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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17553

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (7:04 PM) —I do not propose to long detain the House on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2002. I think it has been given a pretty thorough discussion by speakers in the debate. I am not sure that all the speakers have stuck to the terms of the bill. Generally speaking, members opposite have vented their various bits of spleen about different aspects of the workplace which they find objectionable. I do not, for a second, deny the sincerity with which they hold these views, and I do not doubt the passion of their commitment to the welfare of the work force as they see it. Nevertheless, I do not think that the analysis is generally justified by the facts.

I make one general comment, perhaps prompted by the remarks of the member for Corio. We can always find a handful of cases which have not worked as perfectly as we might have liked. But, unfortunately, very often when we strive for perfection, we end up with something not just less than perfect but far less perfect than might be the case if we merely strove for something that is reasonable. The best—as has been said often enough—is all too often the enemy of the good. This government is trying to build a reasonable system which works well in all the circumstances, not necessarily to protect every single person from every single possible combination or permutation of circumstances to which they might be subject.

Obviously, this government believes fundamentally in the market. We do not think markets are perfect. We do not think that markets do not sometimes fail. But, in the end, we think that the market is the best mechanism mankind has devised for the creation of wealth. You cannot control markets too much without destroying them, and the last thing that any sensible member of this House should want would be to destroy the operation of the market in labour as well as in all other commodities.

Markets are a good thing. Contracting out is a good thing. Because of the operation of markets, businesses which would otherwise have failed are still in operation. Because of contracting out, businesses that may very well have been uncompetitive are still competitive—and that is a reality that members opposite often find very difficult to accept. They accepted it while they were in government but now that they are in opposition they have gone back to their socialist roots. That is not to their intellectual credit and I think that it is not, in the long run, even to their political advantage.

Notwithstanding most of the contributions from members opposite, this bill is essentially a very simple bill. This bill is designed to deal with a situation where a business changes hands. In such a situation there are often multiple certified agreements. At the moment the commission has no way of dealing with this, and the bill is designed to give the commission the same power to deal with certified agreements in the event of the transfer of the business as it has in respect of awards in the event of a transfer of business. At present the act provides that, if there is a conflict between different certified agreements, the certified agreement that was made first prevails over later certified agreements. That is not rational. It is only that way in the act by oversight. We believe that, in a situation of multiple and conflicting certified agreements, the agreement which ought to prevail is the one which best suits the interests of the relevant business and its employees.

Under the bill, once the business has been transferred, all parties—including employees and their unions—have an equal right to approach the commission to ask it to resolve any anomalies arising from the application of multiple certified agreements. So there is no question of anyone losing rights—no question whatsoever. People will be able to approach the commission once an application for a commission ruling in this matter has been made. Where the commission orders the terms of a certified agreement to be varied or brought to an end, all existing rights of appeal under the act, in relation to commission decisions, will be available. So there is no question of limiting anyone's rights.

I do not believe there is any question of the government's proposal being unfair. The commission's powers to make orders in relation to certified agreements and transmitted business, should this bill be passed, can only be exercised on a case by case basis and on the application of affected parties. I think this government has more faith in the commission, in this respect, than members opposite have. We do not believe that the commission would exercise its powers under the proposed provisions in a way which would be unfair to the employees of the transmitted business or to those of the incoming employer. We do not believe that the commission is in the business of oppressing or persecuting people. We believe that the commission is in the business of trying to come up with the most reasonable outcome in all the circumstances of a particular case. That is the power that this bill seeks to give the commission. If members opposite were as serious about respecting the commission and enhancing the commission's role in practice as they are in theory, they would support this bill. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr McClelland's amendment) stand part of the question.