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Wednesday, 9 November 2005
Page: 40

Mr MELHAM (11:45 AM) —I rise to oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and to support the second reading amendment moved by the honourable member for Perth, Mr Smith. The second reading amendment says:

“the House declines to give the bill a second reading, because the House condemns the Government—

and then it goes on for some pages. I want to quote particular subsections as follows:

(d)   for creating an industrial relations system that is extreme, unfair and divisive;

…            …            …

(h)   for attacking the living standards of Australian employees and their families by removing the ‘no disadvantage test’ from collective and individual agreements;

(i)   by allowing employees to be forced onto unfair Australian Workplace Agreements as a condition of employment;

(j)   for abolishing annual wage increases made by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for workers under Awards with the objective of reducing the Minimum Wage in real terms, and by removing the requirement that fairness be taken into account in the calculation of the Minimum Wage;

…            …            …

(l)   for undermining family life by proposing to give employers the power to change employees’ work hours without reasonable notice;

…            …            …

(q)   for denying Australian employees the capacity to bargain collectively with their employer for decent wages and conditions;

(r)   for denying individuals the right to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation;

(s)   for allowing individual contracts to undermine the rights of Australian workers under collective agreements and Awards, for instance by eliminating penalty rates, shift loadings, overtime and holiday pay and other Award conditions;

(t)   for removing from almost 4 million employees any protection from unfair dismissal;

…            …            …

(w)   for proposing to jail union representatives or fine them up to $33,000 if they negotiate to include health and safety, training and other clauses in agreements;

There are a number of other subsections to the second reading amendment, but those I have just read summarise a lot of my objections to this obnoxious legislation. It staggers me that a government that has been four times elected by the Australian electorate, and that a Prime Minister who, when he was first elected, said that he would govern for all of us and who has no doubt received electoral support from Australian workers right across the spectrum, would bring such legislation into being now that they fortuitously control both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Why are they doing it? Pure ideology. This is something the Prime Minister has wanted all his adult life. In fairness, he has not changed his views. But my criticism is that there was no specific mandate sought for these changes from the Australian electorate at the last election.

That aside, I do not believe these changes are good for the Australian electorate. They are going to further divide our work force. I am not so much concerned for the articulate members of the work force, people on high incomes who have the capacity to negotiate on their own behalf. My concern is for casual employees—and there are more casuals in the work force now than ever before, courtesy of the casualisation that has taken place under this government—young male and female students, migrant women and people on poor wages; people who, without a union arguing on their behalf, will be helpless. They will be left at the hands of unscrupulous employers, and let us not kid ourselves: there are employers out there who are unscrupulous.

This will shift more profits to the bosses. This is not about protecting existing conditions or protecting existing workers. Individual workers will have less to bargain with. I support collective bargaining; I always have. In a free market economy, why shouldn’t workers be able to collectively bargain? Why are we tying hands behind backs on one side of the equation but not the other? This legislation gives bosses a free kick. I joined a union when I was working in my local pub and local club when I was working my way through university, and the union looked after our conditions. We had reasonable conditions, but it was only as a result of being able to be in a collective bargaining situation.

Now we have a government that is actually regulating against one sector of the community. It is regulating against those people who wish to belong to unions and who wish to have unions organise on their behalf. The government cannot say that they will allow people to still do that. As I look through this legislation, I see clause after clause where there are provisions for imprisonment or pecuniary penalties, monetary penalties, if certain behaviour is engaged in.

One that strikes me is that the identity of parties to AWAs is not to be disclosed. That is on page 59 of the bill in section 83BS, which says:

Identity of parties to AWAs not to be disclosed

(1)   A person commits an offence if:

(a)   the person discloses information; and

(b)   the information is protected information; and

(c)   the discloser has reasonable grounds to believe that the information will identify another person as being, or having been, a party to an AWA; and

(d)   the disclosure is not made by the discloser in the course of performing functions or duties as a workplace agreement official; and

(e)   the disclosure is not required or permitted by this Act, by another Act, by regulations made for the purposes of another provision of this Act or by regulations made for the purposes of another Act; and

(f)   the person whose identity is disclosed has not, in writing, authorised the disclosure.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 6 months.

That forces secrecy into the workplace in relation to AWAs. That can only be to the benefit of the employer; it is designed to nobble the employee.

A number of other provisions are worth recounting. In the explanatory memorandum at pages 203 to 207, under the headings ‘New Division 10—Prohibited conduct’ and ‘New section 104’, we see ‘Coercion and duress’. The explanatory memorandum outlines coercion in relation to industrial action but notes that it is not coercion for an employer to require an employee to make an AWA. In other words, as it states it is not coercion for an employer to require an employee to make an AWA, we can take it that employers can coerce employees to make an AWA. That is deemed not to be coercion. Why is that provision there? In effect, it is there to favour the employer at the expense of the employee.

The bill has other provisions; one I particularly want to go to is the right of entry. That is explained at page 363 of the explanatory memorandum. We now have complex rules for the right of entry, including defining a ‘fit and proper person’. We find that a permit may not be issued to an official if they are not deemed ‘fit and proper’; in addition, they must never have been convicted of an offence. Those conditions also apply to the official’s organisation. My worry is that that particular part of the legislation is genuinely aimed at unions and their ability to enter the workplace and is more a preventive provision.

In addition, it empowers the AIRC to deal with abuses of the right of entry system. I have no problem with abuses being picked up in legislation; I think that is important. I am not one to stand in the parliament and say that unions have not been guilty of poor conduct in the past; they have. I do not seek to defend poor conduct—and I do not seek to defend poor conduct on the part of employees. But I never cease to be amazed at the double standards of some on the other side who paint a rosy picture of employers. Not all employers do the right thing by their employees or have decent work practices. Amongst conditions of employment, a number of issues relating to health and safety are questionable when it comes to employers. I am worried about this particular legislation because it seems to be all one way. It has this rosy picture of employers.

As I said earlier, my concern is for that class of employees who are vulnerable, whose first language might not be English and who do not have the capacity to do an AWA, on their own behalf, with their employer. I do not believe that we should have the situation where you take the agreement or you get the sack. The government has already extended its unfair dismissal laws for companies with up to 100 employees but that figure was not the one they used before the election. There is no doubt that the government is using its fortuitous majority in the upper house to bring in this sort of legislation.

I believe that, at the end of the day, this legislation will come back to haunt the government. I do not want to see us go down the American path. I think Australia has a reasonable history. In Australia, in the period of the Hawke-Keating governments, industrial disputes were at an all-time low and wages did not increase to the level that some employees and others would have liked, but that was because there were trade-offs. The accord saw superannuation, child care and other things brought into play as part of the total package of an employee’s remuneration. So it was not just totally about wage increases; other conditions were considered by government at that time.

This government has been fortunate. We talk about the unwinnable 1993 election, but this government won the 1996 election and was left with a good economy. Part of the reason it won the 1996 election was that John Howard campaigned at that time by arguing for minimal change. He did not go to the electorate proposing a radical alternative government.

This is a very radical bill. It is a huge change to existing practices, and some of it will take time to filter through. The government will tell you that the bill will improve the lot of workers, but I am not sure of that; I do not believe that is the thrust of the bill. It is not about improving the lot of workers; it is about shifting profits to the bosses’ side of the equation; it is about making it easier to terminate someone’s employment. My view is that it will be a dog-eat-dog situation in the workplace, and that will create some problems for the economy.

I am interested to see whether there is any evidence that those on the other side of the House can produce that will show that this is going to lead to an increase in productivity. I am not sure that there is. This is not being done on the basis of increased productivity; it is being done on the basis of ideology. Proposed section 101D states:

The regulations may specify matters that are prohibited content for the purposes of this Act.

The WorkChoices booklet specifies such prohibited content on page 23. It states:

Clauses that cannot be included in agreements are those:

Prohibiting AWAs;

Restricting the use of independent contractors or on-hire arrangements;

Allowing for industrial action during the term of an agreement;

That provide for trade union training leave, bargaining fees to trade unions or paid union meetings;

Providing that any future agreement must be a union collective agreement;

Mandating union involvement in dispute resolution;

Providing a remedy for unfair dismissal; and

Other matters proscribed by regulation/legislation

The final cruncher is the new section 112, which allows ministerial declarations terminating bargaining periods. As I understand section 112A(4), there are pecuniary penalties for not complying of 300 penalty units for a body corporate and 60 penalty units for a person. My understanding is that this applies to all agreements. We have a minister that can rock up to any agreement and declare termination of the bargaining period.

There is no point telling the government that they should rethink their legislation; this legislation is going to pass basically unamended. I understand Senator Joyce might have some concerns, but by negotiation he will end up supporting the bill, like he did on Telstra. At the end of the day, sadly, the government will get their way and workers in this country are going to suffer unnecessarily—some of whom, frankly, voted for this government. It is going to be up to us, when we come back to office, to repair the damage.

This is going to wreak damage on the vulnerable, the dispossessed and those lower paid workers who do not have the capacity to organise on their behalf. In a capitalist, free-market system, I find it interesting that the party of the free market are, in effect, saying they will not allow a free market. They are going to tie the hands of some employees behind their backs. They are going to make it harder for you to bargain and harder for you to achieve fair pay. Why? Because you are on the wrong side. With this legislation, the government has come down fairly and squarely on the side of the employers. This legislation is not about looking after the workers. The government does not even pretend to be fair in this situation. (Time expired)