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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17596

Mr GEORGIOU (12:03 PM) —I warmly welcome the fact that the member for Corio, despite a panoply of criticisms, actually does endorse on behalf of the opposition the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003. I think it is important that there be that sort of endorsement, and the government is very grateful to have it.

The Canberra winter may have dulled our recollection of what an Australian summer looks like, but just a few months ago we saw devastating bushfires—amongst the worst on record—sweep through large tracts of the Australian countryside, many parts of which had already been debilitated and parched by the drought. Amidst the devastation, the Australian tradition of community and comradeship shone through, and the efforts of volunteer firefighters and emergency service personnel were instrumental in limiting damage and saving many rural towns and homes from destruction. Everybody in the parliament appreciates the selfless efforts of our emergency service volunteers, and they do so very substantially.

With this in mind, it is important that we address a gap in the Commonwealth government's legislative net—a gap which might otherwise undermine a priceless contribution. Under current Commonwealth legislation, it is not illegal for an employer to dismiss an employee who is acting as an emergency services volunteer and is absent from their place of work in order to perform an emergency duty. There are many informal social sanctions on an employer who dismisses an employee on the grounds that the employee, in their capacity as a volunteer firefighter, is absent from work in order to fight bushfires that threaten his or her local community. But we cannot rely just on social sanctions to protect emergency volunteers; it is incumbent upon the Commonwealth government to ensure that this protection is in place.

The Workplace Relations Act 1996 provides employees with protection from unfair termination. Section 170CK provides that an employer must not terminate an employee for reasons such as a temporary absence from work due to illness or injury. It also provides that an employer cannot terminate an employee on the grounds of race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill will insert into section 170CK of the Workplace Relations Act a new clause making it unlawful for an employer to dismiss an emergency services volunteer who is temporarily absent from the workplace for the purposes of emergency management duty. As the minister has noted, this clause reflects the International Labour Organisation's recommendation 166 on the termination of employment, which provides that an absence from work due to civic obligation should not constitute a valid reason for the termination of employment.

It is worth while remarking that the minister thought it important to note in his reference to the ILO's recommendation that it did not `represent a wider endorsement of the [ILO's] recommendation for any other purposes of the Workplace Relations Act'. Leaving this aside, I note that Australians volunteering to assist their community in times of emergency and disaster are without question performing an invaluable civic duty.

For the protective measures outlined in this bill to apply, the employee must be carrying out emergency management activities on a voluntary basis. The employee must also be a member of—or in a member-like association with—a recognised emergency management body. The concept of a member-like association is intended to cover circumstances where a recognised emergency management body has no formal membership requirements, or where a person's membership may have recently lapsed but the person is for all practical purposes still considered to be a member of the emergency organisation. The bill lists the categories of emergency management bodies that will fall within its protection regime. The categories of recognised emergency management bodies are deliberately wide in their scope in order to extend the bill's protective measures to as many deserving emergency organisations as possible. The categories are: bodies that have a role or function under a Commonwealth, state or territory designated disaster plan; a firefighting, civil defence or rescue body; and any other body with a primary objective of ensuring the safety of persons and animals, and the protection of property in the event of an emergency or a natural disaster.

The protective measures outlined in the bill will apply to employees who, as volunteers, are carrying out an activity that directly deals with an emergency or a natural disaster. An emergency's immediate preparation and post-emergency activities would be covered; however, participation in more regular activities—such as training—would not fall within the scope of the protection provided by this bill. This bill makes it clear that, in carrying out a voluntary emergency activity, the employee must receive a request from or on behalf of an emergency services body. If no request is made, the employee will still fall within the scope of the protective measures outlined in the bill if it can be determined that a request would have been made had circumstances permitted. This provision makes it clear that employees who act as `casual volunteers'—that is, those who take it upon themselves to provide unsolicited assistance during an emergency—cannot use the protective measures outlined in this bill as a reason for not appearing at work.

This bill complements existing state and territory legislation relating to the employment rights of emergency services volunteers, and it will provide broad coverage of the range of conceivable situations in which emergency volunteers may need to be absent from their place of work. For instance, the protection measures in this bill are not restricted to those situations where a formal state of disaster or emergency has been declared. They will apply to any emergency situation where the employee's absence may be considered reasonable.

In developing the measures outlined in this bill, the government has been conscious of the need to minimise disruption to Australian business. This government has a proud record of supporting Australian business of all shapes and sizes. It should be acknowledged that many employers, particularly those with few staff, do face problems if an employee is away for an extended period. It is for this reason that the bill stipulates that the employee's absence from work must be considered `reasonable, having regard to all the circumstances'. This involves the employee, wherever possible, seeking the employer's consent before absenting himself or herself from the workplace. Obviously, there will be cases of sudden or extreme emergencies where prior consent from the employer is simply not possible, and that is a consideration in determining what is reasonable in the circumstances. The duration of the employee's absence would have to be considered reasonable, and, of course, it would be only temporary. The size of the employer's business is another factor that may affect what is considered reasonable. Some employers have greater flexibility in terms of the ability of their business to respond across a long period of time to an emergency situation.

The purpose of the bill is to protect the employment status of employees during their periods as emergency service volunteers, not to impose a burden upon employers to provide time off work other than on agreed leave. I note these points to highlight the balance between competing interests and not in any way to suggest that employers oppose their employees volunteering as emergency service personnel—quite the opposite, as previous speakers have noted. It is a very notable attribute of Australian society that we are a nation with a deep commitment to volunteerism and allowing employees to volunteer for emergency bodies, and this is seen by most employers as a facilitation of a vital community service.

The bill will provide peace of mind to volunteers without causing undue headaches to employers. Volunteers will know that, when they are willingly putting their lives on the line to protect the people, animals and properties of Australia from disasters and emergencies, their jobs will be protected. I once again welcome the support of the opposition for the bill and I commend the bill to the House.