Senate debates

Thursday, 18 March 2021


Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:51 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Workplace relations policy is a unique coming together of economic and social policy. There needs to be a nuanced approach which acknowledges the need for viable employers, because, without viable employers, there are no jobs and, without jobs, there are no employees. It is an inherent need for humankind to be gainfully employed. That is why the social data overwhelmingly advises us that a person's mental health, physical health, self-esteem and social interaction are all enhanced if they have the benefit of gainful employment. So at the forefront of our minds as legislators should be the enhancement of job creation, growing the jobs pool as much as possible, to enable as many of our fellow Australians as possible to gain from those benefits that I've just outlined. So, in setting our policies, it's about job creation, job sustainment, the remuneration of those jobs and pathways for progress without stifling job creation.

It is known that, in general terms, if people start on the lowest rung of the employment ladder, 80 per cent or so move up a rung or more within the first 12 months, and within two years the vast bulk have moved up that ladder of the employment opportunities that are available. Therefore it's important that, in setting the parameters for employment, we ensure that the first rung on that employment ladder is not set too low so people live in poverty—we don't want that but nor do we want that first rung to be set so high that too many of our fellow Australians are denied the opportunity of employment, because that would deny them all the benefits that I previously outlined. And it's not only for them; the social data tells us that people in the household of a person gainfully employed also benefit from those four factors that I indicated earlier.

We in the Liberal Party believe that the employer-employee relationship is in fact a symbiotic relationship. They rely on each other. An enterprise needs workers just as much as workers need an enterprise in which to work. That is why we on this side absolutely and categorically reject the assertion that somehow employment law is about this old-fashioned, discredited concept of class warfare. Instead of seeking to set worker against employer and employer against worker, we seek to ensure that there is as good a relationship as possible, where workers and employers can cooperate to the very best of their ability to ensure that the enterprise remains viable.

We know what human nature is like. There will be those employers who seek to rip off the workforce. That is why we have a Fair Work Ombudsman, that is why we have the Fair Work Commission and that is why we have authorities in place to protect workers' fundamental rights. That is why, as part of this bill—something which I argued before it was in fact adopted by the coalition—is the concept of wage theft being seen as a criminal offence. Guess who is seeking to introduce that into Australian law for the very first time? It is a Liberal-National Party government. When the Australian Labor Party had the levers of government in their hands and introduced the celebrated Fair Work Act, did they introduce the concept of wage theft and criminality? No, they did not. It was not on their radar. It is on our radar, that is why we are seeking to introduce such a concept in this bill.

And what do the so-called champions of the workers do in this place? They're telling us that they're going to vote against it! They are going to vote against the criminalisation of deliberate wage theft. These are the people who allegedly are on the side of workers. I would have thought they would have had the decency to say that this was a huge omission in the Fair Work Act originally, that it should have been there and that they congratulate the Liberal-National Party government on its introduction. But the relentless negativity of the Labor Party is such that no matter what the government does they will be against it or put a negative spin on it.

We on this side reject the class warfare notion that seems to permeate everything that the Australian Labor Party, and especially the Greens, talk about in this place. We see the need for there to be constraints to ensure that employers don't rip off their workers. Similarly, we seek to ensure that the trade unions cannot rip off their members. It's interesting, isn't it? The Labor Party are against both measures. They don't support the criminalisation of wage theft in this bill, nor do they support having unions brought to account if they steal or misappropriate their members' funds. One really wonders what motivates the Australian Labor Party in this space.

The stifling, negative hand of class warfare is something which we on this side repudiate. Indeed, from the very beginning of the foundation of the party that I have the honour of representing, it said in its foundational document, which Sir Robert Menzies penned:

We believe that improved living standards depend upon high productivity and efficient service and that these vital elements can be achieved only by free and competitive enterprise.

We believe that national financial and economic power and policy are to be designed to create a climate in which people may be enabled to work out their own solution in their own way and not to control other people's lives.

These are words which have withstood the test of time. These are principles that are very apt for this particular discussion. This is what we, as a government, are seeking to implement in this legislation.

Some of the contributions that I've had the misfortune of having to listen to in this debate tell me about a government wanting to cut wages. If that were genuinely true, do they think that the workers of Australia would have voted to re-elect us at the last election?

Let's be exceptionally clear here. There is an overwhelming number of workers in comparison to the few people who run the big businesses in this country, so this nonsense that somehow all we do is the bidding of big business makes one wonder why on earth the bulk of workers in fact do vote for the Liberal and National parties come election time. They see through the nonsense. They see through the rhetoric of the Australian Labor Party and they know that the security of their job is determined by the security of the business enterprise in which they work.

Senator Waters, the previous speaker, told us that workers' wages should be raised. Of course we all agree with that, but you have to have the overlay of: is it affordable? In tough times, wages will not be increased as one would like them to be increased. You can increase them if you like, but the Fair Work Commission itself has acknowledged that, in some areas, the pay rates are such that they militate against job creation and job sustainment. You can have one person on a very high wage or two people on a decent wage. I would go for two people on a decent wage as being the better economic and, most importantly, social outcome.

Indeed, that is why we have the Fair Work Commission in this country that actually approves the rates of pay. We have an independent umpire making these determinations, so the assertion that somehow the government is trying to legislate lower wages suggests that the Fair Work Commission is not doing its job. The Labor Party by implication are saying that the Fair Work Commission, which they appointed, is an organisation in which they have no confidence.

We all know that the higher the cost of the product the less likely it is to be bought. It's the same with services. If you artificially inflate wages and that is not sustainable by the business, jobs will be shed and lost. A good example in recent times of the best way to run the economy was the Howard government, which had low inflation, real wages increasing by 19 per cent and, just as we left government, the unemployment rate finally having a three in front of it. It is good economic management when real wages can increase in a good, healthy, sound economy.

In the few moments remaining let's turn to the specific matters in this bill. I've already dealt with the issue of wage theft. For a long time I have supported addressing this issue. I'm delighted this is now before the parliament. I'm shattered, might I say, that the Labor Party and the Greens cannot even bring themselves to vote for that particular part of the legislation.

This bill provides certainty to businesses and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee and giving eligible casual employees a statutory pathway to permanent full-time or part-time jobs if they wish. Why would Labor and the Greens be opposed to such a sensible, clarifying provision in this legislation? Indeed, Labor had no such definition in their Fair Work Act. We are bringing clarity and certainty for both the worker and the employer. But, no, Labor likes to have this not so well clarified because it then provides greater grounds and opportunities for disputes. We want clarity and certainty. That's what the Australian worker wants. That's what Australian businesses want as well.

We want to extend our successful JobKeeper flexibilities around duties and location of work for businesses in retail and hospitality so that those two hard-hit sectors can continue to work together to navigate the pandemic. Surely that is something that should be embraced and accepted. Indeed, I think at one stage the Labor leader actually supported it. Of course, as is his wont, he has now recanted. In fact, it's in relation to greenfields agreements where he's recanted his position. Why, when this is an opportunity for new jobs; for global investment coming into Australia, providing certainty? No, we want to close the door on that and thus deny our fellow Australians the opportunity of more jobs! We know the social consequences of such a denial. Why, therefore, would Labor and the Greens oppose our measures to ensure that greenfields agreements will be more certain and, as a result, allow more international capital into Australia, creating investment which, in turn, creates jobs?

As part of our measures we will include a free advisory service for small business, to ensure that employees can recover their correct entitlements faster. We have all sorts of provisions in this which are fair, which are equitable, which are reasonable but which do not fit the century-old mantra of worker class warfare, which the Labor Party, unable to bring itself into the 21st century, still wallows in. I support the bill and commend the bill to the Senate, especially to the crossbench.


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