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Wednesday, 31 May 2000
Page: 16729


Mr LINDSAY (6:40 PM) —We hear a lot of rhetoric and squealing from the other side on the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2000. How about some facts? There are some pretty clear and plain facts available to the Australian work force in relation to the performance of our minister and the performance of the Howard government. Those facts were clearly enunciated in the parliament this afternoon. When you look at the increase in real wages of the Australian work force under the coalition government and look at the decrease in real wages under the former government, the Australian work force can be well pleased that indeed Minister Reith and the Howard government have performed so well in the industrial relations area.

We should also look at the way that workers in this country are voting with their feet and marching out of unions and out of the centralised systems that have been a feature of the opposition's policies. We should also look at how pleased they are with the individual arrangements they can make under the options they now have. The legislation we are debating tonight will provide ordinary Australians, especially those who reside in my electorate of Herbert—Townsville and Thuringowa—with a better future. This bill will address the emerging incidence of pattern bargaining and related measures to ensure that industrial action, particularly in pursuit of pattern bargaining, can be contained. This bill is needed. It gives the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, a key role in determining the lawfulness of industrial action in pursuit of pattern bargaining campaigns.

During the 1998 election campaign, the Howard coalition government gave a clear commitment to the Australian public in our workplace relations policy to improve the legislative framework to clearly distinguish between protected action in pursuit of genuine bargaining, and illegitimate bargaining and related industrial action. Furthermore, we gave the voters the undertaking to discourage agreements which compromise workplace choice and which undermine company performance and job security, such as forced industry-wide agreements and pattern bargaining.

I support this legislation as it is biased towards enterprise bargaining, whether collectively or individually, at the workplace. This legislation before us now will take enterprise bargaining into both unionised and non-unionised businesses, which will lead to a fairer workplace for both the employer and the employee. The federal government is refurbishing what has been for many years a centrally controlled outdated industrial relations system. Under Minister Peter Reith, a system has been put in place where outcomes are put above process, where cooperation substitutes for backroom deals and where agreements between employers and employees at the workplace level have primacy over the intervention of third parties.

I have been asked by some people why the government is introducing more reforms. My response is, firstly, that as a government we have to ensure that Australia has an industrial relations system that enriches our living standards, our jobs, our productivity and our international competitiveness; and, secondly, that we have a responsibility to promote a more inclusive and cooperative workplace system that understands the realities of our diverse, mobile and skilled labour force where employers and employees are capable of making agreements on wages, conditions, and work and family responsibilities which are subject to a safety net of minimum standards. Surely that is a reasonable approach.

It is quite interesting to note that, despite all of the huff and puff coming from the other side, Labor in government actually introduced a similar policy. However, it was flawed, as it did not allow enterprise bargaining to function effectively in non-unionised businesses. Unlike those opposite, this government is doing the things that need to be done. Reforms to our workplace relations legislation have received wide praise. I was pleased to see the IMF conclude that the structural reforms have raised Australia's sustainable productivity growth, thereby enhancing the growth potential of our economy. Enhancing the growth potential of our economy, of course, is good not only for businesses trading in that economy but for the employees of those businesses.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. As a result of the hard work of Minister Peter Reith we have seen a significant drop in the unemployment rate which, in my electorate of Herbert—in Townsville and Thuringowa—has seen unemployment plunge by nearly 2,000 people over the last couple of years. At the moment in Townsville, 30 people a week are coming off the unemployment queues, and that has been a sustained trend now for many months. It is a terrific result. Needless to say, this is benefiting many people, many businesses, many families, and creating a sense of renewal in the community.

The Budget Strategy and Outlook 2000-01, Budget Paper No. 1, on page 3-23, states that the continuation of the current economic expansion could be expected to offer a unique opportunity—some years hence—to again achieve and sustain an unemployment rate not seen in Australia for at least a quarter of a century. This is terrific news if this country can achieve it—and we can. However, it can be achieved only by continuing labour market reform, but continuing labour market reform in the interests of employers as well as in the interests of employees. That has been the hallmark of this government: reform has not been in the interests of unions.

It is pleasing to note that a majority of Australian employees in the workplace relations system are now employed under enterprise or workplace agreements—whether collective or individual, whether under state or federal laws. Currently, there are more than 100,000 Australian workplace agreements under federal laws. More than 17,000 collective agreements have been formalised under the federal system alone, with thousands more under state bargaining systems, as well as individual workplace agreements under federal and some state laws. The sad thing, though, is that, should the Leader of the Opposition become Prime Minister, he will abolish Australian workplace agreements. And why? Because the puppet-masters of the ALP, the unions, will have told him to.

I saw a wonderful example just recently of how well an AWA works in the workplace. This was an individual AWA between the employer and one employee. This particular fellow was a member of the Federal Police here in Canberra. One of his relatives close to him was sadly very badly injured in a road accident. The relative—in fact, it was his daughter—was helicoptered to Canberra. Some days later, his daughter died. But he received a bill for the helicopter flight which he could not pay. He went to the HR people at the Federal Police and said, `How can you help me?' What they were able to do within 24 hours was set up an AWA between the employer and employee that allowed that employee to access some of his long-term entitlements immediately, and he was able to solve that terrible problem he had in relation to the payment of that very large account. We had a situation there where the employee was very happy that he was able to do that and the employer had an employee who had a problem solved and therefore worked better in the workplace. So this is a situation where AWAs work in the interests of both the employer and the employee; yet the Labor Party want to abolish them. How sad is that. How sad is it that the Labor Party want to say to people like this fellow, `Sorry, we are not going to allow you to do that any more. We are not going to allow you to make those sorts of decisions for yourself in your interests. We are not for the workers; we are for the unions.'

The Leader of the Opposition wants to make sure that agreements cannot be made directly between employers and their employees without third-party involvement. It is even more disturbing to note that the federal opposition has not publicly commented on the MTFU campaign in Victoria. But as the ACTU is sponsoring it one can only believe that the opposition will happily follow that campaign. The Metal Trades Federation of Unions have been trying to force as many manufacturing companies as possible to have their current enterprise agreements conclude on a common date—and from that date to take industry-wide action throughout the state in support of its claims. The proposed date for this action is 30 June 2000, and that is the reason for the urgency of this bill.

Included in the unions' demands are things like a six per cent wage increase per year, which is more than twice the CPI, a GST inflator—which is just simply not the real world—portable leave and severance entitlements into industry funds, compulsory income protection insurance, casual employees to be made permanent, prohibitions on redundancy, use of contractors only with union consent, a compulsory three per cent training levy, a prohibition on the statutory right to make AWAs, overriding statutory award simplification, compulsory trade union training leave and compulsory union rights of entry into business premises. It kind of sounds like they do not want employees to have jobs, with those kinds of claims, because that is the reality of it. That is not all, of course; some even want a 36-hour week. An interesting thing out of all of this is that employers have not agreed to the union demands. I have heard that at least 500 employers have made arrangements which expire on 30 June 2000 and, as we debate this bill tonight, this presents us with a real threat of industry-wide action in the next few months, if it is not passed. It has been widely reported that the Bracks government in Victoria simply refers to this as `apocalypse now'.

The federal government strongly opposes the claim by the MTFU We believe that the abandonment of enterprise bargaining would be against the national and industry interest and counterproductive; it would seriously damage industry, employment and investment. Through this legislation, the Howard government will outlaw this form of campaign; it will strengthen protections against unlawful industrial action, and balance access to protected action by giving businesses access to cooling-off periods during industrial action. In November 1999, members opposite and the Australian Democrats blocked reforms which would have prevented this type of action—not in the interests of employees, and certainly not in the interests of Australia.

It is pleasing to see that the Australian Industry Group has strongly supported the government's stance on this particular issue. You may be aware that the AIG has taken legal action and obtained court orders against certain union officials for unlawful stop-work meetings in support of a claim. Legal action against union officials is also in the pipeline. Together with the AIG, the Howard government will continue to lobby other members of parliament to ensure that this legislation is enacted by 1 July 2000. It is urgent and important that it be enacted.

On Monday, the workplace relations minister informed the House of an increase in the number of strikes in February. The minister said that `92 per cent of the total number of days lost in February can be attributed to just three states'—Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, all of which are managed by Labor state governments. Surprise, surprise! As the minister said, the facts tell a pretty stark story. In Victoria, it was the green light that the construction industry got, and the electricity dispute was part of the problem. That was a failure by the state Labor government. In New South Wales there were problems with the teachers. In my state of Queensland, they had a transport dispute with Queensland Rail, and this can only be blamed on mismanagement by the Labor government and the incompetent Minister Braddy.

To go on further, my local member of parliament, the member for Mundingburra, Lindy Nelson-Carr MLA, was actively supporting illegal strikes at the Sun Metals plant in Townsville, which is, incidentally, the largest Korean investment in Australia, with half a billion dollars. There we had the Labor state member on the picket line, when the court had declared the strike illegal, standing up there and saying, `I support this illegal action.' It is no wonder that, although Ms Lindy Nelson-Carr was upset about it, she did not get an invitation to attend the opening of that particular plant two weeks ago: I think we can all understand why that might have been.

Again, I agree with the minister's assessment that, when you pull out the year figures through to February of this year, you will see that it is exactly the same problem. There is clearly a pattern emerging. If those increases had not occurred, particularly in New South Wales, 1999 would have actually been better than 1998. Therefore, what we are seeing is a lift in those figures in 1999, and it is directly attributable to mismanagement by state Labor governments. Under this government, the average number of working days lost per 1,000 employees is 78. When Labor was in government, it was 190 days. Under us it is 78; Labor averaged 190. So it is very much better under the coalition government.

I say again that this government is doing the things that need to be done and is prepared to stand up and do the hard things and require people to observe the law. In Queensland, we are getting a rise in disputes because the Labor government has overturned the successful industrial relations legislation introduced by Santo Santoro MLA, the former minister. Labor believes in increasing the power of unions and widening the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. These policies are little wonder, when Labor's parliamentary ranks are stacked with ex-union officials. Labor is opposing the implementation of coalition election promises that would deliver more jobs and better pay. Of course, that track record I have already alluded to earlier in this speech.

The unions' wish list is forced on the ALP by the millions of dollars in political donations made to the ALP during federal election campaigns. Labor would take Australia back to the 1970s, which will hinder Australia's performance in the international economy. Labor's backward policies will cost Australian workers their jobs, undermine their security, and damage the investor confidence that is required to further reduce unemployment.

I proudly go on the record tonight as certainly strongly backing this legislation. I call on the Australian Labor Party, those opposite, to recognise the value to workers and employers in this country, and to recognise the positive results that come from the industrial relations reforms that this government has already been able to proudly deliver.