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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Page: 12818


Mr KEENAN (12:25 PM) —I rise to talk about the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2009. The coalition does not oppose this bill. As detailed in the documentation associated with this bill, the bill has the effect of seeking to enshrine in legislation the moratorium that was announced as part of a review into the operation of the Comcare scheme. Given that moratorium, this bill has the effect of amending the legislation to prevent non-government employers from seeking access to the Comcare scheme. While the amendment does not detract from the power held by the minister to consider or to determine a request for entry to the scheme, it does have the effect of not obliging the minister to make a decision, which is the current situation under the existing law.

Despite not opposing this bill, I do wish to express some concerns held by the coalition, about the effect of amending this legislation, within a broader context. I want to talk about what I think is a fundamental ideological divide in this parliament; that is, we the opposition—the Liberal and National parties—are always committed to choice and to allowing people to make their own decisions, whereas Labor always seem to be opposed to people making their own decisions and opposed to people being able to make their own choices. We see this across a range of issues, such as private health insurance and education, and we certainly see it in my shadow portfolio of workplace relations. For some reason the Labor Party have an ideological objection to employers and employees sitting down and organising their workplace in a way that they see fit and making arrangements that they believe are suitable to their own enterprise. As for the context of this bill, this is a bill that prevents workers and employers from determining an appropriate safety and rehabilitation system to cover their own workplace. Effectively, a non-government employer who might have ordinarily been eligible to join the Comcare scheme will now be forced to remain within their relevant state jurisdiction and will no longer have the option to join an alternative system of safety and compensation coverage. Therefore, Labor have removed the choice that such employers have as to how they would like to structure the safety and rehabilitation regime or the safety and compensation regime within their own workplace.

The coalition has questioned on numerous occasions and on many different issues why the Labor Party seek to restrict and reduce the choices of Australians. They do not have the same respect for freedom of choice that we have. They do not fundamentally respect the right of employers and workers to agree on circumstances within their enterprises that suit their own needs. Surely the employers and employees within a particular business are ultimately the people who are best placed to judge how they structure the arrangements to run that business. Labor’s hatred of this choice and their denial of employers’ and employees’ ability to get together and make those arrangements is evident all throughout the Fair Work Act and is evident throughout the way in which the Fair Work system is operating. These laws have taken away the right of an individual, an enterprise or a workplace to determine working conditions that are suitable for them. Employers and workers are not even able to speak to each other under these existing laws without risking being dragged before the industrial umpire. It is not clear to us in the coalition why the Labor Party have a fundamental objection to this occurring. Why is it that employers and employees cannot sit down and talk to each other without third parties being present? By taking away this right of workers and business to work together and to determine and agree on workplace arrangements that are suitable for them, they are taking away what I believe are the fundamental rights of people to be able to get together and come to arrangements that are suitable for them. But according to Labor, and this is enshrined within the Fair Work Act, it is really only third parties that can come in and solve workplace problems and make the decisions. They seek to take power away from the employers and they seek to take power away from the workers. They always seek to enhance the power of third parties.

We now see circumstances in which employers and workers have almost unanimously agreed to terms and conditions of employment in the context of negotiating a collective agreement only to have that agreement overturned by a third party. Conditions that have been agreed between workers and their employers can effectively only be operative if they have been ticked off by a third party. In other words, it is the unions that are mandated in every workplace and they are mandated to be involved in every decision. This is why Labor are fundamentally opposed to workers and employers being able to make up their own minds. They have always opposed this freedom and they have done so because they are afraid that, if you give workers and business the ability to speak amongst themselves, that dilutes the power of the union movement. We all know about the massive debt that the Labor Party owe the union movement, particularly in relation to the 2007 election.

I am not going to go through a detailed analysis of the failings of the Fair Work Bill and how it is beginning to fail Australian workplaces, but we in the opposition are constantly being reminded as we go out into the community by employers and employees that these laws are the latest weapons that Labor is using to attack their fundamental freedom and right to choose. From these continued attacks, we in the coalition recognise that this one-size-fits-all approach that has been mandated by Labor is just not suitable. The idea that every workplace from Perth to Hobart to Cairns requires the same model to operate is just something that we wholeheartedly reject.

This bill today will set us up in a further direction: it further restricts choice and it further mandates the one-size-fits-all approach. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in her second reading speech made comments about the advancement towards the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws. The coalition’s position on that is that we are broadly supportive of a national system of occupational health and safety laws. We believe that it would provide business with more certainty and fewer compliance costs and ensure workplaces in general are provided with an appropriate and beneficial system or means of providing a safe workplace. We believe that a national system will deliver much better outcomes than the existing patchwork make-up of various state pieces of legislation. The coalition is concerned, though, that Safe Work Australia will be excessively controlled by state bureaucrats and that state bureaucrats rather than employers or employees will have a greater say about occupational health and safety affecting Australian workplaces. That said, the aim of achieving consistency in a broader occupational health and safety context is a laudable aim that retains our support.

This bill is reasonably innocuous, but it still advances Labor’s agenda to restrict choices in Australian workplaces. It strips away choice from workers, from business and from workplaces generally. It is part of Labor’s plan to make a one-size-fits-all approach to the regulation of industrial relations. So, while there are benefits associated with national consistency in general terms, there are downsides associated with imposing on workplaces rigid and inflexible terms and conditions which fail to meet and recognise the differing needs that occur in enterprises in different parts of the country. The bill enshrines what is already in operation—a moratorium on new employers having access to the Comcare scheme—so it has little practical consequence. We do not oppose it, but I do register the deep concerns that the opposition has about the direction that the Labor Party is taking industrial relations in this country.