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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19668

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (12:42 PM) —Having heard the nonsense from the other side it is really clear to me that they are never going to get it when it comes to industrial relations. This government does not realise that it is not playing fair with the Australian work force. It is not playing fair with Australian working families in relation to Commonwealth laws that regulate workplace relations. This bill is just another example whereby the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations shows his contempt and disregard for Australian working families. It is incumbent upon me and others to highlight the motives of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and I do so this afternoon.

As a number of other speakers have indicated—and I agree—this bill is not the most pernicious bill that has been introduced by Minister Abbott. In fact, for his standards, it is almost inoffensive but, of course, its direction again is about limiting or directing the commission to act against the interests of working Australians—working families—and working towards and in favour of employers only. I do not think it illustrates any sense of balance or any sense of concern for having a system which will allow for genuine bargaining at the workplace level.

We know who introduced the capacity for working people and employers to bargain in the workplace. It was not the Tories. For all their talk, the Tories did nothing in the seventies. I think they brought in secondary boycotts by introducing provisions to the Trade Practices Act, but they never introduced any workplace bargaining, and every member opposite knows that. The fact is that workplace bargaining was introduced by the Hawke and Keating governments. In fact, it was introduced in the early nineties in order to allow for industrial and economic change to occur. But when those laws were introduced, they were introduced with protections—to ensure that working people had protection. For example, those laws allowed the commission powers to resolve disputes and to bring the parties together and reconcile the differences that arise in disputes.

But since 1996 we have seen the contempt that this government has for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and the contempt it has for Australian working families. Although this bill is perhaps not as harsh as others, it is no different. This bill is a watered-down rehash of one of the bills that former Minister Peter Reith initiated back in the last parliament. This bill tries to reduce the commission's discretion in determining section 127 orders in the event of some sort of industrial action. My view of that is that there is no need to prompt the commission. Notwithstanding recent appointments, it is a place that has a greater reservoir of employment and industrial relations wisdom than this government. It hardly needs this antiworker minister to provide indicators as to the way in which the commission should apply section 127 of the act. In doing so, the bill again illustrates the minister's inclination to try and stymie the commission's behaviour or conduct in industrial matters.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and this government are about removing the powers of the commission; they are about trying to fix up the commission make it act in a certain manner—normally in favour of the employer. If you read the minister's second reading speech, you would have found no reference, for example, to lockouts. In fact, notwithstanding the definition of industrial action in the Workplace Relations Act, you would believe that lockouts were not industrial action if you ever listened to the minister talk about industrial action. He has no regard for that. He does not have too much concern for people being locked out. It does not matter whether they are being locked out for days, weeks or months.

Earlier in this debate, the member for Corio talked about the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which the workers at Geelong Wool Combing are finding themselves as a result of a lockout. I have not heard the minister talk about the social damage that is being done to those families as a result of the unilateral action taken by that company to lock out those workers. No concern whatsoever has been expressed by this government for those people and that community. It is not just in Geelong that that is occurring; it is occurring more frequently elsewhere. The Prime Minister dog whistles to particular parts of the community, and this minister likes to dog whistle to certain types of employers. That is what the Australian Financial Review indicated in an article on Monday, 1 September, that had the headline, `Employers ramp up lockouts as disputes drag on.' The article's author, Marcus Priest, said:

The number of employers locking their workers out during industrial actions has risen steeply this year.

In the latest case, Rheem, a manufacturer of central heating and cooling products, has begun a series of rolling lockouts of its 330 workers after two weeks of stoppages and bans by its staff.

The article goes on to say:

Staff are campaigning for their entitlements to be placed in a union-controlled trust fund, NEST, and for an explicit guarantee of job security.

Here is a situation where employees are looking to secure their employment, to try and reach agreement on matters unresolved between the parties, and the employer is locking them out.

Another example is in Tasmania where workers at the Blue Ribbon meatworks have been locked out for 21 weeks. In New South Wales a recent dispute at the Sydney factory of Morris McMahon has lasted for 15 weeks. What we are seeing is a spate of lockouts occurring as a result of this minister giving the green light, if you like, to the behaviour of employers taking such action. He has indicated that, as far as he is concerned, when it comes to industrial action his only interest is to put as much pressure as possible on working people to stop them taking action in pursuit of their entitlements.

I think everybody knows that this minister is obsessed with taking on working people. He likes to talk about attacking unions, and he likes to talk about attacking registered organisations that break the law. When he says `registered organisations', he means unions. Of course, when he says unions, he really means the most productive element of this society—the Australian working people. He likes to use certain terms that he thinks will not offend everybody, but we know that when he is attacking unions he is attacking their members, and those members are ordinary working people just trying to make a living, just trying to pay their mortgage and to pay for education, health care and all the other matters that are needed for a family's livelihood. These are the things that are being impacted upon as a result of this minister's obsession with taking on ordinary working people. Given that this minister is supposed to have the employment portfolio, I think he should be looking at ways to mitigate the adverse social impacts occurring in the workplace that are making it more difficult for working people in what is becoming a very busy life.

There is no doubt that over the last 20 years or so families in this country have been working longer and harder. That does produce wealth for this nation—so there is certainly an upside to people working diligently and sacrificing time with their family on occasions—but if this minister had any interest in trying to find the right balance in the workplace he would be, firstly, exploring ways to mitigate the stress related to the ever increasing hours that working people are asked to perform and, secondly, trying to work out ways to prevent the rapid movement of the work force from permanent employment to casual employment.

There will always be a need for casual employment and other forms of employment such as part-time employment. Indeed, there will always be employees who elect to enter that area and there will always be employers who need employees who elect to enter those forms of employment. Many employees are taking on jobs that the government says it created. The government likes to boast that it has created jobs, but really we need a high proportion of those jobs to be permanent full-time jobs so that workers can provide a consistent and assured income for their families. These are the sorts of things that you would expect the minister to concern himself with, but on each and every occasion in this term the minister has obsessed about regulating unions, trying to diminish the powers of the commission and forcing the commission to act in a particular manner in favour of certain employers.

When you look at the workplace relations bills that have been introduced into this House, you will see their warped titles. This one is not so bad, but we had the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Termination) Bill 2002. If enacted, this bill would enable employers to sack their employees without recourse to any court and without judicial or administrative redress. We have the Workplace Relations Amendment (Good Faith Bargaining) Bill 2003, which would in fact deny the commission powers to ensure parties bargained in good faith—in effect, it would deny genuine bargaining.

I can find only two bills where the commission's powers are potentially increased—but, again, it is not so much increasing the powers as compelling them to act in a particular manner in favour of employers. One of those bills is the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2002. This bill would allow the commission to make an order to prevent award or enterprise agreement provisions transferring from one owner of a company to another in the event that the company was sold. This in effect would mean that the employees of that company could be left without the conditions they originally started with. This power would act against the interests of working people.

The bill that really takes the cake for this minister—where even he forgot to use the camouflaged word `unions'—is the one that he simply called Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting the Low Paid) Bill 2003. This bill was to provide powers to the Industrial Relations Commission so that they could prevent a national wage case increase being applied to the lowest paid—under the guise of helping the lowest paid. In other words, the bill says that, if any argument is waged before the commission that they may lose their jobs, the national wage case increases may be waived by the commission.

So it would seem that the only occasion this minister actually provides any powers to the commission is when there are powers to limit or deny entitlements to working people. It is quite clear that this minister is biased in his behaviour and that this government is antiworker in everything it does in this area. People are just getting sick of it, and I think this government is going to rue the day it decided to forget about the Australian work force. Australia's economy is based largely upon the productivity of its work force, and that work force is being treated contemptuously by this government. Therefore, this government needs to do some rethinking—but I will not hold my breath.

We know that this minister likes to intervene in matters. On the one hand, the government's rhetoric is, `We want the parties to be able to negotiate free of third parties.' That is code for, `We don't want workers to have the right to join unions and have unions represent them.' But there has always been that rhetoric from this government—that they want third parties out of industrial relations matters. This minister is one of the greatest interlopers and intruders into industrial relations that we will ever find, and he therefore contradicts his own rhetoric in that regard.

Like his predecessor Peter Reith, who we might recall had an early role training replacement workers in Dubai for the Australian waterfront, the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations would appear to be setting up slush funds. What could he possibly call a fund against Australian workers? If he had one, I have no doubt he would call it something like the Defenders of Australian Working Families or maybe Australians for Honest Industrial Relations. That is the sort of title I expect Minister Abbott would apply to a fund that would attack Australian workers, because in the end this minister and this government say one thing and do another. He gives bills titles that say one thing, even though their effect is totally opposite. This government and this minister act disingenuously in this area. They call black white and they call white black, and they should be held to account for their duplicity and their behaviour in that regard.

I certainly reject this bill. Every one of Minister Abbott's industrial relations bills so far has been rejected, as it should be, by the opposition because they are bills that are one-sided—as this bill is. This bill is looking to focus predominantly upon strike action; it is looking to compel the commission to act in a way that may not be in the best interests of a particular case. It is an attempt to remove the discretion of the commission by having the orders sought within 48 hours when, in fact, there may be no requirement, given the current circumstances, that that takes place. Nor may it be the case that there is any merit to have the order made and determined within 48 hours.

It is an innocuous bill for this minister but, again, it is sending the message out to certain employers that he is on the march against working people and their taking industrial action. This minister is dog whistling to certain employers, saying, `It's okay; I'll take care of the industrial action by workers.' He obviously says this to a particular group of employers—not all employers I am glad to say. He is also saying: `You can continue to lock workers out because you won't be finding me attacking you in the parliament or raising concerns. In fact I'll be cheering you on. If not publicly, I'll be cheering you on privately.' You will recall how angry the minister got when companies in the automotive industry chose not to take on their workers but to try and reconcile their differences. We saw how angry he got when they did not spoil for a fight; they looked to reconcile their differences. We saw this Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations fuming at the fact that there would be an attempt to reconcile differences at the workplace rather than to ratchet up the dispute and ensure there is no resolution.

This bill reflects the minister's contempt for the Australian work force. He should be condemned for even introducing it into the House, wasting our time yet again. Therefore, I reject the tenets of the bill and support the amendment moved by the shadow minister.