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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 50

Mr FAWCETT (12:55 PM) —As I rise to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007, I also want to draw to the attention of the House the fact that the opposition have only two members here to speak to this legislation. That is how much importance they place on it. The government has given them the courtesy of speaking without being interrupted throughout their speeches. In contrast, this morning has been absolutely racked by the opposition preventing the government from being able to speak to this bill without being interrupted. I think almost every speaker has been interrupted by the opposition. I just draw the attention of the House to the fact that in a democracy we should be able to speak about the issues and debate the ideas without resorting to those sorts of tactics and interruptions.

I want to speak about why this bill is being brought forward, about what the bill covers and about who will benefit from it. Predominantly, this bill has been brought forward because of the conflict of ideas being played out in Australia as we speak—in the media, in workplaces, in people’s homes and in community groups. What we are seeing is that we have one group who are assuming that everything is bad and that we need to restrict the majority of Australians and, in so doing, penalise the flexibility of workers, their families and employers to make arrangements that will suit them, that will enable the Australian economy and the Australian community to continue to develop, just because a few employers and employees do the wrong thing.

Contrast that with the approach of the government that says: ‘We trust and want to reward individuals for good behaviour and for good work, because in the vast majority of cases people do work together constructively. We want to put in place a framework that gives them the freedom to do that and to obtain the maximum benefit for families, for workers and for the businesses that at the end of the day provide the jobs that keep our economy going and that enable us to pay for the services and things that we wish to see—investments in education, infrastructure and defence.’

This battle of ideas has led to TV campaigns very much drawing on the fears that people have. It is interesting to note that in July last year the Daily Telegraph was the first of the media to come out and really highlight the fact that all of the ads that the ACTU had run had been discredited. So here we have an organisation—the ACTU—that has an Australia-wide reach, that has the potential all around Australia to find real cases of people who have been disadvantaged by the government’s changes to industrial relations laws, and the ones they chose to put on national television have all been discredited.

Time and again in this parliament the opposition have brought up cases in an attempt to show that people have been disadvantaged. I look particularly at one last year where workers at a Lufthansa subsidiary were offered the choice of an AWA or an existing collective agreement. But what was presented to the House and to the Australian public was that these people were being forced onto an agreement that was going to cut their conditions. What was not revealed to the House was that they had a choice. What was not revealed to the House was that there was up to a 16 per cent increase under a bonus scheme and that those workers stood to have around a 13 per cent increase in their take-home pay.

Just in case you happen to think that bonuses are not very fair, an analogous example is an agreement that the CFMEU put in place for Dunlop Bedding only the year before that. So we are seeing being presented to the Australian public a large degree of misinformation. That has caused a lot of fear. The most recent ads that have been flying around, which talk about percentages and statistics of agreements that do not include things like overtime, are the latest example of this. They show that side of agreement but they do not talk about the side of the agreement that helps people balance work and family. In my own electorate of Wakefield I am aware of people who have decided that they would rather have more flexibility in their work hours during the week so that they can meet obligations for either elderly parents or children, who they need to drop off and pick up from school and sport, and in return they will work on a weekend for normal-time pay. That arrangement enables them to balance work and family and to be in the workforce whereas under a strict award situation, where they are expected to work normal time or on the weekend for penalty rates, they would not be able to meet those obligations and so they would not be able to be back in the workforce. For those people, that is an advantage that helps them to be in the workforce, and a benefit to their family and to the broader society but that balance is not brought out in the ads.

Having said all that, the ads have been effective. The perception and the fear is out there and that is why government has acted to bring in another part of the framework to directly address that fear rather than have people say, ‘The ad says, “What about my 17-year-old?” ’, The reality that people are not listening to is that the 17-year-old is protected by the fact that he has to have an adult, his parent or guardian, to sign his workplace agreement, which never existed under the previous system, so there are more protections for them. People talk about low paid or unskilled workers not being able to negotiate or bargain. What they do not acknowledge is the fact that you can have the union bargain on your behalf if you wish to. People talk about the fact that it is take it or leave it but do not acknowledge the fact that under the old system, if the workplace had an award or an EBA, that was take it or leave it. You turned up, took what you were given and had no opportunity to bargain or discuss terms and conditions with your employer.

So what this change is looking to do is to say: ‘We hear that concern. We acknowledge that concern is out there.’ We still maintain that, as we look at this battle of ideas, we are better off to say that we will put in place a framework that frees up people to maximise opportunities for employees, employers and their families. For those who work against that, who disadvantage people, we will penalise them but we will set the vast majority free to get on with their lives and we will encourage and reward that behaviour as opposed to adopting the approach of restricting everybody, just to make sure that the few do not abuse the system.

A quorum having been called and the bells having been   rung—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hatton)—For the benefit of the member for Wakefield who made some comments about this at the start, page 268 of House of Representatives Practice says there are two general principles that are operative here in relation to a quorum. First:

it is not the duty of the Chair to count the House until attention has been drawn by a Member to the state of the House—

Thankfully; otherwise no-one would ever get heard in the place. Second:

when attention is drawn, the Chair is obliged to make a count or have a count made.

Mr McArthur interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Corangamite will not reflect upon the Chair. The Chair is simply carrying out his duties, as is required by this House.

Mr FAWCETT —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I recognise your remarks about you carrying out your duties in accordance with the procedures and I appreciate that. My comments are directed mainly to members of the opposition who are hypocritical in their application of this order because they never call a quorum upon their own speakers when there are only one or two addressing the same topic. My constituents have voted for me to come here, to represent them and to be their voice in this parliament. The actions of the opposition are to essentially hold a stop-work meeting, which is stopping the process of democracy so that we cannot have a fair and informed debate about something that impacts on the lives of all Australians.

Ms Hall interjecting

Mr FAWCETT —Even now, as I am speaking, the opposition are interjecting and trying to cut off the opportunity for this debate. I will use the words ‘work choices’ because Work Choices is legislation that this government brought in to benefit Australian families, Australian workers and the Australian economy. It is disappointing that, despite the many benefits of these changes, there has been such a negative fear campaign focused on only one or two elements of them. What people do not recognise through these fear campaigns is the broad structural changes that have given us a national system of industrial relations. It is a system that has given us choice. Unlike the Labor Party, this legislation actually provides for freedom of association. It offers a choice of AWAs, union collective agreements, non-union collective agreements, union greenfields agreements or employer greenfields agreements. It enables unions to be parties to collective agreements. It enables union officials to be bargaining agents for employees. It maintains the rights of union officials to enter workplaces and it maintains the rights for unions to take lawful industrial action. I have to tell you, not all of those choices and not all of those rights exist under what is being proposed by the opposition.

Some of the commentary that is appearing in the media now highlights that the broad structural changes and the details about even these areas in question are benefiting Australian society in terms of the number of jobs created and the number of long-term unemployed who are now able to move into the workplace. That is because employers, for the first time in a long time, have the confidence to say, ‘We’ll give this person a shot, we’ll give them a chance at a job, because we know if it doesn’t work out that we can make other arrangements,’ as opposed to leaving that person in the long-term unemployment queue for even longer.

So what is this fairness test? The fairness test is a structure that we are putting in place basically to reassure people that the vast majority of employers are doing the right thing. It means that there will be an independent umpire who reviews workplace agreements to make sure that employees receive fair compensation whenever that agreement removes or modifies protected award conditions, such as penalty rates or overtime loadings—which have been the focus of much of the fear campaign that has been put out there. The starting point would generally be monetary compensation, and that would equate to things like the agreement I spoke about earlier, at the subsidiary of Lufthansa, which put in place a bonus scheme where, under the AWA, people in fact had the potential to earn significantly more money than they did under their collective agreement.

But it is not necessarily just monetary things that people are looking for. I alluded before to the example of those people of Wakefield who I know have been happy to say, ‘I’ll work under conditions that don’t have overtime payments, on a weekend, because that gives me flexibility during the week.’ If they are happy to sign up for something like that and say to the independent umpire, ‘Yes, if the flexibility means being able to balance my work and family life, being able to pick up my children from school or sport or to care for my elderly relatives, I’m happy to work on a weekend with no overtime,’ then that is an agreement that they should be able to make with their employer without a third party coming in and saying that that is unfair. The Workplace Authority will be able to conduct the fairness test and say, ‘This has been offered, you’ve accepted, and we recognise that that is fair,’ even though the monetary advantage is not there.

The fairness test will cover employees with a base salary of under $75,000 on an Australian workplace agreement and it will cover all collective agreements. This also gives some certainty to people who come in to work for the larger chain stores, for example. People often talk about the fast food industry, concerned about what might be offered to young people. Because the agreements will have to be certified as fair, there is higher degree of certainty that what will be offered to a young person is not going to disadvantage them.

This fairness test is really the government saying that what we have put in place has provided advantage to the whole Australian economy—more jobs, more people in work. We recognise and we hear that there is concern in the community because of the fear campaign that has been put out there. So this test is us responding to that in an appropriate way—not to limit freedom, not to limit the endeavours of small businesses who have often gone out on a limb and invested their own time and money to create the opportunity for other people to work. We are addressing this fear and concern by putting in place a framework that guarantees these conditions so that we will get the benefits that were the intent and, in practice, the outcomes of the Work Choices legislation. We are putting in place a framework to address the fear that has arisen in much of the Australian public because of the very misleading campaign that has been run by the ACTU and the Labor Party.

That brings me to my last point, on choice. Who do the Australian people want to choose to be speaking here? Who do they want to choose to run the country in the future? A government that is prepared to take the hard decisions that have made a significant difference. For example, GST—that was a significant decision, a significant change in the way that Australia collected revenue, and it was criticised by members opposite who said it was a day that would go down in history as being the undoing of modern Australian society. Yet now there is not a state government in this country that would seek to reverse the GST system because of the significant growth and revenue base it has given them to deliver things like health care, education and policing under the state system. So, despite the criticisms that this government has received, it has been prepared to take those hard decisions.

This industrial relations decision recognises the fact that, in the private sector workforce, some 85 per cent of people are not members of a union. They have recognised in practice that they can negotiate with their employer, they can be an independent contractor and the majority of employers are looking to do the right thing, particularly with the ageing of the population, as we face a shortage of not only skilled workers but even unskilled workers. In the area of Virginia and in the manufacturing areas of Elizabeth and Salisbury in South Australia, I am speaking to employers who are looking for more workers. I passed a packing shed the other day in Virginia and they had a sign out the front saying: ‘Stop! Workers required.’ Now, these employers are going to do the right thing by their workers because they need them. If you are a market gardener, you cannot actually plant a crop if you do not know whether you will have workers to harvest the crop, particularly crops that are time sensitive; for example, some of the organically certified crops are very time sensitive for harvesting. So those employers will do the right thing by their employees.

So this government is seeking to empower the majority of Australian people, who are fair and decent people, both employers and employees, to get on with running their businesses and growing the wealth of this nation which enables us to fund the health and education systems we have as well as balance work and family. We are not seeking to impose the view of a very small group—and I note again that union membership in the private sector is only 15 per cent, yet they dominate the Australian Labor Party. Later this year, if the Australian public choose the Australian Labor Party to govern this country, they are in essence going to be choosing the union movement to govern this country again, with all of the thuggery that goes along with that, with the restriction of choice and the lack of freedoms that have extended well into our history and that have caused some of the worst disputation and loss of productivity we have seen. I support this bill and I commend it to the House.