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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1733

Ms OWENS (1:16 PM) —What we are doing today is something that is rather unusual in the history of recent Australian governments in that we are essentially repealing a major piece of legislation which is central to the lives of a large number of Australians. It is not usual in Australian government, because over many decades the Australian people have chosen to provide a second voice, if you like, sometimes with one party in the state government, another in the House of Representatives and another with the balance of power in the Senate. While most of us on both sides of the House have at times found that structure very frustrating, one would have to say that it has served the Australian people well in that, over decades, each party when in government has been unable to move as fast as it would like and has been pulled back to the centre a little bit by the Senate.

As a result of that, and also of the respect that most of us have for the institution of democracy, there has been caution on revolutionary change in Australia. Most of our changes to legislation have been incremental rather than revolutionary. I was pleased that in the election campaign, when we talked about making this quite substantial change, we promised incremental arrangements through the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, which would ease the transition to the new arrangements for business. This bill certainly does that. It recognises in essence that businesses that entered into arrangements for AWAs under the law need time to transition to the new arrangements.

That, of course, was not the approach of the Howard government when it won control of the Senate. It introduced Work Choices with no warning to the Australian people. People, both in my electorate and around the country, made perfectly reasonable decisions about their family life and the way they manage their family—which property to rent, whether to buy, how much they could afford, whether one or both parties worked, whether one or both did overtime, whether they put their children into private schools and whether they went on holidays this year—based on the perfectly reasonable assumption that our industrial relations system was stable. Suddenly, of course, it was not. Overnight, the assumptions that underpinned the choices that families had made were ripped away. Many families were suddenly worse off financially because of that. When we in Labor decided that Work Choices had to go, we put it clearly to the people of Australia. Over a 12-month period, the people of Australia were given the opportunity to consider exactly what we planned to do and, on 24 November last year, they voted overwhelmingly to get rid of Work Choices.

This new transition arrangement starts to move us towards a fair industrial relations system that recognises that both families and business must do well if our society and our economy are going to flourish. It recognises that there is a very real relationship between business, families and the success of both. In a local context, in my electorate, if businesses want to do well, they know quite well that their customers are employees of the business down the road. If the business down the road is able to reduce wages and conditions, then that affects the capacity of those people to spend money at the local hairdresser, the local restaurant, the local coffee shop and the drycleaners. Families also recognise that, if the local businesses do not do well, then jobs are in short supply as well. Any industrial relations system that elevates the needs of one above the other, as Work Choices did, and which allows one to flourish at the expense of the other, will eventually cause both to be damaged and, ultimately, to fail.

Make no mistake: while the government of the day seemed uninterested in the impact that Work Choices had on families, the failure of families is devastating. It is not just a family matter. When families fail in one of the many ways that they can, it introduces a cost both to society and to our economy. We talk a lot about business needs; the government of the day in introducing Work Choices talked ad nauseam about the needs of business. Of course businesses need flexibility to employ in a way that allows them to plan ahead and to flourish. But while we might not call a family a business, it is an economic and a social unit that must do well. Work Choices substantially damaged the capacity of families to do well in the many ways that we need them to do. There is a cost if families fail in their internal relationships. When Work Choices ripped away the ability of families to commit time to each other—whether through the increased use of split shifts; through, as in my electorate, the increased pattern of people losing their full-time job on one day and being employed as a casual the next; or through businesses being able to change rosters without notice and rip away penalty rates—families themselves started to lose the capacity to plan the way that they related to each other during the week. Who was going to pick up the children? Could they drop the children to the soccer match on Saturday morning consistently?

That capacity of families to plan the way they build those family ties is already probably under greater stress at the moment than it ever has been in the history of our country, because quite often both parents are, for whatever reasons, choosing to work. So even before Work Choices our families were struggling to find that balance between work and family that would allow them to be financially secure plus build the security of their family relationships. Again, make no mistake: divorce costs our community—it does not just cost the family; it costs us all. The breakdown between children and their parents does not just cost the family; it costs us all.

Similarly, Work Choices reduced a family’s capacity to financially plan for the long term. It undermined the decisions that families had already made. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of Work Choices was that it did not respect the decisions that families had made based on the perfectly reasonable assumption that we had a stable, incremental industrial relations system. The inability of families to know what their incomes would be over a period of time, as everyone would understand, dramatically impacts on the ability of families to do what we need them to do in the long term—to save for their retirement, to save for a rainy day, to insure themselves and to accumulate assets. Again, a family that failed in that way—a family that, had Work Choices continued for long enough, would have become unable to save for retirement—would not just have been a cost to the family and that family’s children; it would have been a cost to us all.

Also, the community and extended family relationships that families spend their time developing was perhaps one of the first elements that went when time became short or the ability to plan went out the window. Again, it is the time that families spend on developing their relationships in the community and with their extended families that holds our communities together. It is an extremely important glue that holds our communities together. Work Choices was a fundamental attack on the capacity of families to plan their future and their time in all three of those ways. And it happened at a time when, for whatever reason, the choices that parents are making to both work are already putting families under incredible stress.

This is a time to consider work and family balance—it is absolutely the time to consider work and family balance. Over the decades it has been the union movement that has led that argument. People quite often think that unions are about work but, when you look at what they have done, they have been very much about the separation of work and family life, ensuring that when people returned home from work they were in a fit state to spend quality time with their families, that they had two days off in a row, that they were able to plan, that they knew when their rosters were, that they were paid on a regular basis, that they had holiday time every year et cetera. The unions have been there, fighting for just those family issues, for 100 years in this country. And suddenly we found under Work Choices that not only was the family under attack but the organisations that fought those issues for the families were also under attack, reducing families’ ability to do what families today need to do—and also those families’ ability through the union to improve that capacity in the long term. There are very few advances when it comes to work and family balance that have not been fought for by the Australian trade union movement over the last 100 years.

So Work Choices is about to go—and thank goodness for that. But in its place will be a fairer system that does not swing the pendulum wildly backwards and forwards but incrementally begins to move the pendulum, in a way that is very sensitive and respectful to the choices that businesses have made, back to the centre. Over the next couple of years, that is what we are going to see. We are going to start seeing the fairness that allows both business and families to flourish reinstated in this nation. It has served us well. There are times when the pendulum has been a little too far one way or the other, but it has been, prior to Work Choices, fairly close to the centre—and, with the end of Work Choices, that is exactly where it will end up again. I commend this bill to the House.