Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (9.12 p.m.)-At the last election, the people of Australia put their trust in this side of the house. When they did so, they had a pretty fair idea that we would lower tax, that we would try to liberalise Australia’s labour market and that we would privatise Telstra.
Senator Vanstone-And workers’ wages have gone up.
Senator FIFIELD-Yes. Senator Bartlett was making the point that the people of Australia had no idea what the coalition would do in terms of industrial relations and that we had somehow hidden our policy in the lead-up to the last election. I do not accept that for a moment. Australians had a pretty fair idea of what we wanted to do in industrial relations. We had been talking about it for nine years in government. Even if that were the case, even if Senator Bartlett were right, that proposition is really saying that a government only ever should have the capacity to implement what it said at an election, and that presupposes that the environment that pertains on election day is static-that the economy will remain static, that the international environment will remain static and that everything will remain static.
Obviously and clearly, a government needs to have the capacity to govern, to legislate, to respond to events and to do so in the best way to set Australia up for future economic prosperity. While I do not accept the proposition of Senator Bartlett, even if it were true, governments still need the capacity to respond to circumstances. If the public do not like what the government do, the public will vote that government out. But, as I said, I do not accept the premise in the first place. The public did speak through their vote at the last election: not only did they deliver the government a fourth term but they also delivered a mandate of trust in the government by giving it the majority in this chamber.
The reforms that we are talking about today have been opposed routinely by the opposition. Whatever we have done in industrial relations since we have been in government has been opposed by the opposition. What we have seen today and have seen over the last few months is a predictable Labor scare campaign. One of the most common refrains that we hear from the opposition is that the legislation is going to lead to class warfare. In the words of the Leader of the Opposition, ours will become a dog-eat-dog society. We have heard that rhetoric before.
Employees know that they have a lot more in common with others in their own business, from the management down, than they do with people working in a competing business. Workers realise that, just like management, they are better off when it is their company that wins contracts, when it is their company that is doing well, when it is their company that is exporting and when it is their company that is making a profit. They realise that when their company grows and is profitable that is good for them, good for the employer and good for their co-workers. A profitable company keeps those workers in higher paying jobs. In turn, the workers are valued by their company for the productive contribution they make to that business’s success. Employees realise that being flexible and competitive will give their company the edge and help their company grow. There is no need for there to be an ‘us and them’ approach. Cooperative engagement between employers and employees leads to increased prosperity. The workers know this. A relationship of cooperation leads to a better business.
The socialist paradigm of class struggle is not even a 20th century concept; it is really something that belongs back in the 19th century. Over 3.2 million Australians work in more than one million small businesses. Often there is not a clear delineation between employers and employees in these businesses. Every working Australian today holds shares in superannuation, in effect. The Australian Stock Exchange found last year that eight million Australians also hold shares as assets. Every working Australian has a vested and long-term interest in the success of companies across industries. We are more active in business ownership than ever before, directly or indirectly. So we need to move away from the view that there is strictly an employer-employee model.
Back in 1993, even Paul Keating recognised that unprofitable businesses meant unemployment and low wages. By contrast, profitable businesses can pass on their profits to employees. Just like the Labor scare campaign on the 1996 Workplace Relations Bill, Senator Bartlett, referring to the legislation which was originally proposed by the government, said that our claim that people did okay out of it has no merit. The reality is that we accepted the changes. We accepted the amendments that were proposed by the Democrats. That did not stop Labor saying that it was going to be the end of the world as we knew it, even with those changes.
As usual, the opposition proposed that the sky would fall in, as they did with GST and as we saw with the scare campaign before the legislation to privatise Telstra was passed. Their rhetoric will be seen as hollow once this legislation has been passed and comes into effect. It will be very much like the Y2K phenomenon. People may be scared-in this case there is a scaremongering campaign-but they will wake up and find that nothing has particularly changed in their business. The country will not descend into chaos. Life will go on. Instead we will see a stronger economy with more jobs. Hopefully, there will be fewer strikes and less industrial action. Higher wages and more prosperity are what we want to see.
The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is about promoting fairness in the industrial relations system. It is about higher wages, higher skills and, more importantly, a better outcome for families. The object of this legislation is to bring freedom to the employment market so that employers and employees are free to negotiate and work as best suits them. But it will be a system that has stability and that guarantees fairness and equity. The Work Choices package provides choice to workers, employers and owners of businesses. A single national system of industrial relations will do away with a lot of the red tape that is making life difficult for workers and many businesses.
Labor have retorted often through this debate that, while employees may be in a strong bargaining position in the current strong economy, the economy will not always be strong. They have said that we have to pass legislation to take account of the fact that it will not always be a strong economy and that workers will not always be in such a strong position. It is true that if the economy does begin to slow there are no guarantees that people will be in jobs. You cannot legislate jobs into existence. If the economy does slow we will find that, as a result of this legislation, wage growth will indeed be contained, but that will actually help to prevent the mass lay-offs that we saw in 1992. It is when wages grow faster than consumer prices that unemployment rises. During a period of economic recession, businesses that cannot contain wage growth are forced to lay off workers. They are the facts.
Through this we see the hypocrisy of the ALP and the ACTU. In a slowing economy the best thing we can offer Australian workers is employment. It is better to have as many Australian workers as possible in jobs than to lay off half the work force while forcing business to retain the other half on unrealistic and impossible wage levels. It is important to have flexibility, not just so that businesses and employees can establish the best arrangements for themselves but also so that workplaces can respond to the changes in the economy. None of us wants to see an economy that slows. Businesses, employees and the government-all of us-want to see an economy that continues to grow and continues to be strong. You cannot legislate a job. You cannot legislate higher wages if you have an economy that is slowing and businesses that are failing. We need businesses to have the flexibility to cope with the economic circumstances to prevent the downward spiral in employment reminiscent of the recession that we experienced under former Prime Minister Keating. The government wants to do everything it possibly can to make sure that we do not go into an economic downturn.
The first goal of these changes is to promote the use of Australian workplace agreements. The legislation will encourage workers and employers to talk to each other. That is not a radical concept. It is far better for people to sort out issues together, rather than automatically defaulting to unions, commissioners and judges. This benefits both sides of the negotiating table. Open, collaborative and empathetic behaviours will result in less hostile workplaces, cost-effective bargaining and negotiating and more involvement of employees in the management decisions of businesses.
Streamlining the system will also reduce compliance costs, which represents a saving that can be passed on to employees. This was seen at the BHP Billiton Pilbara mine a few years ago. Rather than the traditional union negotiated contract, BHP offered its employees individual workplace agreements. Through individual contracts and increased flexibility of employment hours, BHP could afford to offer their workers pay rises. That is a good thing.
The second element of the changes is the simplification of the current award system. Any employee who is under an award when the legislation is enacted can stay under that award and those conditions. Their employment cannot be terminated as a result of that decision. However, the complex noodle nation jumble of awards will ultimately be replaced by a single set of rules. This will lead to a reduction in the huge cost of understanding the current award system.
Senator Conroy-Did someone give you that one? Get your money back!
Senator FIFIELD-Senator Conroy delights in being reminded of that wonderful noodle nation graph. It is one of my favourite graphs of all time, and that illustration will continue coming into my mind often. Along with the mandating of a secret ballot before industrial action, this legislation will reduce the number of days lost to strikes. Despite opposition scaremongering, public holidays, penalty rates and workplace conditions can still be part of an agreement. They cannot be forcibly taken away from someone. Likewise, the minimum wage will still exist. The government will introduce a safety net for workers through the Australian Fair Pay Commission, which will set legislated minimum conditions.
The third element, and one of the most talked about changes, is the abolition of unfair dismissal laws for small and medium businesses with fewer than 100 employees. This policy is not new. In fact, it has been blocked by the Senate 41 times since 1996. The current unfair dismissal laws have been estimated to cost business $1.8 billion each year and effectively deny 80,000 jobs. In practice, the current act is a strong legislative barrier to employment, and we want to get rid of that for businesses with fewer than 100 people. We should not get confused between unlawful dismissals and unlawful termination. Discrimination on the basis of gender, race or even union membership will continue to be illegal.
The critical bill will provide the much-needed structural change within the economy. Extra flexibility in the employment market will grow the comparative advantage enjoyed by Australia in the world economy. If we eschew these changes because of fear, Australia will be denied this productive opportunity for improvement and to expand trade opportunities, and we will be further denied overseas investment in Australia. A flexible work force is a productive work force. People will no longer be priced out of the employment market. Ensuring that our workplace is flexible will significantly cut structural unemployment. A flexible workplace will also further encourage private enterprise, which is the strongest and most constant contributor to the country’s economic prosperity. We need to encourage private business and investment.
Who will benefit from these structural changes? In the short term, there will be an increase in jobs available, especially in small businesses, as people move onto flexible workplace agreements. Salaries will rise and worker incentives will increase. Over the longer term, we will begin to see Australian companies win export contracts as our industries become more competitive. We will also begin to see unions accountable, which will be a great thing. No longer will unions have a monopoly over collective bargaining. They will have to compete and justify to every single member why they should be the bargaining agent. Unions will have to ask their members before industrial action can occur-a radical concept. No longer will a union shop steward stop work without the support of members.
This government will not make Australians choose between flexibility and fairness. The Work Choices program upholds both prosperity and security for workers. These last few years have been prosperous for our nation. We are now profiting from the reforms of the last decade. Good decisions over the last decade have set us up for the economic prosperity we enjoy today. If we are to be a responsible government and parliament we need to ensure that we are making decisions today that will ensure that economic prosperity can continue over the years ahead.