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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18435

Dr EMERSON (5:22 PM) —We support the amendments to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Termination) Bill 2002 proposed by the Senate because we support the right of working Australians to some redress when they are dismissed unfairly. It is quite obvious that the government does not, and this is also obvious in the double dissolution trigger which would allow businesses with 20 or fewer employees to dismiss any of their workers unfairly with no remedy whatsoever. Another bill that has been rejected by the Senate would have allowed this minister, in his zealotry, to take over completely the state jurisdictions for unfair dismissal where the employers are corporations.

We find this particular piece of legislation unacceptable and we have successfully moved amendments in the Senate that would provide casual employees with a probation period of six months. But, instead of saying that this is progress and is a reasonable balance between the interests of employers and employees, this minister, in his hard-hearted manner, always goes to one side of the equation, which is the employer's side of the equation. In fact, he does nothing to offer protection against unfair dismissal for Australian workers. Every piece of legislation related to the dismissal of workers that has been introduced by this minister has sought to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers with no remedy whatsoever on the employees' part.

There is a very interesting question now regarding the subject matter of the censure motion today—namely, Manildra. It has become clear that two reasons have been given to those workers who, the minister asserts, are facing the loss of their jobs. It has become evident in the parliament today that two completely different reasons have been given. If the minister had his way, through his raft of laws with their Orwellian terminology of `fair dismissal' and `fair termination', they would have no redress. They should have some redress. Those Manildra workers whose jobs are now in jeopardy as a result of this government's mismanagement of the entire ethanol issue should have remedies. But, under this minister's legislation, they would have no such remedies.

Workers who are employed in the wool combing industry in a factory in Geelong could also be in jeopardy. I point out that 93 employees have been locked out for 14 weeks, receiving no pay whatsoever. The employer locked them out when the employees did not accept the employer's proposal to do three fundamental things: reduce their pay by 25 per cent, change from seven-day to five-day shifts and allow unlimited use of casuals on the site. The minister is encouraging unlimited use of casuals, because, of course, the casuals could be dismissed summarily. That is what the minister wants. That is his vision for the workplace and for the Geelong wool combing factory.

The employees in question have taken no industrial action whatsoever, but the employer's lockout is legally protected under the minister's Workplace Relations Act. The employer has not changed its position one bit since the lockout started. It is a `take it or leave it' situation. The workers are stuck outside the gate and they are being starved into submission. Unless they agree to the employer's terms, they will remain locked out. We have a private member's bill before this parliament which requires the parties to bargain in good faith. What could be more Australian and more reasonable than that? But the employer in this case will not bargain in good faith.

Winter is a very slow time in the wool industry. The employer is taking advantage of his enhanced bargaining position, enhanced all the while by the legislation before this parliament introduced by this flint-hearted minister. As to effects on the workers, most of whom have worked in the company since it opened around 10 years ago, three of them have had to sell their houses and four other employees' houses are on the market. The point is that these workers should be back at work while genuine negotiations take place. Of course, under this minister's legislation, the employer does not have to negotiate. Those workers would be even more exposed if the minister's raft of legislation on unfair dismissals, framed in Orwellian terms like `fair dismissal' and `fair termination', were to pass. (Extension of time granted) I call on the employer to bargain in good faith. It is time this lockout finished. The employees have indicated a willingness to negotiate. They have already put propositions to the employer, but the employer has said no.

What has the minister's involvement been in this particular dispute? His track record shows that, whenever he is involved in a dispute, he seeks to inflame it and intervene on behalf of the employer. He told other employees who were locked out in the Morris McMahon dispute that they have a right to bargain collectively and be represented by their union. In fact, under this minister's legislation, they have no such right if the employer refuses to negotiate with the union. Let us have a bit of good faith at Geelong on the part of this employer. Let us have the employer brought to the negotiating table to negotiate in good faith.

If the minister likes to intervene in disputes—and we have seen that entirely evident with his performance in relation to the automotive industry, where he tried to bully major automotive companies into having industrial disputes with union members—then, perhaps, in this case, for once in his life the minister could intervene on behalf of good faith bargaining by getting the parties together and saying to the employer, `I now expect you to bargain in good faith.' But, of course, the employer could rejoin by saying, `Under your legislation, I do not need to, Minister.' That is obviously why he is not intervening in this case. The decent intervention would be one which involved the minister actually doing something to protect the interests of the workers who are being locked out of the Geelong factory.

Mr Abbott —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I do not want to unduly interfere with the member for Rankin's ability to make a point, but this is not really related to the matter before the House. I suggest that it would assist the House if he stuck more closely to the matter before the House and perhaps drew his remarks to an appropriate conclusion.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The question is that the amendments be disagreed to. I ask the honourable member for Rankin to address his remarks to the amendments.

Dr EMERSON —Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I have indicated in what I have already said about this particularly unfortunate and tragic industrial lockout, one of the requirements of the employer is that the employees agree to allow unlimited use of casuals on the site. This particular piece of legislation that has been brought back from the Senate would allow for the easy dismissal of casuals—this is the whole point. That is what the employer wants: to be able to have casuals on the site on low pay and to be able to dismiss them summarily. And, of course, the employer would be aided and abetted by the minister and the sort of legislation that we have in front of us at this very moment.

He is a flint-hearted minister, and he is an ideologue of the far Right. It is about time he turned over a new leaf, but we will not be holding our breath. He says that he comes from a religious background. He invokes saints and the word of the Lord on the basis of social justice, but he practises no social justice at all. He always intervenes on one side of the argument. Do it for the first time, Minister: for the first time involve yourself constructively in a dispute, not destructively. Call on the employer in this case to bargain in good faith. Stop trying to undermine the conditions of working Australians won over 100 years. In this case, these conditions have been won through negotiations over many years. Stop trying to undermine those conditions through the sort of legislation that you have brought into this parliament. It has been three bills now: this bill, the termination of employment bill from the night before last and a bill that would allow a business with less than 20 employees to summarily sack their workers. If you are going to get involved, for once in your life get involved on the side of the workers.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The question is that the Senate's amendments be disagreed to.