My difficulty is that I lived in the real world for nearly 35 years, really employing people. I’m reminded of one very precious employee who has just passed away. She began with me when she had very young children. She could only work a very few casual hours, which suited her. Then, a number of years later, when her children went to school, she said, ‘Can I work from 9.30 till three, so I’ll be there when the kids leave and when they get home?’ No problem. When the kids were a little bit older, she worked full time, and she was one of the most marvellous employees you could ever have. Then there was the young girl who walked in to see me and said: ‘Russell, I don’t have a resume, because I haven’t had a job. Can I work for you for nothing?’ Of course, I put her on. She never worked for me for nothing. We paid not only the award but over the award to every one of our employees. That was an insurance policy.
Why is this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, and everything we do on industrial relations so complicated? Why are there so many people, with so many agendas, who just want to confuse others, especially the general public? My staff at BL & BM Broadbent Drapers—or whatever we were—worked under the federal award. The federal award says, ‘This is what you pay a casual employee; it’s about 50 per cent higher than what you pay a permanent part-time employee, who gets all the benefits that go with being a full-time employee.’ Simple. Then holiday time came, and, under that award, I had to pay all of my staff 17½ per cent more per week than when they were working in the business. It’s part of the award; just accept it. It was uncomplicated: ‘Here are the rules; this is what a casual is.’ To me, a casual employee is someone who wants to work casually or can be called in, and, in my experience, it suited them to be a casual employee and get a higher rate of pay for the hours that they worked, as compared to those that worked full time or permanent part time. I’ll say that again. A permanent part-time worker was somebody in your business who worked certain hours every week, and those hours could be varied at any time. They accepted that. More importantly, they knew what their hours would be for the week and what their wage would be for the week, and that suited them and me.
On top of that, we had some 20 full-time employees, with all the benefits that accrued to them, including superannuation, sick leave, holiday pay and all the other benefits.
Now we’ve got to spend time putting into legislation matters between employees and employers that I thought would have been so simple. In fact, the previous speaker painted a terrible picture of employers as I know them. The most precious part of a small business is often not their stock or their product or their presentation or the building or the fit-out. It’s actually their staff because, if your staff or your employees are not engaging with your customers, you don’t have a business. They’re the ones who engage, and they’re the ones who bring the people back into the business. You can get the product and you can get the people in there, but, if you don’t have the precious people to work with you, you don’t have a business in small business.
Lots of businesses have only two, three or four employees, so they’ve got to be good. They’ve got to be engaging with their customers. They’ve got to have a relationship with their customers. These things that are so important can’t be written in a bill. It says here, ‘We’ve got to provide for those people who are doing the wrong thing.’ Yet, all the time, we’re bagging the thousands of employers in this country who are doing the right thing by looking after their employees and treating them as a very special part of the whole operation. That’s how business works. So when we say, ‘This bill provides certainty to business and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee, and giving eligible casual employees a statutory pathway to a permanent full-time job if they wish,’ I would have thought that that would be a natural because, when you find a fantastic, terrific, reliable, energetic employee, you want to have them on board and in the business as much as you can. Why does it have to be defined in legislation?
I can’t find anything in this legislation that the opposition shouldn’t be supporting. They’re trying to find parts of this legislation that they can have a fight about, and there’s not a lot here to have a fight about. As far as our economic circumstances go, the fact that wages have flatlined has been the case throughout the world. We have gone through this economic difficulty and this difficult time. Every nation in the world has seen their labour market flatline. What we’ve had to cope with in this last 12 months has been devastating for so many small businesses and for many medium-sized businesses that have had to pull back.
As a former businessperson, I am concerned about how we will fare as we go into the next six months and the six months after that. These are going to be difficult times for this nation, and, of course, you’re going to fall back on and rely on your best employees. You can have as much input yourself as you like, but you still have to rely on the employees who are the face of your business to the world. Whether you’re a franchise business—a very large franchise or a small franchise—or an independent operator, you’re still seeking good employees all the time. The people I meet that want a job and can’t get a job are quite often older. That disappoints me greatly. I notice that some franchise businesses are going out of their way to employ older people because they’re reliable, they do the job and they turn up.
But too many older Australians are not getting the opportunities. I’m saying ‘older Australians’, but it starts to get hard at 45. That’s why small businesses who know somebody who knows somebody are able to get that sort of person into a job that they wouldn’t otherwise get just from a resume. Small businesses are the people that will be affected by this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.
All the government has done here is go out of its way to put some flexibility into the marketplace to make it easier for people to get a job, to make it simpler for employees to understand what they need to do, and to make sure there’s some cooperation in that whole menage that is business, especially small business. I can’t talk about big business. I don’t know it; I haven’t experienced it. But I’ve experienced some terrible days in small business, because I was in business in 1990, when interest rates were 22½ per cent and business had huge downturns. We survived, but only just. Do you know why we survived? Because we had fantastic people working with us that carried us through, that were there every day, on time, working with each other and not leaving until their job was done.
If you’re going to do the things that we’ve done as a government to extend JobKeeper and thrust into business—the decisions were made so quickly, knowing that businesses had to keep going and had to keep their relationships with their employees. That was what the JobKeeper program was all about. This bill comes in to support everything that the government was doing in its approach to COVID recovery. This bill supports that. This bill should be supported by every parliamentarian in the House; instead they’re making lame excuses about why they can’t possibly support this. This bill is not unreasonable when it comes to employee-employer relations. For me, it complicates things that should be a no-brainer. It complicates things that should be just a cooperative effect on a basic arrangement between employer and employee. I’ve always been a supporter of far more flexible industrial relations processes. Be they industry based or based on a particular sector, I don’t mind, as long as both the employer and the employee are happy.
Some of the biggest failures on industrial relations haven’t been with small businesses. Who have they been with? Very, very large businesses. But did we scream and go after them? No. We’re not painting those huge conglomerates as out of order. Theirs was just a mistake. But, if a small-business person makes a mistake, they’re painted into a corner, and that’s not fair. There should be some protections built around those too, because it’s a huge risk to open a business. It was hard then, and, with all the regulations we’ve put on business since, it’s even harder now—much harder. You risk your family, mortgage your house and have a go. You end up employing people, then more, then more and then more, and when you’re reasonably successful these days you pay payroll tax. We have every incentive for people not to do well in business, as far as I’m concerned, especially in our tax regime, because it’s harsher on small business than on making sure the large conglomerates, who can pay a fortune, pay the minimal amount of tax. As for the small businesses, like the tyre retailers, what are they doing? They’re just selling tyres; they’re not in the business of minimising their tax.
This bill should be supported by this parliament. This bill should go through with cheers and roars. That’s what I think about this bill. This bill is an opportunity for the opposition to show themselves to be a participant in the COVID recovery. This bill will give employees some security and employers confidence to offer secure part-time employment. What more can you want than that? That is delivered to you; it’s handed to you on a platter. It’s regulating your opportunity for work. Today I’d like to see a new Australia where employer and employee come together to strengthen our economy at every level and where we actually put our families first and put our nation first and put our businesses first so we can all prosper together. That was my philosophy in my business, and we were hugely successful until I came to this position, when I turned a very good business into a very small business. I’ve got to be honest with you; this lifestyle I chose takes its toll. But I commend every small business out there and all the employees who work with them.
I commend this bill to the House. I commend this bill to the House even when I’ve been in places where I haven’t commended bills to the House. But I do commend this one, because I believe that we need more flexibility and more opportunity for people to work in this new time.