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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 6510

Workplace Relations

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (14:57): My question is to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans. I refer the minister to the impact of regulation 144, which he recently signed, imposing a financial burden of over $500 million on up to 316 Queensland community welfare organisations for back pay for which they have not been funded. Given that the Queensland Red Cross division will have a back pay liability likely to total between $4 million and $5 million, which services should the Australian Red Cross no longer provide due to the minister's burdensome regulation?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:58): I thank the senator for her question. I would point out to her, though, that this is a complex issue and it is something we are going to have to work through. I understand a disallowance motion has been sponsored by the opposition in relation to this matter and I think we have offered a briefing to the opposition. It is a complex matter.

As senators may or may not know, in 2009 the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission made a pay equity decision that increased wages for employees in the Queensland social and community services sector—the SACS sector—by adjusting rates of pay under the award. The Fair Work (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Regulations require Queensland SACS sector employers who received additional funding from the Queensland government following the Queensland pay equity decision to pay employees in accordance with that decision. That is, the Queensland government funded certain employers to pay that wage decision. Following the Queensland pay equity decision, the Queensland government committed an additional $414 million to a range of Queensland providers—they were the ones that were subject to the pay equity decision and included some that were bound by federal transitional awards. The Queensland government subsequently decided to refer the power to the Commonwealth to extend the Fair Work Act. Had it not done so, employers who were bound by the federal transitional awards would have moved to the Queensland system and become subject to the pay equity decision from 27 March 2011 when transitional awards expired. As a condition of the referral of power, the Queensland government asked the Australian govern­ment to extend the pay equity decision rates of pay to employers bound by federal transitional awards. The government agreed to this request and also reflected its commitment to the heads of agreement with the Australian Services Union. (Time expired)

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (15:00): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for acknowledging that this is a complex issue. Apart from the Australian Services Union and the Queensland Bligh Labor govern­ment, who did the minister liaise with prior to signing regulation 144? In particular, what community welfare organisations did he consult?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (15:01): I thank the senator for her supplementary question. I am happy to provide a briefing for her and the opposition more generally, but it is the case that the Queensland government advised Common­wealth that the employers prescribed by the regulations all received additional funding following the pay equity decision—so it advised us of those employers.

Senator Abetz: There's a hospital pass!

Senator CHRIS EVANS: It is just a reflection of what occurred. We have been dealing with the Queensland government on those matters. I am aware that there has been some concern in Queensland among some employers about whether they were captured appropriately by these arrangements. As a result, we have been talking with them about how we might resolve these issues.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr President, I have a point of order on the question of direct relevance: Senator Boyce asked which organisations, apart from the Queensland government and the union, did Senator Evans consult with. He has got 15 seconds to go, and he has not got anywhere near that question.

The PRESIDENT: I believe the minister is answering the question. You are right: the minister does have 15 seconds remaining to answer the question.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: Mr President, I am, as always, trying to be helpful. Senator Macdonald might like to take an interest in the issue rather than try to score political points. The problem is that the Queensland government was responsible for the list— (Time expired)

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (15:02): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. As the minister points out, it would appear that the Queensland government and the Australian Services Union were the only people consulted. Given that there was next to no consultation and that there are now at least 316 community organisations that are worried about a back pay liability of at least $500 million, will the minister now reconsider the regulation or has he, as the government has on the carbon tax, just stopped listening to the community?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (15:03): I have tried to help the senator with a serious response to what is a complex and serious—

Senator Ian Macdonald: Just answer the question!

Senator CHRIS EVANS: Senator Macdonald, will you stop being such a bully boy? Just let me answer the senator's question, would you? We know you are rude and ignorant, but this is ridiculous.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Evans, that is not necessary.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: I withdraw, Mr President. I am trying to give Senator Boyce a serious answer about a serious issue. I have offered the opposition a briefing on this matter. It is a difficult issue, and we have been dealing with employer groups. I would note, however, that a number of employer organisations conducted a series of information sessions for SACS employers in Queensland, so there was an effort to inform people and deal with them. I understand that has not been adequate and that there are people left in a difficult situation, so we are attempting to resolve the situation. I am happy to brief the opposition. We are in the process of trying to resolve the complexities of it and we are working our way through that. As I say, I am happy to brief the opposition on how we are going with that process.

Mr President, as much as I would like a question from Senator Macdonald, I ask that all further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.