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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 29450

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business) (3:52 PM) —One thing I am certainly not going to do in answering the Leader of the Opposition is resort to the level of personal abuse that we heard from him. The Leader of the Opposition has had a reputation in the past for being a fairly decent human being, but I think what the Australian people are seeing now under the pressure of the coming election campaign is a nasty streak. It is a vicious side to the Leader of the Opposition that is a sign of a fundamental weakness of character and the lack of ticker that has long been suspected by people who know him.

I can only assume that the almost hysterical performance by the Leader of the Opposition today was driven by a profound sense of guilt because all the measures that he says are absolutely necessary now are measures that were considered and rejected by the government in which he served as a senior minister for 13 years. He thought of all these things when he was a minister in the cabinet and he rejected them. What he has not done is explain why things that were so wrong then are so right now. To remind the House, let me quote again from the then Minister for Industrial Relations, who said:

The establishment of a wage earner protection fund is opposed. It would impose an unfair burden on the greater proportion of employers who conduct their businesses efficiently. Such a fund may also act as a disincentive to some employers to conduct their businesses on a responsible and proper financial basis.

That is what the then Minister for Industrial Relations thought back in the late 1980s, when no less a person than the Leader of the Opposition himself was minister for employment. His cabinet colleague, the then Attorney-General, said about the sort of fund that the Leader of the Opposition now supports:

It would be a further imposition on existing successful businesses, and it would be better to retain, and develop, where possible, existing employee priority provisions.

That is what Labor thought when it was in government. No satisfactory reason has been advanced by the Leader of the Opposition to justify this complete change of position. He said today that one reason was the casualisation of the work force. Casualisation of the work force has hardly increased since 1996. It was about 25 per cent of the work force then; it is still about 25 per cent of the work force. He said that another reason to justify his backflip is the ability of companies to restructure their arrangements to avoid paying employee entitlements. Let me remind the Leader of the Opposition that the ability to which he refers is not something that has happened only in the last couple of years. What has happened in the last year is that this government has put in place changes to the companies legislation to ensure that, for the first time, any director who arranges his company's affairs in such a way as to deny employees their entitlements is guilty of a criminal offence and subject to up to 10 years in jail. So the reasons that the Leader of the Opposition advances to justify his total and utter change of position are absolutely spurious.

I would not for a second deny that, for anyone facing a loss of entitlements, this is a terrible problem. Life is certainly very bleak indeed for anyone in the position of the workers at some of these businesses that have gone broke and that have failed to pay workers their entitlements. Reasonable people can have nothing but sympathy for workers caught in this terrible predicament. But, still, for all our sympathy, for all our concern and for all our compassion, it is important to see this in perspective. In any one year, less than one half of one per cent of businesses go broke and less than one-tenth of one per cent of workers lose their jobs as a result of business failure, and the percentage who actually lose their entitlements would be lower than that.

The opposition want a payroll levy scheme in place in which they will levy 100 per cent of workers and 100 per cent of businesses to fix a problem affecting less than one-tenth of one per cent of workers. So it is the wrong way to fix what is admittedly a serious problem. The Leader of the Opposition's `no frills' scheme to try to help protect workers' entitlements is a levy of 0.1 per cent on payroll. This would raise $250 million or thereabouts in any one year. The Leader of the Opposition's deluxe scheme to protect workers' entitlements is Manusafe. Even in its first instalment of 1.5 per cent of payroll, even just in the manufacturing industry, Manusafe would raise some $550 million a year. So you have Labor's no frills scheme that will raise $250 million a year, and you have Labor's deluxe scheme that will raise $550 million now from just one industry. This problem—and we now know its extent because we have had a scheme in place to deal with it for the last 18 months—is, at worst, a $50 million a year problem. So by all means let us do everything we humanly can to protect employees' entitlements in ways that do not make a bad situation worse. But let us not run around the country raising $250 million in one case or $550 million, for starters, in another case to solve a $50 million problem. Of course, one of the terrible things about the Manusafe scheme is that all that money is not going necessarily into a secure fund; it is going into a fund totally controlled by the AMWU—the former metalworkers union.

The fundamental problem with Labor's schemes is that they will not protect entitlements so much as they will cost jobs. A 0.1 per cent levy on payroll would cost at least 5,000 jobs—

Mrs Crosio —You said 50,000 yesterday.

Mr ABBOTT —Yes, I misread a briefing note the other day; I am sorry about that. Let me correct the record. Manusafe, when fully operational, will raise some 19 per cent of payroll, and that will cost some 10,000 jobs in the motor industry alone. That is the problem with Labor's schemes. Labor's schemes will cost jobs.

There are no perfect solutions. Perfect, absolute, 100-per-cent-in-all-circumstances protection of entitlements will have absolutely unsustainable costs. What we should do is put in place a system which, first, does not cost jobs; second, does not provide people with incentives to ramp up their entitlements; and, third, does not amount to a confiscation of a business's working capital. I believe that those are precisely the merits of the government's scheme: it does not cost jobs, it does not provide incentives to ramp up entitlements, and it does not confiscate the working capital of business.

Under the government's scheme, some $9 million has been paid out over the last 18 months to some 4,500 employees, and, if the Labor states had come on board, some $18 million would have been paid out to those employees. The problem with Labor's current position is that, to suit the political purposes of the Leader of the Opposition, employees in need are being dudded. That is the tragedy of what the Leader of the Opposition is doing. He is dudding employees in need to suit his own political purposes, because it suits him to try to run a campaign that this government is lacking in compassion.

Not only are the Labor premiers dudding workers, but their minions, their industrial legions, their storm-troopers out there in the economy, are destroying jobs right now with the kind of industrial action which is going on at Tristar. The Tristar strike is not about protecting entitlements; it is about entrenching union power. It is not about protecting existing entitlements; it is about creating new entitlements through the Manusafe scheme. What is supposed to happen under Manusafe is that, from day one, employers are required to put aside funds to cover long service leave, sickness payments and redundancy payments, even though they may never actually crystallise. Why should struggling businesses, particularly small businesses, be expected to put funds aside to cover so-called entitlements that may never actually crystallise? The real reason why members opposite have supported this strike through thick and thin, the real reason why members have supported Manusafe, is that Dougie Cameron is an important figure in the Labor Party; he needs to be supported. Dougie Cameron has bunged on this strike because he has got to justify his militant credentials in the face of a very serious assault to his authority inside the union movement from Craig Johnson. Craig Johnson, the leader of the Victorian branch of the AMWU, is so militant that his idea of holding meaningful discussions with small business is to break down their door with a crowbar. And it is in competition with him that Doug Cameron has now bunged on this strike—which is destroying jobs in the car industry, denying workers their right to work, and is against the long-term best interests of the workers at Tristar.

I was accused on numerous occasions by the Leader of the Opposition today of being a bomb thrower, an anarchist and all sorts of other fairly ugly and nasty things. I am not a sook; I can take it. I am not going to stand up here and demand that the Leader of the Opposition withdraw or apologise, because, to be honest, when the Leader of the Opposition makes those sorts of statements, they reflect much worse on him than they do on me. Let me say this: yes, I did make some very strong statements about this strike last week. It was important that the workers at Tristar and, in particular, the unions driving them on, realised just what sort of impact their action was having on an industry vital for Australia's future. That was what was important, and I believe that in part as a result of my intervention and the intervention of other ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, people did come to their senses, and that is why I think there are now good prospects for ending this strike as of tomorrow. I believe that that is now the case, and I applaud it. At all times, this government's objective has been to end this strike against the national interest and to get the 12,000 workers in the car industry who are currently stood down—and the tens of thousands of workers threatened with stand-down—back to work.

The Leader of the Opposition delighted in quoting from Laurie Oakes. Let me quote from today's Daily Telegraph editorial. It says:

Any union that conducts a campaign which shuts down an industry in support of its own bid to gain control of employer funds cannot purport to represent the best interests of its members.

To demand this money from employers ... is merely another impost.

... ... ...

The AMWU should instruct its members to return to work ... While its members defy Industrial Relations Commission orders, they jeopardise the future of the automotive industry and their own employment.

Politically, while Opposition Leader Kim Beazley remains silent on this issue, it gives Prime Minister John Howard further reason to be more confident over the election outcome.

This is the best government since Menzies, facing the worst opposition since Calwell. (Time expired)

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Before I call the next speaker, I would like to confirm that the minister is definitely not a sook. I advise him that, on the only occasion that the Leader of the Opposition needed to withdraw, the chair obliged him to withdraw.