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Thursday, 1 April 2004
Page: 27963


Mr HATTON (11:59 AM) —In following the member for Gellibrand in this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002, I am also following a number of Labor speakers who have pointed out that this bill is one of a series of bills that the government has put into place that have been knocked back time and time again because of the inadequacy of what the government is proposing and because of the compounding effects of what would be achieved not just in this bill but in all of the other 11 associated bills that are the children—or grandchildren now, I suppose—of the 1996 More Jobs, Better Pay bill.

Mr Reith, who was then the member for Flinders and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Small Business, got the point when the Senate knocked back the original 1996 bill, which was effectively an omnibus bill covering this and 11 other related bills. He was not going to get these matters through, but these were matters that were a core part of the agenda that the government hoped to achieve. So he decided to break them up and to feed these bills one by one into the House and the Senate. In introducing the Workplace Relations Amendment (Tallies and Picnic Days) Bill 2000 he said, in part, that the government introduced the bill on the premise that the Senate, particularly the Australian Democrats, might more favourably consider revisions of More Jobs, Better Pay should its 18 schedules be reintroduced as separate bills and, as he put it at the time, in bite-sized chunks. I have to say that, although the chunks are more bite size, they are just as inedible now as they were in 2000 when that bill was first put and just as inedible as they were when the elements of this bill and others were first proposed by the government in 1996.

At the core of this amendment on award simplification is a reduction in the parameters for the Industrial Relations Commission, for unions and for employees in being able to access the time-honoured and well-used provision of the commission and the award system. When Labor was in government we moved from a totally award centred basis to enterprise bargaining, but we attempted to achieve a balance between the two. We wanted to protect what was good about the award system, not only to have it as a fundamental safety net but also to ensure that those things that had taken more than 100 years to achieve would not be stripped away by the process of enterprise bargaining and to ensure that if certain provisions were given up by employees, in consultation with unions and other employees, there would be a quid pro quo in that they would be able to either win greater pay or gain consideration in other areas and that the conditions of work would be modernised, given that the industry may well have changed. But we were saying that it should still be done within a framework of people being allowed to be represented in the workplace and, if they chose, to seek to get their matters addressed not in the enterprise bargaining rounds but by having them sorted out directly by the commission.

With a series of bills the whole placement of the Industrial Relations Commission has been attacked—and no more directly attacked than through the provisions of this bill, laughingly subtitled the `Award simplification bill'. As I have noted previously, and as the shadow minister has noted, an Orwellian approach has been taken to all 12 of these bills. Although the bill is called the award simplification bill, we know that its intent is not what people would normally think—to tidy up and clarify what is happening, to make it easier to assess what is going on and to make it easier for people to see where they stand—but really about award stripping, not award simplification.

In the legislation the government were able to get through in the first wave of amendments in 1996, the number of matters that the Industrial Relations Commission and the parties to the commission—the unions acting on behalf of their members and employers—were able to talk about in the commission was drastically reduced to 20 matters. This bill seeks to take the 20, compress it to at least 17, and then take most of the rest of the list and say, `Even though you can look at it, we are actually going to restrict what the commission and the parties to the commission are able to talk about, what they can come to an agreement about.' In part, what drove the original More Jobs, Better Pay bill and what drives each of its constituent elements—the children or grandchildren of that original bill—is the move to fundamentally change the relationship between those people who are employed and those who employ them, to effectively give greater power to employers and to put employees in a position where they will have less access to award provisions than they previously had.

This bill is a move to try to force people away from the Industrial Relations Commission and the award system, to force them not just into enterprise bargaining but into the preferred mode of certified workplace agree-ments where it is just a one-on-one situation and where the whole of the work force is atomised and left without recourse to effective defence. The relationship between the power of an employer and the power of an employee is completely unequal. The government know that and they seek to increase the power of the employer at the expense of the employees. They know that employees are in a much more difficult situation now than they were previously. The whole work force has been so heavily casualised: more than 2.2 million people in this economy are casual workers. As a result of the Senate committee inquiry into poverty, we know that something like 3.6 million people are earning less than $400 a week. We know that there is an increased tenuousness in the link between those people and the work they would want to do to get permanency in the work force.

One of the provisions that previous speakers have alluded to is the whole question of people moving from casual employment to permanent employment. The Industrial Relations Commission has been adopting a process to put provisions into awards—because the unions have argued for this—to say that, where a person is a long-term casual employee of a company, there should be some skill path progression and provision to allow them to move from casual to permanent status. Most employers who have their heads screwed on—and that would be most employers—would see the benefit of allowing that for people they have invested time and money in, who they have helped to train and who have become a vital part of their company, and they would see that that path should be there. If the employer does not want it to happen, it will not happen. This is a provision that the Industrial Relations Commission is putting into awards because there is an agreement between the employers and the unions who say that this would be of benefit to the company and the employees.

The very sort of thing that the Australian Industrial Relations Commission is so good at is being an interlocutor between two otherwise warring parties or two parties that otherwise could be at vast disagreement. It provides the ability for people to go to an independent umpire and referee to have the matters either conciliated or arbitrated. We have had more than 100 years of extremely effective use of the Industrial Relations Commission—formerly the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. With this bill the government basically wants to strip it down, not just in terms of the number of allowable matters before it and not just with a restriction on the matters that it can look at, but if it could it would shatter the whole thing to pieces. So we would have not only a fragmented work force but an entirely fragmented Industrial Relations Commission, and it would do away with it altogether.

The government wants a simple relationship of master and servant; it wants a simple relationship for those who are already in a protected position—the employers—so that they would have their power increased. It would mean not having to bother with going through the Industrial Relations Commission but trying to do it one on one, and forcing certified agreements as the only way that people can really interact. With this bill, the government is seeking to cut out a whole range of possibilities that are there for people to access a common approach to matters that companies have before them.

The specific provisions that this bill would exclude are: skills based career paths—to which I have alluded—the question of bonuses, long service leave, notice of termination and jury service. This bill is saying: `We want to delete all those things. We don't want the Industrial Relations Commission to consider those at all. We don't want those to be written into awards or parts of awards. This is something that should be negotiated, face to face, between employer and employee, either through the bargaining process or wrapped up in certified agreements.'

The question of jury service is a pretty fundamental issue and it is a bit hard for the judicial system—being entirely separate, as it is in our system, from the legislative and the executive services—to convince people to give up their daily work to come and sit in a court room for two or three days, or two or three months, or a year, in terms of long court cases, and demand that they exercise the duties and responsibilities that are imposed on them as Australian citizens, when they are not sure of what the impact of that is going to be.

We surely do not expect that from people who are forced to do jury service—and that is part of the way our system operates, because the jury system is fundamental to the Westminster system, the British way of law making and to our court system, derived as it is from the British system—when people cannot be sure that their job will be there. They will have to make a deal with their employer that, if they are forced to go for three days, three weeks, three months or a year, they will have a job to go back to or that they will be adequately compensated whilst they are doing jury service. I think you would find that very few people would willingly stick their hands up to say that they should be out of their normal activity to do this. The lack of certainty that is introduced by this bill for everyone in the work force in a position to be affected by this is extremely great.

The first key question of skill based career paths, which I have only partly alluded to, is extremely important. Putting this up to the hazard of dealing with the particular provisions employers have from state to state or from company to company is at one with the problem that we have in terms of the skilling of our work force Australia wide. This government certainly takes a great deal of notice of the Productivity Commission, which has said, throughout the 1990s—and the latter part of the 1990s dominated four years of this government—that there has been an effective deskilling of the Australian work force as casualisation of workers has increased, the skill levels of people have decreased, the provision for people to cross over from casual work to full-time employment has decreased and the provision for at work training has relatively decreased. As a direct result of that, productivity in Australia fell throughout the late nineties. If you take the whole period of the nineties, but particularly the latter part of the nineties, those skill levels have directly fallen.

I recognise that the government wants to drive towards ensuring that trend will increase. If you take the whole question out of issue—that is, people being able to move on skill based career paths—and do not allow skill based career paths to be dealt with by the AIRC and in award provisions, you are going to make sure that our training provision is desperately bad. Just the other day, I was speaking to one of the instructors from my electorate who works at Bankstown TAFE with kids who are at risk because they have left school early and got out of that training. He is running a very successful program to bring them into the work force, and a number of the people he has helped to train have in fact gone on to trades and very effective employment.

I was also speaking with a number of other people from the TAFE system. One of the core things that we were discussing was this very issue: Australia's declining skill base and the fact that the system has not properly allowed for the renewal of our tradespeople. If proper training is written into awards, if skilling is written into award agreements, if there is a provision for people to have time at work for training or to do job related training as part of their award, you can be fairly sure that you will get a better and more regulated system than you will by just throwing it out, willy-nilly, to what is thrown up in various enterprise agreements or certified workplace agreements.

What we face is very stark and very simple: this is a crisis in people's skill levels in the trades. The average age of people in trades in Australia is about 53. That is pretty close to what I am—and that is about the average age. These people see a dearth of people below them to take their places. The baby boomers are the dominant group within trades in Australia, but the people who have been trained are very few in number. They cannot replace those who are already there, and the effective deskilling that has taken place in Australia means that our immigration system has to draw on people from Korea, China and other countries where they still actually do trade training—where people have a series of skills that Australia lacks. In part, that is because there has not been a willingness to write these things back into the award process.

Through this bill, the government seeks to ensure that the low skill base already there will be further lowered. That does not surprise me, because the Prime Minister, the member for Bennelong, has always been driven by an image of Australia having to compete with Thailand and what were other low-wage countries by effectively trying to reduce Australia's capacity in that area, to try and compete with low-wage rather than high-wage countries. Rather than increasing skill levels, he takes the easy way out and says: `Just let the employers do whatever they want to do. They can get people in from overseas if they need to.' That is what has been happening throughout the nineties and from 2000 to 2004. It is happening now. You can see it around building sites in Canberra: local skilled people just are not there.

The casualisation of the work force, getting rid of the major training bodies that our major institutions have had and trying to take away power over these matters from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission are part of a great web that the government have. Their design is to recast industrial relations, effectively to get us back to the master-servant relationship, the one-on-one thing—the unequal situation with one individual and an employer.

I do not think that is a very smart thing to do. I think that we would be far better to say—as Labor will—that this so-called award simplification bill is not on. We have said it before; we will say it again: we are going to vote against it. The reason we are going to vote against it is that it does not seek to make changes in order to better the system; it effectively seeks to nobble the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, to keep the unions out, to keep representation for employees out of the system altogether. It seeks to drive people to certified agreements and to create a situation of powerlessness for workers. It seeks to strip away not just the matters that the commission can deal with but all of those protections between employer and employee that this government does not want. Those protections are still there to allow a greater equality of treatment for employees because you have the mediation of the AIRC. I condemn this bill. (Time expired)