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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 46

Senator BERNARDI (12:45 PM) —Today is an auspicious day, not just because it is the first anniversary of my swearing in as a senator but also because it is the 80th anniversary of the first sitting of federal parliament in Canberra. On this day in 1927, the first sitting of parliament in Canberra was opened by the Duke of York, later King George VI, in the Old Parliament House building. Since that time, Australia has clearly been on a path to prosperity. While some may consider me biased, I believe this is due in no small part to the fact that a conservative government has been in power in Australia for the majority of that time, particularly since World War II.

During this time, our successful journey as a nation has only been interrupted when Labor has been in government. History demonstrates that the Labor Party is simply a roadblock on Australia’s path to prosperity. It has been a long journey to get back on the path since we inherited the disastrous results of Labor’s 13-year prosperity detour. And what a detour that was! It created a nation with a net government debt of $96 billion. The unemployment rate was 8.2 per cent; today it is 4.5 per cent. We had average inflation under Labor of 5.2 per cent; today it is half that. Average mortgage rates were 12.75 per cent, nearly 50 per cent higher than those of today. And real wages growth after 13 years of Labor was only 0.2 per cent, whilst real wages have risen by more than 19 per cent since then.

All this was thanks to the previous 13 years of Labor in government. Mr Hawke and Mr Keating took Australia down a road towards the ‘recession we had to have’. We had high interest rates, high unemployment, low productivity and high personal tax rates—products of incompetent economic policies and complete disregard for the welfare of ordinary Australians. Still, this is the Labor way. We should not forget the legacy of the earlier Whitlam Labor government. Again we saw a declining economy, high unemployment rates and unprecedented inflation rates, all fuelled by the Whitlam government’s irresponsible spending.

Today’s succession of Labor leaders has offered more of the same. Mr Beazley, Mr Crean, Mr Latham, back to Mr Beazley and now Mr Rudd have all offered a carefully camouflaged version of the same doctrine: union control of Australia’s economy. Mr Rudd’s road to ruin for all Australians features a praetorian guard of union heavyweights, not to protect the interests of all Australians but to protect the personal interests of the union elite.

Let us have a look at Labor’s national conference. It was three days of stage-managed events. The whole show was produced, choreographed and staged by a declining union movement. Labor proved to the rest of the country who is really running the ALP—the unions. Indeed, the ALP’s relationship with the unions is becoming suffocating, both internally and in its outward effect on our economy.

But this is nothing new. Back in 1996 the unions were outraged to lose their control over the government. Who can forget the disgraceful riots at the front of this building in that year? It was the most forceful physical attack on the federal parliament in its history. The militant CFMEU had quite a lot to do with the group that caused the most damage that day and, if my sources are correct, at least one of Labor’s frontbenchers was working with that extreme group and was a key player in that shameful occasion. Has anything really changed within the union movement since then?

One thing is crystal clear. If the ALP gain power, the unions will once again jeopardise Australia’s continued prosperity. How else can we explain why the ACTU and not the shadow cabinet were left to approve Labor’s workplace relations policy? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Labor have once again capitulated to almost every demand of the union bosses who dominate their national conference. They are a clear and present danger to small business, job security and the continuing growth of the Australian economy. Not even the very special leadership of Mark Latham produced a workplace policy which represented such a capitulation to the masters of Labor’s universe at the expense of small business and jobs. In one single policy, Labor are prepared to derail our economy. By winding back the clock to collective bargaining and reinstating the union domination of every Australian workplace, Labor will make it harder, not easier, for small business to employ people.

It is just as well that Labor’s policy has drawn significant criticism. One newspaper editorial summed it up when it described the IR policy as having:

... all the hallmarks of being an old-style Labor, a smoky backroom deal between Julia Gillard, Greg Combet and the ACTU. It represents a return to the classic class warfare of the last century which pitted bosses against workers ...

Yesterday in the Australian Janet Albrechtsen outlined what could happen under Labor’s IR policy:

... a collective agreement will rule a workplace when agreed on by a majority of workers who turn up to vote. That means in a workplace of 1000 workers, if 100 workers turn up to vote and 51 workers vote yes to a collective agreement, that agreement prevails. The vote of 51 workers will bind all 1000 workers.

In the above scenario, the unions will charge the full 1,000 workers a bargaining fee. Of course, this bargaining fee will be higher than the cost of joining the union, so most workers, having to balance a household budget—as we all do—will likely take the less expensive option and join the union. Since the Labor Party gets a percentage of union fees in addition to the levies that are currently being fleeced from workers, it is a cosy little deal. It is unfair to expect a worker who did not participate in and neither wants nor needs a collective agreement to be bound by its terms and conditions. But that is the Labor way.

When Work Choices was introduced, the Labor Party together with the unions would have had us all believe the country was ready to fall apart. We saw a scare campaign of enormous proportions. We were warned of mass sackings and eroded benefits, none of which have occurred. Mr Kim Beazley warned us: ‘There will be more divorce.’ Mr Bill Shorten said that these laws will be ‘a green light for mass sackings’. Janet Giles, the head of Unions SA, said: ‘It is a pact with the devil.’ Mr Tony Upton, from the Transport Workers Union, boldly claimed: ‘This legislation is a direct threat to road safety in this country.’ Ms Sharan Burrow alleged: ‘Children won’t see their parents for Christmas.’

These alarmist and embarrassingly ridiculous predictions have been exposed as typical union scaremongering. The unions are today engaged in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. They will do and say anything to regain their dominance of Australian workers and the economy. Anything, that is, except reform their tired, discredited and obsessive agenda. That is why the average working Australian is turning their back on the trade union movement. Figures recently released by the ABS show that union membership has been declining steadily since 1976 when it stood at 51 per cent. Now unions represent just 15.2 per cent of private sector employees. It is no wonder the union bosses have more influence in the Labor Party than on the workers of Australia as they continue to lose relevance and power. In fact, ACTU Secretary Greg Combet last year stated in the Australian:

I recall we used to run the country and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we did again.

Mr Combet, it was a bad thing then; it would be a very bad thing for Australia if you managed to run this country again.

But they are not content with running the ALP from the sidelines; the union elite are now clawing over each other in a mad scramble to get into parliament and gain a head start on their leadership rivals. We have union boss Doug Cameron, the National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, who stitched up the numbers in the New South Wales Left to knife his own mentor. It reminds me of a saying in politics: it is always those closest to you who sink the knife in the deepest.

We have got Mark Butler, the State Secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union in South Australia, who is running for the safe Labor seat of Port Adelaide. He is a key part of the ALP factional machine in South Australia and a major behind-the-scenes player in the ALP at a national level. There is also Bill Shorten, the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, who is the Labor candidate for another safe Labor seat, the federal electorate of Maribyrnong. And, not least, there is Mr Greg Combet, the man who wants to run the country. He is set to enter federal parliament after winning preselection last week—although no-one actually ‘wins’ preselection in the Labor Party; everyone knows that preselections are determined long before the voting ever takes place.

This preselection push is part of a move by the ALP to install more high-profile uberunionists in safe Labor seats. So much for Mr Rudd’s fresh thinking. But if you think that is alarming, wait, there is more! According to media reports, we could see New South Wales Labor Council Secretary John Robertson, New South Wales Electrical Trades  Union Secretary Bernie Riordan and Transport Workers Union Federal Secretary Tony Sheldon all running for preselection in the next election. And just today it has been confirmed that South Australia’s godfather of factional politics, SDA Secretary Don Farrell, has staked his claim for a Senate seat.

The union elite not only determine preselection outcomes but also sit as unelected members of shadow cabinet, dictating the policy agenda. This is one of the great ironies of the Labor Party in Australia: they claim to represent all Australians and yet, in reality, their policies are dictated by a select few for their own benefit. Labor’s recent industrial relations policy, which I mentioned earlier, is a case in point. It is a policy determined by the unions, vetted by the unions and for the benefit of the unions.

But let us go back to the ALP national conference, that great bastion of democracy. It features 400 delegates, 73 per cent of whom are former union officials, current union officials, members of parliament or Labor Party staffers. It is much the same on the ALP front bench, where 27 of the 40 positions are occupied by former union officials. The unions have donated over $50 million to the ALP since 1996 in a desperate attempt to regain their power and take us back to the dark old days of union dominance.

Let us remind ourselves what life was like when Labor was in government and unions ran the country. Labor’s system was based on conflict between workers and employers. Under Labor, strike action was 13 times higher than it is today, damaging our nation’s productivity and growth. Labor prescribed a one-size-fits-all industrial relations system. There was less capacity to negotiate conditions around particular family responsibilities. And unions were able to force workers into unions—including the requirement that employers give preference to union members. This conflict based system was bad for jobs and bad for our economy.

For all their purported concern for workers, Labor did not even attempt to protect workers who were denied their wages or entitlements in cases of employer insolvency. Even though Labor created a recession that sent thousands of businesses to the wall, it ignored the plight of nearly 221,000 workers who lost around $1.25 billion worth of entitlements between 1983 and 1996. Labor certainly delivered during their 13 years in power. But it was a message none of us want to receive again.

They gave us the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, including record small business interest rates, high inflation and record unemployment. They gave us job-destroying unfair dismissal laws, new taxes and increased taxes. But Australia is now back on the path to prosperity. Under the Howard government, we have the lowest unemployment rate in over 30 years. We have kept the economy strong so that all Australians can plan for the future with confidence. This does not happen by accident but requires the difficult but necessary decisions that have to be made in the national interest.

Real wages under this government have increased by nearly 20 per cent. This is hardly the doomsday type predictions we have seen from the ALP and the union movement for the last 11 years. But their opposition to our important reforms is not about jobs, fairness or hope for the future. They are not concerned about rights and the interests of working Australians. The individual worker is doing well under this government. The only people who are not doing well under this government are the union bosses, and that is why the union movement is bankrolling a $30 million campaign against the federal coalition government. It is a campaign against jobs, real wage increases and a strong economy. It is a campaign not about a bright future but about returning us to a very dark past.

Labor remains controlled by the unions, thinking only of their sectional interest rather than the national interest. They threaten Australia’s continued prosperity. This prosperity is no accident. It requires careful policy development, and Labor’s challenge, after 11 years in opposition and six months from the election, was to show the Australian people it could develop such policies. It has failed the first important test. Labor has failed the Australian people whenever it has been in power. Its legacy of high interest rates, high unemployment, excessive spending and budget black holes we cannot forget. Australia cannot afford a Labor government captive to union, factional and vested interests. With last night’s budget, the government has continued to implement reforms to keep Australia’s economy strong, to lock in prosperity and to keep our nation secure so that Australians can plan for the future with confidence.