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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17603

Mr McCLELLAND (12:33 PM) —The opposition will be supporting the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 in the Main Committee. I should indicate that in the Senate we will be moving some amendments which we believe will improve or appropriately broaden the bill. If those amendments fail, we have indicated to the government we will nonetheless support the current bill because it is at least an improvement, albeit a lesser improvement than that proposed in a private member's bill moved by the Leader of the Opposition.

The bill provides our emergency service volunteers with job protection. This is an important measure for several reasons, not the least being that the last thing volunteers engaged in emergency operations should have to contend with is the fear of losing their jobs while fighting a fire, rescuing a drowning child or caring for injured Australians in a disaster situation. Fortunately, most employers support and appreciate the service their employees perform as volunteers in the emergency services area. It is rare for employees to suffer detriment or recrimination as a result of their volunteer services. Nevertheless, there are examples of this, as the member for Burke recounted from his previous experience. Labor believes that job protection for employees who volunteer for emergency services is not solely a question of legal rights and remedies; it is equally important for our laws to recognise the value the community attaches to volunteers.

By enshrining job protection for volunteers in Australian law, this parliament will add to the list set out over eight paragraphs in the Workplace Relations Act containing various impermissible reasons for an employer to terminate the employment of an employee. Such reasons now include temporary absence due to illness or injury, various union activities, race, sex, age and the taking of parental leave. The list of banned reasons for the dismissal of an employee is not just a recitation of proscriptions on employer behaviour; it is much more than that. It is a reflection of Australian and international values of what is fair and just in the workplace. Here the law directly expresses community standards and values on what should and should not be allowed in the workplace. By adding service as a volunteer in emergency situations to this list, the parliament will be keeping our laws in touch with community standards and expectations.

The protection this bill will provide to workers will cover almost all Australian volunteers. This is because the constitutional foundation for this protection will be Australia giving force to its obligations under the International Labour Organisation's recommendation 166, Termination of Employment Recommendation 1982. Article V of the recommendations adds to the list of invalid reasons for dismissal that were set out earlier in the ILO's Termination of Employment Convention. The recommendation reads, among other things:

Civil obligations should not constitute valid reasons for an employer to terminate an employee.

By the parliament passing this law, Australia will be further adopting the job protection standards identified by the ILO as having general application, and this course of action is welcomed by Labor. This course of action will also mean there will be some overlap between state and federal laws on job protection for emergency volunteers. Labor takes the view that this overlap will not detract from the operation of state laws and, where state laws give additional protections to that which is provided for in this bill, it is not the intention of this bill to derogate or detract from the operation of those state laws. For example, under the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989, a New South Wales act, volunteers are protected from victimisation in their employment. The current federal bill does not go to that issue. Nonetheless, Labor expects that New South Wales employees covered by the state act will retain such protections in addition to the remedies that will be afforded to them under this bill.

In making this comment, I should add that Labor would prefer that this bill go further and provide, as far as is constitutionally possible, protection for all Australian workers from victimisation in employment as a result of their volunteer activities. I should also point out that Labor did introduce into the House prior to this bill a private member's bill—in fact, it was introduced by the Leader of the Opposition—to highlight the significance of the issue that provided employees with protections against victimisation because of their participation in emergency situations as a volunteer. In addition, Labor's bill reinstated the Australian Industrial Relations Commission's powers to include in awards volunteer leave provisions. Labor sought this provision because it had faith in the commission to deal with the leave issue in a balanced way, taking into account the case for employers to pay wages to employees engaged in voluntary activities against other competing arguments, not the least of which is the impetus to keep well-staffed, capable and professional emergency services.

Within sight of this parliament earlier this year, Australians were faced with disaster in the form of a savage and calamitous bushfire. The fire caused much grief and loss, but Australians reacted in the way we expect: by helping their neighbours, giving to those who lost their homes and businesses and taking risks to save others. This bill recognises the spirit of aid and comfort that emerges in disaster, and for those reasons we will support the government in respect of this bill. As I have indicated, to expedite the bill's passage we have agreed to its proceeding through the Main Committee without amendment. We will seek to move amendments in the Senate, it being noted that ultimately we would in any event support the government's bill, as it is at least a significant improvement on the vacuum that currently exists in protection for volunteer workers.