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Tuesday, 3 March 1998
Page: 163

Mr WILTON (2:21 PM) —When the member for Fisher (Mr Slipper) says `we believe', we all know what he means. Indeed, he has been a member of both the National Party and the Liberal Party, so the royal plural is aptly used.

The Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] should, by and large, not be introduced. There is simply no need for it. It is nothing more than a political stunt which will achieve nothing positive in improving industrial relations in this country. It will also do nothing for jobs growth. It is just another ongoing assault by this government directed fairly and squarely at the hearts of Australian workers. The government has decided to attack the rights of those workers. It has been engaging in this assault since its election just over two years ago.

Let us examine briefly the effects of the government's Workplace Relations Act and what this act has done to Australian workers. First and foremost, it has removed the power of the Industrial Relations Commission—the independent umpire—in the same way that it has removed the independent umpire here in this chamber this afternoon. In no less heinous an act, where it coerced, the Speaker resigned. In many similar ways it has sought to undermine the Industrial Relations Commission which has acted for many years as an effective and independent arbitrator on the matter of workplace relations in this country. Workers will now have to bargain directly not only to secure decent wages but also to secure decent conditions.

This act also requires the Industrial Relations Commission to set nothing more than minimum wages. Furthermore, it undermines the award system as a highly effective safety net for wages and conditions for workers. Enterprise bargaining will now be the main way by which wages and conditions will be determined. For the first time it also allows individual employment bargaining and highly secretive individual contracts. This means that workers will find it more difficult to be represented by unions in their bargaining and negotiating with employers.

Furthermore, the act introduces a range of new penalties and punishments for industrial action by unions which, when involved in legitimate industrial activity, can now be penalised by both common law damages and significantly hefty fines. It is clear that their track record of looking after Australian workers and ensuring, as it said time and time again during the campaign two years ago, that no worker would be worse off, stands shabby. This piece of draconian legislation will do nothing to improve the government's track record in this area.

There are a number of arguments against the widening of the small business exemptions for unfair dismissals in the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] . The way the law currently stands is that any employer can dismiss an employee within three months of their starting employment and the employee has absolutely no effective redress through the unfair dismissal law. That really should be enough. Shouldn't a decent employer know after three or four months whether or not a new employee is suitable? Shouldn't that be a sufficient probationary period to determine an employee's appropriateness to work in a particular position for which they have been selected?

We do not need these small business exemptions. The government's position on this issue is not at all clear. It has chopped and changed on a number of occasions. In fact, it does not really know what it wants in this important area. These unfair dismissal laws were extensively amended by the government's Workplace Relations Act. Those changes came into effect on 1 January last year.

We have heard that both the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and the Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business (Mr Reith) had bestowed praise in copious quantities upon their new rules which would be a panacea for the issue of unfair dismissal in our great country. What the government is proposing to do with the legislation before the House now is to create an exemption to the government's own unfair dismissal laws. This is totally inconsistent with its overwhelming praise for its previous wonderful legislation about unfair dismissal. These laws will do nothing to improve the employment opportunities nor job security for Australians. Far from that, they will make Australians simply easier to sack.

This proposed exemption is, by and large, inconsistent with the government's own pre-election undertakings, wherein it said that at no time prior to the election did the coalition foreshadow an exemption from small business to these unfair dismissal laws. The Sydney Morning Herald reported quite to the contrary on 20 February 1996. It stated:

The coalition has flatly ruled out any exemption for small business in its redrafted unfair dismissal laws, despite a plea that the sector should not be subject to the same treatment as `the big end of town' . . .

I guess that is just another broken promise.

Mr Kelvin Thomson —They ruled it out.

Mr WILTON —That was indeed ruled out. While we are talking about broken promises on industrial relations, let us again re-examine the coalition's pre-election commitment that, as I said before, no worker will be worse off. Let us look at what is happening in one particular area—the hospitality industry. The government is pushing in that area a full scale slashing and burning of the award system which has worked so well, to the point where we may now see casuals being forced to endure a 25 per cent cut in pay and their public holiday being additionally cut. The workers in the liquor trades industry have had to resort to paid advertising to inform the public just what is happening in their industry.

I am a Victorian. I have seen at some length over recent years just what the Kennett government did to the rights of Victoria's workers. It could be construed as nothing less than a wholehearted and full-scale award rights demolition. There is no doubt that workers in this country have been treated with contempt by this government. Its industrial relations policy could best be described as nothing more than a sick joke.

Given the current track record of this government, it is no surprise in many ways to find that the legislation before the House today will only add to job insecurity, as I have previously stated. About two million workers now being protected against being unfairly dismissed—two million workers employed by small business—will now lose that important protection. Of course, subsequently they face a much less secure future.

Let us look at some particular facts of this matter in some more detail. The proposal that the government is submitting to the House does not distinguish between unfair dismissal claims on the merits of the case. Instead, it just distinguishes between claims on the basis of the size of the employer. The small business exemption will discriminate against employees who work in small business. They just will not have the same protection. In no way will they have the same protection from unfair dismissal as do their counterparts who work in larger businesses, that is, businesses with over 15 employees.

It is not only the employees who will suffer, because I am sure many decent, honest and committed employers in small business do the right thing by their employees. Those employers will have to compete against other operators, often in the same industry, who are seeking to gyp the system, they being shonky operators who know that they can get away with treating their employees with contempt and like dirt. The unfair dismissal exemptions will protect only those less dedicated, shonky operators.

The proposal before the House may well indeed prove to be a significant disincentive to growth within the small business sector. Indeed, if a business currently employs 14 people and wants to expand by employing a couple of new people, will that mean that the business will then have to comply with the unfair dismissal legislation? Or will it mean that some employers who want to avoid complying with the unfair dismissal law might create artificial employment agreements by simply splitting their work force up into smaller units of less than 15 employees, thereby effectively escaping and evading the unfair dismissal laws because the companies they have set up under the act will be deemed small businesses? This is going to add to the legal complexity that many businesses already face—something that would be acknowledged by members on both sides of the chamber.

Of course, this bill has nothing really to do with the issues that the government needs to be addressing; and we all know those issues well. They are issues such as boosting employment opportunities, encouraging business investment, boosting job security for working Australians, and ensuring that a worker gets a decent day's pay for a decent day's work. This bill has nothing to do with any of those important things.

Those are issues that the government should be addressing, but it is not. It should not be addressing this issue of exempting small businesses from the unfair dismissal laws, because, contrary to the exhortations of those opposite, no-one in the small business sector that most of us speak to ever mentions the issue of unfair dismissal and the current laws which surround it, which legitimately and fairly apply to all business, large or small, or ever mentions the fact that those unfair dismissal laws are in any way an impediment either to the operation of their small business or to their incentive to attract and employ new staff.

I am not just saying this because I sit on this side of the House. I am saying this because that is what business operators in my electorate and my colleagues who talk to operators in their electorates tell me, that is, unfair dismissal law reforms are not a high priority for small business operators. In surveys undertaken of small business, unfair dismissals and the impact of those laws upon the viability of small business ranked very low or, indeed, in some surveys did not rank at all.

In fact, a recent Morgan and Banks job survey—a survey of no small sample size, being of some 3,500 business organisations—revealed that 80 per cent of small businesses did not believe that the existence of unfair dismissal laws affected in any way their decisions to employ new staff. Only 16 per cent of small businesses employers believed that they would benefit from the proposal to exempt them from the unfair dismissal laws, because they know that the three-month probationary period is sufficient for them to determine whether or not any new employee is a suitable person to perform the task they are required to perform.

In addition, these statistics were basically the same for all other sizes of business, indicating that the unfair dismissal laws are of no particular or special concern to small business and small business operators. A recent Yellow Pages Small Business Index showed that a meagre five per cent of small businesses are concerned about industrial laws, whilst 84 per cent are more concerned that lack of government action has failed to get the economy moving. I draw your attention, Mr Deputy Speaker, to the fact that there is no minister at the table.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins) —There should be a minister at the table. The minister is returning. I thank him for his spritely assistance.

Mr WILTON —An ACCI survey ranked dismissal laws a distant seventh out of eight as the main impediment to employment. It was well behind lack of sales, a weak economy and lack of profitability. That is what small business is telling the government. But the government simply is not listening. The government is also suffering from selective memory loss. On radio this statement was made:

Look, our position's very clear. If you've been unfairly dealt with at work, then you should have a right of appeal.

The proposal before the House fairly and squarely negates that promise. It simply must not have been a core promise. This government is telling workers that they basically have no rights at all if they work in a small business. I would like to remind the Prime Minister of yet another promise he made when he was in opposition. He said:

. . . I'm not going to have a law where an unreasonable employer can capriciously sack a decent, hard-working employee.

Of course, at that time he did not tell us that if you are a small business owner the rules will not apply to you.

Mr Charles interjecting

Mr WILTON —The member for La Trobe will have 20 minutes to defend the Prime Minister's comment in that regard in light of the bill that is now before the House. It is interesting that the coalition told us that they would govern for all of us, but I guess `all of us' does not include the thousands and thousands of Australians employed by small business, which is coveted by those opposite and, indeed, those on this side of the House as by and large the engine of the Australian economy.

We on this side of the House do not believe that an employee's right of appeal against unfair dismissal should be determined on the basis of who they work for or, indeed, the size of the employer with whom they are employed. That is not fair. It is not the Australian way of doing things. Those on this side of the House and I will continue to oppose the bill on the principle that it is unfair, that it is unneeded and that it is an unwarranted attack on the rights of Australian workers—rights which, despite the government's exhortations of working for all of us and that no worker will be worse off, continue to be diminished under this government.