Mr HAMILTON (Groom) (12:39): What a pleasure it is to follow the previous contribution. I’m going to pick up on one small ribbon that was left glowing in that speech: that a seven-year-old child could see how obvious this was. I remember Rove McManus rather unsuccessfully deploying a similar argument on another topic quite recently. It was that little thing called the Voice. When we’re told that something is so simple a child could understand it, that only dunderheads or dinosaurs—I won’t say the other word that starts with a ‘D’. You’d have to be in that class of people to stand against something so wonderful and magnificent. It does raise a flag for me. I think it should raise a flag for everyone when that sort of argument is put in place. I appreciate that complexity is very difficult in an eight-second grab, but here on the floor of parliament we shouldn’t be afraid of it.
There’s another point that I think is worth challenging in the context of this piece of legislation: who is to gain from this? My background is running mine sites around Australia. I’ve worked hand in hand with unions through many difficult challenges. If you’re genuinely there to protect vulnerable workers, that’s God’s work, and I am proud to have stood beside people who have done that under the union banner. So I don’t accept that this is unions versus business. I think this is big business versus small business. I’ll come to that as we go along. I’m very proud that the Leader of the Opposition made that point very clear in setting out on our agenda for this term.
We are not the party of big business. We’re the party of small business. We’re not here to seek to support those who seek or have one monopoly. We are there for those who are in pursuit of happiness, who are trying to build something of themselves. In this bill, if you look and see who is supportive of it, you will see this bill does not harm big business. The complexity increased by this is only marginal for a big business. It already deploys significant funds towards its legal teams. It already has significant influence in the IR space. This hurts small businesses. I’ll come to one of those shortly.
The third point I open with is that this bill must be considered within the context of its time. These last 12 months, we have seen the most extraordinary drop in productivity since we began measuring productivity: a six per cent drop. This is probably one of the most difficult things for us to overcome because productivity, as many journalists will tell you, is rarely a sexy thing until it starts hurting you and the clear link between productivity and real wages can’t be missed. When you harm productivity, you harm real wages, and we are seeing that today. We have wage of 3.6 per cent and cost of living at 9.6 per cent. Real wages are going backwards by six per cent—surprisingly, the same as the drop in productivity. The link has been there for years. It’s quite obvious. When you harm productivity and make it more difficult for business to do more with less, you are harming workers. You are making real wages go backwards. That is indeed one of the criticisms that has stood the test for this particular piece of legislation. This does not do anything to increase productivity at a time when nothing could be more important for a government to be focusing on in the context of looking after workers.
If you want to look after workers, there are two things you do. For one, you raise real wages. The other is to lower tax to ensure they keep more of what they earn. Neither of those things is being done by this government. It’s completely contrary to the promises that they made to the Australian people going into the last election. This piece of legislation, coupled with other efforts of this government, will make things worse. They are making things worse.
I had a meeting recently with a small business that has been terribly concerned about the impact of this legislation on it. It’s an electrical company. I’m a humble mining engineer. I like digging holes and blowing things up. Electrical engineering is a whole different thing. These are some of our best and brightest. Michael Reiken from Excel Power—they work in new energy battery solutions for both homes and small businesses. Why are they important? I’m not just talking up electrical engineers for no purpose. These are bright people. These are smart people in a complex field. These are people who take in incredible amounts of information and provide complex solutions to them. They’re specialists in their field and they’re specialists in a field that is growing. What they are not are specialists in IR law. Their concern—particularly as the type of work they do will often see them on a site for more than six months—is that they’ll be caught up under this legislation, that they’ll go from being labour hire people providing a service or people coming in and providing a service under a contract to being caught up in this.
They’ve never had to deal with this before. This has never been an issue for them. They’ve just been merrily going around, growing their business, doing the work of pumping taxes into our economy to keep us a successful and buoyant nation. Now they have two paths: either they have to become experts in IR law—and this is not an easy thing. There are 1,200-odd pages in the Fair Work Act. This is another 200 pages on top of that. This is not a small change. This is not a modest change, to once again echo back to a recent conversation we’ve had with the Australian people. This is not a modest change. This is a significant change, particularly if you are on the fringe of this legislation. If you are one of these businesses that are now going to be caught up in it, you will go from not having to worry about this to being very concerned about it. Even someone like Michael, someone capable of making these steps, will be challenged.
If you play that out across any of these businesses, it’s quite easy to see this when you understand small business. They don’t start by setting up a HR department. They don’t start by setting up a legal department. They start by knowing what they do, by being experts at what they do. They build a team and they learn how to manage a team. At some point, as you move from a small to a medium business, you have to take those steps and you have to grow. But for those businesses that are on that fringe, that are on that verge, this will be forcing that change for them before time. This is completely changing the playing field. Again, this raises the spectre of fairness. This was raised by the previous speaker. I don’t want to pick too much on the speech, but when they’re just going over talking points sometimes it is fun to engage with them. In the concept of fairness, this isn’t fair for those businesses who will be captured in something that in no way reflects the risk they present to the workforce or their employees.
I want to turn to the other concern I have around this. I want to speak about labour hire. Again, having come from the mining industry, I’m not going to pretend that some of the instances we’ve seen—and I’m speaking particularly about the Bowen Basin about two decades ago, where we saw companies employing 40, 50, 60 per cent of their workforce under labour hire. These are things that should not have been, were wrong and were rightly called out and stopped. But there is within this legislation and the conversation that the government is having around it a demonisation of labour hire as an option and, quite frankly, the seeking of its end. I want to speak about the relevance of it and how important it is that we maintain a suite of different employment options in the workforce. This again speaks to productivity, to competition and to economic dynamism—the ability for workforces to come in, perform their work, and leave. One of the most important things that labour hire does, particularly on mine sites, particularly on mineral processing plants, when you’re looking at operations like mill relining—again, in my own patch, I have a company, RME, that does exactly that—you have people who come in on sites for sometimes more than six months. They’re there to do a very specialised job that no-one else does. They move from mine site to mine site, taking their expertise around the country in a manner that ensures, and has ensured, that Australia is able to be a world leader in the mining industry. This has been a crucial aspect of it. The job experience they have is of very concentrated times of work and periods away from work. That is entirely their choice. I have already pointed out where it is wrong, but where it is deployed, the vast majority are people who are paid far more than the average worker. That takes into account the nature of their employment.
I can speak about the mining industry because I employed these people and brought them in, like many other mining engineers around Australia. We would see them come in for a range of things. I know that this happens in energy production, on feedlots and in the construction industry. People with specialist skills come in to do very, very specialised jobs and they’re now being caught up in this. The government’s push to end this is so shortsighted and not in our interests, particularly at a time—which I go back to—where we have failing productivity.
These people come in and, very clearly, their job is to increase the productivity of that workplace. They come in and repair a mine or they will come in and reline a mill. They come in to do a specialist job that’s required to be done on a regular basis and, if they don’t do it, productivity sags—
Mrs Marino: There’ll be a breakdown.
Mr HAMILTON: Or we have a breakdown—absolutely! To point out how important it is to keep this stream of employment alive: in the mining industry, mining plant and processing plant are run at somewhere around 110 per cent of their design capacity. Every second that you lose is a cost. It’s a cost to the mine, it’s a cost to workers who are incentivised on production and it’s a cost to the Australian economy in lost tax dollars and revenue—let alone the cost to the customer and all the downside of that as well. And what is often forgotten is the supply side: the local small businesses who provide this work. These are direct costs. When we take away the ability for this, which is what this legislation will do—and this is why I have been so focused on this—it will force companies to hold on to these workers. If they want them, they’re going to have to employ them on a full-time basis at a lower rate of pay than they’ve been experiencing. It will stop them from taking their expertise from mine site to mine site and stop the Australian mining industry from getting ahead.
I know I’m speaking at depth on the mining industry, and I know that’s a challenge not everyone can rise to. I’m not being boastful; I’m simply pointing out that this is important to us. It’s not something that we’ve been shortsighted about on this side of the House. We don’t claim the winnings and then turn our back on them. This is why we’re good at mining—because we’ve acknowledged this for a long period of time. This is why we’re good at it, because we acknowledge that these different types of employment options are required for us to get ahead and that they have been significant contributors to the great Australian mining industry, which we all benefit from. As I like to do when I talk about the industry, I challenge anyone to look around the room they’re in and point to anything that hasn’t either come out of a mine or been touched by the product of a mine. It’s a fun thing, but I’m yet to find someone challenge me on it.
I’ll go back to the legislation again. Take the context of its time: we have productivity at an all-time low, with a six per cent drop in 12 months. This is something that we’ve not seen before. Every step that this government must take should be towards increasing productivity. Every piece of legislation put forward by this government should aim to increase productivity. If it doesn’t do so, then it is failing the Australian people. A continued lack of focus on productivity will result in a continued reduction in real wages. That connection is long established; it will continue until kingdom come and I think that is the worst thing that can be said about a piece of legislation—that it will actually hurt workers. Debate adjourned.