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Monday, 14 February 2005
Page: 121

Mr SLIPPER (8:45 PM) —This is the third effort I have made in the House to complete this speech, having been interrupted by question time and the adjournment on two previous occasions. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal Reform) Bill 2004 has been much maligned and subjected to a campaign of vilification by members of the opposition. They are suggesting that there are draconian provisions in this bill—which, as most people in Australia appreciate, will simply encourage people to put on extra staff. This bill, if it becomes law, will create tens of thousands of extra jobs right around the country and give so many more Australians the opportunity of getting one foot on the employment ladder.

I just want to point out to the House that there are a number of very substantial safeguards which will remain for workers after the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal Reform) Bill 2004 passes into the law of this nation. The bill will not exclude employees of small businesses from the unfair termination provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. All small business employees, including casuals, fixed-term employees, trainees and probationary employees will still be able to bring an application in relation to a termination that is motivated by any of the prohibited grounds in the Workplace Relations Act. These prohibited grounds are: temporary absence from work because of illness or injury; trade union membership or participation in trade union activities; non-membership of a trade union; seeking office as, or acting or having acted in the capacity of, a representative of employees; the filing of a complaint or the participation in proceedings against an employer, involving alleged violation of laws or regulations or recourse to competent administrative authorities; race, sex, colour, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin; refusing to negotiate in connection with, make, sign, extend, vary or terminate an AWA; absence from work during maternity leave or other parental leave; and temporary absence from work because of the carrying out of a voluntary emergency management activity.

An aggrieved small business employee will also still be able to bring an application for unfair termination under the Workplace Relations Act where his or her employer has failed to provide the employee with the required period of notice or has failed to notify the relevant authorities in the case of a redundancy. Employers and employees will still be able to agree to workplace-specific termination rights and include these in certified agreements and AWAs. All employees will also retain the remedies available to them under the common law and under federal and state antidiscrimination legislation.

As I pointed out during earlier contributions to this debate, the re-introduction of the bill does provide a key opportunity for the Beazley opposition to prove that they have some economic credibility. Are they prepared to update their approach to the economy? Are they prepared to encourage job creation? Are they prepared to accept the verdict of the Australian people, as cast at the last election? Are they prepared to support this government in its absolute determination to deliver on the promise it made to the Australian people—namely, that the unfair dismissals law would be reformed and that businesses which employ fewer than 20 employees would be exempted from its draconian provisions?

I also pointed out earlier that this is the 41st attempt by this government to amend the unfair dismissals law. Yet, despite the fact that, come 1 July this year, the government through the support of the Australian people will have a majority in the Senate, we find that Labor continues its outdated and archaic opposition to the will of the Australian people as expressed at the election. It continues its opposition which, in effect, will condemn many more Australians to life on the dole queues. Really, the Australian people could not contemplate electing the Labor Party to office while the Labor Party has such an outdated and out-of-touch approach to economic reality.

We have a situation where we have a law on the statute books of this nation which discourages employers from putting on extra staff. The wife of the former shadow minister for small business, the member for Hunter, said that she was loath to actually put on extra staff because she was frightened of the unfair dismissals law. I think the member for Rankin said that he would be somewhat hesitant to put on staff because of the draconian provisions of this law. Every member of parliament would have had numerous examples cited to him or her of circumstances where people who really ought to be thrown out of the workplace in fact are able to mount either successful unfair dismissal claims or, alternatively, because it costs so much for a small business to defend against these claims, are able to extract a substantial amount of money from an employer as the price of the employer simply operating the business.

A couple of examples are worthy of note. Most small business employers would be familiar with an unfair dismissal horror story involving abuse of the current system. For example, one case involved a farm worker who was in a relationship with the farmer's stepdaughter and assaulted her. He was awarded reinstatement on the grounds that there was no `procedural fairness' when he was summarily dismissed a week after the alleged assault. Another case involved an employee who was serving a period of statutory probation as defined by the applicable award and had worked only eight days who, nonetheless, submitted an unfair dismissal claim, claiming $5,000 for `pain and suffering'. Although the application was clearly untenable and outside the jurisdiction of the commission, the employer had to spend 20 hours preparing for the hearing to have it struck out.

Another case involved an employer taking over a business and setting a new productivity target for an employee who he believed was underachieving. The employee objected to this request and resigned. On three occasions during the notice period the employer asked him to reconsider. He refused and then filed an application alleging that he was constructively dismissed. The employer was then subjected to the financial and time expenses of two conciliation conferences.

We have a situation where the Labor Party in office brought in the unfair dismissals law which, during the many years that it has been in operation, has cost many tens of thousands of Australians the opportunity of getting a job. The current situation indicates that unfair dismissals laws are costing Australia 77,000 jobs.

The government is very proud of the responsible approach we have taken with employment creation. We are proud that since 1996 we have created so many job opportunities for Australians, but we remain absolutely appalled, as do the Australian people, at the approach of the Labor Party, which refuses to give people the opportunity of getting a job. (Time expired)