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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 9759

Senator McLUCAS (5:09 PM) —I rise this afternoon to add my voice to that of my colleagues in urging the government to act on the matter of Defence Force leave for reservists. Like my colleagues, I find it extraordinary that the government have stubbornly refused to address the issue, despite the glaring evidence that they have made a mistake. The government's 1996 Workplace Relations Act deliberately removed from the Industrial Relations Commission any power to provide leave for Australian reservists to participate in the activities necessary to be a member of the Australian Defence Force reserves. It suited them to think that employers would pick up the provision in either Australian workplace agreements or certified agreements. As we know, that has not been the case, and our reserve capabilities are suffering as a result.

In the midst of our biggest troop deployment since Vietnam, we are well short of our reserve recruitment targets in all of the services. The government has been told this repeatedly. We in the Labor Party have consistently pointed out the short-sightedness of the Workplace Relations Act's omissions in relation to our reservists. We have told current and previous defence ministers that they need to act in the interests of our reservists. We have introduced private members' bills about it, only to have them ignored by this government.

But let us be clear about this. The damage currently being done to our reserve capabilities by the government has been brought to their attention not only by the Labor Party. The Defence Force reserves' own support committee, chaired by a former Liberal defence minister, has raised the matter, as have senior reserve officers and the Victorian Liberal Council, which carried a resolution urging the government to ensure that defence leave for reserve Defence Force members is included as an allowable matter in federal awards. The government are well aware of the problem that they have created with their industrial relations agenda. They have been warned that the current system jeopardises our reserve forces. They have been told that removing reserve leave as an allowable matter is stopping reservists from participating in defence activities, including training. The government have been told what is going on, and they have refused to address it. They are simply unwilling to admit that they are wrong.

Make no mistake: the people on the receiving end of this government's poor policy are our reservists. Please let me give you an example. North Queensland, as senators are no doubt aware, has a strong Australian Defence Force presence, including reservists. The 11th Brigade, based in Jezzine Barracks in Townsville, has an establishment of 1,916 and an effective strength of 852. I have been contacted by a number of reservists in Far North Queensland about this matter, including one person who has 14 years of reserve experience. This person works in a service industry in the north and is employed in a permanent part-time position. Their reserve responsibilities are a source of great personal satisfaction to them and a means of contributing to the community good. In effect, the reserves are this person's second career. As a part-time worker, this person has been able to meet the requisite training requirements for that career over 14 years. That is a lot of time that this person has given to the reserves and, of course, to us as a community.

Recently, the person was asked by the reserves to go overseas as part of the Australian Defence Force efforts in East Timor. It was, this person felt, an honour to be approached and a chance to exercise their skills and training. It was a chance, in the person's own words, `to do what I have been trained to do'. And yet the person turned the opportunity down. Why? Because it required a six-month stint in East Timor and the person was advised that their job would not be there on their return. There was nothing in the person's award to offer any protection.

This is not an unusual case. That is the point that this reservist is making and that the Defence Force, the Victorian Liberal Council and the Australian Labor Party have been making. We ask a lot of time from our reservists, and it is not always easy for employers to accommodate these demands. Many employers simply will not do it and, under this government's industrial framework, they are not required to. The result is that reservists are being short-changed and our Defence Force is losing the services of good, trained and committed personnel. The government has a responsibility to our reservists. These people give up their own time to serve their community. They are regarded as an integral part of our Defence Force. We cannot do without them, and yet this government will not move to ensure that reservists are not penalised in the work force.

I also draw the attention of the chamber to the treatment of reservists employed by Telstra. Telstra is an organisation which, by the nature of its work force, has many employees who are also members of the Defence Force reserves. In the wake of Australia's East Timor commitment, the company stated its wish to support its reservist employees should they be called to serve in East Timor.

But contrary to its stated intention, Telstra is not supporting all its reservists. Reservists employed on a contract basis have been granted leave with pay for the duration of their service. Reservists employed under an industrial award have been granted just two weeks paid leave in addition to their four weeks Defence Force leave. If this is not enough, these employees will have to use their accrued long service leave or any other accrued leave they have. Contract employees will have access to unlimited paid leave from Telstra while award employees will only receive two weeks plus any existing annual ADF leave they have.

All this has been done without a murmur of protest from the government. How cynical! The government are willing to have some reservists discriminated against rather than question what Telstra is doing. They would rather have some reservists, who have given their time, their holidays and their service to this country, penalised for serving rather than pull up an organisation clearly intent on using the situation in East Timor for its own workplace agenda. How cynical is that?

I want to place on record my admiration for the men and women who make up our Defence Force reserves. They give up their spare time to serve our country and right now, in the midst of the biggest deployment since Vietnam, we are relying on them more than ever. Yet there is a serious problem. The Labor Party has, on numerous occasions, drawn the attention of the government to the fact that reserve numbers are falling. I wonder why! Why would you volunteer your time when you might jeopardise your paid employment in the process? Why would you give up your time when, if you are actually required to report for duty, you might have to draw on your own annual or long service leave? Why would you when you have a federal government which is ignoring advice that you are being disadvantaged by one of its policies? The Labor Party calls on the government to finally do the right thing by its reservists and support this bill.