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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 58

Mr BARRESI (1:33 PM) —I was not sure where the member for Grayndler was going with his speech on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. He was going through all the ills and sins of the fairness test amendment the government is introducing today. I thought he may surprise me by saying he is going to vote against it. Right at the end, after spending most of the time allocated to him decrying these changes and the need for them, he came out and said he will support it. I thank the member for Grayndler for clarifying the total confusion but, of course, that is typical of the Australian Labor Party. There is constant confusion about the Labor Party’s position on industrial relations. We have yet to see from those opposite a policy that lasts longer than a week or so. Labor’s dangerous industrial relations policies are a real threat to jobs, to wages growth and to the nation’s ongoing economic security. We have a dangerous industrial relations policy as a result of their movement, which is all over the place, on this policy area. Of course, they are waiting each time to ensure they get the tick off from the union movement outside this place.

I rise today to speak on this important reform of the workplace relations system, particularly the introduction of the stronger safety net. The fairness test, which is at the heart of this bill, strikes a real balance between the needs of a flexible labour market system that responds to the competitive forces in our economy and the needs of individuals for personal security when they enter into the negotiation process. I have spoken in the past about the importance of building a modern and flexible industrial relations system. This is vital to ensuring our nation’s long-term prosperity. I know that members on the other side have made the same statement. There is a bit of commonality around that statement, but we differ of course on the approach for how to get there. We certainly believe that, in building such a system, it is important that a strong, responsible safety net is in place to further strengthen the negotiation process between working Australians and their employers.

The Australian economy is going through a period of unprecedented growth and expansion and the reforms of the past 10 years have meant that more Australians than ever before have jobs—and, most importantly, have higher wages. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Labour market reform is vital to ensuring that we lock in this prosperity for the long term. Since the first workplace reforms were introduced in 1996, real wages have grown by 19.8 per cent according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Furthermore, since March 2006, which is only about 15 months ago, when Work Choices came in, more than 300,000 new jobs have been created, with wages growth continuing at around 4.1 per cent for those in the workforce. The need for this legislation has already been spoken about by the minister and the Prime Minister.

I would like to pay tribute for a few minutes to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Hon. Joe Hockey. The minister has shown a great deal of competence, understanding and, more importantly, a willingness to engage with businesses and employees around the country. I have accompanied him on some of his visits—not on all of them, but on some. This visitation program has been pivotal. During these visits we heard from employees and employers. We heard of employees moving from casual to full-time employment because of the ability to go into a flexible workplace arrangement with their employers. Thanks to these visits, we are now seeing changes taking place as a result of the minister listening to what has been said. I would like to thank him as well for his visit to Victoria, and particularly his visit out to Deakin just prior to these changes being announced. That visit, in particular, down to Victoria certainly provided great impetus for introducing these changes. (Quorum formed) There is one thing about those on the other side: they cannot escape those traits from their union movement days. In the past they called people out onto the grass. We do not have grass here; we have carpet. But they are still calling everybody out. Ring the bell and get them out here. I thank the Chief Opposition Whip for giving me an audience.

The fairness testing arrangements introduced in this bill will provide a stronger safety net for the majority of working Australians. It is a safety net that promotes fairness whilst retaining the flexibility that has helped produce the conditions that we have today—conditions such as a 33-year low in unemployment, which now sits at 4.4 per cent and in some parts of my electorate is even lower. We have the lowest level of strike action since 1913. Of course, as I mentioned earlier on, we have seen real wages growth of over 19 per cent since 1996. The test within this bill means that fair compensation and security is provided to employees where protected conditions such as penalty rates and overtime are modified in a workplace agreement. I thought that was what the other side wanted: fair compensation and security to be given to employees when trading away penalty rates and other conditions. Of course we know that the ACTU—and this comes straight out of Greg Combet’s mouth—has entered into these sorts of negotiations in the past, where compensation has been given for trading away penalty rates, overtime and other traditional award conditions. I would have thought that this measure would have had universal support from those on the other side. So when I hear the member for Lalor saying that this amendment only goes 99 per cent of the way I am confused by that statement, because she obviously has not read the full implications of this bill.

The amendments will be welcomed by many constituents who live in my electorate of Deakin in Melbourne, particularly those who have argued for a safety net and an enforcement regime. The new arrangements mean that people earning under $75,000 per annum base pay will be able to have their employment arrangements scrutinised by the Workplace Authority in order that they receive fair monetary or non-monetary equivalent compensation. These changes mean that the personal circumstances of both the employer and the employee will be taken into account. Working families can take into account their outside of work responsibilities when negotiating new employment agreements—a condition, I might add, that has always been in place. This bill certainly reinforces that provision. It expands choice and flexibility to those who have been forced to work under inflexible awards and collective agreements. This flexibility has been further underwritten by creating a cop on the beat in the form of the Workplace Authority. I would have thought that members of the public listening to this debate, those who have had some concerns and have been scared off by the union movement’s fear campaign, would welcome the fact that there will be 600 new workplace assessors ensuring that the right thing is done by the employee. No-one, I would have thought, on either side would want to see a situation where a rogue employer is allowed to get away with abusing employment arrangements—whether it be by 2c or by 45c. We do not want to see that sort of situation. Those employers certainly do not deserve to have employees employed under  such conditions.

The powers of the Workplace Authority will be to provide advice to employers and employees on how to make an agreement fair for both parties. This needs to take place within 14 days. Importantly, if the agreement fails to meet the fairness test within the 14-day period it will become null and void and revert to the pre-existing agreement. If there is no agreement, it will revert to a default award which will then come into effect. The Workplace Authority will have the power to strike down contracts if they do not meet the fairness test conditions. I think this would be a welcome provision in these amendments by those on the other side.

The protection of penalty rates will also be a key component of the new fairness test. If the employer and employee agree to a trade off without an obvious monetary value, the new independent umpire, the Workplace Authority, must be satisfied that the compensation is of significant value to the employee and their individual needs. This is not too dissimilar to the way that it has operated in the past through the Industrial Relations Commission.

The Workplace Ombudsman will replace the Office of Workplace Services. The Office of Workplace Services, in its brief 15-month history, has represented employees in fine style. Since March 2006 it has contacted 46,600 workplaces, undertaken over 2,000 workplace audits, lodged or completed 37 litigations against employers and recovered over $10 million in employee entitlements on behalf of 6,300 employees. This office has been an office of real power and that power will be boosted even more through these amendments. The fairness test will build off these strengths and ensure that: the general public have real confidence in a system that provides the flexibility demanded by modern nations while still providing protection to the vulnerable, the young and employees coming back into the workforce after a number of years absence; an employer cannot dismiss an employee because an agreement fails or may fail the fairness test—and that is part of the protection; an employer cannot coerce an existing employee to modify or remove a protected award condition—if they do, the Workplace Authority will certainly come down and strike the agreement out; and an employer would pay any compensation which the employee is entitled to within a specified time limit—compensation that the employee values, in answer to the member for Grayndler’s comment during his contribution.

The great irony of this debate is that the Labor Party is not offering a fairer, more flexible system. The Labor Party is offering a dangerous industrial relations policy—a policy that is a danger to jobs, jobs growth, wages growth and, as I said earlier, ongoing economic prosperity. This party which, according to its spin doctors, cares about working conditions, even forgot to add a minimum wage to its 10 minimum conditions—the member for Lalor spoke about what Labor’s policy will be—now making it 11 minimum conditions. But then again, I am confused whether it is 11 because only yesterday in an opinion piece by the member for Lalor in the Age, she said:

Labor supports a real safety net. Ten legislated minimum conditions ...’

I ask: is it 10 or is it 11? Each day there seems to be more and more confusion with those on the other side. The deceptiveness and short-sightedness of the ALP’s claims to be the workers’ friends have been shown up by their insistence that, despite supporting this bill, if they come into office they will abolish the fairness test provisions, showing that their posturing today is simply hollow rhetoric. You either support the bill or you do not. If you do not think that it is worth it, why are you going to support the bill later on this afternoon when we come to the vote?

The Labor Party’s industrial relations policy was sold out to the ACTU. The price for the sale was $100 million. The member for Holt may laugh, but he knows as well as I do that, if he breaks that down, $20 million of the $100 million has been set aside for 20 seats. We know that they are cashed up. I dread to be a constituent in the next election who goes to the letter box and opens it. There will be a flood of mail coming out. Based on the $20 million—$1 million per federal electorate for the 20 electorates that have been chosen by those on the other side. They have sold out to the ACTU. For this price, unions will have unprecedented access to workplaces. It is going back to the bad days of bullying and standover tactics in the workplace.

We only have to listen to words from the mouths of those in the union movement. A senior union official—I think it was Greg Combet; I apologise if it was not—said, ‘We used to run Australia and it would be great to go back to those days.’ Dean Mighell from the ETU, whose official is standing for my seat, said that it would be fun to play around with employers. These are words from the union movement. They are basically saying that we are going back to the old days. Kevin Reynolds from Western Australia said that he would like to see a situation, with the abolition of the Building Construction Commission, where once again he is in charge. Labor’s own policy document reinforces the message that the union movement will be back in town—that is why their industrial relations policy is a danger to the Australian nation—but it says nothing about union rights of entry to businesses. From this glaring omission in their own policy document we can only assume that access by the union movement to businesses will be unlimited. Page 14 of their policy document, Forward with fairness, states:

Under Labor’s System, bargaining participants will be free to reach agreement on whatever matters suit them.

With unlimited access to the workplace under Labor, there will be no limit on what the union bosses can demand to be in agreements.

This is the kind of industrial environment that we are basically going to go back to. Under Labor, there will be no limit on what union bosses can demand to be in agreements. ‘No ticket, no start’ will be back. Unions will be able to demand that only union members be employed at a business. And they will be making demands about deductions from employees’ wages, restrictions on the use of contractors or labour hire arrangements, paid leave to attend union training and union meetings—all the things which have stifled businesses in the past will come back. There will be unlimited union right of entry and the encouragement of people through various means to take up union membership and, of course, the return to the dreaded unfair dismissal provisions.

Labor has said it will support the government’s proposed amendments to outlaw union bargaining fees which give unions the power to collect fees from workers who have chosen not to be union members. However, we cannot trust these words. How can we trust Labor when their own policy document, Forward with fairness, states:

A Rudd Labor Government will also remove the Government’s onerous, complex and legalistic restrictions on agreement content.

Labor will be introducing bargaining fees once again. (Time expired)