Wednesday, 11 November 2015
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.
I will confine my remarks, primarily, to the contribution from Senator Brandis about the question of innovation. I think everyone here understands that we are in a period of transformation in the Australian economy. I hope that some people here reflect on the occasional naivety during the long period of the mining boom, where there were those who asserted that this boom would go on forever, that it would never end and that it should be the only thing that underpinned the Australian economy.
That was not the understanding of people on this side of the chamber, and in government we relentlessly pursued a process of establishing the architecture for an ongoing, sustainable, serious, transformative innovation investment that would leverage the abilities in the public sector and the private sector to achieve a great transformation for Australian business and Australian industry. We did that with the confidence that Australia possesses some of the great researchers globally. We possess some of the great research institutions. We possess great innovative and entrepreneurial people who are keen to participate in private enterprise and to use the achievements in the private sector to build an economy that all of us can be proud of and that all of us can benefit from.
It is disappointing to hear in the answers provided today that not a single element of Senator Brandis's answer related, in any way, to the issues that I have been speaking about. They did not really speak to innovation, structure, collaboration, universities and research institutions. Instead, they addressed questions like consumer confidence and the government's overweening confidence in the abilities of the Prime Minister. It is nice that they are confident, but I think that what we would like to see is some actual action in relation to these questions, because, in the Abbott-Turnbull government, there has been an enormous gap between the rhetoric that has been presented in recent weeks and the reality of their period in government.
They are the government that, in their 2014 and 2015 budgets, ripped out investment in science, research and innovation to the tune of $3 billion. Indeed, the Prime Minister, as the Minister for Communications, oversaw the demise of NICTA, a world-class research facility focused on information and communications. They voted for cuts to the R&D tax incentive. They backed the abolition of Commercialisation Australia, an entity which had supported 500 ventures that each raised $2 for every $1 invested by the government. They supported cuts to university research, to CSIRO and to ANSTO. They supported $107 million in cuts to the Cooperative Research Centres program. They are a government that are in no way interested in leveraging the power of the public sector to support the private sector in innovation, and it is a very great shame, because what we know is that when we see firms that undertake innovation it almost doubles the productivity of those firms.
We know that firms that collaborate with public sector research entities, with CSIRO or with a university are 2.5 times more likely to report an increase in their own productivity. We know that all of our international competitors—the people that we seek to emulate in building a spatially and sectorally diverse economy—invest themselves most significantly in public sector research, yet every action for this government has been about dismantling the comprehensive system of structures that we put in place in government to support activities of exactly this kind.
I want to say to people who are listening to this debate that, in government, Labor will place innovation at the centre of our approach. We will build on our record. We will build on an approach which sought to establish positive relationships and collaborative relationships between the private sector and the public sector. We will not be involved in a race to the bottom. We will not be involved in a naive reliance on commodities alone. We see a future for Australia that builds on all of our talents, and that is something that I am very proud to support.
It gives me great pleasure to follow Senator McAllister, who was very determined to talk about Labor's track record in innovation. Labor's history of innovation, of course, lies within the union movement: when they want to innovate and when they want to rejuvenate the union movement, they take the tired old union workhorses and shuffle them off into the Senate, where they can mouth the latest platitudes in order to assuage the Australian people, use some buzzwords, use plenty of acronyms and, hopefully, establish that they are somehow innovate people. During her speech, I challenged Senator McAllister to outline exactly what NICTA stands for. She was unable and unwilling to do so. What about the acronym ANSTO? Could she please elaborate on what that stood for? She was unable and unwilling to do so. The shallow rhetoric of those opposite is apparent for all Australians to see. If you want to go through their buzzwords, we have seen them: 'spatially' and 'collaboratively', and they have all been used because they are meant to make people feel good.
But let us have a look at the track record of those opposite. For Senator Carr, in his innovation ministry, the highlight to me was when he decided that he would have a program and a policy of sending text messages into outer space in the hope of getting a response from some alien being! For the atheists on that side of the chamber, they were hoping for divine innovation, but they were simply sending things into outer space in the hope of some innovative enlightenment from above. It was nonsense then; it is nonsense now. They have no substance. They are shallow and full of poppycock.
What this country needs is reform. It needs genuine innovation, and that does not come from sending 180 characters to Mars! It comes from corporate reform. It comes from a very agile, diligent and adaptive corporate sector. It comes from taxation reform that does not take away the incentives for people to work harder, to go out and get a job and to help themselves move from a welfare to a work mentality. It comes from reform that is going to encourage people to get into business. It takes industrial relations reform where people are encouraged to employ people, without the fear of being stuck in difficult circumstances or unable to pay their bills. It requires flexibility. It requires a truly innovative approach, not the tired old rhetoric and not the same ham-fisted centralised government initiatives and the ridiculous positions and policies that have been pursued previously. It also requires government reform. Government itself needs to be more agile. It needs to accept the fact that the central command planned economy that has been so loved by the socialists on the other side—particularly the former minister for innovation, Senator Carr—is yesterday's failure. It is no longer the way for a modern country to adapt, grow and prosper. We need to empower individuals. We need to empower individuals to innovate, to take risks, to build businesses, to employ, to grow our economy and to generate wealth. It is not government that does that. Government is an impediment to that, and it needs to get out of the way.
If you want true innovation in this country, you also need to have educational reform, not slogans like, 'I give a Gonski,' or anything like that. You actually need to give people educations that generate value in the community. You need to equip people with skills that are of financial value to others in the community, because, that way, they are always going to get a job and they are always going to have a chance to get ahead. We need to make sure, as I said, that people are encouraged to pursue the riskier options, if you will, of entrepreneurship, where they can say 'I'm going to have a go at this and maybe it will work and if it doesn't work I'll pick myself up again and I'll have another go and another go and another go.' That is the culture that we need to foster in this country, not this central command and bureaucracy. We do not need the bigger taxes that have been advocated by the other side; we do not need the corporate impediments that limit the job growth and the technological growth that can promote our prosperity into the future.
Senator Bernardi let the cat out of the bag when he talked about Gonski just being a slogan. That is not the case. Before the last election the then opposition was saying that they were on a unity ticket on education funding. Of course Senator Bernardi does not seem to be on anyone's unity ticket—he has been on the losing side so many times he just does not know how to win. I want to take issue with Senator Brandis's response to the very first question asked by the opposition, which was on the GST. As usual we do not get a straight answer from the government when it comes to the GST. They talk about being innovative, agile or creative but they do not want to talk about what their real plans are. They talk about having a conversation with the community, but it is not about that—it is about hiding what they are intending to do. We know and the community knows that they said they were not going to increase the GST. I can talk about the other broken promises that they have carried out since the very beginning of the Abbott government. Now we have Mr Turnbull, who is supporting another broken promise—the promise not to increase the GST. The community knows what they intend to do.
Government senators interjecting—
All you have to do is rule it out. You did prior to the election. You know that this is exactly what you want to do. You are trying to blame the states; you are pushing the states into a position by blaming them for having the discussion on the GST. You ripped billions of dollars out of the states' health budgets and their education budgets. You told the community a number of things prior to the last election and you broke nearly every single promise that you made. You broke your promises to the pensioners, you broke your promises to parents and families, you broke your promises to the premiers of the day. You did that as soon as you came in. An increase in the GST in Tasmania would have a massive impact.
It would be absolutely disastrous. Tascoss CEO Kim Goodes has already highlighted the impact that any rise in the GST would have on Tasmania, pointing of course to the GST modelling that showed that higher income households would pay less tax as a proportion of their income if the GST rose to 15 per cent than families on lower incomes. This conversation is going on with most of the coalition backbench—most of them not named—being concerned about increasing the GST not because they are concerned about their constituents but because they are concerned about their seats. And they should be, because this is another broken promise by this government to the Australian community. Tasmania has received some of the worst impacts from these broken promises. There has been a massive impact on education and on our health system as well. We even had the Liberal Treasurer in Tasmania talking about the $2.1 billion cuts, saying 'Where is the money? Show me the money.'
Dear, oh dear—how the Labor Party has fallen! No wonder their polls are at such a low level, and no wonder the union movement, which they represent in this parliament, has fallen to 11 per cent of workers in the private sector. When you hear the questions asked today, you understand why people have lost interest in the Labor Party.
Senator Conroy, you did not hear my question because it was about Northern Australia, which none of you on that side are interested in. I can understand your sensitivity, since you have dumped the only northern senator you have had in this chamber for a long period and replaced her with a male from Brisbane. That means that you have absolutely no interest in Northern Australia, and I can well understand why you attempted to drown out my question on Northern Australia to such an extent that the President, for the first time that I can remember in my long term in the Senate, had to ask that the question be repeated three times because the Labor Party clearly did not want to hear what the coalition is doing about developing Northern Australia.
Not sufficiently satisfied with that, the Labor Party then make up a story: the coalition is going to increase the GST by 15 per cent. I have never heard any coalition senator or member or minister say that once. I have never seen it reported. But does that stop the Labor Party—and the ABC, I might say, and the Fairfax press—headlining that the Turnbull government is going to increase the GST by 15 per cent? It has never been raised in the party room. I am not in cabinet, but I suspect it has never been raised there either. Yet that does not stop the Labor Party making up a story and then running a campaign on the story they have made up. Senator Bullock, I can understand why you have left your faction in Western Australia; the way the Labor Party is going, I am surprised that you do not leave the Labor Party as well. I do not think anyone would blame you. I know you will not. But I cannot understand why you stay with such a mob of ignoramuses who cannot have a policy, and so they make up a policy that the coalition might have.
Similarly, there was a question from the Labor Party about penalty rates and, as the minister answering the question pointed out, the only one that has ever reduced penalty rates in Australia is none other than Mr Bill Shorten, the current leader of the Australian Labor Party in this parliament. Penalty rates are normally a matter for the Fair Work Commission. But in Mr Shorten's case, he did a deal with the bosses—you know, at the top end of town—to take away penalty rates. And we hear a bit of silence for the first time from the opposition when the truth comes out.
I do not know what is wrong with the comprehension of Labor Party senators. Senator Brandis was asked about the GST and he said that a 15 per cent increase in the GST is not a proposal of the Turnbull government. Is that what you said, Senator Brandis?
That is very, very clear. And yet the Labor senators come here and, in spite of that very clear and direct answer by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, they still try and pretend it is around there. Now, methinks that the Labor state premiers have got onto the Labor Party and said,' hey fellas, how about an increase in the GST?' It seems to me this might almost be a subterranean plot by Labor to get more money for their mates in the state governments. The Labor Party have—
Well, I would be proud of that description; Senator Heffernan has done more for Australia, Senator Conroy, than you could ever contemplate doing. He is a fine man who has made a real contribution to parliamentary debate here. But contrast that with the Labor Party, who simply do not have any policy—so they make up policy for the coalition. They talk about penalty rates, where the only one that has reduced penalty rates is the current leader of the Labor Party. What a sad decline for a once great party. (Time expired)
Back in the 1940s, there was an organiser working for the SDA in Western Australia called Backshall. He organised hairdressers. Backshall went out on his own with his hairdresser members and registered the Hairdressers & Wigmakers Industrial Union of Workers. When Backshall retired, he passed on the union to his son, Ron.
Frank Belan did! Over the following decades, the union ran down. Ron found winning wage rises for hairdressers difficult, and by 1990 a four-year-trained tradesperson hairdresser was earning less than a shop assistant. I had a few discussions with Ron, and somehow found myself secretary of the hairdressers' union. I immediately engaged in negotiations with the master ladies' and master gentlemens's hairdressers associations, and managed to persuade them to increase wages by $150 a week—not bad shooting in 1990. One of the issues which concerned employers was the penalty rates payable for work on the one late night and on Saturday. In the course of negotiations, we valued these penalties at 10 per cent of the total wage costs, and I traded these penalties for a 10 per cent across-the-board wage rise plus a provision in the award—which as far as I know is unique—under which, if there were any future national wage case increases awarded in flat dollar terms rather than a percentage—unusual in those days—the increase awarded to hairdressers would be increased by 10 per cent to preserve the value of the 10 per cent buyout.
It is fair to say that the employer associations were extraordinarily pleased with this outcome. Nevertheless, as soon as the award was varied, employers came out of the woodwork to complain. 'We do not trade on Thursday night; why should we pay?' 'We do not trade on Saturday; why should we pay?' 'We have some employees who only work Monday to Friday; why should we pay them a loaded rate?' These employers were effectively arguing for the penalty rate system—rewarding workers engaged during unsociable hours for the work performed during those hours. Even though the employer associations taking a macro view were satisfied that, across the industry, a 10 per cent across-the-board wage increase was required to ensure cost neutrality, at a micro level there were some employers who were disadvantaged by the buyout as well as some employees, while some employees were being compensated for hours of work which they did not perform. If penalty rates are to be bought out, there is no avoiding these problems.
In the enterprise bargaining era, my union—the SDA—has worked with employers to improve efficiency in the retail industry and to improve wages for members. Implementing simpler pay scales which absorb some penalties into higher base rates has been part of these negotiations. In the 1990s, agreements struck under the no-disadvantage test facilitated these arrangements, as 'no disadvantage' was assessed on an on-balance basis across the affected workforce. Today, the better-off-overall test provides a different challenge because it is, arguably, applied to each individual worker. Take Coles, for example: if a Coles shop assistant was employed under the award, their gross would be $721.50 week. Our agreement pays such a worker $821 a week—an hundred extra dollars a week; locked into the base, flowing into overtime payments, superannuation contributions and leave payments. Such an increase makes a huge difference to a low-paid worker. They are unquestionably better off. Yet it could be possible to find a worker, perhaps a casual who is engaged only to work at what would be penalty times under the award such as on Sundays for example—such an employee could be worse off. All of this demonstrates how hard it is to properly and fairly compensate workers when moving away from penalties. It also highlights how much value there is for a worker in the penalty system for those who regularly work at unsociable hours.
A few years ago I had a chat with the Premier who raised the issue of penalty rates and suggested that he might like to personally be involved in reducing penalty rates. He said that he wanted to be fair and not cut workers' pay but offer some compensating increase in base rates. I explained to him some of the complexities that this involved. After some reflection, he said that perhaps he did not want to be personally involved with it at all. And here is the problem: compensation arrangements are hard to effect; they can be globally cost neutral but are likely to be disadvantageous to some employers and employees, and this is unavoidable. What businesses and most politicians who are advocating reducing penalty rates mean is cost cutting. They are not interested in grappling with the issue of compensation. Yet penalty rates comprise a significant proportion of the take-home pay of those workers who work at unsociable hours, the majority of whom are already low paid. Labor's view is that imposing wage cuts on the low paid workers is simply unthinkable. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.