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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 996

Senator ABETZ (1:16 PM) —The Senate is debating the Fair Work Bill 2008. It is important at the outset to unambiguously outline the coalition’s stand on this legislation. The yardstick by which we measure this legislation will be its impact on jobs and the capacity of the Australian economy to create jobs. Dovetailed in with that will be the issue of its impact on small business, which is clearly the engine room of job creation within our country.

The debate today is no longer about Work Choices. Work Choices is dead. That was the first announcement made by the coalition after the last election, and it remains our position. The Australian people did not need the coalition to tell them that Work Choices was dead. It was in fact the Australian people who told the coalition that Work Choices was dead, and we accept that verdict. We also accept that Labor was elected on a policy platform that is largely being implemented in this bill. We went to the last election with a policy designed to enhance the employment opportunities of our fellow Australians. It was in that regard well motivated and it delivered the job outcomes promised, but it gained those outcomes at a cost to working conditions which was largely unacceptable to the Australian people. The removal of the no disadvantage test and the unfair dismissal changes, with employers with up to 100 employees being counted into that part of the legislation, amongst others, were part of the community concern and delivered the community rejection.

The bill with which we are confronted today is the policy which is now under consideration and scrutiny. It will not do for those opposite to try to wind back the clock and talk about the policy position that we took to the last election, because that is no longer our position. What is under scrutiny today in the Senate is the government’s policy, the government’s legislation and the government’s policy impact on jobs and job creation.

We believe that Labor’s legislation will cost jobs. It will increase union power at the expense of workers’ rights to privacy. It will wind back the reform clock of over two decades. This is one of the great ironies in this debate today: it will wind back the clock on some of the reforms introduced by a former President of the ACTU, Mr Hawke, when he was Prime Minister. And who is winding back the clock on those Labor reforms introduced by a former ACTU president but the Labor Prime Minister who sold himself to the electorate at the last election as an economic conservative. This is where we have a huge insight into what Mr Rudd and his government are all about: it is all about the spin not about the substance. As Mr Garrett so famously said, ‘Don’t listen to what we say; look at what we do when we get into government.’ So here we have somebody who adopted neoliberal economic conservative credentials before the election, winding back IR reforms introduced by a former ACTU President, Mr Hawke.

In fairness, the legislation will do some good things. I and the coalition believe that the legislation is well drafted, well set out and easy to read, and I would say to those who seek to draft other Commonwealth legislation that they should have a look at this legislation, not necessarily for all its content but in relation to the way that it is drafted. My congratulations go to those who were involved in its drafting. It is also interesting to note that Labor, after having initially promised to rip up Work Choices, lock, stock and barrel, is in fact adopting many aspects of it, as was highlighted by union submission after union submission to the Senate inquiry into this legislation. The constitutional lock, of course, is exactly the same as the coalition’s—that is, the use of the corporations power. Remember the High Court challenge? All those poor, long-suffering state Labor government taxpayers had to fund the High Court challenge because it was so outrageous and so immoral to use the corporations power for that purpose. The Labor Party is now converted and has fully adopted our approach.

Remember Labor’s opposition to our unfair dismissal laws, even when the figure was set at businesses with only 15 or 20 employees? Today in their legislation they are commending to this place a figure and regime very similar to ours, albeit with some barbs in it for small business that will go through undoubtedly at the committee stage of the legislation. But it is interesting that Labor have now come to the party and recognised that their unfair dismissal experiment was a failure and needed to be amended. Here they are with a regime where they say 15 employees would be an appropriate benchmark. The reason they came up with these sorts of policy lines in relation to adopting some of our unfair dismissal laws—condemning the possibility of compulsory arbitration, amongst other things—was to be able to sell their neoliberal economic conservative credentials before the last election. That is the truth of it. They knew they could not rip it all up lock, stock and barrel, as they had promised, and of course have now kept many things. But as always with Labor, as Mr Garrett so rightly said, ‘Don’t look at what we say; look at what we do.’

In the lead-up to the election Labor made some very strong promises in two areas that I will particularly canvass in this contribution to the second reading debate. They made these promises so that they would look as though they were economic conservatives and responsible. But they have now broken those election promises and they have done so in a very stark manner. Allow me first of all to deal with the right of entry rules that are now in this legislation. Indeed, Ms Gillard on many occasions, including to a press conference on 28 August 2007, before the last election, said:

We will make sure that the current right of entry provisions stay.

She also said subsequently:

We will keep the right of entry provisions.


We promised to retain the current right of entry framework and this promise too will be kept.

It could not be clearer. Yet the legislation clearly does not keep the regime that we have in place. It is a complete and utter repudiation of it for one reason only—that is, as a payoff to the trade union movement. Make no mistake, as late as 28 May, speaking to the Master Builders Association, when Ms Gillard was the minister, she said:

We promised to retain the current right of entry framework and this promise, too, will be kept.

So between 28 May 2008 and now something has changed. Of course, it is the strong arm of the trade union movement saying to Ms Gillard and the Labor Party: ‘We spent $100 million on your election campaign’—the biggest amount of money spent by any third party in Australian politics, in Australian history; more, I suggest, than the Liberal and Labor parties put together; it was a massive campaign—‘and we have to reboost our coffers. We’ve got to get our money back.’ The way to do it, of course, is to enhance the right of entry rules. So what we have now in this legislation is the capacity of the trade union official to storm into a place and say, ‘I want to have a look at the books and work records of all your employees, even those that have decided not to be a member of the trade union.’ That is wrong in principle. We make no apologies for saying as a coalition and an opposition that we stand up for workers’ rights—the right of workers not to have their privacy corrupted by the trade union movement looking through their records when that individual worker has said, ‘I do not want my records looked at by a union official.’

Similarly, if a union has no workers on a work site and if the workers so decide, the union should not have a right of entry to that workplace. If the workers say that they do not want a union entering into their workplace then that is something that we believe should be respected. I would respectfully refer honourable senators to the Committee Hansard of 18 February 2009, at page 16. A union official acknowledged this:

There is a massive overlap in eligibility rules throughout Australia … There is a very large overlap …

…         …         …

Yes, and, one would have to say, in many cases beyond the wit and wisdom of a security guard at a gate who is being confronted with a union official with a 27-page eligibility rule and an explanation by the union official as to why it is they are entitled to be there.

Then, as this union official was pleased to tell us:

Without being too flippant about it, I have made a living out of the eligibility rules of unions for a number of years, and they can be extremely complex. You are quite right about that.

So what we are going back to is an era of unfettered entry into workplaces by trade union officials. We as a coalition say that that is wrong in principle and, what is more, if the workers decide they do not want trade union presence in their workplace, they are entitled to have that respected. Why do we say that? You see, 80 per cent of the Australian workforce in the private sector—indeed, I think I could go up to 85 per cent of workers—have said, by their choice, ‘We don’t want to be a member of a trade union.’ And they are entitled to exercise that choice in a free country such as Australia. But to then have those rights trampled upon by union officials saying: ‘Well, you might not be a member of our union, mate, but—guess what?—we are still going to look at your records that are held by your employer.’ Or they could say: ‘You might not want us to come into your workplace, but—guess what?—even if you do not want us to we are going to march on in there.’ That is unacceptable to workers’ rights. Somebody has to stand up for the 85 per cent of Australian workers that do not want to be a member of a trade union. We on this side unashamedly stand up for those 85 per cent of Australian workers who have made such a choice.

I now turn to the issue of compulsory arbitration. Ms Gillard is once again very strong on this. On 30 May 2007 Ms Gillard, in a speech to the National Press Club in which she once again stressed her neoliberal economic conservative credentials, said:

Our policy clearly states that no one will be forced to sign up to an agreement where they do not agree to the terms.

She went on to say:

… in the ordinary course … all of that bargaining will happen at the enterprise level, they will either strike an agreement or not strike an agreement.

Then, even after she became minister, on 17 September 2008—only some five months or so ago—she said:

Compulsory arbitration will not be a feature of good faith bargaining.

Guess what? It is today in this legislation in direct breach of very straightforward election promises to the Australian people, and they are promises that were reiterated after the election. So you have to ask the question: why is it that the Labor Party, having made a solemn election promise and recommitted to it after the election, then decided to do a big backflip? The reason is trade union muscle, trade union influence and trade union demands, because they want to muscle in on the bargaining process and if they cannot get an agreement they want to force one out of the employer through Fair Work Australia.

Time is running short so let me say that it is understood by the coalition that Labor is introducing a number of amendments to its own legislation. We will look forward to those and will deal with them on their merits, but I indicate that we as a coalition do have concerns in relation to the regime, in relation to greenfields agreements and, once again, in relation to the enhanced union power that is being suggested there. We are also concerned about how the unfair dismissal laws might apply. We will of course have a look at the amendments that the government proposes and deal with them on their merits.

In coming to this debate, let me say that Work Choices is dead and there is no need to revisit that. What we need to visit is the regime that is being proposed today. That regime must be tested on a number of criteria. The first one is its impact on jobs and job creation. Clearly, what we need to do, with a good safety net—and this legislation provides a substantial safety net—is ensure that everything is done to enhance employment opportunities in this country. We believe that there are aspects of this legislation that run counter to that ambition, especially in the current environment where so many jobs are currently being lost through a number of factors, including the uncertainty that this legislation provides to employers. Many employers are telling me and my coalition colleagues that they are getting in first because of the anti-employment regime in this legislation; they are starting to shed jobs now so that they will not be caught up in the regime that is being introduced today. So, as with the credit crisis, which Labor made worse with its bungled bank guarantee, we now have the job losses being experienced in Australia today being made worse by another Rudd bungle in this legislation.

Unlike Labor we do accept that Labor have a mandate in relation to a number of the matters that they raised before the election. I remind Labor that our good grace in relation to that was never shown by the them when we won on unfair dismissal laws in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004. Did the Labor Party say, ‘The Australian people have spoken’? No, because they were always beholden to the trade union movement and they could not care less about electoral mandates. When it came to the GST, on which we got a mandate, they sought to block us every step of the way. We are not an irresponsible opposition. We are an opposition that accepts the verdict of the Australian people, but we also accept that we have a role to keep the government honest in relation to this and other legislation. And, where their legislation is a clear and complete repudiation of that which they took to the Australian people, we will seek to hold the government to account. I remind those opposite—all those former trade union officials who will be getting up to speak—that this debate is no longer about Work Choices. It is about the regime that Labor want to put in place and the impact that will have on jobs in the engine room of job creation in this country, which of course is small business. I look forward to the committee stage.