Pic source: employment.gov.au
Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (11:08): Indeed, it gives me great pleasure to rise and speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014.
Here we are, once again in this chamber trying so desperately to implement the recommendations of the previous government's employment minister's Fair Work Act review. It is a pity that those opposite do not see the incredibly consultative approach that the former employment minister, Mr Bill Shorten, took within the sector. Actually, it was an independent review—if you believe the hype. It came down with many recommendations into the Fair Work Act to ensure that it was being implemented as intended, to see whether there were things that needed to be ironed out and, indeed, where we could make changes as a country to the Fair Work Act to ensure that it was being interpreted and implemented in the way that Mr Shorten intended.
What a pity that we are here debating implementing the opposition's own recommendations from their own review. But I do not think that we should actually be surprised, if we look back on the former Labor government—the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government—and particularly the first iteration of the Rudd government and its grandiose approach to reviews. There was recommendation after recommendation and hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds and thousands of hours spent, not just by government officials, departments and ministers offices but indeed by those people putting into those reviews. I can think of the Henry tax review, the convergence review and the butcher paper and whiteboard markers—oh, sorry, that was the 2020 Summit!
Indeed, all of those processes undertaken by the previous government were merely a churn exercise—a mirage, if you like—to be seen to be doing something. In actual fact, when the results came down and their true stakeholders, the union officials, got their hands on those recommendations then there was no true, independent advice implemented in the act for a fair, balanced and flexible workplace. That is what we all want—we have no argument or truck on this side with a fair, balanced and flexible workplace. Indeed, one would think that is what the former employment minister wanted to see as an outcome. And yet, when faced with implementing the recommendations that would deliver on that outcome he squibbed it. We are here to help, and we hope that those opposite will help us to implement the recommendations out of the Bill Shorten review into the Fair Work Act.
As I said, we want to have a fair, simple, flexible and balanced industrial relations system. And I think that is what industry wants. Most definitely when you talk to industry—small businesses in particular—in your own communities, you know that they struggle with the complexity of our industrial relations system. That is why this government has set up one-stop shops and easy-access call lines so that small businesses can get fast, simple and effective access to information that will help them to ensure that their workplace is fair and simple for their own internal processes and also for their employees. Is it flexible to take into account workers changing personal circumstances and, indeed, is it flexible enough to take into account the changing circumstances of industry?
In the horticulture-producing region of central Victoria, if the crop comes off and it is a few tonnes over then you are going to have to work a few more hours. The tomatoes are not just going to sit there and wait until the next eight-hour shift can clock on and clock off. So we need to have flexibility within our industrial system that works for both parties and that allows us to keep those industries and those employers profitable so they can keep employing Australians.
When I had a look back at Mr Shorten's approach to this particular area, he too articulated that he wanted to have a fair, simple, flexible and balanced system. He was just misguided on how to get there. He was so misguided that he went out and got independent advice but refused to take—he refused to take it! But we are here to help. We could not agree more on this side of the chamber with workers being given the dignity and respect that they should have. So much so that an independent review panel was set up to see if the above criteria were achieved two years after the implementation of the Fair Work Act. As I outlined earlier, it was a comprehensive review process, where 53 recommendations were made. This was a comprehensive consultation process—250 submissions were received and round table discussions were had right around the country, with a large range of stakeholders and the usual suspects. They all had a guernsey—they all had a chance to have input into how it was going and whether it was going to deliver the flexible, balanced, simple and fair system that Mr Shorten and, indeed, this side of the chamber wanted to see in terms of industrial relations.
So I do not think that anybody can argue that it was not a comprehensive review. But he still 'was not happy, Jan', because when he got those recommendations what did he do? He went and had a few quiet chats and maybe some Chinese dinners at certain Sydney restaurants. Who knows? I am not making claims here.
But he took away those recommendations and instead of trusting the process and trusting that the ACTU, the CFMEU and the AWU would have ensured they had effective representation through that independent consultation, he went and had a few side chats. The side chats resulted in the fact that less than one-third of those recommendations got adopted. With two-thirds of that work not adopted, you are only delivering for one side of the argument—a very disappointing result. I am sure all those submitters—some unions included, I am sure—would have felt squibbed by the process, but some would not have. Some would have been very happy with the outcome of preselections well paid for with the outcome of the Labor Party's treatment of that independent review.
I think the most disappointing thing for the then employment minister was that you can hand pick the henchmen you are going to get to conduct the review. We often hear from the other side that, if this side of the parliament appoints the review panels into government agencies or systems, then that is somehow partisan. If you want to take that same logic and apply it to this particular review, then you would have to say to those opposite that Bill Shorten surely would have picked a review panel that was sympathetic to his view of the industrial relations system. How incredibly disappointing when the review gets handed down and you cannot agree and you cannot tick off on the 53 recommendations that it makes. It is very, very disappointing.
The review identified many areas for improvement. It also suggested that it would be constructive to adopt the recommendations to improve the operation of the legislation. We want effective legislation in this place and we all want to ensure that our IR system is fair, simple, flexible and balanced, so it was very disappointing that, when the Labor Party had the numbers, they did not use them. It is really disappointing for Mr Shorten when his prized greyhound follows the real scent and not the fake rabbit, especially when it did not produce the political validation that the employment minister was seeking.
As I said earlier, it is like some many of the former government's review structural problems. The Henry tax review was stymied because he could not examine the whole tax system. He was told: 'Do the review, but don't look at that and don't look at that', so any result and any recommendations are not holistic. As a result, when we look at the recommendations that were adopted out of the Henry tax review, the previous government, once again, wasted a lot of people's time, wasted a lot of people's money and dodged around four of the recommendations, and even those were poorly executed. Who could forget the rollout of the mining tax? It was a classic: 'I'm going to tax the mining industry. I'm going to get the four biggest miners in the room to help me design that tax'. I wonder what the result was? Well, that was all there for everybody to see. I should not overly dwell on the incompetence of the former government, it is hardly fair.
The previous Labor government's review of the Fair Work Act not only involved biased terms of reference but it also only implemented one-third of the recommendations of the review panel. It was no surprise when the 2012 review recommended changes to encourage productivity growth amongst other fair, flexible and practical ideas. We all know how important productivity growth is going to be for our nation going forward. There was a report released this week that Australia's living standards have stalled, that there is not going to be growth as there has been over previous decades in our living standards. We need to ensure that our industries, our small businesses and our farmers can ensure productivity growth.
I get quite bemused and sometimes befuddled when I hear those opposite, particularly Senate Cameron in my Senate Education and Employment Committee, critiquing any idea that we need to see increases in productivity as the payoff for wages and conditions for the workers. SPC Ardmona in Shepparton in my home state is a great example where workers over a long period of time have gone to management and said: 'You know what? We want to keep the doors open. We want to keep our jobs. How can we help? What can we do to keep our business profitable?' That happens across regional Australia time and time again because employers and employees recognise that, without profitability and productivity increases, they are not going to be able to continue to employ people.
It is a fundamental difference between this side of the chamber and the opposite side of the chamber with their understanding of what an employer is. It is not a government department. I know government departments employ a lot of Tasmanians, and thank goodness because thanks to the Greens, Senator Rice, there is not a lot of industry left in Tasmania, which is very disappointing. The reality for small businesses and medium-sized businesses is that you need to be profitable to employ people. It is kind of two sides of the same coin. Most employees get that, and it is a pity the unions and those opposite do not. What is it with Labor and their unfortunate friendship with bureaucratic ineffectiveness? In fact, we know that their review process cost a fortune. I do not want productivity to get in the way of a decent press release, but I am getting off topic.
This bill will be implementing key aspects of the coalition's election policy and do not go any further. We were elected to government on delivering this legislation. We are not seeking to push the envelope. This is a very clear and very public piece of policy.
It just goes to show the destructive nature of the opposition when in government that, despite going to the Australian people, being given the treasury benches, despite being elected overwhelmingly to deliver on this policy, you still sit here in petulant refusal, denying the Australian people, small businesses and indeed workers—to quote Bill Shorten, now opposition leader—a fair, balanced, flexible and simple industrial relations system. It beggars belief.
By including amendments on workplace access by unions and individual flexibility arrangements and by removing the ability to 'strike first and talk later', we are honouring specific policy promises that were also made by the Labor Party prior to the election but which Labor deliberately dishonours. Strike first, talk later—talk about a noose around the neck of business going into any EBA negotiations: 'We're going to strike, we're going to hold up your capacity to earn a dollar in order to pay our pages next week. We're going to hold you to ransom.' How ridiculous. How is that fair? How is that balanced? It was your own policy. But a forked tongue does not get in the way of a distracted, dysfunctional and, frankly, quite uninspiring opposition.
I want to comment briefly on Senator Lines' contribution. I know she is running for preselection in WA. I did not think it was going to be tight.
Senator Birmingham: There's hope.
Senator McKENZIE: There is hope. There is hope, Minister Birmingham. I did not think it was close, so Senator Lines did not need to come out swinging quite as hard as she did, but she likes a fight and I am happy to take it up to her. There is no devil in the detail, Senator Lines. There is no devil in the detail. This review was not stacked. It was your review, it was Bill Shorten's review, so the detail is your own detail. In fact, this is a policy you also took to the election, so you are unfortunately dishonouring your own commitment to a fair, balanced, simple and flexible industrial relations system.
We are never going to get this right unless we can enact recommendations in legislation that deliver on our commitment, so that both sides in the industrial relations space feel it is a balanced system. But that will not happen until you get it through your heads, until you agree, that issues that affect productivity ultimately affect small business's ability to employ your members. But then I guess you do not have too many members in small businesses, do you, which are the powerhouse of our economy, particularly of regional Australia. You do not have a lot of members there, so you do not really care about those workers. You do not really care about those workers because they are not paying the fees that are going to get you re-elected. They are not actually participating in votes that are going to be useful to you in preselections, so you do not care about those workers. If you really cared about workers in this country, you would be supporting our Jobs and Competitiveness Program; you would be helping us to pass legislation that was going to fund programs that focus on the most vulnerable workers and unemployed people of this country; but you did not. You did not. You are not going to implement the recommendations of your own review to ensure our industrial relations system is simple and fair. You are just going to continue with the rhetoric, continue being the mouthpieces of the ACTU, continue being the mouthpieces of the CFMEU and continue to undermine your desire to truly represent the workers of Australia and to ensure they get a better outcome. And, ultimately, you will betray the trade union movement by backing those who take away its credibility against those that are trying to give it some credibility. You are going to have to get this right or it is not going to work out for you. It does not go any further.
This review was not stacked. It was not anti worker, it was not anti union, because Bill appointed it. Labor are not the only champions of the everyday worker and, as much as they would like to convince Australia that they are, this chamber will not be emotionally blackmailed into believing otherwise.
The future is not as bleak as Senator Lines and those opposite would have us believe. We are championing a strong, functioning industrial relations system that is sustainable and flexible, something that Labor did not have the guts to deliver because you like the partisan debate. It gives you something to fight about, rather than solving the problem, rather than delivering a system that is flexible for both businesses and the workers so that businesses can remain profitable and continue to employ the workers. It is a simple equation. I am happy to go out the back with a whiteboard and some whiteboard markers and explain to you! Businesses earning a dollar employ more Australians, and that has to be a good thing. There is honour into work. I do not want to see Australians on the unemployment line.
Labor, if you are serious, please deliver on Bill's recommendations, for the sake of the whole Australian workforce.