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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 24972

Mr BARRESI (8:08 PM) —It is a pleasure once again to give my support to these amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 1996, this Workplace Relations Amendment (Unfair Dismissals) Bill 1998 [No. 2] which the opposition has shamelessly voted against on eight occasions, signalling to the small business community the ALP's contempt for their concerns. I find it difficult to understand how any member of this House can reject outright the necessity of this bill, unless they are beholden to a constituency other than the one they have been elected to.

Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, has admitted the truth about Labor when he said on 7 July 2000 on 6PR: `We have never pretended to be a small business party—the Labor Party. We have never pretended that.' Yet, here they are, speaker after speaker getting up and making that very claim—that they are here representing the small business community. The only thing they are hanging their hat on is their so-called roll-back claim, which would simply create greater compliance restrictions on the small business community, particularly those in my electorate of Deakin.

The small business sector in Deakin have consistently voiced their concerns about workplace relations, be it their concerns about the Bracks government's WorkCover changes or unfair dismissals provisions. Last year, I held a meeting with the local chamber of commerce where many of these concerns were openly aired along with other issues such as tax compliance and local government planning laws to name a few. Small business owners face many risks in setting up business, and employing staff is one of those risks, in terms of both the financial outlay and protection from making a hiring decision, particularly if that hiring decision goes wrong.

Whatever the reason, it is clearly the case that new employees sometimes do not fit the bill and for the opposition to claim otherwise is simply ludicrous. We as a government should be encouraging our small business owners to employ staff with the assurances that they will not be condemned for doing so. For a business with 15 staff or fewer, there is a risk of hiring a person who is difficult to get along with or who perhaps cannot cope with the workload, or for whom, for whatever reason, the employer-employee relationship does not work out. That could result in the total destruction of that company. I personally know of situations where the working relationships were divided so severely due to an incorrect hiring decision that, even after the cause of the problem was removed, the business did not function the same. That is why it is imperative for small businesses with 15 or fewer staff to be excluded from the federal unfair dismissals laws—not so businesses can dismiss staff, as the opposition says, but so that they can employ staff with greater confidence that they will not be dragged through a long and costly court battle and so that they can have the flexibility to adapt to the changing circumstances of their employment needs while remaining a law-abiding employer cognisant of the employees' legal rights. There is recognition that the employee does have legal rights and those legal rights must be protected by this government.

I am absolutely amazed by the arguments that those opposite have presented to us today and in previous debates, and I question whether they are listening to the voices of the small business owners in their own electorates. Their excuse, that this exemption will give business owners the ability to hire and fire whenever they please, is simply another one of those fallacies that the Australian Labor Party has peddled around to frighten the labour market. They have made political fear an art form of which they can be justly proud.

Is the Labor Party not aware of the indirect and direct costs small businesses face in employment and in the termination of the employment process? No right minded employer can seriously consider the cost of advertising, interviewing, screening, induction, job training and, if necessary, separation and termination payouts as a cost burden they would willingly endure. It is not a cheap procedure; it is time-consuming and it is felt within the company by the staff, the management and all the employees. More importantly, it adversely affects the necessary environment beneficial for productivity. To borrow from another saying, behind every great business there are reliable, productive, trustworthy employees—a truism that all successful businesses acknowledge. This bill is not the tool which will allow unscrupulous, unfair employers to take advantage of employees.

The fear of disrupting a harmonious working environment is forcing small business owners to take on more work for themselves or assign a greater workload to the staff they already have. It is not conducive to good work practices for anyone—not to the owners, their staff or those seeking work. This bill is further evidence that this government is committed to creating an environment which will deliver strong and sustained jobs growth and provide a win-win situation for all concerned. Although our sound economic policies and fiscal management are providing such an environment, small business owners are still demanding more. We have also introduced initiatives to support small businesses, but workplace relations reform has been held back by the ALP and the Democrats. We are stifling one of the largest backbones of this country.

I would like to turn my attention to the Democrat position because on 19 May 2000, Senator Andrew Murray, in a speech to the Industrial Relations Society of New South Wales, had this to say:

... we acknowledge that the unfair dismissal laws are to some degree being abused with speculative claims by employees, sometimes encouraged by lawyers on contingency fees. I have constantly stated the Democrats' view that it is necessary to reform process and cost issues in unfair dismissal cases.

I think this is an area of law that does need some further refinement, to ensure that the laws do provide the “fair go all round” they were designed to deliver.

I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Andrew Murray and I trust that he has greater sway with his colleagues in the Senate when this bill goes back into the Senate for debate and, hopefully, for passing.

Mr Tuckey — Do you think Natasha will go along with that?

Mr BARRESI —The leadership current or future should certainly endorse Senator Murray's comments because that is what the small business community is demanding in this country. We have reduced the level of unemployment to a record low in the past 10 years, and it could be lower should the opposition and/or the Democrats support this bill. The opposition continues to dispute the link between unfair dismissals laws and hiring intentions. Once again, they have their heads in the sand when all around them are studies and figures to support our arguments. The Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, to name just one, has said that if this bill were to pass 50,000 jobs would be created by small business. This is a figure that speaker after speaker from the opposition has stood up in this chamber and disputed. It is a head in the sand mentality, an act of denial by those on the other side.

Furthermore, a study by the South Australian Chamber Of Commerce states that over half of the small businesses that were subjected to small business claims have not hired replacement employees and that 77 per cent of small business owners with fewer than 15 employees would hire more staff if exempted from unfair dismissals legislation. These surveys, and others like them, make nonsense of the opposition's rejection of this bill. But if third party surveys are not good enough then the opposition is not even listening to its own constituency. The member for Throsby during his speech quoted from a survey he had conducted in Wollongong. He said that unfair dismissals came in at No. 9 on the list and that above that were concerns about interest rates, payroll tax and the general state of the economy.

It might very well have come in at No. 9 but I would say to the member for Throsby that, putting aside issues of the economy, interest rates and payroll tax—which are important issues in their own right—it probably was the No. 1 single workplace relations issue that needed to be addressed. Even though it came in at No. 9, does that mean that one ignores what the business constituency of Wollongong and the electorate of Throsby is saying? I am sure there are similar surveys from around the country that support this. In my electorate of Deakin I have held various meetings with the small business community and the surveys I have had indicate a similar sort of thing.

I will be honest—the No. 1 issue in my survey of the small business community was the state WorkCover legislation—something the Bracks government should be ashamed of in terms of its introduction and the increases being foisted upon the small business community, sometimes in excess of a 200 per cent increase in WorkCover charges. The business activity statement came in at No. 2. We have listened to the needs of small businesses and we have made the necessary changes which will relieve them, if they so choose, from making quarterly returns. Coming in at equal No. 3 was interest rates and unfair dismissals. Simply because it is not the No. 1 issue, does that mean we dismiss it? It is the No. 1 workplace relations issue and this bill is about workplace relations so I call on those members on the other side to support this bill rather than be beholden to a constituency other than the one which they were elected to represent.

I have heard complaints about the BAS and the red tape for small business, yet the very party that pretends to be the new champions of small business failed to support the very initiatives that will relieve small business owners of the workplace relations burdens targeted by this bill. This bill is a necessary step for small business owners to overcome the fears they have of arbitrary outcomes when growing their business. It will allow employers the ability to place new staff on a six-month qualifying period before having access to the federal unfair dismissals remedy. The opposition should note that the exclusions proposed by this bill are neither sweeping nor absolute. They do not apply to all employees, only new ones, and they do not affect the rights of trainees and apprentices.

They also do not overturn unlawful dismissals—dismissals that may be contrary to the legal rights of employees or breaches of discrimination acts. The employees for whom this bill will apply will still be protected by state workplace relations laws and the federal Workplace Relations Act. For those who have been unnecessarily scared by the opposition on the application of this bill, it needs to be stated clearly that this debate is about unfair discrimination and not unlawful discrimination—unfair in the fact that small businesses are still looking extremely cautious when taking on new staff and unfair in that 50,000 unemployed could benefit from the changes proposed today. The qualifying period of six months simply supplements rather than replaces the existing exclusion. It preserves a separate role for probation periods determined in advance of an employee's employment—that is, employees can still be placed on a shorter probation period of up to six months.

It is quite clear to me that the ALP is overreacting to this bill. The debate we are having today is nothing more than the old industrial relations debate—Labor versus Liberal rather than what prospective small business employers want. Small businesses are trying to recover from the impact of the Brereton unfair dismissals laws because the previous government did not realise how many exclusions, like this one, were needed. The relief we have given small business owners over the five years so far is proof that this government is in fact responsive to the needs of the small business community. The evidence is obvious in the record low, long-term unemployment rate.

We have seen this rate fall the most in Victoria—down by 35.8 per cent during the past 12 months. This state currently has about 60 per cent of its workers under federal workplace relations laws. But the federal ALP, like its state counterpart the Bracks government, refuses to listen. In a recent survey by Pitcher Partners, a record 65 per cent of small business people had negative expectations of the Victorian ALP's policy direction. This is in stark contrast to the 80 per cent of Victorian small business owners who agree with the policy directions of the federal government. If the member for Brisbane or the member for Hunter took the time to talk to the small business community of Victoria they would be aware of calls for workplace relations changes as proposed by this government. These calls were heard by the Minister for Small Business two weeks ago. Last week he was moved to say that plenty of people wanted to talk industrial relations and in particular unfair dismissals laws and the high WorkCover payments the Bracks government is forcing Victorian small businesses to pay. This is totally supported by the business survey that I conducted late last year in Deakin, and I am sure by the other surveys which have been conducted in neighbouring electorates. I will certainly be interested to hear what the member for Chisholm has to say, and I wonder whether unfair dismissals laws come in as the No. 1 workplace relations change which the business community is asking her to undertake.

The deceptive comments I have heard in this debate from Labor are indicative of its attempt to cynically manipulate small business sentiment for its own political ends. This is nowhere more evident than with the Opposition Leader's refusal to condemn the union movement's proposed introduction of a $500 service fee for non-union members. The initiatives proposed in this bill are not something new or secret from the Australian public. These initiatives were as a matter of fact outlined during the October 1998 coalition election campaign through our workplace relations policy More Jobs, Better Pay. To the small business owners in Deakin, it is regarded as a matter of priority that we as a government implement our specific electoral decree and meet our promises.

The opposition has challenged the veracity of our information and the statistics that my colleagues and I have presented during this debate, but they cannot deny the views of the public. Further to this is the support that many employer organisations, especially those dealing with small businesses, have stated in regard to this bill. On 14 April 1998, the national president of the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women wrote to the leaders of the opposition and the Democrats emphasising the need to restore small business confidence in relation to unfair dismissals issues. The fact that we are debating this bill again is testimony to the fact that the opposition and the Democrats ignored that call. I know that the majority of small business owners in my electorate of Deakin would agree with the statements by the federation and by other organisations that are supporting and representing the small business community.

This is the most important reason why this bill should be brought into law as soon as possible—to provide jobs growth. What we have here is another initiative by this government that adds to the proven and successful industrial relations reforms already in place. The bill deserves to be passed and not voted down for the ninth time by an opposition contemptuous of the needs of Deakin's small businesses. I urge all members of this House to support these amendments.