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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1098

Senator BARNETT (7:16 PM) —I stand to speak to the Labor government’s Fair Work Bill 2008 to highlight a range of concerns and criticisms that I have. I ask a number of questions about this bill. Why would this government be the only government in the Western world in a time of a global financial crisis to re-regulate the industrial relations system? Why would it be the only government in the Western world that I am aware of to make it harder and more costly to operate a small business? Regulation is increasing rather than decreasing and costs of doing business are increasing rather than decreasing. Why would it be the only government in the world to proceed along this track at this time? These are difficult times—we all know that—so why is it going down this path?

The key question is this: how many jobs will be created as a result of the enactment of this bill? How many jobs? I put it to the Senate and the Labor government that it will create not one job. In fact the bill as it is currently is designed to hurt small business and it is designed to increase unemployment. In a fascinating twist late last night and again today we have seen the Labor government, through Julia Gillard, confirm that they will be moving amendments to their own bill. They have had over 15 months to prepare this bill and yet they admit even today—when we are debating this bill—that the bill is flawed, that the bill has holes in it, that the bill needs improving. The government have admitted that even as late as today. We know the bill as it is currently designed will hurt small business, we know it is anti-jobs and we know that it is going to increase union power in its current form.

Labor says that the bill will not cost jobs, but I commend our leader, Malcolm Turnbull, for reminding all of us today that Labor said that the December giant cash splash of some nearly $10 billion just prior to Christmas would create 75,000 new jobs. It would create 75,000 new jobs! What happened? Nothing—not one new job. Mr Turnbull reminded the public of that today. There is no evidence that the Labor government have put into the public arena, into the Senate, into this parliament to say that this legislation will create new jobs. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary. It seems to me that there could not be a worse time to introduce the legislation as it is currently designed. It will hurt small business and will be a disincentive to job creation.

We have a global economic downturn. I note that this point was made by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry just a few hours ago. They are concerned about the inappropriate timing—not to mention the bill itself—of the introduction of such legislation. What government in the world today is re-regulating its employment laws? Please advise, Labor senators and members of the Labor government. It is a very strange move indeed. The bill will increase costs to small business, it will impose excessive red tape and in its current form it will most certainly increase trade union power. We know that for sure.

The government has made much of this mandate theory. I remind those on the other side and those in the public arena that 44 times in this parliament the Howard government tried remove the unfair dismissal laws. It tried 44 times. Indeed, it tried after the 1996 election and after the elections of 1998, 2001 and 2004. Again, again and again the Howard government got that mandate and yet it was abused poorly and profusely by the Labor opposition. What we do know in terms of mandate is that Work Choices is dead. That is accepted. There is no problem whatsoever; that is accepted. Let us move on and look at the legislation for what it is in terms of how many jobs it will create. What we know is that the government promised before the election and indeed after the election that the right of entry laws would remain exactly as they were. I will come to that a little bit later, with some quotes from Julia Gillard in that regard. They also promised that compulsory arbitration would not be introduced. Of course, that is exactly what is happening. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is what is happening.

I am going to address each of those concerns shortly, but first I want to highlight the importance of small business. In the context of Australia today, small business is the backbone of our economy. Small business is the lifeblood, particularly of our rural and regional communities. They need support, particularly at a time like this when there is an economic downturn. We have over two million businesses in Australia. Ninety-six per cent of those are small businesses. That is approximately 1.9 million small businesses, employing some 3.8 million people—3.8 million families are benefiting as a result of the efforts of small business all around this country. In Tasmania, my home state, based on the latest statistics, we have 37,641 businesses in total and 96 per cent of those are small businesses—that is, 36,126. Tasmania is a small-business state. Around 50 per cent of the private sector workforce is in small business. They are the lifeblood of the community, because we are very much spread out. Not all of our population is in our capital city, as it is for our mainland counterparts and major centres. There are not just Launceston, Devonport and Burnie but all of the country towns and regional communities, and small business helps them survive. They move that money around; it goes around and around to support the jobs of people and families in those communities.

What we do know is that last year in its first budget the Labor government took an axe to support for small business. They took a $1 billion axe, in fact—$1 billion of small-business assistance funds was axed from the budget last year. We know that $700 million was axed from the Commercial Ready program. We know that $10.5 million was axed from the Building Entrepreneurship program. And the Small Business Field Officer program was axed by the Rudd Labor government. At the first opportunity they axed support for small business. That is what they did. And of course that is continuing: we are seeing the slow death now of many of the Australian technical colleges.

We know why all this is happening, and we know why the Fair Work Bill is structured the way it is: because the government are beholden to the union movement. They are beholden to the Labor Party cash cow that is the union movement. I am advised that some $750 million in union dues each year goes to the unions from their members. We know where a good amount of that money then proceeds: to the coffers of the Labor Party. We know that he who pays the piper calls the tune. That is exactly what is happening with respect to this legislation, the Fair Work Bill.

We also know that union membership is on the decline, accounting for less than 15 per cent of the private sector workforce now and going down. So the government want to prop that up, they want to support that, and they have designed the bill in such a way as to boost union membership. The government are pro-union and indeed anti small business. That is a great tragedy when the rural and regional parts of Tasmania and of Australia need that support. Why would this government be the only government in the world to be re-regulating the industrial relations system at this time? They are bringing in a bill that will not create one new job for Australia and will make it harder and more costly to operate a small business.

I want to commend to the Senate the recently tabled minority report on the Fair Work Bill 2008, specifically the chairman, Gary Humphries, and coalition Senators Mary Jo Fisher and Michaelia Cash, who did a great job in putting forward their views in that report. They have outlined some of their concerns, and I concur with their views. I want to touch on at least some of those and add a few points. The first concern relates to union access to non-union members. This highlights the very intrusive approach of the Labor government with respect to privacy matters. Why should unions have access to information about non-union members, whether it be health records or private information? Whatever is on the file at the employer’s office, at the small business office, is open for abuse under this legislation as it is currently written before us. I am sure that, after appropriate scrutiny by this Senate, wise counsel will prevail and the right to privacy will be maintained. In fact, I was at the Melbourne hearing of the Senate committee and raised a number of questions highlighting the views of the Privacy Commissioner, who expressed his views and his concerns in a submission to the Senate committee of inquiry. I thank the Privacy Commissioner for doing that. There were some very sound comments. I think and I hope that the government will accept some of those views—and, indeed, the foreshadowed amendments from this side—to ensure that privacy is protected and that employees’ personal records, whether they be medical records or whatever, are properly protected. Of course unions can have access to those records—if the employee provides the consent. Surely, that is just a fundamental golden rule that should be protected, preserved and supported.

With respect to right of entry: yes, there is no reason why unions should not have access to non-union employees where there is consent—but, if they do not, that is different. There should be an unequivocal promise not to change the right-of-entry laws. The view that was put by Julia Gillard before the election, and indeed after the election, was that there would be no change to the right-of-entry laws. The quotes are noted in the Senate committee report, going back to April 2008, when the minister stated that ‘the current rules in relation to right of entry will remain’. Then she said at a press conference on 28 August 2007:

We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.

That is pretty clear cut. Then it goes on. She said:

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

That was in a speech to Master Builders Australia on 28 May 2008. So what could be clearer than that? Why don’t the government come in and apologise and say, ‘Look, we’ve broken our promise, we’ve breached our word, we’ve breached our commitment to the Australian people and we want to change’? But they have simply brought on this legislation as it is currently written and they want to proceed to change the right-of-entry laws to allow unions access to not only important personal information but also any other information, particularly with respect to those right-of-entry matters. If those matters need to be decided, they should be decided democratically. Whether that is via a secret ballot or some other arrangement, I do not know; that is a matter for further discussion and deliberation. It probably should be for a certain period of time—whether six months, one year, two years or longer—once that agreement is made, so that they do not keep coming back and so that companies do not keep getting intrusive calls from union representatives saying, ‘We want another shot at this.’

Chris Platt from the AMMA made his views about this very well known, and they are set out on page 142 of the Senate committee inquiry report. He said:

Our concern in relation to the Fair Work Bill is, firstly, that the protections in relation to union access to employee information have been removed. It is not just a question of unions being able to access non-member records. Unions will be able to access any record of any employee in the business, and all they have to do is put together an argument to say that that is valid in respect of an alleged breach of the act or an industrial instrument. There is no fetter on that access …

Senator Jacinta Collins —That is just not true.

Senator BARNETT —That is what he said as a witness before the Senate committee. In other evidence given to the committee, it was said:

We are strongly opposed to unions having the capacity to inspect nonmembers’ records under the bill and propose that nonmembers’ consent be required as a condition of inspection.

That does make it clear. Senator Collins says it is just not true; let us see what amendments come forward to deal with those concerns.

Another issue is compulsory arbitration. Again, it was promised that it would not be introduced in this bill, and yet it is. As Mr Turnbull outlined today, ‘We propose that the ability to arbitrate, if negotiations fail, only be available where the parties genuinely consent to arbitration.’ That seems fair and something that I would strongly support. In terms of Julia Gillard’s commitment, she has said:

Under Labor’s policy there is no automatic arbitration of collective agreements. Our policy clearly states that no one will be forced to sign up to an agreement where they do not agree to the terms.

That was on 30 May 2007. She has also said:

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

That was on 17 September 2008, so that is a recent quote. Goodness—why doesn’t she commit to that and why doesn’t Labor commit to that?

The issue of greenfield sites is a concern for all of us on this side and certainly for any business operation setting up. It is a disincentive to major project development and the generation of jobs. The bill currently requires the maker of a greenfield agreement to notify all unions who may have carriage of members at that site that they intend to make a new agreement. What red tape and regulation that is going to invoke. That will be a nightmare for small business and for major business projects about to get underway. That requirement to notify all unions should certainly be removed from the bill.

Finally, on the unfair dismissal issue, as I said earlier the Howard government had to try 44 times to remove the unfair dismissal laws that were introduced under Paul Keating before we succeeded. The Labor government’s proposals for an exemption for small business are inappropriately worded. We know that small business see unfair dismissal laws as a disincentive to employment and creating jobs, but the government has brought them back. The definition of ‘small business’ is also an issue. It has gone from 100 down to 15 employees, and under Labor’s proposal that is a headcount—whether they are part time, full time or casual—not full-time equivalents. That is clearly an issue that needs to be sorted out.

Small businesses are the backbone of our community. They are the job generators and they need protection, support and encouragement to grow and prosper. Whether they are restaurants or caterers, hoteliers, independent retail grocers or retailers themselves—and I commend Tasmanian Independent Retailers, under the leadership of Grant Hinchcliffe, for what they are doing in Tasmania to create jobs, the major multimillion dollar development out near the airport with Statewide Independent Wholesalers; congratulations—florists, petrol station owners, butchers or bakers, whoever they are, they know that this legislation is a disincentive to creating jobs.

The bill will need further scrutiny. The committee stage will see a lot of argument, a lot of argy-bargy. I hope that the government sees sense and asks itself how many jobs this bill will create. I think the government will find that it does not create one job. The government should ask itself why it is the only government in the world that wants to re-regulate the industrial relations system at a time like this, when we have an economic downturn and we need to create jobs and support small business. These are the questions that need to be answered, and I hope they are during further debate on this bill, including the committee stage. I thank the Senate.