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Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Page: 870

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Employment Participation) (11:54 AM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 and to speak against the proposed amendment to be moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I say firstly that this is a fundamental bill. This is the beginning of the end of Work Choices and is a reflection of the people’s will. This represents the mandate that the Labor government was provided with to enact legislation to repeal Work Choices. I am very happy, indeed proud, to be at the dispatch box to speak to this particular matter.

When Labor published its workplace relations policy, Forward with Fairness, in April last year, it made a foundation promise to abolish Work Choices. This bill marks the beginning of the end for Work Choices. As well as preventing the drafting of any new AWAs, this transition bill will make other amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 1996—including allowing existing users of AWAs to make individual transitional employment agreements during the transitional period up until 31 December next year—and introduce a genuine no disadvantage test for individual transitional employment agreements and new collective agreements. It will also enable the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to modernise the awards.

The bill also repeals the requirement for employers to provide a copy of the Work Choices workplace relations fact sheet to their employees. Of course, as we know and as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in question time, this was a pointless yet extravagant exercise that required companies to distribute government propaganda at the expense of the taxpayer. After the forest of other pamphlets and the plague of mouse boards, we will now remove the capacity for taxpayers’ money to be spent on such an outrageous waste.

A more substantial workplace relations bill will be introduced into the parliament later this year to ensure the government’s new fair, flexible and productive workplace relations systems will be fully operational by 1 January 2010. Once operational, the workplace relations system under a Rudd government will not include AWAs or any other statutory individual employment agreement. Working families have agreed with Labor’s view that they are entitled to a safety net of 10 National Employment Standards. Having listened to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, I can see she has no concern with that particular part of the government’s intention. I listened to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and in 30 minutes we had a meagre amendment proposed and nothing else. It was like I was listening to someone who wanted to rationalise Work Choices but vote for this bill—that is, put up a minor amendment, not insist on it and effectively accept the view of the government that we need to fundamentally change the law that exists. Those 10 basic employment conditions include maximum weekly hours of work, requests for flexible work arrangements—which, of course, denies the assertion made by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that there will not be flexibility—parental leave and related entitlements, annual leave, personal carer’s and compassionate leave, community service leave, long service leave, public holidays, notice of termination, redundancy pay and a fair work information statement that must be provided to employees.

This bill is a reflection of Labor policy and the will of the Australian people. As chair of Labor’s industrial relations task force and shadow parliamentary secretary for workplace relations last year, this bill is a great moment for me and indeed a great moment for this country. Over the last two years I spent much of my time travelling around and visiting 60 electorates, hearing directly the concerns of working families about how Work Choices had begun to erode their employment conditions and threaten their job security. I heard from administrative workers who were sacked after 20 years of loyal, effective and competent service for no reason and with no compensation. I met young workers in retail, tourism and hospitality who were forced to work 12-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday with no penalty rates and no overtime. This was done legally.

Mr Robert interjecting

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —I see the member opposite laughing at the fact that young workers were affected by Work Choices.

Mr Robert —What wage increase did they get?

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —When he gets his opportunity, he can get up on his hind legs and tell us why he is in a party that supported Work Choices. The fact is that there was the capacity to do that legally; employers were able to do that to very vulnerable workers. Indeed, in a House of Representatives employment committee inquiry last year—and I was in attendance at this meeting—a peak employer representative said, without any shame or any concern at all, that the great thing about Work Choices was that it made lawful all previous employment breaches that were illegal in the hospitality industry.

Mr Robert —What is his name?

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —The man said this in answer to a question, and it is in the transcript. I will find the transcript if you want me to embarrass this man. I can assure the member opposite that he said that the great thing about Work Choices is that it made legal what had been illegal in the hospitality industry. For me, that sums up Work Choices—a law that sanctions actions that were considered by earlier governments, Labor and conservative, as illegal.

Interestingly, and underlining the decency in most people, the people who spoke with me around the country in every state and territory were less worried about the loss of their own employment, their own employment security and their own employment rights and more worried about the effects that Work Choices would have on their children, their grandchildren and people they had never met. This is in stark contrast to the admission made this week by the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who said that many cabinet ministers of the Howard government were not aware of the adverse effects of Work Choices. We are supposed to believe that the cabinet ministers of the former government were not aware of the adverse effects of Work Choices. This beggars belief. I know the previous government was out of touch, but for me to believe that cabinet ministers did not know the effects of Work Choices would have me conclude that they were incompetent beyond belief or insensitive to the concerns of ordinary working Australians.

Mr Farmer interjecting

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —The member opposite should know that. The member who represents Western Sydney should know how many constituents of his were adversely affected by Work Choices. But, of course, he does not live there anymore, does he. He has gone to North Sydney. I understand where the shadow minister has moved to. I have been to his electorate. I went to his electorate for a launch of Green Corp; he did not turn up, I noticed.

Mr Farmer —Did you invite me?

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —I did indeed. The ministers of the previous government say they did not know the effects of Work Choices. That beggars belief because out there in the community people knew that workers were hurting and that more was to come. We know that, if the Howard government had been re-elected, they were going to go further. They were going to introduce ‘Work Choices Plus’. They were going to continue with it until there were no entitlements for workers left in this country. That was their plan, and the people of Australia knew that and chose not to support the re-election of the Howard government. The election result is a testimony to that fact.

While the Australian public made their position on AWAs crystal clear in November, it seems to me that those opposite are still debating their position. The public knows that there is still division in their party room. This division leaves the voters unclear as to whether the advocates or the critics of Work Choices will prevail. That is the problem for the public. They know there is division in the opposition; they just do not know whether the advocates or the critics of Work Choices will prevail.

Following the postelection declaration by the outgoing workplace relations minister that Work Choices was dead, it seems that some members of the Liberal Party have insisted on performing CPR. One of those was the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who, for 30 minutes today, managed to speak against Labor’s plan but then let us know that she was going to vote for it. She spoke against the bill for 30 minutes and foreshadowed a meagre amendment, which the opposition will not insist upon—and then they are going to vote for the legislation. So are we supposed to believe that the previous government know not what they did? I know the previous government were out of touch—I have just said that—and we know the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is still out of touch, but this proposition is very hard to believe.

I note that in yesterday’s press conference the Deputy Leader of the Opposition announced that the Liberals would not oppose the passage of this bill. Is this the same Deputy Leader of the Opposition that said she was going to defend AWAs to the death? Is this the same Deputy Leader of the Opposition that supported the deferring of the bill to a Senate committee? Was it a backflip or a somersault with a triple pike, or was she rolled in the party room and had to get up here and put a position she does not believe in? And why is that so important? I will tell the House why it is important. If the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who spoke just before me, is the person to draft the alternative plan for this country in the area of industrial relations, the people of Australia should know where she stands on this matter. No-one is clear on where the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the shadow minister for workplace relations, stands on these particular matters. All we do know is that her position changes day by day. Day by day the Deputy Leader of the Opposition changes her view. To extract an unequivocal commitment from her would be like getting one from Hamlet.

In September 2004—and this is where it all began—the then Prime Minister, John Howard, announced during the election campaign the industrial relations policy of the then government. In September 2004 we heard the supposed plans of the government that was seeking to be re-elected. On that day there was not one mention of any element of Work Choices. Prior to the 2004 election the Prime Minister announced the coalition’s IR policies with no reference to any of the pernicious provisions of Work Choices. The Liberal’s Work Choices legislation—and I have said this before in this place—was conceived in secret and rammed through the parliament and down the throats of ordinary working families. This was a shameful and disgraceful act. I have yet to hear the opposition accept responsibility for that behaviour. I am yet to hear them take any responsibility for introducing the deliberate capacity for people to be exploited by rogue employers. There was not one word of contrition from the opposition with respect to that particular matter.

This occurred, as we know, because the former government had control of both chambers. Up until then we had been saving the Liberal Party from themselves. That is effectively what we had been doing. Because the government did not have a majority in the Senate, we managed to civilise some of their IR laws. I do not agree with all the provisions of the 1996 act, but I would have to say that that act was civilised by the Senate. But after the election, which gave the coalition the majority in the upper house, we could no longer save them from themselves. Their true IR policies were reflected in the laws that were enacted through Work Choices. We could not save them from themselves.

It is important for me to comment briefly on the Deputy Leader of the Opposition’s view about pre-Work Choices AWAs, because she tries to put forward that pre-Work Choices AWAs was Liberal policy. It was not Liberal policy. The only reason that there was a no disadvantage test in the 1996 act was because the Senate insisted upon it. If it were not for Labor, the Democrats and other minor parties insisting on a no disadvantage test, there would not have been a no disadvantage test pre-Work Choices. So we were able, to some extent, to civilise what was uncivilised in terms of their industrial relations policies.

The legislation went through—it was rammed through parliament. The Senate inquiry lasted for five days. It did not leave Canberra. Members of parliament were refused the right to debate on behalf of their constituents. We had a situation where the bill—a radical piece of legislation—was rammed through the parliament. We knew then what would take place. Apparently ministers of the previous government did not know. The government then sacked the first minister, the member for Menzies, but kept the law. It sacked the minister but kept the law. It blamed the messenger. But giving the member for North Sydney the reins would not change a thing. As I said at the time, Hockey might have been the jockey, but it was still the same old horse—and what a nag it was. Effectively, that is why the opposition finds themselves across the chamber.

As Minister for Employment Participation, my key objective of course is to get people into work. We need to have a fair, effective, productive and innovative industrial relations system to make sure this country benefits. But it is important for the opposition to take stock of their position. The difficulty of all oppositions is to reconcile the fact that they lost the election. There is a process whereby people go through periods of denial. There is no doubt that the previous government denied the Australian people the chance before the 2004 election to decide whether they supported Work Choices. They denied MPs the right to debate Work Choices when it was introduced into the House. They denied a proper Senate inquiry for the most radical industrial relations laws the nation had ever seen. They denied—to themselves as well, apparently—that Work Choices was hurting working families, and today they are still in denial. We had the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for industrial relations effectively say nothing about the concerns the opposition have with Work Choices.

Mr Hunt —Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank the minister for his psychological insights and I call attention to the state of the House. (Quorum formed)

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —Obviously, the opposition do not want to have a debate about Work Choices. You have the shadow minister at the table, the member for Flinders, trying to prevent me from finishing this contribution to the debate. Work Choices will be killed off by this government. It was our commitment and it is the will of the Australian people. (Time expired)