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Friday, 11 October 1996
Page: 4046

Senator MacGIBBON(2.28 p.m.) —I do not propose to go over the details of the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 here; they have been well publicised over many months and discussed on many occasions. This is a bill that is crucially important to the development of Australia. Despite all the changes that the Labor Party introduced over 13 years, this bill is in a field that they simply could not have touched, paralysed as they were by the union movement—the ACTU in particular. But it is important to put on the record that the more intelligent members of the Labor Party who are aware of what is going on in the community want this bill passed. They want, when they get into government in future years, to be able to run Australia with a modern competitive international economy. They know that this is the sort of legislation they can never introduce themselves, as Senator Schacht, the speaker who preceded me—a museum curator—so amply demonstrated.

The other point I would make about so many of the previous speakers in this debate from the opposition parties is that their lack of experience as employers or in business is transparently obvious. They are only giving one side of the argument.

When I came into this parliament it would have been impossible to have had a debate like this. About the only thing I agreed with in Senator Schacht's speech was the fact that times have changed enormously and that it would not have been possible to have debated a bill like this some years ago. The whole of society has changed. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has not understood that the Australian people are asking for a change. The country recognises that times have moved on and that we have got to move to a better way of running our affairs. We are not moving back at all to a laissez-faire society or, even worse, to the law of the jungle. We are a civilised community and we have checks and balances in this society. Assurances have been given by the government that no-one will be worse off at all when this legislation goes through. In fact, we will all be better off, because we will all have much more money as a country. We will be able to do much for the welfare services, for education and for health—those problems that are so pressing for us.

What we do need is a flexible approach to our labour relationship. One of the things that the Labor Party never mentioned in their drive into Asia—their Asianisation of Australia—was the inevitable corollary of that Asianisation: that we have got to be able to compete. That does not mean going back and living with a handful of rice a day for pay; it does mean having systems within the Australian community which allow the talents and the abilities of this society to be used and to be used for the benefit of the whole community. That is the point that the Labor Party cannot see.

The Australian people recognise that the inherent conflict between employers and employees which is so much part and parcel of the demonology of the ACTU and Labor Party should now be put behind us. They realise that the community has grown up and got to the point where we do not need unions to have a monopoly on the right to look after the interests of workers. We are going to leave the community the right to have unions and for unions to have a place in the scheme of things. What we are not going to do is give them a monopoly position.

I want to briefly touch on the four points that are really important to me in relation to the bill. The first is voluntary unionism. I feel very strongly that this is one of the basic human rights, one of the extensions of the right of freedom of association. When I graduated, the first job I had was as a locum and after that I took a job as a resident at Townsville general hospital. I was appalled then because, in those days, we had a Labor government that had been in for well over 20 years in Queensland which tried to govern at the lowest common denominator in every sense. I was forced to join a union to operate as a professional on the staff of that hospital. I just could not believe it, but I had to do that to be paid—the government made it mandatory. So I said, `All right, if I've got to join the union, then I'm going to go to a union meeting.' `Oh no,' said the union organiser, `A professional person like you can't go to a union meeting.' I said, `You take my money, I'm going.' The local head of the union—I don't know what he was called, the president, or something—was literally a communist, and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. He was a genuine, full-blooded communist. So I went along and caused him a great deal of discomfort for a while. But I believe that was an abrogation of someone's basic rights. Freedom of choice is absolutely fundamental. That view is shared by the majority of the Australian community.

If you look at membership of the unions, it has declined from a majority position within the Australian community to a figure that is only around 38 per cent at present—in the private sector it is down to around 28 per cent of the work force now. People have the basic human rights of freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and part of that is the right to join or not join a union.

The second point that concerns me is the unfair dismissal laws. I heard Senator Schacht saying that when he was the great minister for small business no-one ever complained to him about industrial regulations when he went around small businesses. The point is: small businesses are smart. They are not going to talk to a life-long union organiser, who owes his whole career to being a secretary of some union and is now a minister in a Labor government, about the inequities of industrial relations law. They are not going to waste their breath on that.

The way that you cannot fire employees who are not performing is a real imposition on employers at the present time. This bill will end those unfair and disastrous dismissal laws which have actively discouraged employment since they were passed. They will be replaced by a system which is fair to both the employer and the employee. While I am on that subject, I am also concerned, as an employer over the years, that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission get very strongly onto the rights of employers. If you are advertising for staff and want to get the best person for the job, then you have to very clearly define what the duties are and the type of applicant you are seeking. But now you have to advertise in such a broad way that you do not really attract the people who have the specific skills you want and you end up having to run through dozens or hundreds of people who are totally inappropriate for the job just in order to satisfy some meaningless human rights consideration.

The third point I am very concerned about is the secondary boycott provisions. This bill will restore the secondary boycott provisions that were removed in relation to sectiond 45D and 45E. If ever there was a thing that was unfair—and there are many aspects of the union movement that demonstrate man's inhumanity to man—nothing is more unfair than the secondary boycott so beloved by the bully boys of the Labor movement. It is extraordinary. If you have a dispute between two parties, that is where the dispute should lie. You should not be able to hold the rest of the community to ransom the way the union movement loves to do. You just cannot tolerate that in a society.

It worked very well when we had sections 45D and E in the Industrial Relations Act. It put a pressure on people who had a dispute to resolve that dispute, if it was confined to that one field, and the rest of the country was not held to ransom.

The fourth point that is important to me is the rights of employers and employees. In 1993, the then Prime Minister, Mr Keating, speaking of workplace agreements—which is something this legislation supports—said:

These agreements would predominantly be based on improving the productive performance of enterprises, because both employers and employees are coming to understand that only productivity improvements can generate substantial real wage increases.

The need for the reforms that will flow from this bill are transparently clear. We have a huge unemployment rate in this country, we have a huge foreign debt, we have stagnation of real wages and there is a widening gap between the rich and poor which does not bode well for social cohesion in the years ahead. We have many statistics on the increasing gap and the way real wages have not increased. In the important industries in this country we are not getting the productivity improvements that we should. We are comparing ourselves with Asia all the time. I was in Korea a couple of weeks ago. Korea has averaged eight to 10 per cent growth for the last 10 to 15 years, compounding away. We are struggling to make three per cent per annum.

The community recognises that we have to be competitive and they want to be competitive. That is the thing that the Labor Party cannot understand about the Australian community. They know that they can perform; they just want the opportunity to do so. That is why they are asking us to support this legislation and get it through.

While I am on the subject of reform, I would like to say something about the need to continue and develop the industrial policy that this government is moving on. After 13 years of Labor government, whether in the hands of the economic rationalists, all they have done is devastated the Australian manufacturing industry. They have left a smoking hole in the ground for Australian manufacturing industry because of their simplistic belief—an obsession almost—of zero tariffs. They never recognised the complexity of having a decent industrial policy which was relevant for Australian manufacturing industry. In many senses, through the last 13 years, the Labor Party was the Pol Pot of the economic world. The legacy is there in the nine to 10 per cent unemployment that we have and the great under-utilisation of manufacturing in Australia.

All we heard was the endless litany coming from those people over there of the need to have level playing fields. We did have a major problem with tariffs in this country 20 or more years ago, and it was a crippling problem. The problem was not tariff protection per se, the problem was the extent of tariff protection, the way tariffs were taken to absurd levels and the way that not only did we have very high and absurd tariff protection levels we had quotas as well. We had a belt and braces approach, and the consequence of that was that Australian manufacturing industries certainly was not competitive in many circumstances and that crazy economic system certainly had to go.

I am not saying that we have to bring back tariffs, far from that at all. I regard the tariff argument is now over because, apart from one or two industries, it is virtually finished. But I am asking for a new approach and I am happy to support the moves that this new government is making to develop a relevant industrial policy for this country because, under the old high tariff system, there simply was no incentive, management could be as incompetent as it liked and it was often very, very incompetent because it could turn to the government of the day and say, `I've got all these hundreds of employees; we need tariff protection to ensure their jobs.'

At the same time, it exacerbated the irresponsible elements within the labour movement, in the union movement, because they knew also that the tariff barrier would protect them from the most irrational of their claims. The answer to that really is to cut the tariff system back the way we have, but we have to put something in its place and we have to think very carefully about that. We do need positive support from a government with respect to an intelligent and relevant industrial policy. It is all very well to talk about getting efficiency into Australian industry and we must be efficient. That is not the point.

The point is that Australian industry necessarily is always small and particularly in the more high technology areas, it is always easy for a large scale manufacturer overseas, at very little marginal cost, to extend the production run and then dump those goods into the Australian market. And having put quite a bit of time into the customs area once upon a time and looked at anti-dumping legislation, I can say quite firmly that anti-dumping legislation is always after the event. In actual fact, most anti-dumping legislation is pretty well worthless so you cannot protect your industry that way.

When Australian manufacturing industry collapses the way it has under Labor, then you get an inevitable rise in imports because there is a demand for those goods, and then we move into the huge balance of payments problem that we are trying to cope with at the present time. A consequence of that huge balance of payments problem is that the value of the Australian currency goes down and imports cost more. We could not have a better example than the ratio between the Australian dollar and the Japanese yen. I can remember the time recently when it was around 200 or more yen to the Australian dollar. Going back further still, it was probably around 400. We are now down to about 80 today.

The consequence of that is that Japanese goods that come into this country are now costing us twice, if we just put a notional figure of ¥100 to the dollar—and it is way below that now—as against the ¥200 figure. It means that they are costing us twice the amount. It means that the value we pay for that is repatriated to Japan and further more, the price competition of the imported goods into Australian industry is also diminished because the Australian manufacturers are in competition then with goods that we are paying twice the price for. The obsession that the Labor Party had with zero tariffs was a very simplistic and a very damaging move for the Australian manufacturing industry. The solution to those problems is really far more complex than they ever dreamed.

There is a place for some careful tariff protection. There is a need to manage the exchange value of the country even while you are maintaining a floating dollar value, but maintaining it indirectly through your industrial policies, and you have to have an industrial policy which is nurturing and developing those industries within Australia which are in the national interest.

The other point I make about the flat earth philosophy of the Labor Party with respect to tariffs was it was very unfair to many sectors of the Australian community. It hit the manufacturers, but the carpenters, the plumbers, the doctors, the dentists, the engineers were quite free of any international competition just by virtue of their skilled positions within the community, and I support that. I am certainly not saying that we throw away the professional and trade standards that we have in the country.

What I am saying is that the effect of zero tariffs operated against one narrow sector of the Australian community and gave not only 100 per cent tariff protection to the other part, it gave absolute immunity to them from any sort of competition at all. My plea is that this parliament supports the moves of the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and the Minister for Industry, Science and Tourism, Mr Moore, in developing an intelligent and coherent industrial policy so that we can get Australia's manufacturing industry back on the rails and start to work on our balance of payments problem.

At the present time, when the bulk of our export earnings are coming from primary production, agricultural and pastoral activities or mining activities, we are very much in the grip of commodity prices, which always fluctuate and which makes the balancing of the books all that more difficult.

This bill is all about choice. It is all about flexibility. It is all about accommodating the changes that have taken place in society and in changed economic circumstances. It will provide better incomes, which will benefit all Australians. We have a huge responsibility in this country to improve our education and our hospitals and to develop the infrastructure of this country. We cannot do that unless we change the way we have hobbled and restricted the employment of labour within this country.

What is proposed in this bill will be fair both to the employers and to the employees and will bring great benefits to the whole of the Australian community. No-one will be any worse off under this legislation than they are at present. The award system will be main tained, the ability to join unions will be maintained. There will be absolute freedom of choice for that. This government has got a mandate from the electorate to make those changes because they are changes that the electorate want and know must be made for the Australian community. I wish this bill swift passage.