Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022
Mr COULTON (Parkes—Chief Nationals Whip) (20:01): I rise tonight to speak on the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022. I’m a little perplexed about the urgency of this legislation. In a couple of weeks, I will have been in this place 15 years, and in that time I don’t think I’ve had one constituent visit my office, write to me or talk to me in the pub on a Friday night about the need to go back to the dark old days of union dominated workforces.
I know the Labor Party are very good at lionising their iconic past leaders. Sadly, they’ve skipped a few. They skipped Prime Minister Hawke and they’ve gone back to Prime Minister Whitlam. The reforms that are being proposed here now are more along the lines of a Whitlam government than a Hawke government. One of the things about having been around for a while is that, from listening to the speeches by some of the younger members, I don’t really think they understand what they’re proposing and what it will mean.
My memory goes back far enough that I can remember the frustration of farmers who had machinery imported into Australia and had it sitting on the wharves because of industrial disputes by the workers on the waterfront. Yesterday we marked the passing of Peter Reith and remembered the work that he did in freeing up the waterfront, the gateway to our trade in and out of this country. Sadly, all of that good work that happened under the Howard government, by Peter Reith and his fellow travellers, is now starting to erode. We’re starting to see, in our ports across the country, union dominated waterfronts, with processes and practices like exorbitant pay and ridiculous work conditions now being inflicted which are really impacting the efficiency of the country.
The reality is that, at the moment, regions like mine are carrying the country. Agriculture is booming, thanks to the good seasons. We’ve got a few issues with floods, but basically we’re having good seasons. The mining is booming. In my part of the world, we see the coal that’s coming out of the Gunnedah Basin and Narrabri, keeping the lights on all over the world in a cleaner way, through the ports.
I represent Broken Hill. They tell me about the days when the Barrier Industrial Council dominated Broken Hill, how inefficient it was and the stifling hold that the Barrier Industrial Council had on that town. Thankfully, those days are gone and now we have a prosperous workforce, generally working in a fairly harmonious way. I’m reminded tonight of the eighties, when, in regional Australia, workplaces were dominated by the Australian Workers Union. I can remember the union rep turning up at our woolshed and a chill would go down everyone’s spine. The learner shearer who hadn’t got his ticket yet would pretend he was a rouseabout because otherwise there’d be a ban and all sorts of trouble. Every Friday night in the pub, there’d be a punch-up when the union thugs would be bashing up the guys that had decided to use the wide combs. What finished the Australian Workers Union—and, incidentally, their three-storey edifice in Dubbo just got sold because everyone out there lost interest in them—was that they were actually against productivity and against the welfare of their members. They fought tooth and nail against wide combs; they broke into woolsheds at night-time and smashed handpieces; they threatened violence. As a result, I don’t think there’s one shearer now that’s a member of the union. They’re earning good bucks—young fellas in my electorate out at Walgett are earning a couple of thousand bucks a day now shearing sheep without the union.
That what’s puzzling: what is the driver for this? Probably the bit that’s most concerning is the return to pattern bargaining. If you take a group area, quite often big business isn’t the friend of little business and they’ll actually do a deal with the union using the size and scope of their business—and, ultimately, this pattern bargaining forces the same conditions onto the associated businesses either in that location or in that same line of work. Basically, it squeezes those smaller businesses. The issue at the moment across regional Australia is that we’ve got more jobs than people to fill them. So it’s actually a buyers’ market for people that have skills in the workforce. What role exactly will this union membership give these people? It’s completely perplexing as to what’s being proposed.
All I can come up with is that this is, I guess, a gift to the union movement from the new Labor government for their assistance over the years with elections. This is a financial gift that’s going to stifle productivity and it’s actually going to damage relationships. One of the most important relationships in any business is the relationship between management and ownership and the workforce. It’s one of mutual respect and trust—and, quite frankly, in my observations across my electorate, that’s how it works because bosses understand that skilled, contented workers that are respected are a valuable asset in that business.
Judging by some of the speeches on the other side, the greedy bosses are a bottomless pit of money and, basically, with the unions there’ll be more money—more wages and prosperity—that will come to the workforce. What it’ll actually mean is there’ll be job losses because the business will have to rationalise: ‘I can’t afford to keep going at this level, so, sorry, these 10 per cent of people have to go.’
An honourable member interjecting—
Mr COULTON: Mate, I’ve been around for a while, and one of the advantages of having this grey hair is I’ve seen this before. So I’m not going to be heckled by you, because—
An honourable member interjecting—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Dr Freelander):
Order! So I’m not going to be heckled by you, because I listened to those speeches—and I’m not one to get biblical—but I forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing, or whatever that quote is! They do not understand the hardship that is being inflicted on the Australian economy.
Small business is the backbone of this country. Small business got us through the pandemic. Small business pays the bills. Small business pays for our defence. So why on earth are we going to put a handbrake on the most effective model of generation of wealth in this country? Small businesses take on apprentices. Small businesses employ people and small businesses support towns. What we’re seeing here is a step back into the dark ages.
Just for those who maybe haven’t been around for a while: I’ve been around for long enough to remember how long the Whitlam government lasted. And it wasn’t long—it was not very long! So I might just say to the members over there: as you are stepping into this new nirvana of union dominance, enjoy it, because it won’t last long! It won’t last long because the Australian people are used to their independence, they’re used to being respected and they’re not going to go back to a system where they’re going to be dominated by thugs who are only interested in lining their own pockets and not in the benefit of the workers they’re supposed to represent.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Dr Freelander):
I thank the member for Parkes. I think the member for Hume is offering to give him some Bible lessons! I call the member for Hume.