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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1838

Mr PERRETT (12:11 PM) —Today on St Patrick’s Day, wearing my green tie, I am proud to speak in favour of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 and join the Rudd government’s support for Australian working families. I think St Patrick is credited with getting rid of snakes in Ireland, so it is a good omen for this piece of legislation. Australians have spoken loudly and clearly—they do not want the coalition’s unfair Work Choices laws. This bill honours the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to return fairness to Australian workplaces and the incredible efforts of the hundreds and thousands of Your Rights at Work activists and union members who dug into their pockets and did the hard yards on work sites and street corners all over Australia in the lead-up to last November’s election. This Rudd government bill will also ensure that we never again return to a system where Australians are forced to trade away their entitlements. We will not be leaving a legacy of poorer working conditions for our children, which, unfortunately, was the case under the Work Choices legislation where, for the first time in the history of the Australian Federation or white settlement, we would have been leaving our children with a poorer set of working conditions in the workplace.

Since Australian workplace agreements were forced upon working Australians we have heard countless examples of how pay and conditions have been stripped away. I have certainly heard it throughout my electorate of Moreton. This new bill means no new AWAs for working Australians, no more ‘my way or the highway’ workplace negotiations. Now we are returning to the long cherished Australian tradition of employees and employers sitting down at the table like civilised human beings and discussing what is best for the long-term interests of the business.

This is music to my ears and to those of people on this side of the House. It is music to the ears of the millions of mums and dads—the millions of working Australians—who have been let down by AWAs. Also, it is a huge relief to the many seniors and pensioners who were horrified at what the Howard and Costello government foisted on the country of the fair go. The country that they had worked so hard to create was being chipped away by the Howard-Costello legislation. This bill puts in place sensible and fair transitional arrangements to allow those employers and employees who have been using AWAs to prepare for the full implementation of the Rudd government’s new system in January 2010. During the transition period, employers using AWAs as at 1 December 2007 can offer individual transitional employment agreements to new employees and employees already on AWAs.

This bill also addresses John Howard’s failed fairness test. Never before in the history of literature have we in this parliament come so close to Orwellian language. George Orwell would be spinning in his grave, in a little country graveyard in England, over that so-called fairness test. This John Howard-Joe Hockey ‘unfairness test’ failed to protect working Australians. It failed to protect all award conditions. We have heard in parliament, from the Deputy Prime Minister, tale after tale of lost entitlements. In fact, when data was collected it showed that 100 per cent of AWAs ripped off workers’ entitlements and that they failed to adequately compensate employees for the loss of so-called protected award conditions. Quite frankly, the Howard government’s fairness test wasn’t worth two bob. It almost brings a tear to my eye when I think of all the money that was wasted on the ads that I saw promoting this so-called fairness test. This bill will ensure that all agreements approved by the Workplace Authority pass a true no-disadvantage test against the full applicable award or the full applicable collective agreement in the workplace, if there is one.

The opposition would have us believe that unions are irrelevant and no longer have a role to play in Australian workplaces. Well, I think the election in November last year showed that this could not be further from the truth. Unions have played a vital role when it comes to ensuring proper standards of occupational health and safety, and they will continue to do so for many years to come. We all expect that when we go to work, be that in a service industry or a mine or a school, we will be safe. As well, we expect that when our children go to work they will be safe and come home. We have unions to thank for many of the workplace health and safety conditions around the country. I think of my younger brother’s experience on a building site. Unfortunately, two people were killed in a workplace accident right next to him. Changes have been made since then because of union involvement in response to that accident. Our trade union members and leaders across the country are working to ensure that basic working conditions, like overtime and penalty rates and the ability to make a few dollars if one has to work in a coffee shop on New Year’s Day, are being properly protected.

I said at a forum at Yeronga State High School, in my electorate, way back in early 2005 that I thought the union movement’s response to the Work Choices legislation would be the union movement’s finest hour—and it certainly was. It certainly showed that when people have worked out how they are going to be treated unfairly it will move them off their couches and onto street corners to do great things. I contrast that with the agenda of the former member for Bennelong—and it is great to see the current member for Bennelong here. What happened reminds me of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. That novel was set in the Depression, a time when there was a race to the bottom as to what workers would tolerate. If someone was prepared to work for 15c an hour, an employer would say, ‘Well, there’s someone here prepared to work for 14c an hour.’ That would then lower the rate. That race to the bottom is not the way of the Rudd government. We are finetuning the economy. We have a plan for the future. We disagree with what is being suggested by the opposition in terms of what was handed on to us. We had 16-year-high inflation rates. We had 10 interest rate rises in a row. We had a productivity rate of zero handed over to us, Commonwealth spending at record levels, at up to nearly 4½ per cent, and 5½ years of monthly trade deficits—22 shameful quarters in a row of trade deficits. That is the economy that was handed on to us.

This bill offers a fair and balanced approach to workplace relations, one which ensures that employees are getting proper protection, when it comes to their basic working conditions, and offers more than enough flexibility for business. I commend the bill to the House.