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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1122

Senator BERNARDI (8:56 PM) —Normally I like to thank other speakers for their contributions, but I have to say that Senator Feeney’s contribution was simply a sycophantic speech designed to ingratiate himself with his Labor comrades, the powers that be, in a quest to get promoted. There is no question about that. They are more interested in the internal dynamics of the Liberal Party and their own quests for promotion than they are in the cause and the interests of families and those who are determined to maintain employment while this government is determined to shut down employment across the country.

How can Senator Feeney condemn Peter Costello for saying that, given the economic circumstances we find ourselves in today, the government should rethink their bill on industrial relations? It was conceived ideologically because they immediately hate employers and they want to empower unions. It was also conceived in an environment when the economy was doing well, when businesses were productive, when employment was growing, rather than the catastrophe that faces so many families in this country because of the poor policy decisions of the government. This is another nail in their employment coffin.

Make no mistake about it, this is a job-destroying piece of legislation. It will force unemployment up. People are right to be alarmed about it, Senator Feeney. You know they are right to be alarmed about it because your party is acting in the interests of unions, not of working families in putting in this legislation forward. You are not interested in small business and the concerns that they have for their employees. Employers in small businesses, most employers that I know, and I have been one, care for their employees. They want to see them stay in jobs. They want to see them make a productive contribution to their businesses. That is common sense. You do not care about entrepreneurs and the people who are out there taking a risk with their houses and their own financial wellbeing because they want to employ another person. It is clear you have no regard for business owners and the people who drive the productivity of this economy because you are so hell-bent and focused on some ideological quasi-socialist nirvana that you are trying to create in Australia. But you are not just letting yourself, the people of Australia and the Labor Party down, Senator Feeney; you are letting the workers of Australia down. Those people fell under the spell of the svengali of spin, the prince of pork-barrelling. You know who I am talking about, don’t you? The emperor of the ALP. That is right: Mr Rudd himself.

The ALP made an enormous number of promises at the last election, and now they come in here and they tell us they are upholding their promises. Let’s face some facts. We on this side accept that people did not like all aspects of our previous industrial relations legislation. We also accept that the Labor Party went forward with an industrial relations platform at the last election and were elected. And I think that no small manner of their election was in fact due to dissatisfaction with our industrial relations platform. But no truer words were spoken in the last election than those of that giant of a man Peter Garrett. I will paraphrase him: ‘Don’t worry about it; we’ll change it all when we get in.’ And that is exactly what we see with this bill before the Senate today.

This bill is flawed. It is flawed because it is going to have an impact on every family, it is going to have an impact on employment and it is going to have an impact on individuals and business owners. But it is also flawed in the rhetoric, ‘We’ve got a mandate.’ How can they say, ‘We’ve got a mandate’? They do not have a mandate for some of the things they are introducing in this bill. But, more than that, this is coming from those who flatly denied when they were in opposition that any government has a mandate. They denied that the Liberal Party had a mandate to sell Telstra. Their policy to endorse the sale of Telstra only came after it was actually sold. They did not support the mandate from the continued re-election of the Liberal Party and the coalition government, despite the fact that we kept taking unfair dismissal to election after election after election. They did not do that. Do you know why they did not do it? They did not do it because they knew that they had to maintain the rage against reasonable, sensible policies that would help small business owners and the engine room of the economy and they needed the union movement to get back into government. They had to play sycophantic politics with the union movement because that is where their power came from. Stubbornly they clung to that and, ultimately, it worked for them. This is payback. They went to the last election making a number of industrial relations promises, but they have far exceeded them in this bill—in any number of areas, and I will touch upon some of those tonight.

The specifics of this bill actually give more power to the union movement than to employers. The government is under some misguided thought that empowering an already emboldened union movement is somehow going to do workers a greater favour than would removing the impediments to employment or supporting small business to perhaps take that extra risk and employ an additional person. The areas in this bill in which they have exceeded their previous promises include union access to non-union members’ records under certain circumstances and compulsory arbitration where enterprise bargaining fails. They have touched upon greenfields agreements. They are talking about union right of entry, the transmission of business and of course unfair dismissal. I would like to touch on a couple of those tonight.

Firstly, the right of entry. Back in May last year Minister Gillard said:

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

Yet this bill expands the union right of entry. How is that maintaining the current right-of-entry process? So not only has she broken the original promise, which they claim they have a mandate for, but she has broken the promise that she made subsequent to that, to keep her promise. Make no mistake: under this bill more unions will be able to enter the workplace.

But more alarming than that, and genuinely alarming, is that unions will have access under certain circumstances to employee records, including the records of non-union members. That should send a shiver up the spine of every single employee, every single employer and every single civil liberties advocate in this country, because a lot of what is kept in personnel records is between the personnel officer or between the employer or business owner and the employee themselves. As someone who has employed people I know that you take into account certain circumstances in your dealing with employees based on their personal situation and circumstances. No-one has the right to pry into someone else’s records simply because they are a union official—to walk in and say, ‘Hey, give me Bill Smith’s file; I want to have a look at it.’ That is against the principles that we should hold very dear in this country and it is against the principles that I and my colleagues on this side of the chamber do hold dear.

Unfortunately, this is not what the Labor Party see. They only see that they owe the union movement and have to empower them. By empowering the union movement they are empowering themselves over there, because every single one of them is here because of the union movement. Now, I am not anti-union. You might think that I am after some of the things I have said. I respect people’s right to be a member of the union if that is what they want to do. If they want to give a union member or their union advocate access to their own file, that is their business, but you have no right to go prying into other people’s business in the hope of stirring up some sort of hornets’ nest that is going to result in people losing their jobs and businesses getting closed. That is the history: you gain, you take a step and you are always looking to take another one and infringing upon those who are driving our economy forward.

So, clearly, there is a departure from the current right of entry and what they are allowed to access. This is not about keeping a promise; this is actually about breaking a promise. This is about deceiving the people of Australia and hoping it will slip through. And, under a barrage of abuse about previous industrial relations policies, of heckling, of interjections and of jeers, all of which are designed to mask their true interest, this is about empowering the union movement. It is a very sad day when the senators on the other side of this chamber come in here and are happy to infringe upon people’s privacy and support legislation like that.

The other part I would like to talk about today is unfair dismissal, which is a contentious issue. No-one likes to think that their job is vulnerable. But let me tell you that there are no more vulnerable employees than those where the business owner is going broke—where they can no longer afford to feed their own family or pay their bills and will continue to struggle until they can make some changes.

When I speak of small business owners, to me it means the mums and dads who own the corner shoe shop or maybe the takeaway. They are people who have put their houses on the line to try to create better lives for themselves, their children and their employees. In small business we see lots of immigrants; we see lots of young entrepreneurs; we see people who say, ‘I do not want to go to university,’ and we see tradespeople; and they all go out there and take risks to build their businesses and to build this nation. Believe it or not, in employing people they take the greatest risk that a small business owner faces because part of the problem is that if things go bad, or you have a bad employee, it is very hard to make the necessary changes and the transition without severe financial penalties in some instances. So I support exemptions from unfair dismissal for small businesses and I do so because small businesses are too important to this country.

There is some talk in this bill about what constitutes a small business, and we all may have different definitions of it. The essence of it as far as I can see is that if you have 20 people or full-time equivalents it means that you, as the business owner, are the person who is doing the payroll and all the paperwork and you are working in your business as well as on your business and you are responsible for their welfare. In those circumstances we should be looking to remove red tape. As I said earlier, when you own a small business you do everything you possibly can to keep your good staff happy and productive. You counsel them and help them through the lean times—not only your lean times but their lean times, either emotionally or physically. You do what you can because that is in your interest. Your interest is in maintaining the business and when you have got good people you do everything you possibly can to keep them.

But under this legislation imagine the circumstance of your business having a year of buoyant times followed by a period when things get a bit lean. You no longer have the opportunity to make appropriate changes without incurring the wrath of some official who has possibly never worked in small business themselves and who will charge you money to redistribute the wealth to someone else.

Don’t think I am making this up on the spot, because I have been in this situation. I have been in a circumstance where I have had people in my business, which had fewer than 20 full-time staff, actually breaking the law. And when you say, ‘I am sorry, you cannot work here any more because you are breaking the law,’ the nameless officials come down on you and say, ‘You have done the wrong thing.’ To those nameless officials I say that I would do it all again. It costs you money when you go through it and you cannot go through the appeals process because it is too hard, too expensive and too tough. That is what has destroyed the incentive for a lot of people to create and build and grow their businesses. Yet this is exactly what this government is intent on bringing back.

We should be alarmed about this, because the legislation that was presented to us today oversteps the mark. If we accept the responsibility and the mandate we have then we should limit the changes to the industrial relations legislation to what was promised before the last election, not what has been cobbled together by the socialist alliance running rampant in the Labor Party today. We should not be looking at this legislation and saying, ‘No, we are not going to make any changes to it just because it was conceived in a time of prosperity.’ We are now entering into a time where people are doing it tough and you are going to make it tougher for them all. This is the great shame of it. This is not about partisan politics; it is about people. Right now people are struggling and the Labor government is putting an additional burden on people but they are dressing it up in new clothes and saying, ‘We are protecting you.’

But this government has already been exposed as having no clothes on so many issues. They have got the emperor, and if I have to be the one who says he has no clothes, I will. It is a sham and a charade. They are very good at the spin, they are very good at presenting these plausible arguments, they know how to run the news cycle and they have got a lot of journalists on the drip. But it is not about that; it is about helping people who are doing it tough. And people are doing it tough. They want jobs, but they are losing jobs hand over fist in this country under this government.

We have small business owners that want to get through a very tough time. And what are Labor doing to help them? They are increasing the regulatory regime. That is not the recipe for success. The recipe for success is empowering people to make decisions that will be in the best interest of their business, and the best interest of their business is to keep people employed as long as they possibly can—not to prevent employment, not to stop people from hiring now because they know they are going to be under some hard core IR regime. The hide of Senator Feeney to compare the previous government’s industrial relations policies to communist China or North Korea or Romania! I am not sure what the Romanian employment policies are but Senator Feeney clearly knows; obviously he holds these countries in reasonable esteem to have researched them.

What is important here is getting the best outcome for Australia. To get the best outcome for Australia we need to have flexibility, and flexibility starts with amending this legislation—not just the two principal areas that I spoke about but the six areas that I mentioned. We need to look at this. I call upon the Labor Party to stop being so stubborn. A mule can be a useful animal. I ask you to be a useful mule rather than the annoying—I will not say the word because I am not into swearing, but you all know what I mean.

Senator Cash —Something the Prime Minister might say.

Senator BERNARDI —Yes, something the Prime Minister would say, but you will not find me saying it. Do not be stubborn about this. Think about the interests of Australia. Look at the amendments we are going to put forward because they are in the best interests of workers in this country. You can act in the best interest of workers in this country too, rather than simply looking after your union mates. They can look after themselves; they have hundreds of millions of dollars. Let us look after the workers that do not. That is a challenge to you guys today, to the Labor Party today—get a bit of bipartisanship in this and start working hard for the interests of Australia.