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Monday, 27 March 2006
Page: 16

Dr SOUTHCOTT (3:11 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Would the minister inform the House of the safeguards built into the government’s workplace relations reforms? Is the minister aware of any plans to wind back the reforms that have been introduced?

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) —I thank the member for Boothby for his question. If one were to believe the rhetoric coming from the trade union movement and the Labor Party, then marauding groups of employers would be pillaging every right and protection of workers throughout Australia today. That is what their rhetoric says—which is quite a nonsense. There are a number of safeguards in this new legislation for employees. For example, the government has substantially beefed up the role of the Office of Workplace Services. Indeed, over the next four years we will expend some $140 million on the Office of Workplace Services. We will almost treble the number of workplace inspectors and, importantly, for the first time, where there is an alleged infringement of the legislation, the inspectorate itself will be able to prosecute an employer who has done the wrong thing—something which simply did not exist last week.

In addition to that, with Australian workplace agreements we have made some substantial changes to protect young people. For example, a young person below the age of 18 cannot enter into an Australian workplace agreement—that is, an individual agreement—without the consent and indeed the signature of their parent or guardian. There are a range of other safeguards in this legislation—for example, protection of people’s right to join or not to join a union, protection against discrimination and the right of an employee to have a bargaining agent appointed. Importantly, the unlawful dismissal provisions in the legislation remain in place. That means that if someone seeks to dismiss an employee because of their race, because of their religious beliefs, because of the colour of their skin, because they are pregnant or because they have family responsibilities not only is it unlawful but, if an employee makes a claim, the onus falls on the employer to disprove the claim brought by the employee. In addition to that, we have decided to provide $4,000 worth of financial assistance to eligible employees for legal advice on the merits of their case.

One other change that the honourable member for Boothby alluded to was the decision by the government, which is reflected in this legislation, to get rid of Labor’s legacy of crippling unfair dismissal laws. These are laws that have cost Australians jobs. They have been frequently abused and watered down, and they have led to a huge impost on small business.

Mr Adams —Prove it!

Mr ANDREWS —The member for Lyons asks me to prove it. A recent survey showed that the average cost to a small or medium business in Australia of an unfair dismissal claim was some $15,000. So what we have had in the past is employers facing up to $15,000, on average, to pay ‘go-away money’ to get rid of a problem, which is simply bad policy. I note in this context that just recently the Leader of the Opposition said in a joint media release with his shadow spokesman the member for Perth:

We recognise this is not a debate about whether employers are good or bad. Most Australians act in good faith, whether they’re employers or employees.

But there are some rogue employers, just as there are rogue employees.

What the Leader of the Opposition wants is to reimpose the draconian system of unfair dismissals on small and medium businesses in Australia, and not only to retain one tribunal in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission but to add more red tape and bureaucracy for small and medium businesses in Australia by imposing yet another tribunal on small and medium businesses in Australia. We do not need another bureaucracy. We do not need more imposition of red tape on small and medium businesses. We want a change in the laws, which will come into effect today, which will give small and medium businesses in Australia the opportunity to employ more of our fellow Australians.