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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 24

Senator BARNETT (2:16 PM) —My question is to the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Will the minister inform the Senate of the benefits to the economy of exempting small business from unfair dismissal laws? Is he aware of press reports that indicate that around 75,000 new jobs could be created if the Senate were to fix these laws? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Barnett for his question and acknowledge his keen interest in the challenges and opportunities faced by small business. Let me begin by reminding the Senate that in the last 8½ years this government has created the conditions which have allowed for the creation of 1.4 million extra jobs, whilst real wages have grown by more than $200 a fortnight. Recently, Mr President, you, Senator Barnett, I and a few others met with the restaurant and catering representatives of the Australian Hotels Association—tourism and hospitality being a growth area in our home state because of the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme initiated by the Howard government. One of the major things that they were concerned about was the cost and the burden of unfair dismissal laws.

We heard the same thing more recently when Senator Colbeck and I met with the Tasmanian Country Sawmillers Federation, a meeting that I am sure Mr Latham would not be very anxious to have at the moment. The overwhelming majority of sawmillers are small businesses, and they live in the constant fear of vexatious claims—something the Howard-Anderson government wants to relieve them of. Sadly, many small businesses often just pay out dodgy claims rather than go through the high-cost processes of the court system. And it is once bitten, twice shy when it comes to employment.

Senator Ludwig —That is your rhetoric.

Senator ABETZ —This is not mere rhetoric. For example, the restaurant and catering industry has estimated that it costs on average $3,600 and around 63 hours of management time to defend an unfair dismissal claim. That is time and money that small businesses simply cannot afford. How many of those opposite have actually run a small business? Zero. But they have all been trade union officials.

Senator George Campbell —What business did you run, Eric?

Senator ABETZ —Abetz, Curtis and Duncan. I was the senior partner in a law firm.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator George Campbell, interjections are disorderly.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! The Senate will come to order. I remind senators that continuous shouting across the chamber is grossly disorderly.

Senator ABETZ —I would invite Labor senators to listen to what the Melbourne Institute in their 2002 study found, which was that the unfair dismissal laws in this country are a roadblock to the creation of 77,000 jobs. That is why the government will reintroduce its fair dismissal reform bill. That is a bill which, on well over 40 occasions, the Australian Labor Party has sought to block.

Labor should know exactly how long, complex and tedious it is to give underperforming workers their three warnings before dismissal. Senator Faulkner got one warning at the 1998 election, then one at the 2001 election and then in 2004 the third warning came and finally Labor were able to get rid of him from the leadership of the opposition in the Senate. I am sure Mr Latham is getting more than three warnings an hour from Senator Conroy, Bob McMullan and others. I would invite Labor in this Christmas season to show some goodwill and join with us in delivering to 77,000 Australians the opportunity of employment in the year 2005. That would be a way that Labor could celebrate with their fellow Australians and make a real difference for the benefit of our nation.