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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19737

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (5:17 PM) —in reply—I thank members who have participated in this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Remedies for Unprotected Action) Bill 2002, particularly the members for Canning, Boothby and Herbert who, generally speaking, have spoken to the provisions in the legislation. I note that members opposite have generally used the opportunity of this bill to have a bit of an all-encom-passing spray at the government for its imagined sins.

Not for a second would I want to minimise the seriousness or the significance of the predicament that some workers find themselves in because of disputes with their employers. I certainly concede that it is a serious matter for a worker to be locked out, just as it is a serious matter for businesses when workers are on strike. I simply make the point that this government is on about the rule of law. We are on about workers and employers adhering to the rule of law in workplace relations. We are trying to make the law itself more effective, to ensure that we have the best possible workplaces, with a spirit of partnership between workers and managers, so that employment in our economy can be maximised, so that productivity can continue to improve, so that wages can continue to rise, so that companies can continue to be profitable and so that our economy can continue to be the standout performer in the OECD.

There are always going to be problems, because we live in an imperfect world. Our systems are inevitably going to be works in progress because no government has ever uttered the last word in wisdom. I simply say to the members opposite who like to attack the government with a venom and a passion which I think is out of place at times that this government has delivered to the average workers of Australia. Since March 1996, we have had some one million new jobs and around a half a million of them are permanent; we have had a 12 per cent real increase in full-time average weekly earnings; we have had an eight per cent real increase in basic award earnings; and we have had strikes at their lowest level since records were first kept in 1913. So we have had more jobs, higher pay and fewer strikes. I do not say that things are perfect. I think that things can always be improved, and this bill is designed to significantly, but modestly, improve our workplace relations system.

Notwithstanding the hyperbole from members opposite, this bill effects very modest changes to existing law. It encourages the Industrial Relations Commission to hear section 127 applications within 48 hours. It specifically empowers the commission to make interim section 127 orders. It stresses that, when determining section 127 applications, the Industrial Relations Commission should consider the existence of an agreement with its dispute resolution procedures, and it stresses the importance of discouraging unprotected industrial action. As I said, it is a very modest advance. It is designed to ensure that the Industrial Relations Commission is able to do its job swiftly and decisively—in other words, to earn the respect it deserves amongst all people in our workplace. This bill is necessary because agreements are meaningless if they cannot be enforced. Enforcement delayed is very often enforcement denied. If we are to have a system of rules, as opposed to the rule of the jungle, it is important that when people think the law is being broken they are able to go to an appropriate arbitrator and get an appropriate and swift decision.

The problem is that sometimes the legal position is complex, and that is why it is appropriate that the commission be specifically empowered to make interim orders. Sometimes decisions are delayed, and what this legislation does is stress the fact that decisions should not be unreasonably delayed. The latest figures show that some 85 per cent of section 127 applications are first heard within four days of lodgement. That is obviously an improvement on five days, six days or seven days, but the government believes—and I think it is a reasonable belief—that all applications wherever practicable should be heard and dealt with within 48 hours. We are not forcing the commission to do this; we are simply stating legislatively that this is the ideal and it should be adhered to wherever possible.

I want to stress that the only action which will be subject to this legislation is unprotected action. It is only unprotected action, and it will inevitably only come before the commission if the dispute resolution procedures—which every federally registered certified agreement must have—have not been adhered to. This is about trying to ensure that people stick to their agreements. What could be fairer than that? What could be fairer than trying to ensure that people stick to their agreements and that, if agreements have not been complied with, there is swift, effective, decisive intervention from the industrial relations umpire?

While I would be the last person to criticise the commission—I think the commission does a very good job, often under difficult circumstances—it is a fact that under the law as it stands some disputes have dragged on much longer than they should have. Some unlawful action has gone unsanctioned for far too long, and it is important that the commission gets the kind of legislative support for its role that this bill will provide. For instance, back in 1997, there was a protracted dispute at Southcorp's Rydalmere plant in Sydney. After it had been going on for some time, the company applied for a section 127 order. The commission delayed granting the order and sought to conciliate the dispute. In the course of this conciliation effort, numerous recommendations were made over a number of weeks. All of those recommendations were initially complied with and then ignored. Industrial action would cease for a short period after the recommendations were made, only to start soon after. Obviously, this caused very serious disruption for the company. Inevitably, this kind of thing seriously prejudiced the long-term employment prospects of the workers at that business. It was only after this dispute had gone on for nine weeks that the commission finally granted a section 127 order.

Another example occurred last year, with a dispute between the AMWU and ABB Australia. The company applied for a section 127 order, after a series of work bans and stop-work meetings were held—again in breach of the dispute resolution procedures of the EBA. The commission deferred granting the application for two weeks in order to allow the union to accept the company's offer without the threat of sanction by the commission. In fact, the union completely failed to take advantage of this opportunity. It is the government's contention that, if the commission had been able to grant an interim section 127 order, this dispute might have been resolved with much greater speed, less cost to the company and less cost to the workers.

As I said, this is a significant but nevertheless modest bill. It is all about respecting the umpire. Members opposite like to talk about the importance of the Industrial Relations Commission. I would respectfully suggest to members opposite that, if they are serious about ensuring that the Industrial Relations Commission is given the powers that it needs to rule the workplace in the way the opposition often want, they should actually pass this bill. This ought to be one of those bills where the opposition are prepared to work with the government because, as I said, it is about allowing the industrial relations umpire to resolve disputes by making swift and decisive orders to bring the parties within the law and to ensure that the parties respect their agreements. For that reason, this bill should be supported by both sides of the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rankin has moved as an amendment that all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.