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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2531

Mr BUTLER (2:53 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. Does the government agree with suggestions that removing workplace rights from workers would be good for the Australian economy?

Mr TANNER (Minister for Finance and Deregulation) —I thank the member for Port Adelaide for his question and for the assistance he has been providing me on procurement issues. One of the perennial themes of Australian politics is a conservative holy grail position of deregulation of the labour market. We can go all the way back to Stanley Melbourne Bruce and the dog collar act. Every time we have a conservative government in this country, one of its key principles is to seek to deregulate the labour market. The core theme that is always advocated by the conservative parties in these circumstances is that if employers are allowed to pay people what they like, treat them how they like and sack them when they like then that will create more jobs—there will be more jobs if employers are able to treat working people as if they were machines to be discarded or to be paid at whatever level they like.

This is an age-old debate. I well remember being in this House seven, eight and nine years ago, well before Work Choices, and hearing people on the other side argue that because unemployment at that time was lower in the United States therefore the less regulated labour market in the United States was clearly superior and Australia should deregulate its labour market. Of course, they went a bit quiet subsequently because the unemployment rate in the United States went up, with no change in the regulatory regimes in either Australia or the United States. They moved on to other issues. But always the theme is the same: the answer to the challenge of creating jobs is to remove the rights of working people in the workplace. That is always the policy from the conservative parties. The truth is that the factors that influence the creation of jobs in our economy are overwhelmingly determined by one key factor, and that is demand—that is, the purchase of goods and services in the economy. That is what drives the creation of jobs in an economy. There are other issues but that is the dominant issue. That is why the government is focusing its economic strategy, in the face of overwhelming negative pressures from overseas, on creating jobs and on generating economic activity.

The opposition is currently very confused about its position on this issue. But I am pretty confident they will default to their core beliefs—they will default to their core position—because there is one person in the parliament who has consistently advocated this position of a free market for workers, a free market for bodies in the labour market. That person strongly supports returning to Work Choices—strongly supports turning the clock back to the 19th century, amongst other things—and that person is the member for Higgins. The Liberal Party and the opposition do not yet know where they stand, though I am prepared to take a guess where it will be. But there is one person in the opposition who certainly knows where he stands, and that is the member for Higgins. In 2005 on these issues he told the Age:

We should be trying to move to an industrial relations system where the predominant instrument is the individual contract.

He is still trying. We do not know what the member for Higgins is on about with his ambitions at the moment. I have known him for a very long time, longer than most of you characters have known him, and I cannot work him out. Has he got a cunning plan? I am not sure. I knew him when he was in the Labor ranks.

Mr Hartsuyker —Mr Speaker, on a point of order, I would hope that the minister would be the first minister to be relevant to the question in today’s question time.

The SPEAKER —The member for Cowper will resume his seat. The minister will respond to the question.

Mr TANNER —The member for Melbourne Ports and I have got long memories about the member for Higgins. I suspect that the excruciating pantomime that we are currently all being exposed to—it is pretty excruciating for the Leader of the Opposition but it is, sadly, excruciating for the rest of the general public as well—is something we are going to have to put up with for a while. Maybe it is the member for Higgins going through some kind of public therapy process: all his angst and his bitterness being taken out.

Ms Julie Bishop —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. Even on the most extended version of what is relevant, this is entirely irrelevant to the question of the job losses in this country. On a day when unemployment—

The SPEAKER —The Deputy Leader of the Opposition will resume her seat. The minister will relate his material to the question.

Mr TANNER —The Liberal Party does face some big questions, but ultimately it is all the same question. The question of who should be leader is the same as the question: is the Liberal Party committed to bringing back Work Choices?

Mr Truss —Mr Speaker, the minister has defied your order to be relevant to the question. He has defied you.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the National Party will resume his seat. The minister will bring his answer to a conclusion.

Mr TANNER —I can understand why the National Party does not want to talk about Work Choices.

The SPEAKER —Order! The minister will bring his answer to a conclusion.

Mr Hockey interjecting

The SPEAKER —The member for North Sydney will resume his seat. The minister will bring his answer to a conclusion.

Mr TANNER —There is a core question here. It has been a fundamental political debate in Australia for many years, and that is: are we to have protection of workers’ rights in the workplace? That is the question you have to answer and, if the member for Higgins is the leadership solution for the Liberal Party, we know what the answer will be.

Fran Bailey interjecting

Opposition members interjecting—

The SPEAKER —Order! Again, I do not wish to highlight the fact that the member for McEwen makes comments without getting the call. But, in response to her, at the point in time when there was outrage—to great decibels—on my left, actually the minister was being absolutely relevant to the question, but I doubt whether anybody on my left could have heard it.

Mr Hockey interjecting

The SPEAKER —I will get to the next question when I feel like it. Again, if the member for North Sydney wants to make a point of order, he can get on his feet to make the point of order, because otherwise the comments that he makes—and he can tell me that he is making them to other people—are simply disorderly reflections upon the chair.