Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (10.07 pm)-Australian politics does remorselessly return to industrial relations and tax policy. Most elections are fought around one issue or the other, and the last election was no exception. It really is through tax and industrial relations policy that the two major parties seek to define and differentiate themselves, and in these debates this side of the chamber is always for empowering the individual, trusting the individual to make decisions about their future. The other side, in contrast, is always trying to pare back the freedom of the individual, never fully trusting the individual to make their own decisions.
The legislation before us today, the Fair Work Bill 2008, is merely the latest manifestation of an approach that fundamentally lacks faith in Australians and their capacity to chart their own course. In an effort to detract attention from this reality and the details of their own policy, I expect Labor senators will devote much time and many words over the next two weeks to talking about legislation that is in fact no longer coalition policy. What we will not hear, however, from a single Labor senator in this debate is how their legislation will free Australian employers and employees. What we will not hear from a single Labor senator in this debate is how this legislation will improve the productive capacity of the nation. What we will not hear from a single Labor senator in this debate is how this legislation will increase employment in Australia. Furthermore, we will not hear from a single Labor senator a guarantee that this legislation will not destroy jobs. We will not hear any of these things, because this legislation does none of these things.
What we need to have is an open and honest debate. We need to be able to carefully examine the detail of this legislation to ensure that it really is in Australia’s long-term interests, as the government contends. What we do not need is the erection of straw men. What we do not need is a scare campaign. What we do not need is a debate that focuses on the past rather than the future. On this side of the chamber, our priority is jobs.
The Australian people, it must be said, made a choice at the last election, and Labor will remind the chamber of this over and over again in this debate. The coalition heard the many messages contained in that election result. We could waste our time debating mandate theory-perhaps the most abused of political concepts-but, even if for argument’s sake one was to accept Labor has an industrial relations mandate, Labor only has a mandate to introduce the changes promised in its pre-election commitments. The government, according to its own embrace of mandate theory, should not be introducing legislation that exceeds those commitments. Had the Labor Party taken more radical changes to the last federal election than the policies they proposed, they might not have won the last election and the make-up of this chamber might have been quite different.
It is our role as an opposition to ensure at the very least that Labor does not force through changes the Australian people were not told about prior to the last election, and this is particularly important in tough economic times. Treasury and most economists have already predicted large increases in unemployment, and that is without taking into account workplace relations policy which makes it harder for small business to hire staff and without taking into account increased union power in the workplace. Labor are proposing to introduce policies which will destroy jobs and make tough times harder for small business. In its current form, Labor’s Fair Work Bill is anti jobs. Labor’s Fair Work Bill massively expands union rights and will discourage business from creating new jobs. It risks putting more Australians out of work. The last thing business needs in the current climate is workplace relations laws which strangle small business, and we fear that Labor’s Fair Work Bill will do just that.
The coalition will be offering a number of amendments to improve this bill, and hopefully the government will accept them. First and foremost, the Fair Work Bill expands the right of entry for union reps. This is a clear breach of Labor’s pre-election commitment.
In August 2007 Julia Gillard said:
“We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.”
Well, not so. The Fair Work Bill overturns the current law, which limits access for unions to those who are party to an industrial agreement in the workplace. This will expand the number of unions who can enter a workplace, and we all know what happens when two or more unions get on the same turf: they fight tooth and nail for coverage. The last thing Australian businesses need is a series of uninvited demarcation disputes. They disrupt workplaces, distract employers, distractemployees and ultimately only benefit the winning union, not the employees or the company concerned. The coalition believes that employees should decide through a democratic ballot if they want a union in the workplace and which union it should be before entry can occur.
A further change to union power is Labor’s plan to grant unprecedented access to employment records. Under the Fair Work Bill presented to us here today, union officials will be granted the power to inspect any records relating to a dispute. Absurdly, this also includes records of non-union members. All they need is a single union member to make a complaint. Unions could potentially access a raft of private information to use for their industrial and political benefit. The pay arrangements of senior executives or the CEO, super fund contributions, bonuses paid to employees, criminal background checks, medical certificates and disciplinary proceedings-all could be opened up to those union officials. This raises very serious questions about the privacy of non-union members. Employees who do not wish their employment records to be handed over to unions will be powerless to intervene. The existing law in this area should be retained. The records of non-union members should only be provided to union officials by consent from the employee or if ordered by the tribunal.
In an economic climate in which new business activity should be encouraged as much as possible, Labor’s greenfield agreements send a bizarre signal to businesses. This provision requires a business to notify all unions who may have coverage of members at the site that they intend to make a new agreement. If any union chooses to participate in the process and negotiate with the employer, the employer must recognise and reach an agreement with the union before any work can proceed. Obviously, this offers enormous potential to delay the commencement of new projects. Any union choosing to use their enhanced power in these circumstances can force indefinite delays, effectively holding businesses hostage to their demands. When new projects that create employment should be welcomed and encouraged, granting unions a right to veto any new projects until they get their desired conditions is economic vandalism. This means that an employer may be able to reach an agreement with the major union representing the majority of employees concerned, but a union who represents just a handful of affected employees can wield disproportionate influence over the project. The coalition believes that the requirement to notify unions of a greenfield agreement being made should be removed from this bill. We do not believe that the Australian economy and Australian workers should be forced to be subject to delays and protracted negotiations over new business projects in the current economic climate.
In addition, before the 2007 election the Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, promised that Labor would not introduce compulsory arbitration of collective agreements.
She said in May 2007:
“Our policy clearly states that no one will be forced to sign up to an agreement where they do not agree to the terms.”
Yet this bill empowers Fair Work Australia to arbitrate where parties cannot agree during collective agreement negotiations. It is effectively compulsory arbitration, and it could see an arbitrated agreement forced upon parties by the tribunal. Only genuinely voluntary arbitration should take place between parties who cannot reach an agreement. An arbitration which forces unwilling partners to a tribunal with a mandated outcome will not produce harmonious or productive industrial agreements.
It must be said that the government has also failed in a number of other key areas of this bill. Firstly, the coalition is concerned about the changes to unfair dismissal laws in this bill, which reduce the exemption from small businesses of 100 employees down to 15. Removing this exemption for small businesses runs a very serious risk of discouraging the hiring of new employees. We know that many small businesses have been burdened in the past with vexatious claims. The fear of unfair dismissal action by disgruntled former employees may again make small business owners reluctant to take on new staff-and I can think of few things more damaging in a climate of rising unemployment and in a climate of economic uncertainty.
Secondly, even in the current economic climate no modelling has been conducted into the economic impact of introducing this industrial relations regime in the middle of an economic crisis. The opposition has repeatedly asked and called upon the federal government to undertake, and then release, economic modelling into the impact of this bill. Without this modelling, the government is asking all of us to take it on faith that its policies will not hamper economic growth and employment. The government is resolutely mute on the employment implications of this legislation.
Unfortunately, the opposition does not have faith in the government’s assurances. The government’s track record is not good. The pre-Christmas $10 billion cash splash supposedly created 75,000 jobs. Since that time unemployment has risen and not a job can be found that was created as a result of the cash splash. The government has been unable, despite its best efforts, to point to a single new job. In Senate estimates Treasury admitted that there was actually no way of proving that it had succeeded, that jobs had actually been created. Subsequently, the government introduced its $42 billion junk spending splurge, which we are told will support 90,000 jobs. Again, the government has been unable to point to where or how these new jobs will be ‘supported’. It has dropped the word ‘created’ because it does not believe that itself, so the word ‘supported’ is now embraced.
Clearly, making it more difficult for businesses to reach agreement with their employees by increasing the power of third parties is going to hurt employment. Clearly, increasing regulation that small business has to comply with during an economic crisis is going to hurt employment. Clearly, allowing union organisers to knock down the door and enter virtually any premises they want to whenever they feel like it and allowing them to access private employment records is going to hurt employment. I know that Labor has a very big IOU to pay to the union movement. I know it is in the government’s political interests to increase the strength of unions, so increasing the strength of those unions that helped them win the last election. But we are in the midst of an economic crisis and any legislation that destroys jobs in the middle of an economic crisis is vandalism.
The coalition is going to offer sensible, practical jobs focused amendments to this bill. We are going to focus on the future. We are not going to look in the rear-view mirror, like those opposite. Labor will shortly have the opportunity to demonstrate if they truly want to govern in the national interest or merely in their own political interest. I hope that Labor do accept our amendments. They are offered in good faith. They are offered because we believe they will improve this legislation and because we believe they will lead to increased employment.
Perhaps the best way to look at the coalition’s six proposed areas for amendment is as a six-point jobs plan. We offer six points that will make it easier for employers to hire staff and retain staff.
Senator Marshall-You nearly said ‘hire and fire’, didn’t you?
Senator FIFIELD-No. Let me repeat that: we offer six points that will make it easier for employers to hire staff and retain staff-and that is for the benefit of Senator Marshall. The coalition has a plan to increase employment. Labor has a plan to destroy jobs. But it is not too late for the government to read the sign that business is holding up. The sign says: ‘Wrong way! Go back!’ I hope government senators will read that sign and will act accordingly to facilitate improved legislation that will not destroy jobs. If this six-point plan that the opposition is presenting is followed, this legislation will lead to more jobs than would be the case if this legislation were to be passed unamended.