ALSF Address - The Forgotten People of the 21st Century

When Robert Menzies founded our great party, he was concerned with what he described as the forgotten people – those people that had become voiceless at the hands of the Labor Government that dealt in the big picture, and forgot the people and communities that actually made up the big picture.

Now some 65 years later, it seems Labor of the 21st century has learnt nothing.

Labor is still stuck in their ideology of Government knowing best - that Government is the centre of everything and no doubt that is why Labor leaders have such inflated egos because they foolishly see themselves as being at the centre of all things important.

Like King Canute before his jolt back into reality, Labor and its leaders continue to believe their own propaganda and advisers.

Here in Western Australia, the home of Australia’s mineral exports, we know how Labor tried to deal with the so-called resources super profit tax.

Without consultation, Labor, with a so-called big vision sought to engage in a big tax spree to pay for its big spending and big borrowings by stifling a vital sector of our economy.

No consultation. When things go terribly wrong, Labor think they can move the deck chairs on the Titanic as a remedy.  People looking busy.  Plenty of activity.  Plenty of colour and movement.  But no real action.

Then a deal is struck with the three big players, ignoring all the hundreds of small and intermediate entities that would be impacted.

Labor only thinks big, big Government and big business.

Remember the so-called Accord. Under the Prime Ministerships of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, we had this deal as a country with the big unions. The ACTU basically had a seat at the Cabinet table – but what happened – workers suffered. Thousands of workers suffered – real wages declined all in the name of the Accord - a big deal between big Governments and big unions.

And on that altar, many individual workers and their well being were sacrificed.

Labor’s approach on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was the same – big picture – big bang – lead the world and let Australian jobs and businesses suffer for the sake of the big world agreement that was going to happen at Copenhagen.

We see it in my area of Workplace Relations – big Government, big unions, big Fair Work bureaucracy where individuals are forgotten and ignored.

Where bosses can’t sack sexual predators or recalcitrant employees anymore.

Look at the Building Education Revolution – big, big spending with no real relevance to local communities. So you get libraries without books or librarians all in the name of building a revolution. Lenin and Stalin would have been terribly proud.

Labor believes everyone should be corralled into a student union for the so-called common good. Individual rights can be sacrificed on the altar of the centrally determined big picture, so-called common good.

Labor believes in big Government, big spending, big debts, big unions, big business.

Have you ever stopped to see which sectors were singled out for special help during the global financial crisis – was it farmers? – was it small business?

No, it was the banks – it was the retailers – it was the construction sector and the automotive sector – all big business areas with a big union involvement in their workforce, and their wellbeing was guaranteed by sacrificing literally thousands of small businesses and many self funded retiree savings.

So the challenge for us as Liberals is to remember the forgotten people of the 21st century.

And who are they? Yes, they are still the farmers, the small business people, the small miners, the individual workers and students who mightn’t want to join the union or be stifled by the restraints of an award. They are the mums who might want to be a homemaker, the greatest profession of all.

Too often in Canberra, political parties and the media obsess about big organizations like the ACTU, AIG and ACCI.

Don’t get me wrong – these organisations play an important part in our society and Australia would be worse off without them.  Nevertheless the question needs to be asked as to how representative are they.

The Union Movement represents about 20 per cent of the workforce, AIG and ACCI would be lucky to represent a similar percentage of employers.

As I tour shopping centres in my role as Shadow Employment and Workplace Relations Minister and engage with small business men and women and their co-workers face to face, I find that overwhelmingly the workers are not unionised and the small business people are not in their local Chamber of Commerce, or like body.

And the snap shot they give me over a cup of coffee is so so different to what I get from the big bodies.

Indeed, I find the national bodies are a lot less attuned to what is happening in the real world than their state divisions or chapters.

It is easy to be seduced by the big players – the national body, and think you have had heard all there is to know.

My experience is that there is no substitute to connecting with the real players – the forgotten people.

And now, 65 years later, the forgotten people are not much different to who they were 65 years ago.

Our challenge as Liberals is to remain focused, keep our feet on the ground and engage, not with the theoreticians, but with those with the real life experience.

Me thinks if the previous Government had taken soundings from small business and workers alike, the small business definition for unfair dismissals at 100 full time equivalent employees would have been overwhelmingly rejected. Same with the removal of the No Disadvantage test. No one actually was calling for these changes in the workplaces around the country. Yet somehow, we were talked into it and suffered the electoral cost that even more importantly, dislocated and created uncertainty for the lives of many Australian workers.

In looking after the forgotten people, there are many areas where this Government has failed. Two areas that I will be seeking to address as the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in a Coalition Government are as follows -

First, why should big Government be the beneficiary of the interest earned on the back pay owed by employers to employees.

Once the money has been recovered, the Fair Work Ombudsman then seeks to find the relevant employees – often they are not found for 6, 12 or more months. During that time, consolidated revenue earns the interest. When this was drawn to the attention of the Government they expressed no interest.

Under a Coalition Government, the individual workers that were short changed in the first place will become the beneficiaries of those interest earnings, but with Labor of course, consolidated revenue will always be more important than wage justice for individual workers.

Secondly, with the Australian Building and Construction Commission.This body has been given considerable and important powers for it to deal with a festering evil in the building and construction sector.  People can be forced to partake in interviews. I reluctantly support that power because of the greater evil being perpetrated by criminal elements and thugs within that sector.

But why not offer a full audio visual of the interview conducted to the person interviewed immediately on the cessation of the interview – it’s fair, its reasonable and should in no way impede the power of the Commission.  It is just another step in looking after individuals.

Thirdly, with Labor’s Individual Flexibility Agreements, but I will have more to say on that score later.

As Liberal students, I would encourage you, as you look at areas of public policy to always think about the forgotten people – those that have not been included in the equation and the list goes on – the mums and the children in the Northern Territory indigenous communities were without doubt the forgotten people before the Howard Government intervention. They had been forgotten for decades. The Coalition was willing to speak for them. And you can be assured that under Tony Abbott the Australian people have an alternate Prime Minister who is genuinely engaged in looking after the small business person, the small miner, the individual worker, the individual student, and most importantly , our, if I can use that term, collective future by getting rid of this big debt that now hangs over your futures.

As I go through life’s journey, I learn that some things never change. One thing that never changes is that a Labor Government will always sacrifice individuals on the altar of their big picture socialist approach to Government.

And that of course is the fundamental difference between Labor and Liberal.

We are focused on the big picture, but we always recognise that the big picture is made up of all the individual parts and therefore it is vitally important to look after all the individual parts, and if you do so, you then get the big picture right.

That’s the fundamental difference, and that is why I am so proud to be a Liberal, and that is the reason I became involved in public life.

I trust that as you go through your studies and into your careers, you will continue to have an interest in public policy and when you do, please ensure that you always focus on those that may unwittingly become the forgotten people.

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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