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Wednesday, 11 February 2004
Page: 24338


Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:28 AM) —I thank all members for their contributions to the debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 [No. 2]. As I said when reintroducing the bill, the government firmly believes that a more unified national workplace relations system means less complexity, lower costs and more jobs for all Australians. This bill also provides special relief for small businesses confronted with unfair dismissal claims and will also further streamline the handling of claims generally in the federal arena. Most significantly, this bill will increase the coverage of federal unfair dismissal laws from about 50 per cent to 85 per cent of all Australian employees. Other workers, including contractors, will continue to have access to relevant state laws and protections.

Members need no reminding that this parliament has debated unfair dismissal laws since the Keating government first legislated for an unfair and unworkable set of arrangements in 1993. That government's partial and untidy retreat from those laws left Australia with seven sets of unfair dismissal regimes, including a national law still regarded with deep suspicion by businesses both small and large. Since 1996 the present government has sought to provide a fairer go all round for employees and employers, while simplifying the means for handling unfair dismissal claims. Progress has been slower than the community and the government would have liked, and every year Australian industrial tribunals still deal with 16,000 to 17,000 unfair dismissal claims. Currently, approximately 40 per cent of these claims are lodged with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Passage of this bill would break the institutional gridlock that makes the handling of unfair dismissals in Australia complex and costly for employers and employees alike. I remind the House that independent research by the Melbourne University Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research shows that one-third of Australian businesses do not know whether their workplace relations are covered by state or federal law. For small businesses, the current unfair dismissal arrangements comprising the federal system and five separate state systems add $1.3 billion annually to business expenses.

The primary purpose of this bill is to expand the operation of the federal unfair dismissal system. It removes the conditions that an employee of a constitutional corporation must also be covered by a federal award. The deletion of the federal award criterion means that company employees working under a state award would approach the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for remedies against unfair dismissal. When this bill first came before the House my predecessor, the honourable member for Warringah, said:

Maintaining six separate industrial jurisdictions makes as much sense as keeping six separate railway gauges.

The former shadow minister, the honourable member for Barton, echoed this sentiment when he said at the time:

... it is silly, quite frankly, to have six disparate industrial relations systems, and the Labor Party recognises that.

That sentiment has been echoed by other ALP speakers throughout the course of the debate on this bill. The Australian Democrats workplace relations spokesperson, Senator Andrew Murray, has likewise expressed strong support for one national industrial relations system including a single set of unfair dismissal laws. It is a pity, then, that constructive proposals to get a better system of workplace relations are repeatedly impeded by short-sighted attempts to hang onto existing privileges or protect special or sectional interests. Realistically, there is little prospect of achieving this goal in a sensible time frame by way of referendum or by a referral of power from all the states. If there is to be a uniform system of workplace relations regulation, it must be under a federal law.

With this bill the Commonwealth has demonstrated that it is prepared to use the powers given to it under the Constitution to achieve greater uniformity. The government will be putting this bill forward to the Senate for a second time in just over three months because it believes that the case for reform is overwhelming and should not be further delayed or frustrated.

This government has overseen the creation of 1.3 million jobs in Australia since coming to office, higher wages for workers and historic lower levels of industrial disputation. That has come about because of not only the good economic management of the government but also the reforms that we have made to the workplace relations system. We are committed to those reforms that will mean more jobs and higher wages for Australians. I commend the bill to 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 immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.