Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.19 p.m.)-Senator Ludwig’s opening bat was that the current industrial relations system has stood the test of time and that because it is there it should be treated as a given. On that basis we would not have moved away from CB radios or LPs or horses. Just because something is still there does not mean that it is the best that we can do.
We have had two great pieces of news today. The first is the ABS labour force figures for October, which show that the trend unemployment rate is unchanged at 5.1 per cent. Also, there is fantastic news that the Work Choices package of bills has passed through the other place. They are two great pieces of news which go together. We are putting this package of measures through because we want to see unemployment as low as it can possibly be. Every workplace in Australia is different. Workplaces are changing and the needs of employers and employees are constantly changing. We need to have a workplace relations system that recognises those changes and that can be flexible and able to respond to the changes in the workplaces and in the economy.
We have to lay the foundations today for tomorrow’s economic growth and prosperity. We are enjoying great prosperity today because we have got the policy right over the past decade. Good policy today makes a huge difference to the strength of the Australian economy tomorrow. We can see that in real wages, which have increased over 14 per cent since 1996; in the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, with more than 1.7 million new jobs created and seven million Australians in full-time work; in the lowest levels of strikes ever; and in higher productivity and higher living standards. But Australian workplaces need to continually change so that we can continue to enjoy this sort of strength.
I would like to cite one instance of a workplace that was seeking to do just that-seeking to respond to its changed circumstances. I am referring to the firm Kemalex Plastics. Ken Phillips in the Canberra Times on Tuesday wrote:
Kemalex Plastics was based in Dandenong. It’s a family business running a struggling plant that needed improvements in work practices to survive. As part of the improvements the company had been using independent contractors for over two years. The National Union of Workers had agreed to this. But … a new enterprise agreement had to be negotiated and the NUW-
the National Union of Workers-
said the independent contractors had to go. The owner said no.
The Colebatch family had been running this business for more than 50 years and had never experienced a strike. They did not know what was about to befall them: that they were going to face the full might, the full onslaught, of an ACTU-National Union of Workers organised industrial campaign. The campaign was for one simple purpose, and that was to use this particular business as an example to highlight what would supposedly happen increasingly under the new workplace relations laws being introduced by this government.
There was no great matter of principle at stake here. It was just an act of bastardry against an Australian business to make an example for a political purpose. After 10 weeks of violence, intimidation and media hype, the strike stopped. Why did it stop? Because the final public rally in relation to this particular industrial act had happened, that particular element of the ACTU campaign was over, so as a result the strike ended. The only problem was that it was too late. Mr Colebatch has since put the Dandenong plant into administration and the plant is broke for one simple reason: the strike cost that family business about $1 million as a result of legal fees, lost production, lost sales, plant and truck damage, excess transport fees and sabotage. That was the result.
This business was not a victim of cheap imports, corporate downsizing or globalisation; it was a victim of industrial bastardry. This was an Australian business that was simply trying to change its workplace relations to better reflect the needs of the business so it could continue to give jobs to workers, as it had done for 50 years. The changes that we are introducing, which have been passed in the other place and will come to this chamber, are designed to help businesses like this employ more Australians.