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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 113

Mr TOLLNER (7:53 PM) —Today I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 from a particularly Northern Territory perspective. This is a very important piece of legislation and one that will have a significant role in the future development of the Northern Territory. Territorians, of course, are not afraid of federal IR rules, because the Northern Territory has always been under federal industrial relations jurisdiction. This has served the NT very well, with economic growth, employment and wage levels historically outperforming those in the rest of Australia. This growth led to the catchcry from people all over Australia that the Territory punches above its weight when compared to the rest of the country. That claim is certainly under serious threat now. Under successive Country Liberal Party governments the Territory’s gross state product was consistently above its proportion of the nation’s population. Sadly, this economic legacy, after just four years of Labor in the Northern Territory, is no longer true.

In the Northern Territory we often do things a little bit differently. I would hazard a guess that I am probably the only member on this side of the House that has received an election campaign donation from what many would consider to be a militant trade union. In the Northern Territory we have had a historically low level of union membership because generally people have felt they were getting a pretty good deal from their bosses, and this has served us well. Just look at the rapid and accelerated rate of economic and social development that has occurred over the past 30 years since self-government.

In the Northern Territory unions have in the past been, and still are, quite pragmatic, being prepared to work with a conservative Country Liberal Party government in the best interests of their members, fellow non-union workers and indeed all Territorians. They have understood the need for both employer and employee to work together to develop the Territory. There has always been a place for unions in the Northern Territory, but it was more a role of assisting and guiding, not confronting and obstructing. Both trade unions and employer bodies have recognised that to attract people, expand the population, create wealth and deliver a better lifestyle in the Territory they must work together.

There were—and still are—too many other hurdles and challenges we faced. Nobody in the Territory ever wanted to get caught up in pointless, time-consuming and argumentative disputes. Take the waterfront dispute a few years ago. Territorians realised that there was just too much at stake for us to get caught up in a dispute that really only affected the major ports of Melbourne and Sydney. Consequently we had the only ports in the whole of the country which were not shut down. Territorians just get on with the job of building the Territory. This was a unique situation in Australia and, unfortunately, one that is being jeopardised now.

Unfortunately, the current Martin Labor government is prepared to sacrifice and threaten this amicable relationship. It is prepared to sacrifice 30 years of cooperative work by attempting to allow the spread of incorrect information and plainly wrong statements by the interstate union movement. The Martin Labor government should never allow an interstate union movement to wreck an arrangement that has served our workers well for over three decades. It should be noted that until four years ago the Northern Territory had an extraordinarily low level of industrial disputes. Now what we find is happening is that, despite industrial disputes being at their lowest level nationally, the level of industrial disputes in the Northern Territory is well on the increase. This has only started happening in the last four years in the Territory—since Clare Martin won government. This is part of the Martin Labor legacy in industrial relations so far.

I would quickly like to talk about the new Northern Territory Labor Party president—of course I am speaking about the member for Lingiari—and his record on employment growth and job opportunity for all. I fully expect him to get up in this House and carry on about how the new industrial relations changes will be the downfall of Australian society as we know it, how bright, hardworking young Aussies will be thrown on the employment scrap heap and how thousands of other Aussies will be forced to work 26 hours a day, eight days a week down in salt mines on permission to come to work and, when they ask for a tea-break, their employers will slice them in two with breadknives and dance about on their graves singing ‘Alleluia’. I fully expect that he will run this Monty Pythonesque line.

But, given the member for Lingiari’s past, he should really reconsider this plan and look at supporting this legislation. When the member for Lingiari was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education and Training he presided over the most appalling jobs growth figures. In fact he was proud to announce on 29 April 1993 that he and his Labor government were exporting redundancy programs to Russia. That is, the former Labor government were so good at making people jobless and having to provide welfare payments that the skills they developed in dealing with all of these people could be exported to other nations. In the very same interview the member for Lingiari said, ‘It is difficult when people are unemployed and we have to deal with it.’ I will give him credit here. It is more difficult to deal with an unemployment rate of 10.7 per cent, as it was then in August 1993, than a rate of 5.1 per cent, as it is currently.

I am a great supporter of exports, including the export of our great products, our skills and our Australian business acumen, but I do not believe that we should develop skills that make us global experts in redundancies. They are not the sorts of skills and knowledge that the coalition or the Country Liberal Party could ever take pride in. What a record. For the life of me, I cannot understand how on earth the member for Lingiari can stand up here and criticise changes that will get more people into work. Perhaps Labor are proud of the fact that more people lost jobs because of their employment, economic and industrial relations policies—that more people were cut off, laid off or sacked.

The Northern Territory Minister for Employment, Education and Training is here in Canberra today, and I hope he can begin to understand the importance of the new changes and the significant boost they will give to the Northern Territory economy. The work choices legislation will improve an employee’s ability to negotiate directly with an employer to determine the package that best suits them. The new workplace relations laws will cut back on red tape, undue complexity and outdated wage-setting mechanisms, and they will allow for increased flexibility in the workplace. I believe the most important aspect of the changes is the ability for agreements to be made directly between the employer and the employee. Each and every business will be able to work with an employee to formulate an agreement that reflects the unique aspects of that employee’s work, family and lifestyle situations. This is critical for the Northern Territory, where we face huge distances, high transport costs, a largely remote population and an economy that is structurally different from those in most other areas in Australia. These changes will enable Territory businesses and their employees to create unique agreements designed to suit Territory conditions.

Further to this, the industrial relations changes will break open the current stodgy and inflexible system, and they will provide greater employment opportunities for Indigenous people. I completely refute arguments that, under these changes, Indigenous Territorians will be worse off. The Work Choices legislation will create further employment opportunities and enable greater participation in the work force. Rural and regional employers will be able to work with locals to secure greater employment opportunities for Indigenous people. I stand here and proudly declare that creating more jobs is better than handing out more welfare. As is so often said, a job is the best form of welfare.

I stand here today and demand that the Martin Labor government support these important industrial relations changes. Successive CLP governments had a respectful relationship with unions that resulted in few industrial disputes, a low unemployment rate, an increasing participation rate and growing wages. Under the Martin Labor government, that has all gone. In September 2001, when the Martin Labor government was elected, the Northern Territory had an employment participation rate of 74.8 per cent. As of September this year, the participation rate had plummeted to just 68.8 per cent. Since September 2002, employment in Australia has grown by 7.5 per cent; in the Northern Territory, it has fallen by 2.5 per cent. Union driven disputes—a rarity in the past—are increasingly more prevalent. Under Labor, there has been a reduction in the wages when compared with the rest of Australia. This was never ever the case when the Country Liberals held government. Territory wages were always the highest in the land.

The Martin Labor government must discard its federal Labor mates and reject the states-union scare campaign. They must do this for the future of the Northern Territory. I believe that, deep down, Clare Martin realises this. On 15 September this year, in an article in the Australian Financial Review, she said that she wanted to see the private sector being the main mover behind new infrastructure projects in the Territory. If Clare Martin really believes this, then she should support the Work Choices legislation because, as we all know, the private sector is just about unanimous in its support for these changes. If the Northern Territory government want more private sector involvement in the Northern Territory, they must support this legislation. I am very happy to commend this bill to the House.