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Thursday, 6 March 2003
Page: 12360


Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:07 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to make it unlawful to dismiss an employee who is temporarily absent from work on voluntary emergency management duty.

Volunteer firefighters and other emergency management personnel demonstrated their exceptional contribution towards protecting lives and property during the recent bushfires around Australia. At present, there is no specific federal legislation protecting volunteers who are temporarily absent from work undertaking emergency management activities. While there is some legislative protection in some states and territories, not all workers are covered and the protections differ. This bill will protect all workers who are absent from work on legitimate volunteer emergency management duties.

It will cover not only firefighters and those on the front line but volunteers who contribute to the management of emergencies and natural disasters. These volunteers receive no financial reward for their efforts, many forgo paid leave to undertake these activities and sometimes their lives are at risk. They do this because they want to support their community, and the community is greatly in their debt for it.

Equally, the government extends its thanks to the employers who contribute by supporting the emergency service work of their employees. It recognises that many businesses choose to accept management and financial challenges in providing leave to their employees for volunteer duties. Indeed, many volunteers are themselves employers. Emergency management organisations know the contribution that employers make and try to recognise this in various ways at the local level. These sometimes seem small gestures, but they emphasise the important role employers have to play in supporting volunteer efforts in this country.

This legislation will enshrine in law the proposition that employees whose temporary absence from work is reasonable in all the circumstances should not lose their jobs for being away from work to protect the community.

In developing this bill, the government has been aware of the need to minimise disruption to an employer's business. The bill tries to balance the needs of employees attending emergencies and the needs of employers running their businesses. That is why the protection provided covers the volunteer's temporary absence only if it is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Many emergency management organisations have a rule that the volunteer's first duty is to his or her employer. They require that the volunteer obtain the permission of the employer before leaving the workplace to attend an emergency. The protection in this bill is not limited to cases where employer consent was expressly given, as this may not always be possible given the nature of emergencies. However, it is not intended to disturb such policies of emergency management organisations, which are to be encouraged.

For protection to apply, the duration of the absence will also have to be reasonable in all the circumstances. For example, it would arguably not be reasonable for an employee of a small business to be away from work for a longer period than the employer could manage.

The protection will only apply if the recognised emergency management organisation requests the volunteer to carry out the activity or if, having regard to all the circumstances, there is a reasonable expectation that the volunteer will carry out the activity in his or her capacity as a member of the emergency management organisation. This will cover those situations where volunteers are not individually requested to attend an emergency but may hear of an emergency and attend on their own initiative. The protection will not extend to people who have no association with an emergency management organisation but who take it upon themselves to turn up.

The bill will insert in the act a statement that section 170CK of the act, as amended, is intended to assist in giving effect to the International Labour Organisation's recommendation No. 166 concerning termination of employment. That recommendation provides, among other things, that absence from work due to civic obligation should not constitute a valid reason for termination. This reference does not represent a wider endorsement of the recommendation for any other purposes of the Workplace Relations Act.

The government does not envisage that this provision will be the subject of much litigation. However, the amendment is a public statement that the efforts of emergency volunteers are highly valued and that they should not be dismissed because they were temporarily performing a great community service.

I am a little disappointed that the member for Barton is not here with us as yet, because this bill does owe something to his own diligence and enthusiasm in trying to ensure that emergency services volunteers are properly treated. It was indeed the member for Barton who drew to the attention of the Australian public some instances of possible unfair treatment in the course of the recent bushfire emergencies. Obviously, the government shared the concerns that the member for Barton had; hence this bill. There are members of this parliament who, in one way or another, are involved with emergency services organisations, and I know that those members all around this chamber will be pleased to see this legislation.

As I tried to stress when talking about this bill, we do not believe that the average employer is in any way ill disposed towards emergency service volunteers. We do believe, however, that the best instincts of employers need to be encouraged, and that is what this bill is designed to do. It is also designed to ensure that volunteers have the assurance that they need that their jobs are safe while they are out there serving the community.

We do have a tremendous tradition of volunteering in this country, from the 1st AIF to the Sydney Olympics. We are a nation of volunteers. I think it is very important that the volunteer ethos be respected, encouraged, celebrated, nurtured and preserved, and that is what the government is attempting to do with this bill. Members will note that we are certainly not saying that employers must provide paid leave to volunteers with emergency services organisations, although I am aware of the fact that many businesses do in fact allow that. Certainly many larger businesses regard it as one of the ways that they can help the community at large by allowing their employees who are members of emergency organisations to take leave without loss of pay.

This is an important bill, not because it is going to attract a great deal of litigation but because it is a sign of our continuing commitment to the volunteer spirit. I also think that this bill deserves to be marked because it is one of those bills that has come forward into the parliament as a result of some initiatives and statements from members opposite, as well as from some of the instincts and impulses of members on this side of the House. I commend the bill to the House and I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Edwards) adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for the next sitting.