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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1736


Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (1:27 PM) —It is my pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in this place today to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. The bill prevents the making of new AWAs from the date of commencement of the bill—and I know that there are very many people in my community saying: thank goodness and good riddance to them. The bill establishes a new individual statutory agreement, the Individual Transitional Employment Agreement, or ITEA, for limited use during the transition period and introduces a genuine no disadvantage test, one which is very different to the last minute shambolic thing that was the former government’s fairness test—a ‘fairness’ test that was not fair at all.

Importantly, the bill establishes the award modernisation process for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to create new modern awards, awards will that protect workers’ pay and conditions. Under the bill the Fair Pay Commission’s role will be limited to conducting annual reviews to determine the increase to the minimum wage. The bill also removes the requirement for employers to hand out the former government’s workplace relations fact sheets. This obviously removes some administrative burden from businesses but also I think is a very sensible thing for us to stop.

Of course, this bill represents the first stage in the dismantling of Work Choices and begins the implementation of Labor’s Forward with Fairness. If ever there were an issue for which a government had a mandate, it is the area of industrial relations and this bill for the Rudd Labor government. There is absolutely no question about that. As we all know, industrial relations was at the centre of the last election campaign—indeed, it was at the centre of public debate for the duration of probably the whole of the last term of the parliament. And the voting public certainly made their choice very clear on 24 November last year. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to fascinate not only us but anyone else interested in this issue when it comes to this particular bill. To quote them, they ‘will not oppose this bill but will not support it either.’

Throughout the last three years, the former government were told about the extreme unfairness of the Work Choices legislation time and time again. I have given numerous speeches in this place about the impact that Work Choices was having on my own electorate of Canberra, and many other Labor members of this House did the same thing. The trade union movement told the former government, working Australians and their families told the former government, but did they listen? No, of course not. Worse still, in my opinion, they attacked and derided anyone with an opinion different from theirs on this issue.

Right up until election day, there was a championing of the former government’s extreme and unfair industrial relations policy. It was a policy that stripped away pay and conditions of hardworking Australians. If I remember correctly, of the sample of AWAs that were reviewed by the former government, 100 per cent of them stripped away at least one so-called protected award condition, 64 per cent of them cut annual leave loading, 63 per cent cut penalty rates, 51 per cent cut overtime loadings, and 40 per cent cut rest breaks.

With this bill, Labor are bringing back the fair go. Fairness and flexibility will be at the core of our new industrial relations system. The new no disadvantage test will offer real protection to workers on either ITEAs or collective agreements. Under the test, the Workplace Authority director will have to be satisfied that a workplace agreement does not reduce employees’ overall terms and conditions, when compared with a reference instrument such as an otherwise applicable collective agreement or an award.

The process of award modernisation is crucial to working Australians. We have a great history in this country of having workers’ pay and conditions underpinned by the safety net of the award system, and I believe that many Australians truly value this safety net. In fact, I know that to be the case. In the last two or three years, you did not have to step far out of your office to hear people continually say to you—and they said it to me—‘Annette, we are now retired from the workforce. We cannot possibly imagine what our children and their children are going to have to go through to bring balance back into the workplace. We fought for it; we want you to fight to get it back.’ That was just a constant conversation around my electorate and around most electorates, at least where we were working.

The modern awards which Labor will create under this bill will contain 10 allowable award matters. Equally important are the National Employment Standards that are currently being developed, which will provide protection to all workers. The National Employment Standards will cover, amongst other things, hours of work; parental leave; annual leave; personal, carers and compassionate leave; notice of termination; and redundancy and long service leave.

This bill is very important to many people in my electorate of Canberra and to the country. As the former government rolled out AWAs in the Public Service on a take it or leave it basis, many public servants in my constituency had no choice but to enter into AWAs. During the election campaign, as I have said, so many people in my electorate, who were on AWAs but did not want to be on them, were telling me stories about their lack of choice. They were pleased that Labor would abolish AWAs—in fact, relieved—and that we had announced a detailed plan for the transition to Labor’s Forward with Fairness industrial relations system.

I want to absolutely reinforce the comments of the previous speaker, the member for Parramatta, and others on the effect that this whole Work Choices regime had and was going to continue to have on families and individuals in the community. Family life today is not easy. There are so many pressures, so many things to do. There are so many instances where a particular practice under the previous government’s industrial relations rules made it very difficult for families to lead a sensible life, a life where they could enjoy themselves. The pressures were enormous.

I remember very clearly one young woman in my electorate who was working in a food outlet. She was receiving so much money per hour. The owner came along, under these rules, and said, ‘You’re now going to be receiving this much instead.’ It was dramatically less. She had no choice. It was a case of take it or leave it. She left it. She was not going to allow herself to be abused under the industrial relations system that existed. When her father told me this story, I said to him, ‘There’s only one thing we can do about this and that is kick the system out.’ He said: ‘We have no choice; we must kick it out. It’s unfair, it’s undemocratic.’

As the previous speaker—the member for Parramatta—said, that thing called a pendulum had gone so far, to an extreme level, that I think many small businesses and many business people themselves were also feeling a bit of discomfort with the system. That is the point. The saddest thing for me about the whole debate over the last two or three years was the absolute denial by the government of the day of hearing any of these messages. As I said a few moments ago, not only was there a denial but they attacked and derided those who had a view different from theirs. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. This system has been rejected by the people of Australia in no uncertain terms. I am very pleased that we will now have an open and honest debate on industrial relations. We will have a system that is open and honest. It will contrast dramatically with where we were going and where we had been led in the last two or three years.

I am particularly proud to be part of a government that is bringing fairness, equity, accessibility and a fair go back into the most important piece of public policy that we could wish for—that is, the industrial relations area, where people’s lives depend entirely on how they can relate to each other, their employer and their fellow employees at their workplace. Nothing can be more basic than that. I am very proud to stand here and endorse this legislation, and I am proud to be part of a government that is attempting—and will succeed—to bring that fairness back to that basic level in Australian society.