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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22788

Mr BILLSON (8:07 PM) —We are saved by the bell. What a confused and confusing contribution from the member for Rankin. He was right to mention Christmas because his contribution was a little Santa Claus-esque. It was one of those things that you just hope are true. If you say it often enough and if there are enough Christmas sales, you might believe it is true, but he really did miss the point. To emphasise that we were saved by the bell—to coin a phrase—we could have been dreaming if we had thought that the Labor Party were going to support sensible industrial relations legislation because they have a track record of not doing so. The notes I prepared for tonight's speech focus on the high probability that the Labor Party would do what the Labor Party always do, and that is to stand in the way of things just for the heck of it. I must say I have some admiration for the member for Rankin. Although he hogs the ball on the rugby field, he has done a reasonable job in trying to sound supportive yet, at the same time, suggest in a Santa Claus-esque way that Rob Hulls is the sweetest little Christmas elf that you have ever seen and that, despite the fact that Labor do not oppose this legislation, there is still an Armageddon just around the new year.

I speak in support of Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002, not only for what it does but also for what it avoids. It avoids the prospect of a new industrial relations system from Minister Rob Hulls in Victoria, who is not known for his accommodating bedside manner when it comes to matters politic. We should be celebrating the avoidance of that. When parliament supports this legislation in the House of Representatives, we will be saving Victorians from the wrath of Rob Hulls—the creator of a new industrial relations system. We will be saving businesses from the futile, pointless, expensive and confounding effort of creating another industrial relations system when everybody is saying that a unitary system is the way to go. We will be saving Victorian workers, but it is not only the workers who have jobs that we will be saving. The difference between the Howard government and the Labor opposition is the Howard government's outstanding record on supporting working men and women. In fact, this government is known as the worker's friend. We are also trying to do something about those people who are not currently workers but would like to be.

There is a dual task in workplace relations: it is not only to accommodate and facilitate productive workplaces in the interests of the business and the employees but also to hold out the prospect and work assiduously towards making sure more people have the opportunity to work. That is the framework and the context of the discussion on this bill tonight. The Labor Party are now not going to object and oppose this legislation because the penny has dropped. How could they and on what grounds? You only have to look at the commentary—even the Bracks Labor government's election material. Premier Bracks has tried to take credit for the benefits of federal industrial relations workplace relations policy. Let me quote the ALP platform chapter 10, entitled `Fairness and safety at work'. It states:

Under the Bracks government ... Confrontation has been replaced with a positive and productive industrial relations environment.

It has, because the Commonwealth is overseeing the vast majority of those arrangements and even Minister Hulls has said that the unitary system is the only way to go. So with that as a backdrop, what would Labor comrades in federal parliament possibly say to their Labor comrades in the state parliament in Victoria? Would they say: `It is wrong; the Bracks government is misleading itself and the Australian people, as it has on Scoresby tolls and things like that; it is actually not a good working environment'? Is that the option? Or is the federal scene going to say, `No, we want to impose on Victoria another workplace relations system with all the cost, complexity and futility of reregulating something that has not been regulated'? No, of course it cannot say that.

What you have seen today is an effort by the shadow spokesman, the member for Rankin, to try and make the Labor Party sound like it is in some kind of harmony with its state colleagues: on the one hand not opposing this legislation and on the other hand holding out the false belief that there is something evil in this package. To begin with, let me dispel both of those myths. The member for Rankin talked about Minister Hulls' eloquence, his accommodation and his collaborative nature in negotiations. That must be the Dougie Cameron `I got beaten up outside my home, but I've only popped by to see how you are going' definition of industrial relations negotiation. What nonsense. Hulls has gone around threatening the workers of Victoria, threatening the employees of Victoria, being belligerent—being himself—and the member for Rankin has fessed up. He said that there were threats. He said, `The state had the Commonwealth over a barrel.' He said that it was clearly trying to pressure and force the issue—it is almost terrorism. Workplace relations terrorism has gone on in intergovernmental relations to force the Commonwealth government to do what Mr Hulls wanted. That does not really sound like negotiation at all, does it? This whole issue has come to a head because Minister Andrews recognised that there is only so much you can teach an old dog in the case of Minister Hulls. If that is the way he interacts, maybe there is a need for some push back to get a serious and sensible adult-to-adult conversation, rather than a dictatorial, belligerent, threatening, demanding and insisting Minister Hulls.

That is the backdrop, and it is a different backdrop from the one that the member for Rankin would have you believe. In discussing this bill tonight, we have arrived at an agreement because Minister Hulls was told he could not have all that he wanted. Threatening to damage the job prospects, the employment environment and businesses in Victoria is hardly the way to make sound public policy. Minister Andrews has said, `If you want to go and rip the guts out of many of these businesses and deny Victorians the opportunity to work and to pursue improved living standards through their shared endeavours with their employers, that is not a good outcome. Why not canvass some other possibilities?' Tonight we are having a discussion about what has been agreed in canvassing those possibilities. It would be wrong for anybody listening to this debate to think that it was just a matter of Bracks thumping his fist on the table and sending out attack dog Hulls. The state government gave a bit away once it was reminded of the futility of its threat, and the fact that the legislation that it claimed it would introduce had some technical difficulties—it may have been unconstitutional. And it did not make a lot of progress on creating another industrial relations system either.

So in a sensible and sober manner, Minister Hulls and Minister Andrews agreed that the Hulls demand—the Hulls threat and the Hulls belligerence—that all contractors would become employees was not an option. It would not be something that the Commonwealth would accommodate, and there was little point going on about it because it is entirely inconsistent with the position of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth rightly pushed back the request, the demand, the insistence—whatever you want to call it—from Minister Hulls that Commonwealth awards would automatically apply.

We think there is a place for businesses and industry and all those stakeholders, including employers and those that represent them, to go through an application process so that people know what is going on and can make their case. The shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, the member for Rankin, from the Labor Party, was saying how bad it was that this whole change did not come in overnight—that a 12-month delay to allow all parties—interest groups, businesses, workers and their workplaces—to adjust and adapt to these changes was unreasonable. We think 12 months is okay. The point was put to Minister Hulls, the Victorian workplace relations minister, and he accepted that. But the killer punch was the stark reality, the unavoidable fact and glaring truth of the complete futility of reregulating the workplace relations system. I have not met anybody who thinks that is a good idea. In its election propaganda the Bracks Labor government does not think it is a good idea. Even the shadow minister in the federal Labor Party does not think that is a good idea. Certainly, the people who are supposed to work with the system do not think it is much of an idea either. So you end up with agreement on those key points.

To accommodate those things there is a need to incorporate coverage for those 350,000 Victorian workers in a framework that is not unfamiliar to most people. It is about carrying over the regime that operates in the Northern Territory and the ACT, where you have not seen industrial mayhem or the productive capacity of those jurisdictions come to a screaming halt. It is a measured, moderate and sensible proposition to embrace those 350,000 workers in a framework that currently exists and where there is some competence and experience. That is what this proposition seeks to do.

There are also some issues around making sure that there is genuine protection and that these bills do canvass and address the legitimate concerns of those 350,000 workers, including the possibility of exploitation of outworkers. We have rejected the proposition that outworkers and contractors should automatically become employees, but there is the safeguard of carrying over the pay rates under those common rule award conditions so that that exploitation does not occur. That is a sensible, appropriate, moderate response. It is not perfect, but in our view, and in the view of some of the interests in Victoria who had made submissions and campaigned against what the Bracks government were trying to implement, the Bracks government's plans would have cost jobs in Victoria.

There is an argument that some of these changes may impose some new costs and some new restraints, but the debate tonight is about saying, `Maybe this isn't the optimal system, but it is the least worst one.' We are saving Victorian employers from a fate worse than tolls on Scoresby: an industrial relations system overseen by Minister Hulls. What a horrendous thought! It is hard to imagine something that would be worse than tolls on Scoresby, but the thought of reregulating the industrial relations system in Victoria and having Minister Hulls overseeing it sends shivers up your spine—there would be a need for some counselling if you thought too deeply about that. This bill does seek to address those areas where there are some genuine concerns, and it avoids what could only be described as two overlapping jurisdictions amounting to a Brackwards step! For that I thank my office, and particularly Suzan Westlake for her creativity in that regard.

The issues that are before us tonight concern what is actually in the bill. We have heard the history from the member for Rankin. We have heard about how in late 1992 the Victorian government moved to deregulate the industrial relations system, about the Employee Relations Act that was passed at that time, about the abolition of state awards around 1 March 1993, about the system being replaced with some minimum statutory terms and conditions, and about how those arrangements were pretty much in place until late 1996, when everybody saw the light and believed that a unitary system was the way to go and the Victorian government referred to the Commonwealth the power to regulate most aspects of the industrial relations system in that state. We accepted that referral, and we have heard about those discussions—about how the minimum wage rate set by the AIRC as part of the safety net review of each case applied to Victorian workers. The referral went through, federal legislation was enacted and Victoria had the courage and foresight to move to a unitary system of industrial relations. It was a really positive outcome.

Now, though, we are seeing that there was the threat of a Hulls-imposed system that would spook the horses. The bill before us tonight seeks to guard against the worst possible outcome, which would be Premier Bracks and Minister Hulls carrying through with their threats. There would be no sense in reregulating the system: the national economy does not value it; the employers in Victoria would not value it; and, frankly, the outcomes for employees are dubious at best, when we would actually like to see a system that would create more employees in Victoria and give them the opportunity to improve their working conditions.

The great attack that was levelled on this bill by the member for Rankin, as encapsulated in his second reading amendment, was that it has taken too long to happen. But negotiations have been moving forward and, frankly, the criticism that we are hearing from the Labor Party is that it has taken four years to arrive at this. They are actually assaulting the Victorian parliament for not agreeing with the mindless ideology of the Labor Party. That is the criticism—

Mr Brendan O'Connor —It was your mob in the upper house, though.

Mr BILLSON —That another parliament exercising its good judgment thought what the Bracks government was trying to do was a dud idea is hardly a basis for being hostile towards this legislation. That is hardly a basis for criticism. Then, when the parliamentary scene in Victoria changed—much to my chagrin and the delight of the member for Burke—things changed and things moved forward. Since that time, the negotiations have been—

Mr Slipper —They moved forward?

Mr BILLSON —They moved Brackwards. Thank you for correcting me, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration. Things happened—they were not all good things, but things were happening and the negotiations proceeded.

The second criticism is about a piece of legislation that was introduced into the parliament last year—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Choice in Award Coverage) Bill 2002—under which workplaces and employees could actually suggest that the award coverage to which they had been bound was not the most appropriate for their work circumstances. What a horrendous thought! What an absolutely appalling thought—that workers together, individually or through their representative organisations, or employers and workplaces and their representative associations might actually think the award they were fitted up to did not suit their workplace! What a horrendous thought that is! Here we have a legislative proposal that actually offers people the opportunity to canvass whether there is more appropriate award coverage. It is hardly an evil thought; it is about what award is most appropriate for those workplaces, employers and employees, yet you are hearing the Labor Party charging against that legislation as though it were some evil Machiavellian plot that undermines the basis of this agreement.

Let us be clear on what the agreement is. The agreement embraces a couple of key principles, and one of those includes choice. The freedom to choose has been a concept embraced by the Hulls ministry, the Bracks government and also the Australian federal government. That is embodied in the agreement that we are discussing tonight. So if we accept freedom of choice, if we accept that award coverage is appropriate, if we provide a pathway for these workers to come in to an award arrangement upon application and after a 12-month implementation, that sounds like we have all the bases covered, unless you happen to be standing on the wrong base—if you happen to be fitted up to the wrong award. We are saying that there should be a pathway to adjust the coverage and find a more appropriate award. And that is the big attack point of the Labor Party in this debate. What a non-event! What a stark contradiction of the very principles embodied in the agreement between the Victorian government and the Australian government as reflected in this legislation.

My suggestion to the member for Rankin is: have a good look at the bill. It has hardly been slipped under any doors and it is hardly whispering around in the quiet parts of this parliament. It was introduced last year, so it is no great surprise. My understanding is that Minister Hulls in Victoria is thoroughly aware of this, knew what the situation was and did not object to it. But the mouthpiece for the Labor Party up here in the Australian parliament has tried to say that there is something horrendous about it when clearly there were no concerns raised.

Let us go further though. There is an attack on the Employment Advocate. That is pure, unbridled ideology running amok. What is the attack about? The attack is about choice. The attack from the Labor Party on the Employment Advocate is actually their anti-AWA posture, trying to find some nice way of saying they are against employees and employers having choice. Again, a principle embodied in the agreement between the Victorian government and the Australian government is to allow for pathways to AWAs and certified agreements. So again you have the Labor Party federally saying some evil is in this agreement—evil adopted and embraced by the state Labor government of Victoria—and railing against the very issues that are the key elements of the agreement.

The key elements of the agreement are AWAs, certified agreements, a pathway for higher income and better working conditions for employees—because they need to be, otherwise they are not approved and we go back to the award. People in the Labor Party like to forget that. They think that there is some alternative plot that has a whole different set of conditions, but the agreements have to pass the test of being at least as good as the deal covered by the principles. So what is that? We have a pathway for choice, a unitary system, an opportunity for better working conditions and more appropriate workplace arrangements for employees and employers, a pathway to higher wages and higher productivity, and freedom of choice—and the Labor Party is against it. Isn't it a great country in which people can have such a bizarre, barking mad set of objections to something perfectly okay—yet people still take some notice of the Labor Party!

So I encourage members in this place to simply get on with the business at hand. I have had some assurance that those businesses—particularly those in the real estate industry—who have raised some concerns about their current AWAs and certified agreements will not be affected by these arrangements. Those agreements will carry through. Existing agreements will continue to operate, so there is no crushing need to go and renegotiate those arrangements overnight. So there is even a safety arrangement there for negotiated conditions entered into in good faith that are currently in place, and that is appropriate. Let us just get on with it, Labor Party, and let us ditch these amendments, because they are pure nonsense. The bill represents a meaningful agreement. It is not ideal, but, gee, it beats the hell out of the other option, and that is Minister Hulls in Victoria creating a new industrial relations system. Thank goodness we are not going to be exposed to that! (Time expired)