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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2550

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Employment Participation) (4:10 PM) —I rise to respond to the comments made by the member for Stirling on this matter of public importance. He may be the member for Stirling, but the contribution he made was certainly not a sterling effort. Throughout the 15 minutes allocated to him, the member for Stirling, the shadow minister for employment, supposedly responsible for employment, did not go to what the opposition would do to assist Australian workers who may lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Opposition members interjecting—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! The member for Stirling was heard in silence.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —For 15 minutes we heard a rationalisation by the opposition as to why they support Work Choices and why they will continue to do so. But what we need to know, when the Senate deliberates and decides, is where the opposition will be on this very important area of public policy. Whilst the member for Stirling went through all of the industrial relations ideas—few though they are—of the opposition, he made no mention of what the opposition would do to assist in providing opportunities for workers to keep jobs and indeed to find jobs.

Before I go through all of the initiatives of the government in response to the global financial crisis, can I just take issue with the comments made by the shadow minister in relation to the unfair dismissal laws. On 13 December last year, the Leader of the Opposition said:

… I believe—as would most economists—that unfair dismissal laws add to the cost of employing people—

We disagree with that, but that was his view. But he went on to say:

… nonetheless Labor took a proposal to change the unfair dismissal laws to the election and won …

And further:

So we must respect that.

The Leader of the Opposition is on the record as saying he must respect the mandate of the Australian people provided to this government to rid this country of Work Choices and to provide fair and balanced laws in the area of industrial relations. He made that commitment. We will now see whether in fact he will be rolled by the member for Higgins and others in the party who are acolytes and who will never be anything other than supporters of Work Choices.

I will just go to those things that have been attended to by this government since the start of the global financial crisis. As soon as the effects of the global financial crisis were known to this government, we responded. Firstly, we secured depositors’ money throughout the country and therefore we ensured there was confidence in the financial system. That was the first act taken by this government. That was quickly followed by the $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy that would not only provide payments to people who were in need but also provide the requisite economic stimulus to the economy that would support jobs and provide opportunities for Australian workers. That occurred last year. What has happened since then? We announced the $6.4 billion car plan, providing support for a very important part of the manufacturing sector in this country. That was followed only recently by the $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan. That will support the construction and maintenance of more than 9,500 schools across this country. It was opposed by those opposite.

Every one of the members of the opposition voted against support for students, support for farmers, support for workers and support for the unemployed who are undergoing training. That is a shameful act and, indeed, they should hang their heads in shame. The opposition needs to stop being a rabble, stop being self-absorbed and stop being reckless and irresponsible when it comes to the Australian economy. I need to tell the opposition today that real leadership does not mean having two leaders; it means having a position and sticking to that position. It means working with the government in assisting us to provide opportunities for Australian workers and opportunities for business in order to get ourselves out of this crisis. We know that there are effects that will unfortunately be inflicted upon many Australians. We have been up-front from the beginning and said that there will be a rise in unemployment as a result of these effects. The Prime Minister has likened it to a cyclone. We have said that we will do everything we possibly can to cushion the blow of this particular economic recession.

As we know, this is the largest global economic recession since the Great Depression, so we need to do those things. We have actually been making decisions. What have those opposite done? They voted against every initiative taken to support Australian workers, Australian farmers and, indeed, others in our community. Recently, on 24 February, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and I announced support for retrenched workers. We know there are going to be job losses. One job loss is one too many, but we need to make sure we put in place services that support those people in their hour of need. So we announced a $298.5 million package to provide personalised and intensive assistance to those retrenched workers and their families in order to ensure they are provided with assistance as early as possible and they can get themselves back into the workforce.

That particular initiative was very much welcomed by employer bodies and others in the community. In response to that particular initiative, the Business Council of Australia said:

Business Council of Australia … welcomes the announcement by the federal government of immediate assistance for workers facing unemployment as a result of the global economic downturn.

…                …                   …

The longer a person stays out of work, the more difficult the task of returning to employment can become.

Australia’s very important employment body, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also supported the initiative. They said that the announcement would:

… help the new unemployed bounce back into the job market.

So they supported our position in relation to retrenched workers. The Australian Industry Group also supported the announcement. They said:

Ai Group strongly endorses the decision to provide immediate employment services to retrenched workers …

AiG also said:

The sooner retrenched workers are re-engaged with the workforce or given training appropriate to their circumstances the better it is for both the individual concerned and the economy as a whole.

The peak employment service provider also supported the initiative by the federal government to help retrenched workers in this very difficult time. What has the opposition done? They voted against these initiatives; they do not support the initiatives we are giving to retrenched workers. They should hang their heads in shame. It is an outrageous approach by those opposite. But should we expect any different? The last thing we will ever do is to listen to the member for Stirling and others give us a lecture on how to help workers. The architects and the advocates of Work Choices want to lecture us on how we should help workers in this country. The last people we will ever listen to are the opposition trying to provide advice about how to help workers. What we know from this MPI today is that the opposition is seeking to find its way, to reposition itself, to be able to say: ‘Because of this or that circumstance, we might have to reconsider our position on Work Choices.’

They might say that they will get rid of the name, but the elements that they are concerned about in the government’s bill are the main elements that have always been the substance of Work Choices. They are going to—by whatever means—find a way to bring back the most extreme legislation that has inflicted itself on workers across this country. I also think that the member for Stirling has a hide to say that we did not consult the Australian people. Before the 2004 election, the then Prime Minister, Prime Minister Howard, did not make mention of one element of Work Choices. What happened after the 2004 election? After the 2004 election, they inflicted the most extreme laws of industrial relations. They rammed it through the House of Representatives and down the throats of men and women of Australia who work in businesses across the land. That is what happened, so the last thing we need is a lecture from the member for Stirling on consulting with the Australian people.

Conversely, we consulted widely prior to the last election; we informed people what we were to do. We have a mandate from the Australian people, and the opposition had better start thinking about recognising this and respecting this. In December, the Leader of the Opposition said that he respected that. He said that he respected the fact that we won the election. He said that he respected that unfair dismissal laws were part of our commitments. I assume from that—if he respects the fact that we won the election—that they will be supporting the Fair Work Bill. That is what we would hope, but it seems to me that the member for Higgins has clearly got more influence inside the opposition’s party room than the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Keenan interjecting

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —You are more obsessed by the member for Higgins than I am, Member for Stirling! I think it is quite interesting that the member for Higgins has more influence over the outcomes of the Liberal Party than the Leader of the Opposition. That is the reality. We know that the opposition is a rabble at the moment. We have not seen such a rabble for such a long time.

As I said before, what the opposition have to understand is that real leadership is not having two leaders. The fact is that they have to start thinking about the policies, they have to start thinking about what mandate this government has in the area of industrial relations and they also have to start respecting that the government is taking action swiftly to ensure that it protects Australian workers. We know they wanted to blame the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. She got sacked. They brought back the member for North Sydney as shadow Treasurer. They had sacked the first minister for Work Choices and brought the member for North Sydney into that role. The fact is that Hockey might be the jockey but it is still the same old horse. The opposition are a rabble. They do not have one position on anything. The member for Stirling spent 15 minutes reading an essay to the parliament, and in everything he said in relation to employment there was not one mention of what the opposition would do to help Australian workers.

Mr Briggs —Why don’t you mention jobs?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The member for Mayo might not get a chance to mention anything shortly.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —What we have done is move quickly to support our financial system. We introduced the $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy. We announced the $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan, which was opposed by every member opposite. We have also initiated a $6.2 billion plan to help the car industry, a very important initiative. What have the opposition got as an alternative? They have no alternative. They have no plan, they have no idea, and the only jobs they talk about are those jobs inside the party room.

The member for Casey was once in this portfolio but he took a position that was not one that the now Leader of the Opposition supported, so he was pushed down the rungs. He might come back, because we know who his best friend is; we know whose apprentice he is. What the member for Casey wants is for the member for Higgins to come back so that he can get his old job as shadow minister for employment. I suggest to the member for Stirling that he should hope that the member for Higgins does not come back, because there is no doubt that the member for Casey would take the member for Stirling’s job.

Mr Keenan interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Stirling was heard in silence.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —I was almost falling asleep when the member for Stirling was speaking. That is the only reason that he was heard in silence.

These are very serious issues and it is quite concerning that every time unemployment rises in this country the opposition relish it. Every time we see another worker lose their job, the opposition seem to be happy about it. There is nothing more galling than seeing the opposition happy to see Australian workers out of jobs. But you know what? We do not expect anything different, because they are the advocates for and architects of Work Choices and they will always be the advocates for and architects of Work Choices.

They need to start to come up with some concrete proposals to help Australian workers, to help Australian business and to help this economy. Instead, all we see is a self-absorbed opposition with two leaders, no resolution on policy, no resolution on leadership and no resolution on helping jobs and helping Australians who are doing it tough in very difficult economic circumstances. I ask members opposite to start doing their job as an opposition. (Time expired)