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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31678

Mr JOHNSON (2:29 PM) —I am pleased to speak in the parliament in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting Small Business Employment) Bill 2004. I strongly compliment the minister and the government on proposing this amendment that will be in the interests of small business. Before I make my presentation on the bill, I want to take the opportunity in the parliament to speak very positively about and compliment and commend the University of Queensland on winning a very prestigious legal competition—a legal moot. I want to place on the Hansard record my support and congratulations. I want to be very positive, which is very different from the negative opposition.

The SPEAKER —Member for Ryan, this has nothing to do with the bill.

Mr JOHNSON —This bill amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to maintain and preserve the exemption for small business from redundancy pay by overturning the recent decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, which imposed redundancy pay obligations on small businesses. The Howard government has been very consistent and strong in its support for small business. It recognises that one of the biggest threats to job growth and to a very strong economy in this country is the unnecessary impediments that make it very difficult for small business owners and operators to employ more of our fellow Australians. That contrasts very strongly with the opposition's view. I remind the parliament and the people of Australia of what the former Leader of the Opposition, the member for Brand, once said. On 7 July 2000, when he was interviewed on Radio 6PR in Perth, he said:

We have never pretended to be a small business party, the Labor Party. We have never pretended that.

That is a very instructive point to be made in this parliament. It sends a strong, unequivocal message to the people of Australia. Small business is certainly not an area of genuine interest to the Labor Party.

The AIRC's decision on 26 March overturned a two-decade exemption from severance pay for businesses with fewer than 15 employees. This exemption was established by the AIRC's predecessor in 1984. This amendment will not affect any redundancy pay provisions that were in awards prior to the AIRC's decision. It is very important to make that point. It is absolutely critical that the climate for economic growth and for job creation in Australia continues to exist. It is essential for the 3.3 million people employed by small businesses around the nation to be aware of this and to support policies and programs that will ensure continuing job opportunities for our fellow Australians.

This bill does not prevent small businesses from reaching agreements with their employees to include redundancy provisions in their terms of employment. It is about preventing the imposition of a one size fits all type of regulation which many small businesses will be unable to afford. We know that there is a lot of regulation and red tape that businesses already have to cope with, and this government is working very strongly to address those issues. It certainly will not be getting any help from the opposition.

The Howard government is opposed to unnecessary restraints on small business which, as I have said, make it very hard for small business people to employ more Australians. If this bill is not passed, the vast majority of small businesses covered by federal awards will eventually be subject to redundancy payments for their employees in accordance with the AIRC's decision. More importantly, this decision is also going to flow through to state jurisdictions, so it is very important that this bill be passed in this parliament.

More than 540,000 small businesses are going to be affected by this decision, if it is not redressed, at an estimated cost of $190 million—a totally unreasonable burden to be imposed on small businesses. The decision will impose totally unreasonable financial burdens on small businesses throughout the country. For instance, a typical retail small business with seven employees, each with six years continuous employment, is going to face a liability to the extent of some $30,000. That is not a trivial amount of money for the small businesses of Australia. This decision has the real prospect of small businesses being strongly discouraged from employing more staff. More than that, it has the very real danger of sending small businesses right out of business. That is something that the Howard government cannot support. (Quorum formed)

I support the Howard government's support of small business. It just shows that the Labor Party opposite are not interested in hearing very strong, clear words from this government—through members on this side—that support good policies that contribute to employing more of our fellow Australians.

It is very important that members of the public who are here in the parliament today can see for themselves that, while the government is on about making laws for the country, all we have from the opposition is this sort of nonsense which in no way proves to the people that they are capable of government. The member for Lalor wants to be a minister of the Crown, yet all she can do is go on about calling quorums. The member for Lingiari has just called a quorum. Why doesn't he go and think about policies for the alternative government?

I am pleased that the opposition spokesman is here in the parliament because he is going to be severely embarrassed in a minute. This government is all about creating jobs for Australians. The opposition is totally uninterested in that. Let me take this opportunity to severely embarrass the shadow spokesman on this topic. I know that the minister will be pleased to hear this. On 11 August 2003 the member for Rankin put out a press release saying that he was going to abolish GEERS which, for those in the parliament and for those witnessing proceedings from the gallery, is the General Employment Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme. This is a very important scheme that the government has in place. This is what the member for Rankin, the shadow spokesman—and this is a man who wants to be a minister of a future Labor government—said on 11 August 2003:

GEERS is fundamentally flawed. It was a hastily cobbled-together sham to distract from the Prime Minister's special one-off deal for National Textiles ...

This is a shadow minister bagging a very important government initiative that exists to protect and to help small businesses and their employees. What did he propose? He said that he is going to use GEERS to allow small businesses to help their employees when those businesses are in trouble. So, when these small businesses get into trouble and their employees are made redundant, he is going to use GEERS as the mechanism to help them. That is quite remarkable. He has two different positions—a sign of complete hypocrisy. This is an opposition very unfit for government.

I know that the government wants to continue to make this place work very effectively. So I am going to take this opportunity once again to compliment the government very strongly for this bill. I strongly call on the opposition to support small businesses, especially small businesses in the Ryan electorate, which have the capacity to employ more people. I very strongly call on the opposition to support this bill.