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Monday, 14 February 2005
Page: 123

Ms BIRD (8:53 PM) —The member for Fisher has outlined a series of what he calls `horror stories'. I can assure him that that cuts both ways. Indeed, many people in our community have a litany of horror stories to tell about being unfairly dismissed. That is why the Labor Party opposes the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2004. This bill, if passed by the Senate, will establish a two-tier employment relationship in Australia, which is untenable. It will provide protective laws for one group of Australian workers in the small business sector and a different set of non-protective laws for another group of Australians in the same businesses. The only thing that will set them apart is the date that this bill will receive royal assent.

But, as expected, this legislation follows a trend now firmly established by the Howard government. The government is ideologically committed to a two-tier Australia for everything. We see it in health care, education, telecommunications and infrastructure—the list goes on. Now we see it in industrial relations and small business.

The bill amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to protect small businesses from unfair dismissal claims. The bill proposes to prevent employees of small businesses from applying under the act for a remedy for an unfair dismissal and will require the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to order an application for unfair dismissal by a small business employee invalid if the commission is satisfied that the application is outside the jurisdiction of the commission. The commission would have such power to make such an order without holding a hearing. The bill defines a small business as a business with fewer than 20 employees, including any casual employees who have been engaged by the employer on a regular and systemic basis for at least a 12-month period and an employee whose employment was terminated.

This bill, despite numerous title changes to make it look more reasonable and respectable, has been rejected by the Senate each and every time it has been proposed. Last year it was meant to be the big issue, the important issue, for small business. The bill was introduced on 8 December last year, during the last 48 hours of sitting for that year.

It is said that the bill will provide small business with certainty. Let us be clear that what we are debating is the Howard government amending its own unfair dismissal laws, not the laws of former Labor governments. We are amending the laws of this government. This bill, like its manifestations in the past, is a political exercise. This bill is the same as those bills presented previously. It is unfair on small business workers. The minister's own words tell us how unfair this bill is. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations states:

This provision will only apply to the new employees of a small business. All existing employees who have access to unfair dismissal remedies in their current jobs will continue to do so.

The Australian Financial Review, on November 20 last year, let the secret out on the government's industrial relations agenda. The story was titled `Remember HR Nicholls? A new industrial relations agenda is born'. The story told us that Australia's big business representatives—and that is what they are; there is not a small business person among them—are circling the wagons of the Howard government. One member of the society anonymously told the Review:

They are pretty convinced that he—

that is, the Prime Minister—

is going to do nothing because of his natural `softly-softly' approach and they don't know whether Kevin Andrews has the intestinal fortitude.

The story, and its anonymous source, goes further:

How do we help this government from going down the route of Fraser and how do we make sure Kevin Andrews is supported in cabinet, because some of this stuff can get hard and could affect the government's electoral support?

It is true that such ideological obsessions can `get hard'. Making it easier to sack small business workers will affect the government's electoral support. The anonymous HR Nicholls Society member quoted by the Review at least has some political sense.

Let me be clear: nothing would give me greater pleasure than to campaign at the next election on this issue in my electorate. I would welcome the Prime Minister or the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations standing with me in Wollongong Mall—if they can ever work out where it is—and telling people that the great reform of the government was to make it easier to sack them. I have no fear in opposing this bill. The minister and others have loudly told the media that if Labor is to restore its economic credibility it has no choice but to pass this bill. I will not vote to pass a bill that makes it easier for an employer to sack a worker unfairly. This bill is a sop to big business and reflects the ideological baggage that the government carries around with it all hours of the day.

On 7 December 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a speech by Bishop Kevin Manning. The Bishop's speech, I am sure, would not have been missed by the minister. The Bishop said:

I can't imagine Justice Higgins entertaining the idea that a worker's right not to be unfairly dismissed depends on the size of the enterprise for which they work.

Bishop Manning revealed some personal experience of a niece sacked for refusing to work on Christmas Day. I thought, and business leaders have always told me, that working on Christmas Day was voluntary. Stories like this one from families and particularly from parents of young people who have experienced an unfair dismissal would be common—and I am sure they are—to the electorate officers of members on both sides of this House.

Debate interrupted.