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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 29919

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business) (10:14 AM) —In summing up this cognate debate on the Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) Bill 2001 and the Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2001 I thank all who participated; although I should note that many of the speeches from members opposite would have been appropriate for a different piece of legislation. A number of them made some very passionate and, no doubt, heartfelt points about what they perceive to be grievous failings of this government, but the failings, if any, identified by them are certainly not on display in this legislation.

The Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) Bill 2001 is a housekeeping bill. It is a technical bill designed to bring the rules governing registered organisations into the 21st century. The government has gone through a long process of consultation on all of the provisions of this bill. The bill as originally tabled did have some contentious material in it. The government has done all it can to remove that contentious material and is most anxious to see this particular bill go through the parliament as a matter of consensus between all of those who are interested in the workings of our workplace relations system.

I think any fair-minded observer would have to say that much that is good has happened with the workplace relations system over the last 5½ years and that if the tree is to be judged by its fruit there is much to commend the system which this government has put in place. Wages are up and that surely is a good thing for ordinary workers. Average weekly earnings are up by some 12 per cent since March 1996, after rising by just four per cent over the previous 13 years. Basic award earnings are up by some nine per cent since March 1996, after actually falling in real terms by five per cent over the previous 13 years. Employment is up; there are 800,000 new jobs since March 1996, and nearly half of them are full-time jobs. Taxes are down; workers get to keep more of their income, thanks to the largest personal income tax cuts in Australia's history. Most important, with the possible exception of the last few weeks, there have been fewer strikes and industrial disputes over the last 5½ years than at any sustained time in our history. These are good things, and they should be acknowledged by all Australians as good things. Many of them are to the credit of this government and to the industrial system for which it has been responsible.

There are very significant ideological, philosophical and values differences between this government and the opposition, and I do not think we should ever try to minimise those differences. This government, unlike the opposition, does not put unions up on a pedestal. We think unions are important community organisations, but we do not invest them with any mystical significance. We think they should be treated with respect but no more than any other important community organisation. Some names that come to mind are the NRMA, the Country Women's Association and the Australian Council of Social Service. These are important community organisations and they deserve to be treated with respect. Unions intrinsically deserve no more respect than any other community organisation. Obviously, anyone who wants to run a decent enterprise, a decent business, has to understand that the most important asset the business has is its work force. A committed, enthusiastic, skilful, contented work force is the most important asset that any business has, and the only way you are ever going to get that kind of a work force is to talk to your staff. Artificial, class based distinctions between the shop floor and mahogany row should have no place in any modern economy. Certainly they should have no place in Australia, where we have always rightly prided ourselves on a fundamental egalitarianism and a fundamental view that Jack is as good as his master.

Talking to your workers is quite different from talking to union officials, and this government does not make the mistake so often made by members opposite of assuming that the union official always and everywhere accurately represents the views and interests of the workers at a particular workplace. I guess one of the key differences between this government and the opposition is that we have faith in workers. We think that the workers of Australia are more than capable of speaking for themselves and telling their bosses whatever they think the bosses need to hear. We do not believe that the workers of Australia always need unions and other organisations to hold their hands.

While I was listening to some of the contributions by members opposite in this debate—which I accept were made with great sincerity and conviction—I thought to myself, `These people may not believe in fairytales but they certainly believe in ghosts and in goblins.' They think that there are ghosts and goblins in this government that are somehow haunting the industrial relations debate and trying to poison the very essence of relations in our work force. That is not the case. Yes, there will be differences of opinion; yes, there are differences of philosophy, ideology and values, but this government is no less committed than the previous government was. This government is no less committed than members opposite to the national interest as we perceive it. We are no less committed to a happy, healthy, prosperous and contented work force operating in a dynamic, creative and ever more successful economy.

I will turn to some of the substantive points that were made by members opposite in the course of the debate. I suppose the biggest tabloid point that was made by members opposite is that this government is supposed to be in the business of simplifying industrial law, and yet we have sought to pass some 1,300 pages of industrial legislation. It is true that the Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) Bill 2001 is a big, thick bill. But this is not new legislation. This is legislation that we are seeking to take out of the Workplace Relations Act and put into a separate act so that workplace practitioners, as opposed to people who are in the management of registered organisations, can have their act, and then there will be a separate act for people involved in the management of registered organisations. We are not adding to industrial legislation with these bills; we are simply relocating and improving it.

The biggest issue that members opposite had with this particular bill is the question of union disamalgamation. I guess there is a question of values here: members opposite seem to think that only unions can protect workers, that only unions can speak for workers and that only big unions are capable are standing up for workers against big companies. I simply disagree, and I think that the Australian people would, by and large, disagree. I do not think that the Australian people suffer from an industrial gigantism syndrome; I do not think the Australian people necessarily believe that big is best. I think our experience of large organisations, whether they are big business, big bureaucracies or big unions, is that the bigger the organisation the more difficult it is to make it respond to the real needs of real people. Why shouldn't people be able to set up new unions? They can start new businesses, they can start new political parties and they can start new community organisations. Why shouldn't they be able to set up new unions? It is a perfectly reasonable question, and I think the government's desire to allow union disamalgamation, under quite strictly controlled conditions, is a perfectly reasonable one.

The other substantive point raised by members opposite in the course of this debate is the question of allowing legal aid for people seeking to bring about the disamalgamation of unions. I take the rhetorical points that were made by members opposite: why would you allow legal aid for people engaged in an internal union dispute when the victims of crime and the victims of persecution in all sorts of other areas are struggling for access to a never very large legal aid budget? As a rhetorical point, as a debating tactic, I suppose that is fair enough. I guess it is understandable that people should make those points in this kind of debate, but the truth is—and anyone who understands the way in which industrial relations works at any level would know this—that unions are extremely well-funded organisations. Some of the largest unions have an annual budget from subscription income of some $50 million or more every year. Unions, like other organisations, jealously guard their turf, and the expectation that ordinary workers can have any real chance of succeeding in disamalgamations while having to use their private resources against the massive resources of large unions is just unreal. That is why the government believes that legal aid should be available to people promoting disamalgamation of unions. It is not to be automatic; legal aid rarely is. It will be by application to the Attorney-General in the usual way and applications will be looked at on their merits in the usual way.

I do not want to prolong this second reading debate. Let me simply say that the spite and rancour that we saw from some members opposite were really quite inappropriate in this particular debate. There are many things that we do not agree on in this House, but I think one thing we should agree on is the importance of trying to have well-run industrial organisations that are genuinely accountable to their members, that are reasonably open and responsive to their members, that are run honestly and that are not easily susceptible to fraud, undemocratic practices and all those things that, sadly, in this vale of tears happen all too often when people can get away with them. I commend these two bills to the House, and I indicate to the House at this point in time that the government remains committed to a constructive approach to this legislation. I have indicated to the shadow minister for industrial relations, the member for Brisbane, that I will look very seriously at his amendments. Once we have the second reading process concluded, it is my intention to adjourn the debate so that the government can further consider the amendments in detail that the opposition wishes to proceed with, with a view to coming to some common ground.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Bevis's amendment) stand part of the question.