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Wednesday, 29 November 2006
Page: 3

Senator BARNETT (9:32 AM) —I was speaking last night in favour of both the bills before the Senate, the Independent Contractors Bill 2006 and the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Independent Contractors) Bill 2006. The thrust of the policy and the foundational views behind the legislation are that we want to build a spirit of enterprise in this country, a spirit of entrepreneurship. We want to encourage incentive, we want to encourage reward for effort and we want to encourage creativity amongst business, particularly small business, microbusinesses, which are so important across our nation.

I had the privilege of being appointed by Peter Reith, a former minister for employment and workplace relations, some years ago, in the late nineties, as a member of the Australian government’s microbusiness consultative committee. As a member of that committee, I recall that 82 per cent of all small businesses are actually microbusinesses—that is, businesses with fewer than five employees. That is a huge number and a very important part of the Australian business framework: they provide jobs and they support families.

I want to pay credit to those types of businesses. Indeed, I want to pay credit to the independent contractors—in many cases, very small operators of fewer than five employees. Many of them are family based businesses. According to the Productivity Commission, there are around 800,000 in Australia. The Independent Contractors of Australia estimate the figure is as high as 1.9 million. These businesses put their necks on the line. They probably have a mortgage on their own home. They provide jobs, obviously, for themselves and perhaps for other family members and others in the community. They are certainly the jobs generators in Australia today. Nearly 50 per cent of the private sector workforce in Tasmania comes from the small business sector. Tasmania is very much a small business state, and I think our nation of Australia is very much desirous of encouraging small businesses to prosper and do well. Certainly that is the objective and the intent of the Howard government.

I want to acknowledge and thank federal minister Kevin Andrews for the work he has done in supporting the operations of small business throughout this country and, specifically, for following through on the 2004 election commitment to support independent contractors. They are a vital ingredient to the success of our economy. They have grown in numbers significantly over the last many years because they love that flexibility. They love the ability to prosper and do well as a result of the options and the choices they have. This is what we have done. We have actually fulfilled an election commitment. We have done what we said we would do in 2004. We are following through on that promise and delivering for those independent contactors.

Of course, the Labor Party and the union movement across the country oppose this legislation. They oppose it because they want to rope in all of these independent contractors—or at least the bulk of them—to be subject to our industrial relations regimes. This is exactly what has happened with the various state governments around Australia. They have deemed these independent contactors to be employees for the purposes of roping them in to be subject to our industrial relations legislation or their own state laws. Once they do that, the unions are thrilled because, as I said last night, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The union movement has contributed over $47 million to the Labor Party since 1996, and I think it is a payback now because it has committed to provide, I understand, around $20 million in the lead-up to the next federal election. It is payback. The Labor Party are doing the bidding of their union masters and saying no to this legislation, and that is disappointing. This legislation, as I say, confirms and builds on the commitment that we made as a government in 2004 to the independent contractors of Australia, and we have fulfilled that commitment. Last night and yesterday many members opposite were waxing lyrical about the extreme industrial relations objectives of this government.

Senator Marshall interjecting—

Senator BARNETT —Senator Marshall, I take your interjection. You made two specific allegations against our workplace relations legislation. The first was that there would be a decrease in the number of jobs and the second was that there would be a cut in wages across this country for working men and women and their families. What has happened since Work Choices came in? I can tell you: the exact opposite has happened. Labor senators know that. They have not admitted their mistake and they have not apologised to the Australian people for making that mistake. They know that the number of jobs has gone up. Real wages have increased 16.5 per cent in the last 10 years, where of course under 13 years of Labor they went down—D-O-W-N—by 0.2 per cent in real terms.

I would like to thank the Senate committee of which Senator Marshall is a member, the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education. They had a look at these two bills and delivered their report. As a member of that committee under the chairmanship of Senator Judith Troeth, I want to note what the government senators’ report says in summary about the legislation before us today. It says:

This legislation delivers on a 2004 election pledge,—

which I have just indicated is correct—

in which the government promised to recognise the special status, and growing importance, of independent contractors, who constitute an increasing proportion of the workforce. ... parties which choose to enter independent contracting arrangements should not be prevented from doing so by laws which elevate industrial relations principles over commercial considerations.

This is the nub of it. The state Labor governments deem these independent contractors to be subject to their own industrial relations regime.

Senator Lundy —Do you know what you’re saying?

Senator BARNETT —This is the nub of it, Senator Lundy, and you know that. You want these independent contractors to be subject to the industrial relations regime when, in fact, it is a separate commercial arrangement and that should be noted and acknowledged. Minister Andrews put it this way during his second reading speech. I am going to note it for the senators on the other side and, indeed, for members of the public. He said:

State deeming laws have become so absurd that they can result in completely arbitrary distinctions—an independent contractor who drives a bus can be deemed an employee, while a taxi driver is not; or a person who packages goods under a contract for services is deemed to be an employee if they do so at their home, but not if they do so on business premises; a blind installer is deemed to be an employee but a plumber is not.

The existing regulation of independent contracting across many of the states is a regulation of entrepreneurship. It is job destroying.

Minister Andrews is correct. The approach that Labor is taking to this bill is job destroying. As I said earlier, what we are trying to build in Australia is a spirit of entrepreneurship, a spirit of enterprise. I would like to see Australia leading the world in providing the foundation for the growth in enterprise, the growth in entrepreneurs. It is something of which we, as a country, can be proud. As a member of the government, I am certainly proud of the efforts to make that happen.

Senator Siewert also made a number of comments about the workplace relations legislation amendments in terms of them being thrown into the Senate and that she had little notice. I want to remind Senator Siewert and other senators opposite and elsewhere that this was based on a government announcement on 13 November this year.

Senator Lundy —A press release.

Senator BARNETT —It was set out in a press release by Minister Andrews in which he made the objectives of those amendments very clear to all and sundry. That is what happened. I will tell you what they related to. They addressed unintended consequences arising from the operation of the act since it came in on 27 March and introduced protections for redundancy entitlements and new provisions dealing with the standing down of employees. That is set out; it is on the public record and it has been for several weeks now.

Yes, you oppose many of the provisions that were announced, and that is your right and entitlement—we live in a democracy—but I think those particular amendments are actually very sensible. Do you know why that is? It is because we have had feedback from the community with respect to improving the bill. We have a concept of continual improvement in our government—Senator Marshall has a wry smile on his face, but that is exactly right—and we have listened to the community, particularly to small business.

I want to acknowledge and support Minister Andrews and his efforts with respect to record keeping requirements. This is one of the amendments before the Senate and which was announced several weeks ago. I want to thank those small business operators that contacted me in my role as deputy chair of the Prime Minister’s workplace relations task force and, indeed, as a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education.

I want to thank the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for their feedback on the legislation, particularly for expressing their concern about the record keeping requirements. I also want to thank the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association and their members, the Master Builders Association and their members, the Small Business Council of Tasmania and many others for expressing their views. It was not only those organisations but also small and microbusiness operators in and around Tasmania that expressed their views. And guess what? Those views were acknowledged, they were listened to and they were acted upon. This is democracy in action, and it is continuous improvement in action. This legislation will remove significant administrative burdens for those small business operators, and regulatory arrangements will be improved. There will still be some record keeping requirements, but essentially we have lifted the red tape so that small business can get on and do the job that they want to do.

The other provisions relate to redundancy, providing protections for workers and, in my view, an improvement of the status quo. There are provisions relating to stand-downs and the operation of the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. The details are set out in the legislation.

Finally, I want to wrap up by saying that this legislation does not override the protections for owner-drivers in New South Wales and Victoria. The government believes that protections applying to owner-drivers in those states should not be disturbed at this stage, but there will be a review. The minister has announced that there will be a review of owner-driver arrangements. That will be undertaken with a view to achieving national consistency, if possible. I hope that that does happen; I think it would be a good thing. The review will begin next year, and I strongly support it. I have supported it both privately and publicly, and I think it would be better for all of us across this country to have a national approach to this matter. All in all, I believe this is good legislation. It will underpin the importance of enterprise and entrepreneurship in this country, and it will provide further encouragement to that—which is exactly what the Howard government is all about. (Time expired)