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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11833

Mr ABBOTT (11:13 AM) —We are at the beginning of what will no doubt be a long and passionate debate on the Fair Work Bill 2008. We have just heard a contribution from the member for Deakin and there are many changes that we need to get used to, but I caution government members against too much triumphalism on this subject. I certainly accept, as indeed all opposition speakers will, that the Australian people voted against Work Choices. But it does not follow that, because they voted against Work Choices, they voted in favour of the union movement and the ambit claims of the union movement. The Australian people, as we now clearly know, did not like Work Choices’ original abolition of the no disadvantage test, but they certainly did like the vast expansion in jobs, the massive increase in real wages and the tremendous reduction in industrial disputation that was associated with the workplace reforms of the Howard government.

I also, if I may—with the humility appropriate to a member of a defeated political party—suggest to members opposite that in the end workplace relations legislation has to be about businesses and the people who work in them. Unions are significant, but they are significant because they represent workers; they do not—or should not—have any particular rights or status that are not derived from the fact that they represent workers. The problem underlying the bill which the government now has before the House is, if I may say so, that it seems much more about the rights of unions than about the rights of workers.

Mr Deputy Speaker Bevis, as you would remember I was the workplace relations minister between 2001 and 2003. Let me reminisce for a moment about those days, when you were the shadow minister for workplace relations—and a highly competent and extremely well-informed one—and say how proud I was to preside over a system which delivered more jobs and higher pay to Australian workers. That system was based on the former government’s philosophy, which was to provide more freedom to workers and managers. The former government trusted people to appreciate the interests that they had in common. It did not pretend that there would not be clashes from time to time, but it realised that in the end Australian workers and Australian managers have the intelligence and goodwill to organise their own economic lives in ways which the previous system did not always appreciate. So we wanted to see more freedom, but we also wanted to see freedom under the law. I will again reminisce for a moment by saying that the appointment of the Cole commission into the construction industry was, if I may say so, the highlight of my time as the workplace relations minister and that the ultimate establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which has largely prevented bullying and intimidation in the commercial construction industry and has created a multibillion dollar boost to Australian production and productivity, is something which I hope will be long remembered.

The Howard government’s workplace relations changes were an important factor in the general prosperity of the last decade. Let us never forget that, whatever faults Work Choices might have had, it helped to produce the fastest jobs growth in Australian history. Between 1996 and 2007 there were 2.1 million new jobs, there was a 20 per cent increase in real wages and strikes dropped to their lowest levels on record. I note that since late November last year unemployment has started to rise, wages have stagnated except in a few key areas and, while it is off an extremely low base, the strike rate is already up six times. I am not saying that all of this is the result of the changed industrial relations climate associated with the new government or in anticipation of the workplace bill which has been brought before this parliament. My contention is that the new industrial laws will make a bad situation worse and that the last thing we should be doing, with the international financial turmoil and the prospect of severe recessions in our major trading partners, is to make it more difficult to employ and to invest, and that is precisely what this bill does. I accept that the government has a mandate to, as they say, kill Work Choices, but it certainly does not have a mandate to make a great leap backwards to 1970.

This bill not only reverses Work Choices but betrays the spirit of the last Labor government, the Hawke-Keating government, which, to give it credit, was in its own way a great reforming government. This bill does not have the courage, insight or innovation that the former Labor government had when it cut tariffs, when it began the process of privatisation and when it deregulated the finance sector. I point out that all of those significant Hawke-Keating government reforms were opposed by the union movement. This bill, by contrast, turns back a significant reform. It not only turns back and undoes Work Choices but undoes the 1996 workplace relations changes negotiated by my distinguished friend and predecessor Peter Reith through a hostile Senate and even the 1993 legislation of the former Prime Minister Paul Keating, which was the beginning of serious workplace relations reform in this country.

The prosperity of the last decade would be unimaginable without a two-decade-long reform process undertaken in this country first by the Hawke-Keating government and then by the Howard government. Let us not forget where Australia was economically in 1983. We had had eight decades of economic stagnation associated with overregulation of our economy and with stifling of the innovation, the creativity and the sense of partnership of the Australian people, and that was reversed step by step, first by the Hawke-Keating government and later by the Howard government. What we are now doing is unravelling the process of hard-won reform.

This bill also portrays the commitment that the current government took into the election—yes, to kill Work Choices, but otherwise to govern as an economic conservative. An economic conservative solves existing problems; an economic conservative does not create new ones. An economic conservative hearkens to the best instincts of the people, not the worst ones; hearkens to a golden age, not an age of stagnation, not an age of embarrassing failure. This bill covers, as the previous speaker has outlined, a vast range of economic activities. But that is not the bill’s virtue; that is the bill’s vice, because every economic activity which is now to be regulated and controlled is economic activity which is no longer to be freely undertaken by the workers and managers of this country.

I will quickly go through some of the specific problems of this legislation. First of all, it gives unions unprecedented power to interfere in wage discussions between workers and managers. As has been repeatedly pointed out since the bill’s introduction last week, it is only necessary to have one union member in a workplace for a union to require representation in wage negotiations. Second, it gives unions unprecedented right of entry into workplaces. There is no need for a union to have a member in the workplace; it is only necessary for the union to have a potential member in a workplace for that union to be able to enter that workplace and inspect its employment records. Third, this bill imposes good faith bargaining—in exhaustive detail—on workplaces. Not only does it impose so-called good faith bargaining on workplaces but it also establishes an intrusive new body with the Orwellian title Fair Work Australia to investigate and enforce all aspects of so-called good faith bargaining in workplaces. Fourth, this bill provides for pattern bargaining for low-paid workers. This is a clear breach of election commitments and essentially means that in any industry with low-paid workers Fair Work Australia can call the shots. Whatever this is, it certainly is not what Labor promised going into the election and it certainly is not going to give Australia and Australian workers the freedom and the flexibility needed to cope with the coming economic downturn. Fifth, and finally, it seems—and I stress ‘it seems’—that this bill does actually allow bargaining fees and, if my reading of the bill is correct, that too is a clear breach of Labor’s pre-election commitments and a way of effectively enforcing, via a bargaining fee, the closed shop on unwilling businesses and unwilling workers.

As the Australian’s Paul Kelly—the great chronicler of the long political reform movement in this country—has said, the last thing that this country needs on the eve of a global economic downturn is legislation of this kind. It really is the last thing that Australia needs at this time, and my fear is that this legislation will lead to, effectively, a strike by the employers of this country. This legislation will lead to small businesses downsizing or closing and it will lead to large businesses relocating overseas, because what this legislation does not comprehend is that there are really only two essential ingredients for every job: yes, you do need a worker in order to have a job but, first and foremost, you cannot have an employee without having an employer. And no-one can be forced to employ. The problem with loading up employers with the kinds of onerous and intrusive new regulations that this bill provides for is that it is going to make a lot of current employers a lot less likely to employ in the future than they have been in the recent past.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, in introducing this bill, said:

… the ideal of fairness should lie at the centre of our national life.

At one level, it is a motherhood statement; who could disagree with that? But what she fails to appreciate is that fairness to one can easily be oppression to another, and it is important that we are fair to everyone in this country, or as fair as we can reasonably be. We should not have a surfeit of fairness for some people and some organisations which produces a surfeit of oppression for other people and other organisations. In all this stress on fairness, what about freedom? Isn’t that an important value as well? How much fairness can there be if there is not also freedom? Isn’t freedom just as much the birthright of Australians as fairness?

The Deputy Prime Minister does not seem to appreciate or understand that hurt and bruises are also an inevitable part of real life and that, without a certain amount of rough and tumble, you cannot also have effort, virtue and humanity. This attempt to abolish from the workplace anything that anyone associated with the union movement might find objectionable is not going to produce a better workplace and is certainly not going to produce a more prosperous Australia. It could well end up demonstrating the truth of the wise old saying: that so often the best is the enemy of the good.

Last week was at one level a great week for the Deputy Prime Minister. She acted in the Prime Minister’s stead. She performed with great aplomb and panache in this place. She more than showed up the parliamentary deficiencies of the Prime Minister last week. Of course, she introduced legislation which certainly will strengthen her position with the union movement, which continues to form the political and financial backbone of her party. But what she did last week, and what she is currently so proud of, I am confident will turn out to be the workplace equivalent of Medicare Gold, that other policy disaster that will forever be linked with her name.

The problem with the legislation that this parliament is currently debating is that it will inflict long-term damage on the economic strength of our country, it will inflict long-term damage on the capacity of Australian businesses to employ Australian workers and it will inflict long-term damage on the capacity of Australian workers to perform at their best. The great thing about the last two decades of sustained reform is that we have seen in recent years Australia taking on the best of the world and winning, not just in sport but in business, industry and economics. My fear is that that golden era in Australia’s economic history is about to end. Thanks to this misguided legislation now before the House, legislation that goes much further than any conceivable mandate that the Labor Party might have had, the coming Rudd recession will be turned into long-term economic stagnation and permanent economic decline, which is the last thing that this parliament should be doing.