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Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Page: 27712

Mr TICEHURST (12:42 PM) —I rise today to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002. The reforms in this bill are designed to implement the Howard government's ongoing commitment to maintaining the award system as a safety net of minimum wages and conditions that facilitates agreement making in the workplace. I must say that, unlike the member for Chifley, I have never been a union man. I have seen many companies that have been destroyed by intransigent unions, but all through my working career I have done my own bidding, and I have done that quite successfully. In my electorate of Dobell, small business is a huge contributor to the local economy, and job creation is a key strategic issue being addressed by all levels of government. For my electorate, this bill is important because it has the potential to reduce the complexity of the workplace relations system and to remove the burden on thousands of small businesses, which can create new jobs.

Reforms to the workplace relations system since the Howard government came to office in 1996 have assisted in the creation of more than 1.3 million jobs and led to increases in real wages for ordinary Australians of more than 13 per cent. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to tighten and clarify allowable award matters. For example, redundancy pay will only relate to genuine redundancy and not to resignation by an employee, as some award clauses currently allow for. The range of matters currently referred to as other forms of leave will be more closely specified, and the bill clarifies matters that are isolated from an award.

Provisions will be removed which duplicate other legislative entitlements. For example, legislation in every state and territory already provides for long service leave. Similarly, the removal of accident make-up pay from the awards is not about absolving employers of responsibility to employees injured at work—as Labor, I am sure, would like to have people believe. The fact is that weekly payments to injured workers are regulated by the relevant workers compensation legislation in each jurisdiction. It is appropriate, then, for payments in respect of accidents in the workplace to continue to be regulated at a state level, in order to fit with the current workers compensation regimes. Regulation of accident make-up pay—like regulation of training provisions relating to apprentices and trainees, notice of termination, jury service and records of hours of work—increases the complexity of awards. If parties want to increase the amount paid to injured employees above the statutory provisions, this should be covered in agreements and not in the award safety net. Surveys have shown that, because of overlapping federal and state legislation, many employees and employers do not know whether federal or state law applies to them. This overlapping is unnecessarily confusing and cumbersome, and I am sure that this move will be welcomed by many employers and employees in Dobell.

Provisions which hinder productivity and workplace performance or which are more appropriately dealt with at the workplace will also be removed from the awards. The fact is that skill based career paths, certain forms of leave, transfers of employees between locations, training and education other than for apprentices and trainees, and transfers between different types of employment are matters that are more appropriately dealt with at the workplace level.

I am going to expand briefly on the training and education provision. The training and skills of employees are vitally important for the Australian economy, and the Australian government remains committed to improving the knowledge and skills of the Australian work force. Removing training and education provisions from awards is consistent with the evolving workplace relations system that focuses on enterprises and workplaces, with agreement being the main form of determining pay and conditions.

The Labor Party's opposition to the bill is merely another example of the union movement being the owner and operator of the Australian Labor Party. I have been a small business owner, I have been a managing director of a multinational company and I have worked on the factory floor. Through my varied employment experience, I understand that matters associated with education and training are best dealt with by agreements between employers and employees at the workplace level. Workplace agreements enable employers and employees to develop and implement training and education arrangements. These arrangements meet the particular needs and circumstances of their own workplace, allow them to respond more quickly to changing skill needs by implementing new training and education arrangements, and avoid the prescriptive one size fits all approach.

It is disappointing that the Labor Party has opposed award simplification since its introduction in 1996 and remains opposed to it even where there is clear evidence of improvements. It is disappointing that the Labor Party does not see the damage in overly complex and restrictive awards that act as a continued barrier to employment growth. One restrictive award that stood out for me had a clause relating to mandatory transfers between types of employment and a clause which placed restrictions on the employment of employees in a particular type of employment or classification.

In my electorate and indeed nationally, the increase in the casualisation of the work force is cause for concern. Casual workers have no job security and no access to paid leave or holiday leave. They are not guaranteed an income and they will have little opportunity to borrow money for even a house or a car. But a provision requiring mandatory transfer of employees between different jobs is not the answer. All this does is hinder the productivity of the workplace and reduce the capacity of employers and employees to make choices about the way in which they regulate their employment relationship. Provisions that merely add prescriptive detail to awards and reduce flexibility simply do not belong in the industry wide awards. If these sorts of provisions are ever considered appropriate for a particular workplace, they should be contained in workplace agreements rather than broadly applied with the one size fits all approach.

It is interesting to note that the previous Labor government did see the value in simplified awards. In a speech at the Institute of Directors in Melbourne on 21 April 1993, Mr Keating spoke about the model of industrial relations they were working towards, and he said:

The safety net would not be intended to prescribe the actual conditions of work of most employees, but only to catch those unable to make workplace agreements with employers.

Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards with fewer clauses.

Today's Labor Party, it seems, are going backwards in their support of an unrealistic and prehistoric one size fits all approach to workplace relations. Small businesses need greater flexibility because they do not have the same access to financial and human resources as larger businesses, and unplanned expenses can threaten the viability of a business and the jobs of those working for the business. It must be remembered that businesses can only pay employees out of profit—no profit, no continuing business. Long service leave and other provisions that are duplicated in state and territory legislation can cause unnecessary complications for employers, not to mention additional administrative costs that small businesses simply cannot afford.

In conclusion, reforms of the workplace relations system since 1996 have not only created more jobs for Australians, but they have also resulted in fewer strikes, lower inflation, higher productivity and lower interest rates. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 will contribute to a balanced system for both employers and employees, a process that would lessen complexity, lower costs and provide more certainty for both employers and employees. I urge members opposite to support this legislative move towards a more unified workplace relations system that contributes positively to the social and economic wellbeing of our community.