Address to Australian Industry Group National PIR Conference

Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning.

Can I acknowledge Stephen Smith, members of AIG, stakeholders, and fellow workplace relations tragics.

In any discussion of matters workplace relations it is always instructive to remind oneself that issues workplace relations straddle both the social and economic areas of public policy.

Too often it is stove piped into one or the other.

Our personal sense of self worth, our health – physical and mental – and not only our own but also those that live with us – their health – physical and mental – their educational achievements etc are all impacted.

Indeed, when we have social interaction, the first revelation we make about ourselves is our name and then what ‘we do’.

The letter inviting you to this conference suggested ‘the conference will be a valuable opportunity to learn about and influence the Opposition’s workplace relations, views and policies.

I look forward to your suggestions.

Let me make a few preliminary observations. The ideological warfare of WorkChoices and Forward with Fairness whilst interesting, adrenalin pumping for some, helping some careers and debilitating others – is to miss the fundamental – Australians want a fair system for their work places which is conducive to collaboration rather than confrontation between Australian workers and those of their fellow Australians who employ them.

Commonsense is an ingredient that has been lacking. Commonsense needs to be given a seat or a platform within workplace relations determinations. And commonsense suggests to me that a prescriptive one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work, will stifle innovation and frustrate the aspirations of many Australian workers.

The Bupa case highlights what I am talking about. If 1,600 workers, 2 unions heavily involved in representing the workers and the employer agree; leaving workers better off overall, why would you want Fair Work Australia bowling over the agreement because part of Labor’s law is offended.

The workers knew they were going to be better off, as did the Unions, but from on high courtesy of Labor their innovative approach was frustrated. For no-one’s benefit, but the purity of ideology.

And you were told yesterday that the legislation was ‘working as expected’. Indeed we’ve been told Labor has no plan for changes and everything is going just ‘dandy’.

All is fine.

To be so blind and oblivious to reality or in denial is to be regretted.

To not recognize difficulties or faults in the practice of the legislation highlights the fact that purity of ideology rather than commonsense practical solutions required for the dynamism of the 21st century has gained the upperhand.

I’ve already referred to the Bupa case. I also refer to Matthew Spencer and Letitia Harrison from the Hardware Store in Terang. Where is commonsense there? They are now sacked and no one else has got their job.

Under Labor, minimum hours of engagement is so sacrosanct that workers need to be protected to the extent of losing their jobs. Ideology given first place ahead of commonsense.

But of course if it is such a fundamental principle why could Matthew and Letitia go over the road and work at a service station with no minimum hours requirement.

Paper boys are another example.

In most Awards now part-timers have to be advised in advance of their hours. To call them in for extra work means they need to be paid overtime – even if they are doing a favour by filling in for a work mate.

Therefore part timers – who want extra work are shunned in favour of casuals. As are part timers willing to help a mate.

The Labor straight jacket is hurting , to coin a phrase ‘working Australians’.

Literally tens of thousands of workers are finding themselves worse off although they were all promised ‘no workers would be worse off’.

And Ms Gillard tells us the new regime is “working as expected”. If she expected tens of thousands of workers to be worse off, she should have told them before the election.

Now, I note at the beginning of the year the Prime Minister burst back into the spotlight with his so-called series of speeches designed to set the political agenda. Rather than being a series of 7 speeches in 7 days, it was the one speech delivered in 7 different locations.

The old cut and paste option on the Prime Minister’s version of Microsoft was hopefully paid for working overtime.

In that speech “the greatest moral challenge of our time” was put on the backburner in favour of another great challenge of our time – the challenge of “productivity”. The word must have tested well in Labor’s focus group.  Because all we heard was the word mentioned and the need to drive productivity.

In the 24,565 words contained in the 7 versions of his speech emphasizing productivity, not once do the words ‘workplace’ or workplace relations’ get a mention.

It seems we can drive productivity absent of any input from workplace relations policy.

And that might I ask is consistent with Senator Arbib’s answer to my question in the Senate on the 3rd of February this year.

Senator Abetz: I refer the Minister to …the outcome between Total Marine Services and the MUA … What, if any, productivity offsets have been achieved as part of that agreement?

Senator Arbib: …The Government welcomes Total Marine and the MUA reaching a new enterprise agreement …which is tailor-made for the needs of the business …

Senator Abetz: On a point of order …the question was: what, if any, productivity offsets have been achieved as part of that agreement?

President: I draw the Minister’s attention to the question …

Senator Arbib: I will make the point again that this was an agreement that was reached between the employees …

Senator Abetz: Mr President, clearly we are not going to get an answer because I dare say there were no productivity offsets. I ask a supplementary question: Can the Minister confirm that excessive wage increase of this kind, which are not offset by increased productivity, will simply lead to wage inflation, which will, as it inevitably does, increase the cost of living for all Australian families and destroy jobs?

Senator Arbib: I totally reject that claim by Senator Abetz …

So there you have it. You can have huge wage increases without productivity offsets and it won’t hurt anyone. Oh, to be a true economic conservative like that.

But even yesterday, Ms Gillard left productivity until last in her speech. And then the final of four dot points was to begrudgingly acknowledge workplaces might have a role. And the current regime makes improving productivity a ‘key objective’ you were told.

But Labor welcomes the Total Marine Services outcomes. Labor welcomes the Bupa case. Labor welcomes young students losing their jobs, and the list goes on.

Our nation’s long term welfare is severely prejudiced if productivity in workplaces is ignored.

And we improve productivity by allowing innovation to flourish. And innovation flourishes when flexibility is allowed to flourish to develop rewarding employment opportunities for Australian workers that also satisfy the needs of their fellow Australians that employ them.

We will do more than mouth “productivity” because it tests well with focus groups. We will actually provide the flexibility needed to drive productivity.

Whenever the topic of productivity is raised the valuable work of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is studiously avoided by Labor or vociferously attacked by the likes of union dinosaurs like Senator Cameron.

But the ABCC has seen cultural and economic benefits like –

  • A 10% increase in industry productivity
  • Reduction in disputation by over 96%
  • Increases in average earnings of 25% in comparison to the average of 15%
  • An economic and gain to the community in excess of $5 billion
  • Improved levels of health and safety
  • A 7% productivity gain in commercial building relative to residential building.

Which all goes to show you can have better than average wage increases with productivity increases and everyone’s better off.  But Labor wants to abolish the mechanisms that provided this win/win, the ABCC and emasculate the penalty provisions.

We don’t and we won’t.

Yet Ms Gillard told us yesterday “we are best served as a society when respect is shown for the rule of law”.

Now was she talking about the ABCC? No.

Was she talking about Labor Senators and the CFMEU attacking the ABCC and Commissioner Lloyd  personally in Senate hearings?  No.

This high and mighty principle was evoked to criticize the Senate’s move to have the President of FWA appear before the Senate Estimates Committee.

I invite anyone to read the Hansard and Ms Gillard’s description of “unseemly behavior” by Senators will be exposed as rubbish.  Perhaps she read the Hansard of Senator Cameron questioning the ABCC.

Why Labor were so anxious to avoid accountability of FWA remains a mystery.

Although a possible reason could be the revelation that FWA does not examine Collective Agreements for productivity issues.

So apart from monitoring the ABCC, keeping FWA accountable before Senate Estimates the Coalition will seek to bring genuine fairness through commonsense and flexibility.

As the AIG pointed out to the Senate hearings the Fair Work Act provides 60 new rights to Unions and virtually none to employers.

Employers are actually called employers because they employ people. They need to be encouraged.

They need certainty not ideology.

They need answers from Fair Work about their obligations, not platitudes that “everything is going as expected”. That doesn’t help the baker in Launceston who has asked for guidance on how to remunerate his workers and Fair Work can’t help him – yet he will be delighted to learn that all is “going as expected”.

The Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines need to be addressed as well to ensure they don’t contradict the Fair Work Act in areas such as dispute resolution.

Here we are allegedly spending taxpayers money wisely encouraging dispute resolution mechanisms that will ensure project costs blow out. The reason in that?  The benefit? Well, it’s not for taxpayers, not for Government coffers. It’s to help unions – pure and simple which will help stifle innovation, flexibility and productivity.

Unlike Ms Gillard – we don’t see a perfect workplace relations landscape in front of us.

We see workers hurting.

We see employers hurting.

And they are hurting because of Labor’s rigid ideology which says Labor in Canberra knows what is best for each individual worker and employer.

So to conclude – I look forward to a system which recognizes that not all workers are the same.

That their needs and aspirations vary depending on their stage in life, their personality, and their aspirations. And similarly workplaces vary in their needs – are they starting up, are they growing, are they needing to downsize.

The workplace is not static for which a one-off prescription can be applied for all time.

Of course, we demand high levels of workplace safety, high levels of protection for workers and employers from unconscionable conduct.

But you can have all that with basic fairness and decency without stifling innovation, snuffing out commonsense and frustrating the aspirational.

And we can make that possible, if we create the environment to encourage innovation, commonsense and aspiration through genuine flexibility.

The Coalition rejects the old thinking of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ class warfare mentality.

We embrace what Australian workers and the men and women that employ them do everyday – see a common interest or a problem, and work it out for their mutual benefit – like they tried to do in the Bupa case and the Terang Hardware Store.

We should let these decent Australians get on with the job, not set up ideological road blocks. Road blocks that lead to worker dissatisfaction, less competitiveness, less productivity where we all lose.

So in short, our policy will be framed in the context of delivering Fairness to all – through commonsense and flexibility.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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