Address to NSW Industrial Relations Society 14th May 2010

It's a delight to be with you and thanks for the invitation. 

Brad's kind invitation included the foreboding observation that amongst other things the attendance of the Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations "has always been a highlight of the conference." 

I trust that Brad can write the same for the introduction to the 2011 conference. By then I hope my description will have been shortened with the important removal of the frustrating word "shadow"! 

I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm addressing a group of fellow industrial relations "tragics" - whom I acknowledge from Judges to an Attorney-General, a Minister to elected officials to hired guns and the world of academia. 

Although I note you may be more "tragic" than me in that you eat, breathe and live workplace relations all day, every day, whereas I get some light relief through question time talking matters economic and other general issues in the broader public policy arena. 

Your individual specialist knowledge is undoubtedly better than mine - so please go easy!


Let me acknowledge the private sponsors of this conference for their corporate citizenry. 

Before I get into the speech, I should tell you that I won't be announcing any new policy today and therefore I will potentially, regrettably, be somewhat vague and general in response to some questions. 

And in case youre wondering exactly when our full policy will be announced, it will be "in due course." 

So, any good ideas out there? Let me know  - pretty quickly. 

In any discussion of matters workplace relations it is always instructive to remind oneself that issues of 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 and 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 and future opportunities 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 ideological warfare of the now-dead 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. 

Now I know some amongst us are salivating at the prospect of re-running the 2007  election campaign in 2010. 

So excited are they that they are already spending big money. 

My counterpart, Ms Gillard, is similarly salivating as she falsely asserts that we will reintroduce Workchoices - a policy which we acknowledge as a failed policy. 

I could just as easily claim that a re-elected Labor Government would revive the embarrassing Medicare Gold debacle - the personal brainchild of Ms Gillard herself - a policy which by the way she has never repudiated. 

Ms Gillard is also the number one ticket holder, not only of the Melbourne Storm (of salary cap fame), but also of the Mark Latham fan club. 

For Ms Gillard, and the unions, I have a simple message - life has moved on. 

Just as we have rightly acknowledged the failure of Workchoices as a policy, I assume Ms Gillard similarly acknowledges her policy failures and has dumped Medicare Gold and Mark Latham - even if not the Melbourne Storm! 

What Australians are interested in is how the current system is working, and Labor and Coalition plans for the future - not the past. 

In fact, the attempts to hark back to 2007 are a studied attempt and frankly pathetic attempt to avoid scrutiny of the actual impact of the current system. 

And in this regard, the key feature which the current system is lacking is, that vital ingredient commonsense. 

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. It will stifle innovation and frustrate the aspirations of many Australian workers. 

The Bupa case highlights what I am talking about. If 1,600 workers, two unions heavily involved in representing the workers and the employer agree, leaving the workers better off overall, why would you want to bowl over the agreement? 

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 Ms Gillard told us on the 20th April that her legislation was "working as expected." Indeed, we were told Labor had no plan for change and everything was going just "dandy." 

Sixteen days later Ms Gillard had to table new regulations on the take-home pay issue - just 16 days later suggesting all was not going "as expected." 

Indeed, tens of thousands of Australians knew things weren't going "as expected" because they were experiencing or facing the prospect of lower wages in direct breach of yet another of the exaggerated election promises which were made those two long years ago. 

Now sure, take home pay orders can claw back lost wages - but not other conditions lost in Ms Gillard's haste. 

(And those anxious to run campaigns are strangely silent and would instead spend their time and money running their daggers through the corpse of Workchoices rather than dealing with the live issues facing workers now.) 

But I digress! 

Now, spare a thought for the employer being subjected to a take home pay order who faces the competition of a new entrant into the market who, unfettered by a take home pay order, can legally pay lower Modern Award wages, and thereby undercut their competition. 

And we were solemnly promised that no employer would be worse off either! 

But it's all going "as expected"-and there is no need to change according to Ms Gillard. 

I am sure the same is thought about productivity - because we were promised by Ms Gillard that "productivity-based bargaining and flexibility are the heart of the new system" (4/12/08, Second Reading Speech). 

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 groups. But 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 say is consistent with Senator Arbib's answer to my question in the Senate on the 3rd 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&

-         I didn't get an answer.

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 increases 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 have such a clear understanding of what it means to be an economic conservative. 

Let's be blunt - 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. 

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

And have you ever noticed whenever the topic of productivity is raised the valuable work of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is studiously avoided by Labor or indeed vociferously attacked? 

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 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. 

So, has the Fair Work Act reformed the industrial relations landscape in Australia, or has it merely recycled it? 

Well, in the sense that it has replaced the failed Workchoices, it has reformed it, but in actual substance, it is clearly a recycling. 

A recycling of the combative, adversarial approach of the past. 

A recycling of the class warfare of the past. 

A recycling of the complexity and confusion of the past - As evidenced by the almost $90 million in additional funding allocated in the budget to the burgeoning Fair Work bureaucracy. 

And a recycling of an industrial relations system that creates winners and losers, and where, sadly, those who are supposed to protect their members are more interested in politics than in people. 

Take for example Labor's new mining super tax. 

A tax which will massively hit the profitability and expansion plans of Australia's miners, limiting their ability to increase wages and to employ more people. The impact will reverberate right down to the local gravel pit increasing the cost of living for everyone. 

All welcomed by the unions whose workers will suffer as a result. 

Or the Pink Batts debacle. 

Four people killed under the watch of the Rudd Labor Government, yet hardly a peep out of the unions. 

It reminds me of Ms Burrows' infamous comment made in the lead-up to the 2007 election campaign: 

"I need a mum or a dad of someone who's been seriously injured or killed. That would be fantastic."  Harsh, ugly and cynical - indeed repulsive. 

But only if that person was killed under the industrial relations laws of a Coalition Government, it seems&not Labor's Pink Batt debacle. 

Which made Ms Burrows' comments even harsher, uglier and more repulsive. 

Its about class warfare, and about politics, not about what's right for or in the best interests of the workers of Australia. 

Earlier this year, Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper splashed with a story that around 43,000 workers in the hospitality sector in NSW stood to lose $3 an hour from July 1. 

That tens of thousands of office workers in NSW and Victoria will also have their casual loading cut, reducing their weekly pay by about $50. 

And that aged care nurses in NSW will lose up to $300 a week, prompting a warning of an "exodus" of nursing home employees. 

All as a result of Labor's bungled so-called "modern awards" fiasco - which they have belatedly moved to fix. 

And all in breach of Julia Gillard's unequivocal commitment that no worker would be worse off as a result of the Fair Work Act. 

Yet on that very same day, rather than railing against the changes, standing up for the members and campaigning to have the laws changed, the ACTU was holding a two-day talkfest to discuss their election strategy against the Coalition. 

An election strategy which as I mentioned earlier has manifested itself in them running absurd television advertisements against an industrial relations policy we have yet to announce (and which won't include Workchoices) 

A strategy which saw the ACTU leadership welcoming this week's Rudd budget - despite the fact that it gives up on over 75,000 unemployed Australians by setting full employment at 4.75 percent. 

(Never mind the fact that unemployment was below four percent when we were in Government). 

A strategy which clearly puts the electoral interests of the Labor Party ahead of the workers which the unions purport to represent. 

Such is the keenness of the unions to support the interests of the Labor Party over Australian workers, we even had a SDA official arguing this week in evidence to Fair Work Australia that no job was better than two hours casual work.

Simply to defend Labor's flawed minimum hours clause in a so-called "modern award." 

So according to unions, no work is better than two-hours work. 

Try telling that to the students at Terang looking for some part-time work after school who have now been denied it by Labor, and by the union who is supposed to be representing them&And hasn't Labor delivered for the unions in return? 

A $10 million gift in this week's budget for the unions to spend on "educating" their members. 

And, as we saw with the release of figures this week showing that union membership has increased, just as Ms Gillard promised, she has delivered unions with "the best organising conditions they've ever had." 

The fact is, the Fair Work Bill gave some 60 new rights to unions, none to employers, and only a handful to workers. 

That is not the sort of "balance" that the Australian community needs or wants. 

A Coalition government will re-balance our industrial relations laws. 

As Tony Abbott said last night:

-         We'll seek to take the unfair dismissal monkey off the back of small businesses which are more like families than institutions;

-         We'll make Labor's transitional employment agreements less transitional;

-         And we'll make Labor's individual flexibility agreements more flexible. 

We have faith in Australian workers who are not as easily pushed around and exploited as the ACTU's dishonest ad campaign is already making out. 

But we won't "rip-up" the Fair Work Act like so ridiculously promised by Labor about our policies. 

We will take to the election a industrial relations policy which is fair and which is balanced. 

A policy which recognises that workplaces work best  - for the benefit of all involved- when recognition is given to the fundamental point that workers and employers can, should and will work together, not against each other in the right environment. 

We will restore the focus of our workplace laws to the workers and those that employ them. 

We will focus on job creation and sustainable wages growth (under the last Coalition Government over 2 million jobs were created and real wages increased by over 20 percent). 

It will not be revolution of the current laws, nor will it be a recycling of anything from the past. 

It will be a commonsense, balanced tweaking of the Fair Work Act, for the benefit of all Australians.



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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