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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3887

Dr GILLESPIE (Lyne) (12:58): I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, which is all about implementing our key election commitments and injecting common sense back into Australia's workplace relations system. We campaigned in 2013 over improving the fair work laws and that is what this amendment is doing. With broad consultation from employees and employers, the government is implementing many of the common-sense suggestions that we have received, regarding right of entry, individual flexibility agreements and greenfield site agreements.

In my electorate there have been an enormous number of people concerned about the rigid and the very complex arrangements with regards to the current industrial relations policy that we have inherited from Labor. They have gone way beyond what Labor promised at the 2007 election. In my electorate in particular, we do not have huge greenfield projects but we have an awful lot of small businesses, which depend on flexibility. Without our small business sector, most people will be unemployed in our region. This constant one-size-fits-all approach by the Labor Party to workplace relations has crippled many of our two million small businesses. Many small businesses over the last six years have downsized, put staff off and closed. As well, the red tape and the cost of red tape have impacted on the ability of small businesses to retain staff, let alone their confidence to generate more jobs.

As far as this bill is concerned, we will only be implementing our election policy and enacting a number of the recommendations from the Fair Work Act Review panel from 2012, which was commissioned by none other than our current Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten.

As I mentioned, small business is the engine room in our part of the world. If small business is doing it tough, people looking for employment are doing it even tougher. But also in industries like building and construction, retail and tourism, some of the industrial inflexibility is putting major limitations on the growth those businesses. Our federal income tax receipts from company taxes are down when small businesses are struggling. The Howard, Keating and Hawke governments recognised this and that is why the reforms they put through then delivered greater flexibility into Australia's industrial relations system. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the changing nature of the industrial relations schemes developed huge productivity gains for the nation. We saw expansion that we had not seen since the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, the Rudd and Gillard governments ended this through a range of decisions which pushed the pendulum way back in the other direction, taking industrial relations backwards and not improving them. They delivered much more power to the unions. Employees and employers lost the flexibility in their workplace arrangements. There was a lack of regard for the important flexibility that small businesses need to remain nimble, cost-effective and to get the huge productivity gains they require, and these depend on flexibility. That is why so many of my small businesses have had to resist putting on new staff or have actually downsized.

Some may criticise us for not going far enough, but the reality is—as the Prime Minister has said on many occasions—that we will do what we said we will do and we will work with the existing Fair Work Commission. These amendments will stick to that principle. Through the Fair Work Amendment Bill, we are first of all addressing these greenfield site agreements, where the unions can and have been frustrating the bargaining process for way too long. They are making these agreements and the projects that they underpin incredibly costly and unproductive. You have only got to see what has happened in some of the major energy and mining projects that have gone by the wayside. Ten or 15 years ago Australia used to be a low-cost country for the development of mining and large industrial projects but, with all these rigidities and ridiculously unrealistic and unsustainable greenfield agreements, a lot of the huge investment has walked out the door and gone to other parts of the world. People need to start connecting the dots: if our costs are too high, the capital that is invested in Australian projects will come to an end, because there are places in the world where costs are lower.

That aside, I will return to the topic. Restoring union workplace access rules—reflecting those in place prior to Labor's unbalanced arrangements—is our priority. Good-faith bargaining should commence with a formal notification and then a three-month period of good faith negotiation by both parties, rather than what we have seen where—instead of good faith bargaining—we have the strike first and talk later scenario. That is what is employed in a lot of these greenfield arrangements. We need to address this.

The other thing that I have spoken about is the individual flexibility agreements. They are an important tool within the existing legislation, but we need to make them bear fruit with these amendments. As long as the principle of better off overall is applied, which is envisaged in this legislation, things should work. There should be a monetary value capability that could be used to offset non-monetary values in an agreement. As long as the employee and the employer see the benefit of that, it will be of benefit to everyone—that is, the employee and, most importantly, the business. These sort of flexibilities are very relevant to small businesses. It might be prohibitive, but affordable, if you are doing a $2 billion or $3 billion project that you must get off the ground, but if you are a small business operating a convenience store, a coffee shop, a milk bar or a light industrial business in Taree or Port Macquarie, that lack of flexibility can sink your business. That is why this is so important.

With the agreements parties should engage in negotiations and payments that are consistent with the prevailing standards and conditions. We should not have inordinate delays and costs, and we should not have strike action as a reflex action to intimidate employers. Under these amendments, employers as well as unions and employees are compelled to negotiate in and complete the bargaining process. It does not sound ridiculous. It is just basic common sense that we are applying here.

The other issue is protections for workers. Protections for workers do remain amongst these amendments. Unions have to be involved, and those that are involved must be recognised in these agreements. We need consensus across both parties. These amendments are not displacing the union; they are just applying common-sense principles so that the ability to veto an agreement is no longer the trump card in any negotiation. It has to be a two-way street to get a good outcome.

If we had had sensible agreements in place in some of these major sites in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland, some of these larger projects would have gone ahead, I am sure, because, when you are investing billions, the costs ratchet up so quickly if you have unrealistic and unsustainable conditions. I can think of three businesses that are no longer with us in the Lyne electorate. I have spoken to the business owners. They are not new start-ups that have failed; they are businesses that have been around for 15 or 20 years and, one of them, for 25 years. Over the last three years, they have gone—not because they did not know how to run the business; things just got too hard for them. It was too hard for them to sell their business because new people did not want to take on this rigid system.

The other issue that these amendments address is right of entry. One only has to have read the dailies for the last couple of years to know the stories of unrealistic rights of entry being manipulated by the unions. What business can cope with two visits a day, unannounced, by union representatives to the workplace or the meal room? That is more intimidation than negotiation. These amendments will address that issue so that that behaviour, which is not reasonable, is no longer allowed.

Another aspect of right of entry is that the cost of travel to remote sites was being forced onto the employer or the business, rather than being paid for by the union. One could have union negotiators—with the right of veto, with the threat of striking first and negotiating later—visiting these sites at remote locations without any negotiation with the employer. Clearly, that is unrealistic and unreasonable. We are not trying to get rid of unions in the negotiations. We are just trying to apply common sense and common business practices. The bill will allow for a convenient site to be nominated for negotiations and it will stop the abuse of right of entry.

If there are other issues that come up in the good-faith bargaining process, a reasonable period of time needs to be set aside so that the negotiation process can continue. Now, three months is a reasonable amount of time to achieve that. But, if, after three months, it is not achieved, obviously it has to go to arbitration. If there is a flexibility issue that needs to be negotiated, there are provisions so that the employer notifies the employee and vice versa. If the employee agrees that they are no worse off, I cannot see why that should not go ahead. That is why we need these amendments—to allow that to occur.

If the situation changes, there are provisions under these amendments to give formal notice to cease the individual flexibility arrangement and to renegotiate it, or to revert to the broader agreement. There are also provisions so that individual flexibility cannot be limited to some microsection of the agreement. If the employer and the employee want a very wide ranging individual flexibility agreement, they should have the right to do that, because that delivers productivity and it delivers profits for the company, which then means they are happy to employ people. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)