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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 260

Senator CAMERON (12:45 PM) —I rise on a matter of public interest concerning the coalition’s agenda to retain those parts of Work Choices that depress the wages of low-paid workers and make their jobs less secure. This agenda would increase economic inequality and damage the economy by strangling demand at a time when there is a consensus amongst business and economists that the government must stimulate demand.

Consider the public record. In evidence to the Senate’s inquiry into the Fair Work Bill, the Treasurer and Minister for Commerce in the Western Australian government, Mr Troy Buswell, outlined the Liberal Party’s plan to retain as much as that government can of Work Choices under the state law in Western Australia. The Liberal Western Australian government opposes the extension of rights to workers that will protect them from being unfairly dismissed. The Liberal Western Australian government opposes a minimum employment standard that limits weekly ordinary hours of work to 38. The Liberal Western Australian government will reintroduce take-it-or-leave-it employment contracts as a condition of getting a job. The Liberal Western Australian government will make it easier for jobs to be contracted out and outsourced with no protection for employees’ wages and working conditions.

And it is not just the Western Australian Liberal Party. In a speech to the Young Liberals the other weekend, Senator Fifield made some quite curious remarks about Work Choices. He said:

... there is a reassessment by many in the Coalition as to the wisdom of having been so quick to abandon our core principles on workplace relations after the election.

Then he said—he must have thought about it:

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, the brand and policy iteration known as “Work Choices” is dead.

So, one minute Work Choices is a core principle of the Liberal Party; the next it is simply a policy iteration—a brand to be discarded like an empty can of Coke. Which is it?

Senator Bernardi interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Bernardi!

Senator CAMERON —I know what it is: it is a core Liberal Party principle. Ripping conditions from ordinary working Australians is a core Liberal Party principle.

Who are the many in the coalition who Senator Fifield says are questioning Malcolm Turnbull’s position on the necessity for the Liberal Party to declare Work Choices dead? There are many in the coalition who will not let go of the policies that were doing so much harm to Australian workers: take-it-or-leave-it individual agreements, no protection from unfair dismissal, the barest-of-bare set of minimum employment standards, stripping away the no-disadvantage test for workplace agreements. All of these attacks on workers’ rights contribute to downward pressure on the income of working families and, if they were to persist, would stifle growth and demand in the economy.

According to a report in today’s Australian newspaper, Senator Fifield’s ‘many’ at least includes Senator Abetz, Senator McGauran, Senator Joyce, Mr Tuckey, Mr Abbott, Mrs Bronwyn Bishop and Mr Schultz. There are many more on the list, and no doubt all will be revealed before too much longer. The difference between Senator Fifield and Senator Abetz is that Senator Abetz wants to continue the debate behind closed doors. This is what happened when Work Choices was introduced. There was no consultation with the Australian public, no warning to the Australian public and no mandate from the Australian public.

As further evidence of the coalition’s continuing affection for political and economic extremes, take Senator Abetz’s outrage against suggestions from Mr Pyne that the Liberal Party should move to the political centre. From his remarks it is clear that Senator Abetz thinks that any move to the centre is a move too far to the left. Senator Abetz is going to tough it out on the right-wing fringe, and many of his colleagues want to be there with him. Senator Abetz and the coalition have no idea what the political centre is. Work Choices was the policy iteration of the coalition’s lack of a political compass.

So we have an accumulation of evidence that amongst all the other things the coalition are in denial about, including climate change, they are also in denial about the severity of the global recession. They are preparing to frustrate the decisive and economically responsible action that is needed to support economic activity, jobs and investment. They persist with their neoliberal economic policy based on the law of the jungle. It is the let-the-market-rip approach—the Gordon Gecko approach—to governance. That is where the Liberal Party are.

There is an overwhelming case for a comprehensive government package to deal with the economic downturn. In terms of the labour market, the last thing we need now is a debate about the discredited policies of the coalition. Mr Turnbull argues that he is now standing up for fiscal discipline. Well, let me tell you what the government are standing up for. We are standing for leadership and decisive action to protect jobs and support Australian households. For us the international meltdown is not simply about a failed economic theory; it is about looking after working families. And we are demonstrating leadership and we are acting decisively by delivering $14.7 billion to schools for major and minor infrastructure construction.

I will be happy to see all the Liberals scurrying back to their electorates and telling their local school communities that they are not supporting the government’s biggest approach ever in the history of this country to refurbish schools—something that they failed to do for 13 years in government. We are funding the installation of the country’s housing stock because we understand there is global warming; we are not deniers on this. We are increasing the solar hot water rebate. We are injecting $12.7 billion into households to support household demand and support economic growth. We are providing $6.4 billion for the construction of new social housing and a further $400 million for repairs and maintenance of existing public housing. We are providing $252 million for the construction of 800 houses for Defence Force personnel and an additional $150 million for repairing regional roads. We are providing $500 million to help local councils fund community infrastructure.

While we are at the cutting edge of the changes that are required to protect jobs in this country, the coalition remains stuck in a time warp. It just wants to return to Work Choices. That is its policy for this country. While the government does the right thing demanded by the very tough economic conditions facing the country by providing an urgent fiscal stimulus, the coalition clings to its deficit fetish. We have false fiscal discipline from Malcolm Turnbull and time warp politics from the coalition.

Nothing typifies the return to the past more than the return of Peter Costello to Lateline last night. After making little or no contribution to the political and economic debate since the election, he now detects an opportunity to fill the vacuum created by the flip-flopping, incompetent and ineffective Liberal leadership.  Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, his contribution was a negative, carping and angry exhibition that clearly demonstrated why he could never gain the support of his peers for the Liberal Party leadership. Working families deserve better from this ragtag opposition. Working families deserve an opposition that acts in the national interest and not in the interests of an individual’s political aspirations. Working families need better from an opposition that wants to defend discredited economic theory that has brought the international economic system to its knees.

The Labor Party will not be distracted by the internal machinations of the opposition. We will continue to develop global responses to the economic crisis that are in the interests of working families, our communities and the nation. We have to make up for the failures of the opposition when in government—a failure to provide fairness, balance and equity in industrial relations, a failure to invest in our schools and in the youth of this country, a failure to develop our industries, a failure to recognise the reality of global warming, a failure of leadership and a failure to build the nation. That is what this package is about. It is a nation-building package. It is about ensuring that we protect jobs, we protect our communities and we protect the families of Australians. You are failing to show any leadership or consensus in any national approach to the international crisis. You are climate change deniers and you are now deniers of the reality of the major and crucial issues that face the economy of Australia.