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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1702


Ms SAFFIN (10:46 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the government’s Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, and I speak to it with some great glee. In speaking to Forward with Fairness, I need also to speak about Work Choices to give it context. You will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, that the people of Australia—and that means the people of Page, whom I represent in this place—had one of the most unfair, unjust, venal and ideological pieces of legislation thrust upon them, and it was called Work Choices. There was, I submit, no choice—no choice for workers, no choice for working families—when it came to the law’s application. It removed so many of the rights and safeguards that we need to have to make our workplaces fair. I doorknocked a lot of Page, and many people talked about Work Choices. They had many stories of woe and weal that need retelling here in this place. I told them that I would do it when I got here, and that is what I am doing today.

Work Choices was an assault against young people. It was an assault against working families, who seek some security to be able to look after their families, feed their families, pay their mortgages and have some enjoyment in life. Young people were in no position to bargain, and many young people would simply sign an agreement, an AWA, or pressure their parents to sign, just so that they could have that job. I had one family approach me telling me that their young son—he was 17, and he was present—had a regular working week of 39 hours by his agreement yet was working over 50 hours with no recompense or recognition of what he was contributing to that workplace.

I had another man contact me expressing concern about his wife, who worked in a local supermarket, about how she felt pressured to sign an AWA and about how it changed the nature of her working days. It meant that she had to go in for a few hours, have a few hours off and then go back for a few hours, come back home and then go back for a few hours. Her days were completely taken up with her work, even though she was not working every hour, and it was telling on her family life, her home life and her health. Another person approached me. He worked in a local franchise business, and he told me how they were being pressured to sign an agreement that would bring them a few extra dollars—and I mean a few lousy extra dollars—but meant a lessening of conditions, increasing casualisation and more.

Parents and grandparents were deeply concerned, particularly grandparents. They were actually incensed, and many told me outright that they had previously voted for the coalition—in this case, where I live, the National Party—but would not do it this time, because of Work Choices. They told me that they felt bad that they were going to have their grandkids spend their working lives in a system that was less fair than what they had or what they fought for and that they felt that it was just very un-Australian.

My local university, Southern Cross University—and, I note here, the only university in Australia to be designated in law as a regional one—produced a report undertaken by researchers with Dr Sandy Darab, revealing findings that showed the combined effect of Work Choices and the last Welfare to Work changes introduced by the Howard-Costello government had a harsh impact on workers in the Northern Rivers region, leading to lower wages and reduced working conditions and entitlements. They cited the case of one young local man who was working 13-hour days without a break, without overtime or penalty rates and who, when he left that job, after being abused, could not get Centrelink payments for six weeks. That was inhuman, and it is not fair in anyone’s books. Another study showed that Work Choices led to less take-home pay for many—and, for women, up to over $100 a week. I ask: how could that make any workers or working families better off? It just doesn’t.

I cannot believe that John Howard is still trumpeting its value and virtue to our friends overseas. No-one here would give him a hearing on it, and he must know, unless he is completely out of touch, that no-one likes it. He refers to it as a piece of economic reform, which is bunkum. It was ideological reform and seemingly motivated by an intense dislike of trade unions, whereby workers and working families were the victims.

As some of the stories show, it was a major issue of concern during the election campaign. In fact, it was one of the major issues in Page, along with health, education, transport and climate change. It was up there—up the top. The previous National Party member there told us that it was good for us, as did the new National Party candidate. I was gobsmacked. It was one of those issues that put them on a hiding to nothing. We, the people of Page, are not stupid and to have your representative and the one aspiring to be your representative tell you that something is good for you, when you know it is clearly not, is galling. How could a law like Work Choices, which removed penalty rates, created more staggered working days, lessened conditions and, yes, lessened take-home pay—and this impacted more on women—be good for us? Our election commitment was to get rid of Work Choices—and this was applauded by the community—and importantly to introduce a system of workplace laws that are fair and cognisant of our modern economy. I have to commend the Deputy Prime Minister for the good work she has done to come up with the right policy mix so that Australia can have an industrial relations system that we can be proud of. I note that we wasted no time in getting this bill before the House, doing so at the outset of the first sitting of this place. This bill is the first step in abolishing the former government’s Work Choices laws, which the people of Page and, indeed, the people of Australia voted to get rid of in the November 2007 election. This bill prevents any new AWAs being made.

In accordance with the Rudd government’s pre-election promises, sensible and necessary transitional arrangements have been implemented to allow those employers and employees who have been using AWAs to prepare for the full implementation of the government’s new system in January 2010. Employers using AWAs as at 1 December 2007 will be able to offer individual transitional employment agreements to existing employees on AWAs and to new employees. Individual transitional employment agreements may not be used to strip existing employees of their collective agreements. This bill will ensure that all agreements approved by the Workplace Authority pass a true no disadvantage test against the full applicable award or for the ITEAs the full applicable collective agreement in the workplace if there is one. This bill allows for the commencement of the award modernisation process. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be requested to create modern awards that are simple and easy to understand and apply. One of the major concerns of local small business was that it was too complicated for them and that it created more of a burden for them. Together with the National Employment Standards, modern awards will form a part of the safety net for working Australians under the government’s new workplace relations system.

Finally, this bill abolishes the Howard government’s so-called fairness test, which I submit was anything but fair. The fairness test failed to protect working Australians because it did not protect all award conditions and did not require employees to receive full compensation for the loss of the limited number of so-called protected award conditions. It gives me delight to commend this bill to the House.