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Thursday, 1 April 2004
Page: 27975

Mr ORGAN (12:51 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 represents yet another attack on the working people of this country and seeks to erode even further their hard-won rights and conditions. Additionally, it will result in a deskilling of our work force. The purpose of the bill is to reduce the number of allowable matters in federal awards. It also provides for a 12-month review of awards, during which time they are expected to be amended so that they comply with the terms of this bill.

Federal awards prescribe employment conditions such as wages, classifications, annual leave, sick leave and other entitlements or obligations. The scope of the provisions which the federal awards may address is governed by the Workplace Relations Act 1996. The act provides some scope for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to develop principles on award simplification, but this bill prescribes as non-allowable certain award matters previously sanctioned by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The rationale is supposedly to encourage award matters to be negotiated in enterprise agreements in the workplace.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations stated as much in his second reading speech for this bill and argued that Australia's workplace relations system needs progressive, evolutionary change. Presumably the minister is suggesting that the current federal government has delivered just that. I find the use of the word `progressive' problematic in this context—it is more like regressive. We have before us a bill which further strips workers' rights, entitlements and protections via federal awards. And why are the government further amending the Workplace Relations Act? It is because consistently they have shown themselves willing to go into bat for bosses against the best interests of workers of this country. This should be a government for all Australians—which they are not—and not just for those with vested interests. The minister in his second reading speech told us:

Reforms since 1996 have resulted in fewer strikes, lower inflation, higher productivity and lower interest rates. This government has helped Australian families improve their living standards with more choice and more disposable income.

These are fascinating claims—but they are spin. In this bill, there is no denying that the government further seeks to improve the ability of employers to dictate to employees the conditions under which they will work—as if they need any further power, for the employer-employee relationship has always been closer to a master-servant relationship than one of equality and partnership, despite the efforts of various work forces throughout this country over the years to make it more of a level playing field with both employers and employees working together.

There is a simple message that all of the government's attempted reforms to the workplace convey: this government is a friend of employers, not of employees. It staunchly believes that tightening the rope around the necks of employees will improve their productivity and then improve this country's economic performance. But at what price? There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, tightening the rope around the necks of employees will not make them better workers and, secondly, eroding the conditions of working people and promoting a dog-eat-dog approach to workplace relations fundamentally undermines the social fabric of our community.

As I said, if the government is successful in pushing it through both houses, this bill will erode the number of allowable matters contained in awards. For example, the bill proposes that award clauses dealing with the following issues are not to be considered as allowable: transfers between work locations; cultural leave, which is to be replaced by a more specific and restrictive form of ceremonial leave for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; extra public holidays above those specified as public holidays by a state or territory government—for example, union picnic days—leave for training and study purposes; the recording of employees' work times; and minimum or maximum hours to be worked by regular part-time employees. And that is just to name a few.

There is no doubt that the government are utterly committed to eroding the conditions of working people via award stripping and they are also obviously committed to union bashing. They refuse to acknowledge the role of unions in building social capital in this country and the role that unions play in ensuring that people are treated fairly in the workplace and are not exploited. But in the eyes of this government, being exploited—working hours and hours of unpaid overtime, for example, just to remain competitive in the workplace, or accepting reduced conditions of employment when your coworkers are not prepared to—makes you a good worker. According to this government, employers who pursue the erosion of workers' rights and conditions are simply responding to a more competitive and altered global environment.

But I fundamentally reject the government's approach to workplace relations in this country as it does not serve the best interests of the people of Australia and therefore does not serve our national interest. The government has repeatedly attempted to have the provisions of this bill, in varying forms, passed through both houses. Aspects of the bill appeared, for example, in a piece of proposed legislation rather cruelly titled the Workplace Relations Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill introduced in 1999. Following its rejection by the Senate, the government introduced this bill on the premise that the Senate, and particularly the Australian Democrats, might consider these provisions more favourably should the schedules be reintroduced as separate bills—or, as the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations put it, in `bite-sized chunks'. I am sorry, but an unpalatable meal is still unpalatable, no matter what size the courses are served in.

I would like to turn to another issue raised by the minister in his second reading speech, wherein he said:

Despite falls in unemployment, it remains the duty of this government through this parliament to do whatever it reasonably can to create jobs.

I must point out that, as a representative of an electorate which has the highest unemployment rate in Australia at almost 10 per cent and which has youth unemployment above 25 per cent, we do not feel that this government has done much at all to create employment in the Wollongong region. It has failed dismally in this regard. In fact, federal governments in recent decades have failed the Illawarra in terms of generating investment and ensuring that the region has a sustainable economic future and ample long-term job opportunities for its residents. We fell a long way behind during the eighties and nineties and we now have a lot of catching up to do, with the governments in power not willing to address the issue. I therefore find it somewhat intolerable when this government brags about job creation when so little has been done to alleviate the unemployment situation in Wollongong.

Also galling is the government's bragging about helping Australian families improve living standards, when plenty of research suggests that the gap between rich and poor is widening in this country. We only have to look at the recent report into poverty handed down by the other place for ample evidence of that. If anything, the federal government have turned their back on struggling families—and bills such as this one do not help. `Let the market decide' is the catchcry of the government's ideology and application to policy. They seem to believe that their approach has improved workplace relations for this country, when it has in fact only eroded pay and conditions for Australian workers.

The government also seems to believe that there have been positive flow-on effects for the community at large because of its approach to workplace relations. Once again, I fundamentally contest that claim. For the struggling families in my electorate of Cunningham, and indeed for my electorate at large, this government's approach has done very little. If anything, it has made life harder for many of those individuals whom it claims to serve. To see this we only have to look at the strike yesterday by general staff at the University of Wollongong, who are operating under federal awards and under enterprise bargaining. The workers there are working hard in the best interests of the university, the students, the region and their own families. Yet, because this government is pursuing award-stripping and is financially starving universities, they have been forced to take strike action. I support their efforts yesterday. But I cannot support this legislation, and I condemn the government for bringing it before us.