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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 9752

Senator CROSSIN (4:31 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Australian Defence Force Service and Training) Bill 1999 (No. 2) gives me the opportunity, for the first time in this chamber, to pay tribute to the efforts of Major General Cosgrove and his troops—and particularly those troops who come from the Northern Territory—who are currently serving under him in East Timor. It is also timely, I think, to recognise those members of the Defence Force who are deployed in duties around this country backing up the work of those currently overseas. We are relying on these people. I, along with the rest of the community, have great confidence in their ability and military skill and their understanding of the situation in which they find themselves.

The aim of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Australian Defence Force Service and Training) Bill is to reinstate to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission the power to include leave for reserve Defence Force personnel from their employment to participate in the activities necessary to be a member of the Australian Defence Force reserves. This has become a necessary action on behalf of the Labor Party as a result of the short-sightedness of this government and the arrogance of its industrial relations minister back in 1996 when the first amendments to the Workplace Relations Act were presented to this parliament. That legislation excluded Defence Force leave from the 20 allowable award matters that the Industrial Relations Commission was able to deal with. It has now been shown to be one of the many detrimental elements of that legislation, in its impact on not only those wanting to access Defence Force leave but also the Defence Force itself, particularly in situations such as this country is now experiencing, and participating in, in East Timor.

This government has shown that it is so obsessed with industrial relations reform—as it puts it—that it has been willing to sacrifice good defence policy and the care of its troops in the armed forces and those wanting to participate as reserves. But, as the months of the East Timor deployment evolve and the days tick by, we know that this is planned to be a very long commitment of our Australian troops and that there will need to be a rotation of those troops deployed in East Timor.

Our military forces have not experienced this level of activity for some time, particularly in this climate, in the weather conditions that they will be confronted with in the coming months when we hit the wet season in the north of Australia and in the East Timor region, or the emotional strain that they are finding on a day-by-day basis. Already the armed forces are drawing heavily on the reserves, and for the next rotation the reserves will be needed in even greater number.

As Kim Beazley said during his presentation of this bill in the House on 11 October this week:

This bill would not have been necessary had the Minister for Aged Care, Bronwyn Bishop, when she was the minister associated with the Defence Force personnel, heeded the advice of Major General Luttrell—then the Assistant Chief of the Defence Force reserves—when the first form of the workplace relations bill was in this parliament.

He quoted Major General Luttrell:

As Reserve members constitute approximately 40 per cent of the ADF work force, their continued availability for training, as currently provided for in awards, agreements and company personnel policies, is essential to the Australian Defence Force capability.

Major General Luttrell went on to say:

If not identified as a matter for inclusion in awards, Reserve training leave may not be picked up within either the Certified Agreement, Australian Workplace Agreements or other State Agreements which will increasingly supplant existing awards.

Although not one of the safety net employment conditions identified in the Bill, Reserve availabili ty for training is critical to maintaining defence capability and award coverage of this issue is an important component of ensuring this availability. The Bill should therefore include provisions which will permit awards to continue to cover Defence Force leave provisions.

But the exclusion of Defence Force leave from the list of allowable matters has been a mistake by this government, make no doubt about it. It is an example of bad policy, particularly given the situation we are confronted with now in East Timor. This needs to be rectified and changed, and the decision needs to be reversed.

The Defence Reserve Support Committee chaired by Sir James Killen raised this as a major issue at its meeting last November. The response they received from this government was not satisfactory and nothing has since changed. As reserve members constitute approximately 40 per cent of the ADF work force, their continued availability for training as currently provided for in awards, agreements and policies is essential to our continued capability in the defence forces.

But the position of this government is to refer to the provision in the Defence Force Act to solve this issue. I have no doubt we will hear this afternoon arguments that it is okay if Defence Force leave is not in awards. It is all right, members on the government side will say, I am sure. Bear in mind, as Peter Reith has done, that they will point to the provisions for leave in the Defence Force Act. If an investigation were done into the use of this provision, it would show that there has never been a prosecution as a result of the provisions in the Defence Force Act. Those provisions allow for people who are not granted leave from their workplace to take action.

But the Department of Defence does not want to use it, and it has never used it, to enforce the provisions because they do not think they can make it work. The view of the Defence Force is that they would rather jettison the reservist than exercise that section of the act which is to protect a person from being victimised in their employment for their Defence Force activities. A large number of reservists actually rely on their employment conditions for their leave. There are about 152—or there used to be, before the 1996 legislation—awards that had Defence Force leave in them. This government has managed, as a result of the 1996 legislation, to strip all of those away. As I understand it, only one has been resurrected—against the wishes of the employer. The result has been detrimental to defence. If this government will not listen to those in this chamber or in the House, then perhaps it may care to heed the advice of its own defence department. The government was advised, when it did this in 1996, as follows:

As Reserve members constitute approximately 40 per cent of the Australian Defence work force, their continued availability for training, as currently provided for in awards and agreements, is essential to the Australian Defence Force capability. Existing awards have been important in providing institutional support for Reserves through the inclusion of provisions which allow leave for military training purposes for members of the Reserve.

That is the formal minute the government got from the defence department, which was ignored. In the usual headstrong, arrogant manner of the industrial relations minister, for ideological reasons alone, and not sound defence policy, he overrode the defence department's requirements and stripped all awards and removed Defence Force leave.

What has the government done about that in the two years since this matter was first raised and in the nearly three years since the legislation that created the problem? The simple fact is that it has done nothing. Labor has recognised that there is a problem and has been willing to do something about it. My colleague Arch Bevis introduced a private member's bill in the House—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Defence Purposes Leave) Bill—on 21 June this year. But the government did not bring it on for debate. The government has found itself in a position where it has fallen short of all of its targets on reserves, and now it really matters.

Let us look at its recruitment against target over the course of 1998-99. The shortfall in recruitment for the RAAF is 44 per cent; for the RAN it is 80 per cent; and for the Army it is 49 per cent. That is a substantial record of failure to encourage people in the general work force to uphold their patriotic duty and make a contribution, if they so choose, to the defence forces of this nation in the reserves. It is now critical, and it will become even more so in the coming months. It will not be possible to sustain the activities in East Timor for any length of time without relying on our reserves. Reserves must be recruited now and given the certainty, in terms of their employment and their capacity whilst in their employment, to be trained properly for circumstances of danger in which they will find themselves.

In the current climate, this bill must proceed, must be debated and must be passed. It will provide job security for those men and women who wish to undertake duty as an Australian Defence Force reservist. It will allow them to undertake the training they need to prepare themselves for any dangerous circumstances and for the opportunity, which they want as members of the Defence Force reserves, to give our soldiers and our people in East Timor the break that they will need, and will deserve, in the coming months. I urge people in this chamber to support this bill.