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Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Page: 27723

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (1:30 PM) —I note the contribution of the member of Parkes, a good unionist from New South Wales. He is a former member of the farmers union in New South Wales, and I am wondering why today he has turned on fellow unionists throughout Australia. I remind the honourable member for Parkes that I had mates who went out of business during the Fraser Liberal years. At that time, the current leader of the Liberal Party was the Treasurer of this country, and he left Australia with massive debt, double digit inflation, double digit interest rates, double digit unemployment and a negative growth rate. That was the great legacy of the current leader of the Liberal Party and the Prime Minister of Australia, and I welcome the opportunity to remind Liberal members in the House today of the record of the Prime Minister.

The title of this bill says it all. It is the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002. The House might wonder how it is that we are debating a bill that was brought into this place in 2002. The former industrial relations ministers in this government are a bit like plastic dummies. You blow them up, you knock them down, and they bounce up again and keep bouncing up. I thought that the current industrial relations minister might be cut from a new cloth, but his performances in this place indicate that nothing has really changed on the Liberal side. They are still following the current Prime Minister's agenda. He has a very simple agenda, but he has not managed, in eight years, to get much of it through. He did get the GST through; that was a central plank of his agenda. He wanted to privatise the whole of Telstra, but he has not been able to do that, because of the actions of members of another place. And, of course, he has tried time and again to introduce his industrial relations system—that great Liberal race to the bottom, which we have seen over the last seven or eight years. He has not been able to get that agenda completely through this parliament, and that is the reason we have this legislation here today.

The current minister really is a bit like a plastic dummy, like his two predecessors. You knock them down and they pop up again. He has come into the House with this hoary old bit of legislation which is designed to strip away the awards of Australian workers. I say to members opposite: at the end of the day, who do you think you are driving the boot into with this legislation? It is the working families of Australia. That is whom you are doing it to. You might go home from this House on Thursday evening, go out on the golf course on Friday and forget about this pernicious legislation that you have brought into this place. But I certainly will not forget and neither will the workers of the Corio electorate. It is the same hoary old Tory agenda that you keep trotting out in this place and that we keep on rejecting. Keep on doing it; we do not mind. You only have a few more months to do it, and then we will have the reins of government and we will sort out this whole area once and for all. I note the presence in the House of the member for O'Connor, who will follow me in this debate. He is a good prime ministerial loyalist from many years back. We know his history. When the honourable member for O'Connor gets up and says what a good bloke the current Prime Minister is and how good his agenda is, we will know exactly what is in his heart.

With this bill, the government is yet again seeking to tear away at the safety net employment conditions that have been assembled for working Australians over 100 years. This bill would further reduce matters that can be included in awards from the current 20 matters to 16 matters and would put limitations on some of the remaining 16. It follows the 1996 first wave of industrial relations amendments that restricted allowable matters to 20.

The government always comes into this place chanting the mantra of choice but, when it comes to choice for employees and choice of matters that can be included in awards, the government wants to restrict choice. Do not take any notice of what the government says about choice; it is what the government does that counts, and the government is consistently trying to restrict choice for working Australians and for workers in the Corio electorate.

After reducing the number of matters that could be included in awards to just 20 back in 1996, the government, in its failed second wave of industrial relations changes in 1999, tried to further reduce the number of allowable matters. The Senate—which, as we know, is broadly representative of the Australian community in terms of the political parties represented there—rightly rejected that legislation in its entirety. The attempt to remove picnic day holidays from awards was also in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Tallies and Picnic Days) Bill 2000. The picnic day aspect of the bill was also defeated in the Senate. In his second reading speech on that bill, the then minister—who is now the Minister for Health and Ageing—acknow-ledged that these provisions had been tried on before. He said:

The government is now in a position to introduce a further single issue bill drawn from the More Jobs, Better Pay Bill 1999.

You really have to give the government full marks for trying. This piece of legislation has been soundly rejected by the Australian parliament time and again. You would think the dummies on the other side would wake up. What they have given us in this election year is a great campaigning tool. I will make sure that every working household in the seat of Corio understands fully the implications of what the government intends to do to their wages and conditions. And it will happen again; my majority will just keep climbing. The government is at it again. It is obsessed with tearing away the award safety net that prevents the working conditions of vulnerable Australians from falling through the floor. These provisions were unacceptable in 1999, they were unacceptable in 2000 and they are certainly unacceptable now.

Let me make some comments on major aspects of this legislation because it is very important that people understand what this government is attempting to do in this legislation. I want to make some comments about Australia's award system, that unique system of award provision in Australia that has underpinned the living standards of working people in this country for many years. This award system was established over a 100-year period. Awards ensure that conditions of employment cannot fall below a decent level. They ensure that employers cannot compete on the basis of reducing employment costs below an acceptable community standard. It is a pretty simple proposition. Even the dummies on the other side of the parliament can understand this one. There is a level of conditions that Australian workers should enjoy in the land of plenty. The traditional way of ensuring that has been the award system.

Awards are traditionally made and varied by the relevant industrial relations commission, which makes an assessment of what is fair in all the circumstances of each case, following submissions by the affected parties. So it is not just the union movement—that great and magnificent obsession of the Liberal Party and The Nationals—that gets to argue the case before the Industrial Relations Commission, the independent umpire; it is all parties that have an interest in a particular issue.

This bill subverts this whole system by simply taking away award standards through legislation, rather than giving the parties the opportunity to explain their respective cases before that independent commission. By doing this, the government further weakens the role of the independent umpire, the Industrial Relations Commission. This forms part of the concerted attack that the government has made on the Industrial Relations Commission since it came to office. In 1996, the government took away the commission's powers to settle industrial disputes and to require the parties to bargain in good faith. If a Latham Labor government is elected, one of the first things that it do will be to strengthen the role of the Industrial Relations Commission and require all parties—unions, employers and any other groups—to bargain in good faith before that commission.

The commission's power to make awards was limited to 20 allowable matters. By previous legislation the commission was required to undertake a complex and time-consuming process of stripping awards of non-allowable matters. This process would have to be repeated if this bill were passed. In the last few years, the government has blatantly disregarded the convention of making balanced appointments to the commission. It has stacked the commission with members almost exclusively from business backgrounds. This bill continues the process of undermining the commission by effectively saying to it, `It doesn't matter what you decide or what you think is appropriate for inclusion in awards; we will delete the bits we don't like through legislation.'

The bill will remove the following matters from federal awards: skill based career paths, bonuses, long service leave, notice of termination and jury service. In addition, some allowable matters would be restricted: training or education matters, the rights of unions to take part in dispute settlement procedures, and transfers from one type of employment to another. Allowances would no longer include accident make-up pay, cultural leave would be limited to ceremonial leave for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and similar types of cultural and religious observation, public holidays would only include government declared public holidays, and the scope for awards to contain matters incidental to specific allowable matters would be narrowed. I want to talk about some of these matters in great detail because they impact on my constituency—on working families in the seat of Corio.

Let us turn to the skill based career paths and training element of this bill. Removing skill based career paths and training and education matters from awards is the latest step in the Liberals' long and winding road to low skills and low wages. The Liberal way is a low road to low skills and low wages. In the 21st century the key sources of productivity growth are skills and ideas. Today's productivity growth is tomorrow's prosperity. The Howard government has failed to invest properly in skills formation in Australia and it has jeopardised future productivity growth and the prosperity that will flow to Australians from it. This was neatly summarised by the Labor senators in their report to the Senate inquiry on similar provisions in the 1999 second wave legislation. They had this to say:

The proposal to remove training and skill-based career paths from awards indicates that the Government has not properly considered its amendments to allowable award matters, or is simply motivated by an unreasonable ideological desire to downgrade the Commission and its awards.

They got the second part right. That is the real motivation of all of this. They went on to state:

As witness after witness pointed out during this Inquiry, it would be insane to remove training provisions from awards. It is not in the interests of the Australian community or the economy.

The amendment would send the wrong signal to employers and employees about the importance of training and skills formation.

For heaven's sake, we have one of the lowest levels of private sector commitment to education and training in the OECD. They continued:

Many employers and employees have spent a great deal of time establishing industry-wide training frameworks. If these industry-based structures were removed, many employers may not have the time, resources or inclination to renegotiate training and career path structures for their own workplaces.

I think that was a sensible contribution by the senators. The Productivity Commission has found that skills formation slowed down during the 1990s, making no significant contribution to productivity growth.

The Howard government wants to consign Australia to being a low skill, low wage society competing on wage costs against the countries of East Asia. The government has entered vulnerable working Australians in a race to the bottom. It is a race we should never have entered and a race we should never want to win, but that is the Liberal way. Stripping skills out of the award system is callous and heartless, but again it is the Liberal way. The government is sacrificing the future living standards of working Australians.

The bill would make non-allowable any provisions about the transfer from one type of employment to another, such as the transfer of full-time, part-time or casual employees. Job security is a big issue in Australia, with 27 per cent of our work force in casual employment—that is, 2.2 million Australians—and 60 per cent of them working in the same workplace for more than a year.

Nobody denies that casual employment can play a valuable role in providing a ready work force in peak seasonal conditions, whether it be in agriculture, tourism, hospitality or retailing. In many cases it suits employees to have a loading to compensate for no job security or leave entitlements. But in many other cases employees are employed regularly for a long time but cannot get the job security they want and need, both for peace of mind and to access home loans and other bank loans. I have working poor in my community in Geelong, people who are working as casual employees, who cannot enjoy the same access as many other Australians to the basic things that most of us take for granted.

The recently released report of the bipartisan Senate inquiry into poverty found that 21 per cent of households, or 3.6 million Australians, live on less than $400 a week—less than the minimum wage. The report said:

The prevalence of working poor households in poverty is due simply to low-wage employment. Driving this change has been the casualisation of the workforce in the last two decades and a more recent weakening of the industrial relations systems.

That is a bipartisan Senate report putting the finger on the government for its attempts to weaken the industrial relations system in this country. The Industrial Relations Commission is currently in the process of putting provisions into awards to allow regular, long-term casuals to ask to transfer to permanent employment. Employers can refuse such requests if it is unreasonable for their business. This provision is already in the metals award and the hotels award. It provides a balanced and sensible response to the issue of casual employment.

This bill would take this provision out of the awards that already have it and stop the commission from putting it into any more awards. Again, it involves this government removing choice for the work force. When the Liberal Party talks of choice it means choice for a few, not choice for all. The Industrial Relations Commission, with its skills and expertise in workplace matters, has decided that these casual conversion provisions provide an appropriate response to modern workplace issues. But the government is not only negligently ignoring modern workplace issues but also stifling efforts by other bodies that have innovative solutions to these very important matters.

I will turn to the issue of long service leave. There would not be any member of the House opposite who has not taken their long service leave at some stage, I would imagine. The proposal to remove long service leave from federal awards is, again, ridiculous. Removing long service leave would mean that workplaces would revert to relying on state long service leave laws, which vary from state to state. This could have adverse consequences for both employers and employees, depending on each particular award provision and state law.

The removal of long service leave from awards would particularly affect employers operating in more than one state. It would mean that multistate businesses that currently have one award standard for long service leave would instead have to apply several different long service leave standards depending on which state their workers are in. There are other provisions relating to the union picnic day, jury service and enterprise bargaining, but I will not make reference to them. (Time expired)