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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11542


Mr KEENAN (4:44 PM) —The Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is obviously a very busy woman because she cannot find time to come into this House to discuss Australian jobs. With ‘Kevin 747’, the Prime Minister, jetting off overseas most weeks, the Deputy Prime Minister seems to spend half her time acting as Prime Minister and seems to enjoy it too. She is the Minister for Education overseeing perhaps the most timid revolution in the history of the world. She is the Minister for Social Inclusion. She is the Deputy Prime Minister. She is the minister for enhancing her partner’s curriculum vitae. She is a very busy person.

Of course, amongst all these responsibilities she is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Yet you never hear the minister for employment mention jobs. She will talk ad nauseam on workplace regulation. She is never happier than when she is horse-trading with the union movement about what they can and cannot have under their new workplace system. You can get the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to wax lyrical about the minutiae of industrial law. Yet on the biggest issue that is facing this country, on the biggest issue that is facing this government, an issue for which she has direct responsibility—Australian jobs—she remains practically mute. This is a minister who has got her priorities seriously wrong. It is as though the government is the captain of the Titanic, they have hit an iceberg, the ship is taking water, people are running for the life rafts, yet the minister for employment is running around fretting about some loose screws in cabin 24B.

I am not sure that the minister for employment actually understands what is going on in the real world. Everywhere I go the issue of job security is raised with me. We consistently have lists in the papers of impending job losses across many different industry sectors in Australia, including industry sectors such as mining that have previously been robust and supported job creation in this country. Every economic forecaster, including the government’s own, points to increasing unemployment. In some cases it is especially alarming: the chief economist at JP Morgan predicts that one million Australians will lose their jobs within the next two years. Regardless of which set of forecasts you believe, it is absolutely clear that unemployment in Australia is going up.

Unemployment is now the No. 1 policy challenge that faces us in this parliament. Yet if you look through the public statements of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations you will see that she refuses to address the issue of jobs. In her speeches she rarely talks about jobs or job creation. I brought some examples of her speeches into the House today. If you look through them all, she does not mention jobs once—not in a speech to the House on 14 February on the Skills Australia Bill or in her second reading speech for the first tranche of the government’s workplace relations reform or in speeches outside the parliament. Never does she mention jobs, the most serious issue that is facing this parliament. Quite frankly, at a time when unemployment is on the rise, the minister for employment should think about nothing else than how she would go about creating Australian jobs. She should think about nothing else than how she is going to keep Australians safe in their employment. It should be the subject of her every waking thought. It should be the priority of every policy discussion. Addressing this problem should be the primary aim of the government, yet we have a minister who has too much on her plate to effectively address this issue. The impact of the global financial crisis will obviously complicate this role, but the government must not wash their hands of this problem. We cannot have a government that accepts a challenging international economic climate as an excuse to put more and more Australians out of work. The state of the global economy only makes this issue more pressing.

I might just remind the House of the record of the previous government in this area. In 11 years of coalition government, between March 1996 and November 2007, more than 2.2 million jobs were created. Of these jobs, over 1.2 million were full time and 950,000 were part time. There are currently well over 10.6 million Australians in work, a record high. Over 7.6 million are in full-time employment and three million in part-time employment. In December 1992, under Labor, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.9 per cent, leaving almost one million Australians unemployed.


Dr Stone —Most long-term unemployed.


Mr KEENAN —Long-term unemployment in August 2007 was 66,700. It was slashed by almost two-thirds under the Howard government and it was almost 80 per cent lower than the peak of 330,000 set in May 1993 under the previous Labor government. Very long-term unemployment stood at 33,000 in August 2007 and had fallen sharply from its peak of 171,000 in November 1993. Long-term unemployment fell by 3.7 per cent from March 2006 to November 2007. There was a 21 per cent increase in real wages under the coalition, compared to a 1.8 per cent increase under Labor. That is a pretty impressive record.


Mr Brendan O’Connor —Nothing to do with the mining boom!


Mr KEENAN —The minister interjects it was nothing to do with the mining boom, but we are now seeing job losses even in that robust industry under this new government. The state of the global economy only makes this issue more pressing. Since the Rudd Labor government came to power, business and consumer confidence has steadily fallen to lows not seen even under the Keating Labor government in the early 1990s and unemployment has steadily risen from the record low of four per cent in January this year. In the 12 months since the Rudd Labor government came to power there have also been large and well-publicised layoffs across the country. According to the OECD in their report released today, the unemployment rate is expected to rise from the current level of 4.3 per cent to 5.3 per cent next year and then six per cent in 2010. In this time, GDP growth is expected to decrease from 4.4 per cent in 2007 to 1.7 per cent this year. The National Australia Bank’s most recent economic outlook survey has unemployment increasing to over 6.5 per cent, well in excess of the government’s own forecast. Yet no matter where we look we see the same theme coming from the Rudd Labor government. That is no plan to save Australian jobs. In just one year of Rudd Labor government the resilience of the labour market in this country is now looking shaky, and we are faced with a minister who has no plan to save the millions of Australian jobs that are currently at risk due to the ineptitude of this new Labor government.

The government has been spending the coalition’s hard earned surplus—we have heard today that the government is about to go into deficit—and we now have the OECD saying that the effectiveness of the federal government’s $10.4 billion economic stimulus package may be limited if confidence is not restored. A Sensis consumer report released earlier this year highlighted the concerns that Australians have about their financial future. In particular, the report noted that unemployment has not been on the nation’s radar for some time, but that since May concern about this issue has risen more than for any other issue.

The government’s leading indicator of employment for November, released by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, confirmed that employment prospects are continuing to decline. This indicator has now fallen for 10 consecutive months. Earlier this month we saw the Treasurer release Labor’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which listed off a series of policy responses to the current economic crisis. Yet again—this will come as no surprise to my colleagues in the coalition—the document contained not one reference to a government plan to save Australian jobs, despite providing confirmation of a slowdown in employment growth and a significant increase in job losses.

We have seen the Treasurer try and tell us that the new economic security package will create over 70,000 jobs—and that was repeated in the parliament today—yet we have had no analysis, no formal modelling, and no plan from the government on how jobs will be created. Sadly, it appears that this theme is set to continue. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations conceded that her new regulatory framework for workplace relations will increase costs, no doubt leading to more job losses, but once again she was unable to provide any plan to save Australian jobs.

And it gets worse. In addition to the admission from the government that their new IR framework will increase costs, it is clear that the government once again has dodged their own requirements to submit a regulatory impact statement with this new legislation. If I can, I will cast members’ minds back to 17 March of this year, when the Minister for Finance and Deregulation made a ministerial statement on best practice regulation requirements—the new requirements that he was setting up for the Rudd Labor government. I would just like to read the introduction because it takes us back to an interesting phase of this government. The minister said:

Increasing Australia’s long term productive capacity is the key to maintaining downward pressure on inflation and therefore downward pressure on interest rates.

That is something we do not hear from the government any longer. He continues:

As Labor announced prior to the election, a key element in the government’s plan to increase Australia’s productivity is our deregulation agenda.

The minister went on to say:

The level of regulatory impact analysis required is greater the more significant the regulatory proposal is likely to be. A preliminary assessment must be undertaken for all regulatory proposals. Proposals likely to involve medium business compliance costs must also have a further full quantitative assessment of compliance cost implications using the Business Cost Calculator or approved equivalent. Proposals likely to have a significant impact require even greater analysis, including compliance cost quantification, to be undertaken and documented in a Regulation Impact Statement (RIS).

Yet, in one of the most significant policy documents that this government has produced in this House, what do we find under the heading ‘Regulatory analysis’? We find two paragraphs, and in them we learn that the Prime Minister has granted an exceptional circumstances exemption for these proposals at the decision-making stage.

So we had the minister for finance saying how vital it is that the government conforms to its own requirements for a regulatory impact statement, yet on one of the most significant policy documents this government has produced in its 12 months in office they exempt themselves from the requirement for one of these regulatory impact statements.

On this side of the House we know that it is not good enough to put in place a workplace regulatory framework and stand back and expect that jobs are going to be created out of thin air. The government has just sat back and watched the unemployment rate increase and listened to the forecasts of increasing job losses as the alarm bells get louder and louder, yet they have provided no plan to this parliament on exactly how they intend to save Australian jobs.

Incredibly, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, despite conceding that the new framework will increase costs for employers, has not required a detailed, rigorous analysis of the new framework and how her new legislation will impact on Australian jobs. It appears that the minister for employment—despite her or her representatives attending at least 50 meetings on the regulatory framework for the workplace relations system—cannot even find time to talk about creating or protecting jobs, which is the main issue that is facing her in her portfolio.

A review of the speeches made by the minister for employment over the past 12 months reveals that she never, ever mentions or addresses the issue. Sometimes it can be difficult in this place to measure ministerial performance. The measures of success or failure can be hazy and clouded in the rhetorical battles that occur in this chamber. But when you are the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations you have absolutely nowhere to hide. You have one very clear indicator of your performance. You can be judged on your success or failure by the rising or falling of the rate of unemployment. If it goes down, as it did under successive ministers in the Howard government, then you have been a success. If it goes up, as it has been doing under this government—if Australians are losing their jobs in increasing numbers under your tenure—then you have clearly failed.

Not only does this government not have a plan to save Australian jobs or to create Australian jobs, they are wilfully ignoring this issue by their actions. It is time that this minister, who has not had the courtesy to appear in the chamber for this important debate, faced up to the biggest issue in all of her portfolios—the one that she refuses to mention, the elephant in the room that she is determined to ignore: the issue of saving Australian jobs.