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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1849

Ms GILLARD (Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion) (1:00 PM) —in reply—In closing this second reading debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, it is not my intention to speak for a long period of time, but I make the following points very briefly. The Rudd Labor government has come here today proud to start the process of getting rid of Work Choices through the passage of this bill. I have been wondering for some weeks now what it means to not support and not oppose a piece of legislation. Apparently, what it means is that you hide in your office because you do not know what you want to stand for in the modern age. This is a government that knows what it stands for. It stands for a fair, balanced and flexible industrial relations system; and, more than anything else, it stands for the delivery of the things that it promised the Australian people.

Let us remind ourselves that the Liberal Party finds itself in the position it is in today because it was not honest with the Australian people. When the Australian people voted in 2004 they did not vote for their pay and conditions to be stripped away through individual workplace agreements, Australian workplace agreements, they did not vote to exchange the safety net for a limited number of so-called protected award conditions that could simply be eradicated without any compensation and with the flick of a pen, they did not put their hand up and vote for the opportunity to be dismissed at any time at all and for no reason and they did not vote for a system so complex and so confusing that it fails to meet the needs of business. Having not told the Australian people the truth in 2004, that is what the Liberal Party introduced in government. There is now an attempt to completely rewrite history about its knowledge of the impact of these changes on working families. It knew it was hurting Australian working families and it delighted in it. That is the truth and no rewriting of history will cover that up.

Let us remember that the Liberal Party’s own Work Choices propaganda talked about Billy, the minimum wage worker who lost every condition in his award. Howard government ministers, the members of the Liberal Party today, publicly defended that as fair. These are the same people who now profess a great concern about jobs in the Australian community who said that it was fine, if you were a long-term worker, the breadwinner in your family and you had always done the right thing by your employer, and it was okay if you went to work one day and were dismissed for no reason and you had no remedy. So much for a concern about jobs and the job security of working people. They delighted in the fact that people could lose pay and conditions. They delighted in the fact that people could be thrown out the door for no reason at all and with no remedy.

Since the election the Liberal Party have been trying to rewrite history and they have been struggling to try and find a way to a new position on workplace relations. And haven’t we seen a variety of positions on display? No-one can predict with certainty where they are going to go next. But what we do know is that they introduced Work Choices, then they defended Work Choices, then they defended the continuation of Australian workplace agreements, then they had a vexed party room meeting and then they did not know what they were going to do next. In that track record of dithering around the place it seems that the parliament today is going to be witness to another round of dithering because we are advised—and we do not know if we have been correctly advised—that the opposition will not move any amendments today, despite the fact that the opposition spokesperson on this commenced her speech in the second reading debate by saying:

The opposition will not seek to oppose the passage of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. However, we will move an amendment that we believe will strike the right balance between flexibility and fairness in workplace relations.

 She then went on to outline an amendment which would have increased the time period for interim transition employment agreements—that is, she outlined an amendment which would have kept statutory individual employment agreements in the system for longer.

Ms Julie Bishop —Your bill keeps them anyway.

Ms GILLARD —As anticipated, right on cue, the member opposite thinks she has some point about Labor’s system having in it interim transition employment agreements. I say to the member opposite that we do not apologise for giving business a sensible and measured transition. We do not apologise for that. You might have wanted to do it differently, you might have wanted to create chaos, but we do not apologise for creating a sensible and measured transition. What the member opposite, and the opposition overall, has never seemed to understand is that the interim transition employment agreements are in the system only to allow the two-year award modernisation process to go forth. Once the award modernisation is completed there is no need, going forward, for statutory individual employment agreements, and under Labor there will be no new statutory individual employment agreements from that date. They are over—done and dusted. From the date of proclamation of this bill the ability of any employer in this country to make an Australian workplace agreement, the ability of any employer in this country to rip away an award condition without compensation, will be over—done and dusted. That can still happen today, despite the so-called fairness test of the previous government, which was of course not fair at all. So, from the date of proclamation of this bill, there will be no new Australian workplace agreements, nothing for employees to fear in terms of the safety net being ripped off them, an award modernisation process, a two-year interim transition employment agreement while award modernisation is in train and then Labor’s new fair, balanced, flexible system, which will protect the interests of working families. That is what this bill is about.

 ‘We don’t oppose; we don’t support; we don’t know; we’re still thinking; we’ve got no idea’—all these divisions, and we still do not know exactly where the opposition stand. We know that they have been supporters of Work Choices, but I would be really interested in an answer to a simple question, which is: will they go to the next election promising the reintroduction of Australian workplace agreements—yes or no? It is a very simple question: yes or no? Do they stand for statutory individual employment agreements—yes or no? What will they take to the next election? We do not know. What we do know is they cover things up in the lead-up to elections. They did that in 2004. But surely they could break with tradition and be honest just once. Today is the day to do it—to declare where they stand on that central question.

During the debate, and obviously in the Senate inquiry, some points have been raised about various aspects of Labor’s legislation. Can I thank those who have participated in this chamber and can I thank those who made submissions to the Senate inquiry. The Senate inquiry report will be available later today. Of course, we will look at the Senate inquiry report and, if there are technical clarifications that need to be made arising from the report, we will consider those. But we are saying, both in this chamber and in the Senate: there is no reason why this legislation cannot be through the parliament by the end of this week. We will do everything to organise the sitting program to ensure that that happens. What we do not know, of course, is whether all of the opposition’s ‘don’t support, don’t oppose, don’t know, can’t think, don’t have an amendment, do have an amendment’ dithering will hold up this bill that the Australian people voted for. I am clearly saying both to the opposition members in this place and to the opposition members in the Senate that we will facilitate whatever is necessary to allow them to have their say but this bill should clear the parliament this week. That is what the Australian people want; that is what they voted for, and we will deliver it.

On the question of award modernisation, clearly the commission will undertake the modernisation of awards. I understand that concerns were raised before the Senate inquiry about the requirement for the commission to ensure that modern awards do not contain state based differences. I would like to note for the purposes of the record that this would not prevent the commission including in awards terms and conditions that are appropriate and based on objectively ascertainable regional circumstances and on the evidence of the parties that such a term or condition is necessary to ensure a fair minimum safety net. It is appropriate that new modern awards operating in a national system should not replicate state based differences from old awards which exist merely as a matter of historical circumstance.

Of course, awards will be modernised over the next two-year period. In the period of award modernisation this bill, very importantly, extends the end date for notional agreements preserving state awards and transitionally registered associations—matters that Work Choices would have brought to an end artificially, leaving thousands and thousands of workers around the country without a safety net. One thing we should remind ourselves of is that the Howard government were not only on a strategy to have Australian workplace agreements override awards and allow working families to be ripped off; the Howard government were on a strategy to kill the award system overall. They wanted it to wither and die. They wanted the only minimum conditions for employees in this country to be the five minimum conditions in the Australian fair pay and conditions standard. If re-elected at the last election, who knows where they would have sought to go to next in terms of those five minimum conditions? Would there still have been five, or would it have become four, three, two, one or no minimum conditions for employees in the workplace?

This is an important moment for this parliament. It is about delivering to the Australian people what we promise. It is about getting rid of the spectre of Work Choices from their lives. Getting rid of Work Choices is only a start—there will be more legislation to come—but it is an important start. It is the first handful of dirt in the grave in which we are burying Work Choices, and we will make sure that it is buried because we understand what it cost the Australian people—what it cost people who lost pay and conditions, what it cost people who worried about their sons and daughters in their first job, and what it cost people who lost their jobs without reason and without remedy. The members opposite, the Liberal Party, will never understand that. They will politically position, they will come out with platitudes, they will come out with things to say in this area of debate, but they will never understand what they did to Australian working families with their extremism. And they will forever be tied to Work Choices because they will forever believe in it.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.