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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 59

Senator LIGHTFOOT (2:02 PM) —My question is addressed to the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz, representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Will the minister continue to ensure that Australian workers receive higher pay and better conditions through Australian workplace agreements? Is the minister aware of media reports today indicating that some of those who have previously opposed AWAs are now reconsidering their position? Does the minister support such a reconsideration?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Lightfoot for his question and acknowledge his longstanding interest in this very important area of public policy. The short answer to the honourable senator's question could be: yes; yes; and yes. Yes, the government will be maintaining its support for AWAs, because AWAs are delivering higher pay and better conditions to hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australian workers. Yes, I am aware of reports today that the Labor Party is reconsidering its attitude to AWAs. That did at first surprise me, as undoubtedly it surprised Senator Lightfoot, because Labor has opposed AWAs since they were first introduced in 1997. That is seven years and three Labor leaders ago.

Mr Latham said as recently as two and a half weeks ago, on 20 November: `We don't see the need for AWAs. Our policy is unaltered.' But all that appeared to change yesterday when Mr Stephen Smith made some widely reported comments about reconsidering Labor's attitude. It seemed that the penny had finally dropped. Labor had realised that opposing AWAs was anti-workers and anti-jobs. Today, of course, Mr Smith held his humiliating 8 a.m. doorstop to crawl down from the comment that he had made yesterday. Presumably, the backroom boys of the ACTU in Swanston Street monstered him and as a result he was required to withdraw his comments.

Senator Kemp —Was that rollback?

Senator ABETZ —It was another rollback, Senator Kemp. Mr Smith's first attempt at some independent thought, of trying to give Labor a new policy direction, lasted for less than 24 hours. So it looks like AWAs are going to go the same way as Labor's forestry and Medicare Gold policies. First they claim they are being scrapped and then they claim they are not. It is the old Labor twostep: one step forward and one step back. Labor's problem is not just that they do not know what they stand for, it is the fact that they do not stand for anything. So they get out the butcher's paper from time to time and have a collective brainstorm to work out what they might say today. But the only thing that ever ends up on the butcher's paper is the various bits of factional blood that gets shed, because they are unable to come to a policy position.

In politics, if you do not stand up for things you believe in you will end up with nothing. That is what is happening to Labor. They are political agnostics who do not believe in anything any more. So we call on Labor to reconsider their attitude, to be daring like Mr Smith and dare to shake off the union puppet strings just for a moment or two. And who knows, they might actually get to enjoy it, like Tony Blair. But even better, it would be good for Australia. Now there is a novel thought for Labor to adopt—to actually adopt a policy position that is within the national interest and not within the narrow sectional interest of an organisation that now represents less than 20 per cent of Australia's work force.