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Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Page: 878


Ms KING (12:31 PM) —I rise today in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. In following the member for Fadden, I note that, whilst he is a new member in this place, I was here for the initial debate on the Work Choices legislation and I remember the lack of economic modelling, the lack of transparency, the failure of the government to inform the electorate during the election that it was introducing this extreme industrial relations reform to the Australian public and the guillotining of the legislation through this place. I think the opposition is being extended far more courtesy on this bill than we were on the Work Choices legislation when we were in opposition.

This bill keeps our promise to the electorate to abolish the Howard government’s extreme industrial relations laws. This bill keeps our promise to establish a fair and balanced industrial relations system here in this country—one that protects the rights of Australian workers and helps to grow the economy. In November 2005 I stood in this House and condemned the previous government’s introduction of Work Choices, one for which they had no mandate. The legislation that the previous government passed through this House crossed a hundred years of a fair and balanced industrial relations system in Australia. That legislation was not given appropriate time for debate. There was no transparency about it and there was little scrutiny. As I said before, the debate was guillotined in this House and there was certainly little courtesy given through the Senate. Work Choices had absolutely nothing to do with reform. Work Choices was one party’s ideological obsession, and despite the backflip on supporting this legislation I am still not convinced that given just half a chance the Liberal Party would not do it all over again. Work Choices was not about boosting productivity or increasing employment levels. It was nothing more than the most extreme attack on working families that this country had ever seen. The laws that were introduced back in 2005 undermined the pay and conditions of hardworking Australians. Not only that but they undermined family life. The previous government was willing to sell out the Australian people based on its own self-centred ideological obsession. It sucked money out of the public purse with its taxpayer funded propaganda campaign—and we saw the mouse pads here yesterday in the House. The previous government did everything in its power to avoid public scrutiny on Work Choices and to avoid telling the truth about these laws, refusing to release statistics on AWAs and refusing to tell how it had stripped out many conditions for working families.

Haven’t things changed! A few years on and things can change. I can think of two great examples that we have seen recently that show the Liberal Party seem to have changed their support in relation to Work Choices. We saw the first example of a change in attitude within the Liberal Party on Four Corners just recently. On Four Corners this week it was compelling to see how out of touch the previous government actually were when it came to industrial relations. Let me quote a passage from Four Corners. The member for North Sydney, Joe Hockey, stated on Four Corners:

Quite frankly when I took ... the job—

of Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—

I don’t think many ministers in Cabinet were aware that you could be worse off under Work Choices and that you could actually have certain conditions taken away without compensation. And once I started to raise those issues with colleagues and they became more informed about the impact of Work Choices we introduced the fairness test.

What is debate in parliament about? Surely, members of the government who stood in this place supporting Work Choices would have informed themselves about the impact. Surely, ministers who all voted for Work Choices would have informed themselves of its impact. Case after case after case was raised here in this parliament during question time that demonstrated the impact of Work Choices—the stripping of penalty rates and award conditions out of Australian workplace agreements for little or no compensation. You would think they would have known. The previous federal election also sent a clear message on Work Choices. That was sent on 24 November 2007 when the Australian people voted for a new approach. The message could not have been clearer. The Australian people understood that Work Choices would leave them worse off and they resoundingly voted against the government that introduced it. They voted against Work Choices and against AWAs. The government made a clear, unequivocal commitment to the Australian people late last year—a commitment to restore fairness in the workplace to families across Australia. Australia’s workplace relations laws needed a new approach. In electorates across the country, Labor Party candidates were selling our message, as I did within my own electorate of Ballarat. The Australian people were well aware that by voting for a Rudd government they were voting for a new workplace relations system. The vote is in and now in this parliament we see many, many new faces—faces that are here today because they stood for office with the party that is willing to work with the Australian people on industrial relations policy. They stood up for families that demanded their government give them a fair go within their workplaces.

The bill we are debating in the House today keeps Labor’s promise. It keeps faith with our promise during the election campaign. With the introduction of the bill, restoring fairness to the workplace relations system has begun. This bill will amend the Workplace Relations Act with the abolishment of Australian workplace agreements. This bill will amend the act to return fairness to workers whose pay and conditions were stripped by Howard’s legacy, and it will abolish the Howard government’s so-called fairness test and implement a genuine no disadvantage test for all workplace agreements. Under this proposed legislation there will be no new AWAs. The bill prevents the making of new AWAs from the date of commencement. The Rudd Labor government believes that in a strong industrial relations system there is no need for AWAs.

The Rudd Labor government believes that all Australian employees are entitled to a safety net. That safety net comprises 10 National Employment Standards. The National Employment Standards will provide simplicity, fairness and flexibility for all employees. And we will provide this without the administrative burden that has developed through Work Choices. The National Employment Standards include: maximum weekly hours of work; requests by parents for flexible working arrangements—something I am about to become a little more interested in, I guess, not that I was not before; parental leave and other entitlements; annual leave; personal and carers leave and compassionate leave; community service leave; long service leave; public holidays; notice of termination and redundancy; and fair work information statements. Our standards outline the required safety net that all employees deserve. AWAs overrode the safety net, and that is why I back this bill 100 per cent. By implementing a new modern safety net, there is no need for AWAs or any form of statutory individual employment agreements. There is no need because the expectations of employers are met fairly in a way that is flexible for employees.

But we will not forget about those people that are currently on AWAs. We acknowledge the concerns that some of them may have. The Rudd Labor government has created a special instrument for employees on AWAs, to make a smooth transition to the government’s new workplace relations system. A special instrument called an individual transitional employment agreement, or an ITEA, is proposed in this bill and will be available to employers who employed an employee on an AWA as at December 2007. Such employers may use this instrument for new employees or for existing employees who are currently subject to an Australian workplace agreement. These individual transitional employment agreements will have a nominal expiry date of no later than 31 December 2009. After this date, Labor will have introduced its National Employment Standards and a modern, simple award system. This is a reasonable transition for employers and employees to Labor’s new industrial relations system. After this date, employers will have no reason to want to access any form of individual statutory employment contract.

It is also important to learn from the mistakes of the previous government. It is important to ensure our system does not disadvantage hardworking Australians. Interestingly, the member for North Sydney also is on record as saying that once he started to raise the issue with colleagues and they became more informed of the impact of Work Choices—again, a bill that had already been debated in this House, that they had already voted on—they then introduced the fairness test. But this so-called fairness test was not fair. The fairness test was not fair because it provided no proper protection for some award conditions and zero protection for others. The fairness test will not apply in the future. The test also created a backlog of agreements piled up waiting for the checks. This bill will end the compliance problem and create a more streamlined industrial relations system. Under our new proposal, there will be a new no disadvantage test. The no disadvantage test will cover all individual and collective workplace agreements. To pass our proposed no disadvantage test, ITEAs cannot disadvantage an employee against an applicable collective agreement or, where there is no collective agreement, an applicable award and the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. The test is a reflection of the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to working Australians across this country.

As it stands, when a workplace agreement is lodged with the Workplace Authority it is required to pass the fairness test, for below a certain level. A failed fairness test can result in a costly compensation payment for employers. This will change once the elements of this bill become law. Under our proposed transition arrangements, ITEAs for new collective agreements and for existing employees will not begin until the Workplace Authority director has seen that they actually pass the no disadvantage test.

A Rudd Labor government has also proposed in this bill to repeal the provision of Work Choices that enabled employers to unilaterally terminate a collective workplace agreement—agreements that, once past their nominal expiry date, could give employers power to return staff to a limited number of standards, standards that in some cases were un-Australian and simply unfair. This government has no choice but to repeal this section of Work Choices. By doing so, we ensure that our proposed ITEAs will meet our national employment standards and leave no room for loopholes.

Another simple yet important change which we have introduced in this legislation is the requirement for employers to provide a copy of the workplace relations fact sheet to their employees—something we were also required to do. Businesses I have spoken to have said that this was just another one of the many administrative burdens that had no real purpose for an employer or in fact an employee. Requiring employers to provide a fact sheet on workplace relations was nothing more than a last-minute attempt by the Howard government to sell their Work Choices package. It was unnecessary and it will stop.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will also have the responsibility of checking those pre-Work Choices certified agreements that wish to be extended. The commission will have the power to grant any application made for an extension, so long as it is satisfied that both employer and employee agree with the terms of the arrangement. The bill implements sensible transitional arrangements, phasing out of the former government’s Work Choices legislation while requiring flexibility and transparency.

During the last federal election, this government also gave a promise to the Australian people that we would create a new modern award system. This new modern award system is a must if we wish to have a fair and balanced safety net for all employees. The bill that I support today comes good on that election promise. This bill allows for modernisation of awards—modern awards that protect entitlements such as penalty rates and overtime, awards that ensure a fair safety net, awards that ensure minimum award entitlements and awards that allow flexible working arrangements.

The opposition’s position on this bill remains to me unclear. The opposition has a choice not only in this chamber but in both chambers to support this bill, to support the mandate given to this government by the Australian people at the last election to abolish Work Choices. Many of us watched that somewhat excruciating press conference yesterday from the opposition spokeswoman announcing that the Liberal Party have now somehow seen the light and will support the bill in the House, if their amendments do not go through. Despite the fact that the opposition controls the Senate, the opposition spokeswoman was still unclear about what they would do in the Senate, getting bogged down in Senate procedural matters rather than making a clear, unequivocal commitment that they would let these bills pass unamended through both the House and the Senate. Working families needs these laws passed.

The Rudd Labor government stand firm on our industrial relations policy. All Australians know our position—they knew it before the election. Our position to abolish Work Choices and to eliminate Howard’s ideological legacy of AWAs has always stood firm.

This week has been another interesting week from the opposition in relation to its position on Work Choices. It is no wonder the party opposite had trouble understanding Work Choices, the legislation it introduced, because at present they seem to be having trouble finding a position on industrial relations overall. First they supported Work Choices and backed AWAs 100 per cent. Then the opposition decide that the so-called fairness test is required, because maybe—just maybe—those AWAs that they introduced did actually strip conditions from low-paid workers. They would not believe any of the cases we introduced into the House during question time but they thought: ‘We’ve got a problem here, so let’s introduce a fairness test.’ Then just last week we had the opposition in almost complete denial that they had lost the election, claiming that it had every right to seek the continuation of AWAs and that it would oppose this bill. Now the opposition as of yesterday is supporting the abolition of AWAs in the House—not sure what they will do in the Senate. It is difficult to predict what will happen next. Will the members opposite in the House support Work Choices or is it dead? Does the Liberal Party support it in the House but not in the Senate? We are going to wait and see.

The Australian people deserve to know where all members of parliament stand on such important issues. As the Prime Minister said yesterday in question time, the opposition is flip, flop, flapping when it comes to Work Choices. And, if they get back into office, I am not convinced that it will not just be some of the same old tricks again—the same old tricks because the old Howard legacy is still woven into the ideological minds of the Liberal machine.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I can tell you for certain today that the Rudd Labor government has a firm position on industrial relations for this country, and this is just the start with this bill. This bill represents the view of many Australians and it represents this government’s commitment to the Australian people that we took to the election campaign. It is the Rudd Labor government honouring our pact with the Australian people by abolishing Work Choices and unfair Australian workplace agreements. I commend the bill to the House.