changes within this bill.

Let me conclude by focusing on the fact that establishing small businesses and encouraging the freedoms in the workplace which will allow for efficiency and effectiveness is not some ideological pursuit; it is a practical way of creating a better, more effective society. Why do I say that? Because over the last eight years, as we have introduced flexibility into the workplace, we have seen real growth that has led to the lowest unemployment within the last 13 years and some of the lowest long-term figures in unemployment in more than a decade. We now have an unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent, a record number of Australians employed and a record number of 1.3 million jobs created since 1996.

These are real changes with real benefits to individual lives because 1.3 million jobs means 1.3 million people employed. Significantly, the type of employment which we have seen over the last couple of years has been overwhelmingly full-time, not part-time work. This is about people's hopes, it is about their aspirations, it is about their futures; and from that comes a better and more sustainable society. For all of these reasons, I believe in this bill passionately. I believe in the notions of enterprise passionately and I believe that we have a responsibility wherever possible to provide the conditions for freedom and growth and to provide the conditions where individuals can get out and create the opportunities for the future. I passionately commend this bill to the House and urge its passage.

Debate interrupted.