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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1706


Mr SIDEBOTTOM (11:10 AM) —I am very glad to support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, because it goes to the heart of something that I and many of my fellow Labor colleagues in this House—I particularly note the minister at the table, the member for Sydney; and my colleague in the chamber, the member for Ballarat—campaigned on well before the election last year: a fair go. It is another example of the Rudd government delivering on its election commitments. This is one of the major promises made to this nation ahead of last year’s election. As others have already said, this amendment is all about a transition to Forward with Fairness—or, again, quite simply, a fair go.

This amendment bill is all about restoring the balance which was thrown completely out the door by the former government with its unfair and regressive Work Choices laws. Unlike the doublespeak used by the former government, where, you may remember, colleagues, the nature and intention of a bill was given the opposite description in the bill’s title—such as Work Choices, where there was in fact no choice—this amendment bill does exactly what it says it will: allows for a transition to introducing Labor’s Forward with Fairness workplace relations system.

John Howard’s Work Choices system, for which he had no mandate, sought to create a second class of worker, one he and those opposite thought should just be grateful for having a job and should put up with whatever they were offered. But that is not what this country is all about, and Australians voted convincingly in November for a fair go at a future for themselves and generations to come. They were convinced that Labor had the best interests of the people of Australia at heart and would do what it said rather than just doing what it wanted with an arrogant born-to-rule style, which the previous government adopted so quickly and the rump of relics in this place still manifest in their demeanour, body language and catcalls from the bleachers.

This amendment bill will put working families back on a fair and level playing field and allow them to undertake a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, without the fear of losing even the most basic conditions of work that Australians have enjoyed for decades and which have helped this country to thrive and grow. I speak in particular on behalf of the young people of my electorate of Braddon, who deserve a fair go when they look to join the workforce, and to join it knowing that they have someone looking out for their interests, someone to give them a fair start. Under Work Choices they were left out in the cold, despite all the reassurances of Mr Howard and his minions—left to take whatever they could get if only to get a leg-up into some sort of work. They had to hope that one day they would develop the experience, the tenacity and the skills that would give them a chance to have some sort of decent pay and conditions. But this new fair go in the workplace will help them become enthusiastic and innovative young job seekers, willing to get in and have a go and work under the ideals this great country was built upon. They should be able to make their mark in the workforce without having the shadow of Work Choices hanging over their heads, knowing that they are not burdened by an unfair and unjust set of rules which gave them little or no protection, which left them with less than even basic conditions to reward them for their efforts. The former government argued that the workplace needed to be reformed to allow business to move ahead, but I would contend that a workplace is a much more effective and efficient place when its most vital component, its people, are happy and feel secure. We hear almost daily about the lack of skills, which is looming as a greater threat to many businesses and industry, but without even the most basic of conditions, what incentive was there for young people, and even those more advanced in their working lives, to have a go and improve their skills?

This bill will also help to restore the balance for people like Allison Adkins and Ellen Speed, two hardworking people from my electorate, who became a graphic example of just how callous and uncaring the Howard government’s unmandated Work Choices legislation could be. Both these women were dedicated and long-serving employees of a video rental company, Allison working in Devonport and Ellen in Burnie. They were sacked last year, on 14 March, without any real explanation. They were later told in a lawyer’s letter that the sacking was for so-called ‘operational reasons’, despite never having anything like a performance issue with their employer.

Their problem, under the Work Choices system, was that they chose their union to represent them and refused to sign an Australian workplace agreement. These are not highly paid employees or people looking for some huge advantage over their fellow workers. All they wanted was to stay on the conditions they had worked under for a long time and keep working at a job which they enjoyed and which suited their own lifestyle. Allison and Ellen were protected by Tasmanian legislation but, as soon as Work Choices came into force, they were effectively shown the door.

Work Choices gave the green light for employers who wanted to exploit workers the chance to do so. But Allison and Ellen refused to go quietly, and the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union are currently fighting on their behalf, having lodged a complaint with the Federal Court. We hope that this example—just one of many, I am sure—will resolve in their favour and they will be able to put it behind them and continue on with their lives. Allison and Ellen certainly were not protected by Work Choices and its so-called fairness test, examples of which we saw yesterday unravelling in this House.

This bill abolishes the Howard government’s fairness test, which did little or nothing to protect working Australians. The test did not protect all award conditions and did not require employees to receive full compensation for the loss of a limited number of so-called protected award conditions. And do not let the opposition tell you that this is about belting employers, many of whom are doing everything possible to create employment and reward innovation and effort.

For those who, in good faith, have set up an agreement with their workers, there is protection and time for a change to the new system, a time to again join with their employees and together find a solution for all parties. Some major employer bodies have already said they are content with the transitional agreements as they exist, and some have gone even further. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry commented that the government is entitled to stick to its position, while the Australian Mines and Metals Association said its negotiations with Deputy Prime Minister Gillard marked a ‘new high point in consultation in IR terms’. That was certainly something that was missing with the introduction of Work Choices and the non-mandated legislation that affected so many workers in this country. Chris Platt, General Manager Workplace Policy, of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, said:

From our perspective, the Government has done what it said it was going to do; no more, no less ... We accept that they’ve got a mandate to remove AWAs and they’ve done so.

Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group says that the transition bill is balanced and workable, which should come as further encouragement for employers to work with the government. This transition will not be rushed, with plenty of time between now and 2010 to see the new system come into operation. I understand this change has not come without concern to employers, some of whom have already contacted my office to pass on their feelings and issues. They feel their businesses may be threatened or their growth impacted by these changes. We must do something to return us to an even playing field, not the minefield created by the Howard government. The new system allows for flexibility to take into account the many and varied businesses that exist out there. It recognises that work is not just from Monday to Friday and from 9 am to 5 pm. It also gives people the certainty that they will be able to have a life outside work. This bill has not been dreamt up overnight.

In April last year the Labor Party published their workplace relations policy, something the entire electorate had many months to digest and take on board before last November’s election. By August, the implementation plan was released. It repeated the plan to abolish AWAs and set out our plan to go forward together. Right across the campaign, everyone on this side of the House was available to explain the policy in every corner of Australia. Ultimately and decisively, the people of Australia cast their vote on the future of the nation’s industrial relations.

The Rudd government are committed to working with both employers and employees, who will both play an important role in the new workplace relations system. Our aim is to avoid the uncertainty and complexity which came through the previous government’s change to Work Choices, with many people on both sides still unsure of where they stand and stood. The new bill will see an end to Australian workplace agreements, but employers will be able to make transitional agreements while awards are modernised. These transitional agreements will come with a no disadvantage test, which will also apply to any new collective agreements. This will end the compliance nightmare that was created by the backlog of agreements that has piled up under the fairness test changes which were, again, alluded to yesterday. Workers and employers will be able to make an individual agreement, but this will only be able to be built on and will not override the safety net which is offered under the new system. This will look at maintaining the basic provisions, including hours of work, parental leave, flexible work for parents, annual leave, personal leave, carers leave and compassionate leave, community service leave, public holidays, information in the workplace, notice of termination and redundancy, and long service leave.

Individual transitional employment agreements will be available to employers who had AWAs in place as at 1 December 2007. These employers may use these agreements to employ new employees or for existing employees who were employed on AWAs. It will give them time to transition to the government’s new system.

In conclusion, the new laws will not allow employers to pull the rug out, unlike Work Choices’ one-sided provisions that enabled employers to unilaterally terminate a collective workplace agreement which had passed its nominal expiry date and return their staff to limited minimum standards. These provisions will be repealed.

Under the bill, a collective agreement will only be able to be terminated where the parties agree. No longer will employees like Allison Adkins and Ellen Speed, and thousands of others, be left out in the cold. It will also give employers the protection from unfair action from workers and the chance to work with them to gain efficiency and productivity. They will not be forced to follow other workplaces down a track which does not suit their individual systems or circumstances. An employer and an employee can work together to see each other prosper. This bill is about bringing fairness and balance to the workplace. It is about a fair go for everyone.