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Tuesday, 25 June 2002
Page: 4327


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (5:13 PM) —I rise to resume the remarks I was making on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 late last night. Before I sat down, I indicated that, if you had listened to the speeches already made by those on the other side of the House with respect to this bill, you would believe that the enterprise bargaining system was created since 1996 and by the Liberal coalition. Any fair observer would have already noted that it was the Labor Party that in fact introduced the enterprise bargaining system. It was a Labor government that ensured that, in order to bring about micro-economic change in the workplace, enterprise bargaining would occur—but it would occur with protections for employees. Of course, that is something that now seems to be a target of this current government.

As I said yesterday, this bill is no more than a rehash of earlier proposals rejected by the parliament. Like many other bills, it is Orwellian in nature and certainly in name. It does not attempt to facilitate genuine bargaining; it attempts to stifle it. It is hardly surprising that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations attempts to persuade the parliament that the important proposed section in the bill, proposed section 170MWA(2)(a), will help the Industrial Relations Commission on matters that tend to indicate whether a party to enterprise bargaining negotiations is genuinely seeking agreement. The minister wrongly suggests that this provision is consistent with the metals decision handed down by Justice Munro. Indeed, a close reading of the decision by Justice Munro will show that there is no need for this provision, as the commission certainly has sufficient power and discretion under the existing act to intervene where it believes that genuine bargaining is not taking place. This point was made by the Senate inquiry into this bill, and I concur with their findings.

Not only does the metals decision show no evidence of the need for this bill but the minister wrongfully concludes that pattern bargaining, or the pursuit of common claims in the form of a log, is contrary to genuine bargaining at the workplace level. Let us look honestly at what happens in the real world of industrial relations, rather than in the deluded mind of the minister. It is common to have a combination of industry and enterprise negotiations. Many employers, for example, would be justly concerned if they were asked to consider an X per cent wage increase if other companies—that is, competitors of that company—were asked to accept a lesser offer. In other words, employers would hope that they would not have to consider acceding to a greater amount than their competitors. Certainly from an employee perspective, they would not wish to see their representatives, the unions or agents on their behalf, seeking different conditions and wages for comparable jobs, as this would be unfair to those members who were being asked to accept lesser conditions of employment.

Within this context it would not be unusual for certain differences to transpire. There will be occasions on which, as a result of a number of factors—not least of all whether the employment is in the country rather than in the city, or indeed the variance that occurs between or amongst states in this country—you will see some differentials. However, it is not fair for people to be expected necessarily not to have a common claim across a group of employers or an industry. This government would have you believe that pattern, industry or multi-employer bargaining happens because of unions. But, as Munro said, pattern bargaining is practised by employers as well as unions. In the decision I have referred to, he had this to say:

It is not unusual for major corporate employers to attempt to achieve a consistency and sometimes a relative uniformity of outcomes in negotiations affecting workers.

It appears that some of the more loudly voiced and caustic criticisms of pattern bargaining as practised by the unions are muted or tolerant of corporate practices intended to achieve similar uniformities of negotiating outcomes across different workplaces.

Industry wide demands are often made by unions and are sometimes pursued at a national level. It is not the character of the demand that may cause offence under the policy embodied in sections 170MP and 170MW(2)(a). I see no reason why such claims may not be advanced in a way that involves a genuine effort to have each employer concede the benefits sought. In such cases, the pattern character of the benefit demanded, its source and even the uniform consent of it may be a cogent demonstration that the negotiation conduct is genuinely directed at securing agreements from the other party.

Munro's observations successfully dismantle the government's alleged objective in introducing this bill. As for employers serving industry claims, Liberal governments have been amongst the worst offenders. Indeed, in my own state in Victoria during the period of the Kennett government many negotiations undertaken by the government could be described as pattern bargaining. Negotiations in the water industry, for example, often involve common claims across all water boards that have been constructed under corporate laws. That is, in spite of the corporatisation of water boards and the requirement to regulate employment conditions at an enterprise level, there would often be standard non-negotiable provisions handed down from the government that would be expected to apply to all water boards, otherwise the agreements would not be approved or signed off by the government.

Against the rhetoric of this minister in this parliament we see not only evidence of the double standards of earlier governments of the same ilk as this one but also the double standard at the Commonwealth level. The minister on the one hand attacks pattern bargaining for being obsolete—an outdated, one size fits all approach—but, on the other hand, mysteriously the Commonwealth government serves common claims and sets particular policy parameters on workplace arrangements to apply across departments and agencies. It is a case of do what I say, not what I do—one rule for the workers and one rule for Minister Abbott.

The motives behind this bill are clear. This bill is a short-sighted and irrational attempt to prevent uniformity of claims by unions and their members upon their workplaces. This bill fails to recognise that uniform claims will not necessarily lead to uniform settlements, nor does it recognise that many employers would consider it discriminatory to be logged for different and possibly more expensive conditions than their competitors. Most of all, this bill is hypocritical. It asks employees and their representatives to deal at the micro level—that is, at the workplace—when indeed many employers, peak employer bodies and even the Commonwealth government continue to apply across-the-board macro standards. This hypocrisy—this double standard—should not surprise anybody who has been observing the behaviour of this government. This government seeks to smash unions and, as a consequence, hurt employees in this country, along with their entitlements, particularly when they are above the safety net.

If the government is unhappy with a Federal Court decision, it seeks to legislate against any outcome that might be found in favour of employees. If it does not get its way all the time in the Industrial Relations Commission, it reacts, as it did last year, when it broke from decades of convention and appointed predominantly employer sided commissioners. Indeed, it appointed nearly all of them as senior deputy presidents in a way that flagrantly abused the convention to ensure that there were people from both sides of the industrial relations arena.

The government uses the word `union' but it may as well use the word `employees'. It seeks to balance laws entirely in favour of employers. It also seeks to exploit another divide. It will favour those employers who are willing to fight their employees and the unions and it will castigate those employers who seek agreements without a bloody fight. As I said last night, we saw the government's disappointment only last week when the industrial dispute at BHP was resolved by the parties. We see this government's inclination towards sponsoring industrial conflicts by the hooded men and the attack dogs on the waterfront. We see the government's obsession with the union movement when, on almost every occasion a front bench member speaks, he or she mouths anti-union mantras whether or not the matter has to do with industrial relations.

This government rants and raves about militancy but it exhibits signs of militancy itself. We see this government's hatred of unions. It is almost a pathological hatred. It is very hard to rationalise or reason with, but it is there. It is there in the context where there is low industrial disputation and where people generally at the workplace level are only after a fair and reasonable outcome for their day's work. The government would have you believe that the country was rife with industrial conflict, and it is completely and utterly off the track when it makes those claims.

From viewing the behaviour and conduct of the government since its inception in 1996, we would advise employers to beware. Any employer who wishes to ensure that there is a consensual approach to industrial relations, any employer who wishes to sit around the table and discuss concerns with the employees and their representatives, should beware because that is not the way in which this government would have you operate. Employees should also beware. Unless you are a submissive employee or an employee who eschews unionisation or prefers not to operate on a collective level, beware of this government because this government is about removing your rights to collectively bargain. It is about removing your leverage against your employer. Unless you are an employer who is spoiling for a fight, you are not an ideal employer as far as this government is concerned. Unless you are a submissive employee, you are not an ideal employee. For this rabidly, anti-union government, the only ideal workplace is clearly one without a union present.

I ask those members who have some wit about them to consider a country without unions and to consider those countries that currently do not have democratic unions. Is that the ideal place in which we would like to live? The government wants to gut the Industrial Relations Commission and this bill is one means by which it will attempt to do that. The government and the minister want to remove the umpire and produce an environment that weakens employees' rights. I urge all members of the House to oppose the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Entsch) adjourned.