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Thursday, 1 April 2004
Page: 27977

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (1:01 PM) —in reply—Increasing employment opportunity is the most effective way of ensuring that the needs of disadvantaged groups in our community are addressed. Further workplace relations reform will assist this by providing increased labour market flexibility, better productivity and enhanced employment outcomes overall. The measures proposed in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 will ensure that awards operate as a safety net of wages and conditions of employment and that they do not discourage enterprise bargaining. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will retain its key role in determining the award safety net.

The bill will remove from awards those matters most appropriately dealt with in agreements dealt with by state and territory legislation that should not be part of a safety net of terms and conditions and that hinder productivity and high workplace performance. The bill will also tighten the scope of some existing allowable award matters and clarify that certain matters are not within the scope of allowable award matters. In addition, the bill will clarify that provisions that are incidental to an award may only be included in an award where they are essential for the operation of that award. The commission will have 12 months to review all awards to check whether they contain provisions that would no longer be able to be included as allowable award matters.

The commission has made excellent progress on award simplification. The task before the commission in implementing these amendments will be nowhere near the scale and size of the original award simplification exercise. The bill will also provide that exceptional matters orders be made only by a full bench of the commission. Exceptional matters orders are a remedy of last resort to be used where there is no reasonable prospect of agreement being reached between the parties and where this lack of agreement would result in unfairness. If a dispute is of such complexity and importance that it merits an exceptional matters order, it deserves the experience of a full bench in order to reach a practical and lasting solution.

The purpose of the bill is to ensure that awards remain a fair safety net of minimum wages and conditions. However, awards should not and need not cover matters that are dealt with in other legislation, nor should they deal with matters that are more appropriately dealt with at the workplace level. Members opposite raised some specific points about the tightening of some of the allowable matters proposed in the bill. Firstly, in relation to skills based career paths, the government remains committed to improving the knowledge and skills of the Australian work force. However, the focus of the workplace relations system is now on enterprises and workplaces, with agreement making being the main form of determining pay and conditions.

The member for Rankin quoted from a recent Productivity Commission report, entitled Sources of Australia's productivity revival, as evidence that skills formation needed to be improved. The government agrees that we should be encouraging skills formation. However, on the following page, the report goes on to say that one of the reasons for the revival of Australia's productivity is:

Labour markets have become more flexible, particularly with greater focus on enterprise bargaining. As noted in this survey, there is a range of evidence that flexibility in labour markets has allowed work and organisational arrangements to be restructured and labour to be reallocated; and has facilitated the productive use of technology.

Promoting labour market flexibility is precisely what the government is seeking to achieve by removing skills based career paths from awards. By allowing employers and employees to respond quickly to changing skills needs and to develop training and education arrangements that meet the particular needs and circumstances of their workplace, rather than being tied to the one-size-fits-all industry based arrangements prescribed in awards, the government believes that skills formation will be boosted.

The bill does not propose to remove classifications of employees from the list of allowable matters. This will include definitions of the work to be done by each particular classification and the skills, competencies and qualifications required to perform that work. However, the government does not believe that awards should prescribe the training programs that employees need to undertake to obtain these skills and qualifications, nor should awards regulate the training regimes under which training is delivered. The formal vocational and education systems run by states and territories will be unaffected by this change. Training and education matters are best dealt with by the formal state and territory systems and supplemented by agreement between employers and employees at the workplace level through workplace agreements rather than being duplicated in awards.

Secondly, the bill does not make union picnic days a non-allowable matter per se. The bill simply ensures that awards only include those public holidays which state and territory governments have decided should be observed in their jurisdictions. Union picnic days, which do not fit this description, are outside the appropriate safety net of fair minimum standards, which awards represent. Thirdly, long service leave provisions in awards can be lengthy and confusing. They add considerable complexity to what should otherwise be simple documents. Legislation in every state and territory already provides for long service leave. The unnecessary duplication of long service leave provisions in awards can cause confusion and complication for employers as well as additional administrative costs. Removing a matter like long service leave from awards, where that matter is adequately dealt with through another form of legislation, is completely consistent with keeping the award system as a safety net of fair minimum terms and conditions.

Fourthly, legislation in each jurisdiction already makes provision for payments to jurors. This is consistent with the responsibility of states and territories for the regulation of their courts. If there are to be any changes made to the level of such payments, those changes should be made at the state and territory level and not be dealt with at the federal level through awards. The requirement to pay jury service make-up pay places a considerable burden on employers, who also incur the cost and uncertainty of temporarily replacing an employee on jury service. It is not appropriate for awards to require employers to pay allowances for non-work-related matters, and many awards do not in fact include jury service provisions. Payment for jury service are not standard across states and should not form part of the minimum safety net of terms and conditions to be included in federal awards.

Fifthly, the award simplification bill is about ensuring that the award safety net provides for fair minimum wages and conditions of employment and does not act as a disincentive to agreement making at the workplace level. When and how transfers from one type of employment to another should take place should not be set at the federal award level. These are matters more appropriately decided at the workplace level and according to its particular needs and circumstances. Prescribing how and when transfers from casual to permanent or full-time to part-time employment must occur will impose inflexible and inappropriate constraints on otherwise efficient workplaces and act as a disincentive to employers to create more jobs.

Members opposite and the member for Cunningham—who spoke prior to me in this debate—should remember that, since coming to office, this government has created the conditions for the creation of over 1.2 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has fallen nationally from 8.2 per cent to 5.9 per cent. The flexible and efficient workplace relations environment created by this government has played an important role in creating these employment opportunities.

The Labor Party has an ideological opposition to casual employment and makes hysterical claims about its incidence and effect. In fact, the growth in casual employment is a long-term trend and the growth has actually slowed in recent years compared to the growth when the Labor Party was last in office. Unlike the Labor Party, the government does not want a return to complicated 500-page awards which regulate every minute of every worker's day. In conclusion, the measures proposed in the bill will reinforce the role of awards as a safety net. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.