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Monday, 29 November 1999
Page: 10932

Senator MURRAY (4:02 PM) —I rise to comment briefly on the report of the Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee on the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999 . When you hear Senator Collins and Senator Ferguson having a go at each other, you need to remind yourself that they actually get on quite well and have a good working relationship. They are the same team that was there in 1996. I want to personally thank the committee chair and Senator Collins for allowing a committee process which has to consider very contentious material to be conducted in a well-mannered, orderly and helpful manner.

I recognise that each disagrees with the other's position, but the committee process does allow one to put down whatever report one feels is appropriate. Certainly, the government has put down its report. We have put down a 12-page report and Senator Collins—and maybe it is an all-time record for a minority report—has put down a report of about 260 pages. I regret that I have not yet had the chance to read it, but I am sure that I will have the chance before next week when we have to deal with it. Despite what we have just heard, the attitude of the chair is gratefully recorded by my party. Some chairs of some committees do not handle the management and the process well and so it is very helpful when you have someone from the government side who does.

Having said that, I move on to the substance of the report from the Democrat perspective. One thing needs to be said again and again about workplace relations legislation—and, indeed, perhaps about much of the legislation that we deal with: the emphasis is far too much on economic outcomes and far too little on social outcomes. That is one of the government's great weaknesses in proposing the changes—and they are very wide-ranging changes as we are talking about 300 pages of legislation and 18 schedules—because, on the economic side, there is really not much call for the act to be further changed.

On any analysis, this country has now got higher productivity, higher employment, higher real wages, significantly reduced industrial disputation and more reasonable national wage case safety-net increases than it used to have. On those grounds, whilst there is always a case to be made for evolutionary or modest reform, there is not that much desire or need for major economic reform. On the social side, there is a much stronger case for reform, but probably not in the way that the government would want; that is, there is a greater need for attention to work and family relationships; to the issues of job insecurity which are still out there in the community; to the issues resulting from a very heavy casualisation of our work force; and to issues of being trained and skilled for a rapidly changing work environment, both in the technological and the organisational sense. However, if you look at the submissions that came through to us, the concentration of criticism of the bill was primarily on the social side rather than the economic side.

The Democrats took the view that this bill, overall, should be split into three. I will read from my report which explains exactly what I mean. I said:

The inquiry has convinced me that a number of schedules have very little merit overall and should be rejected outright.

I rejected eight schedules in my recommendations. Those eight include schedule 1, objects; schedule 4, conciliation; schedule 5, mediation; schedule 6, awards; schedule 8, certified agreements; schedule 9, Australian Workplace Agreements; schedule 12, secret ballots; and schedule 16, independent contractors. Later on in the report I detail my findings.

I then went on and said that there was a second set which should be considered. To quote from my report:

There are five schedules of relatively low importance (except No 15) which are worthy of due consideration. In its submission, the ACTU, despite its `just say no' campaign, did not even comment on these five schedules. I can only conclude that this is because these schedules either contain good legislation for employees, (Schedule 15 contains clauses which materially and beneficially assist Victorian employees), or are quite modest in effect.

The five schedules are schedule 3, Employment Advocate; schedule 10, relevant and designated awards; schedule 15, Victoria; schedule 17, miscellaneous amendments; and schedule 18, amendments of other acts. I remind all those people who in all honesty and commitment write or ring or email my office, without ever having turned a page of the legislation, that the ACTU did not have a single thing to say about five of those schedules. So the `just say no' campaign, on those grounds alone, becomes exposed.

I then picked up the third category. I wrote:

The remaining schedules have major provisions that should be rejected and other clauses which need amendment. These schedules nevertheless retain substance worth considering further.

They are schedule 2, the Industrial Relations Commission; schedule 7, termination of employment; schedule 11, industrial action; schedule 13, right of entry; and schedule 14, freedom of association. However, before the proponents of the bill get too excited, in every single one of those schedules I have rejected the government's major propositions.

In the time that is left, I want to pick on a few schedules. The first relates to awards. When you boil the concerns of ordinary employees down, their major concerns are pay and conditions. That is what an employee is concerned about. The unions, their organisers, their officials and their leaders are much more concerned with the mechanics of industrial action, right of entry and all that sort of stuff. But for the ordinary employee it is pay and conditions. Therefore, I want to focus, for the ordinary employee, on the award side. Although unions now represent a little more than a quarter of all workers, awards—even federal awards—affect far more than just a quarter of employees. For me, this was one of the least attractive schedules in the bill.

I pulled out some figures which, fortunately, had been issued by the Industrial Relations Commission. I wrote:

In 1997, there were 3197 federal awards. As at 31 October 1999 359 awards—

or about 10 per cent—

had been simplified, a huge number (1245) had been set aside or deemed to have ceased operation—

in other words, they were out of date or no longer relevant; that is about 35 per cent of all awards—

1172 were undergoing simplification and 363 were still to begin simplification.

When you are in the middle of a major process like that you would have to ask yourself why you would want to stir up the workers in the way that they have been stirred up on the awards issue. The minister will mention union picnic days. I do not think union picnic days should be in awards, but that is not a reason to attack the whole process when we are in the middle of award simplification.

My problem with much of this bill is that it is too early, too much, too soon. It is unnecessary and it does not address the fundamental problems, which are social and not economic. Furthermore, it includes the usual healthy dose of union bashing which I think is unhelpful in moving us on to a better way, a less adversarial way, of dealing with industrial relations in the future. Lastly, I note in the submission from the Victorian government that they support a unitary industrial relations system and so do I. (Time expired)

Question resolved in the affirmative.