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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 128

Mrs HULL (9:02 PM) —This evening I rise to speak in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. This bill, as we have heard, will enable the reforms necessary to ensure that Australia continues to grow and remain competitive. A stronger economy flows on to create investment, jobs and better living standards for all Australians. It is my personal view that if employees are coping with the six different systems, the 130 different pieces of industrial legislation and the over 4,000 different awards currently in place then surely they will cope with these proposed changes, which will actually simplify this complicated system.

I remember when the GST was being implemented. In the 1998 election, I was fortunately elected to this House. Everybody came to me continually through that preselection and election phase, and after I was elected, to tell me that every business in the Riverina was going to basically shut its doors, simply because the GST was going to put everybody out of business. People wanted to know the exact workings of the GST—exactly and precisely how it was going to work into the future—but they did not have any understanding of the tax system that they were operating in at the time. They were just operating inside a tax system and had no idea how it worked, but it was the system that they knew. It was the old thing of hating change and objecting to change.

I can safely say—and I am very happy to say—that not every business in the Riverina closed down. Yes, there were some who thought, ‘Well, we’re close to retirement. We do not want to implement new systems. It seems so complicated. We were going to get out in two years, so we may get out now rather than go through all of these changes.’ Yes, I do agree that that did happen. But, although there have been some reporting requirements that have created concerns over the years, the majority of business owners and business managers say that the GST has been the best thing that has ever been introduced, in that they know where their business is going.

We all fell into the old thing that you waited for 12 months and then you put in your tax return to your accountant. It was 18 months or so before he got the figures back to you, and you did not know what was happening within your business for those 18 months. Finally, you got your stuff back from the accountant, who said, ‘You’re sincerely broke, or you’re so close to it.’ You should have been making major changes in your business activities in the last 18 months, and now you found yourself in this predicament.

The GST was a very good introduction for the responsible way in which businesses are managed now. I do not think anybody would argue about that. Every businessperson now basically knows, on a monthly or three-monthly basis, just how their business is operating. And I see that we have a very similar issue here.

I have met with and listened intently to all union and employer representative groups that have asked to meet with me. I have taken down their concerns and allegations, and I have sought information. I have investigated their issues to see if their concerns were valid. Some of them were valid and some of them came from people who were not informed. Some of the people who came to me were not informed simply because the information was not out there, and one of the things that I perhaps regret is that I did not have enough information to provide to people when they came in to ask me questions. I would certainly have liked to have had information earlier. However, having said that, I feel quite comfortable and confident that in the majority of cases that were raised with me the concerns have been addressed positively, within the information that I have been given on the proposed reforms to date.

I see this industrial relations debate as being identical in nature to the GST debate. It is significantly filled with fear and with people not understanding exactly what will happen in their circumstances. I have listened, I have learned and I am convinced about the process of industrial reform that has been going on for many years now. It has not just been going on in this parliament or in the parliaments of the Howard-Fischer, Howard-Anderson and Howard-Vaile governments since 1996. It was going on when we heard former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating state during his prime ministership in 1993:

Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards provided by arbitral tribunals ... Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses ... We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards ... to being full substitutes for awards.

I am no advocate for former Prime Minister Paul Keating. However, he was attempting to adjust the real complexities and the issues of the system. I would much prefer to put my trust in the fiscal understanding of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, and the Prime Minister, John Howard, to lead us into a more productive economy through workplace relations reforms than in former prime ministers or the unions.

I support that by alluding to some research that I came across in an article by Michael Baume in the Australian Financial Review on 31 October 2005. This research was titled ‘Does raising the minimum wage help the poor?’ and it was done by Andrew Leigh of the Social Policy Evaluation, Analysis and Research Centre at the ANU. I looked into this research to see exactly what it means. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating said that we had a complex and difficult system, and that is basically corroborated in a piece I will quote out of this research by Andrew Leigh from the Australian National University. It says:

The operation of Australian minimum wages is also notoriously complex. The Australian federal minimum wage is set by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) through a process of arbitration, and affects not only those at the bottom, but also workers further up the wage distribution. Whether an employee is covered by the federal minimum depends upon whether he or she is within Federal industrial jurisdiction. Such jurisdiction extends to all employees in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory (and hence all are covered by the federal minimum wage). In the remaining five states, whether an employee is within the federal industrial jurisdiction depends upon a number of factors, including the employee’s industry—

that is, whether they are lucky enough to be under a federal wage; I know the industry that I worked in is under a federal wage—

and whether the employing company has operations in multiple states. However, even if employees are not covered by the federal minimum wage, they will typically be within state jurisdiction. In recent years, state industrial tribunals have tended to adopt the federal minimum wage, with only a brief delay.

Basically, we already have a majority of awards being adopted with a view to a federal system, and what we are trying to do is implement a federal system.

I found the Australian Financial Review article by Michael Baume interesting. I am sometimes a bit sceptical about whether you can agree with or believe everything that is printed in the press, but this article says that among full-time workers in Australia we have about six million non-award workers, compared with only about 900,000 working under awards. It goes on to say:

The reason is simple: ordinary time earnings per week (in 2004) for non-award workers averaged $928 against only $524 for award workers.

In another part of the article, Baume went on to say:

No wonder the unions are losing members. Why pay a minimum of $10 a week union dues to earn a relatively lower wage—and see your funds wasted—

I was a bit hesitant to say that—

in a dishonest campaign that does not promote your interests.

Basically, I have no problems with these industrial relations reforms. There has been much assertion that the big end of town are driving the reforms, and that is probably true in part; they certainly have wanted change. However, they are probably far from happy with the package that has been delivered to date and would probably like the government to go even further. I would sincerely disagree with that. Currently we have the big end of town saying that the reforms are not going far enough and the unions saying that they are going too far. That probably puts the reforms somewhere in the centre, which may give us even and consistent outcomes.

According to the knowledge that I currently have of the proposed reforms, they are sensibly balanced. Fairness and equity will continue to be provided in the majority of cases. But, of course, someone will fall through the cracks somewhere, just as they do now. Why is it that the current system is allowed to be less than perfect? The current system is allowed to have cracks, through which people fall, but a new system has to be more than perfect. In my view, if the business councils want us to go further and the unions claim we have gone too far, we probably have come somewhere near acceptable.

But I do have a problem with the way there has been an active campaign asserting that, from the moment these reforms are introduced, all employers will exploit their employees. I honestly ask the question: why is it that people who mortgage their homes and all they own to run a business and employ people are only criticised and defamed rather than recognised for the valuable part they play in the lives of those in my electorate of Riverina and in every electorate in Australia? It has to be purely negative thinking to assert that workers will be worse off as a result of the many changes, as it is an absolute insult for unions and the opposition to assert that employers are just waiting to exploit and rip off their valuable staff. What absolute rubbish. To assume that all those who genuinely and legitimately employ people, as has been done for a hundred years, will now rush out and exploit their employees is something I find obscene and offensive.

It is a fact—and I have said this before in this House—that the majority of employers have a good relationship with their staff and consider them to be their most valuable asset. So why now all of a sudden will we all run out and exploit them, particularly when there are such recognised skills shortages in our trades and services? Every day we hear the opposition’s indignation about skills and trades shortages in our electorates and its cries of ‘What has the Howard government ever done about the skills and trades shortages?’ It now appears as though all those shortages do not exist and that, if we have an industrial relations systems that rewards and improves conditions, particularly under AWAs, everybody will be forced out of a job.

I am quite confident that, in the electorate of Riverina, little or no change will take place, particularly in areas of trades and services shortage—simply because they are areas that we cannot fill. If unintended consequences result from the reforms that the government might make on any issue here, the government will move to fix them. I am aware of that having happened previously. In many cases where things have happened, we have moved immediately to fix those issues. I am very confident of that happening.

Work Choices will replace a rigid, outdated system that was designed over 100 years ago. That system was designed to deal with the problems of the 1890s and it is not a system geared for the challenges that Australia faces today. This generation of Australian workers has been lucky enough not to have known economic downturns or recessions, and they now will be able to take advantage of this range of reforms and policies to ensure that they are a very proactive and productive part of our economy into the future. We have experienced low unemployment, stable interest rates and inflation, and increasing wages and living conditions. I have here on my desk two pieces of research that back up that theory and they do not back up the theories and scaremongering taking place with the campaign that is being directed at the moment.

In conclusion, I say that the best arrangements are those agreed to between employees and employers at the workplace level. They should be sensible, fair and simple arrangements that recognise and reward the issues important to employers and employees in the workplace. I happened to be at a function in the Currawarna hall just a few weeks ago, when a man came up to me and said, ‘You know something? I’ve pretty much been a Labor voter all my life, but AWAs were introduced on to my work floor 20-odd years ago and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got the best out of it and I got the best reward. I’m now able to retire and enjoy life, with far better outcomes than I had when I strenuously resisted the changes that were being implemented into my workplace.’ That statement was not coerced. It was just a particular gentleman coming up and offering me his point of view.

I feel quite comfortable that, in the Riverina, employers and employees have such valuable relationships in the majority of cases that little or nothing will change. I look forward to supporting these industrial relations outcomes and bringing about better conditions and better opportunities for those within the Riverina.