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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17469

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (1:01 PM) —The member for Rankin, the previous ALP speaker, the opposition spokesman, has demonstrated just why Labor are caught in this Jurassic mire. One day, like at the Lark Quarry up at Winton, tracks will be discovered in Canberra that were left by the dinosaurs of the ALP with their attitude towards issues like this where they continually repeat again and again the same tired old rhetoric they learned from their daddies and the same old nonsense—the union politics of envy that went out back in the fifties. They still believe it. They are still crawling around in the mire trying to dig a hole for themselves. We have this low road, low rent debate that we heard from the member for Rankin, and it is abysmal. People across Australia are fed up with hearing it because it is total nonsense.

The member for Rankin says the whole idea of buying a business, this old class struggle idea, is that the evil employers are out there trying to buy businesses so they can automatically renege on the conditions that apply there. What nonsense. That is absolutely ridiculous. The fact is that people buy a business because they believe they can add value to it. They believe they can be more competitive. What happens when they do that? Their employees profit along with them. Under the coalition government you can see how employees have benefited dramatically from policies encouraging people to invest in and to support small business in this country. We are all a richer nation as a result of that. The continuing carping and this dinosaur rhetoric from members opposite do them no good at all because people have caught on. They have recognised the advantage that comes with business investment and with encouraging and supporting that investment. They support it too. The Australian community has moved on and left those dinosaurs over there struggling in the mud, dying slowly. They are dying very quickly. Very sadly for them they are going to have to do something pretty serious if they want to try to connect with the people of Australia, and this is not how they are going to do it.

Their rhetoric has demonstrated that the member for Rankin has very little understanding of the bill at all and has given no consideration to the issues surrounding it. In his address he made nonsense statements. He said that the government has a vision against high wages and high skills and, by inference, he was saying that his mob over there have some kind of interest in that. If that is the case, why did wages go down under Labor? Why did Labor drive those wages down? We have been putting wages up in this country under the coalition and they drove them down. Something does not add up there. The member for Rankin is on the wrong tram. He is back there in the mud, drowning like a dinosaur. He cannot add up his figures. He has somehow got the whole argument inverted, but he continues to plough on.

Their vision is not about high this or high-tech that; their vision is about people voting ALP, and they do not care how they get them to do it. They do not care what they say. They do not care what kind of twisted rhetoric they apply. They are interested in misery and envy. If they can encourage those two things, they believe that that is the way to surf into government. We have seen it from them once and we will see it again—misery and envy from the members opposite. What is missing on the ALP side is an interest in creating incentives for the very people at the top end of the wage earning structure and the research community for them to contribute to the future of this country. Labor continue to promote this envy argument, and of course we have to suffer the brain drain that goes along with it. By continually banging on the head anything that encourages people to seek advancement and to promote their position, they continue to create disincentives.

The top research scientists look at Australia and they say: `The top tax rate in Australia applies to me. But if I go to the US the top tax rate doesn't cut in until $US250,000.' That is a huge disincentive for people to stay in Australia and to continue to contribute. But we keep hearing, `Those people are rich.' Labor say, `We have the class war going over there. We, the dinosaur party, have the class war running and we are determined to drive those people down into the muck with us.' The ultimate argument from the member for Rankin was that it did not rain and that was the government's fault.

Mr Brendan O'Connor —I rise on a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. What relevance does this have to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2002 which we are debating now?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—I refer the member for Burke to the amendments that have been moved.

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON —Pre-cisely, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Burke obviously has not read the bill either—just like the other nincompoop who spoke a minute ago. The fact is that I am commenting on their arguments in relation to this bill. What possible objection can the member for Burke have to my responding to the ridiculous, tortured and twisted arguments that have come from the person from Rankin?

I will look at another issue raised by the shadow spokesman. He spoke about the arrangement of the Patrick Corporation and its various companies as part of that long-running imbroglio which was the waterfront dispute. He said that the arrangement of those companies defied logic. Of course, if you look at it, it was pretty illogical and it was all twisted, and all kinds of difficulties came from that. But what could you possibly say about the union arrangement that applied on the waterfront at that time? If you did not say that it defied logic then you would have to be totally crazy. It is as though you cannot see the forest for the trees. Those dinosaurs over there probably could do with a good feed, but they cannot see the forest for the trees. It is a sad situation.

The situations that Labor fostered, encouraged and supported with their union mates on the waterfront led to some severe difficulties in this country, cost jobs, cost business in this country and drove our country down the tube, and they were happy to endorse that because it was at the behest of their union mates. The opposition spokesman referred to the Stevedoring Levy (Collection) Amendment Bill 1999. I have just been looking at the Bills Digest in relation to that. It refers to the fact that, in 1951, 24,500 people were employed on the waterfront. Through the decades that number gradually fell to fewer than 300 in 1999. But the Bills Digest also makes this point:

Average crane rates in the five major ports dipped slightly in the 3 months to December 1998 with a significant improvement in Melbourne being offset by equally significant declines in Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle.(13) ... but the Sydney figure of 17.7 containers per hour is still below the December 1997 figure and well adrift of the Government's target rate of 25 lifts per hour.

What has happened as a result of the intervention of the government in that dispute? We have met that target. That is what we have done. We have done things—we have created freedoms on the waterfront that have driven business forward and created opportunities for employees in this country. But over there, in the mud, the opposition, while they are looking for mud to throw at people and they are looking for all the other things that they try desperately to hang their hats on, still cannot see the forest for the trees. They cannot see the need to reform. They cannot see the need to do something to support business in this country. It is a shame for the country that they put up their hands and say, `We're in opposition and we're seeking to get into government,' when they have that pathetic attitude.

We had the comment from the opposition spokesman about the CSL Yarra. The mess on the wharves resulted in union thugs being paid all kinds of backdoor money for stupid tasks like washing out the hold of a ship which had already been washed out. They got a special allocation and a special deal that allowed them to get that done. The same featherbedding applies in relation to the maritime situation in Australia. The unions in this country, if they want to have a competitive industry, have to drag themselves into the 21st century. They have to get there because they have been left behind. If they do not realise it, I do not know who else can tell them, because it has been told to them by every office in the land, from the media to anybody who looks outside their front door.

Once again, in relation to this initiative we have the opposition proposing more union bureaucracy. We have an eminently sensible proposal from the government that is structured on a proposal from 2001 which had wide support in the Senate. Were it not for the proroguing of parliament the chances are that it would have been endorsed. This legislation is built on that. In fact it provides even more flexibility. It gives an opportunity for employees to make a submission in relation to these things. It has the flexibility to ensure that it does not act as a disincentive to investment, but that is what members opposite want. The opposition spokesman says that every time a business changes hands we should have a whole new certified agreement. `Let's start again,' he says. Anyone who thinks about buying a company cannot have any certainty or any real knowledge of what it is they might be getting themselves into in relation to union disputes, because along will come the union and their ALP mates who will say, `Hey buddy, let's get on the merry-go-round; let's go a few laps and see what we can encourage you to cop if you want to take on this business.'

I have a few things that I want to tell members opposite. In terms of business exits, let us look at how many certified agreements there are in the country. As at 31 December 2002 there were 10,345 current federal certified agreements covering 1,582,300 employees. That is a huge constituency that we are dealing with—a very important sector of the work force and of the business community. They sought certified agreements because they want special flexibility. That is why they are there. In relation to the number of businesses in which these conditions would apply—in other words, there could be a change of ownership—according to a Productivity Commission report 7.5 per cent of businesses exit each year; that is, they cease to exist or they transfer into new ownership. That represented in excess of 34,000 businesses in this country. Those guys opposite—those people over there—want to say that every time that happens, 34,000 times a year, they want to have the opportunity to put on a good old union blue. Isn't that pathetic? Isn't that something from way back in the dim, dark past? It is just a shame that a bunch of people who regard themselves as forward looking would put that forward today, but that is what they are doing, in opposition to something that the government has put forward which I think is highly sensible.

The government had a discussion paper that covered the whole question. It was put out in September 2000—so it has been out there for some time—by the then minister, the Hon. Peter Reith, who was an excellent minister who contributed more than anyone else in this country to the reform of the waterfront. He achieved great things for this country, and here is another example of it. Twenty-one submissions were received in response to the discussion paper from 12 employer organisations; four employers, including two labour hire firms; the ACTU—one union; gee, is that all?—the Queensland and Western Australian governments; and the federal Joint House Department, which also weighed in. All those submissions were about what should be done in relation to this question on the transmission of business. Following that, we had a bill—the 2001 bill—which put forward many of the same provisions that are now covered in this bill, and I might now talk about some of the things that this bill seeks to address.

The fact is that, when you transfer from one business owner to the next, a range of things can create difficulty. A transmitted agreement from one to the other—in other words, an old certified agreement going to a new employer—may contain impediments to productivity and efficiency. As I said, when you have a new employer that has the opportunity to add value or to create some new advantage in relation to a business, that is what they are seeking. If the transmitted agreement contains impediments on its face that stop that from happening, not only is that affecting the employer but also it is affecting the opportunity and future employment prospects for all the employees in that business. So it is very important that it be dealt with effectively.

It also means that provisions in transmitted agreements may be irrelevant to the business operations of the transmittee. The new business may be suddenly saddled with obligations that are irrelevant to them. I think that for the benefit of all parties involved those irrelevant issues need to be dealt with. Obviously, the way to do it is through the AIRC, through precisely the structures that the government are proposing. There may also be practical difficulties involved in applying transmitted agreements. If the transmitted agreement means a change in location and the old agreement applied specifically to the old location, that is a practical difficulty which needs to be taken into account by an independent umpire, such as the AIRC. It is logical, it is sensible, it is obvious and it is going to assist business. It does not tie them down with a whole bunch of round-and-round arguments with whoever the self-serving union official might be—who is seeking ALP preselection or other things. They do not get tied up in a debate with them; they get on with the job. They use the independent umpire to do it.

Also, following a consolidation of the two businesses at the same site, employees working side by side at the same job may have different entitlements. That is pretty obvious too. Once again, our solution is to get together and resolve it using the independent umpire. The opposition's solution is to put their hand out to create a huge bureaucratic bunfight, and who knows how long it might then take to resolve an issue. By the time that has occurred, the whole enterprise might be under water. It might be broke. But that would not concern the opposition.

There can also be practical difficulties in attempting to vary or terminate a certified agreement, especially given the need to have agreement from all parties involved. So, quite obviously, it is necessary for the government to seek the remedy that it has put forward in this proposal. Basically, the government is seeking to empower the AIRC to make an order that a certified agreement does not bind an incoming employer as a result of the transmission of business or that that agreement only binds the employer to a specified extent. The AIRC already has and exercises similar powers in relation to awards. It does that under the Workplace Relations Act, and the proposal put forward by the government is entirely complementary to that. I have already said that the opposition have said that they would prefer, in all instances, that incoming employers negotiate a new agreement with their new work force. They are proposing that, 34,000 times a year—and more now; that figure is from several years ago—new incoming employers should get engaged in negotiations with the union movement. What a wonderful source of employment for more trade union hacks. What a lovely gravy train for them to get on. I am sure they would love to do that and, with the support of the members opposite, that is exactly what they would seek to do.

We have seen ALP senators arguing that it is necessary to ensure that employees affected by the transmission of business orders do not suffer a reduction in their conditions of employment. That is something that the government have effectively recognised. In this new proposal, we have put forward a set of circumstances that enable, for the first time compared with the 2001 bill, employees to make submissions as to what should happen. Under the old proposal, the previous employer could come back and try to engage themselves in the process later on. We have also taken a position on that. I commend the bill to the House.