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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1716


Mr ANDREWS (11:56 AM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, which is before the parliament. Can I say at the outset that the government’s rhetoric in regard to workplace relations is entirely misleading. What they say is that this is about the abolition of Work Choices. That is not right. The first measure contained in Work Choices was to establish in Australia so far as possible a national system of industrial relations. It was a recognition that having separate state, federal and territory jurisdictions—something that may have been appropriate at the time of the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia and the Federation—was no longer appropriate as we moved into a new century. The days in which trade between the colonies was something that occurred by horse and buggy and subsequently by steam train and the car are a far-flung distance from the Australia of today. Trade is not only between states and territories; increasingly we are part of a global environment, and Australia’s future rests largely with the place that we take in that international system of trade.

The central precept of Work Choices, therefore, was to have a national system of industrial relations—something which the labour movement resisted all the way to the High Court of Australia, saying that the basis upon which a national system was being established by the then government was unconstitutional. They lost that case in the High Court, but today we see a reversal of that position. The Labor Party, the Labor government, is now proposing to maintain a national system of industrial relations in Australia. So the rhetoric that is being used in this regard about the abolition of Work Choices is simply not correct. The central precept of the legislation will remain so far as the ALP is concerned.

We have also heard a lot about a mandate theory of politics since the federal election. Indeed Mr Rudd was claiming a mandate on this and even threatening a double dissolution if the legislation was not passed. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Ms Gillard, was saying it is a yes or no question without any shades of grey. Yet I seem to recall a different approach to the parliamentary process when the Labor Party was in opposition. Year after year after year, the Australian Labor Party rejected changes to the job-destroying unfair dismissal laws that the coalition had election after election repeatedly promised to change. Indeed the ALP voted against changes on more than 40 occasions over a number of parliamentary terms. In my belief the so-called mandate theory is just a device to avoid discussion about the proposed changes. At worst, it demonstrates a bullying tactic for which the Labor movement is renowned. This is not just the repeal of certain sections of Work Choices but indeed the beginning of a radical re-regulation of the workplace.

This bill has four major elements: firstly, it introduces a new safety net; secondly, it seeks to abolish individual statutory agreements, Australian workplace agreements; thirdly, it creates a new transitional statutory individual agreement, the ITEA; and, fourthly, it seeks to modernise awards. In relation to that fourth element, the modernisation of awards, I say to the government: good luck. Processes have been underway for some period of time through the Industrial Relations Commission to seek to rationalise and modernise awards. As one of the Labor senators indicated just in this last week, as I recall, how do you modernise and streamline awards without either reducing wages in some categories or increasing them in others? That will be a task for any serious project in terms of modernising awards that does not add to further wage inflation within the country.

The first element of this bill is to introduce a new safety net. The history of this is that we used to have what was called the no disadvantage test, in which there were 20 matters against which an agreement, whether individual or collective, would be judged. If those 20 matters were not found to be met in the agreement in question then there was the ability to reject that agreement. The Work Choices legislation changed that and replaced the 20 allowable matters of the no disadvantage test with a new Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard, which had five essential matters. The Labor Party say that five is not adequate and in fact in this legislation what they are proposing is a new safety net, not reverting to the 20 original allowable matters but reverting to 10 new matters. So what they have said is: ‘We’re not going back to the 20. We don’t like the five as being adequate, which the former government put in place, and so we’re going to have a new no disadvantage test—a new safety net, in other words—of 10 matters.’

Secondly, they say that this new safety net will apply to all agreements in the future. It will apply to a collective agreement, whether that agreement is negotiated by a union or it is a collective agreement negotiated, without the union, simply by a group of workers in a particular workplace. It will apply to the individual agreements, the AWAs, while they continue to exist and it will apply also to the new transitional individual agreements. That is a matter, I suppose, of debate as to what the adequacy of a safety net is.

I have said before that I believe that we did make a mistake in relation to Work Choices and that is that we should have included in the safety net penalty rates and overtime. I think there was concern in the Australian electorate about penalty rates and overtime not being included in the Australian fair pay and conditions standard, and it is quite open for the government to say, ‘We should therefore make some changes to the safety net.’ But when one goes to the next element of what is in this bill—namely, the abolition of Australian workplace agreements—this is where there is a con involved in this process on the part of the government. Australian workplace agreements existed long before the Work Choices legislation was introduced. They have existed for something like a decade in Australia. What this bill proposes to do is to effectively remove the ability in the future of an employer and an employee to enter into a new statutory agreement. They allow two years for the transitional agreement, which of course is subject to the safety net.

Why do I say that this is a radical re-regulation of the workplace under the guise and under the rhetoric of abolishing Work Choices? It is for this reason: if the concern is about the safety net; that is, if what the Labor Party is saying is a reflection of what the Australian people want in terms of a safety net—and I am not questioning that; I am simply putting it as the hypothesis—and that safety net applies to all agreements henceforth, then what is wrong with having the ability of a person to enter into an individual statutory agreement? The Labor Party says that it is all right, if you have got an AWA, for that to continue for the life of that agreement, which could be up to five years. It even allows, after the nominal expiry date of an AWA after five years, for that agreement to continue to operate between the parties and it puts in place an interim transitional agreement, which can operate until the end of December 2009. So the Labor Party is prepared to say, ‘We accept some individual statutory agreements.’ Otherwise it could have brought legislation to this House which said: ‘On a certain date there will be no more individual statutory agreements; they will end, and that is it. If the nominal expiry date arrives, then you cannot continue the agreement after that.’ The Labor Party is not doing that. It is saying that you can have, if you have entered into an AWA, a new individual arrangement.

This indicates that the real plan of the ALP is to re-regulate the workplace. I see the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services at the table, a man who is well steeped in the affairs of unions in Australia and well versed in industrial relations. I say to him that, if the aim of this is to put back in place a more generous safety net—namely, the new conditions which the Labor Party is putting forward—and that safety net applies to every agreement henceforth, then why can a person not have an individual arrangement because that individual arrangement would be subject to the safety net? The Labor Party is, in part, allowing that to occur for a period of time for some workers in Australia. When any statement is made about this by the Labor Party, no logical, intellectual position is put. This is what the minister said in her second reading speech:

... there is no need for AWAs or any statutory individual employment agreement. The essence of such agreements is that they override the safety net. In Labor’s view, a modernised safety net means there is no need for individual instruments which can override it.

What gobbledygook. This legislation actually ensures that the safety net applies to all agreements and those agreements cannot override it. So this explanation is simply meaningless. What we have in reality is a Labor Party which is opposed to individual arrangements and wants to see the collective as the norm, using the guise of the abolition of Work Choices to bring about these changes. We in opposition have said that we accept the Labor Party wants to expand the safety net. But we believe that individual freedom, including individual economic freedom, is a principle which has been for the benefit of individuals and Australians and their families overall, and that is why the shadow spokesperson will be moving an amendment to extend the life of the individual transitional agreements.

I would like to hear an argument from the honourable gentleman whom I believe is following me as to why what I am putting to the parliament is wrong—that is, if the safety net applies to all agreements in the future then what is wrong with having an individual agreement? You can have a common-law contract which is an individual agreement, except it is not protected by statute; you can have, as I said, an AWA, if you already have one, which can continue to have a life beyond its nominal expiry date; and you can have an individual transitional agreement. There is simply no logic, as has been argued by the minister, for this position being taken by the government. There is simply, in my view, no answer to it other than an ideological commitment on the part of the Labor Party to make the collective agreement the only form, in reality, of agreement. People can raise the question of common-law contracts, but we all know that a common-law contract is subject to the relevant award and the award, of course, is something which is determined in part by the collective, namely, the union in question.

I have no doubt that the government will vote against the amendment that the opposition will be moving. I also have no doubt that this is just the first of a package of measures which will come later in the year to re-regulate the labour market in Australia. Will, for example, so-called good faith bargaining be part of that package which the Labor Party brings forward later in the year—something which the union movement, the ACTU and Ms Burrow, as its president, has been advocating for some time—further regulating the labour market in Australia? Ultimately, however, the test will be: what is the outcome of this legislation?

We saw this morning an Econtech report which indicated that, since 1993, one of the reasons for the huge fall in unemployment in Australia over the last decade or so has been the changes to workplace relations laws and that one of the reasons for the productivity growth that has occurred has been the flexibility in the labour market in Australia. The test for the Labor Party will be the impact of these changes in terms of the things that matter to Australians. If this leads to, not over the next week or the next few months but over the next few years, or is part of the cause of higher unemployment in Australia, then the Labor Party will be responsible. If this is part of the cause of an outbreak of further inflation in Australia, given that one of the precursors of general inflation in this country historically has been wage inflation—if there is higher inflation over the next few years partly as a result of re-regulating the workplace—then the Labor Party will be responsible for that as well. If this leads to more Australians being out of work, then that will fall at the feet of the Labor Party as well, because it is the sad fate, whether we like it or not, of people who make public policy to be judged by the outcome of that policy rather than by their intentions at the time. It is a practical reality and it happens to all of us, may I say to the parliamentary secretary. I have been here a bit longer than he has and I have seen it over a period of time both in government and in opposition. That will be the test in relation to this matter.

I came into this place at a time when there was very high unemployment, when over a million Australians were jobless, and I have a fundamental belief—and it has been part of what has driven me in this place—that we should have the lowest unemployment rate possible in this country; that no rate is too low for unemployment in this country. The Labor Party uses the rhetoric of working families. Of course, to be a working family you have got to have work. If unemployment goes up, it is not just a nice statistic or a cute statistic which is released once a month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics; it is something which affects the real lives of ordinary Australians.

There was a great blight upon this country at the beginning of the 1990s, when I first came here, in that we had a million Australians unemployed. They were real people with real families who were having real difficulties and experiencing real hurt as a result of that. Surely a primary role of government in terms of domestic policy is to ensure that we have the lowest unemployment rate possible. We have an unemployment rate today, I think, of four per cent. The question over the coming months and years will be what the unemployment rate is. As I said, if, in part because of re-regulation of the labour market in Australia, unemployment goes up and inflation goes up then that will fall quite clearly and quite squarely at the foot of the Labor Party. That is what our concern ought to be in relation to this legislation. There is no economic modelling of the impact of these changes. We are simply being told that this is good for the country. Whether it is or not is going to be the test. The outcome of this legislation is something that the opposition will hold the government to in the future.