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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 105

Mr TICEHURST (7:15 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 represents the implementation of the Australian government’s fourth-term workplace relations reform agenda as well as addressing most the government’s stalled reform proposals since 1996. Since 1996 there have been 13 separate Senate inquiries into the government’s workplace relations reform proposals. The member for Batman talks about a fight that will be on when the legislation is passed. However, this time there will be a difference because union members will be accountable under the law.

The claims being made today by members opposite are no different from the claims they made against the government’s original workplace relations reforms nine years ago. That is because the Australian Labor Party are still not serious about wanting to govern Australia. They continually fail to understand what small business and the Australian economy need. That is because many Labor members have never had a real job. What they do understand is how to support legislation that hinders non-union businesses and impedes jobs. They remain forever beholden to the unions. In fact, over 70 per cent of Labor members of parliament have union links. When you consider that the average union membership in private industry is only 17 per cent, this really says it all.

Across electorates the unions have been running a massive scare campaign. The blatant inaccuracies they have been providing to my constituents are scandalous and they should be ashamed of themselves. I have met with many union representatives in my office on this issue. Many of these groups have no real information on what the legislation is about. What we have today is the ACTU fighting a rearguard action. The rearguard action is fighting for privilege.

When this bill was introduced into the parliament the member for Perth lifted all the copies off the table. Then he stated that members did not have the legislation available to them, that there were not 60 copies in the House. The copies that were there, he lifted. Even later in his explanation he was caught; the video showed exactly what happened. His only defence was, ‘I didn’t take 60 off the table.’ That is just abominable behaviour.

The member for Lalor the other day complained about the number of Labor members who were asked to leave the House because of their unruly behaviour. She was lucky that she did not go because of the way she spoke to the Speaker. She should have been the first out. I had students from the Warnervale Public School up in the gallery. It was so bad, so raucous on that side of the House that I asked the guy to turn the sound off.

It is very easy to instil fear in people through misinformation and hogwash, which is what we are hearing from members opposite. It is much harder to promote the benefits of a policy. That is what the government is doing with this industrial relations policy.

I have worked on factory floors, been a managing director of a company, owned a small business and experienced all points in between. With this background I can appreciate what these reforms will mean for small businesses and for Australian employees. Australia’s small businesses provide about one in three jobs created in this country, but for too long they and their employees have been shunned by a workplace relations system that is adversarial, outdated, legalistic and unbelievably complex. Australian small business has long argued that most employers and employees are capable of making their own arrangements and that our institutions and laws dating back a century are too often an impediment to sensible bargaining in the workplace.

Australia currently has over 130 different pieces of industrial relations legislation, over 4,000 different awards and six different workplace relations systems operating across the country. This is totally ridiculous, especially when you recognise that regulations destroy jobs; they do not create them. We had a highly regulated system of industrial relations in Australia in the late eighties and the early nineties, yet we had a recession which saw a million Australians out of work.

Labor complains that the Prime Minister will not say that nobody will be worse off under this arrangement. This really shows a lack of real world experience. If a company loses a major contract it does not have the ability to put those workers aside and pay them their wages, like we see in New South Wales—so many public servants doing nothing. Even the latest one, the General Manager of the RTA, is being paid a salary of over $300,000 a year for doing nothing.

Business and workers are fed up with Labor stunts—useless strikes, many of which are just demonstrating union power and the power to disrupt industry. We have seen that many times in Victoria in the building industry; we have seen it in the car industry. In years past we used to have the Christmas trifecta: beer strikes, postal strikes and petrol strikes. You could almost bank on it every year. Fortunately, those days seem to have gone.

A company’s loss of a contract can also mean that the company can no longer afford workers. The company really needs to go out and find other contracts, but the workers can move onto other companies. Right now we have a shortage not just of skilled workers but of workers in general. We have more jobs now than people able to fill them. That is something that the Labor Party really has not come to grips with. I have had the unenviable task of selecting from a list people who had to go because the company had lost the contract. That is not a very easy thing to have to do.

One of the people that I worked under years ago always said to me, ‘When you’re assessing people, use the criteria of performance, ability and qualifications, in that order.’ It is a shame that the Leader of the Opposition cannot apply those criteria when he looks at members on his front bench. He cannot even decide who is going to be on the front bench. It is the union bosses who tell him who to put on the front bench.

It is vital for the 1.4 million small businesses in Australia—and even more essential for the 3.3 million people employed by those businesses—that opportunities for continued growth and job creation be maximised. This bill will lead Australia towards a single national system of workplace relations. Up to 85 per cent of Australian workers will be covered. All employees of the Commonwealth government and all employees in Victoria and the territories will be covered. It is hoped that once this bill is passed the state Labor governments will agree to refer their IR powers to the Commonwealth in the next five years. It will cost the states around $120 million per year to maintain their individual systems for a very small minority of employees—around 15 per cent.

Despite what Labor and the unions would like to have people believe, these reforms will not cut minimum and award classification wages. To make the system simpler and fairer a new and totally independent wage setting body, the Australian Fair Pay Commission, will be created. The Fair Pay Commission will make the wage setting system simpler and fairer, with the primary objective of promoting the economic prosperity of the people of Australia. The Fair Pay Commission will set and adjust the federal minimum wage; minimum award classification rates of pay; and federal minimum award wages for juniors and for trainees, including school based apprentices, and for employees with disabilities. It will set and adjust minimum wages for piece workers and it will set and adjust casual loadings. Minimum and award classification wages will be protected at the levels set by the AIRC’s 2005 safety net review. Minimum and award classification wages will not fall below that level and they will increase as decided by the Fair Pay Commission.

The government will also enshrine in law minimum conditions of employment, including maximum ordinary hours of work, annual leave, personal leave, carers leave, sick leave and parental leave, including maternity leave. These minimum conditions, together with the minimum award classification wages set by the Fair Pay Commission, will make up the new Australian fair pay and conditions standard. All new agreements will be required to meet the fair pay and conditions standard at all times when the agreement is in operation. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will continue to exist, although it will change to keep pace with the needs of a modern economy. The AIRC will focus on its key responsibility—dispute resolution. In addition, the AIRC will also be responsible for further simplifying and rationalising awards, as well as regulating industrial action, right of entry, unfair dismissal and registered organisations.

I would also like to assure residents in my electorate of Dobell that the reforms will not remove protection against unlawful termination. Australia’s unfair dismissal laws have been open to abuse since their introduction by Labor in the early 1900s. Many small businesses face significant costs, fending off frivolous unfair dismissal claims. More commonly businesses have paid ‘go away’ money, to avoid the costs involved in protracted disputes. Big winners from the Work Choices exemption will be the thousands of people who will find jobs because small businesses are no longer fearful of the possible negative consequences of employing people. Under Work Choices it will continue to be unlawful to dismiss an employee because of their temporary absence from work due to illness or injury or because they have filed a complaint or have been involved in legal proceedings against an employer. They cannot be dismissed because of trade union membership or legal activities as a union member or for refusing to negotiate or sign an AWA or on grounds which are discriminatory—for example, on grounds of race, colour, sex, age, union membership, family responsibility or pregnancy.

The government’s workplace relations reforms will not abolish awards. Employees not covered by workplace agreements will continue to work under their awards. The new fair pay and conditions standard will also apply to award reliant employees, except where the relevant award has a more generous provision, in which case the more generous provision will apply. The AIRC will continue to be responsible for awards. In the new system, long service leave, superannuation, jury service and notice of termination will not be included in new awards, because they are provided in other legislation. However, these provisions in current awards will continue to apply to existing and new employees covered by these awards. This means award reliant employees will continue to enjoy the benefits of these provisions in their current awards. Award provisions that are more generous than the fair pay and conditions standard annual leave, personal leave, carers leave, parental leave and hours of work provisions will also continue to apply. If there is a difference between the fair pay and conditions standard and these award conditions, the more generous provisions will continue to apply.

It is a priority of the government to make our workplace relations system fairer and to provide a better balance in the workplace for employees and employers. These changes must ensure that award wages and specified existing conditions, along with the right to be represented by a union, are protected by law. As the current workplace system stands, there are simply too many rules and regulations that make it too hard for employees and employers to get together and reach agreement. Agreements must be easier to make. We need to ensure that employers and employees are not prevented by time-consuming and legalistic certification or approval processes from getting together and reaching agreement. As Bill Kelty, a former ACTU president, once said, ‘A more decentralised wage fixing system will put the spotlight back on the only place where Australia’s real economic battle will be won—in Australian workplaces.’

The Labor campaign we are seeing now is really about protecting the privileges of union bosses. We have had four former ACTU leaders in the House. A past Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was one of the notable former ACTU leaders. The acts of the member for Hotham, another former ACTU leader, led to the destruction of an Australian company I worked for on the Central Coast. He instituted secondary boycott provisions that led to the destruction of Dulmison Australia, which was a proud Australian company. The management was sabotaged because it would not force all the employees to join a union and it would not agree to extract union fees from the weekly wages of people who really did not want to be members of a union. That company is now owned by an American company called Tyco, and it is an absolute disgrace that this has happened, thanks to union bullying.

Even in Dobell, union reps are fed up with their unions’ activities. They are sick of useless strikes and the fact that their members’ fees are now funding a misleading PR campaign. The building industry has suffered many walkouts during concrete pours. Who pays for the damage? Who pays for the damage to property? Under the new laws, the unions will be responsible. They will not be allowed to act illegally and get away with it. We had the so-called ‘safety training’, where $800 had to be paid to a union for so-called safety, to deliver hire equipment to the Olympic site. It was absolutely ridiculous. It was $800 straight into the union coffers, no training, no nothing—a straight-out slug. Labor use emotive language. They talk about ‘extreme measures’. Is it extreme to make union bosses behave and be accountable?

I take this opportunity to welcome the government’s additional funding commitment of an extra $61½ million over four years to simplify agreement making in workplaces. Under Work Choices, a simplified lodgment-only agreement-making process will be implemented. To support this simplified process, the Office of the Employment Advocate will be the primary source of education, information, advice and assistance with regard to agreement making.

As is presently the case, individual agreements, AWAs, are optional. Employees must agree to individual agreements before they can be lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate. And Work Choices will not take away the right to lawful industrial action when negotiating an agreement. It will continue to be unlawful for an employer to try and coerce employees to sign an agreement. It will continue to be unlawful for an employer to sack an employee for refusing to accept an agreement.

As the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, a workplace relations system is only as good as the contribution it makes to the strength of the economy. All the regulations in the world will not save somebody’s job, or push up wages, if our economy is weak or if businesses are uncompetitive. Work Choices will promote the simple and flexible workplace agreements that we need for our future prosperity.

The government is determined to ensure that the gains of the past decade provide a basis for sustaining job creation and economic competitiveness into the future. It is determined to ensure that Australia’s workplace relations system is geared towards the challenges that Australia faces in the 21st century—the challenges of ongoing global competition and the challenges of an ageing population. Work Choices represents a necessary next step in the modernisation of Australia’s workplace relations system, and I commend the bill to the House.