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- Start of Business
- MINISTERIAL ARRANGEMENTS
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
East Timor: Foreign Policy
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Financial Regulation: Government Policies
(Washer, Mal, MP, Howard, John, MP)
East Timor: Foreign Policy
(Martin, Stephen, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Rural and Regional Australia: Meat Industry
(Schultz, Alby, MP, Anderson, John, MP)
Howard Government: Foreign Policy
(Beazley, Kim, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Dairy Industry: Deregulation
(McArthur, Stewart, MP, Truss, Warren, MP)
Budget 1999-2000: East Timor
(Crean, Simon, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Business Tax Reform: Mining Industry
(Haase, Barry, MP, Vaile, Mark, MP)
Goods and Services Tax: Air Travel
(Kernot, Cheryl, MP, Fahey, John, MP)
Business Tax Reform: Family Farms
(Nehl, Garry, MP, Truss, Warren, MP)
Goods and Services Tax: Car Industry
(Cox, David, MP, Fahey, John, MP)
Rural and Regional Australia: Employment and Unemployment
(Cameron, Ross, MP, Reith, Peter, MP)
Telstra: Rural and Regional Service Levels
(Smith, Stephen, MP, McGauran, Peter, MP)
Job Network: Evaluation
(Gambaro, Teresa, MP, Abbott, Tony MP)
Medicare: MRI Rebates
(Macklin, Jenny, MP, Wooldridge, Dr Michael, MP)
Industrial Relations: Public Service Reform
(Barresi, Phil, MP, Kemp, Dr David, MP)
Health: MRI Contracts
(Macklin, Jenny, MP, Wooldridge, Dr Michael, MP)
Rural and Regional Australia: Services
(Lawler, Tony, MP, Anderson, John, MP)
Medicare: MRI Rebates
(Macklin, Jenny, MP, Wooldridge, Dr Michael, MP)
Fringe Benefits Tax: Australian Defence Force Personnel
(Lindsay, Peter, MP, Scott, Bruce, MP)
- East Timor: Foreign Policy
- ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
- DISTINGUISHED VISITORS
- PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS
- MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE
- EAST TIMOR
- ELECTORAL AND REFERENDUM AMENDMENT BILL (No. 2) 1998
- NATIONAL HEALTH AMENDMENT (LIFETIME HEALTH COVER) BILL 1999
- WORKPLACE RELATIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (MORE JOBS, BETTER PAY) BILL 1999
National Rugby League
Moore Park: McDonald's Proposal
- National Rugby League
- Workers' Entitlements: Parrish Meat Supplies
- Rural and Regional Australia: Transport
- Canning Electorate: Community Services
- Petroleum Industry: Reform
- Member for Dawson
- National Rugby League
QUESTIONS ON NOTICE
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry: Grants to the National Farmers Federation
(Ferguson, Martin, MP, Truss, Warren, MP)
Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business: Payments to Organisations
(Bevis, Arch, MP, Reith, Peter, MP)
Coastal Surveillance Task Force
(Kerr, Duncan, MP, Howard, John, MP)
Electronic Commerce: Collection of Taxes
(Latham, Mark, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
Australian Consulate-General in New York: Purchase
(Crosio, Janice, MP, Downer, Alexander, MP)
Goods and Services Tax: Lifeline Youth Services
(Thomson, Kelvin, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
Australian Taxation Office: Western Australia
(McFarlane, Jann, MP, Costello, Peter, MP)
- Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry: Grants to the National Farmers Federation
Tuesday, 28 September 1999
Ms ROXON (5:22 PM) —In listening to the members opposite, it is interesting to note that they regard this Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999 as a great opportunity for companies to invest in the human resources of their employees. Unfortunately, this does show that the members have not actually read the bill. There is nothing in the bill that contributes to what might otherwise be a worthy thing for the government to be setting out to do. I know that people will be surprised, when they do bother to read the bill, that the key issue of concern confronting employees in Australia at the moment, job security, is not dealt with. They are concerned not just about how long they will have a job for but about what hours they will work and whether they will actually know a week ahead of time; whether they will be able to make arrangements for child care; and whether they will be able to pay their mortgage. Job security and predictability of employment are the key issues concerning Australian workers at the moment. Can anybody tell me where, in this 300 pages of bill that will amend the existing Workplace Relations Act, there is anything that deals with these key issues?
Unfortunately, despite the raft of amendments and the absolute haste with which the government has been able to prepare these amendments and introduce them into the House, there is nothing that deals with this single most important issue for Australian workers. In fact, there is nothing in there that protects workers when the companies that employ them become insolvent, there is nothing to protect them from corporate restructures, and there is nothing to protect them from transmission of business in order for companies to escape award coverage. In fact, there are three changes which make these situations even worse. The first is the proposed change to the transmission of business provisions which, as they currently stand, provide for automatic award application when a business is bought by another company. Those are proposed to be significantly weakened to encourage dodgy corporate restructures, which we have already seen in some very dramatic and sad cases in the last couple of years.
The second change is a further change to notice payments, which are paid to employees on termination. Those matters are to be taken out of awards. This is part of the cutting back of award provisions. Members opposite like to say that this increases flexibility and improves human resource management. What it actually does is encourage employees to feel even more insecure in their employment.
The third change that affects workers is in provisions that cover casual workers. These provisions in awards are fairly meagre as they stand, but they are also to be taken out of awards. And they are not just to be taken out of awards where it is appropriate, but they will be prohibited from being in awards. That includes matters such as the proportion of casual employees in a workplace, the hours worked by casuals, maximum and minimum numbers of casuals, and rostering provisions. All of these are being taken out at a time when casual employment is a growing sector of the Australian work force.
To be fair, the government has released an entitlements paper which might, in some people's view, start to deal with this issue. However, it deals with only an absolute minimum safety net provision. It does not guarantee that workers will get all of their entitlements in situations of insolvency, and, even though it is the workers' money, their accrued entitlements will not be paid to them. There is an example in my electorate which I have spoken about in the House before: Braybrook Manufacturing, where some 70 migrant women workers are going to be without employment. Their entitlements are not to be paid to them. The company is insolvent and there are insufficient funds to meet the payment of their entitlements. The government's proposal would pay some of those workers—the maximum would be eight weeks pay. In fact, the entitlements of many of the workers who have worked for 30 or 40 years with the one company would be in excess of 60 weeks pay.
Even the inadequate proposal that the government has put forward in a discussion paper is not in the bill. It is just something that is going to be discussed. Even though it is a key issue of concern to Australian workers, the government has not bothered to put any proposals such as these in the bill.
Given these constant abuses, can Australian workers cope with even less protection than they currently have? Who or what will be there as the watchdog, if you like, for industrial decency and fairness? We already know the answers to these questions.
Australian workers are already worse off as a result of the first wave of changes; they cannot afford to lose further conditions and security. Yet these second-wave changes are actually offering workers less protection via the Industrial Relations Commission. Its powers are shrinking. It is not allowed to use fairness and decency as a test anymore when setting standards for working conditions, and there will be less access for workers to the commission and to the courts. People will not be able to pursue their claims because they will not be able to afford it. The commission used to be a free court—a court that was accessible to everyone to quickly and cheaply resolve industrial disputes. But now, under these proposed changes, the commission will be charging workers and unions for pursuing any claims within the court. Not only that, matters will move more quickly to the court.
There is less certainty in the commission and there is less certainty in the courts as well. The changes in the issues that the awards can deal with will make it harder for workers to prove their claims, even when they are forced to go to court. It would probably surprise many to know that the changes that are proposed in this bill actually remove classification levels—and therefore the rates of pay for people working at different levels—from awards. They also remove a requirement to keep records of hours.
We know that not all employers are bad, and I do not think that anyone on this side of the House says that, but the Workplace Relations Act does need to provide some protection for people who are employed by the very worst of employers. How, when you are being underpaid, are you going to prove your claim when there is no provision in the award for your classification rate and there is no requirement for your employer to keep records? It is clearly ridiculous. It is clearly something that this government is pursuing without real thought being given to the impact that it will have on working Australians.
This bill will make the detection of award breaches—even breaches of the pared-down awards that this government has brought about—more difficult, because it restricts the examination of the books by unions. In our current environment, the unions are the only watchdogs that exist in industrial relations. The department has abdicated its responsibility to have some role as a watchdog and to do workplace inspections. Individual workers who make inquiries about underpayments will not be assisted by the department, and unions—whatever criticisms those on the other side of the House wish to make—are the only bodies in the Australian industrial relations context which routinely check to ensure that basic decent standards and award standards are being complied with in the workplace.
There is also a new regulatory role for the Employment Advocate, but the changes to the role of the Employment Advocate do not provide any extra security or inspection powers in relation to working conditions; they provide the advocate with the power to check on unions. The focus of Peter Reith, the minister in this area, is clearly on the regulation of unions—and in some circumstances it is completely unnecessary regulation—not on the regulation of employers, the workplace or working conditions. As I have said, this lack of protection is exacerbated by the department's abdication of responsibility in this area. It is extraordinary that the minister wants to legislate the very room in which a worker can talk to their union but will not allow an award to tell an employer what to pay an injured worker. This minister wants to legislate what a worker's lawyer can tell them in an unfair dismissal case but does not want awards to cover hours of work, training or classifications rates.
You can see from these examples, and there are many more of them, that the priorities of this government are completely wrong. It is pursuing this agenda in a mean-spirited way. It says that it wants to further deregulate the labour market because there is too much regulation. But this is clearly a sham. As I have said, the only deregulation that is going on is in relation to the abuses that can occur at the hands of an employer who is prepared to treat their workers badly. There is increased regulation of unions, there is increased regulation of right of entry and there is increased regulation of negotiation, although that is supposed to be something that is freed up in this process. There is nothing in the amendments to help workers, only to make it harder for them to enforce their rights.
One of the most fundamental crimes committed by this bill is the further attack on the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its powers. Many in the House would know that the industrial relations powers in our Constitution came about following the very nasty disputes of the 1890s. They were instituted to ensure that protracted disputes would not occur in the future. They were put in the Constitution by our founding fathers because, even at that time, they recognised that there needed to be a capacity to settle industrial disputes so that they would not drag on without any hope for relief. What we are seeing is a turning back of the industrial relations agenda to that time. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission has had so many of its powers removed that it cannot effectively arbitrate during disputes. As a result of the first wave of changes, it was easy to see what problems were caused in the maritime union dispute. In the past, such a dispute would have been handled by the Industrial Relations Commission. It would have tried to negotiate a solution between the parties. It would not have been left to the courts to determine this matter. But, given the restriction that the commission can now only arbitrate on allowable award matters and only arbitrate in very limited circumstances following negotiations over agreement matters, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for parties to use the commission to actually find a solution.
The other difficulty in the changes proposed by this legislation to the running of the commission is that the bill seeks to commercialise or privatise significant aspects of the commission's current duties. The minister has presented it as a reform to propose that there should be fee paying voluntary mediation as part of the services that the commission provides or refers to people. In fact, that is what the commission was able to do, but free of charge, in the days when conciliation was actually an emphasis of the industrial relations agenda in this country. It is not just the attack on the commission's powers that concerns me; it is also the attack on the independence of the commission, which flows through to the commission's capacity to deal fairly with working conditions. Once the commission loses its powers and its independence, we have to worry about how it can properly deal with maintaining fairness and decency in the workplace.
This bill proposes that commissioners be appointed for a short time, a period of just seven years, and in fact it also allows for acting commissioners to be appointed for one year. Originally, when the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission was set up, these commissioners were often High Court judges, and even for an extended period of time when they were not High Court judges they were regarded as being at the same level of standing as High Court judges and were very well respected. We are now seeing the gradual shrinking of the way that a commissioner is treated, and this is yet another significant step—a very significant step—that means that commissioners do not have security. If they are not able in their decisions to have the favour of the government, will they find themselves reappointed at the end of their term?
There are also a number of very significant legal changes being proposed in this bill. The industrial relations system, as I mentioned briefly before, used to be able to pride itself on being non-legal. The reason that a separate commission was set up was that the social perspective, if you like, and the inherent importance of employment relationships in people's lives could not be governed by an ordinary court or legal system. What we are seeing in the proposals put forward by the government, though, is more and more emphasis on the legalities. There is also no longer any equality before the law for workers.
One of the most significant changes means that workers will have to pay to use the commission. Costs are going to be introduced in many areas. There are increased costs in unfair dismissal areas, there are costs for mediation and there is quicker access for employers—but not for employees—to go to courts, where fees are payable and where it is much more expensive for an employee to engage lawyers to appear on their behalf. In contrast to this, however, it will be much easier for employers to sue workers. It seems to me that there is no fairness in a system where we are constantly favouring people who have not only the most bargaining power but also the most legal firepower and the most money in our industrial relations system.
This bill proposes to remove section 166A of the act, which provides for a cooling-off period. When employers and their workers were in dispute, there was a three-day time frame to allow the commission to try to resolve the disputes with both parties before the employer was able to race off to the court. That section is being removed and it means that the commission has no opportunity to try to resolve a dispute before an employer sues a worker. It also means, of course, that the workers are seriously disadvantaged in terms of cost and access to justice.
Not only that but this bill also seeks to repeal the provisions that allow the Federal Court to vary unfair contracts. The unfair contracts provision is the only protection—and it is pretty scant protection as it exists—for the large number of owner-drivers in the transport industry, for subcontractors and for many dependent contractors who rely on there being some potential to examine contracts for fairness to ensure that the increased bargaining power, or the certainly unbalanced bargaining power, of employers is not abused. This bill does not seek to put anything in its place; it simply proposes to remove the Federal Court's powers to review any unfair contract.
Not only that but we have orders and injunctions that can be granted against workers and unions being able to be automatically applied. This is a most serious and dramatic change, and I think there are some significant civil liberty issues related to it. I do not think anybody in this House would expect that, in a commercial dispute or any other type of dispute, an injunction preventing them from carrying on any of their normal duties or actions in life would be applied without them being granted some opportunity to argue against it.
The provisions in this bill require the commission and the court to make such drastic orders within a set and very short time frame whether or not there has been any capacity for the other party to be heard. This is extraordinary. We can compare it to the way a commercial list operates in the supreme courts around this country or in the Federal Court. The commercial lists are actually set up to be speedy lists that ensure that any commercial dispute that requires immediate attention can be dealt with straightaway. There are no courts around this country where orders are made that ultimately affect the final rights of one party without there being a chance for them to be heard. I am not even sure that it can be constitutional for the courts' discretion to be removed in these matters.
On top of that, the bill seeks to remove an individual's right to take political action or protest action. In the circumstances of the significant protests that have taken place with respect to the circumstances in East Timor, it is concerning that this government is trying to restrict this right. I am unsure whether this government really would try to stop our community being able to protest and express its great concern, anger and distress about the circumstances that have been occurring in East Timor.
Of course, you could not have this government introduce any workplace relations changes without dealing with unfair dismissal laws, because that is, after all, its obsession. It has got to the ridiculous point where it is making it harder for a person to be able to complain if they believe they have been unfairly dismissed. Sacked workers will also be prevented from pursuing a claim without the matter even being heard. The commission is going to be given the power after a conciliation conference to deny a worker the right to pursue their claim to a full hearing. All this means—as I am sure the government knows—is that conciliation conferences will become hearings in themselves. It will in fact require workers to go through two lengthy hearings. It will not mean that fewer people will pursue unfair dismissal claims if they have been treated unfairly.
This bill also attacks the conditions that can appear in awards. We are seeing awards being stripped back now in the most extreme way. Awards are no longer going to be able to set fair and reasonable conditions but only basic minimum conditions. We are removing all sorts of conditions from awards that even this government, as well as other people across the country, acknowledge are important. We talk about skill development but we are going to remove classification rates, which seems to me to be extraordinary. Accident pay, jury service leave and transfers and rosters are going to be removed from the awards. These are basic issues that we need to have covered in some way in our employment relationships, but this government wants them to be prohibited from being in awards. It is also extraordinary in the circumstances where reserve leave was already removed from awards in the 1996 changes, and we have seen the terrible impact that that has had when we now need to be looking at using our reserves for the crisis in East Timor.
Fundamentally, this bill is actually a diversion. The industrial relations agenda of this government is a diversion. It does nothing to help workers. It only drives down their conditions, takes away their security and fails to safeguard their health, training and entitlements. It does nothing to improve the skills of workers that will help employers. It does nothing to create jobs or help business. It is just a diversion to hide the government's lack of industry policy. It is an attack on unions simply for sport, not to achieve any outcome. This is one of the most concerning areas, but unfortunately time will not allow me to go into this in any more detail. We need unions in this country. The more deregulated the system becomes, the more we need them as watchdogs in our industrial environment. This government is seeking to take away employees' security and also their capacity to be represented. (Time expired)