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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 8


Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:30 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The government is committed to reintroducing legislation that has previously not been passed by the parliament. We are committed to continuing our workplace relations reform agenda to ensure that the Australian economy continues to grow and our record of low unemployment is maintained.

Our workplace relations agenda is underpinned by a focus on direct employer-employee relationships at the workplace level with minimum third party intervention. We consider it essential to a modern, growing economy that workplace bargaining be the primary mechanism for employers and employees to establish wages and conditions.

The overwhelming majority of Australian employees in the federal workplace relations system are now employed under enterprise or workplace agreements—whether individual or collective.

We are reintroducing this bill to facilitate the use of workplace bargaining processes, to make them more user-friendly and as fair as possible.

No industrial action before expiry of agreement

This bill clarifies that no industrial action can take place during the life of an agreement. We consider that protected industrial action should not be available during the life of an agreement. Parties should stick to their agreements and use dispute resolution provisions within agreements to deal with disagreements during the life of an agreement.

Cooling-off periods

During protracted disputes, parties often lose sight of their original objectives. Cooling-off periods allow negotiating parties to step back from industrial conflict and refocus on reaching a solution which works for both the employer and employees in question.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission currently cannot order a cooling-off period in the case of a protracted dispute. Although the commission has used provisions under the Workplace Relations Act to order de facto cooling-off periods in particularly difficult bargaining disputes, it is not able to do this in all situations where a cooling-off period may benefit the parties.

Accordingly, the bill will allow the commission to suspend the bargaining period for a period of cooling-off if it would assist the parties in resolving the issues in dispute. The duration of a cooling-off period is a matter for the commission’s discretion. The commission would be able to extend the cooling-off period once only, on application of a negotiating party, and after giving other negotiating parties the opportunity to be heard. In ordering or extending a cooling-off period, the commission must inform the negotiating parties that they may have the matters in dispute privately mediated or conciliated by the commission.

Suspensions by third parties

Industrial action can have a significant impact upon, or aim to harm, third parties who are not directly involved in a dispute—for example, clients of health or community services, educational institutions and other businesses.

Currently, there is no scope for third parties to apply to the commission for relief from threatened or ongoing significant harm due to industrial action occurring during a bargaining period. The commission can provide indirect relief to third parties in limited circumstances, but only through the commission’s own initiative or on application by the minister or a negotiating party.

This bill would allow the commission to suspend a bargaining period for a specified period on application by, or on behalf of, an organisation, person or body directly affected by the industrial action, other than a negotiating party or the minister. Such a suspension may be extended in a similar manner to extension of cooling-off periods under the bill.

The commission would be required to consider a number of factors to determine whether a suspension is appropriate, including whether the action is threatening to cause significant harm to any person other than a negotiating party. Again, the commission would be required to inform the negotiating parties of opportunities for voluntary mediation or conciliation by the commission.

This measure is important in protecting third parties who are not directly involved in a dispute, while still maintaining existing rights of employees to take industrial action.

Industrial action taken in concert is unprotected

At times, unions have attempted to orchestrate industry-wide bargaining by conducting negotiations across a range of employers or an industry, rather than conducting negotiations through individual enterprises. This is contrary to the objects of the Workplace Relations Act, which seek to enshrine genuine agreement-making between employers and employees at the individual workplace or enterprise level.

Accordingly, this bill will clarify that industrial action is unprotected action where it is taken in concert with employees of different employers.

Protected action and related corporations

Likewise, the bill also provides that two or more employers cannot be treated as a single employer for the purpose of identifying certain action as protected action.

Conclusion

This bill is essentially the same as the bill previously introduced in 2003. It does not, however, include previous amendments concerning protected action for claims not related to the employment relationship, as this issue was addressed by passage of the government’s Workplace Relations Amendment (Agreement Validation) Act 2004.

This bill recognises that the government’s reforms thus far have brought benefits to the Australian economy—more jobs, better wages, higher productivity, increased competitiveness and fewer strikes. This bill will facilitate bargaining between parties in dispute and ensure that the resulting positive impact on the Australian economy is maintained.

I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr McClelland) adjourned.