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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 12940

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:35): The Greens will be supporting this bill because it provides some small measure of welcome relief to a public that is doing it tough in Queensland. But it will not be enough for them. It is not a rescue package and it comes on top of the federal government's own slashing of public sector jobs through efficiency dividends and other cuts to programs that have been made that will amount to somewhere in the order of 12,000 public sector jobs being lost.

The bill will bring the protections available to some outsourced or privatised workers in Queensland up to the level in the Fair Work Act that has been enjoyed in other states for some time—in Victoria, for example, which has been on the national system for some time. That is appropriate to bring it in line with that standard.

But what is emerging is that the Fair Work Act leaves state public sector workers with significantly less protection than their federal counterparts, and there is much more that the federal government could be doing. This will go some small way but, given the other things the federal government could be doing for Queensland public sector workers and has not yet examined, it does leave the question of whether this is more of a political matter than a matter of substantive protection being offered to those workers.

One thing that has not had anywhere near enough attention is the legislation that has been passed through the Queensland parliament which has effectively rewritten agreements struck between employees and employers. The Public Service and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 passed through the parliament excised certain provisions that exist in agreements that had already been struck and said they were of no effect. Any provisions that related to employment security, to contracting out or to organisational change were suddenly rendered null and void. Then, of course, the state government embarked on its significant program of cuts.

Can you imagine the outcry if this parliament said, of certain commercial contracts that had been reached, that three or four sets of terms and conditions that that were part of the bargain struck between the two sides—and that usually involves compromise—were going to be taken out? Imagine if all of a sudden it was going to go back in and undo that bargain and take out three or four key things, and these would be the very things that give employees and their representatives the right to have a say in whether or not they are going to lose their jobs and to have a say in whether or not jobs are going to be contracted out. If that happened, you would hear screams from the opposition that it contravened basic principles of fairness, that it was potentially unconstitutional and that it was taking away terms and conditions without adequate compensation.

Instead, in Queensland we have a situation in which it is okay in the industrial sphere, after parties have struck an agreement, for a government to come in and rewrite it and take away certain provisions. That, I would suggest, raises real questions about whether or not the protections relating to termination change and redundancy—which are enshrined in international conventions that Australia has signed up to and that in the past this parliament has used as a constitutional basis for passing legislation to protect people's rights at work—are available to those workers in Queensland. If that is the case, why are we not seeing here in this bill measures to restore to those Queensland public sector workers the termination change and redundancy provisions that they rightly had beforehand and that, in my view, the federal government would have the power to legislate under the Constitution? If we were serious about protecting Queensland public sector workers, that—as a minimum—should be explored.

That is one area in which we are finding that the Fair Work Act is failing state public sector workers. In my state of Victoria we have been living, over the last couple of years, through some very bitter disputes involving some of the workers who provide the greatest levels of care and support to people in our community. Take nurses, for example. We have seen the nurses involved in a long and bitter industrial dispute with the state government. Why did it go on for so long? One of the things learnt from cabinet documents that were leaked and found their way to being reported in the newspapers was that, because they were bargaining in the federal system, the state government as their employer knew that if it came to arbitration federally there were certain things—namely, nurse-patient ratios—that they would not be able to have arbitrated in the federal sphere. Nurse-patient ratios go not only to fundamental questions of the workload of nurses but also very fundamentally to the standard of care provided to patients in Victorian hospitals.

But the government did not want to give them that. The government knew that, if it held out long enough and could find its way into Fair Work Australia, then Fair Work Australia, when it arbitrated, would not give the nurses a binding settlement with respect to their claim about nurse-patient ratios. It is not just that they might not get what they are asking for; it is that it would be known that they would get nothing. So what did the government do? We know from the leaked documents that the government strung out the dispute with the aim of trying to get the nurses to take industrial action so that the government could then step in and say, 'The industrial action needs to stop and we need to get to arbitration by Fair Work Australia.' In essence, they were engineering a route to Fair Work Australia by trying to provoke the nurses into taking industrial action when all the nurses were after were basic standards for nurse-patient ratios that would have benefited both them and the community.

In that context, the Fair Work Act failed the nurses, because it offered no resolution to that impasse and it allowed the state government to continue to try to provoke them. Ultimately, the matter was settled—but not because of any assistance provided by the Fair Work Act. We see similar problems playing out with teachers, who obviously want their disputes around class sizes and workloads to be the subject of a binding resolution. Yet they know that that will not be the subject of arbitration by Fair Work Australia. So they find themselves at that impasse whereby, under the Fair Work Act, state government employers have the whip hand when it comes to negotiation around these very important issues. We need to fix that in the Fair Work Act as well if we are serious about addressing the difficulties that public sector workers face. That is another area in which it is becoming apparent that state public sector workers do not get the same level of protection under the Fair Work Act as their federal counterparts or as their private sector counterparts.

There is an urgent need, before the situation get much worse in these state public sectors, to inquire into what other steps the government can take as far as industrial relations conditions go to lift state public sector workers up so that they have a gold standard of protection. Nothing in this bill—or even in what I am advocating—is going to put state public sector workers ahead of their private sector counterparts, as the previous speaker suggested. It just puts them at the same level.

We know they are falling behind—we see it every day in Queensland; we see it in Victoria.

So we will be supporting this bill because it is some small measure towards addressing this. But it is time now to do something more than just grab the headlines. It is time to take a serious look at whether the shift that was made when we moved away from the dispute settlement, conciliation and arbitration head of power under section 51(xxxv) of the Constitution to the corporations power to underpin industrial relations legislation is failing public sector workers; to look at whether the referrals of power that have been made are failing public sector workers; and to explore whether the international conventions that we signed up to to provide minimum standards, especially for those public sector workers who find themselves in essential services, provide an opportunity—as I think they do—for the government to step in and lift public sector workers up in the states to the same standards of Commonwealth public sector workers and their private sector counterparts.