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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1024


Senator WORTLEY (9:04 PM) —I rise to add my support to the government’s Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. Every person present in the chamber today is more than familiar with the events leading up to the introduction of this bill. Since 24 November last year there has not been a moment’s hesitation, a moment’s ambivalence, in the government’s determination to fulfil its commitment to an electorate that voiced its opposition against Work Choices so strongly at the ballot box, that was so unashamedly for fairness and balance in the work force. However, those opposite through their words and actions before, during and after the election have revealed the true nature of the scheme inflicted on the working families of this country without consultation and without mandate. Even after the former Howard government railroaded its labour reforms through the parliament, the coalition ignored its own research, hurled more taxpayers’ money at a series of advertising campaigns and eventually backed down to the extent of introducing its so-called fairness test. In reality, this was an acknowledgment of the unfair nature of its regime and the damage its terms had caused the coalition.

When the Howard government introduced the fairness test I spoke about Work Choices in this place on 18 June 2007. I highlighted that the introduction of Work Choices had already seen the removal of pay and conditions standards for tens of thousands of Australian workers that included penalty rates, holiday loading, redundancy pay, 38 hours per week of ordinary time and unfair dismissal protection for workers employed by an organisation with 100 or fewer employees. I outlined how Work Choices would facilitate and pave the way for industrial relations changes which would actively disadvantage Australian workers, not only the workers but also their families. And so it proved to be true. The Howard government crossed the line with its Work Choices, and the Australian people recognised it for what it really was: extreme, ideological, harsh and punitive legislation. Anti-worker and anti-family, Work Choices reduced people to factors in an equation based on the politics of fear and division. Now those opposite apply a different spin. Let’s look quickly at some of those twists and turns.

Honourable senators interjecting—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Murray)—Order! Senator Cormann was heard in silence. I think you should give the same courtesy to Senator Wortley.


Senator WORTLEY —Only recently, on the Four Corners expose of the former government’s last days, the present Manager of Opposition Business in the other place revealed that many ministers in cabinet were unaware that you could be worse off under Work Choices and that you could actually have certain conditions taken away without compensation. If further evidence of their disarray were needed, then the shadow minister for industrial relations informed us on the Insiders on 9 March that the opposition did not support the government’s bill but that it did not oppose it.

As a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, I was part of the Senate inquiry held into this bill in recent weeks. The hearings traversed the country, taking submissions from stakeholders. The report which stems from those hearings pulls no punches. Among its salient points is one I have spoken on in this place previously—that AWAs have given rise to a larger gender pay gap. The report highlights that individual workplace agreements, or AWAs, are less likely than collectively bargained agreements to appropriately address issues of employee training, occupational health and safety, and consultative mechanisms. Submission after submission uncovered cases of unfavourable working hours which led to negative effects on family and community life. Committee members heard that health complaints such as stress, depression and feelings of powerlessness and helplessness resulted from workplace changes imposed under AWAs. As the inquiry’s majority report states, the committee believes that the abolition of AWAs will go a long way to addressing the social effects for those vulnerable employees who have lost pay and conditions under the AWAs imposed upon them.

The Rudd government’s plan, which was arrived at after exhaustive consultations with all stakeholders, will restore fairness and balance in the Australian workplace—held as a basic tenet for 100 years, since the Harvester decision in 1907. On commencement, the bill before us—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008—puts Australia on the path to restoring fairness in the workplace. It prevents the drafting of any new Australian workplace agreements.

The Senate inquiry heard that many AWAs were designed by management for application to all employees at a particular site without consultation and without any input from the employees. Their only involvement in the AWA was to add their signature. Well this legislation draws a line in the sand when it comes to these Australian workplace agreements, thousands of which stripped pay and conditions from employees under the previous government. It honours an election commitment and it recognises the will of the Australian people. Indeed, the purpose of the government’s bill is to realise a major election commitment to establish the basis for a new, fair and flexible workplace relations system.

This bill is also designed to deliver sensible, manageable transitional arrangements as we move toward and look forward to that system. Certainly there is plenty of evidence that the Australian people are looking forward to regaining a sense of balance and fairness in their working lives. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 also provides the framework necessary to start the process of award modernisation. The bill starts things off as the first element, with additional substantial legislation to be introduced later this year to ensure that this government’s fair, equitable and productive workplace relations systems will be ready to roll by 1 January 2010.

I have argued previously that Work Choices was not Labor’s idea of a fair go, and its scheme epitomised the arrogant disregard with which the former government perceived and, in reality, continues to perceive the men and women, and their families, who keep the wheels of industry and commerce turning in this country. It epitomised the arrogant disregard with which the former government viewed and continues to view vulnerable employees, including those just starting out in their working lives and those workers who may come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and their families too.

The proposals we are discussing represent a fully articulated and strategic plan, revealed at the earliest possible juncture, discussed constantly and openly, and unequivocally endorsed by a majority of the voters. I look forward to the progression of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 through this place and endorse and commend its terms.