Thank you for being here today.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Albanese government’s industrial relations changes come at what is clearly the worst possible time for our nation.
Australians are contending with high inflation, with rising interest rates, with increasing cost-of living, especially with increased power prices, and low unemployment.
The legislation is as unprincipled in design as it will be economically damaging after it becomes law – and bad decisions today will create a mess for tomorrow.
And – as so often has been the case in our country’s history – a Coalition Government will again prepare to clean up that mess.
The Keating Government introduced enterprise bargaining in the early 1990s, effectively giving our industrial relations system the first of many software upgrades.
Now, the Albanese Government will introduce its multi-employer bargaining malware.
Make no mistake, this is an industrial relations system downgrade.
It will take us back to the 1970s and 1980s.
Don’t take my word for it, hear the words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating.
That era of industry-wide industrial action which crippled our economy in the ‘70s and ‘80s has the potential to return here.
A time when – if you go back to the newspapers of that age – were splattered with headlines of:
‘Wharf stoppage halts ships’
‘Strike affects food supplies’
‘All trains stop as 20,000 strike’
‘Queensland strike causes week-long power shortage’
‘50,000 stranded in bus strike’
‘Pilots’ strike continues’ and
‘National mail disrupted’.
Younger Australians – from the Millennials forward – have fortunately never encountered such stoppages, disruptions and their economic impacts.
But those of us old enough to remember the strikes still recall the ramifications right across society.
We thought those days were gone.
But they could well be upon us very soon again.
Labor’s radical industrial relations changes have the potential to strike massive blows to productivity at a time when we need increased productivity.
The legislation contains three components which will be calamitous.
First, the legislation expands the size and scope of employers and employees who are forced to bargain.
It will draw in businesses which are not unionised, and it will even hoover-up employers and employees who are happy and settled in their relations and with their conditions and have productive workplace.
In fact, any business with a headcount of 20 or more staff – be they full-timers, part-timers, or casuals – can be dragged to the multi-employer bargaining table under the proviso of ‘common interests’.
The common interest criteria is so broad that it will be satisfied on almost every occasion.
Here’s just two examples:
A common interest justification can be a geographic location.
Despite their vast differences, a restaurant, café, clothing retailer, supermarket and hairdresser can clearly – under the legislation – be forced to bargain together – simply because they are located in the same shopping centre.
Another common interest justification is a shared service offer.
Despite operating in different states, under different jurisdictions, with different workforces – two pharmacies can be forced to bargain together – simply because they are both chemists.
The common interest criteria is a net which can be cast as wide as possible to ensure almost every employer and employee is captured.
We should be under no illusions about the legislative amendments agreed by Labor in recent days.
Provisions to allow businesses with fewer than 50 employees to exit multi-employer bargaining are no protection at all.
Such small businesses do not have the time, sufficient resources, or indeed the legal expertise to properly contest the unreasonableness of multi-employer bargaining.
Ultimately, the small fish will be worn down by the process and by the intimidation of the whales in the system.
The second destructive component of the legislation is its expanded strike rights.
Employees from thousands of businesses across the country will be able to strike.
The third destructive component of the legislation is that it flagrantly shifts power away from the employers and employees themselves.
Just contemplate that for a moment.
We’re told that the right of veto of agreements is being amended, but it will still allow unions to block the process.
If employees in a multi-employer bargaining arrangement reach an agreement, voting on that agreement can be blocked by union bargaining representatives, and it will be up to the Fair Work Commission to decide whether to uphold the veto.
In these three components we have a powder keg of industry-wide strikes and economy-wide slowdown waiting to explode.
Even prior to the legislation being passed, there’s no shortage of strike action or disputes.
In Adelaide, John Setka’s CFMEU picketed a local crane service – protesting the company’s offer of a 16 per cent pay rise and instead demanding 25 per cent.
The rail union has been protesting for months in Sydney, causing continuous disruptions to commuters.
And due to Labor’s bad legislation, the new ‘common interest’ net could be cast so widely that the current train strike in Sydney could enmesh all buses, ferries and light rail.
These services all share a similar ‘geographical location’ and ‘regulatory regime’ – and they are all administered by Transport New South Wales.
Strike escalations in many parts of the country in recent months are a result of the Labor government empowering union leaders since it came to power in May.
So, when union leaders say they’re committed to conciliation under multi-employer bargaining, at the very least, we should be very sceptical.
When union leaders say that industrial action will be ‘a last resort’, such assurances surely feel vacuous considering current behaviours.
Indeed, under multi-employer bargaining, union leaders are demanding that workers have the power to strike simultaneously and in sympathy with other workers.
Even if those workers’ workplaces, where they are not the subject of a dispute.
Union leaders are advocating for these powers not because they intend to use them sparingly, not because they intend to negotiate without that hammer hanging above peoples’ heads.
Rather, because they will use them readily – and that should cause us great concern.
We should be very clear about what’s driving all this.
Union membership in Australia has been in decline for decades.
Across Australia’s private sector workforce, union membership today accounts for less than 10 per cent.
In many ways, this decline in union membership coincides with Australia’s shift from being a goods-producing economy to a more services-oriented economy.
Multi-employer bargaining is the mechanism through which union leaders can assert their movement’s relevance in the 21st century.
It’s a means to insert themselves into the growing services-based sectors.
It’s a method of unionising the non-unionised.
Multi-employer bargaining will allow union leaders to cannibalise many small businesses in particular, and they’re licking their lips at the prospect.
The Coalition has always been the party of choice.
And we completely respect the choice of Australians to join a union.
But what union leaders intend to do is not about choice, it’s about control.
They’re seeking to force themselves into small businesses, to bully employers, to make sure they adopt union conditions, to impose union bargaining fees for non-union members, and to intimidate employees into becoming union members.
How else can we explain, for example, union calls for compulsory union membership for skilled migrants.
Such union behaviour is unprincipled and brazenly coercive.
The Labor government and union leaders disingenuously state that the Coalition does not want Australians’ wages to go up.
It’s a completely ridiculous proposition.
In fact, it is juvenile and embarrassing when the government argues that.
Quite the contrary is obvious.
We want Australians to take home more money – particularly to help them manage cost-of-living pressures.
Just as we want Australians to keep more of what they earn through our legislated Stage 3 tax cuts.
Here’s the important points of difference between Labor and the Coalition when it comes to wage rises:
Through multi-employer bargaining, Labor wants to force wage increases on employers, even when those employers cannot afford it.
The Government has no regard for the fact that if employers are compelled to pay unsustainable wages, businesses will lead to an inevitable outcome and the workers will be rendered unemployed.
The Coalition knows that real wage gains come from productivity gains across the economy.
Indeed, the lasting effects of our economic management in Government has meant that there are now 623,000 more Australians in jobs than prior to the pandemic.
That is a remarkable outcome and it has allowed wage growth to accelerate.
When wage growth is strong, businesses and families benefit.
But there is no evidence that this legislation will deliver either higher wages or higher productivity.
Labor believes that the government and unions can dictate the wages and conditions of Australians just as they did in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Coalition knows that wages and conditions are best negotiated between employees and their employer directly – at the enterprise or workplace level.
It’s at that level where the fair balance is struck – between what that employee wants and what an employer can afford.
In that arrangement, both parties can grow and succeed.
As I mentioned, Australia is contending with high inflation, rising interest rates, increasing power prices, and – as predicted under the budget – an increase likely in unemployment.
Labor’s multi-employer bargaining risks a wage-price spiral that will make inflationary conditions much worse than they need to be.
The potential damage is something which is widely recognised.
Yet Labor has chosen to ram through its radical workplace laws without compunction.
The government’s own assessment of the regulatory impacts of this Bill contain alarming findings:
It calculates that a small business owner will have to spend at least 4.6 hours every day – for up to six months – away from their business negotiating a multi-employer agreement.
To cover the costs of bargaining, a small business would need to fork out – on the government’s own numbers – more than $14,000 dollars and a medium-sized business more than $80,000 dollars.
We know that Labor can’t manage money and these figures grossly underestimate the impacts that businesses will experience from this poorly designed legislation.
Let’s not forget that employers in industry and business create the vast majority of jobs in our country – not the government.
It’s telling that those who represent the job creators of Australia have come out unanimously in their condemnation of the government’s industrial relations Bill.
Of course, your own organisation of ACCI, and I commend the leadership of ACCI for the stance that you’ve taken. ACCI and many other groups attended the Jobs Summit earlier this year in good faith, believing that their views would be listened to – but that has not been the case. It’s true, too, for the BCA, for AIG, for COSBOA, for the NFF and for other smaller representative organisations.
As Andrew has put it best, when he said that the Bill will cause:
‘Seismic shifts to Australia’s workplace relations system… increasing strikes, creating more complexity, and lead to higher unemployment.’
He said that the Bill:
‘abandons enterprise bargaining, the key driver of productivity-based wages growth, in favour of compulsory multi-employer bargaining, reversing decades of tripartite consensus.’
Tania Constable, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, said the Bill ‘represents a sledgehammer approach’ and would unleash ‘industrial relations chaos’.
While 70 per cent of surveyed members of the Australian Retailers Association noted that the increased complexity which comes from the legislation would increase costs for businesses – and it’s all at the wrong time.
We all appreciate what’s at stake here under Labor’s nationally self-destructive industrial relations approach.
More red tape, more strikes, and fewer jobs for businesses will morph into higher prices and cost-of-living for families at a time when they can least afford it.
I do want to pause and thank ACCI – and so many others – who have pushed back with courage and conviction in the consultation process, so-called, in relation to this Bill.
The government has put forward one of the most deceitful and damaging pieces of legislation in many, many years.
With the legislation about to become law, we do need a chorus of voices to continue to speak up.
To speak up with us to make sure that we can have amendments because people will feel the consequences across the community.
Ladies and gentlemen, the government is making a difficult situation much worse.
Decisions will make hard times even harder for all Australians particularly in an increasing inflationary environment.
In the aggregate, these decisions could create the perfect economic storm which does great damage to our economy.
In the areas of energy, tax, industrial relations, Labor’s policy decisions are reducing productivity and driving up prices.
We are absolutely determined to work with you and many others across the country to support your businesses, to help them grow, and to make sure that they can employ more Australians, not less.
That has been the history of Coalition governments.
We have been, I think, demonstrating since day one, coming into opposition that we will provide support to the government where they get it right and in particular on the international stage where it’s in our country’s best interests for there to be a united message heard by friends and foes alike.
But on this, we are diametrically opposed to the government’s position.
It is against our national interest and certainly against the interests of employers and, in turn, employees.
It will damage the Australian economy and for that reason it deserves to be called out.
Thank you all very much for being here today.