Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Opposition Whip) (18:54): When I was a young boy and I had nasty medicine to take, my mother had an interesting ploy. She’d put the disgusting pill on a teaspoon of jam and say, ‘Eat it up.’ It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the jam was sweet enough that I would take the medicine. I’ve got to tell you that I think this industrial relations bill, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, is exactly that. It’s a bitter pill wrapped up in a bit of sweet jam. There are a number of things in it that are difficult for anyone to argue against, but there are a whole lot of extra bitter pills that sit within it that will attack dynamism, attack decision-making and attack flexibility in the Australian workforce, and yet those attributes are what we need in Australia at the moment.
It is a fast-changing world. We have the advent of artificial intelligence and of instant communications, and we all use so many of these applications even on our phones that sit within our pocket, and businesses use them too. But along the way they are getting tied up in red tape. I can’t tell you the number of business people I’ve known—tradies, for instance—that have worked their way up and started to employ people around them. They say, ‘I’ve got six or eight on the workforce.’ Next time I run into them, I ask, ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Oh, I got rid of them all. Just me now.’ ‘Why is that?’ ‘Because I was just working my backside off to fill up their envelopes. They were doing a good job, I was doing a good job, and the company was doing a good job, but I had no life. I was working all week and all weekend. I can earn more money and keep more of my own money by just working on my own.’ What a slap in the face for entrepreneurism.
We have this bill. In total there are about 800 pages, with the points of clarity being almost 300 pages in the bill, I think. It was slapped on us at a minute’s notice, virtually, in this parliament, and we are now expected to debate it. We’ve had a little bit longer to look at it now, and of course the longer we have it, the more we look at it and the more bitter pills we find within it. There are those skerricks of jam, like the clauses around family and domestic violence, for instance, which I would have no trouble supporting at all, except they sit within this other structure. Then there’s wages theft, and I heard the previous speaker talking about wages theft. Well, wages theft is illegal already. You can’t go around stealing other people’s property, and in most cases, if it’s done with intent, it will be a criminal offence. Somehow things will be said about the opposition, so people like me who see all the nasty things within this bill that I will be compelled to vote against. The government will say, ‘Rowan Ramsey, the member for Grey, is in favour of wages theft.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, but as I say, with nearly 300 pages of legislation and 500 pages of explanatory notes, no wonder it is a complex bill—it is way over complex.
If the minister really wanted to achieve change he would split them up and we could come at these issues one at a time. But instead he has thrown this great grab bag together, and I am talking about complexity. You look at a businessperson who has seven, eight, 15, even 70 people on the books, and already the Fair Work Act has 1,200 pages. It’s no wonder why people sometimes get it wrong when the act is almost impossible to sort through to find out what it is you are meant to be doing. It is a while since I’ve employed people outside the current job that I have, but even then—and that was 16 years ago—on my farm, I was reading through pages and pages making sure that we got all the employment details right. It’s just got worse and worse and worse, and that’s why the movers and shakers in our society are saying, ‘No more!’ The Treasurer said in March that we will be 40 per cent poorer if we don’t raise productivity. In a bill that has nearly 300 pages and another 500 pages of explanatory notes, given the subject that the Treasurer is keen to talk about, which is raising productivity in Australia, they can fit in everything else, but they can’t fit anything in about productivity. There is not one single thing in this bill that will raise productivity in Australia. In fact, they are just making it harder for us to encourage the dynamism and the innovation that we need. If you wanted to ossify your business sector, if you wanted to ossify our economy, the best thing to do is go down to the supermarket and get yourself a trolley full of red tape. That’s what we’ve got in this bill, a trolley full of red tape. Unsurprisingly, having been duped on tranche 1 of the industrial relations reform, businesses are arcing up, kicking back and saying: ‘Enough’s enough. If you want us to carry Australia’—and both sides of parliament do want that—’then you need to cut us a break.’
But of course the big ticket here, the really big, bitter pill that sits within this sticky jam, is the right of access for unions, unannounced. Bang, bang on the door, and in they come. All they have to do is suspect that the employer is doing the wrong thing, but they don’t actually have to prove that suspicion to anyone. They can just go to the Fair Work Commission and say: ‘We suspect that Joe Blow isn’t doing the right thing.’ ‘Why do you suspect that?’ ‘Oh well, he looks a bit dodgy to me. What do you think?’ Then it’s bang, bang on the door, and in they come. And that door might be the door to your home. It might be any of our homes. Many businesses are run from home today. So the union jackboots are at your door, just when you’re trying to get the kids off to school in the morning. Or they could be out on our farms, bringing weeds onto the farm, threatening biosecurity. We don’t know. We don’t have the ability to say, before they come into the house: ‘Have you washed your hands? Have you washed your feet? Have you been on a farm recently?’ These are outrageous interventions into our lives, into our businesses, as people go about their lawful business.
Embedded within the bill—and the government has dropped this language now—is the ‘same job, same pay’ tenet that of course the Minerals Council has led the charge against. The other day I was on a farm property visiting a shearing gang. I’ve got to tell you that shearing is one of the last industries in Australia where people actually get paid for what they do. They get paid well. A good shearer can probably knock out a thousand bucks a day quite easily. But they get paid for what they do. They work hard. They deserve it. I don’t make any bones about it. But imagine, if we started paying shearers by the hour, how many sheep would get shorn.
Of course, the government has already moved in this area, with the fruit-picking industry, and put in minimum rates of pay. When I was a young man, in school, I used to pick fruit. We used to go up the Riverland, where my sister lived, and pick fruit. I was paid piecework there, by the number of apricots that I picked in the day, not for just rolling up in the morning. The fact is that, under these proposals, it’s so difficult to actually reward your best workers. We want our best workers to hang around. We don’t want to lose them to the mining industry. The way to keep them is to pay them a bit more than the ones that you could probably do without because they’re not going quite as fast or efficiently or whatever. But this comes in the way of that.
There is another thing that seems to have crept back in here, another one of those bitter pills. Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, I think you would well remember the fight that we had in this place before about the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. I’ve just been to an event for truckies up in the Dorothy Tangney room. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t discussed by the minister up there, and neither were any of these incursions. But the idea that the minister and Fair Work can actually view up and down the pipeline of the trucking industry is a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the little operators—the ones that have full flexibility because they’re driving the trucks with their family, their cousins or whatever, and doing a great job out there—to try and get them run over by the big businesses that will sign the deals to allow the unions in the door. Why would you want that? It all comes back this: that’s what funds the Labor Party. No wonder they’re in favour of this legislation. That’s how they get around. They dress these bitter pills up as being good for the public. One mob it is really good for is the Labor Party.
Let’s talk about gig workers. Sure, everybody should be paid properly for what they do. But one of the reasons that these platforms have workers is that they really, really, really like the flexibility that they offer. Whether they come to work that day or not might depend on other things in their life. They are free to clock on or clock off, to pick up fares or not—as an Uber driver, but that’s not the only platform that gig workers use, of course. If we’re going to start intervening in that, just who is damaged? You might get a better pay deal for them, but you might get a lot less work, as well. It’s a trade-off.
Like I say, there are good things in the legislation. I’m not saying that we don’t need to take care of all our workers. After all, as someone who has employed workers for most of their life, the last thing I want to do is lose my good workers. Generally speaking, employers will work to keep good employees and go above and beyond the minimum standard. It’s not guaranteed at every level, but to think there are not laws against that already—there are minimum standards in place, through our award system, that mean there is a minimum rate of pay in Australia and it must be paid.
Not all of the groups that I’m going to name have been hostile to the government; in fact, on the first tranche, which I was a bit surprised at, they virtually worked with the government to bring in these reforms, but the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia have come out vehemently opposed to this tranche of industrial reform. That’s what the government calls it—reform. I’m not sure that ‘reform’ is the correct word.
I can see some good in the legislation, but very, very little. I haven’t even touched on all of the points that I find offensive within it. I hear giggles coming from the other side there. If anyone thinks this is a laughing matter, they should look at what funds the Australian economy. What are the businesses that the Australian economy runs on? Where does the money to fund all that government expenditure come from? It either comes from companies or it comes from the people that they pay wages to, who contribute back to the economy through their income taxes.
This is bad legislation. It has Labor Party fingerprints all over it. It’s about paying off their pay masters—the people that fund their campaigns—and I’m totally opposed to it.