Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Curtin proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The threat to jobs from Labor’s rollback of workplace relations reforms and the Government’s attempts to hide Treasury advice that its reforms will increase inflation and destroy jobs.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Mr Speaker, in an act of breathtaking arrogance, in an interview on Sky News on 19 March, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion gave her personal guarantee that no worker would be worse off due to Labor’s roll-back of workplace relations laws. We now know that the government has advice from Treasury—that is, from the government’s own economic advisers—that potentially thousands of workers will be worse off because they will lose their jobs under Labor’s roll-back of workplace relations reforms. While the minister clearly does not think this is a matter of public importance—she is not even in the House to answer it—and the minister clearly does not believe that losing your job makes you worse off, every member of the coalition can assure the minister, on behalf of their constituents, that losing your job has a devastating impact on people and their families because job security underpins personal security and underpins family security.
The most concerning aspect of the minister’s arrogant but worthless guarantee is that the government has plenty of advice that its roll-back of workplace relations laws will drive up inflation and will destroy jobs. This is in spite of the Prime Minister’s statement on 30 April when he committed the government to evidence based policy—evidence based, not ideology. He said in a speech to public servants:
A third element of the Government’s agenda for the public service is to ensure a robust, evidence-based policy making process. Policy design and policy evaluation should be driven by analysis of all the available options, and not by ideology.
… … …
Policy innovation and evidence-based policy making is at the heart of being a reformist government.
Again, it was a hollow, shallow, worthless statement because the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion, who is not at the table and not even in the House, continues with the pretence that no such Treasury advice exists and that there is no modelling and no econometric analysis within government that reveals the impact on inflation and on jobs of Labor’s roll-back of workplace relations reforms.
It is remarkable that the minister has said consistently that the Labor government has done no modelling, no research and no analysis of the impact of its workplace relations policies. That is as remarkable a statement as one could think of. It is a defence of the indefensible. What is the minister relying on for her policies? The Prime Minister said it had to be evidence based, but the minister says there is no modelling, no evidence, no analysis and no research of the impact of Labor’s policies to roll back workplace relations reforms. So what is the minister relying on—divine intuition? As a matter of fact, the minister claimed on ABC radio that she did not need modelling or research; she did not need the assistance of experts. In an interview on 7 May on The World Today, the interviewer asked:
So can we take it then that you have not sought any advice and you haven’t been given any advice from within the bureaucracy about the economic effects of your industrial relations policy?
The minister answered:
We understand the economic effects of our industrial relations policy. We understood them on the day we released it ...
What kind of arrogance is that? The minister does not need analysis, she does not need expert advice and she does not need Treasury advice! She can ignore Treasury advice because, through divine intuition, she understands the economic effects of her industrial relations policy! Oh no, she does not. The fact is that Treasury, the government’s own economic advisers, has provided the Labor government with not only advice provided to the previous government but also advice dated 13 December 2007. How do we know about this advice? Because the media organisations, the ABC, have sought, through the freedom of information laws, access to Treasury advice about the economic impact, particularly on inflation, of Labor’s workplace relations policies. Why would they do that? Labor says that it has a five-point plan to fight inflation, and within those five points there is no mention of the impact of workplace relations reforms or re-regulating the labour market, as the Labor government’s policy will do. It says it is about fighting inflation but it leaves out of its plan the most important factor, according to Treasury, to fight inflation—that is, a deregulated labour market and flexibility in the labour market without a roll back of the reforms of the last 10 years.
In accordance with the Prime Minister’s commitment to open government and in accordance with the Prime Minister’s professed belief in opening up the freedom of information laws, members will remember that he recently said in a speech to Fairfax newspapers that he wanted to ensure that the FOI laws ‘are compatible with a culture of disclosure and transparency’. The Prime Minister said:
Labor is committed to a culture of greater disclosure and transparency in government …
So, when the government is asked to produce the Treasury advice after the election—the advice that came on 13 December 2007 that goes to the very heart of this issue of inflation—about the impact of Labor’s workplace relations roll-back, what do you think it gave in response? Thirty blank pages.
That is a Treasury executive minute seen by every member of the cabinet in response to an FOI request—30 blank pages. This goes to the very heart of the issue of inflation and the impact of Labor’s laws. Is this open and accountable government? How does the Prime Minister justify his claim that it will be an open, accountable and transparent government when 30 blank pages are produced in response to a freedom of information application? We have seen the Treasurer, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and the Prime Minister hide behind the bureaucracy. Their response was, ‘Oh well, the bureaucrats made that decision.’ Every member of the cabinet had this advice and any one of them can release this advice at any time. This advice goes to the heart of the question of the inflation challenge facing this country and Labor’s roll back of workplace relations reforms. This is a disgrace. There is no justification for it. Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to table the government’s response to a freedom of information request for Treasury advice dated 13 December 2007.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to open government and to FOI law reform has been proved to be worthless by this response to a request for Treasury advice. This is important because the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has now been caught out, because she has said repeatedly, ‘There is no advice.’ She said that they have received no advice. They have received advice; it is in that Treasury document.
No, she will not say it in the House. The minister said it on Sky News. The minister has said repeatedly that there is no advice. We know that there was advice on 13 December 2007. But while on Sunday she was busily telling Sky’s Agenda that there was no advice within government—as remarkable as it seems, she said that with a straight face—over on Channel 10 on Meet the Press the Minister for Finance and Deregulation was being asked about this advice. He took the ‘The bureaucrats are to blame’ defence and said, ‘We do not release Treasury advice.’ Yes, they do. The Treasurer had released Treasury advice on savings just a week before because it suited their purposes. But, because the advice will prove that Labor’s roll-back of workplace relations laws will drive up inflation and will cost jobs, they are hiding that advice from the Australian people.
But then the Minister for Finance and Deregulation said in response to a question: ‘Our advice’ does not support that proposition. ‘Our advice’ does not support that? I thought they had no advice. So I say to the minister—I would say it to the minister if she had bothered to come into this matter of public importance debate—through whoever is sitting on the front bench: which is it? Does the government have advice, as the finance minister said, or does the government not have advice, as the employment minister says? One of them is not being frank with the Australian people. The minister for employment says there is no advice; the minister for finance says they have advice—‘our advice’. We know that the Treasurer has advice, dated 13 December 2007.
In an approach that is becoming, shall we say, the minister’s trademark, when in another interview on Sky’s Sunday Agenda the minister was asked about how many jobs would be lost under Labor’s roll-back of industrial relations laws she continued to claim that there would be no job losses. But—problem!—the Treasurer admitted last week that there will be job losses under Labor’s policies. He has admitted that unemployment will increase under Labor. As the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—there are plenty of jobs there to go around, aren’t there?—was asked about this repeatedly, she refused to answer the question.
Labor is hiding from the Australian public the advice they have on how many job losses there will be under their roll-back of workplace relations reforms. They have refused to release the modelling, analysis and research that we know exists, that they know exists and that the media certainly knows exists on the future of job losses in Australia and the future of people’s job security. So we ask again: how many jobs will be lost, will be sacrificed, on the altar of this minister’s ego and this government’s arrogance? They are hiding this information from the Australian people, all the while pretending that they do not have advice when they do, and hiding behind bureaucrats by blaming them for the decision to produce 30 blank pages in response to a freedom of information request.
Sadly, there is a sense of deja vu about this government. We just have to cast our minds back to the last time Labor was in government, when through its industrial relations policies unemployment was driven to 11 per cent. There were one million people unemployed in this country the last time Labor was in government. Then we had 10 years of workplace reform, during which unemployment decreased to the lowest level in three decades. Unemployment reached four per cent—less than half what it was when we came to government in 1996. It was 11 per cent under Paul Keating, down to four per cent under Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello. That was because of a series of reforms—waterfront reform, tax reform, workplace relations reform and welfare reform. The policies of the previous government drove down unemployment. Over 2.2 million jobs were created and real wages increased by 20 per cent. Through our policies of labour market deregulation we saw more jobs created than at any single time in Australia’s history—2.2 million new jobs. We were able to contain inflation by continuing to put flexibility into the workplace, and real wages were able to rise by 20 per cent over a decade without the wages inflation spiral that drove this economy into recession the last time a Labor government was in power. (Time expired)
I recall from a rather bitter 11 years that the question time and the MPI on budget day are really painful when you are in opposition, and I have never seen a more obvious example of it. I never enjoyed it, and I cannot recall but I suppose a time or two I had to deliver the MPI on budget day, because it is a short-straw system and someone always draws it. But there is no question that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition showed the strain of having to cope with drawing the short straw.
Let us have a look at the issues that this debate is actually supposed to be about. It is about the industrial relations changes and inflation. It is about issues of freedom of information and open government. Let me talk first about industrial relations and then I will talk about freedom of information, open government and a few related issues along the way. The core reality of contemporary industrial relations is this: the opposition still wants AWAs and the government does not. There is a lot of other debate. There are a lot of issues that go backwards and forwards about the relative merits of this subclause and that paragraph, but there is a core issue—and it is the core issue the Australian people passed a judgement about at the last election. Do we want to have our industrial relations system based on individual contracts or do we want to have our industrial relations system based on the collective rights of working people? That is the core question, and it is the core question that, strangely, the shadow minister did not talk about. But that is where the change exists.
It is not the issue that determines whether industrial relations will drive up inflation. That relates to whether or not your model is enterprise based—not whether it is individual or collective but whether it is enterprise based. The data is very clear. From the time that this country shifted to an enterprise based model as a result of the 1993 reforms to industrial relations—which I had the privilege of putting through the Senate at that time, over some strenuous opposition from the then opposition—the shape and character of inflation in this country have changed significantly. You would think, if this government’s industrial relations changes—moving away from the collective based model to an individual one—were going to cause inflation, that the introduction of Work Choices and the introduction of the individual based model would have reduced inflation. But the problem is, in the period after the introduction of Work Choices, inflation went up.
I do not know if that inconvenient fact is going to arise in the course of any of the contributions from members of the opposition. But, if you look at the first quarters of 2006—in the period immediately after the introduction of Work Choices—you will see that unemployment went up in the March quarter, it went up in the June quarter and it stayed above the December 2005 level for about 15 months. So this revolutionary anti-inflationary measure was remarkably counterproductive. The truth of it is, of course, that the factors underlying inflation are much more complex than the sort of puerile assessment we occasionally get from people who think that if only you attack workers’ rights you will do something good about inflation. The core reality of our industrial relations contest is not about inflation; it is about whether you believe in collective rights or individual contracts. It is a fundamental difference and it is a difference around which the current opposition cannot make up its mind.
The issue has been raised of whether the minister in question or the Treasurer have received advice that the government’s policies on industrial relations will lead to inflation. My advice both from the Deputy Prime Minister and, through her, from the Treasurer is that neither of them has received any such advice. That really is the core question here. We can debate the real causes of inflation—and I will have time to come back to them—its history and some of the global pressures that are underpinning it. But, regarding industrial relations and any advice on the impact of the government’s changes, that is my advice to the House.
I will divert for a moment to talk about the other aspect of the debate, which relates to freedom of information. It is remarkable to hear these claims today from somebody who was a minister in the previous government, which for more than a decade hid behind the most restrictive possible interpretation of the freedom of information legislation and retained the capacity to issue conclusive certificates. That means that, after the bureaucratic process determines that materials should be made available in the public interest, a minister can override that advice and issue a conclusive certificate, which is, as the name implies, entirely unreviewable and creates the situation where the public is denied access to material that the independent assessment processes say should be available.
We as a government are committed to the abolition of those conclusive certificates. Maybe not everybody thinks that a government will carry through with such a commitment—because freedom of information is always easier to talk about in opposition than to have in government. But the government has been recommitted to this action not only by the Deputy Prime Minister, by the Attorney-General and by the Special Minister of State, who is responsible for this area, but in question time today by the Prime Minister.
The record of the previous government with regard to the release of industrial relations information is extraordinary. We had from them not the refusal to release modelling but rather the refusal to release the results of AWAs. Surveys were undertaken which started to reveal that AWAs were damaging the interests of workers. So the government had two choices: they could change the policy or stop releasing the information. So they abolished the survey and stopped releasing the information so that the damage could continue without them having to tell anybody about it. And they come in here and ask to talk to us about FOI!
My colleague the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy, the member for Rankin, tells me that when we were in opposition he spent a large amount of time and money on an unsuccessful FOI request regarding a report on the coalition’s proposed industrial relations changes commissioned by the previous government from the Centre of Policy Studies. So, of course, they raced to release it! No, perhaps they did not—they actually refused, saying it was not in the public interest to do so as it would mislead the public. The shadow minister comes in here and says, ‘We have to release this information. It is in the public interest to do so’—but when in government they always refused to.
We also had the circumstance concerning the Treasury portfolio where the tax office proposed to release information. The then Treasurer, the member for Higgins, issued a conclusive certificate and said: ‘This information can never be released’—and it never was released. He overrode the public assessment of the legislation. That is wrong.
This government is going to have a different approach to this general issue of governance. It will always be the case—as when the legislation was first introduced under the previous government and now under Labor—that there will be some criteria under which some information and advice to the government cannot be released.
There will be no conclusive certificates. Ministers cannot intervene and override public servants like your government did. That is exactly the significant difference and the point of principle.
It would be illegal, and they do not happen because public servants take records. If you did it as a minister you would be a mug. It does not rule it out as a possibility, but you should not. This process needs to be at arm’s length from ministers, against legislated criteria that are reviewable. That is the process of best practice government, not that there is no information in the government that cannot be released—of course there is—but there is a legislative framework that says what can be released and it is administered at arm’s length from ministers and is reviewable. Those are the princi-ples that we will be applying. They are the principles of good government; they are the 21st-century principles that people expect.
If the opposition think that is not good enough when the legislation comes in, let them propose some amendments to broaden it. I will be amazed because they had 12 years to do something about it but they did nothing. The core question under debate is really not about freedom of information. The opposition do not believe in freedom of information. They undermined it at every possible point. It is about industrial relations. It was the defining issue of Australian politics last year, it is the defining issue of Australian politics this year and, by all indications, it is going to be the defining issue of Australian politics for the rest of this term because the opposition, to the extent you can discern a continuity of view in their position, still support individual contracts. They are still out of touch with working families. The party that created Work Choices still support Work Choices, but they do not mention the words. It sounds like a scene from Fawlty Towers: ‘Don’t mention Work Choices!’ They always love to talk about individual contracts. The opposition are always going to be associated with the extremism of Work Choices. Significant parts of the Liberal Party, including the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the shadow minister, remain firmly and publicly in support of Work Choices and AWAs, but we are about a different model, a 21st-century productive model which meets the challenges of the future and can deliver for working families.
The shock is, I suppose—and this is causing some real difficulty for the opposition—that we are proposing to do in government what we said in opposition we would do. I know that is an extraordinary proposition. It never occurred to you. You ought to try it sometime in the distant future. The public might like it. You have two hurdles: one is you have to win; the second is you have to change your spots because you never tried it in government. I think the most demeaning and undermining statement of contemporary Australian politics is the concept of the non-core promise. Australians found it a revolting concept and they were right—it is a revolting concept. Sometimes you have to stand up in public and say, ‘I wanted to do this but circumstances have changed and I cannot.’ We have not confronted that crisis but every government does. People do not mark you down for that, if you stand up say, ‘I wanted to do it but now I can’t.’ But to say, ‘I never really meant it,’ is most undermining of the democratic process. It undermines the confidence of Australians in political parties and in political processes. It eroded the trust of Australians for a decade.
We are going to try a new model of governance. Industrial relations is a core issue. Governance is not so front of mind, but people are seeing a different approach. They like it and we intend to continue to deliver it. We intend to continue to say that modern governance demands something better than the previous government offered. It demands that people say what they are going to do, do it and tell them they have done it. If you cannot do it, you fess up and say why. That is what people expect of their governments. Governments are made up of human beings. They make mistakes. You cannot get everything right and circumstances change, but what they want us to do is look them in the eye and be honest with them—do what we promised or explain why not.
I do not know—and if I knew I could not say—what is going to be in the budget. One of the key characteristics of which I am aware so far is that it is about implementing election commitments. I think you ought to think about that as a concept, the revolutionary idea that when you promise to do something you ought to do it. We promised to get rid of AWAs and we did. We promised to change the FOI laws and we will. The Australian people will welcome this new and more decent approach to governance. Sometime you should try it.
How extraordinary! We have just had a lecture from the member for Fraser about how important it is that governments actually implement the policies they took to the election. The member for Fraser likes to talk about how fundamentally important it is—another of their revolutions—that when the Labor Party got into power they went about implementing their core policies. What did we hear from the Labor Party prior to the last election? We heard a lot of talk about this level of inflation and how the Labor Party were dedicated to putting downward pressure on inflation, downward pressure on prices, downward pressure on petrol pricing and down-ward pressure on grocery prices. They were the things we heard about. We were told that Labor had a five-point plan to do this. But what this MPI goes to the very core of today is that Labor’s policies are not about implementing what they said they were going to be about; they are about the exact opposite. That is what irritates the Australian people, the fact that the Australian Labor Party went to the last election with full knowledge that the results of the implementation of Labor policies would be not that inflation would go down but that inflation would go up. That is the consequence of Labor Party policies. You do not have to take my word for it because there is something in the public eye that perhaps holds more credibility than me—that is, the Treasury. If you do not believe it when I say that the Treasury has credibility, let us listen to what the Labor Party say. On 29 November last year Mr Rudd said:
Treasury has been an under-utilised resource in the past. I want it to be seen to be brought to centre stage of what this government does in the future. We cannot afford to fall behind when it comes to national economic reform and I intend to harness the full resources and capabilities of the Treasury in doing so.
What does the Treasurer say about Treasury? He says:
The Howard government ignores the advice of Treasury at the economy’s peril. Treasury is the government’s central economic policy agency and contains some of the best and brightest minds in the country. Treasury has guided governments of all persuasions through key reforms that have strengthened and increased the resilience of the Australian economy.
That is what Labor say about Treasury. Labor say Treasury has to be listened to, that governments ignore Treasury advice at their peril. So what is Treasury advice—because that is the question that really is at the core of this MPI? Treasury’s advice is very clear. Basically it was summed up by Dennis Shanahan in an article in the Australian on Wednesday, 7 May. Dennis Shanahan said:
In the face of a huge Victorian teachers’ pay rise and more claims (made under existing laws), Swan declared he wasn’t concerned about Labor’s new laws because wage rises would be based on productivity.
Yet Treasury’s summation of Labor’s scrapping of Work Choices is as devastating as it is concise: likely job losses; rising inflation, prices and wages; more interest rate rises; productivity and real disposable income falls; and greater difficulty for the “most vulnerable job seekers to find work”.
That is a summation of Treasury’s advice about Labor Party policy.
We have heard the excuses from the Deputy Prime Minister and the excuses from the Prime Minister, who said, ‘Oh no, the Treasury minute wasn’t possibly about Labor’s policies, because our policies were released after the Treasury minute.’ But what the Prime Minister fails to mention is the fact that in his speech, when he delivered it, he outlined in complete detail their policy with respect to industrial relations and, specifically, Labor’s policy with respect to unfair dismissal. To quote the Prime Minister—the then opposition leader:
Our laws will return the right to basic working conditions—like penalty rates, overtime and public holiday pay.
What did Treasury say about that? Treasury’s minute says:
Higher unit costs, either through higher real labour costs, lower productivity, or a combination of both, will place upward pressures on prices, which effectively lowers real disposable incomes, consumer spending and thus employment.
Further, the Prime Minister—the then opposition leader—said:
Our laws will ensure a minimum wage, set by the independent umpire that keeps track with living standards.
Again, Treasury’s assessment of this was damning. Treasury said:
Linking wages growth directly to living standards (headline inflation) may expose the economy to wage-price spirals—higher inflationary outcomes lead to higher interest rates.
Higher inflationary outcomes lead to higher interest rates, and we see evidence of that already when we see teachers unions in Victoria claiming wage rises in excess of 20 per cent. Make no mistake: the real consequence for working families will be Labor Party policy driving up inflation, driving up wage-price spirals and putting upward pressure on interest rates. That is what Labor policy will deliver to the people of Australia. That is Kevin Rudd’s gift to the people of Australia: higher inflation, higher prices, wage-price spirals and higher interest rates. And Labor have done it every single time. They go to elections and they say: ‘We believe in looking after working families. Our policies are safe. We’re economic conservatives.’ Well, do you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker? They are not economic conservatives; they are economically reckless, because time and time again we see the Labor Party destroy the Australian economy.
If you want proof positive, Mr Deputy Speaker, do not listen to what they say; look at what they do. We have heard members opposite in the government state time and time again: ‘You know what? The Howard government weren’t masters of the economy; rather, they were just the lucky beneficiaries of the mining boom.’ We heard the Prime Minister state today in question time, ‘You happened to be there for the 12 years of the mining boom.’ Do you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker? Why is it that, on a federal level, the coalition were able to repay $96 billion of debt, were able to pay off the budget deficit and put the budget in surplus and were able to reduce unemployment from eight per cent to four per cent when we were in government but, at the same time, the state Labor governments put us in debt? Every state Labor government in this country was receiving record GST, record royalties from coal, record payroll tax and record stamp duty—revenue that was just about knocking state treasurers over, it was such an avalanche—and what did they manage to do? Labor governments across this country over that period put us $80 billion in debt. That is what state Labor has done, and I make a prediction: it is not going to be very long at all before the Rudd Labor government and this inept Treasurer, Wayne Swan, bring this national economy back to its knees. They will do so with mountains of debt.
If you want an example, Mr Deputy Speaker, look at tonight’s budget—because what do we know about tonight’s budget? We already know a couple of key things. We know that they are taxing us more and they are spending less. That is what we know about this Rudd government already. There is half a billion dollars of extra tax on ready-to-drinks already. That is what we know about this new Rudd Labor government.
They say that their concern is about making sure that inflation does not get out of control. They say the core of their policies is making sure that inflation does not get out of control. Why is it that, if you are concerned about inflation, you would implement a whole range of policies that push prices up? It does not seem to make sense. What we have seen from the Labor Party in the last couple of weeks is that they are going to increase the prices of new cars—cars like Taragos—which are going to be put up by eight per cent thanks to the Rudd Labor government. We know they are going to increase by 76 per cent the tax on alcohol, which will force the price of alcohol up. We know that they are going to destroy private health in this country and force hundreds of thousands of Australians back onto the public system, which will do two things: it will mean not only that you have to wait in public hospitals for so much longer but also that health insurance premiums are going to go up by about 10 or 12 per cent. So straightaway we see that the Rudd Labor government are putting up the price of alcohol, are putting up the price of private health insurance and, in fact, are not putting downward pressure on prices at all.
A key concern of mine, which was completely ignored by the previous speaker, is unfair dismissal. The Labor Party says it is going to reintroduce unfair dismissal laws and basically abolish the exemption that the previous government put in place. The consequence of that will be, according to the Treasury minute:
It is unclear what impact this would have on employment in businesses with less than 100 employees that are currently exempt from unfair dismissals. However; employment is likely to decline and red tape is likely to increase.
We do not know for sure, because here we are six or seven months after the election still waiting for a clear enunciation of Labor’s policy on unfair dismissal. There is no direction on contestability, no direction on onus of proof and no direction on how small businesses need to comply with the so-called fair dismissal code. Instead we have got a confused government that is saying one thing and doing the complete opposite. The Australian people will wake up to this government and to the fact that this government is driving up inflation and interest rates, and when they do it will be on the heads of the Rudd Labor government and their economic ineptitude, which is going to once again force this country backwards when it comes to economic growth.
I am going to take some time—perhaps for the benefit of the member for Moncrieff and certainly for the benefit of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition—to go back in time a little bit to last year. It is apparent that you have not quite realised yet that Australia voted for a change of government last year. A key part of that was a vote to change the workplace relations laws. Funnily enough, I would have thought with the passing of the transition bill recently, which saw the end of Australian workplace agreements, that the opposition had finally conceded that, but apparently not. Indeed, the arguments outlined by the member for Moncrieff do not appear to have changed.
I want to remind people of the sequence of events. It is not as though workplace relations was a hidden issue in the federal election. Indeed, I think everyone would concede it was one of the key issues in the federal election. Yes, Labor was out there very early on in the piece promising it would abolish AWAs. In late April last year, it outlined and published in great detail its Forward with Fairness policy. That policy was complemented some months later by a policy implementation plan which set out the transitional arrangements that the Labor government would adopt for implementing its Forward with Fairness policy.
Every Labor candidate in every electorate around Australia campaigned long and hard on the issue of workplace relations. Indeed, our leadership team campaigned long and hard on the issue of workplace relations. I would argue that most Australians understood that one of the key differences between the major political parties at the last election was our industrial relations policies. Australians knew what they were voting for and they knew they were voting for substantial workplace reform.
It was not—as is the incorrect premise of the MPI—that they were voting to go backwards on anything. They were voting to go Forward with Fairness. That raises my concern generally about the premise of this MPI. It frankly outlines the nonsense that the opposition continue to peddle, despite the fact of the obvious rejection by the electorate of their workplace relations policies.
It is quite inappropriate to characterise Labor’s legislation as a roll back of workplace relations reforms. The opposition likes to make believe that for years we had these wonderful reforms promoted by the Howard government and that the policy whose name dare not be spoken, Work Choices, was the only thing that people rejected. That is simply not true. That is a complete fabrication of what was happening out there in the greater community in Australia. People were well aware that the Howard government would do anything it could to try to promote some view or justify the continuation of AWAs and the impact that those AWAs had. But everybody saw through it. Not even a last-minute fairness test introduced in the death knells of the term of the Howard government was enough for people to give it a tick—they saw through it.
I can assure you that we were not out there campaigning that we were going back to a pre-Work Choices situation. We went out there with a very clear, detailed policy, debated in electorates across Australia, that we were going Forward with Fairness. We campaigned on the kinds of changes we intended to introduce when we were in government and the Australian people voted for those changes. They voted to change the government and they voted to change the workplace relations system. This is something that, frankly, most members opposite still have not come to terms with.
The second part of the MPI that I take issue with is the question of Treasury advice. Most of the member for Moncrieff’s speech concentrated on an article that appeared on the front page of the Australian referring to Treasury advice. This was Treasury advice that, it subsequently became apparent, was dated 18 April 2007, advice that predated the actual publication of Labor’s industrial relations policy—contained in a minute which apparently predated the August detailed information about the implementation plan. I think, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, that fails the first test of common sense. It is hard to rely on some Treasury advice that is an analysis of Labor’s IR policies which did not exist at the time. One can only assume it was based on a series of assumptions that was given to them by former ministers of the Howard government. Why didn’t this apparent advice have some consideration of the then Howard government’s own fairness test worked into it or the contrast to it?
It seems to me that people need to be careful jumping backwards and forwards between two pieces of advice, one of which was referred to in an article in the Australian, which we can only assume, to be perfectly honest, was part of some sort of attempt by the previous government to make further false claims about Labor’s policies. That is something that those opposite have a track record of: making false claims about Labor’s IR policies. I guess you have to ask yourself: why do they want to misrepresent these policies; why do they want to misrepresent the truth in this way? The only thing I can assume is that the Liberal Party of Australia are still committed to Work Choices. They are still committed to the extreme ideological industrial relations policies that we saw implemented by the previous government.
Those policies did rip off the most vulnerable of Australia’s workers, despite the fact you tried to hide and failed to disclose the level and the extent to which workers were losing entitlements such as overtime penalties, shift work penalties and many other conditions of employment which were taken off some of Australia’s most vulnerable workers. I can only assume from that that you continue to be committed to those policies that endorse the ripping off of working families and the ripping off of those conditions of employment that saw the gap in men’s and women’s wages increase. I assume that you are still committed to that and, frankly, I cannot believe that the opposition can continue to defend such policies.
I cannot believe that the opposition can continue to be involved in scare tactics. The argument from the member for Moncrieff was classic Chicken Little: the sky would fall in and doom would follow the introduction of Labor’s policies. It is the same sort of rhetoric we heard before the election, when clearly the policy position that was in front of the electorate was an economically responsible one.
We have said that we want to put in place a balanced industrial relations system. We want to see a system that works for all Australians, that is fair and flexible, that is simple and productive, that will not jeopardise employment, that will not allow for industry wide strikes or pattern bargaining and that will not place inflationary pressure on the economy. We have a policy that aims to drive productivity and cooperative workplace arrangements, because we believe that the path to the future lies in responsible economic management, helping working families under financial pressure and making sure that we have the right responses for the future. And you know, our policy is not solely about industrial relations; it is part of a broad breadth of policies aimed at ensuring that we finally begin to tackle the issues that have seen our productivity go backwards in this country. We are not just concentrating on industrial relations; we are looking at investing in skills, we are looking at cutting wasteful government expenditure and we are going to deliver a budget that delivers for working families. I am sure it will be one that all Labor members will be proud of.
When the Prime Minister released his five-point plan to reduce inflation, there was a sixth point that should have been there—that is, workplace relations. This is an element that the OECD would recognise as important in reducing pressure on prices, and in reducing pressure on inflation. There is a reason why the Labor government will not talk about workplace relations as one of their strategies to fight inflation—that is, because they know that the policies that they are promoting will be adding to wage inflation, will be adding to inflation and will be going on to increase interest rates and so on. And if the opposition are wrong, it is very simple: release the Treasury minute. Release the 38-page Treasury minute, but release it uncensored. We do not want the blacked out version, the completely blank 38 pages. What we want to see is what Treasury’s honest, frank and fearless advice was to the Rudd Labor cabinet on their workplace relations proposals.
We need to look at the situation as it is now, and what we see is inflation. On the forecasts of the Reserve Bank’s quarterly statement released on Friday, inflation will not be back in the two to three per cent band until the end of 2010. Look at wage inflation. The wage price index for the year ended December 2007 had growth of 4.2 per cent. It is the highest in 10 years. Looking at a broader measure of earnings, the average growth in average earnings is around five per cent. Generally the Reserve Bank sees wage increases over 4½ per cent as inconsistent with the inflation between two to three per cent. As we look around the country, there are disturbing signs of wage break-outs. We have seen Brian Boyd, the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, saying, ‘We’ve put up with 11 years of industrial relations laws that have been aimed at restricting our ability to find a fair price for labour.’ That is in the face of all evidence of what actually happened during the Howard government. We are seeing a 15.2 per cent pay rise for Victorian teachers. For anyone who has any familiarity with Australian economic history, for anyone who has lived through the previous periods of wage break-outs in the 1970s and 1980s, this is looking very familiar. In 1974 we saw wages go up by 31 per cent in one year, and there is a reason why we always talk about having the lowest unemployment since November 1974. November 1974 was the period when the Australian economy was destroyed through wages rising by 31 per cent. In 1982 average earnings went up by 17½ per cent in the year to September 1982. Both of these periods led to very severe downturns or recession in the Australian economy.
We see a number of economists predicting that unemployment will rise to about five per cent, and that is why we think it is very important we know what the Treasury advice is. We have seen already a number of studies on the public record. Econtech predicted that winding back IR reforms that have occurred since 1993 would reduce productivity, cause the loss of 316,000 jobs, reduce GDP by 4.8 per cent and lead to higher wage inflation, lower productivity, higher inflation and higher interest rates. The Treasury advice of 18 April, based on a speech by the Prime Minister, who was then Leader of the Opposition, said that, on Labor’s known approach at that time, it would cut jobs, put upward pressure on prices, put more flow on wage claims and allow unions to bid wages above their market level. What we know is that inflation is high, wage inflation is high and there are already two analyses of wind-backs of industrial relations which point to them putting pressure on inflation. That is why we call for the Treasury— (Time expired)
I am particularly pleased to be able to speak on this matter of public importance. I am pleased because this is a debate that brings out more evidence of exactly where the Liberal Party sit on workplace relations. Firstly, I can say that the accusation of secrecy is nonsense. It is untrue. The reality is that this is a Liberal Party in hiding. They are hiding from the fact that they had lost the election because of Work Choices. They are hiding the divisions this is creating in their own ranks, as we have seen recently with the Victorian Liberal Party bloggers and in other places such as this place. Not very effective hiding, Mr Deputy Speaker. The only thing that they are not hiding is their love for Work Choices—that and their desperate desire to return to Work Choices. And that is what this is all about. The member for Hasluck is right.
Both the honourable member for Curtin and the Leader of the Opposition have recently expressed their desire to return to the Work Choices regime. I quote the Leader of the Opposition from the Brisbane Club on 6 May this year:
We believe very strongly in individual statutory agreements. We will go to the next election with that as our first principle of industrial relations.
The introduction of AWAs in 1996 played a major role in revolutionising workplaces for the better in this country ... The nation must deal with the maze of laws, regulations, awards and so on that makes our workplace relations system one of the most complex in the world.
I want to talk about some impacts of Work Choices in my own electorate, first of all on local families. So many local families could not get a home loan or a car loan because they had no job security. They were part of the former government’s great casualisation process under Work Choices. Work Choices also deregulated hours, which meant that there was no guaranteed family time anymore. Work Choices, the policy the opposition desperately want back, is antifamily. Work Choices is antichildren. Work Choices destroys job security.
Then there are the impacts on local sporting clubs. Many local sports clubs were devastated by Work Choices. People could not commit to participating in sports or volunteering to help out. Parents could not commit to taking their kids to sports. Work Choices, the policy the opposition just love, is anticommunity. It is also unhealthy. Work Choices was physically unhealthy for our community. The community knows this but the opposition just do not get it. That is why their leader is Mr Nine Per Cent.
My local observations are not just anecdotal evidence. The raw, cold facts are as follows: at the time, the Office of the Employment Advocate revealed that 100 per cent of AWAs cut at least one so-called protected award condition; 64 per cent cut annual leave loading; 63 per cent cut penalty rates; 52 per cent cut shift work loadings; and 48 per cent cut monetary allowances. Those are the facts—the raw, cold facts. Nobody’s job was safe under Liberal policies. Nobody’s accrued entitlements were safe. Nobody’s wages, nobody’s penalty rates, nobody’s working hours, nobody’s family lives and nobody’s weekends were safe. But, most importantly, 99 per cent of the Australian workforce could be sacked for no reason, with no comeback. (Time expired)