Federal Government Industrial Relations Legislation
Debate resumed from 6 April 2006.
The Hon. CHRISTINE ROBERTSON [5.12 p.m.]: When I last spoke to this motion I had started to inform the House of the Opposition's behaviour during the introduction of these scurrilous changes, and how the Opposition simply does not care about the workers of New South Wales. The Opposition would not allow New South Wales to challenge in the High Court these unfair laws that do workers more harm than good. Indeed, the Opposition would support the raid on our industrial relations system by the Howard Government. The New South Wales Opposition stands condemned for not opposing these laws, and the fact that it has chosen not to do so shows that it is not fit for government. In fact, during a debate similar to this in the Legislative Assembly, Opposition members fled the Chamber before the vote. They knew they were doing the wrong thing by not supporting the Government in taking the fight up to Canberra, but they were too embarrassed to be seen on the public record as weak and cowardly.
The only time the member for Vaucluse has actually spoken about these laws has been behind the closed doors of the H. R. Nicholls Society. When this motion is voted upon, I call on all members to do the right thing by New South Wales workers and support this motion, rather than run away. I also call on the member for Vaucluse to do something to protect New South Wales workers rather than just promise to sack 29,000 of them. The New South Wales Government has acted commendably to ensure that New South Wales workers, where possible, have been placed on State awards to give them some protection. In particular, credit must go to Premier lemma for the strong stance that he and his Government have taken against these radical and unfair laws.
Thanks to recent legislation, 189,000 New South Wales workers are now protected by the New South Wales industrial relations system. Front-line workers such as nurses, bus drivers, TAFE teachers, and my own former colleagues in the area health services are all now covered by New South Wales laws because the New South Wales Government knows that leaving them to the Federal system would be simply hanging them out to dry. The State Government's Award Enquiry Line received more than 3,600 calls in the first week of the new laws operating, as New South Wales workers started to see the risks they are exposed to. Some callers sought advice about new employment contracts—contracts that see their employment moved from permanent to casual, and about all sorts of other conditions added in that take away fundamental rights from the worker, such as the requirement to move around the State, the removal of penalty rates on weekends, or the addition of a probationary period, despite years of loyal employment.
Other callers reported being sacked without any notice or reason given. Some examples of callers reporting sackings include an employee of a caravan park on the South Coast who was sacked when she raised concerns about her Australian workplace agreement [AWA], and a Nambucca woman who had a job offer withdrawn when she raised simple questions about the AWA she was presented with. [Quorum formed.]
Also, a Sydney locksmith sacked by his employer who, after asking why, was told by his employer that he no longer needed to provide any notice or reason; and a spray painter from Port Macquarie who had worked for his employer for ten years and was sacked without any reason or notice given. In one fell swoop the fundamental nature of Australian industrial relations has changed. There is no longer any natural justice requirement. In fact, in the Australian industrial relations system there is no longer any requirement for justice. Our system in New South Wales recognises that the bargaining table in the workplace is not even and that employers have a disproportionate amount of power in the negotiation. But it is also a balanced system that looks after the rights of both parties.
Industrial relations laws are not needed for the majority of employers—the good bosses who make sure their workers have good conditions and are well looked after. The laws exist because there are employers who do not treat their workers properly and there needs to be legal limitations on how they are able to treat their workers. It is simply wrong to change the laws so that the workers have no rights. What this episode has shown is that "honest" John Howard does not care about the workers. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Federal Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, on his pledge to rip up the laws when he takes office next year.
If John Howard will not look after the important rights of workers, he does so at his peril. It may take some time for the worst aspects of the legislation to be realised, but as it does I have no doubt that the confusion and uncertainty currently experienced by employees and employers around Australia will give rise to genuine and justified fear. Thousands of workers across Australia attended a rally in November last year; yet the Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, dismissed it as a hysterical overreaction.
Numerous polls, letters to the editor and ministerial correspondence items have expressed grave concerns about what WorkChoices will mean for the average Australian worker. The Federal Government has defiantly ignored growing public scepticism. In his 10 years in government, John Howard has introduced many harmful and ideological laws that are simply bad policy, but this time he will not be able to buy off the Australian people with a cheap bribe shortly before the next election. This is clearly one law that affects all Australians, and the vast majority of them will be worse off for it.
There are negligible visible economic benefits from these laws, and productivity is likely to suffer as business drowns under a tide of red tape. Aside from the fact that businesses have to get their heads around 1,388 pages of legislation, over 400 pages of regulations and over 500 pages of explanatory notes, many new obligations have been placed on employers by these laws. All sorts of records, ranging from hours worked, to pay dates and leave accrual, are required to be maintained and kept for seven years by employers. This is a huge overhead on business, aside from the fact that most businesses do not even know where they stand on this legislation, because it is simply too difficult for them to understand it without legal advice. But perhaps typically these laws reflect the one characteristic that has marked the Howard Government more than any other—its total disregard for the truth and all notions of honesty or accountability.
The way these laws were rammed through Federal Parliament was nothing short of disgraceful, and the fact that such radical laws, unlike the GST, were not taken to the Australian people before the last election is a disgrace. And this is to say nothing of the poorly thought-out implementation of these laws, as the Howard Government focused on its aim of destroying unions instead of helping workers. First John Howard told employers not to use laws he has just brought in, as people start to realise just how harmful they actually are. Now he has announced that sacked workers will be given $4,000 of legal advice to assess the merits of their potential cases. The whole rationale given by the Government for getting rid of unfair dismissal laws was to remove baseless claims, but this move will encourage more claims to be made, and place a further burden on both, as the Federal Minister has confirmed that the new laws allow employers to sack workers they do not like.
Put simply, these changes are nothing more than the Federal Government using its numbers to put its ideological obsession into place, with the details poorly thought out, and the end result being that Australian workers will lose out in a very big way. What we have seen in the last few weeks is just the beginning. Sackings, reduced pay and conditions, and the worst is yet to come, and we must brace ourselves for it. But with the Federal Opposition, we on this side of the House will fight for the people of New South Wales and for their rights at work. We will continue to fight until we win, because it is only the members on this side of the House who truly care about workers in New South Wales. [Time expired.]
The Hon. GREG PEARCE [5.22 p.m.]: It surprises me that the Hon. Christine Robertson is prepared to put her name to that ideological obsession, claptrap and rubbish. As she well knows, this Labor Government, now 11 years old, not only has destroyed the New South Wales economy but has made New South Wales the laughing-stock of the Australian economy. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics compilation of economic figures shows that the New South Wales economy has stalled as a result of the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the Labor Government.
Data contained in the Australian economic indicator States summary, which was released a couple of days ago on 28 April, highlighted New South Wales as one of the worst performing States in Australia. The indicators confirm New South Wales as the slowest growing State in the country and as having the worst rate of private investment and the lowest growth in home building approvals. That is the result of the mismanagement of this Labor Government. I will take the House through a number of indicators because they tell a depressing story. The first indicator is final demand. In the measurement of final demand, New South Wales, at 0.7 per cent, is the lowest in the country other than South Australia at 0.4 per cent. When one compares the resources boom States of Western Australia at 4.5 per cent, Queensland at 1.2 per cent and Tasmania at 1.6 per cent, one sees the true state of the economy—
The Hon. Christine Robertson: Point of order: The Hon. Greg Pearce is not speaking to the leave of the motion.
The Hon. Greg Pearce: To the point of order: The motion refers to the New South Wales economy and the role of the New South Wales Labor Government, which the Hon. Christine Robertson said is better for workers. I am establishing that that is not the case.
The Hon. Jan Burnswoods: To the point of order: The Hon. Greg Pearce, as is often the case, is wrong. I have read the motion carefully and it does not refer to the New South Wales economy.
The Hon. Charlie Lynn: To the point of order: The Hon. Greg Pearce is responding to the comments made by the Hon. Christine Robertson during the debate. The Hon. Jan Burnswoods was not present in the Chamber but I was and I heard exactly what the Hon. Christine Robertson said.
The Hon. Christine Robertson: Further to the point of order: I have read my speech several times and I cannot recall that the New South Wales economy was a focus of it. The focus was industrial relations.
The Hon. Greg Pearce: Further to the point of order: The central tenet of the argument was that workers were better off under a Labor Government. I am demonstrating that workers are not better off under a Labor Government. I am entitled to debate that tenet and dispute it.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: To the point of order: Any ordinary person would understand that industrial relations and the economy are related. Is the Labor Party seriously suggesting that industrial relations has nothing to do with the economy and that any remarks made about the economy are irrelevant? I am astonished that such a point of order could be taken.
The Hon. Jan Burnswoods: Further to the point of order: The Opposition continues to misrepresent us. The point I made, which the Hon. Christine Robertson picked up, is that the Hon. Greg Pearce said totally erroneously that the motion and the speech by the Hon. Christine Robertson were about the New South Wales economy. The point we are making is that, as is often the case, the Hon. Greg Pearce is wrong in fact.
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Greg Donnelly): Order! The motion focuses specifically on industrial relations. There is some capacity for members to examine ancillary points but I ask the Hon. Greg Pearce to confine his remarks to the leave of the motion.
The Hon. GREG PEARCE: I had concluded that point. Not only has the Federal Liberal-National Government led by John Howard not destroyed workplace conditions; its policies and sound economic management have contributed to the best conditions for workers this country has ever known. To give an indication of how the Government has done that I shall quote some statistics. In May 1996, when the Howard Liberal-National Government came to office, 8.3 million Australians were in work. As at December 2005 that number had increased to 10 million. So far from destroying workplace conditions, the Howard Government has been responsible for a net increase of 1.7 million Australians in work.
Surely the most telling figure relating to industrial relations and employment policies is the unemployment rate. As a result of the destructive Federal Labor Government led by Paul Keating, the unemployment rate was 8.2 per cent when the Howard Government came to office. As we know, that rate had fallen to 5.1 per cent in December 2005. Again, far from destroying workplace conditions, the Howard Federal Government has contributed to a massive decline in unemployment and created conditions that have allowed an additional 1.7 million Australians to work. How has the Federal Government done that? One measure is that it has contained inflation, which the Federal Labor Government was never able to do. When the Howard Government came to office inflation was running at 5.2 per cent; in December 2005 it was down to 2.4 per cent—a remarkable and sustained improvement.
The story on interest rates is the same: fine management by the Howard Government. When the Labor Party left office federally average interest rates were 12.75 per cent. Recently, interest rates were down to 7.15 per cent. The Federal Government's economic performance has been excellent. Another measure of the state of workers and how they have been treated under the Federal Government is real wages growth. Between 1987 and 1996, the period of the last Federal Labor Government—when it had the opportunity to show that its industrial relations policies would benefit Australia—real wages growth was 0.3 per cent. What has been the average wages growth since the Howard Government came to office? Since the Howard Government came to office in 1996—during a period when inflation was much lower, so the real wages effect is even better—real wages growth has been 15.5 per cent. That is a measure of what a Liberal-National Government will do for workers, compared with what would happen under a long-term Federal Labor Government. During the time the last long-term Federal Labor Government was in office real wages growth was 0.3 per cent. It did not go backwards, but it was virtually nil.
Under the Howard Government, with its excellent industrial relations policies, real wages growth has been 15.5 per cent. That is also reflected in the fact that the industrial relations environment has been peaceful during the term of the Federal Liberal-National Government. Far from the Federal Liberal-National Government not improving workplace relations, the record is completely the opposite. The last Federal Labor Government had an abysmal record in terms of industrial disputes. Under the last Federal Labor Government, the number of industrial disputes measured by days lost per 1,000 employees was 193. Under the Howard Liberal-National Government, the number of industrial disputes measured by days lost per 1,000 employees is down to 67. Clearly, under the last long-term Federal Labor Government there was a much greater degree of industrial disputation.
When we hear ideological claptrap, as we did from the Hon. Christine Robertson, it is much better to enter the debate by putting facts on the record. When making a comparison between the performance of a Federal Liberal-National government and a Federal Labor government, one need only look at the facts. Labor should be completely ashamed of its inability to manage the economy and to improve conditions for the ordinary workers of Australia. No-one could dispute that, when faced with the figures I have just quoted. And they are not the only measures.
Another figure that will be of interest to members of the House is the number of apprentices in training. At the time the Federal Labor Government was thrown out there were 143,700 apprentices in training. Under the Howard Government the number of apprentices in training was 391,200—a figure to be proud of—as at June 2005. So it is no wonder members opposite have their heads cast down. They are ashamed of the poor record of the Federal Labor Government, which had only about one-third of that number of apprentices in training in the economy. I pointed out that the experience in New South Wales is similar. We have had a long-term Labor Government, and the result of a long-term Labor Government is economic mismanagement and workers salaries and jobs being put at risk. The proof of that federally is that a Labor Government was thrown out in 1996.
The proof of that in New South Wales is that our economy is now in crisis, and New South Wales is the slowest growing State in Australia. An area of concern where that is reflected is residential building approvals. If members of the Labor Party do not think that is important to workers, they really do not know anything. According to latest figures, New South Wales residential building approvals have fallen by 1.9 per cent. In South Australia they are up by 2.1 per cent.
We do not go on with ideological rubbish such as this motion. It is ridiculous. Under the policies of the Howard Liberal-National Government workers and small business have much greater opportunities.
The Hon. Henry Tsang: Are workers going to be protected? Are they not losing their jobs?
The Hon. GREG PEARCE: What about household wealth? The Hon. Henry Tsang wants me to talk about household wealth. When the long-term Keating Labor Government was thrown out the household wealth of Australians was $2.048 billion. Under the Howard Government it has more than doubled, to $4.553 billion.
The Hon. Peter Primrose: Point of order: I am very keen to hear the honourable member put on the record his support for WorkChoices. I ask you to ask honourable members to cease interjecting.
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Greg Donnelly): Order! I uphold the point of order.
The Hon. GREG PEARCE: I thank the Government Whip for that point of order. I am sure that if the Deputy-President had heard some of the interjections he would have acted earlier. The true test of the performance of the Howard Federal Government is the improvement in workplace conditions, jobs, wages and the Australian economy over the period of John Howard's prime ministership, coupled with growth in real wages, the decline in average inflation and lower mortgage rates. One should compare the Federal position with that in New South Wales. All this Government can do is waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars in the High Court defending a stupid and futile appeal that, again, is based on ideological obsession.
The Hon. DON HARWIN [5.42 p.m.]: I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to this motion, which was moved passionately by the Hon. Christine Robertson. It is important to remember that this debate is proceeding this afternoon principally because the Government does not have any business to present. Incredibly, in the first week of five weeks of sitting over a six-week period during which we are supposed to be debating government legislation, the Government has chosen to defer its business completely and allow a private members' business day. I might add that the usual courtesy of notice to members was not extended on this occasion. The Opposition was informed of the change at about 11.30 this morning. Nevertheless, we are soldiering on and I am happy to make a contribution to debate on this motion.
The motion comprises five paragraphs, each of which is capable of standing alone. The first paragraph makes a statement about the New South Wales Liberal and Nationals coalition. I will return to that if I have time. The second paragraph makes a statement about the behaviour of the Federal Government, and that is what I will principally focus on. Paragraph (c) makes a statement about the Government's mandate after the 2004 election. On its own I am not sure what paragraph (d) is trying to get at. Paragraph (e) makes a statement about the views of various parliamentary leaders of the Australian Labor Party and the stance they are taking on the Federal industrial relations package. Each paragraph stands alone and addresses different matters.
Paragraph (b) asks this House to note that the behaviour of the Federal Government is scurrilous. That topic I will debate. I noted the interchange earlier about what, according to the standing orders, could be discussed in this motion. I noted also the suggestion that because of paragraph (b) any reference to any aspect of the behaviour of the Federal Government is in order in this debate. If any honourable member takes a point of order on me, I will be happy to respond. However, I did not want to take up any more of my colleague's time, and I thought he was responding very ably. So, we are debating, inter alia, the behaviour of the Federal Government and whether or not it is scurrilous. That the time of private members' business is taken up debating such a motion is indicative of the performance of the State Government and the attitude of its members in this Chamber. I should have thought Government members might use the time on a private members' day to talk about something positive their government has done about which they have an interest. Instead, all they can do is attempt to rubbish the Federal Government. It is an extraordinary proposition but I am happy to have the debate.
So the question is: Is the behaviour of the Federal Government scurrilous? Until 2001 I had always lived in a safe Labor seat. That year the Federal electorate of Gilmore was won by the Liberal Party. Mrs Joanna Gash, the member for Gilmore, is the principal avenue through which I have contact with the Federal Government. She is the Federal Government Whip. To make up my mind about this motion I have to consider whether Mrs Joanna Gash is scurrilous—a notion I reject absolutely. I am proud of my sitting member. She has just recently completed 10 years in the Federal Parliament and is doing an excellent job for her constituency in Gilmore. I will put a few of her achievements on the record to demonstrate that in no way is this member of the Federal Government scurrilous. She is doing an outstanding job.
When Mrs Gash was elected she made a number of promises to the people of Gilmore, and she has kept them all. She has been an outstanding member. Some of her achievements relate to the roads portfolio. The roads on the South Coast certainly need a lot of attention, and we would be far better off this afternoon debating the state of the Princes Highway or the speed with which the Government has dealt with Main Road 92, or whether the State Government will fund the North Nowra link road—about which the Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Minister for Roads is in a good position to make a decision as it is within his new seat.
The State budget will likely provide for work on the North Nowra link road. Mrs Gash made a commitment at the beginning of her term that upgrading of the road between Nowra and Braidwood, otherwise known as Main Road 92, would become a reality while she was the member for Gilmore. The project had been long talked about in the Shoalhaven but not progressed. Back in 1996 some people scoffed at this commitment but Joanna Gash has delivered. Only last week I was delighted to attend the turning of the first sod near the junction of Main Road 92 and Hames Road at Yerriyong. Prime Minister Howard and the roads Minister, a member of this Chamber, the Hon. Eric Roozendaal, were present to turn the first sod for the upgrade of Main Road 92. This work is happening only because some years ago the Federal Government made Main Road 92 a road of national importance. Full credit to Shoalhaven City Council for backing the move. The State Government was dragged kicking and screaming but finally it has put up some money as well.
It is entirely to the credit of the member for Gilmore that this project is proceeding. It will be an outstanding part of her legacy. That alone indicates that that member of the Federal Government is not scurrilous. But wait, there is more! The member for Gilmore has also secured $34 million for work on the North Kiama bypass on the Princes Highway, which is the only part of the upgrading of the Princes Highway south of Wollongong that is proceeding. It took a Federal Government commitment to finally get the State Government to take some interest in the Princes Highway. I hope that this change in the State Government's attitude continues to improve.
Another area in which the member for Gilmore has an outstanding record, not a scurrilous record, is schools. The amount of Federal Government money that has gone into capital works funding for schools in the Gilmore electorate vastly exceeds the amount that has gone into private schools in that electorate. Kiama High School is being almost totally rebuilt with Federal Government money. The honourable member for Kiama would have us believe, according to the newsletter he has put out, that it is all a State Government effort. Of course, that is nonsense; most of the money for the upgrade comes from the Federal Government. Federal Government money is also being provided to schools further south in the Ulladulla and Milton area. That also is very much to the credit of the member for Gilmore.
In education, the member for Gilmore has worked tirelessly to provide greater tertiary education opportunities for the people of the South Coast. She secured funding to locate a campus of the University of Wollongong in Nowra. The member for Eden-Monaro also worked hard to get a campus of that university at Batemans Bay. The Federal Government is doing a great job in increasing access to higher education for young people on the South Coast. Its record is certainly not scurrilous in that respect. It is also not scurrilous in relation to the provision of a medical school at the University of Wollongong. This will enable more people from country areas to study medicine. The aim is to locate more graduates in country areas to service the communities there.
Shoalhaven is very much a navy area. People are very proud of the navy and the relationship the navy has with the Shoalhaven and Jervis Bay. One of the most moving Anzac Day ceremonies in this State is the 11.00 a.m. service held at the magnificent Voyager memorial in the park on the point in Huskisson, where Currambene Creek flows into the sea. HMAS Voyager was sunk off the heads of Jervis Bay. There is a long association between the navy and Jervis Bay, and under the Federal Government it is increasing. Considerable funding has been put into upgrading HMAS Albatross, just west of Nowra, and HMAS Creswell, which admittedly is in Jervis Bay territory but many people in Shoalhaven work there.
The Hon. Greg Pearce: The economy depends upon it.
The Hon. DON HARWIN: It certainly does. In fact, almost 10 per cent of the people in Shoalhaven who are employed have a working relationship with the navy. More than $1 billion has been spent upgrading HMAS Albatross. The army parachute school is also located at HMAS Albatross now. All of this has an enormous multiplier effect through the Shoalhaven. That is why there has been a massive fall in unemployment, because of the commitment that the Federal Government has—
Ms Lee Rhiannon: They have fudged the figures. You have only to work one hour a week to be classed as employed.
The Hon. DON HARWIN: I note that Ms Lee Rhiannon has come back into the Chamber in the last 60 seconds, having been absent for most of the afternoon, and seeks to make a contribution to the debate. I would be delighted to hear from her, even though I am sure it would involve the usual bile and venom that we hear about the Federal Government from the honourable member.
Ms Lee Rhiannon: You should not be like all the others, Don.
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Greg Donnelly): Order! The Hon. Don Harwin has the call.
The Hon. DON HARWIN: I was indicating that there would be bile and venom about the Government corporately, not about individuals. One of the strengths of the contributions of Ms Lee Rhiannon to the Chamber is that she is rarely personal. I pay her that tribute. She tends to stick to the issues, but that does not mean that she does not use bile and venom when she is talking about the issues. We seem to be shifting away from the very important subject of the contribution of the navy to the Shoalhaven. The multiplier effect of the navy and in particular the Fleet Air Arm, which is the principal component of HMAS Albatross, has been tremendous. A burgeoning avionics industry has developed in Nowra. A number of companies have relocated to the Shoalhaven, employing people in an incredibly important industry. More and more people are being employed and we are getting critical mass in the Albatross Aviation Technology Park, which is just to the west of HMAS Albatross. Coincidentally, it is located on Main Road 92.
There is nothing scurrilous about the Federal Government's record in the Shoalhaven and on the South Coast. The Federal member who represents me in Gilmore is not scurrilous; she has made an outstanding contribution to her electorate. She was re-elected with a massive margin in 2001, which demonstrates the support she has received. Her majority in 2001 exceeded that of almost every North Shore seat that the Liberal Party represents. In conclusion, there is no way I will vote for a motion that says that the behaviour of the Federal Government is scurrilous, because the experience of the people of the Shoalhaven is that the Federal Government has been really beneficial for them. The area is more prosperous, and infrastructure and educational opportunities are improving. There is much of which we can be proud.
As I said, this motion contains five stand-alone propositions and, sadly, I have had time to talk to only one. However, I will move on to paragraph (c), which refers to the mandate. We repeatedly hear about what "mandate" means, whether a House of Representatives majority is a mandate or whether one party must obtain a majority in both Houses to have a mandate. Honourable members of crossbench parties in the Senate and in this place often put the proposition that if a government does not have a majority in the upper House it does not have a mandate. That is an interesting discussion that we could have for a long time. Happily, at the 2004 election the Federal Government secured a majority in both Houses of the Federal Parliament. There can be no academic argument about whether the Federal Government has a mandate because clearly it does.
The motion states that the Federal Government does not have a mandate to put Australian workers into perpetual poverty with American-style working conditions. I agree with the Hon. Christine Robertson's phrasing that the Federal Government does not have a mandate to do that. However, it is not doing that, and I utterly reject her suggestion that it is. We repeatedly hear that the Federal Government does not have a mandate to introduce the WorkChoices legislation. That is absolute rubbish. John Howard, our Prime Minister, has repeatedly said over a very long period, during which he has led the party or been the shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, that the thing he most wanted to achieve in politics was a more flexible working place, which is an essential ingredient in improving the health of the Australian economy.
The Hon. Greg Pearce: He has been proved correct.
The Hon. DON HARWIN: Yes. Even the limited measures he secured during the Coalition Government's first couple of terms when it did not have a Senate majority have been an important and integral part of the improved economic performance that my colleague the Hon. Greg Pearce referred to in his contribution. His was a good contribution, based on very well researched statistics about the Federal Government's economic performance. Again and again as a party we have, during every election campaign, emphasised that the job was not done on industrial relations and that if we had a chance we would push forward. That is what we are doing and the Australian economy will be better for it. [Time expired.]
The Hon. Dr PETER WONG [6.02 p.m.]: As much as I share many of the sentiments expressed by the Hon. Christine Robertson, I cannot support the motion in its present form. I believe that the new industrial relations laws will affect many workers, particularly those on lower incomes, and many of them are from ethnic backgrounds. However, I agree with some of the key points raised by the honourable member. I do not believe that the Federal Government is scurrilous, but its policies are very pro-business. Although many workers do not agree with the legislation, many small businesses wholeheartedly embrace these policies. I do not think that any reasonable person believes that such policies will put Australian workers into perpetual poverty by introducing American-style working conditions. That is an exaggeration. I find it hard to applaud the Federal Leader of the Opposition, because he has neither policy nor leadership skills. I also cannot applaud the New South Wales Government because it has failed the people of New South Wales on many issues.
The Hon. PETER BREEN [6.04 p.m.]: The impact of the Federal Government's WorkChoices legislation is significant, particularly for people who have had certain conditions attached to their employment. My nephew is a truck driver and travels between Queensland and New South Wales. Prior to the enactment of the Federal legislation he received approximately $1,300 a week, which represented various allowances, including interstate travel allowances, meal allowances, loading allowances, and various other conditions. That salary and those allowances and conditions were reviewed when the new legislation was enacted. My nephew was directed by his employer to sign a workplace agreement that provided for an increase in his base salary from $20 to $21 an hour, but all the conditions attached to the previous employment agreement were summarily removed. As a result, my nephew now earns less than $1,000 a week. He has had an effective wage reduction of approximately $300 a week as a result of the new legislation.
I do not know how widespread that type of impact has been, but I fear that that example may be only the tip of the iceberg. It appears that many businesses, particularly small businesses, struggle to earn a reasonable profit and return for the capital invested. It is all too simple in many cases for the proprietors to review and reduce the working conditions and remuneration of their employees as a means of justifying the business and making a reasonable profit. If that behaviour is widespread, the WorkChoices legislation will have a dramatic impact on the Federal Government.
I refer honourable members to Bill Leak's very deft and, in many ways, menacing cartoon in today's Australian. It refers to people involved in the mine disaster in Beaconsfield in Tasmania being offered rescue only if they agree to sign WorkChoices agreements. Only Bill Leak could draw a cartoon like that, but it illustrates the point that employers hold all the cards. They exercise leverage on employees to ensure that productivity is maximised, and I do not have any problem with that. However, often that kind of leverage leads to exploitation of workers and that is where the difficulty lies. This legislation provides a number of opportunities for worker exploitation.
On that basis, the motion should be supported even though, as the Hon. Don Harwin pointed out, it contains strong language and it is something of a broad-brush approach to describe the Federal Government as scurrilous on the basis of one piece of legislation. However, it is a nasty piece of legislation and it will have wide ramifications that I do not believe will become apparent for some time. My nephew is in a position where his remuneration is being substantially reduced as a result of this legislation. If that example is widespread, the legislation will have a severe adverse impact on the work force of Australia. I commend the Hon. Christine Robertson for moving the motion and drawing the House's attention to the legislation. I support the motion.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK [6.10 p.m.]: I wish to make a couple of points in response to matters raised by the Hon. Peter Breen. I believe that many of his comments reflect an unfortunate outcome of the scare campaign that has been run against WorkChoices by the Australian Labor Party and the trade union movement. To the extent to which that scare campaign has been successful—with Labor and the trade union movement misrepresenting the legislation, running their Henny-Penny attacks, saying the sky is going to fall down, that workers will no longer receive penalty rates for holidays, that holidays will be abolished, and so on—it has robbed ordinary working people of knowledge about their rights under this legislation. My great concern is that, as a result of this disgusting and scurrilous scare campaign by the Labor Party, some New South Wales workers are under the misapprehension that if an employer behaves in a way that is illegal, that is their entitlement.
The Labor Party and the trade union movement have, at every turn, undermined proper information going out to the community in order to have a successful transition to the new arrangements. In doing so they have deprived ordinary workers of knowledge about their rights under the new legislation. It really concerns me that workers are suffering unnecessarily simply because they have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, this deceitful and dishonest campaign by the Labor Party. Members opposite cannot say that the Labor Party stands up for working people. If there were genuine concern for New South Wales workers, there would be far greater interest in adhering to the truth and ensuring that workers rights are protected under the new regime. Far from Labor having any concern for that, it still seeks to misrepresent the legislation, in the hope that people will believe that illegal behaviour on the part of employers is now legal. This undermines the legislation, but, more importantly, it causes fears and anxieties that are completely unnecessary. I cannot understand how Labor Party members can look themselves in the mirror and say they represent working people, when substantial sections of the work force are very much in ignorance as result of Labor's efforts, to their detriment.
I wish to address a point made by the Hon. Peter Breen about the power relationship being tipped too far in favour of employers. If one considers the demographics of this nation, we are looking at a rapidly ageing country and a rapidly shrinking work force. Increasingly in our present environment, trained people who are willing to work will be the king in the industrial relations system. Our country is already experiencing a severe shortage of people for appropriate positions. The Government is already recruiting overseas for a number of different government departments. We are looking at nursing shortages—
The Hon. Henry Tsang: We are training our apprentices.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: With respect, nurses attend university. We left that system behind many years ago, whereby nurses were in an apprentice-type scheme. We know that there are labour shortages everywhere and that employers are desperate to obtain good employees. People who are willing to participate are masters of their own destiny. In a sense, the future for young people entering the work force today is very exciting. They have access to a variety of careers that the older generation of Australians never would have had, and they certainly have opportunities to obtain remuneration levels that were simply unthinkable on the part of their grandparents.
For example, the Premier announced changes to public housing whereby a lot of the funding available for public housing will be reallocated away from young families and towards older people. All of this reflects the changes. I certainly do not endorse that policy, but the driver for that policy is simply demographic change. I assure the House that in five to 10 years we will be in a major labour crisis. I believe that work force planning for the public sector, as well as for the private sector, is potentially the number one issue facing the future of this State and nation; it is so important. The perception that somehow workers will overnight become slaves under this new system completely misinterprets what is happening in terms of the way various industries are being organised and these enormous labour shortages are occurring. During the last election campaign the Federal Labor Party announced incredibly irresponsible policies. I think the leader at the time was a gentleman named—
The Hon. Don Harwin: Mark Latham.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: My colleague reminds me it was Mark Latham. I believe that if you want to speak to Mark Latham these days—
The Hon. Greg Pearce: You need to go to the Local Court.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: —you need to go to the Local Court, as my colleague says. You will see him in Campbelltown court in the next few weeks. Mark Latham, that legend produced by New South Wales Labor, said that Labor would simply abolish Australian workplace agreements [AWAs]. In response to industry, where there was a huge outcry of "You cannot overnight vaporise all our agreements with all our workers", Labor made the huge concession, "We won't vaporise them on the day we take office. We will allow them to expire, and then all your employees will then need to revert to awards." I think over one million employees would have been affected by this policy.
I have spoken to people in the Tweed area. In the clubs, for example, I was shown bars that would no longer be opened and activities that could no longer occur. To give an example, there are hundreds of women employed in the clubs in Tweed undertaking activities, for example, working behind a bar or in an activity involving elderly people, for two or three hours a day. Such a flexible employment arrangement is negotiated under a workplace agreement, so that workers are able to share shifts and approach employers with their new arrangements. Such an arrangement operates only because there is an Australian workplace agreement in place. Under the award, employers need to employ people for a minimum number of hours. However, a club manager may not want certain parts of the club to remain open for six hours because the club cannot afford it or it may not have enough business to sustain it. Under the AWA the club can open the area for two hours. However, if the club has to revert to the award, it will have to open the area for six hours. Therefore the bar will not open at all, which means that the bar worker will not have a job.
The people primarily employed in these positions were women with children, and it really suited them to work either during school hours or after dinner, say between 8 o'clock and 10 o'clock in a club, two hours a night, five nights a week. It was absolutely ideal for them. But it was impossible under the policies of the Latham Government. Not only would it prevent that type of scheme from expanding but it absolutely wanted to stamp it out. Labor members simply cannot say their party cares about those low-income women, who needed that flexibility in order to minimise their child care costs. If Mark Latham had won office and become Prime Minister of Australia, instead of appearing in Campbelltown court next week, all those jobs would have been wiped out.
The Howard Government has long argued the benefits of workplace agreements and workplace flexibility. It is outrageous that Labor Party members attempt to argue that these workplace agreements somehow took them by surprise and were an unexpected aspect of the Howard Government's policies, when it sought to introduce similar legislation on four occasions in the past but had it blocked in the Senate. It is outrageous that Labor tries to argue, after an election when the Howard Government won a mandate of the lower House and, for the first time, the Senate, that there is no entitlement for it to pursue this policy agenda. Indeed, I would have thought it would be dishonest of the Howard Government if it did not utilise its mandate to implement the policies that it had stood for all its life. WorkChoices offers flexibilities to women and opportunities to young people who want to mix study with employment. On the North Coast we have an enormous number of young people moving to an area that is economically underdeveloped. As a result they are self-employed people working as consultants trying to set up their own small businesses.
In the Lismore area the Yellow Pages telephone book is something like five times bigger than the White Pages, reflecting the huge number of small businesses employing one or two people up there. In order to grow and in order to employ people these businesses need to have flexibility, and they just were not able to negotiate these arrangements with their employees under the old system. The Howard Government has given them that choice. Believe me, the economy on the North Coast is going to become more productive, it is going to flourish, and the kids are going to have more opportunities for employment. As they grow up and develop their skills and motivation they are going to be absolute kings of the Australian economy in the next five to 10 years. Far from being concerned for their future, in many respects older generations should envy the kids because of these opportunities that have opened up.
As has been commented upon by virtually all of the economic commentators in Australia, labour flexibility and reform is the last great area for us to open up to ensure that our country can stay competitive and can survive in the modern global economy. Scurrilous behaviour undermines our opportunities and our future. Economic Luddites want to stand by and watch opportunities go out the window. I think we need to look no further than France to see what happens when that type of view prevails. Let us not think that the commonsense view will automatically win out. We have just seen riots in France, where the Government operates a 100-year-old inflexible system that requires such high costs for the employment of youth with the inevitable result that youth have virtually no job opportunities.
The French Government tried to reform the system in order to create opportunities, particularly for the people most affected—people from lower income families. Riots then ensued, a sort of Luddite attitude prevailed, the Government caved in, and now France is back to a totally inefficient, locked-up, overpriced job system for young people. As a result, the youth of France are really going to miss out. The French economy is going to be undermined and I feel really sorry for what was once a great French nation. It should remind us how strong the Howard Government has been to weather scare campaigns by those who repeat unintelligent, stupid mantras that sound so glib but which have the effect of undermining our economy, our job opportunities and our future. I am incredibly grateful that John Howard is in office. I do not shy away at all from the job he is doing, particularly in relation to workplace reforms, and I wish the Howard Government every success.
I will make one more point about the part of the motion that relates to scurrilous behaviour because I think it provides a lovely contrast to Labor's approach to these issues, particularly tax cuts. I noticed with interest that the Federal member for Richmond, Justine Elliot, was reported in my local papers this week as demanding tax cuts for Australians. It is funny and I had to laugh openly when I read the article. How do we get the economy into a situation where tax cuts are an option? Certainly not based on the voodoo economics of the New South Wales Labor Party. I wondered if Justine Elliot and Kim Beazley were starting to take lessons from the New South Wales Labor Party in putting together their economic policies because with the contradictions it certainly seemed like there was an echo in the Federal Labor Party room.
As pointed out by the Treasurer, Peter Costello—Labor, when there were tax cuts on offer last year, voted against all of them. The Labor Party attempted to use its numbers in the Senate in the dying weeks of its ability to block these things in the Senate. Labor members indicated they were going to vote against these tax cuts, and did vote against them until they were forced into a humiliating backdown when the Tax Commissioner pointed out that if this situation was allowed to continue for too much longer all Australians would be robbed of their tax cuts for the first quarter of this financial year. So in a humiliating backdown Kim Beazley was forced to admit that Labor would abstain and allow these tax cuts to go through. Imagine our amusement in the run-up to this year's budget, after Labor members voted against the tax cuts, to hear them demanding tax cuts. I think, as Mr Costello said, it takes a very special type of thinking and a special kind of training that is only obtainable in the Labor Party to vote against tax cuts and then demand tax cuts, and to do all of this poker-faced, as the Labor Party does. It is really quite extraordinary.
I join my colleague the Hon. Don Harwin in congratulating the Federal Government, which—in spite of all the blaming of the State's problems on the Federal Government and in spite of all the games that Labor like to play here—has stepped in on the issue of funding for government schools. During the last Federal campaign we saw a disgusting attack on the Federal Government's support for non-government schools: Mark Latham was going to de-fund schools left, right and centre and not sign on to the agreement with the Catholic schools. Thank goodness that went nowhere. We know the Federal Government has delivered unprecedented, consistent and strong support for non-government schools.
As well as government schools receiving record funding from the Federal Government, we are now seeing the benefits of the Federal Government again stepping into the breach in view of Labor's mismanagement of school maintenance projects and capital works projects. We all need to remember that when this Government was elected in 1995 the Department of Education had a $120 million school maintenance program that guaranteed cyclic maintenance for every government school in the State every seven years, and that in its very first budget it abolished that program. Around $1.5 billion that ought to have been spent on cyclic maintenance of government schools over the last 12 years has not been spent. If anybody wants to know why our government schools are falling apart at the seams, look no further than the $1.5 billion in funding that was ripped off from government schools by this party.
I am dealing with your issue of "scurrilous behaviour", because it is the most scurrilous and disgraceful type of behaviour to rip that amount of money out of maintenance for government schools. It was the biggest knife in the back to government school students in this State, and look at the condition of those schools now.
The Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans: Point of order: Surely what the New South Wales Government does in school maintenance has got nothing to do with what the Howard Government does in industrial relations. This is really stretching the longbow. The idea that politics only means criticising the other side of the House is absolutely outside the motion.
The Hon. Don Harwin: To the point of order: The honourable member obviously has not read the resolution. A particular point of that resolution is to describe the Federal Government's behaviour as scurrilous. The Hon. Catherine Cusack was pointing out an area where the Federal Government's behaviour—its funding of government schools capital expenditure—has been far from scurrilous, it has been outstanding. She was contrasting that with the State Government, and in my view she is within the standing orders.
The ACTING-PRESIDENT:Order! The Hon. Don Harwin must have misheard the contribution of the Hon. Catherine Cusack; that was not in fact what the member was doing. The point of order by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans is valid and I uphold the point of order. The Hon. Catherine Cusack should speak to the motion before the Chamber.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: I congratulate the Federal Government for its funding for school maintenance and stepping into that void created by the State Government. There is news coverage today of funding provided to Blacktown Boys High School, which is highly commendable. I know that schools on the far North Coast also are benefiting from this funding. One other area in which the Federal Government has attempted to provide assistance to the States, although should not have had to, is the Pacific Highway. Members know that that is a matter dear to many of our hearts. The Federal Government has been extremely patient and honourable, given the disgraceful way in which the State Government has defaulted on that issue.
Finally, on the issue of the Casino to Murwillumbah train line I thank the Commonwealth for its efforts in providing a plan and a way forward with the PricewaterhouseCoopers' report. Again, the Federal Government's behaviour has been outstanding. I can only contrast that with the scurrilous behaviour of the State Government and hope that within 12 months many of those problems will be rectified.
Debate adjourned on motion by the Hon. Peter Primrose.